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Chekov’s Meeple

There are two principles that I need to set out before getting into this blog, so I beg a little patience. The first is that playwriting principles are useful when designing a game, which is most often given in the idea that games should have a three-act structure. This is true, and game designers absolutely should consider the act structure of their games. However, I want to extend this principle to another playwriting principle, namely that of Chekov’s gun.

Chekov’s gun is a principle outlined by the playwright Anton Chekov that all elements in a story should be necessary and all irrelevant parts removed. This is outlined by stating that if there is a loaded gun on the stage during act one, it must go off in act two (this leads to the geek joke about wanting to see a film where Walter Koenig walks into a store in the background of a shot, purchases a pack of Juicy Fruit and absolutely nothing ever comes of it). The idea isn’t universally accepted by writers, who often value unrelated detail and has a rather circular relationship with Red Herrings, and it may be a struggle to see how it relates to game design, but I would argue that it absolutely does.

Red Herrings

A Red Herring (for those unaware, a possibility or option inserted into a story such as a mystery to intentionally mislead the audience) has an interesting relationship with Chekov’s gun, it is irrelevant to the story, but relevant to the experience of the story, by virtue of its irrelevance to it. This is similar to verisimilitude within writing, and is part of what splits out the play-writing nature of Chekov from the writing of a novel. For example, in a novel it may be utterly irrelevant that there are three men in the room who never speak and are never seen again, but they need to be mentioned to help create the atmosphere of the room being crowded, or overheard, or oddly empty, to create the idea of the room being a real place in a real world rather than an element in a novel, which is what it is. The playwright can treat these human beings like set-dressing, they can be contained within the stage direction ‘takes place in a busy café’. Chekov’s point could here be thought of as, don’t specify the existence of something that should be relevant, but isn’t. There are certain things that we attach relevance to, or at least purposes to, don’t specify a drink that doesn’t get drunk, don’t specify a gun that doesn’t get shot, or a window that doesn’t get looked out of, but allow there to be a hunting lodge that has a gun on the wall, because context robs that gun of its relevance.

Now, there are very few games that would consider employing Red Herrings as such, at most mystery or puzzle games would think of them, and they are generally a bad idea even in those games. But verisimilitude is a very different order of problem, in the real world there are options that I can take for my wine production business that are a bad idea, that will never fit into any intelligent form of business plan, but in Viticulture, everything has to have a possible engine to fit into. Games don’t have bits lying around that don’t fit the story, they lack the verisimilitude of debris. Now, there’s not a great deal that you can do about that as a game designer, but what you can do is learn from the tendency and remember that players have a learnt principle of assuming that all parts of the game will fit into a jigsaw somewhere, which is to say that a piece of a jigsaw that doesn’t fit the rest of the puzzle in the box is not a Red Herring, its not verisimilitude, its just annoying as all hell.

The gun is not a prop.

Following on from this principle, be sure that all items and abilities will find their targets to a satisfying degree for players. Now, it is acceptable to have items be a risk, that players take them and never have their target arrive, if players have a reasonable chance of judging the odds of the target arriving, and if the pay-off is sufficient, but there should never be a point where players have to take a choice relatively blind only to have the option fail. Worse, the option should never have ‘fun’ written all over it, but have a chance to be a failed choice. For example, if a player is asked to set the load-out of a ship to react to procedurally generated enemies and has the option to fit boarding nets or something similar and boarding is immensely fun, it should never transpire that 50% of generated enemies are in fact immune to boarding. This comes down to two ideas:

Don’t make moments of something into moments of nothing – If there is a chance of something cool happening, have it happen, certainly if something cool is halfway through happening don’t stop it from occurring. If the bomb is about to explode don’t have it just not go off for no specific reason, either have it defused, or have it blow up. If someone has loaded their Chekov’s gun, allow it to be fired, it can be dodged or blocked, but never make is that it has no targets.

Don’t make players feel stupid – Games should as much as possible give players chances to feel smart. If they see a combination of objects that should be able to do something cool, they feel smart, having them discover that they will never actually get to employ that combination makes them feel stupid. What’s worse is, it makes them feel stupid when they’re not being stupid, it makes them feel like their bad luck is their own fault.

Keep your powder dry

Which is to say, be careful of diluting player’s options too much. People like to know that there are lots of options, lots of depth and range in a game. A five-inch-high stack of cards can give a game depth and range in that respect, but it can also seriously dilute the chances of events occurring and kill any possibility of drama. So, if one card says that there is a gun on the stage, and a different card says that the gun goes off, don’t shuffle them both into a 150-card deck in a game where players only ever see 20 cards in a game. Not every event has to trigger every game, but you should make sure not to break your promise to your audience.

Yes, we can.

This one is a lesson to learn when playtesting, or demoing your game if you do so before its locked in, if someone asks whether they can do a certain thing in the game the only acceptable answer other than yes is that being able to do it was less fun than not being able to do it. It is a source of great pride that whenever people are playing Gaslands at events with me and they ask ‘Can I…’ the answer is pretty much universally yes. The one exception is that the game lacks realistic collision physics, because real collision physics sometimes results in cars being wedged boringly down an ally-way against their will. If a player asks whether they can do something in the game and the real answer is that it would be hard for you to write and balance, or take an extra component, figure out how to do it.

In conclusion, when considering how the elements in your game interact and come together think about your players as an audience. Have you made promises to them of something exciting that won’t actually happen, are they looking around holding a key that they never find a lock for, is there a loaded gun that either doesn’t or can’t go off? If so, get that sucker firing all chambers.


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