Chekov’s Gun Isn’t a Phaser

“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.”  This quote is from famed author Anton Chekov, and is known in literary circles as Chekov’s Gun.  Every single D&D player I’ve ever gamed with in my entire life – myself included – subscribes to this theory.  If you describe it, your players are either going to use it or they’re going to go insane figuring out what it’s there for.  This is the flip-side of describing anything in detail is that you might as well have painted it with a targeting laser for the character’s attention

The most common way this is going to be invoked in your games is with the window dressing in a room – sometimes literally, the window dressing.  Say you get tired with the typical stone floors and cave walls of a dungeon, so you decide to spruce up the final room lair of the sorcerer who took the goblins as his cult.  Why would this powerful sorcerer live in a dank cave anyway?  So you put a chandelier hanging from the ceiling and a nice rug on the floor.  You have now guaranteed that someone will be swinging from that chandelier during combat and you will be spending 45 minutes after the encounter fielding questions about that damn rug.  Not only will they roll every skill test they can think of on the rug, they’ll re-roll and re-re-roll them just in case they didn’t get high enough.  Because it has to be a magic rug or covering a trap door or something because otherwise why did you put it there?

Chekov’s Gun can be used to your advantage as well.  If you want to drop the hint that the fireplace in the corner is important, spend more time describing it.  You can also use it as misdirection if the fireplace isn’t what’s important but the bookshelf on the other side of the room is.  They’ll be so intent on the fireplace after you describe everything on the mantle and the color of the coals, you can use it to justify a penalty to Perception checks to notice someone sneaking out of the hidden passage behind the bookcase.

This doesn’t just apply to inanimate objects, but to NPCs as well.  Three people walk up to your PCs.  “The one on the left is wearing a night-black cloak and armor polished to a gleaming shine.  The clasps on his leather gauntlets are inlaid with silver and gold, and a large ruby amulet hangs from a platinum chain around his neck.  The likeness of a dragon is carved into the hilt of his sword, the maroon sheath appearing as a ray of flames shooting from its mouth.  The other two guys…ummm…are wearing armor and have swords.”  You have immediately identified the one on the left as the most important of the three.  If this is your intension, perfect.  If you wanted some mystery about who the lead man of the trio is, you can either describe all three in generic terms or describe all three in detail.  If you want it to be a fake-out, make the guy on the right the leader while continuing to describe the guy on the left in as much detail.

Positioning can also lend importance to a character or an item.  We as a species are trained to recognize patterns, and we crave balance and symmetry.  Did you feel weird when I said there were three people and then described the one on the left as the leader instead of the one in the middle?  Not as weird as I did writing it.  A leader should be flanked by flunkies, not having them stand by his side.  Objects are the same way.  “There are five potion bottles on the table.  Bob the NPC will take one first and drink it, then each of you choose one.”  If Bob takes one off of the right side, even though there still four choices left, there’s a 50/50 chance your player will take one off the left side.  If he doesn’t, it’ll be the next one on the right side.  We crave balance, and you can use this against your players.

You can also play it to the other side in order to drive your players crazy.  Have a non-combat encounter with an NPC and watch them dissect everything you said to figure out what the purpose of the encounter is.  You can then take their musings and convoluted conspiracy theories to drive your own game, using the best of their theories to finally reveal the secret.  Your players will be thrilled they figured it out while praising your storytelling for being so complex and intricate.  I honestly believe there’s at least a couple of screenwriters out there that pull this exact trick using online forums for the show.  The Chekov’s Gun in this case doesn’t have to be a person, but a single room in the dungeon as well.  Put a completely empty room in a dungeon or a locked door that’s too hard for them to pick or smash through, and then watch them scramble to try to figure out what it is.  Because if it’s in the scene, you must have placed it there for a specific reason and you will drive your players crazy (in a good way) trying to figure it out.

No matter how you decide to take advantage of Chekov’s Gun, you’d better be aware of it as a DM.  It will happen to your game no matter what and if you’re blind to it, you’ll drive your players insane – in a bad way.  You’ll leave plot holes in your player’s minds even if there isn’t a single flaw in your writing, and your player’s enjoyment of the game will suffer.  But if you’re aware of Chekov’s gun, it can be a very powerful weapon in your DM arsenal.

Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 6:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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