TL;DR: A go-to game design choice leverages PC-to-PC backstory for emergent gameplay—the TTRPG equivalent of a “gameplay loop”—but there’s an alternative based on PC-to-NPC relations that may complement it or suit some gaming groups better.
Emergent gameplay is the TTRPGs equivalent of a computer game “gameplay loop”: the PC-to-N/PC interactions a game tends to return to when players and GM repeatedly interact based on a ruleset. That’s nothing particularly new or profound: the “travel-skirmish-loot” loop is indeed emergent gameplay—rooted into TTRPGs’ origin in tactical miniature games.
Whether a ruleset’s focus is simulation or story, physics or fiction, etc., it’s always a toolbox for the GM to bring the game world to life. As a side effect, emergent gameplay remains under heavy GM influence. A common approach to reducing that influence is baking in PC-to-PC interaction at a “session zero” stage.
Today, I’ll explore an alternative based on the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) Threat Maps—which I covered here, and already curbs GMs’ influence by limiting it to boundary conditions. I’ll push that logic further to get some emergent gameplay.
“Alternative” does not mean “either-or,” though, only “different.” It combines well with the PC-to-PC backstory—and even recovers some of it as PC-NPC-PC triangles. Still, going the alternative route has its perks, and I’ll conclude briefly on that.
Leveraging PCs’ shared backstory for emergent gameplay—with some worldbuilding folded in—is nowadays common. Fate’s Phase Trio, Apocalypse World’s Hx stat’s questions, or Cortex Prime’s Pathways minigame are recent examples, but it’s been around a while (at least since 1996 and Conspiracy X 1E.).
An older approach seeds PCs’ character sheets with random plot generators. The one I know best is GURPS point-buy character creation, which alters costs for Advantages or returns from Disadvantages (Allies, Contacts, Favors, Debts, Enemies, etc.) with random tables for how or when they come into play.
Now, imagine combining the above. Leaving aside why one would like to do that (for now), here’s a simple two-step process:
- Build a Threat Map à la AW: Threats have impulses and moves, and relations between them.
- Offer PCs a pick: say, one Threat as relation, ally, or whatnot, with some benefit and some strings attached.
Three remarks. First, (1) can be full-on collaborative, GM-exclusive, or anything in-between. PCs’ partial picture could make for better drama, by opening to twists and reveals, but that’s arguable. Plus, if players can handle PC-vs-player knowledge discrepancies, they could have perfect information. And twists could happen through improv anyway.
Second, (2) can range from descriptive tags to custom mechanics. And, same as (1), this determination can be as collaborative as desired. My group enjoys narrative support from mechanics but leaves them to me, so I’m usually putting the work alone there. But another group could be fully collaborative and stick with “notional” tags.
Third, calling Threats “Threats” pays homage to the original, but carries implications—that every Contact, Ally, Relation, etc., could turn against the PC—that may not suit your setting. Feel free to call them otherwise.
Step 1: Setting a Stage
Since this post is about emergence, not collaboration, I’ll start assuming a Threat map (with the understanding that it could have been negotiated). Conceptually, it’s an agent-based model by another name (see this post): NPCs (agents) whose behavior is (partially) pre-determined by preferences and action options—which following Apocalypse World (AW), I’ll call impulses and moves, respectively. Here’s the general format for triggering a Threat through the conversation (see this post).
If [circumstances] fit [Threat’s impulse], then [Threat] makes [Threat move].
AW’s Threats are ok for generic purposes: impulses are universal enough, and moves, although AW-specific, translate seamlessly enough into other systems (see here for Fate, and here for Cortex). Still, AW Threats are flavored for Apocalyptica, so you’d probably want to reskin them, or make custom ones. Here are five for a Big Town Drama, made up in minutes, just to illustrate the process.
- Institution. Impulse: Protect Its Ways.
Moves: weigh-in (publicly, privately, or secretly), place pawns, close ranks.
- Shot-Caller. Impulse: Stay On Top.
Moves: show force, broker alliances, grab power.
- Zealot. Impulse: Spread the Word.
Moves: seek support (followers, allies, dupes), stigmatize, goad into action.
- Hirelings. Impulse: Side with the Strong.
Moves: offer service, muscle in, switch side.
- Family. Impulse: Hold Together.
Moves: offer support, bring strays back into the fold, gang up against outsiders.
There is only one rule here: at least some Threats work at cross-purposes sometimes. Thus, getting involved with one is, potentially, getting at odds with another. Similarly, getting involved with several would, potentially, face dilemmas.
