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Chekhov’s +1 Longsword

Chekov's +1 Longsword

If your players get their hands on a +4 Sword of Ogre Slaying, give them some Ogres to slay.

In writing, there is a dramatic principle referred to as Chekhov’s Gun [1]. This states that every element in a story should be necessary and anything irrelevant to the story being told should be removed. Basically, if you set up a loaded rifle being put on the stage in the first act, that gun better go off sometime in the second act. Your setups need payoffs.

Keeping this principle in mind can help make a story tight and cohesive, keeping your audience focused on the themes and messages of the plot. While binging on video essays on YouTube, I recently came across Lindsay Ellis [2] channel. One of her videos talks specifically about the way Mad Max: Fury Road deftly uses setups and payoffs throughout. As with most things in my life, I began thinking about how to apply these concepts to running RPGs.

Now, it’s important to state up front that writing a story is drastically different from running a roleplaying game. Even if some writing is done collaboratively, there is still room to edit and refine before the final product is presented to an audience. In RPGs, our collaborators ARE the audience and there is no way to go back and edit things we decide we’d rather not use. If you try and use unmodified writing techniques to run a roleplaying game, you’re going to end up frustrating yourself and your players, and most likely be accused of railroading.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t pick the techniques apart and find what works for use in RPGs. Chekhov’s Gun makes an important point about following through on the elements introduced in a story, and this can be just as valuable in an RPG as it is in solo writing. A good GM knows how to bring things full circle in a game, giving their players the satisfaction of a good game and story.

Plant Seeds but Don’t Get Too Clever

When sitting down to plan a game, it is tempting to craft clever setups that will shock your players when they figure it all out in the end. Unfortunately, putting too many intricate and subtle details into prep usually leaves the GM disappointed as players remain oblivious and miss them. Even fantastic players miss subtle details through the course of a game, and that’s before the added complication of remembering details between game sessions. If you need to explain your cleverness to your players after the fact, that detail didn’t work. Keep your setups simple, something you can implement with broad strokes that can be echoed in later sessions.

One good example I’ve experienced, is a friend’s D&D 5E city based campaign. Much of his initial prep for the campaign made use of Pelgrane Press’ Conspyramid [3] from Night’s Black Agents. Even just a simple outline of the connected threats in the city has allowed him to plant seeds that have come full circle and succeeded in making us players feel accomplished at beating the bad guys and shocked at how deep the trouble goes throughout the city streets.

Chekov's +1 Longsword

Any special sword better end up in a PC’s hands.

Pay Attention to What Your Players Are Interested In

Keep an eye on what your players are focusing on. Plenty of GMs have lamented on how the players ignored their big plot hooks to spend time on things they considered inconsequential. In most cases, that should be telling you that your big hooks aren’t as compelling as you thought they were. Don’t just ham-fistedly push your players towards the main plot and ignore the supposedly inconsequential things they are actually excited about. Take the things they’re latching onto and run with them. When possible, just use those unexpected things they latch onto to tie back into the bigger plot you were trying to get them entangled with in the first place.

During the first campaign I ever ran, my players often pushed me into pure improvisation as they went way, way off the material I had prepped. During one session, while they were exploring the flying pirate ship they had unexpectedly stolen from a super villain, I made an offhand remark about a little black book among the belongings of the telepathic monkey first mate that had gotten away. It wasn’t meant to go anywhere or do anything, but the players loved the idea and decided to call some of the numbers in the book. From this was born the monkey’s girlfriend, Lisa Terrance, a high society debutante NPC that became one of their favorite sources of information.

Keep Track of What You Set Up

This one may be more of a reminder for myself than advice for anyone else, but keeping good notes on what you’ve put into play and need to follow up on is a good practice to help keep a game’s story cohesive and helps reinforce a cinematic feel for your players. For me, these notes don’t need to be extensive. Usually just a bullet point or two is enough to help remind me which elements I need to follow up on. In addition, never hesitate to ask your players to recap the game. It can be enlightening to see the things they’re focused on compared to what’s in your notes.

During my Eberron campaign, after a short hiatus of a few weeks, I asked my players for a recap of what they remembered. They all brought up, in excited detail, a fight they’d had with some cultists that I had completely forgotten about. I had mostly used the cultists as throw away bad guys to fit in a combat encounter, but I realized their presence meant more to the players than it had to me, so I made a note to follow through on that plot element to make it even more satisfying and relevant for them.

Even When Abandoning Something, Give it an Ending

When you inevitably come face to face with something that isn’t working, figure out how to end it with some sort of resolution as quickly as possible to get it out of the way. Not everything you bring to the table is going to go perfectly. Sometimes the players just aren’t interested and sometimes you’re just not feeling it as the GM. It can be tempting to just move on and pretend the struggling plot line never existed, but to maintain a cohesive world for your players, it’s better to do some editing on the fly and give that truncated element a clear resolution or ending. If you don’t, even if they didn’t like that story line much, it will feel like it’s just hanging out there, unsatisfyingly unfinished.

During my character’s introduction into a friend’s ongoing campaign, he had her have a run in with an NPC that was strongly hinted at being a serial killer stalking people similar to her and the other PCs. This was something both me and my PC thought was cool, so I tried following it up during several different sessions, but it quickly became apparent that the GM wasn’t interested in following up on that thread. I think he had simply intended the NPC to be a threat to my character that would drive her towards the other PCs. He obviously never expected me to care about that plot thread and was confused when I kept trying to investigate it. While I had fun with the rest of that campaign, I’m still a little disappointed that introductory element just fizzled and went nowhere.

