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Games that use Emergent Characters and other ideas?


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I've been bouncing around some game ideas and I wanted to see if there are systems out there that already handle this. I've got a gameplay example written up that I'll put in my next post. Here are some highlights:

* Emergent characters - Every character starts with just a short description. Any number of cosmetic changes can be added during play. However. any mechanical benefits must be paid for from a resource pool.

* Dynamic Player Control - If a player doesn't have an active character in the scene they can still help describe what in the scene, add threats and challenges, and take control of new characters when they appear.

* Challenges - Players are rewarded for overcoming challenges. Ideally, these awards should be a resource that can be spent to make later challenges more manageable. For example, points could be spent to find an unusual item early on. Then during the boss battle extra points could be spent to reveal that item has a special power against that opponent.

* Threats - Danger can be added to any challenge. Doing so raises the risk of the challenge but can also raise the rewards for succeeding in both the threat and the challenge. Alternately if the threat is beaten, but the challenge fails, beating the threat can mitigate the cost of failing the challenge.


Registered User
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Alright, here's an imagined play session using these kind of mechanics. I'm assuming this is the first session and we're looking at the intro scene of the first main character:

J: "Alright, who wants to go first?"
C: "I'll go. I think I've got a good idea on how I want to start."
J: "Go ahead."
C: "Alright, it's in an old monastery. Stone halls, gargoyles on the roof and all that. Anyway, a couple of robed figures are walking down a hall. After they pass, another guy in robes slips out of a side passage to a nearby door. Bits of lightning dance from his fingers across the doors lock."
M: "So that's your guy?"
C: "Yep."
J: "Is opening the door supposed to be a challenge?"
C: "Yeah, it sounds like a good first test for the character and I'd like to start building up some points."
J: "Alright, it sounds like you're adding a unique ability by picking the lock with magic. Are you ready to spend one of your edges to back that up?"
C: "Yeah, it's a pretty cool ability and I like having him be a sneaky guy."
G: "Hold up. You've already said people go down this hall and what you're doing is pretty suspicious looking. I'm placing a threat on that challenge. If the threat goes off, you'll be spotted."
J: "Fair enough. C, are you going to split you attention to keep an eye on the threat?"
C: "Nah, I'll just focus on the lock and hope I can get in before it goes off."
J: "Alright, roll em."
C: "Yes! In on the first try!"
G: *shakes fist* "Next time gadget, next time!"
J: "Alright, you're in. What kind of room are we looking at?"
C: "Let's say it's the bedroom of one of the higher ups."
M: "So are you trying to catch the guy asleep?"
C: "No, I'm just looking for something."
J: "Did you want to cash in your success for that?"
C: "Not yet. Let's up the ante a bit. I want to search the room."
J: "Are you spending an edge on that?"
C: "Nah. I'll hold off for now. I can search without that edge right."
J: "Yep, you just don't get any modifiers."
C: "Alright, let's do this."
G: "If they hid something in the room, they might have laid traps too, I'm placing a threat on this. If it goes off, you sprung a trap."
C: "Heh, your throwing threats out left and right, aren't you. Alright, it'll make my reward that much better anyway."
C: "Excellent, looting time!"
G: "Not so fast, the trap went off, too."
C: "What kind of trap?"
M: "Ooh, I've got it. How about an animate statue, like one of those gargoyles?"
G: "That would work, but let's make it something smaller, like a little stone imp."
J: "Alright, so where does it come from?"
M: "Let's put it by the fireplace. It could be disguised as a poker holder."
J: "Sounds good. So just as Hoody McCloakington is poking around the fireplace, one of the poker holders starts moving. I assume it's going to swing its poker at him."
M: "Go for the knees!"
C: "I'm dodging that!"
J: "Go ahead. But you don't get any modifiers unless you spend an edge on that."
C: "Phew, just made it. I'm taking that thing down."
G: "How? It's made of stone and you don't have any weapons."
J: "You could spend an edge to pull one out of your robe."
C: "True, but I'm not sure I want to burn one just yet. The thing's small and this is a bedroom, right? With all the usual items."
J: "That sounds right."
C: "Alright, I'm going to grab the chamberpot and try to trap it under there."
J: "You can do that. The pot will be near the bed though, so the imp can act as you're moving over there."
G: "Like M said, go for the knees. Let's see if it can slow Hoody down."
C: "I already dodged away though, so I should be just out of range."
J: "Alright, let's make it a contest, speed vs speed. If the imp wins, it can spend its successes on an attack. If Hoody wins, he can spend his success on his chamberpot attack."
C: "One minute, I want to spend an edge on this."
J: "You already dodged without spending an edge, so you can't boost your dodging ability until the end of the adventure."
C: "But I should be able to boost how fast I can run, right? I'd like making him fast."
J: "Alright, go ahead and take the bonus then."
C: "Yes! That gives me points to spare. I'm trapping that thing."
G: "Rolling to dodge.."
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Married to a Scientist!
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That looks beautiful... I'd enjoy a session like that, if I thought I could get my players to exercise that much narrative control (I'm really trying to convince them, but it's a strange and scary concept to them - they believe that it's my job to control all non-PC aspects of the game!).

