Debate is still going strong over my last article taking a closer look at what constitutes good storytelling techniques (Deus Ex Machinas And The Plot Implications Of Divinity), but – never one to back away from potential controversy – I’m about to dive headlong into another, and one from the same technique.
Anton Chekhov famously advised never to show a loaded gun in the first act of a play unless it was fired by the final act.
The principle has become generalized and known in literature as ‘Chekhov’s Gun‘.
Like a number of literary conventions and techniques, this advice is all well and good in principle, but falls down at times in practice, and – I contend – especially so when it comes to RPGs.
Driving The Plot
As the Wikipedia page notes, Chekhov’s Gun is all about foreshadowing, and rests on the principle that any ‘active object’ that is present in a scene must be assumed to be there for the express purpose of foreshadowing future events (an ‘Active Object’ is an object that can be used to do something). A loaded weapon is used as a metaphor for all active objects within the scene.
There is a particular minimalism that is implied by this principle that works on a Stage, where a minimal number of props can be the subject of focus. But that principle fails in any immersive environment.
You would not include a telephone as one of the props on stage unless at some point a call was going to be made or received. But if you were making a TV show or movie, the absence of a telephone where you would expect to see one is far more disruptive than showing a telephone and not using it. However, having dressed the scene with a telephone, it then becomes logical for it to be used (or for an attempt to use it to be made) if there is a need for communications.
The RPG Paradigm
RPGs are a different kettle of fish again. Unlike a novel, a play, or a movie, the author of the adventure is not exclusively driving the action. It follows that if he places a loaded weapon in a scene, it is not his choice whether or not it is subsequently used. A better paradigm might be a choose-your-own-adventure structure, in which the objects used to dress an environment are both logically consistent with that environment and represent options made available to the PCs from which they cherry-pick the ones that will move them closer to a solution.
In fact, that’s not a bad structural analogy in other ways. You can think of each PC as carrying internally his own set of options that are always available unless specifically blocked by circumstances (and the GM is in charge of those circumstances); the combination of the repertoires of all the PCs, plus any specifically made available by the GM and less any that he has blocked represents the sum total of the options available to the PCs for dealing with the circumstances and moving the plotline forward. Which choices will they make? The GM can sometimes guess in advance, but will never know for certain until the Rubicon is crossed.
Creating Options not Railroad Tracks
In other words, the GMs placement of objects within a scene is all about creating or removing options for the PCs, rather than laying down a railroad track along which the plot has to run. The options should be those that are logically present, unless the GM specifically removes one – a decision that has to be justified by the circumstances.
If I mention a modern office building as a setting, I don’t have to state that there is a phone on every desk; it can be assumed. If there aren’t phones on the desks, that’s noteworthy.
Similar logic can be applied to a loaded firearm. If it is logical for one to be present, it must be assumed to be present unless the GM makes a point of the exception.
The corollary is that objects that would not be expected to be present are also noteworthy – and that brings us back to Chekhov’s Gun. The principle, as generally stated, only applies to situations and settings where the loaded weapon is going to be an unusual object.
The Assumption of Function
The other limitation on Chekhov’s Gun as a literary principle is that the only function of a firearm is to shoot at someone or something. Just how valid is that assumption? Are there any other uses for a loaded weapon?
Of course there are. The first is characterization. A Big Game hunter is likely to have weapons on the wall – presumably unloaded ones. A lot of police officers have loaded weapons in their homes – as do ordinary people in a lot of countries. Criminals frequently have them lying around. If there’s a danger of wild animals, a loaded firearm is a natural precaution.
All these are examples of circumstances under which a loaded gun would be present logically – which means that if the characters know that this is the setting of the scene, they will be able to assume that one is present. However, if they don’t know that the setting justifies the presence of the weapon, they can infer it from the fact that there is a weapon present. An additional function of the weapon is therefore characterization of at least one of the inhabitants of the room.
What if the weapon had been already fired when the characters arrive on the scene? So long as it has not been completely emptied of ammunition, it is still technically a loaded weapon. In order to justify the presence of a loaded weapon without having it fired at some future point, all you need is a body apparently dead of one or more gunshot wounds when the scene opens. The existence of the weapon is no longer justified by foreshadowing, and Chekhov’s Gun no longer applies.
