Adventure Design Tip: How Do You use Chekhov’s Gun in Gaming? — RPT#524

From: Ben Scerri

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.

1. 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.”

2. 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).

3. How Can I Involve My Players Without Them Noticing?

Throw in more color. 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.

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A Brief Word from Johnn

Back from Vacation

For the past while I’ve been in British Columbia near 100 Mile House camping and fishing.

I spent mornings fishing. And when not in the boat, I was prepping for a one-off Castle Amber game. In the afternoons, I read and relaxed. In the evenings, I read some more.

I read slow, but I managed to read three books and get half- way through two others. I rarely get a chance to have big chunks of time to read, so I cherished – and took advantage of – every available minute.

Anywho, that explains the lack of newsletters recently. I hope you are getting some good gaming and reading time in this summer as well.

Castle Amber One-Shot Turns Into More

Over at CampaignMastery.com I published my bucket list. It’s a listing of all the modules I want to run before I roll my last d20: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/bucketlist

On that list is Castle Amber, and I decided to queue that classic adventure up first as a start on my pail of quests.

We played yesterday 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. A solid 12 hours of gaming heaven! Hot dogs for lunch, pizza for dinner, and a couple of short breaks were the only things that interrupted an awesome day of roleplaying and action adventure.

The bad news. Three out of four PCs died. A near TPK.

The good news. The game went very well and the players let me know they want to take another stab at the module.

I put a lot of work converting Castle Amber to Pathfinder RPG. I’m not finished yet, but with the near TPK at the end, it turned out I did not need to have the whole module converted anyway.

As an old school module, it was sparse on detail, leaving much up to the GM’s imagination. I put extra effort into the Ambers to make a political and roleplaying-intense environment. My players said they enjoyed those encounters a lot.

If there’s any interest, I can go through the process I used to do the conversion.

I hope to resume the adventure in the fall. The great thing about this game is it takes place in addition to my group’s regular campaigning. That means extra game time in the schedule! Play more often, I say to you and all GMs.

Gen Con Indy’s Attendance Shatters Previous Records

According to Michael Tresca at Examiner.com:

Gen Con Indy reported turnstile attendance over 119,707 with 36,733 unique attendees present for 96 hours of gaming, cosplay, music, shopping and more.

This positive spike in turnout represents a greater than 20% increase in a single year. Game event participation grew even more steeply, with over 250,000 event tickets yielding an over 26% expansion. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/genconrecord

That’s great news for gaming! While some are always predicting doom and gloom for tabletop RPG, this is an irrefutable sign our beloved hobby is alive and well.

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Reader GM Tip Request

How Do You Track All the Details of a Living World?

O Wise Sage of the Northern Hemisphere,

I come to you with an all-consuming question and have emptied my cup and am eager to learn.

There’s a world that’s been created and lovingly populated with all manner of things.

There are continents with plate tectonics and zones of subduction and hotspots and rift valleys.

There are ocean currents and trade winds, and mesothermal climate zones and arctic wastes. If you look closely you’ll even find fossils.

There are gods and people, with culturally diverse practices and dimly recollected histories. And there are monstrous creatures of bewildering kinds (although there are no monks cause the Creator doesn’t believe in monks [of any edition]). There are clans and aristocracies, with socio- economic statuses, chivalric codes, complicated guild statutes and unbelievingly confusing calendrical systems.

There are constellations and planets and lunar phases, and there are philosophical thought systems and diverse magical practices.

There are herbs with names and functions, and mysterious ley lines that nobody knows about. There are kingdoms with subsistence systems, power centres, rulers and outlaws, secret societies, hamlets and cities, road networks, maritime activities, ecclesiastical policies, and crystal- like beings that shoot lasers from their eyes.

There are people with names and jobs and titles and political affiliations and personality profiles and motivational idiosyncrasies.

And the Creator looked at all of this and saw it was pretty OK.

And sitting in the wings, with historically consistent backstories filled with trauma and triumph, are impatient and skeptical PCs.

The world is poised to explode in a flurry of action and dice rolls, politicking and attacks of opportunity, social climbing and critical hits.

There’s a horse-loving swordsmith about to set up a shop in Cam-for; a rogue who pretends to be a marquis who pretends to be a minstrel and who dreams of owning an air ship; a handsome mage who is a pencil-pusher in the family apportation business; and a bald blue-eyed mystic who is out to slay the gods. And there’s an insane Aranite high priest who wants to kill them all. All, I tell ‘ya.

However, it’s all dead. Or rather, it’s all static. And I have no idea how to un-pause it.

It’s all good and well to know that in Kalderesh, in the spring of 4719 AC, old King Jeffry of Kalder dies, peacefully in bed. And in the summer of the same year, a calamity strikes Barban in the form of an anomalous magical event. These things are fated to happen. After all, its 4650 AC now, and I can tell you what will happen in the winter of 4805 AC.

So that’s my problem. I’ve got a world with a history made- by-fiat. It’s rationally constructed so there appears to be a sensible dynamic explaining what such-and-such did or how whats-it came to be.

Last winter, Lord Hocequin the Wise of Coldbridge was at odds with the skrags and was going to annihilate them. Did that happen? Is he dead and Coldbridge is now a sink of iniquity? Or are the skrags on the run and Hocequin is now a true member of the peerage? Did the Agopean navy manage to find a passage to the Galentene Empire? And what of the Ursinican rebels?

How does a poor DM keep track of who is going to do what to whom, and when, and what the outcome will be?

It’s driving me nuts! I’m terribly happy to ad-lib and off-the-cuff and impromptu and thumb-suck. I’ll even throw in a sleight-of-hand or two. BUT there has to be a way to keep track [on some scale] of the dynamics of a world.

Any advice?

Yours sincerely,
Beleaguered in South Africa

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Adventure Design Tip

How Do You use Chekhov’s Gun in Gaming?

From: Ben Scerri

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.

1. 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.”

2. 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).

3. How Can I Involve My Players Without Them Noticing?

Throw in more color. 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.

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What is a Campaign?

In RPT#519 I pondered about what a campaign actually is. I see the term used ubiquitously, and the RPG community seems to know what’s being talking about when someone uses the word.

However, as I thought about a definition, I realized there are a lot of variances and parts tricky to define?

Take my current Riddleport campaign, for example. It has no plot. The PCs choose what to do. They run an inn, but it has not been central to the action. Several new PCs have joined the group, and several have left.

Compare that to a mega-dungeon where there is a linear path with an end goal.

I’d call both campaigns. Other game types and styles seem to fit nicely under the campaign term, as well.

So, what makes a campaign a campaign? What is the essence of a campaign?

I asked in RPT#519, and below are a few snippets of responses I received. You can view all responses in full detail online at my blog post, What Is a Campaign?

Note, there are no wrong answers here. We play a game of imagination without universal governance, so we each develop our own customs and ideas for things. One GM says a campaign is a string of pearls, the next says it isn’t. But are ok.

The reason I assembled these sometimes conflicting answers is to give you food for thought. A thoughtful GM is a great GM. My hope is you learn a bit about yourself and your GMing style with this catalogue of campaign definitions and musings.

From: Joe

A campaign, IMO, is a story that can’t be told in only one arc. It has ebbs and flows, but is all one tale. Fellowship is a story. Lord of the Rings is a campaign.

From: Mike Bourke

A campaign is a set of two or more adventures connected to each other by one or more forms of continuity.

This continuity may be the characters, game setting, rules interpretations or campaign background.

The connection must be such that the outcome of one adventure has some sort of impact on the next, whether that takes the form of characters earning experience, NPCs in the second adventure reacting to events in the first, or an overall plot thread connecting the two adventures together.

