Options vs. Emergent development

(These are just general musings. There is no advice, there is no pearl of wisdom. Read for as long as it interests you, disregard as soon as is convenient. There are no answers here. Only Dragons)

I have a problem. A conflicting set of core ethos’ that I struggle to balance and come to grips with. As a GM I truly believe that players should have ultimate freedom of choice. I also understand that there is a certain amount of fun to knowing your character has leveled up and spending your time between sessions looking over new exciting options. Having tangible, pick able, knowable “Build” choices has a certain amount of fun that I fully recognize and don’t want to deprive my players of. That being said…

In my heart of hearts what I truly crave as a GM is the emergent qualities of TTRPG game play. You find a magic ring that does something cool. A mysterious witch asks you what you most desire, and when you answer they curse you with a twisted power that helps you fulfill that desire, but at a terrible cost. These are the moments that I love most of all, and yet I don’t want to deprive my players of choices.

Some may say “That’s simple. Your player need only instigate the search for these abilities and then it fulfills both requirements.” This is very true! but also seems to miss the mark at most tables (at least in my experience). Something about the act of “quest-ifying” advancement makes it feel wrong. If a player say’s “I want a pet dragon” and in the next session they find a dragon that is available to be a pet, that somehow feels dirty.

The balance is the true struggle. That balance between “I want to give my players what they want” and “I want my players to feel they’ve earned what they have” is difficult as hell. Handing things out like twists of fate, a magic sword around every corner, feels cheap and contrived. Making the magic sword a drawn out mess can end a campaign with a player feeling like their character never achieved their goals and never got to enjoy the cool thing they wanted in the first place.

Arthur drawing the sword from the stone was the BEGINNING of the story, not the end. Imagine if instead all of Arthurian legend happened and then Arthur gets Excalibur and becomes king. Sure there would be some great stories along the way, but the whole point was that he had the sword.

I often joke that I want a system with many conflicting pieces: “A Narrative driven gritty survival dungeon crawler, with a lot of player options that are totally driven by emergent play, that is rules lite but has enough detail that players don’t feel like we’re just making up whatever nonsense comes to mind”. When I write it down it seems like a somewhat reasonable thing, but in my head it’s a jumbled mess and I’m unsure how to sort it out. It feels similar to an old line from the Simpsons “I want all my shopping in one bag, and I don’t want the bag to be heavy”

Sometimes as I run games or read different rules, or just sit and ponder the nature of reality, I feel these desperate threads coalescing into something grand… But thus far the reality of that creation remains an elusive tease.

Quite unsatisfying for this article I don’t have an answer yet, but it’s fun to think about.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *