That’s right, the Wonk is back in the building! Today we’re getting super wonky. While my last foray into RPG theory was an examination of an old universal theory, GNS, today I’m going to be looking at a narrower component of games, and a particular dichotomy which, after some examination, I realized shapes the core of how I want to play and run games, as well as what game systems I enjoy. I’m talking about narrative, but I’m not talking about whether a game is “narrative” or not. Rather, I’m going to talk about the two types of narrative which are generated in the course of playing an RPG: Prescriptive and Emergent narrative.
This entire article is predicated on the assumption that one sees story as an essential component of an RPG. That said, even if a story isn’t why you’re playing, the structure of an RPG necessitates that a narrative is generated, so this description still applies (even if you don‘t find it relevant). Anyways. There are two types of narrative produced through playing a role-playing game: Prescriptive narrative is the set of story events which are written and then delivered by a participant, usually but not always the GM. Emergent narrative is the set of story events which are generated through interaction with the rules of the game. As you can imagine, then, all RPGs which use rules and randomizers must have a combination of both emergent and prescriptive narrative.
Ultimately, the answer to the question “what makes RPGs different than other forms of entertainment” lies in emergent narrative. Only games and furthermore only games which tell a story produce emergent narrative, and tabletop RPGs allow for it in a much more flexible and free way than video games. There’s an entire genre of video games dedicated to producing emergent narrative, called “immersive simulations” by some. The most well-known of these is Dwarf Fortress, an infamously complex and graphically spare game where the player manages and guides a colony of dwarves. The way Dwarf Fortress generates a story is by simulating a world in minute detail, but doing so in such a way that the player is presented with in-game events which their brains will naturally connect into a narrative (the tendency to create narratives from sequences of random events is called apophenia, and it’s arguably what allowed RPGs to evolve from wargames). The limitation of games like Dwarf Fortress is that the narrative must lie entirely within the player’s head; we don’t yet have software complex enough to deliver a story akin to the one written in Skyrim or The Witcher and have it change based on events that weren’t scripted. Right now, writing a cogent story which also has elements which change and are delivered to the players only exists in the world of tabletop.
What’s interesting about game design now with regards to narrative is that the uniqueness of emergent narrative is being fully appreciated by designers in a way that it wasn’t two or three decades ago. While Vampire: the Masquerade positioned itself as a vessel to deliver the Storyteller’s (prescriptive) story, Apocalypse World specifically mandates that you “play to find out what happens”, highlighting that the most interesting stories in the game come when you allow the mechanics to push the characters into places that the players didn’t otherwise think of. Certain corners of the OSR are also embracing emergent narrative; the return of random character generation and random event tables in old-school games and supplements is a recognition that allowing a randomizer to make choices for you will result in characters and story events which you would not otherwise pick.
Even if the words “emergent” and “prescriptive” haven’t been used, there has been a long-standing comprehension by most tabletop gamers that the emergent narrative of any game is an important part of what makes RPGs as a medium unique. Two of the most commonly complained about GM practices, railroading and fudging rolls, are situations where the GM is suppressing the emergent narrative of the game to maintain their own prescriptive narrative. While that makes perfect sense when thinking about a game like Apocalypse World, it is equally true with D&D or Traveller or anything else. In fact, many best practices for GMing, like making sure that dice rolls produce meaningful results and even character niche protection, essentially boil down to enabling each player to generate story, even if that story comes down to how they kill a goblin or disarm a trap.
When you consider actions like killing goblins or disarming traps as elements of the story, it then becomes easier to see how the design world splits when it comes to making games intended to produce interesting emergent narrative. While a game like Apocalypse World is very intentional about paring dice rolls down to story-essential actions, a game like GURPS also provides more opportunity for emergent narrative. In this case, like Dwarf Fortress, GURPS is giving more options and more detail which allow more and smaller things to be meaningful. More rules do provide more and richer emergent narrative (imagine the stark difference in a combat encounter with and without morale rules, as an example), but then require more bookkeeping on the part of the GM. Since everyone only has a limited amount of mental bandwidth, though, even simulation-heavy games have to be economical with their rulesets in order to have players engage with them. You’re not going to generate interesting narrative from a rule that ends up being just another thing to keep track of, and rules for overland travel (as an example) that could make some games fascinating could make others a slog.