From: Loz Newman

A campaign is a story. The fundamental part of a story is the evolution of the participants (storyteller + listeners). Stories take listeners to places and times they’ve never been, and then helps them vicariously experience events and emotions.

The base goal of a storyteller is the effect he has on his audience. This goal may vary: education, entertainment, convey a message. But the objective is to have an effect.

So, the underlying assumption for good GMs , and the question behind RPG Tips readers, will always be, “How can I best convey the effect I want to have?”

From: Alex Bender

I look at story building and campaign building in the span of story arcs. Like the pilot for a TV series versus a movie or movie series.

For one-off style stories, I focus on the action, the primary plot, and just enough side-story info to give the world some richness.

When building a game, I expect will extend into a campaign, I look to the greater plot structure that cannot just unfold in front of the players, but should also provide the world a greater depth. This allows players to explore the themes and sub-plots not resolved during the shorter segments.

Character development and relationships have much more prominence as they weave through the primary plot and the meta-plots. I tend to work in the 3 or 5 act structure when building my stories. This gives me opportunity to have guidance in setup, conflict or rising action, and then resolution. Using this same structure, I can then sprinkle setup for other later stories, or ramp up the conflict off- camera with hints and sideline stories.

I think your tip in issue #519 helps seal the deal between a simple story, and a campaign: relationships. The party develops relationships amongst themselves in-character, and with recurring NPCs. The shift from story to campaign happens when those relationships begin to evolve and make a difference to those around them.

I see this played out in the classic debate between two TV series: Babylon 5 and Star Trek:TNG.

To me, B5 was a very large campaign. STTNG, not so much. In B5 we see the characters evolve and change because of, and in spite of, their relationships. ST had to have everything back to status quo at the end of each episode, with only slight evolution in our characters. Both were great shows, but to me this is a clear example of a series of stories versus a campaign.

From: Jerry from Bayside

I Googled the definition of the word campaign. The definition given, that would pertain to an RPG campaign, was “an action that has a goal” (my interpretation).

Is a campaign that lasts for 20 years of game time a campaign? Not to me, unless your party’s goal is to rule the universe.

I would opine that a campaign is as simple as saving the farmer’s son or daughter from the marauders. A goal was set and, hopefully, accomplished.

From: Scott

A campaign is a series of adventures linked by the setting in which they happen.

Who the characters are doesn’t make the definition of a campaign. Neither do the players.

If the adventures are a series and they all happen in the same setting, you have a campaign.

Above all, it’s a campaign if the people playing the game say it is. 😛

From: John Gallagher

My definition of campaign revolves around story, not game. So here goes an attempt at a definition:

A campaign is an extended story, often episodic in nature, stretched over at least two sessions or episodes, with some continuity in heroes, villains or setting.

From: Ben Scerri

As such, a campaign is a story or series of stories held together by a common feature. It stops being a campaign when those involved no longer believe the stories have any relevance to each other.

From: George Fischer

Any series of adventures that are linked in the game. As long as each adventure can be linked back to the previous one all the way to the beginning, then that creates a campaign, regardless of what the location or which PCs are involved.

The group I DM’d for twenty years ago can be directly linked to a bunch of one-offs I’ve done over the years, which directly connect to the current group I’m DMing. I believe that’s one long campaign.

From: Scott Compton

I always have viewed a campaign as a book that can stand alone, and each adventure is a chapter.

The campaign can take characters anywhere, and the campaign has some type of conclusion like a book does, as well. But like some book series, a campaign might continue on beyond the first book.

From: Leonard Wilson

What makes a campaign is narrative continuity: the pretence that the fictional universe of the game has continued existence before and after a stated story goal (adventure).

Any time a new game adventure starts with the understanding that the events of a previous adventure were part of one shared reality – the tangible facts of a single natural history – they become part of a single campaign.

From: Jacob Truax

To me, a campaign is a storyline that involves at least the same NPCs, geography and plots.

