Instead of actually becoming a super genius – because let’s face it, it’s just not in the cards for ya – today I’m going to briefly discuss how to at least make your players think you’re a super genius with the help of my good pal Chekhov and his trusty gun. Of course, I’m not talking about IQ or GPA or some other big-brain acronym, but rather I’m talking about making your D&D party believe that you had an intricate campaign perfectly planned with a bunch of small details that are all related when, in fact, you’re just making it up by the seat of your pantaloons.
Today’s Article Will Discuss:
- Chekhov’s Gun in D&D
- Aaron’s Shotgun & Working Backwards
- Listen to Your Players
Chekhov’s Gun in D&D
If you’re not familiar, Chekhov’s Gun is the idea that each detail and element in a story should be important and should serve some purpose sooner or later. There’s a few variations on the exact quote, but he essentially believed that “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” There are of course multiple philosophies and ideas concerning the art of story-telling, and this is just one of them so please don’t make it out to be a commandment that you must abide by. For the sake of the article, you just gotta go along with it.
The issue with using this concept in D&D is that the story doesn’t usually unfold exactly as you envisioned it due to this absolutely bonkers thing called ‘free will’ and ‘player agency’ and ‘rolling for shenanigans’. It might not matter whether you described a gun (read: crossbow) hanging on the wall because, as it turns out, the rogue and the sorcerer have decided to burn down the tavern just to spite the snarky barkeep. If you put all of your plot eggs into Chekhov’s basket, then you’re kinda screwed when the basket gets dropped.
Instead, you should try dipping your toes into the icy waters of chaos and just ‘figure it out later.’
Aaron’s Shotgun & Working Backwards
Rather than only describing aspects and details that are crucially important to the story, describe a bunch of random details that aren’t inherently related to anything at all.
Quick side note: when I’m talking about random details I don’t mean things that make no sense whatsoever such as a pink elephant playing the saxophone or making fruit sentient. The details and elements you describe should still make sense within the context of the world (verisimilitude is a fun word), they just don’t need to be directly related to the story. . . yet.
I like to call this concept, which I’ve ever-so-humbly named after myself, Aaron’s Shotgun. Essentially, you give your players a variety of different details or events to interact with. Let your players choose whichever one they find the most interest, and have them interact with it however they see fit. Don’t think too hard about these details or interactions at this point because they need to remain flexible.
Next, and most importantly, in-between sessions you need to think about the details that the party interacted with. Now, you can work backwards and figure out some connection between whatever-the-party-did and the main story line. Often times, this will come in the form of NPC motivations or some driving plot force taking place behind the scenes. It’s a little bit of an abstract idea for me to describe, but essentially you are letting the players choose two dots and then you connect these dots afterward instead of starting with two connected dots.
I think this works best in campaigns that are a bit more open-ended, as they allow you to have more creative flexibility when working backwards. Using this method forces you to be adaptable and think outside the box, two skills that are incredibly useful for any Dungeon Master.
Here’s a rough example, but try to stick with me:
The party decides to pursue a side quest that involves stopping an NPC from distributing bootleg ale. Initially, this was a random quest that just seemed like it would be fun and had absolutely no relevance to the main story. The party doesn’t know WHY this person is distributing booze illegally, or WHO they are delivering it to.
Now, in-between sessions before the party has a chance to finish this little adventure or figure out what’s going on, you need to work backwards and fill in the details. Got it? Okay, great, here’s some first thoughts for this entirely made-up situation.
It turns out that the NPC is delivering this illegal booze to one of the BBEG’s henchmen. Aha! It is now a super relevant detail. But why are they doing this? Well, you see, the BBEG is secretly training an army of Hill Giants who demand an absurd amount of ale as part of their agreement to fight for the BBEG. Since the BBEG doesn’t want to draw any attention to the fact that they’re enabling a bunch of alcoholic brutes, they cannot go through the proper channels and must use the bootlegger.
Ta-da! The plot thickens…
Listen to Your Players
Alright, so now that my “spray and pray” method has been perfectly explained and is super duper crystal clear, I have one final tip to make your life easier and let the players do your job for you. Sooner or later, the party will notice that a lot of things seem to be connected and there’s something bigger at play. Once they do, they’ll inevitably begin to discuss different events and details and theorize how they’re all connected to the larger story.
When they do this, LISTEN TO THEM! Players are people too, and they have some pretty damn good ideas that you never would have thought of. They will see non-existent patterns in the chaos that you’ve created that make waaaaay more sense than whatever you had planned. You don’t have to necessarily use every single idea that they have (wouldn’t want things to be too predictable), but you should definitely use some of them. That way you don’t have to think as hard, and your players get to be right about stuff sometimes. It’s a classic win-win.
Of course, if any of my players are reading this, you can ignore everything I said in this entire article. Everything I present to you at the table is completely and fully thought out ahead of time and is definitely not a bunch of random events that are somehow loosely tied together after the fact.