How Do Stories Emerge from Game Play?

The equation for the story that emerges from a role-playing game looks like this.

Embedded Story + Game Play = Emergent Story

Embedded Story

Embedded story is the context or backstory of the the setting and its characters.

Embedded story is the all the things that happen before the player characters show up to burn it all down.

Game Play

Game play is what happens when you and your friends play the game.

Game play is the interaction of the rules, rulings, mechanisms, procedures, and choices made by players.

Game play is the stuff that happens after players answer the game master’s question, “What do you do?”

Emergent Story

The story that emerges from the game play is the story you tell about the game play. This is the narrative of events which come from the interaction of the game’s mileu, the game’s mechanics, and player choice.

Why Choose Emergent Story over a Plotted Story?

  1. The stories you get are usually better than the ones you try to impose on the players.
  2. It is a lot less work for the game master.

If there is a single bit of writing that has influenced my games more than any other, it is this one from The Alexandrian.

Many people are intimidated by the idea of prepping without a plot. It seems like a lot of work. If the players can do anything, how are you supposed to cope with that?

The dirty secret, though, is that it’s actually a lot more difficult to prep plots than situations.

Justin Alexander

An Example from Dragon’s Bend

Here are a few days of travel from last week’s Dragon’s Bend game. In the post, it was the first six bullet points. It took about 20 to 30 minutes to play through. It took about five minutes of my time to create it. That time was mostly writing up the stat blocks.

The party moves one hex to the south east. Four random encounter checks are made. The last one indicates an encounter. Result of 3 on 2D6 indicates an ankheg. The distance of the encounter on 5d20 x 10 is 500 yards. Neither the monster or the party are surprised. Reaction roll is 7 – neutral. The party avoids the monster and goes around it.

The party moves another hex to the south east. The third random encounter check is a 1. A roll of 2d6 is made. The random encounter table indicates 2d3 steppe hunters are encountered.

The party opts to parley with the hunters. A reaction roll of 5 is made indicating a negative attitude on the part of the hunters. They ask the PCs if they are sworn to their enemy. The party indicates they are not and the the reaction improves by one to “neutral.”

Ozric the wizard says they are looking for a dogman wizard named Farhat. This improves the reaction by one point but the result is still neutral. The warriors tell the party where they can find Farhat. The warriors ride away.

The next random encounter roll is a 5. No encounter.

The party travels in the direction indicated by the hunters. Random encounter rolls for the next hex do not indicate an encounter.

The party arrives at the dogman camp.

Embedded Narrative + Game Play

Here is the narrative of the game play in a more storylike form.

The party wished to meet with Farhat, the leader of a dogman clan.

They travelled southeast from the Mound of the Night King for a few days. Around mid day of the first day, an ankheg emerged from the soil and faced the party. It was some ways off and didn’t seem inclined to fight. The party guided their wagons and hirelings around the giant bug, giving it plenty of room.

They didn’t not see anyone as they travelled and the weather was pleasant. Not long after everyone turned in to sleep, riders come galloping toward the camp. The draug warrior on watch wakes everyone up as the riders approach. The riders had bows strung and arrows nocked. They demanded to know if the party was sworn to the warlord Oktar and why they are in the lands claimed by Aglent! Ozric tells the warriors that they are not sworn to any clan and are on their way to see the dogman wizard Farhat.

The warriors relax. Their leader says they are going the wrong way if they want to see Farhat. The dogman and his clan were driven from their warrens by some monsters that spawned from Zaleska’s Hypogeum. The dogman and his followers are in a camp a day east of the warren. The party will have to travel an extra day to get there. The party thank the warriors. They nod and spur their horses away into the night.

The next morning, the party packs up and heads in the direction indicated by the warriors. They travel a day and a half without further incident. They arrive at the dogman camp. There are some ragged tents hastily pitched and small herd of sheep and horses.

Everything Has a Story

When you create things, you are creating stories…sort of. You can’t help but create stories when you create a setting and NPCs. Even if the entire adventure comes from a series of random tables, you are creating what will be perceived by players as a story.

Human beings make up stories from our observation of random events. We do this to try to understand our reality so we can make decisions about how to act. This has an evolutionary origin.

We look for patterns because we want to make sure reality doesn’t kill us before we can reproduce. It is one of humanity’s most powerful inventions. Unfortunately, these stories don’t always describe the world as it actually exists. This is how we get insane conspiracy theories, bizarre religions, and logical fallacies that lead to terrible outcomes.

An example of unconnected coincidences being conflated into bombastic stories are the events surrounding the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III.

James disappeared. He played D&D. A charlatan named William Dear took those two pieces of information and put them together. Dear, a private investigator hired by Egbert’s family, told reporters that the young man’s participation in the game and his disappearance might be related.

That story exploded. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t true. It did help the popularity of D&D for a few years.

You roll on a random table and get “sword +2.” This has no context and, seemingly, no story.

In the contextual landscape of the game; someone made the sword. Somehow it was brought to the dungeon where the player characters picked it up. Most players don’t care what that story is and don’t pursue it.

If you give the item a little more detail, a name, some other powers, some decoration; they might chase down the story of where it came from and how it got there. That’s their story. They are adding it to the story of the sword, not being supplanted by your story.

Players, because they are human, will assume everything you describe to them has a story.

In the first description of the Dragon’s Bend session; what you see is all game mechanics and choices made by the players. The second description is a narrative of game play combined with the story of what happened outside of the story of the PCs. Embedded Story + Game Play

Maybe they’ll want to get involved with the fight between Aglent and Oktar. Maybe they’ll want to fight on behalf of the hill folk who are constantly being enslaved by the draug and the steppe people. Maybe they just want to do some dungeon exploration in the hypogeum. Maybe they want to travel out of the steppe. Perhaps they will sign on as guards on a trade caravan, travel to the sea and become pirates.

I don’t know what they will do over the length of the campaign.

That is their choice. That is where the game part of role-playing game comes in.

That story doesn’t exist yet. We can only tell it after it emerges.

Whatever that story ends up being will be surprising and probably better than anything I could have come up with on my own.

7 thoughts on “How Do Stories Emerge from Game Play?

  1. I totally believe in the equation, and it is always nice to see others post on this topic. My own preferences make it very hard for me to like or want to use the term ’embedded story’ but I understand what you mean by it and was glad to read the post~

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate it.

      I’m not a huge fan of jargon or terminology for these things. For some reason, we can’t just say “context” and have game masters come along with us. It feels that way to me.


      1. It’s true. Perhaps worse, if you write for those who do follow the argument there is mostly silence in response. If you don’t, there is a need to qualify everything which can drain the life out of a post.

        It is still worth it, though, lest we vanish as a culture of play~

        Liked by 1 person

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