Four Ways To Load Chekhov’s Gun In Your Games
From Phil Nicholls
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #679
Chekhov’s famous writing maxim applies to RPGs too:
“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
— Anton Chekhov, from S. Shchukin, Memoirs. 1911
The most common interpretation of the Gun can be referred to as the telegraphed plot twist. The gun is hanging there on the wall for everyone to see, so somebody is going to be shot by it. There is still tension in the story, as it is not clear who will be shot. Yet, there is also the expectation the gun will be used. Otherwise, why hang it on the wall?
The second interpretation requires everything in a scene to be used. Thus, if there were a gun, knife, and spear on the wall, then they should all be used. Everything included in the scene needs to be there for a reason, or removed.
Essence Of The Gun
Chekhov’s advice to a GM is to ensure everything in the story is needed for the story. Setting detail and realism have their place, but limit the description of each scene to what is essential for the story. If the GM stays focused, then it will be easier for the players to remain focused.
The trick to implementing Chekhov’s Gun at the table is flexibility. Players should retain their freedom of action, so seed your game with objects with broad uses. For example, seeding the first room of a dungeon with an arrow of demon slaying, when the final room features a powerful demon, is too obvious and makes the plot too easy for the players.
Instead, present players with useful tools that require clever thought. So vials of holy water, or a Scroll of Fire Resistance, make better tools for the climactic fight with a fire demon.
Ways To Load The Gun
Here are the four ways a GM can load Chekhov’s Gun into their game:
- Procedural Guns
- Monsters as Guns
- Location Guns
- Plot Guns
The classic application of Chekhov’s Gun is objects and tools. Such a procedural object featured in Chekhov’s original maxim.
Fantasy gaming has been full of procedural tools from the early days. However, in such a heavily weaponized game, just having a sword on the wall is not unique enough to preview a later plot twist. Bizarre or exotic weapons might work, but the GM is better served by using a magic item in this classic role.
Magical weapons are an obvious choice. A weapon makes such an effective plot device as its use is clear, killing, but the target remains unknown. Broader magical items produce a similar range of effects.
Likewise, you can use mundane items as markers of plot to come. All manner of tools are suitable Gun replacements, from the humble block and tackle to a fully functional armoured fighting vehicle. Such items can greatly affect the plot, depending upon how players use them.
Indeed, you could spice up a combat encounter by designating a useful piece of bulky equipment the target for both sets of combatants.
Monsters As Guns
Creatures also work as future plot twist indicators. For example, a village full of vampire spawn suggests the presence of a vampire in the nearby castle.
Of more interest are those monsters that make their existence known early, yet only become a threat later in the game. Those unhatched eggs in the Aliens films are a classic example. Likewise, if there is a statue in the first room of a dungeon, then it should come alive at some point in the story.
Many players, especially OSR ones, will be wise to such tricks and are unlikely to leave any intact eggs behind them. Therefore, to sidestep players destroying the plot twist in advance, the GM should obscure the presence of Chekhov’s monsters, yet ensure the seed is planted in the mind of the players.
So, rather than have a room full of corpses for PCs to behead in advance, have the players travel through a graveyard. Sure, the players know there are corpses in the ground, but they are unlikely to devote the time and energy to dig up every cadaver just to be sure none of them will rise up. Chekhov’s Gun demands the graves open up, but by hiding the monster in plain sight, the GM can time the zombie uprising as desired.
Elemental creatures are also suitable for hiding in plain sight, such as in pools of water, or large braziers. A statue in a small shrine, or a caryatid holding up a fragile door, might also discourage zealous players from taking action and prematurely firing the Gun.
The example of the graveyard above leads nicely into the use of locations as plot twists. Some locations telegraph the type of foes about to be encountered. Most planets in a sci-fi game play a role here, as would a zoo, arctic research lab, or army base.
A location can also telegraph the future actions of the PCs. Stumbling into any kind of magical laboratory, or workshop, can present players with a brilliant opportunity to improvise their way out of the action. Every episode of the classic A-Team television show seemed to end this way.