Whether you’re running a heavily narrative-based indie game or a more traditional mechanics driven game, an understanding of how to set up and pay off different plot elements can help enhance a game. It may be impossible to pay off every set up we throw out there in an RPG, but follow up on the ones your players latch onto and you’ll give them a game they’ll remember.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Chekhov’s +1 Longsword"

#1 Comment By John WS Marvin On January 5, 2018 @ 12:19 pm

You’re not the only one who needs a reminder to keep track of what you set up. I bring a bunch of notecards to each game. The blank ones are for my notes, as the campaign grows, I get more notecards. I like different colors for PCs, NPCs, Factions, and Locations.

#2 Comment By Kurt On January 6, 2018 @ 12:43 am

I find there is a tension between keeping a story tight and two competing concerns (1) floating potential plot threads that your players may or may not pick up (and if they do not, may never be resolved, Chekov or no Chekov) and (2) world building…which I feel requires elements of the world not be tied the players if there is to be a sense of verisimilitude. If you meet someone at random on the road, they should have their own concerns, lives, and relations.

I personally hate it as a player when the plot feels forced. When the party is traveling to a city in search of a famous explorer or what not, and when we get there we find a mob is preparing to hang someone, it feels too convenient for it to always be the very same guy we’re looking for or someone otherwise vital to the story. It leads to metagamey “adventurer logic” that we have to save that guy. In a realistic world, sometimes the mob is executing a random cad who has nothing to do with us.

#3 Comment By Angela Murray On January 6, 2018 @ 9:41 am

I think this is indicative of different play styles. I have no interest in playing for realism. I play to find out what the epic story is of the PCs. As annoyed as you would be for the victim of the mob to be the guy the party is looking for, I’d be just as annoyed to find out its a red herring and doesn’t really matter.

Ultimately, I’d be like, why is that event there? A perfectly reasonable purpose for the mob scene could be to set the tone and mood of the town. Is this a place where justice is pernicious and vicious? Does it serve to put the players on warning that they better watch their character’s step? It doesn’t have to be as cliche as ‘Oh, that’s the guy we need, isn’t it?’ but it should and could still serve a larger purpose for the game.

#4 Comment By Kurt C Yost On January 6, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

I would say that I prefer a world that feels real, without striving for extreme realism. The details have to be used sparingly to not take up too much time during the session. Part of that is the world has a history and part of it is the world has current events that develop with or without player involvement.

I think we all play for the epic story of PCs in the end…but not all for a world that revolves solely around the PCs and no NPC ever has any concerns about anything unless it relates back to the PCs. As I said, if you do allow that you get a kind of metagaming logic because the PCs know that if they learn the farmer’s spouse is cheating on him, that that has to be a plot point that affects them…

But maybe we are not saying different things, because I view that detail as adding character to the potentially otherwise bland NPC farmer. You will more easily remember the farmer whose marriage is on the rocks *and* who shares with you some of the local gossip relevant to your quest than you’d remember the farmer who gives you the rumors and who otherwise is a blank slate with nothing going on.

I remember that I once had a party entering a city and I described a guard at the town gate who was lazily leaning on her spear and staring off into the middle distance as people and carts moves in and out of the city gate. She perked up at the sight of a very attractive young man on the merchant’s cart that was in front of the party, watching him longingly. That throwaway detail that suggested this nameless (literally, at first) guard had something going on in her mind and it only took a couple moments if description. One of the PCs decided that she wanted to play matchmaker and it spiraled out into an interesting comedy of errors from there that culminated (months later in game) in the PCs later attending the wedding of that town guard and the merchant’s son and having a new friendly NPC in the town.

For every NPC they engage with, though, there are a dozen or more that get that bit of detail that they don’t grab onto (like, for example, they enter the tavern just after the bartender has dropped a cask of ale on his foot, so now he’s limping and yelling at the staff to help him clean up. The party gets drinks and ignore all that commotion.)

I do get that sometimes new players have to adjust to my style, though. For example, describing the PCs camp, I once mentioned in passing that they “make camp next to the overgrown statue of a long forgotten knight or king.” Immediately one new player wanted to break camp and move because “obviously” that statue was going to come to life and attack them. A second new player speculated that there might be treasure or some hidden entrance within or under the statue…so the party proceded to pulverize it. And the new players were surprised they found nothing, so reverted to wanting to move their camp (because the statue, broken or not, might still be a threat).

I also have the world evolve at a macro level…though the PCs are often oblivious to it. If the great gnoll army is rampaging in the east, and the PCs express no interest in that detail, the army may sack distant cities (or the army may be defeated by other nations or even other heroes). These details may never come to the attention of the players at all, but if they travel to the East they will find that the situation wasn’t just static. Cities and towns they planned to pass through or buy supplies in may no longer be there. Borders move and the map changes. There is always a reason for those changes, but those reasons may or may not effect the PCs as much as the fact that their map is not always accurate.

(Indeed, if they players don’t ask, I tend not to go into the “why” of why things changed…as the lore of the world should always be presented dramatically and it’s hard to present “history,” even recent history, with sufficient drama if the players have no interest. Plus ideally, the description of these ancillary events should take up less than 5 minutes in total spread out over the course of a game session.)

I do tend to warn my players that just because I throw it out there that, say, the gnoll army has obliterated a city, that does not mean the players need to do anything about it…just that they should be prepared for events to sometimes unfold and change whether they are involved in them or not.