Emergent Play is the Only Way

By | January 24, 2015

Hello and welcome!

Emergent Play in its simplest form is play which uses game rules to generate scenarios that might not otherwise have been considered by the players at the table in order for a more complex, less predictable story to emerge from the results of play.  For the player, this means that something can happen that the player did not expect, and now the player must react to this unexpected situation (for traditional roleplaying games, I am here also including the GM in the definition of player).  For the designer, this means developing mechanics which not only can be used to generate unexpected events, but which encourage and promote the interaction of player and the unexpected.

Contrast this with Directed Play, which is play in which the narrative outcome of the game is predicted and game rules are used to generate scenarios that lead to the less complex, predetermined conclusion of the story.  For the player, this means that the unexpected occurs as a story-initiator, but once the scenario is engaged the end results are more-or-less predictable (based on character builds, etc).  For the designer, this means developing mechanics which provide consistent and predictable results, thereby encouraging a degree of realism and a controlled outcome.

Fudging – the hiding or ignoring of a game mechanic in order to provide a specific nonrandom outcome – falls pretty squarely in the camp of directing play.  Furthermore, that other bane of the tabletop roleplayer’s existence, Railroading, also falls under the umbrella of Directed Play no matter how you choose to define it.  Railroading is a vaguely defined term that for different people means anything from “anything that doesn’t let the players do anything all the time” to “the GM just tells us a story we don’t interact with.”  The very vagueness tells us what Railroading means: it occurs when the player feels like he or she has lost agency and an ability to impact the events of the game.  As such, Railroading is very individual and very specific – and therefore not so much a great term to use in a broad discussion.

Narrative Hijacking, on the other hand – when a player is able to take control of a game’s story and make declarations about it which cannot be overridden by the other players – is Emergent or Directed depending on the nature of the game’s design.  If only one player can do it (in the terms of traditional games, the GM), then narrative hijacking would be an instance of Directed Play.  If multiple (or all) players can do it, then narrative hijacking becomes an instance of emergent play.

Why is that so different?  Because when only one player can do it, that individual is effectively in full control of the story.  Combining that with Fudging turns the individual with narrative control into a novelist telling a story in the wrong format, because that individual is only tolerating those game mechanics which further that individual’s concept of the story. Players other than the narrative hijacker, in cases where there are only one, do not act as randomization agents.  If characters fail an action, it was destiny.  If they succeed an action, it was destiny.  (I spent last week explaining how fudging takes the randomness out of games, so I won’t be explaining it again here.)

The narrative hijacker also is not acting as a randomization agent in this situation, because that individual is asserting dominance over the narrative.  While the non-hijacking players may be reacting to events unexpected to them, they are still expected within the context of the game because they are being dictated.  The distinction here is that while play might seem emergent from the characters’ point of view, it is still bounded by the whims of the narrative hijacker and therefore is from an overall perspective directed.

Alternately, if multiple players can take control of the narrative, the players themselves are acting as randomization agents, specifically because they cannot override each other.  Microscope and The Quiet Year are games which capitalize on this technique by allowing each player’s statements to be absolute while still allowing other players to expand the narrative.  The players do not know what will be injected into the story by the other players until the injection occurs; the story of the game takes twists and turns that are therefore less predictable and more emergent.

Emergent play is nothing new – players have been using these techniques for 40 years.  You can have just as much emergent play with the white box as you can with Fiasco or Shock.  But over the years, traditional games have build up a slew of sometimes-informal, sometimes-codified advice for GMs which take games out of emergence and into direction.  “The GM is always right,” “Fudge rolls to keep things interesting,” “Roll behind the screen in order to build tension.”  This has been further entrenched by story-heavy adventure designs.  “First, read this. . .now the players go here. . .and once the fight is done, this happens. . .and eventually, they get to here and this happens.”  That’s the very definition of directed play (and railroading, for many).

But modern game design is skewing heavily away from directed play, and for good reason: it’s boring.  It only really works for novice players experiencing things for the first time; once they see through the illusion, the illusion no longer satisfies.  The best piece of advice I can offer any GM is this:  you’re not a novelist, your players aren’t the characters in your story.

The wonderful Star Wars dice used by Edge of Empire and Age of Rebellion, themselves derived from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay dice, are wonderful examples of using dice to dictate outcomes in a non-binary fashion.  The moves used in Powered by the Apocalypse games are also examples of the same structure that incorporates variable-result random outcomes.  These designs explicitly encourage emergent play, as they provide a broader avenue of success than binary results while still providing advantages/disadvantages which can help to shape the narrative.

That’s really the focus of emergent play: to use the mind not merely to simulate the same results you could get if you were sitting at a computer, but to capitalize on the infinite possibilities that can’t be procedurally generated by a program.  Here are some examples:

  • An NPC surprises two PCs and fires a gun at them multiple times at point-blank range.  This should hit them and wound them severely, but all the bullets miss thanks to some abysmally bad rolls.  The GM decides not to fudge these rolls.  After the NPC is slain, one of the PCs begins thinking he is invincible and grows incautious, while the other PC begins thinking that this is a message from God giving him a second chance to do good with his life.  The story progresses from there with the characters taking their cues based on their individual understandings of this unexpected event.
  • A group of PCs enters a room with a monster.  They should be able to take the creature out, but they roll badly and are severely wounded.  They flee the room and bar the door behind them, preventing the monster’s escape.  Later, when on the run from some other enemies, they unbar the door and make it seem as if they went into the room with the monster.  The enemies charge in and the monster takes care of them, getting wounded enough in the process that the PCs are able to finish it off.
  • A group of PCs allows themselves to be captured by the local authority in order to prove they are not responsible for a crime that has occurred.  While they are talking with the magistrate, they roll so badly that the magistrate now thinks that they’re absolutely responsible.  Consequently, they need to make a deal with the magistrate in order to be freed so they can prove their innocence another way.
  • A PC whips the local townsfolk into a frenzy of construction in order to protect their town from an invading army.  The wall they quickly build around the town is incredibly strong and durable thanks to some really high rolls by the PC.  The GM had planned for the session to be about the town’s invasion and fighting it off, but the wall makes the invasion impossible.  The PCs are easily able to pick off the invaders from the ramparts and they eventually flee to savage another town.  The PC who was in charge of the wall gets a new title and a new reputation. . .and now the invaders have a target for assassination.

All of these are scenarios in which the rolls helped to shape play (savvy readers will recognize one of these from a movie) in a way that would otherwise be unexpected.  In the first scenario, narrative intrusion would have caused some bullets to hit, leaving the PCs without any need to evolve their understandings of their characters.  In the second, the GM could have fudged to make the monster weaker, but a dead monster would not have allowed the subsequent event to occur.  Et cetera.

Use of randomization introduces not the possibility of success but the possibility of failure.  Failure, and how characters react to it, shapes the narrative significantly (Luke seeing his aunt and uncle’s bodies, Conan not being able to save Valeria, Drax being beaten up by Ronan).  It leads to new storylines emerging from the rubble.  By inserting a random element into your game (either at the table in the midst of play, or as part of your system’s design), you are indicating that you agree to abide by its results.  If you don’t so agree, you shouldn’t insert that random element.

Randomization agents help keep all the players entertained.  I know when I’m GMing, I’m bored when the players do exactly what I expect, when the dice go exactly the way they’re supposed to.  That doesn’t keep me on my toes.  And when I’m a player, directed play drives me mad because I see through the illusion.

When you’re playing a game, you shouldn’t know how it’s going to end.  No one should.  That’s the benefit of gaming over watching TV or reading a book – your participation means you can affect change.  And affecting change means emergent play – the only way to game.

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