Usually it is used in the context of emergent narrative or emergent storytelling. Sometimes emergent gameplay, but I’m not sure if that’s a different thing.
When i have used the term before I’ve been referring to things occurring in the game which no one had planned for. For example:
In my Star Wars game a technician PC had built a droid assistant with a few flaws. He didn’t know what those flaws were, but I had selected Ruthless (it used to be a combat droid) and Unwilling (it didn’t like being a slave). Later on this Technician built a remotely detonated stun grenade. Then they visited a desolate planet and found a hidden community of free droids. The players talked the droid community down from blowing up their ship in an effort to keep the community hidden and then landed to try and be diplomatic and nice. That was when I had the Tech’s droid detonate the grenade. While the PCs were unconscious it disables their ship and ran to the community looking for freedom. I hadn’t planned any of this, but it was one of the best moments in the campaign
So for me, an emergent narrative is one of my favourite things in gaming, it’s when the game world really feels alive and everyone round the table, including the GM gets that surprise discovery moment.
But I’ve seen some other uses of the term which I didn’t quite get, perhaps they were more mechanics related? I don’t remember, but it’s been on my mind and I figured this would be a good place to ask.
What does “emergent” mean to you?