Progression and Emergence in RPGs

in Design

In the last article, Progression and Emergence: Two Modes of Play, we discussed the difference between emergence and progression in games. Emergence is when a game has few rules but many variations, and progression is when a game has many predefined challenges that are ordered sequentially. The forms of emergence and progression in a game are highly dependent on the game genre. Since we’re a RPG site, we’ll be focusing on RPGs!

Computer RPGs immerse the player in a fictional world. The player assumes the role of a character or many characters (a party) and develops them while progressing through the game narrative. Many elements of RPGs are that of progression, where the designer dictates the story and the challenges the player must face. But in RPGs, the player is often afforded many different resources with which to build their characters and face the challenges in the game. This leads to more emergent elements like player strategies in building their characters and also in encounters with obstacles and enemies.

To fully explore the two elements of play in RPGs, we’ll break them down into three categories: game mechanics, game world and game story.



In RPGs, the storyline dictates where the player has to go next, but the player has many different options on how to tackle obstacles along the way. These options typically come in the form of resources such as player level, equipment and skills.

Like chess, the complexity in RPG mechanics does not come from its individual parts. A steel sword or level 3 fireball spell are simple in themselves, just as a pawn on a chessboard is. The complexity rises from the many interactions between all the parts. These interactions usually take place in the form of combat against players and enemies.

In combat, the player’s goal is to defeat the enemies, usually by reducing their health to 0. To do this, the player must attack them using the actions available to them, while also mitigating damage received by the enemies. This is where feedback loops come into play.

In most cases, attacking an enemy is a positive feedback loop because it lowers its health. Being attacked by an enemy is a negative feedback loop, since it lower’s the character’s health. If the all the character’s health reach 0 the player loses the encounter. Negative feedback tends to prolong battles since the player has to mitigate the damage received either by dampening it, reversing it or avoiding it altogether.

The more resources available to the player in and out of combat, the more complex the game becomes, leading to more emergent behavior. Because there is often more than one solution to a encounter, RPGs have strategy guides instead of walkthroughs.



RPG worlds tend to be usually larger than most players can grasp all at once. So not to overwhelm the player, most RPGs begin with a tutorial section, where they can teach the player the rules in a relatively safe environment. More advanced mechanics are then introduced as the player progresses through the world.

Sections of the world will often be blocked off until a specific condition is met. This is to keep the player from experiencing the story out of sequence or from facing challenges they don’t have the resources for. As conditions are met by the player, the world will open up, allowing more exploration and story progression. In Western RPGs, the world is usually open from the start with fewer restrictions than Japanese RPGs. The open world creates more emergence since its difficult to define every path a player can take.

RPGs benefit though from having locations that are structured around completing a sequence of objectives, such as dungeons. Dungeons tend to have more interesting gameplay since they are more structured. Dungeons can also facilitate exploration on a smaller scale, with optional paths and challenges that reward the player.



RPGs can be thought of as spatial stories. Most of the plot unfolds as the player progresses through the game world. Some RPGs have temporal elements, such as a day/night system, but these rarely have a large impact on the narrative.

Most of the interesting elements of the story comes from the dialog between the characters. These sequences are usually static but when they are interactive they can form “dialog trees”. Dialog trees offer the player choices in how the sequence will progress. Sometimes these choices just come down to player preference. Other times it can open up new scenarios or close off others. The most dire can kill off a party member. These can be interesting interactions, but are not emergent since all choices are predefined.

In terms of emergence, there have been far less advances in game stories compared to game mechanics and worlds. RPG stories are tightly structured to offer a certain experience. Even in open world RPGs, the main story or quest line of the game follows a sequence that needs to be completed to “win” the game. Most emergence comes from the player’s story or experience and not the game narrative itself.


In general, Western RPGs are games of emergence and Japanese RPGs are games of progression, but combine aspects of both in their design to create a compelling game experience. Which do you prefer? Leave a comment and let us know!

In the next article in the series, we’ll explore desirable emergence and non-desirable emergence with specific game examples from series like Fable and Final Fantasy.

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