Adventure Design Tip: How Do You use Chekhov’s Gun in Gaming?
From Ben Scerri
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #524
The literary principal of Chekhov’s Gun has been around since the late 19th century and has influenced every aspect of storytelling culture.
However, in my experience, it has failed to fully affect gaming and the stories game masters tell.
This might be due to the reactive essence of good gaming (i.e. the players do something and the story is rewritten to suit the players). But this format does not have to exclude the use of Chekhov’s Gun, if you employ it sneakily that is.
What is Chekhov’s Gun?
Chekhov’s Gun is a literary technique where, if an eye catching element of the setting is displayed early in a story, then it must have a larger role later on.
To put it into its original words: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”
How Does Chekhov’s Gun Relate to Gaming?
The principal remains the same. If you mention something in your description of the world that your players ask questions about, make a note of it. You will now factor this aspect into your planning, be it a big plot point or just a side-quest that features this aspect of the world.
For instance, if you have a mean bartender stingy with ale and heavy-handed with patrons, and the PCs have a gripe against him, why not make that fellow a member of a local crime gang who are operating out the back of the tavern, or maybe have a bar fight break out over his attitude.
However, you must know when to draw the line. Don’t include every small thing your players look at in a shiny light. And especially don’t make them all imperative to the plot, because you will soon find your players catching on, and then they will be looking for your strings before they exist (which, in a mystery game, is perfect, but in many others, is tedious and time wasting).
How Can I Involve My Players Without Them Noticing?
Throw in more colour. Everywhere! Be more descriptive of your locations and throw in plenty of quest hooks. I advise using a “Wanted” sign post, or a “Jobs Need Doin’” board, where the townspeople can post grievances they need solving.
Another option is having carnivals and contests for the players to join.
Also mention place names and important historical figures (and their legendary gear) in the dialogue of your NPCs. Soon you will have your players wondering just who the “Masked Necromancer of Mor-an’tai who wielded the dreaded Sceptre of Ten Thousand Nights” was.
Chekhov’s Gun in theatre and movies tells writers to fulfill promises made to the audience. If you put a loaded gun on the stage, you must use it. Doing so enhances your story and pleases your audience.
Game masters should use the same technique for the same purpose. In amongst the variety of ongoing details you should weave into your game through NPCs and description, be sure to bring those details back into play to strengthen your story and please your players.