This justification works equally well in all media, it’s not just a roleplaying thing.
The next one, however, is purely gamist. You put a loaded gun in the scene because you want the PCs to have a loaded gun.
Actually, that would be pretty sloppy writing under most circumstance. You would normally put a firearm and ammunition in the scene. Why? It’s easier to justify their presence than it is to both justify their presence and justify someone having loaded the weapon.
Why “under most circumstances”? I didn’t originally include that caveat, but then the following occurred to me:
It’s the zombie apocalypse, or the Day of the Triffids, or whatever. Someone takes refuge in a house and barricades the doors and windows. They locate and load a weapon, but before they can use it, they are attacked and killed by whatever the greeblies are, who have entered through some unprotected window or other entrance. At some later time, the PCs arrive for whatever reason, kill any greeblies that are still present, and discover the corpse and the firearm.
Under this scenario, it is totally plausible for the PCs to find a loaded weapon. They don’t have to know the back story, though they might be able to infer it from the circumstances. So why is this an example of superior writing relative to the finding of the unloaded weapon and the ammunition?
First, because it is more logical for an attempt to have been made to employ the weapon if it was present. And second, because it places the arrival of the PCs after the beginning of the scene (even the rest of it all occurred “off-camera” – showing that the world around them is not static, frozen in time and waiting for them to appear on the scene. Things happened before they arrived and will continue to happen after they leave. They may only become aware of this if they return to the location, but the pre-sequence alone is enough to increase the verisimilitude of the game world.
But the second reason only works because of the first.
The next potential function follows directly on from the sidebar discussion above – if a loaded weapon is present, it can be assumed that someone had what seemed like a logical reason for loading it. That usually implies that they anticipated a need to use it.
And that gives grounds for a mystery: if the weapon is in the hand of a dead man, why didn’t he use the weapon to defend himself? It might be that it simply jammed, making the mystery trivial – or the weapon might have been fully functional but the man was killed before he could employ it, again making the mystery trivial – or he may have suffered a slow and deliberate death at the hands of a third party, apon whom he failed to employ the weapon at hand for some reason. That’s the mystery.
For some reason, as I was typing the above, scenes from The Abominable Dr Phibes kept flashing through my head. But there can be almost any reason for the failure to fire the weapon – anything from poison to paralysis from fear to the presence of a third party as a hostage against action by the dead man.
The expectation of use of an active object creates a mystery when it has not been so used.
And finally, perhaps the weapon was never intended to be used – but is present to provide the threat of its use. Weapons, by their nature, can be intimidating, and that usage alone can justify the presence of a weapon without it being used.
Where there are two reasons for a weapon or other active object to be present, there will be a third, and a fourth, and so on to the limits of the author’s creativity. The five justifications provided cover most situations, but more than anything else, they indicate the likely existence of other reasons .In fact, including an active object in a scene because you expect it to be used in a subsequent scene is one of the poorest justifications for its presence.
The Lack of a Loaded Gun
There is another point to be made: If, for whatever reason (including following Chekhov’s advice), you leave a gun out of the scene and then find that you need to write one in retroactively – or take something out that was included – it’s easy to do with a play, novel, or script, up to the point of publication. Even afterwards, it’s possible to write in a hidden observer or object in some media – and still have it seem plausible – though that’s a lot harder. Such retcons are much, much, harder – both to achieve and on the suspension of disbelief – in an RPG.
In fact, the hardest medium to retcon is the RPG in some respects, because the players are used to formulating a perception of the world based on the GMs descriptions, and deliberately omitting something – without even giving the PCs the chance to spot it – is widely regarded as deliberate cheating and railroading of the worst kind.
Metagaming Flavor Text
A danger that exists more substantially in RPGs than in other forms of literature is that of telegraphing significant plot developments and scenes by means of the specificity and quantity of flavor text. I’ve lost count of the number of times a character in KODT has said “Be on your toes, the flavor text is so thick you could cut it with a knife” or words to that effect. And, while KODT is a comedic drama, what they are lampooning with these statements is a real phenomenon.
It comes about because GMs focus their creative energies on the scenes and settings that matter, developing substantially greater quantities of flavor text just by including everything that’s important. A scene that doesn’t matter so much gets rather less descriptive effort.