I appreciate how the decision to spend an edge or not has lasting consequences - if you spend the edge, it's a done deal: that skill has an edge for your character. If you don't spend an edge, it's also a done deal: you can't spend an edge until such time as you "level up," so to speak. The first time a player encounters a given challenge, he's forced to evaluate whether these are the kinds of challenges his character should be good at overcoming - and then he's forced to stick with the decision for a while! In the right group, this would work beautifully for creating emergent characters just by itself...

However, I also like that non-participants in a scene are encouraged to contribute to the scene despite not being there. It allows for a party to split up without disengaging half the group around the table. Is it true that you intend for these players to provide either challenges, threats, or window dressing? That's good. In my group, everyone not in the scene would probably try to narrate apsects that would give the participants an edge. Your method comes down to "decorate or escalate," which would prevent that kind of abuse.


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Yeah, I am leaning toward an approach that's got good support for GM-less play, possibly because I've run a fair number of games myself. As such letting the players share control of NPCs is a very useful feature.

In fact, I'm considering putting in some kind of award for players who put good challenges in front of the main characters. It should be attached to the players rather than their characters. I'd need to strike a good balance where the awards encourage them to participate without trying to overrun the current main characters. Possibly some luck like resource that gives them more ability to tweak things whether or not they're controlling a character.

Players not controlling a main character can also step in and control any other character who shows up. In the example, G took control of the stone imp when it appeared. The idea there is that rather than having a 1 GM to many players set up you have more of a protagonist / antagonist divide with at least one player on each side at a given time.

One of the big ideas behind the challenge system is winning challenges gives the main characters a resource which they can use to push for the end-game scenario of the adventure. Basically smaller challenge unlock ones with larger stakes until the final conflict of the adventure. As such, players of the main characters may actually actually seek challenges as it's let's them accumulate this resource more readily. By providing these challenges, both sides are actually helped as those points help drive the plot forward.

As for the edges system. I will admit I'm a bit proud of it. I came up with something similar a while ago for a test piece of interactive fiction and I'm just getting back to fleshing it out more. I'm just surprised I haven't seem any other games doing this yet as far as I can recall. "Nothing new under the sun" and all that.


Retired User
Agreed, I would love to play a game like this.

MetaDude summed up my thoughts nicely.

The lasting consequences of choosing whether or not to spend an edge in a situation would make for a really interesting experience with each session, and is a great way to have characters be developed during gameplay (obviously that's what you're going for here, and it looks like it would work well). Players may have various ideas of what they think would be cool/fun/relevant/interesting, and then once they're suggested and put into the current in-game situation they would evolve and change as the other players introduce other ideas. That kind of fluid, dynamic gameplay experience is something that really appeals to me.

With a willing group of players who have a bit of imagination, this kind of system would allow for some great games. I think that one of its most appealing features is the fact that everyone can participate in a scene even if they don't have an active character present at the time (which from my experience is the kind of issue that can kill games... Keeping everyone interested and entertained throughout a session can become very difficult when using some systems).