At this point there is a clear question: if RPGs have always been a mix of prescriptive and emergent narrative, and we’re only in the last decade or so attaching consistent words to this framework, why is it important? The answer to this, in brief, is game design. Apocalypse World is not interesting because it produces emergent narrative, it is interesting because it is specifically designed to produce emergent narrative. Both the three-result die mechanic and the moves structure help ensure that the few rules that do exist always move the story forward. The insistence that GMs don’t write plots and the principle of “play to find out what happens” are there to suppress the amount of prescriptive narrative injected into the game on the part of the GM in favor of emergent narrative defined by dice rolls and moves. Apocalypse World is a design which is geared to producing story from the dice, the players and the GM, if not equally then at least a lot more equally than games which came before. And other new games which we’ve discussed here, both obvious descendents of Apocalypse World like other PbtA games and Blades in the Dark as well as others like Spire and Red Markets, are more intentionally designed to recognize the storytelling potential in the dice. Even Genesys and the FFG Star Wars games use the mechanic of advantage and threat as a detail brush for emergent narrative.
So what does this mean for playstyle? Well, think about two overarching concepts: player agency and the story itself. When it comes to the story itself, 99% of the time turning over part of the storytelling to the dice (and the players to an extent as well) is going to make for a more interesting story than one that the GM is going to just tell. This isn’t about talent- a GM has to get players to follow their plot and, ultimately, go along with it. With more reliance on emergent elements, though, you have all the players as well as the GM providing the context and resolution for the conflicts which are generated. This makes the game richer simply by providing more bandwidth for secondary conflicts, supporting characters and organizations, and other elements which the players can engage with. And engagement goes into player agency- regardless of how much story you write, your players engaging with that story is what makes the game. I believe this strongly enough to say that I believe that players trying to derail a story is either a problem with the GM or perhaps a fun twist in the campaign…but never, ever a problem behavior on the part of the player. Derailing a campaign in-character and within the bounds of the rules (i.e. neither cheating nor merely trolling to get a rise out of someone) will make the game more interesting, and if you as a GM prize your storyline more than running an interesting game, you should consider just writing a novel.
So let’s summarize: all RPG campaigns are a combination of prescriptive and emergent narrative. A good game has both a GM providing an interesting world filled with interesting characters and a system which provides interesting narrative feedback to any actions characters perform. Whether that feedback is plot twists on low rolls or knowing whether or not you blew off the enemy’s arm with your shotgun is ultimately a matter of personal preference, the important thing is that a GM takes these facts which are produced by using the mechanics and reacts to them. It is not a bad narrative to play a game where the characters fight through waves of enemies in an underground dungeon…it is bad narrative for this dungeon and the inhabitants within it to have no reason for existing (prescriptive), and it’s bad narrative for nothing to happen once the characters clear said dungeon (emergent). This also touches on where the two types of narrative get confused: it is an emergent result that the characters engage in combat and successfully defeat every encounter in the dungeon, but it’s a predictable emergent result, one the GM could anticipate and write against. If the characters instead flooded the dungeon and drowned everyone inside, it would be fairly unsatisfying if the GM did not change subsequent events in any way. It would be worse, though, for the GM to disallow said flooding, or even to state that the flooding doesn’t work for some inconsistent reason.
But let’s consider what it means when something unexpected happens in a game. As I mentioned above, emergent moments are a core part of what I want out of RPGs, and I find that the GM and players reacting together is what creates moments that are incomparable to any other media. And while there’s something to be said for games like Apocalypse World where the players and the GM work together on the setting or on in-game events, having that element of surprise (or even opportunism) is what makes gaming sessions special. The saying “the dice love the story” is itself a recognition of how essential emergent narrative is to RPGs as a whole, and to me there is no clearer distillation of that than the moments where everyone at the table, player and GM alike, are bowled over by the dice roll and what it implies. Emergent narrative may sound eminently indie, but anyone who has craned over the table and held their breath as they waited for a die to land understands the inherent power of the emergent.
So what can you do? Well, GMs, I have one important word for you: React. Let the dice tell you what’s happening. If your story gets wrecked, that’s great! Something new and exciting has revealed itself. And if you need some time to collect yourself, whether it’s a snack break or the need to table the whole rest of the session while you figure out what the hell just happened, that’s totally fine. GMs who worry about their improv skills may feel judged if they don’t know how to keep going from a surprise, but let me tell you from experience…players are way more concerned about their characters and how they’re pushing the story than they are about your ability to come up with something. Allowing yourself to be surprised can be scary, but it makes the story better. If you want to get better at it, reading games like Apocalypse World and Dungeon World give invaluable advice about how to run reactive games. If you want resources to encourage emergent narrative, there are tons…you can look for resources with random tables, you can look for systems with random events, and you can look into frameworks like Powered by the Apocalypse and Forged in the Dark where surprising things happening is a central part of the game. Ultimately, more emergent narrative in your game is merely a consequence of when and how you let the dice tell part of the story. No matter your preferred game style, ruleset, or genre, you too can mix in a bit more ‘Play to Find Out What Happens’.