It is possible to set up a Chekhov’s Gun to operate as the centrepiece of the entire campaign. Any prophecy focused on the actions of the Heroes is telegraphing the plot for the whole campaign. This prepares the players for what will happen in the campaign, yet is often vague enough to allow plenty of leeway in the resolution.
Rumours and omens can also telegraph the plot in the same way. The players can choose what to do with any of these tools, but the events referenced are out in the open for everyone to see.
Layering In The Gun
There are many ways for a GM to follow the principles of Chekhov’s Gun. When it comes to adding a Gun to a story, do two things:
- Plan a suitable Gun
- Drop it into the story early
A GM has great influence over the early scenes of an adventure, as this is where so much background information gets presented to players. The GM can then telegraph an expected plot twist by setting the seeds in these early scenes.
The ideal balance is an object with a broad purpose, but will serve as an important tool for the PCs to achieve their objective. This is why weapons, and tools in general, make such perfect examples of Chekhov’s Gun. Likewise, prophecies and rumours can be intentionally vague, allowing enough interpretation so players do not feel constrained.
Improvising The Gun
Once the GM has presented the initial plot to the players, the story can often veer off in unexpected directions. This is where the second interpretation of Chekhov’s maxim comes into play. The principle states anything included in the setting must prove relevant, otherwise why mention it.
To ensure this principle is followed, the GM needs to track those significant objects noted as Guns. As the story progresses, the GM then weaves them back into the plot.
This simple improvisation is easy to achieve at the table:
- Have the important Guns noted on index cards. I halve standard index cards so they are easier to hold and browse during play.
- As the game progresses, keep in mind any unused Guns.
- When an appropriate moment arises, trigger the Gun by making it crucial to the story.
The GM is not using “seat of the pants” improvisation, as all these Guns have been prepared in advance. You know what is going to appear in the story. Exactly how the Guns are relevant is determined by the actions of the players, but the effect of triggering the Gun is predetermined.
Reloading The Gun
Monsters as Guns are easiest to fold back into the game. Rule that the last unusual action by the PCs has awakened the long-expected creature. This could be opening a certain door, casting a certain spell, or even saying the secret password.
To show the importance of a location typically requires to PCs to return there. Either their path takes them back through that location, or something from the location is needed to progress. Dust from a grave, or a particular ingredient from the laboratory, might be needed as a gift or offering. Maybe a particular scroll is needed from the library, or a soldier at the military base has vital information. Perhaps a discovered map is reveals a secret passage or hidden treasure located in the chosen location.
Making tools subsequently important in the story varies slightly according to the type of tool used. Weapons and magical items work best when given broad applications. A shield vs. fire can be made relevant by adding fire abilities to a creature. If you can pair the powers of the weapon to a simple creature template, then you will have a lot of flexibility when it comes to triggering the weapon.
Conventional tools are generally associated with a particular skill. Presenting the players with a disguise kit telegraphs the need for the disguise skill later in the game. Therefore, present the players with an opportunity to use the paired skill, and the tool will have served its purpose.
Finally, there are the plot tools. The best examples of these are prophecies and rumours. While these are intentionally vague, the GM should have the text noted on an index card. Thus, for example, if the prophecy mentions an eagle, the GM can weave this into the story later to show the relevance of the prophecy. This eagle may be the bird of prey, a griffin, or other monster with eagle features, a warrior with eagle heraldry, an ogre named Red Eagle, or just a piece of jewelry in the shape of the bird. Make full use of the deliberate vagueness of the rumour, and the players will be sure to invent the necessary meaning.
To help you weave Chekhov’s Gun into your adventures, here is a table of suitable ways to telegraph the plot without binding yourself to a specific outcome. Every item has accompanying notes to help you be flexible with their meaning.