I've just spent a good quarter-of-an-hour trying to find the darn name of an RPG I've played that offers 'emergent characters' as a feature, but I can't find its name! I think it has the word 'Dawn' in its name, and I know it's a Space-based sci-fi sort of game (If anyone knows the system I'm referring to, please post the name!).
In it, each character has a number of Flashbacks to use, which have similar effect to spending an 'Edge' in Shimeran's system. Characters have minimal details solidified before gameplay, including a general description (e.g. Gambling Sharpshooter) which is made up by the player, and then when a player has an idea for a skill that their character would have/need, their player can use one of these Flashbacks to have the character flash back to a moment in their past (all imagined up by the player and described to the rest of the group) in which the character had done something impressive/awesome, as if to say "My character did <this> in the past, so it's a skill that he has, and can use right now".

Although that system has the 'emergent characters' similarity with the system mentioned in this thread, it's also a GM-based system and as such has less of the overall collaborative feel that I get from Shimeran's system idea.

But yes, I love the Edges system and the whole idea of this game system. Would be very keen to play around with it in the near future :) It really is one of those ideas where you can't help but stop and say to yourself "Surely this has been done before! It just makes so much sense..."


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Heh, I guess that means I need to get off my ass and start designing then. I'll give this thread a couple more days in case there's something out there we missed, but it looks like this design space hasn't been covered.

On a related note, as I'm fleshing this out I'll probably want to put things up fairly often so I can get feedback. Are repeated forum posts the best for that or would setting up something like a blog or wiki be a good idea? Heck, I might even set the whole game up in a wiki format, which would make it easier for member to add new edges, challenges, and so on.

That also bring up the point of whether I want to make this more free and open like FUDGE, make it a paid and published product, or somewhere in between. There's plenty to think about here.

An interesting challenge in setting up the system will be making it fun to play the villains from time to time. Rather than having someone always have to run the game it'll great if I can set this up so players can change sides from scene to scene as needed. I'd like the group goal to be more about bringing the conflicts in the story to a head.

On a side note, the emergent character idea has some strong roots in scenes from other media. In books and movies, you're usually not given a big info dump or all the character's abilities before the action starts. Instead, we're just given a quick description and we learn more about the character through their actions and interactions. Heck, in movies we often don't even know the characters name until they either introduce themselves or someone else uses it.


Retired User
Hmm good point. I guess that given the open and collaborative nature of the game, having it be reasonably free and open with its development would be accommodated nicely with a wiki. I'd be skeptical to have it just as a fully open wiki however, allowing anyone to add any content they like-- That could lead to all sorts of playability problems and inconsistencies. The advantage of discussing/developing the game on a forum would be that people post up suggestions and discuss them, and you can take it all on board and pick the bits that you like, or fit into your vision of the game. Would it be an option to set up a wiki in which you need to approve changes/new pages before they're published? Possibly something to think about :)

As for making it fun for players to play as villains from time to time, I think that it would come pretty naturally for most groups who are playing this game, as players would naturally be throwing up challenges and obstacles to add to the story and the gameplay experience. That's part of the fun! This system has great potential to be an awesome tool for collaborative, interactive storytelling. It's pretty exciting for this li'l geek =D

Great point you make about other media using this emergent character technique to tell a story. The big difference between those mediums and this gameplay medium is that in this way the whole experience is interactive, and players can directly affect the story on the fly... Which is Awesome!


Retired User
I've read something very similar, few weeks ago, from a french amateur designer. In my opinion, his attempt had the only to flaw to be much more complicated than needed (though the whole thing took only 8 text pages ) : really, all you need is a way to "administrate" narrative investments/rewards and a challenge rule.

