Saturday, July 18, 2020

On Narrating Complex Environments in RPGs

Here we go again, this time it's a sort of 'deleted scenes' ... I thought this was an important aspect of the game (and it is), but eventually decided that the rest of the book covers this from different angles to a degree that one should assume it obvious. Still, didn't write to delete, so I thought I could share it here in the hopes that it has merit as a blog post (not edited, but re-arranged and with added content to make it work here).

Modern city life is one of the hardest things for DMs to convey credibly for all but the sheer endless amount of possible outcomes of anything players could come up with. They could just go door to door and test how well a DM is prepared or how flexible they are with creating characters on the spot. Add science fiction elements to that and it can become quite the daunting challenge (although you'll definitely run into the same problems when the gropup enters a fantasy city).

There is something to be said about why role playing games work best in less populated and desolate areas. to do areas with high stimulation potential justice, a DM needs to find a thin line between offering too much while keeping their game on track and just enough to keep it plausible as an environment.

One way to solve this problem of overstimulation would be to think about it following the principles of emergence while remembering (1) the Rule of Seven (Miller’s Law) and (2) taking concepts like the ‘Forgetting Curve’ into account when spinning the narrative.

The first gives you a limit of what is perceivable in a narrative (or elsewhere). If you want to keep your players engaged (or 'stimulated'), you'll keep the flow of information at something like 5 to seven pieces at a time. You go below that and you'll summon patterns of low diversity. A desert or a wide plain could benefit from description of 3 or 4 pieces of information at a time. However, you'll run the risk of boring your players.

Low or high stimulation? [source]

The same goes for overstimulation.

Of course this is a bit more complicated than that, since you'll most likely have more than one player at your table, so finding the right measure is also heavily connected to reading the table right. Producing low or high peaks of stimulation migt go a long way towards bringing across what you are trying to get across.

The second gives you the window in which information is processed. Again, how fast information will be processed between several individuals may vary, but it's also within certain limits or frames AND those people fast at it will usually help the slower ones (or those with their attention elsewhere) along the way.

That said, there's no real time measure given with the forgetting curve, or ta least nothing that would relate to a direct use in an ongoing dialogue. We have to look elsewhere to see how that might work over the course of a gaming session.

How to produce a flow of information

It is very much like experiencing a good book: a well crafted text will lead you towards its conclusion from the first word on. It starts from nothing but the individual context the reader brings to it and builds on that piece by piece by coming to an agreement first and then starting a dialogue with the reader.

The established pieces of information should encourage the reader to resolve them ever forward through the text as the narrative emerges. Basically, readers collect information, interpret it towards a new, simplified understanding and use that in context with the next information and so forth, until the book is read.


Creating a flow like that is mainly based on the principles mentioned above. It describes emergence as it starts from nothing and tells a complete story in the end.

It also has to take the Rule of Seven into account because the fact that readers can only hold five to nine bits of information in context makes a hierarchy of information necessary and creates the flow as readers resolve pieces to gather new ones.

Furthermore it needs to take into account that aspects of a story tend to get forgotten as the text goes on for any length of time (which directly translates to rpgs, of course). Repetition is an important tool here (which also allows for emphasizing relevant information every now and then, for instance at the beginning of sessions).

In conclusion we end up with three principles for emerging narratives:
  1. Context is the point where you start an emerging narrative, context is what keeps it going (usually that is where all involved agree to start a scene in the beginning, and what they are encouraged to follow up on later in the narrative).
  2. Amount and hierarchy of the information you want to implement in a narrative give you control over how the narrative manifests (always hint towards information as you add to the narrative, for instance by connecting it with other information).
  3. The longer a narrative is held up, the more basic will be what is established, which means the past highlights of a narrative will inform tone and genre (starting from scratch, by taking into account hierarchy and amount of the narrative impulses will inform the experience at the table).
Now, if part of the emerging narrative is a highly complex environment, all that needs to be done (as established above) is adding information with a higher rate than one would do normally.

Controlled overstimulation

Expanding the narrative elements beyond the Rule of Seven (for instance by including all the senses and several random impressions that are present but add nothing to the purpose of a scene beyond that) will easily generate the impression of a complex environment.