Chekhov’s Gun Generator
|1||Wolfsbane/Holy Water||Suggests a category of foe later in the story, without specifying the details|
|2||Ghost Blade||Any weapon that side-steps standard creature immunities broadens the power of the heroes. Silvered weapons also work in this category.|
|3||Steel net||A useful weapon, with many applications, yet does not lead to a quick kill.|
|4||Shield of [Element] Protection||Set the exact defensive power to match later creature. This item helps to prolong a battle, but not end it. Can also work with a category of creature, although that might prove too powerful. The better solution is to tie the shield to one aspect of a creature’s attack. A Shield of Dragonfire Protection, for example, would not confer immunity to all of the dragon’s weapons.|
|5||Kneeling warrior, holding out an empty hand||This prompts a mini-quest to find the object that fits the hand, thereby activating the statue. Might lead to combat, or fresh information.|
|6||Vampire spawn||Any spawned monsters telegraph the presence of a master creature later in the game.|
|7||Caryatid statue||Appears structural, to deter immediate attack. Yet the caryatid might later attack or aid the heroes, depending upon their need.|
|8||Area of raw element||Large areas of raw element telegraph the presence of elementals, yet are difficult for players to neutralise in advance.|
|9||Protection from undead scroll||Once again suggests a category of foe, without revealing specifics. Substitute any element or creature type as desired. If the PCs find a lot of them, then this can raise tension for the players.|
|10||Ornate bronze key||Keys clearly open something, but what? A door, a chest, a slave collar, manacles?|
|11||Carpenter’s Tools||Any tools linked to a skill predict a need for that skill later in the game.|
|12||Winding Key for a clockwork device||Telegraphs the presence of a clockwork device later in the game, yet allows flexibility in application. Is it for a clockwork music box, portcullis or guard dog? Specific power sources work the same way in sci-fi games.|
|13||Shrine to an unknown deity||Altars often make players nervous for fear of divine retribution if defiled. Such shrines can prove useful later as sanctuary, sources of fresh power, or a place to destroy cursed items.|
|14||Inscribed pentagram||A site of magical power has enormous utility. It can be a place of refuge, a portal, a source of reinforcements, or fresh foe spawner.|
|15||Wizard’s laboratory||Another opportunity for players to create mischief, or brew up the exact potion they need to save a fallen comrade.|
|16||Dusty library||Shelves of old tomes can hold all manner of useful information, but it might take a later clue to send the PCs to the right shelf.|
|17||Military base||Any home to a powerful neutral force can serve a variety of functions: sanctuary, backup, fresh equipment, or a wave of new adversaries.|
|18||Identify of saviour of the kingdom||A prophecy identifying a PC as a possible king/demi-god/saviour should be full of vague details the GM can weave back into the plot. Use concrete images but uncertain meanings to maximise flexibility.|
|19||Treasure map||MacGuffin leads PCs through a number of separate locations, revealing fresh clues along the way. Also works with multi-part quests, such as the classic Rod of Seven Parts. Huge potential for repeated weaving back into the story.|
|20||Mysterious sigil or tattoo||Similar to the treasure map, but without being location-based. Add layers of meaning, each revealed separately over time, to keep the tattoo relevant while maintaining flexibility.|
The essence of Chekhov’s Gun is to telegraph future plot twists. The Gun must be fired. It also ensure anything added to the setting is relevant. If the Gun is on the wall, then it must be used, otherwise do not have it on the wall. The principle of the Gun can be applied to weapons, tools, monsters, locations, and plots.
Ensure your items are flexible and useful. Note each item on an index card so you can refer to them during play. Then fold each item back into the story to reinforce their relevance.
Brief Word From Johnn
Whew, it’s been a couple of busy weeks over here in the Four Manor. Running Roleplaying Tips, writing an adventure for publication, and taking some courses for the day job. Oh, and a little campaign prep on the side.
So I’ll dig right into today’s tips without any further ado.
Get some gaming done this week!
P.S. Thanks to everyone who sent me their puzzle tips based on last week’s Reader Tip request. I’ll be collating, editing, and putting them in an upcoming issue. I promise to personally reply to you, but I’ve got 340 messages in the queue so am a bit slow on replying. Thanks for your patience. 🙂
10 Variant Mummies
From Steven M.