I used to play a little like that too, only diceless, for very casual improvised games (when you're stuck in a train trip with friends or half asleep on the beach and you suddenly feel the urge to play) : every character players had 3 "story points" and they could spend 1 to win a fair challenge (or escape an unfair one) or 2 to mark a new skill/asset for their characters. Everytime they came over an important obstacle or antagonist, they win 1 new point. 2 points in the same attribute meant you were so good at this you can overcome "unfair" oppositions (taking by yourself a bunch of henchmen, for an exemple).
Beside story points, only player's ideas/description/roleplay count to mesure up their attempts : a good idea made you a winner, a lame one cornered you in a desperate situation only story points or help from other players will save you from.
Obviously, characters were "emergent" back then only because we wanted to jump directly in the game without taking the time of "creating" them.

You'll find something very alike in the "Baron Munchausen" game (does it exist in english ?). It's a very simple narration "apetiser" game in which every player choose a name and a title ("Lord Papalompopo, Great Ruler of Papagayo Islands"), grab a few "beans" (peanuts, french fries... warning : they tend to disappear while playin') and then discuss their made up stories with others : first, you ask your neighbour about a story of his ("Dear lord Papalompopo, would you be nice enough to tell us the great story of the way you conquered Papagayo Island ?") and he begins storytelling. Every time they want, other players can challenge him a detail or an obstacle ("And how could you made it while chained in a lion's cage ?") : if you accept it, you integrate their "plot part" and tell the story so they give you a "bean", that you will later use to challenge them. If you refuse to tell that part, you just pretend they're wrong and they keep their bean.
There's quite rarely a "winner", the point being telling stories in a playful way.

My point is : the only thing you need for the narrative power to circulate, to be earned, stored, bet and spent (and then stay more or less "balanced") is a "currency" for it. Call it "plot point", "heroism coin" or "action stones", the important thing is that they will be trade for story and characters elements.
And the Game Master is the bank (if there is a GM).
And everything that's ponctual is a a cost of "one", everything that last is "two".
And for every "story trade", there's a tax : to narrate.

-Another player want's the Hooded Guy to face a ruthless guardian while sneaking around ? He place a bet on it with one "coin".
Hoody wants to avoid the guardian or escape the brawl ? He pays the previous player with one coin.
-He's willing to accept the challenge ? He takes the risks., describe his attempt, roll the dices and, if he wins, gain the one coin bet. If he looses, he'll pay a coin to the "challenger".
-Hoody's friend wants to save him from maihem ? She spent a point and describe a chance for him to seize (a sword on the wall, an way out...) : Hoody's player won't win, but he won't loose or be injured.
-Another player wants to "overbid" ? He place a coin and describes an advantage for the guardian ("He draws out his barbed sword !"*) or block up the way out ("The secret door you discovered remains closed !").
You can even make it a cumulated wages game : you bet on or against the player's attempt, raising the stakes for him and yourself.
And everybody takes part in the scene.

You'll probably need a few more things to run such a game (wages limit, a rule to change the character on stage after he played his part...), but I'm pretty sure you can make it in two pages with that very principle : a currency for story.

(I hope I'm clear, english not being my natural language.)
*(Every time I see one in movies or fantasy pictures, I tell myself it must be a bitch to draw out...)
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On reflection it seems that if we're going to add traits on the fly it should be able to done quickly. This suggests a relatively short list of base effects that can be easily and quickly tweaked into what you need. If more fine tuning is desired, it would be better to do that during downtime when there are opportunities for upgrades.

As such, I imagine the rules are probably going to be fairly short. A huge list of specific weapons and powers doesn't seem like it will fit the style. As such I'll probably just set the core rules out in their own doc and layer any extra setting material on top of that. That way at least the bare bones should be freely available and I can see how much setting material comes after that.

Kiel, I can see how playing the villain can be interesting. I'm also aware that folks who are used to the classic GM vs players divide might not switch around as readily. It's a relatively minor point, but I'd like the text and possibly the mechanics to encourage players to mix things up a bit.

Wenlock, those are good ideas for shared narrative control and I may use some of that. However, for this particular game I'm looking at exploring escalating conflicts. Namely, I'm looking at how when the hero knock down a small threat a larger one seems to rise to take it's place. I'm looking at setting up the challenge mechanics so that this pattern of building up to the big finish and even increasing the stakes in later adventures is built in. That can work well with shared narrative rules, but I am planning on giving that structure some solid mechanical support.
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