What does "emergent" mean to you?

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?


In general, “emergence” refers to a quality or property that transcends its constituent parts. Specifically, an emergent property is one that is possessed by a system as a whole, but is lacking in all of its components and subsystems.

The classic example is: The mind is an emergent property of human neurology.

In RPGs, an emergent storyline is an unprepared narrative that the players and GM come up with spontaneously at the table, usually in reaction to a handful of prepared situations. The emergence comes from the interactions of everyone together: Genreally, the players’ musings and world-building informs the GM about what they are interested in exploring, sending the story in that direction. Lather, rinse, repeat.

For example: I once ran an entire campaign based on on an off-hand comment made by a tavern keeper.


For me it’s the concept that @Haladir describes. In most campaigns I run these days, the constituent parts are 1) player-created (eg, characters), 2) collaborative (eg, setting details), 3) GM-created (mostly expanding upon setting details and establishing coherence) and 4) oracular (rolling on random tables, other mechanical rolls).

The way I sometimes visualize it is that each detail is a point in a great matrix, and emergent play/narrative arises out of the connections we (players and GM) make between those points. For example, in the Freebooters on the Frontier campaigns I’ve been running recently, each NPC has an alignment, motivation, and 2-3 “traits,” — adjectives/tags that describe their personality (much like your droid’s flaws). In any given situation, if I’m wondering how an NPC might react, I look to their alignment, motivation, and traits for cues. Whatever choice I make then is one of many different emergent aspects of play, which in turn may interact at higher levels.

This kind of multi-layered divination is one of the things I love most about RPGs. It’s a particular way of “playing to find out” that I find deeply rewarding.


Perhaps the other use you had heard was emergent chargen (character generation)? The first time I heard this was from @Frasersimons. The idea is that instead of fully ‘statting’ out your character before you play, you jump into play as soon as you can and flesh out the character as needed. So, in PbTA, you don’t choose your playbook moves until you hit a point in your session where you realize, “Hey, it would be awesome if I had that move here!” Boom, you have it, and you’re awesome. This works especially well in oneshots so that characters don’t choose a move that they’ll never get to use. This also can be used to establish Bonds, Flags, Relatonships, Debts, etc. later in the game. Some may say that this is ‘cheating’, that it lets players ‘min-max’. In as sense it does, but it sure as hell leads to interesting stories, shared spotlights, and great fun!


Luka Rejec wrote a bit about this recently, from the perspective of someone very much rooted in the OSR.


I agree with the various descriptions of ‘emergent narrative/setting’ here but think at least conotatively in the TTRPG space it’s also a jargon phrase that relates to a classic style of play and location based adventure design. Because of this I find using it can sometimes send the wrong message or derail conversation.

I don’t have a better phrase in mind to describe play elements/narratives that arise unexpected or unintended from player and setting interaction, but I find the word emergent sets some people off as an implied criticism of scene based design or GM prepared campaign narrative.


For me emergent play is when the mechanics collide with player decisions or consequences from those decisions and make something happen that no one could have seen coming when we started.

It means to me that, as the GM, I won’t know where the session is going to end up.


It’s interesting you mention mechanics rather then setting as the thing player action/decision sparks against to create emergent play? Do you have an example of that - 'cause I’m intrigued.


Burning Wheel, Circles comes to mind.

Player Character is in over their head at court and tries to use their Circles skill to find a tutor to get their sword skill up. They fail the roll but I utilize the Rule of Enmity. So they find a tutor but they are a spy for a rival faction, who quickly learn that the character is not a good swordsman.

Players rob a dragon’s lair after tracking conflicting rumors and dragon sightings all around this area and finding the lair. The GM knows that there are two feuding dragons in the area but the players don’t know that yet. They’ve awoken the dragon and they’re on the run. I roll on the random encounter table and get an encounter. I roll a 12. That result is another dragon.

The dragons clash and the players get away and consider seeking out the second dragon as a patron later.

Do those examples make sense? They are entirely made up.


Thanks Judd, those examples do make sense, and certainly do have a mechanical element, though I’d quibble that the driving force in both, especially the second is setting design, but I see and totally agree with the idea that the random element is a mechanical choice doing the work here.

I suppose it’s a sort joy at constrained and unexpected creation that inspires GM and/or player invention. I.e. the mechanical choice of using random encounters interacts fortuitously with setting (land of dragon feuds) and player choice (dragon burglary) to create narrative.

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Yeah, the cool shit we create by saying it to one another is the heart of the matter. The mechanical tools just make it easier and more fun to get there.

A moment came up in our last Stars Without Number game that qualify.

The players were visiting a planet that was on their way to where they were goign because it was identified by their illegal unbraked AI as possibly having an alien artifact on it. Based on the artifacts found by other xenologists in the planet’s history the AI found a site that they thought was highly probable to have something buried in it.

They were talking to the villagers who lived in this alien blue jungle and as they were walking away, on a total whim I said, “Be careful. There are psychic tigers out there.”

Players freaked out. I had no idea they would react so strongly to psychic tigers. It became a big part of the game.

Now, some of that is just me throwing cool words together but I’d credit a bunch of it with them keywords generated by Stars Without Number when I made the star system years ago. Psychic Tigers occurred because the warm temperatures with breathable atmosphere along with other pregenned elements inspired me to describe the planet as being covered in dangerous blue jungle.


There is also “emergent complexity” in game theory, where there are so many factors that the outcome can’t be predicted. Chess is an example that comes up when talking about emergent complexity, and it’s a way of bringing uncertainty to the table without the use of “stochastic uncertainty” (i.e. dice/cards).