If you have players who know every ability a standard mummy creature has, then here are 10 variants to surprise them. The baseline is Labyrinth Lord which is a retro-clone of B/X D&D/AD&D.
Your typical Mummy abilities are:
- Immune to mind affecting-abilities
- Can only be harmed by magical weapons, spells, and fire
- Mummy rot
When a mummy hits in combat you contract mommy rot that prevents you from receiving magical healing. You also only heal at 1/10th your normal rate. Mummies are 5HD undead.
The Mummy Variants
Anytime a cleric attempts to turn this Mummy it backfires and the turn attempt reflects back at the group. Have the cleric roll his normal turn undead and compare the results to the party’s HD. This essentially becomes a turn living roll.
This mummy’s pet cobra was buried in his tomb. Over time it has wrapped around its body and merged with its form. This fused cobra adds 1HD to the mummy and gives it an additional bite attack for 1d3 points of damage and requires a save vs. poison or be killed in 1d10 turns. The cobra’s head can also spit poison that requires a save vs. poison or be blinded.
In addition to mummy rot, each hit by this Mummy also causes dehydration. Water from your body quickly evaporates and you find yourself desperately needing water. Until you spend a round quenching your thirst, your Intelligence, Wisdom, and Dexterity decrease 1d4 from dizziness and confusion.
The touch of this Mummy imparts strands of dusty linens that wrap around your body and quickly begin the mummification process. Over the course of three rounds you are transformed into a mummy. This replaces mummy rot.
Round 1: Your body becomes entangled in wrappings. Your movement is reduced by half and all rolls are at -2. You can attempt a Strength Check to break free.
Round 2: You fall to the floor immobile and can’t perform any actions except to break free. Strength Check with a -2 penalty.
Round 3: Your character dies and the mummification process is complete.
This Mummy can spend its action transforming into a cloud of scorching sand that fills a 30′ radius. Everyone within this radius takes fire damage equal to 1/2 the Mummy’s hit points.
While in this sandstorm visibility is reduced to 5′ and the Mummy is immune to all attacks except wind based spells that can disperse it. At the end of the round the Mummy can reform anywhere within this 30′ radius. This ability can be used once every other round.
This Mummy’s body hosts thousands of beetles that swarm in and out of its wrappings. It can spend an action pulling back its dusty linens and releasing a swarm of beetles onto the battlefield. Treat these beetles as an insect swarm.
The touch of this Mummy inflicts a random curse. Roll on the table below for a random effect or choose your own. A character can only be cursed once. A Remove Curse spell will end its effect. This replaces mummy rot.
- You suffer from rapid aging. Each round you age 1 year.
- All damage dealt to you is maxed.
- All damage dice you roll is treated as if you rolled a 1.
- You lose 1 level per round. If reduced to zero levels you die.
- You sure are a bleeder. Each time you take damage you continue to bleed for 1 hit point each round until cured by magical healing. This effect is cumulative.
- Traitor. You immediately turn on your party.
This Mummy is surrounded by thousands of locusts in a 60′ radius. Visibility and perception based checks are reduced by half, and any ability requiring concentration is impossible.
This Mummy’s linens are made out of thin, razor sharp sheets of metal. Any unarmed strike against the Mummy deals 1d4 points of damage to the attacker.
The Mummy can also spend an action to perform a whirlwind attack and have its metal sheets extend out in a 10′ radius in swirl of death. The Mummy rolls an attack for each opponent within 10′ and deals 3d4 points of slashing damage.
The body of this Mummy is encased in canopic limestone with hieroglyphic designs. Only its head is exposed. The Canopic armor provides a +2 bonus to armor and an additional 20 hit points. Each hit against the Mummy shatters the canopic armor dealing 1d4 points of damage to those within 5′ as shards explode. Once all 20 hits points of the armor is destroyed the Mummies’ body is revealed and it loses its +2 bonus to armor class.