That's history now, folks ... [source]

Another effect of manipulating the flow of information by overloading it is that relevant information gets more condensed in the narrative environment and irrelevant information is dismissed and forgotten far more easily.

However, that doesn’t mean any of it is unnecessary information. You are still aiming to create a symphony of impressions that accumulates in hindsight to tone and genre while offering impulses that encourage the players to connect the dots towards a satisfying conclusion (of sorts).


Naturally, offering a surplus of information might sidetrack the players every now and then. It’s totally fine and actually adds to the narrative in a believable manner. That is a good thing. If anything, distractions changing the narrative might offer a great opportunity to slow down a bit and re-adjust.

In other words, let it run its course, but don’t fuel it and give players opportunities to reignite their interest for whatever they had been up to before they got sidetracked by giving impulses towards those five to nine bits of information that got them moving to begin with. And if they won’t let go, let the story come to them ...

To make all that a little easier, the system needs to support a DM in a way that allows them to manipulate the narrative from a frame that adds tone and genre to the context the narrative emerges from. How Ø2\\‘3|| does just that will be discussed in the next chapter.

So much for the Deleted Scenes

I'm in the final stretches of getting this thing written. It clocks down to roughly 150 pages A5. Add artwork, infographics, cheat sheets and tables to that, as well as a glossary and an index and we'll probably end up with close to 200 pages!

If you liked what I've shown so far, there's a good chance you'll dig the game in its final form, even if you'll never play the damn thing. I've put lots of theory in there and many ideas I've been chewing on here over the years.

Anyway, I'm getting a bit excited about getting this out there (as well as about moving on after it's out there ... but that's another story. We'll see how it goes. That said, the reason for this exercise is still to make Lost Songs of th Nibelungs my best effort. That game needs me at my top game (however 'top' that is, tbh).

Interesting time :)

Feel free to share your tips and tricks how to bring complex structures alive in your games. Did you do some of th same? How do you guys control the flow of information? Comments and exchange are, as always, very welcome.

A narrative manifesting in a complex environment [source]


  1. Awesome post! I totally agree that cities are difficult spaces to navigate with a fantasy tabletop RPG. There's a constant tension between simplifying information to keep it manageable for the players/referee and simultaneously making it "feel" deep and complex, like a real city. Besides the "flow" of information in the descriptions I provide, I've tried dividing cities in our games into districts that give players concrete "chunks" of the city to navigate at a time. That's sort of worked, though it's still challenging to make each district feel complex and "alive," rather than like a caricature.

    1. Thanks! I thought I erred a bit with this one as there was no feedback at all, so reading that it reached someone comes with great relief :) You make a great point wit using districts, I think. It resonates somewhat with the hierarchy of information distribution I'm talking about above, but gives a great example what that actually would look like. Thanks, again, for commenting.

  2. As always, Jens, a very thought-provoking post. It's good from the perspective of the DM to have some theory to back up (or contradict!) what may just be guesswork or habit... or a nagging feeling that maybe what is given isn't 'enough' somehow. Integrating 7+/-2 and repetition suddenly seem obvious. How to construct the Emergence Engine as a whole is not so clear, but you're doing great work elucidating some of the systems.

    1. Thanks, man! What have you been up to!? You are right that this doesn't show the whole picture. I guess it shows that it's complementary in the context of the rulebook it was intended for. It was written to offer an understanding how to use the designs presented elswhere. I'm learning the hard way right now how different those writing style need to be ... I mean, I expanded on what I had to publish it here, but sometimes the arc remains incomplete :)

    2. Not sure what I've been up to really! I've had 4 months of work due to the pandemic and I've... painted some minis. I don't seem to have done much else. Still running the Rift City campaign on Discord, but somehow having less time to blog about it.

      I remain confident that you can encompass reality (or at least a decent facsimile thereof!) in a few tables and some procedures for using them.

    3. I hear you. Fucking pandemic ... Had me in a slump for weeks as well. Regarding that last sentence: if nothing else, it's a subject well worth exploring :)

      Take care and stay healthy, man.


Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.