I have run campaigns where we started a bunch of characters at 1st level and ran until we were sick of it. I have run campaigns where every character died or retired or changed. I have run campaigns where players came, went, and switched.

But what they all had in common was the set of major and sometimes even minor NPCs.

From: Mark of the Pixie

A campaign is at best a loosely defined term. It changes from place to place, group to group. In Melbourne, three sessions by the one author can be a campaign, even if each is a standalone session with new PCs in a new setting.

In Brisbane you need to get past the six session hurdle to be a proper campaign. I have heard some Americans say you need to have multiple modules to make it a campaign, regardless of how many sessions it takes to get through a given module.

So unfortunately, I don’t think there is an answer to your question. It is too much a matter of personal usage.

My personal definition (which is no better than any other) would be that a campaign is any series of linked sessions.

The links could be almost anything: story, ongoing PCs, setting, themes, goals, even villains.

I say sessions, not adventures or modules or plots, because an RPG session has nice, easily defined boundaries; at the end of the night people go home.

I say series, meaning more than one, to differentiate it from one-off games (which are a very different mindset).

From: Kate

A campaign is a game where even though the PCs and locations change, the gaming system used remains fundamentally the same. If you change from playing Shadowrun to playing Savage Worlds, you’re no longer playing the same campaign. On the other hand, if you change editions or agree on new house rules for the Shadowrun, it’s still the same campaign.

From: Johnn

After reading all these excellent definitions and ideas, I have formed my own definition of What a Campaign.

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Game Master Tips & Tricks

Do you have a game mastering tip to share? E-mail [email protected] – thanks!

1. Use Backsteps To Make Equipment Management Fast And Easy

From: Mark of the Pixie via GMMastery

I allow players “backsteps” when they need equipment. You can pull something out of your pack (which you can easily buy and could have sensibly have brought with you, but is not on your sheet) a number of times equal to INT bonus + 1.

Mostly this is used for things like extra rope, candles, parchment, bandages.

It means PCs don’t have track every little thing and we don’t waste time on shopping trips or tracking gold for mundane gear.

2. Scanning Old Maps

From: Garry

I just finished digitizing my 30+ year old paper world maps. 18 11×18 inch maps at 100 miles to the inch. I had to scan each one in three overlapping scans. At 300dpi, one pixel is a third of a mile.

The paper is a mess, yellowing, crumbling on the corners, stains here and there. The coloring was done with pencils and the quality of that coloring is uneven. Here are the originals (warning, file sizes are 10+ MB):

http://phoenixinn.iwarp.com/fantasy/maps/map3A0001.png

http://phoenixinn.iwarp.com/fantasy/maps/map3A0002.png

http://phoenixinn.iwarp.com/fantasy/maps/map3A0003.png

The job was prompted when I went to clean up my small-scale digital maps and realized that jpeg had rendered then unusable. The colors have bled into each other to the point they are unsalvageable. So, if I want nice clean digital maps I need to start over.

Now comes the long job of stitching them together and cleaning the mess up.

The scanner is an HP Scanjet 3010. The scanning software is HP “Solutions” (solution to what exactly I have not a clue.) It is mainly grinding. Put in the sheet, scan, move, scan, move, scan, next sheet. It took about an hour and a half because the HP software for scanning is the worst I have ever encountered. (I have got to get the scanner working with Linux.) I recommend avoiding that software.

From here on in I am looking at hours on GIMP [http://www.gimp.org] cleaning up. Redrawing the maps really. However, with the digital format, I can create layers for political boundaries instead of an entirely different map. Last night I spent three hours cleaning up the water area of map 4B, the area the game is concentrated in currently. I am not done.

Here is what I mean by finer detail. The resolution is 5 feet to the Pixel.

http://phoenixinn.iwarp.com/fantasy/maps/Seahaven2.png

Comment from Bryan Ray.

Just a quick guideline to maybe save others from the same heartache: Jpeg is a “lossy” compression algorithm, meaning that it throws away data every time you resave.