But what are the alternatives? Overloading every non-critical scene with excessive flavor text may have been acceptable literary technique in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it quickly grows irritating to modern ears. And leaving out critical elements from the descriptions of important scenes to preserve a “flavor text parity” is also unsatisfactory to players, who will roundly complain to the GM about the practice whenever they encounter it.
All this is directly relevant to the discussion of Chekhov’s Gun. The minimalism that Chekhov described as good literary practice encourages the direct indexing of relevance to flavor text quantity and specificity, which in turn encourages this behavior by players.
That alone argues that Chekhov’s approach is not best-practice when it comes to RPGs.
Conclusion: What is good writing for an RPG?
We’re approaching the end of this article and at the same time, getting to the heart of the matter. Every literary medium has its own internal rules and structures, and it’s best practices that constitute good writing within that medium. Some of these are universal, while some translate from one medium to another incompletely, selectively in application, or not at all.
What are the qualities that I associate with good writing for an RPG adventure (rules are a completely separate discussion)?
In no particular order, I would argue in favor of the following criteria:
- Consistency – more a function of editing/layout, but each of us develops our own literary conventions when writing adventures for our campaigns. When I read an adventure written by someone else, I don’t care what their conventions are particularly, so long as they have been applied consistently throughout.
- Personality – some writers have a natural facility with the written word, and can impart personality into every line. Others are hacks who have difficulty imparting flavor to a curry. Most of us are somewhere in between. The more naturally personality and flavor leaps off the page and into the narrative, the better the writing.
- Accessibility – at the same time, I don’t want to have to stop and reach for a dictionary every time I read something. If there’s a term used with which most people are unfamiliar, it’s not enough to define it within the flavor text or GMs briefing or some NPCs dialogue – I want an explicit definition made clear on the page where it is used for the first time. If there’s an NPC, introduce them to me at the same time as they are being introduced into the adventure.
- Organization – Don’t, for the love of heaven, stick all the definitions and other essential information in an appendix at the back – and that includes NPCs, monster stats, treasure details, spells, map keys, etc. I don’t want to have to leave where I am in the adventure, find an entry somewhere else in the text, interpret it, and then go looking for wherever I was up to. Nor do I want to have to go find some other part of the adventure in order to be able to referee the current scene. The more self-contained each constituent part – be it scene, act, or chapter – the more functional the adventure, and hence, the better written so far as I’m concerned.
- Plot – I like adventures that go somewhere interesting, either literally or metaphorically. An adventure with something to say, or something to think about.
- Verisimilitude – a well-written adventure has to make sense. No 100 Orcs in a 10′ x 10′ room need apply. Nor do any adventures that have characters behaving against their best interests without explanation. Sure, it might be that the character has had a lapse in judgment or has misinterpreted a situation – in which case, tell me about it, and make sure that you tell me how the adventure will change if the PCs manage to clue the idiot in. And don’t assume that you know how the PCs will react in any given situation.
- Balance Of Narrative Passages – The best way to avoid Metagaming of the narrative (as described earlier) is to to have all the flavor text descriptions be roughly the same length. Rather than making some of them filler and others significant, put something significant into every scene. And don’t assume a linear structure to the adventure – remember, the perversity of the PCs tends to a maximum so far as following plotlines is concerned!
- Concision – finally, be as concise as possible, especially when it comes to synopses and directions to the GM. And if there is an alternative section of text that might apply, tell me about it before starting on the first alternative.
This list is almost certainly incomplete. The perfect format for an rpg adventure has yet to be invented, and its possible that it never will be – that we can only get closer with subsequent iterations while never achieving the ideal. But that’s a subject for some other time.
One definition of minimalism might be that it provides the minimum necessary information from which an entire description can be extrapolated. Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t apply to RPGs in so many ways and for so many reasons, but mostly because Roleplaying game adventures are a unique blend of narrative fiction, script, and non-fiction literary forms. Some of it is stage direction and some of it is plot navigation. Examining the reasons for that failure to apply is nothing short of illuminating, however – a window into crafting better adventures for any game, any genre. All it takes is a little extrapolating from the starting point that Chekhov’s Gun provides. In that respect, even in an RPG, it fulfills the spirit of minimalism that Chekhov was advocating – even while that recommendation is contradicted by the specifics. And that’s a noteworthy inclusion.