Step 2: Involving the Players
Getting PCs involved in Threat-to-Threat relations is straightforward. It has three components:
- Threat-to-PC relations (I). The Players pick one triple ([Threat], [circumstances], [move]) for their PCs to characterize the support they may receive.
- Threat-to-Threat relations. The GM sketches a few action-reaction move sequences, or “move snowball” (see The Fine Prints).
- Threat-to-PC relations (II). As part of move snowball, the GM calls back favors from the PCs
Let’s take that in order. For (1)—whose determination may, again, be as one-sided or collaborative as desired—there’s a simple general format for narrative permission (more on the “permission” soon).
If [PC-initiated circumstances] are consistent with [Threat’s impulse], then [Threat] can make [Threat move] in support of [PC], possibly with [strings attached].
The permission is encapsulated in the “can”: the Threat may act in support of the PC, but the decision to call upon that support should remain in the PC’s hands. The reason is, of course, the [string attached], but before that, there’s (2).
On the surface, (2) is as simple as picturing the outcome of a triple (Threat, impulse, move) and checking that outcome against pairs (Threat*, impulse*) to see if it prompts a move*—with Threat (impulse, move) and Threat* (impulse*, move*) being different.
If [circumstances] initiated by [Threat move] in response to [Threat impulse] trigger [Threat* impulse*], then [Threat*] makes [Threat* move*] in reaction to [Threat move].
Both (1) and (2) loopback in (3) with [strings attached] coming into play. That’s also the most delicate part, as NPC-to-PC influence is also GM-to-player influence, stumbling upon the complex topic of consent and agency. And that’s where I’ll stop for today, but there’s a bit about implementation in The Fine Prints.
The Fine Prints
Moves Snowball. To take a mathematical (or programming) analogy, PbtA’s central mechanic, the move, is a function taking inputs in both roleplay and game mechanics and returning outputs in roleplay (see this post for details). But that’s only a “piecemeal” way to look at it. Sequences of moves, aka “move snowball” (which has its own chapter in AW, p. 216 sq.), drive emergent gameplay, repeatedly bringing particular gameplay configurations back. Move snowball is “strategic,” not only as in “methodical planning,” but also as “in the sense of game theory,” because an agent’s “strategy” includes contingencies for others’ reactions to the agent’s choices. (For game-theory nerds: that would be a strategy for a sequential game in extensive form, but that’s what a TTRPG is, anyway.) Framing moves in preparation for “move snowball” is thus a strategic part of a PbtA game design. Non-PbtA implementations of the Threat Map approach may miss that aspect, as recovering “move snowball” goes beyond translating “piecemeal” moves.
NPC-to-PC influence. [Strings attached] are metaphorically strings attached, with many ways to cash it mechanically. A heavy-handed and somewhat all-or-nothing approach is Fate’s Compel mechanics: the GM offers a one-time meta-currency bribe to take over the PC for a while. The player can refuse (but must pay) or accept and deal with the fallout. PbtA is more nuanced, with PC-to-PC mechanics for moves such as seduce or manipulate (an ongoing bonus/malus for acting along/against [strings attached]). Cortex Prime would be the most flexible, with an array of mechanics ranging from near-equivalent of Compels (still, always player-initiated) to the equivalent of ongoing bonus/malus (dice-rated Traits added to either the PC’s or GM’s dice pool depending on whether the PC acts along or against [strings attached]). The short of it is: when considering NPC-led emergent gameplay, choosing a ruleset may be worth thinking twice—if one wants to pay more than lip service to player agency, that is.
Wrapping Up: Why let the NPCs lead, anyway?
There’s an argument to make that the recent history of TTRPGs illustrates a trend toward taking emergent gameplay and players’ agency seriously and equally so. Against that backdrop, today’s post may seem a bit passé de mode. But it’s not reactionary. Quite the opposite, actually.
Some gaming groups relish in extensive “session zero” worldbuilding, including shaping intricate PCs pre-roleplay shared narratives. And it has become a go-to game design move for a reason. Then again, other players like to “start shallow” and build PC depth organically. Depending on the make-up of a gaming group, I fall in one category or the other.
Then again, some of my favorite folks in the whole world fall square into the second for various reasons—including a mix of gameplay preferences, social awkwardness, and neurodiversity. My Threat-Map-centric approach was born of concern for them.
Now, that may or may not echo with you, and that’s why I mentioned other options. Anyhow, that will be all for today, folks.