It’s fine for final output, but if you ever expect to edit your image in any way, you are better off using a lossless format such as PNG, or better yet, your image editor’s native format.

I’ve written a guide to image export formats over at The Cartographers’ Guild that provides more details on a variety of image formats, if anyone is interested in learning more. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/imageexportformats

3. The Three Clue Rule

From: Dave Schaefer

Hey Johnn!

I recently came across this essay called “The Three Clue Rule”. The author, Justin Alexander, discusses how to use and add clues in a story to make the game more interesting and make sure the players don’t get stuck.

Not only does this mean the story can continue, but it usually gives the players more rewarding options, which is more fun. His advice is insightful, applicable, and well written.

I thought I would pass along the link; in case any GMs are having trouble with their players getting stuck. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/threecluerule

4. Modern and Historical Gaming Picture Resource

From: Stephen J. Miller,

CafePress – Gifts

One of the great picture sources I have found for modern, wild west, civil war, and other historical games is the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

I have used this great, free source for pictures for my Victorian Era games, for an alternate history WWI game, and my cold war spy game.

Thankfully, the site has a search feature. Hours can be lost looking at all the fascinating pictures there.

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How-To Game Master Books

In addition to doing this newsletter, I have written several GMing books to inspire your games and make GMing easier and more fun:

NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.

Free preview: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/npceprev

Filling the Empty Chair

How to find great gamers fast and easy online with this huge list of the best gamer registries and player finder websites. Recruit offline quickly with 28 new and easy ideas to find gamers in your local area. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/chair

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG’s most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice, plus several generators and tables: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/taverns

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/holiday

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One More Tip

Give Each Encounter at Least One Minor Feature

I think just about every encounter should have at least a minor feature or two. I like to break things up into categories:

Common Features

So, goblins are ambushing the PCs as they walk through a forest. Underbrush will offer concealment off the path, ropes attached to trees will allow goblins to swing down on the PCs, trees will offer cover for the goblin archers and the uneven ground will make a counter charge require a difficult roll.

Common features crop up all the time as cover, concealment, doors, cliffs, chandeliers to swing from, chairs to hit people with.

Make sure monsters take advantage of them and then watch the players do the same. There will be a new dimension to every battle as the environment gets involved.

Obvious Features

PCs stumble into a room of fire, flames spurt from specific places and a pair of fire elementals appear out of the fire pits to attack the party. The PCs must dodge the spurts and battle the elementals.

Once the battle is over and the PCs have worked out the pattern of spurts, a smart PC might lure the platoon of hobgoblins back to this room and use the fire against them.

Obvious features should be important to a fight and easily assessed on the spot. Used somewhat sparingly these can give great flavor to set piece fights.

Subtle Feature

The PCs come face to face with a Shenbit Bonecrusher in a cave on Barab I. The creature hunkers low to the ground and growls at them.

A perceptive character with a bit of local knowledge might realize the Bonecrusher is female and its young are in the back of the cave. If the PCs back away, the creature will not pursue; but if they fight, it will be all the more ferocious because of it.

The subtle feature should reward thinking characters by giving a significant advantage to those who know about it or do the research in advance. However, the encounter should be manageable if the feature is not discovered in time.

Key feature

Mostly for the big bads, the key features are the weaknesses and intelligence the PCs will gather and prepare for before a major confrontation.

Maybe the dragon is only vulnerable for a moment before it breathes fire, so the characters invest in a couple of potions of speed to give them a better chance of exploiting this small window.

Key features should be discovered in advance to allow a party to prepare a response. These are the features that might allow a small group of fighter pilots to destroy a giant planet-killing space station.

Each fight should use different features and favor different tactics and characters. The bull rushing warrior can find great advantage in a sequence of platforms with long drops to push people off. The agile rogue will love the rooftop chase. The ranger will enjoy being a sniper with cover, concealment and no direct route for the enemy to counter-charge him.

Check out all comments on this post: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/minorencounterdetails