Emergent Narrative

Tabletop RPG Twitter is awash with arguments. To be honest, at times it feels like there are more threads devoted to people slinging mud at each other than there are of people talking about what a great time they’ve had gaming. However, one argument that comes up time and time again is that of story – namely whether or not GMs should force players through a tale of their making.

Like most er…”internet discussions”, there’s many facets to this particular mudslinging fest, but one argument that often surfaces is “But I’m the GM! I’ve spent time writing this really cool story! The players need to follow it!”

Can’t we just play pretendy elf games?

When this comes up, and when it doesn’t immediately degenerate into a brutal flamewar between those that claim that roleplaying is simply a game and those that claim it’s a “story game”, the discussion often comes round to the “well what exactly is a story?”

Before anyone starts firing up the flamethrowers, I’m not here to re-ignite (pun intended naturally) this particular argument. Rather, I’m going to focus on a term that comes up all the time in these discussions. Or rather, a term that often comes up when these discussions remain fairly civil and don’t become free-for-all battle royals of “my fun is better than yours!”…

Take that, “other peoples’ fun”

That term is “emergent narrative”.

It sounds precocious as fuck, right?

However, the intent here is not convey some high-falutin’ “roleplaying games as an art form” sentiment. Instead, the term “emergent narrative” refers to the fact that that the story – which is to say the tale of the characters in the roleplaying game – is something that comes out through play rather than being something pre-written by the GM.

I prefer my narratives to be emergent

It’s something I find myself agreeing with.

I’ve played in games before where the GM has admitted afterwards that they “needed to fudge things” to “keep the story moving”. To be honest, I dislike when this happens, as it often smacks of a railroad. “I’ve got a story to tell, and I want you – the characters in the story – to jump through the correct hoops to get there.”

A lot of pre-published campaigns are horrible for this. You only need to look at the furore that erupted back when Hogshead had the rights to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and they ended up writing a mini scenario to force players to move from “Death on the Reik” to “Power Behind the Throne”. It was a horrible, janky example of a railroad, and it made a lot of people very unhappy. Rather than let players explore the world, their agency is taken away from them and they’re forced in a certain direction, all for the sake of a story that someone else has written and which they might not be particularly interested in.

I don’t care about your agency – this is a one way trip to ‘story town’

Emergent narrative, on the other hand, takes the view that the story is what the players will talk about afterwards. It will come about in play. Sure, elements of it will have to do with what’s gone before – whether that’s character background or events that have happened in previous sessions – but the key difference is that it’s not pre-ordained.

Think of some of the classic tropes of RPG design. A party of brave adventurers are hired to go into the evil wizard’s lair and slay him. That’s the extent of the “story”. However, all the moments that occur on the way from the players leaving their employer to them completing the mission? That’s the narrative. Afterwards they’ll talk about how great it was that their magic user knew how to speak goblin, as he was able to negotiate safe passage through the marshes that the Gnawtooth tribe called home. They’ll laugh about how the ever-cautious rogue fell into a pit trap, and was red-faced when the barbarian hauled him up. They’ll lament their fallen comrade, the fighter, who bravely gave her life holding off the bugbear so that the rest of the party could escape.

These are all great narrative elements, but none of them were pre-determined by the GM. They all emerged through play.

To use a real world example, last night was my bi-weekly group’s session of “Vampire: the Masquerade”. During this, a lot of things went wrong at a police station. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say “mistakes were made”…

During their exploration of the building, the team found a girl in the drunk tank. Unbeknownst to the majority of the group, she was known to their resident Nosferatu – they’d been friends when he was still mortal. However, because he was a horrible disfigured monster who was currently wearing a disguise, she didn’t know who he was. Likewise, despite his “look – I can give you details only your friend would have known” speech she didn’t feel comfortable about him. The embrace hadn’t been kind to him, and he gave off an aura that was uncomfortable to mortals.

Things very quickly went very wrong, and the group had to leave the police station sharpish. One of the party were all for abandoning this girl, but the majority agreed that she should go with them. Once they had escaped the (now burning) building, the Nosferatu almost came to blows with the character who had suggested that they leave the girl behind. This produced some of the best roleplaying our game has seen to date.

Mistakes were made…

Here’s the cool thing…

Aside from putting the girl in the police station, I – as the GM – had nothing to do with all the amazing play that took place. I had no idea how they were going to handle the situation (I certainly didn’t expect them to “handle” it the way they did) and I had no idea that the girl was going to become such a pivotal figure in our story. The best thing though – all of this came from a few tiny bits of detail from some character backgrounds and other elements that had come out of previous sessions.

It was far more interesting than anything I could have written.

So, I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re a GM, don’t railroad your players. Don’t waste time detailing intricate novels worth of “story” that you’re going to force them through. Instead, spend that time creating interesting, engaging settings that they can explore and interact with but, most importantly of all, take a look at the players characters and see what elements from them – either from their background or which have come up in other sessions – you can introduce.

A player’s number one interest will always be their character not your story. If you accommodate that, the over narrative being told will be much richer for it.

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