Grabbing Chekhov’s Gun

By Johnny Nexus

My Monday night group is currently playing a Spirit of the Century campaign. SotC is a free-wheeling pulp action game set in the 1920s, and I’m playing my man-turned-gorilla PC (there was an accident involving an aircraft and a mad-scientist) Lord Edward Silver.

This last Monday though, I wasn’t actually playing a gorilla, on account of having had my mind swapped with another PC, Addison Grey. He was currently comatose in my body and I was walking around in his. And he wasn’t a PC at that point, but an NPC, on account of the fact that his player, TAFKAC, was GMing that scenario, and had come up with the entire story-line. Confused? Imagine how I felt!

Anyhow, there I was, poking around what had turned out to be Addison’s bedroom, trying to avoid talking to the woman, Frankie, who had turned out to be his paramour (that’s a “big word” that means “woman you’re currently shagging in a possibly dodgy way” – who says Critical Miss isn’t educational, eh?), and generally wondering what the hell to do.

If I’m to be brutally honest, I was extra confused just then, because it was right at the very start of the session, it was two weeks since we’d last played, and I’d totally forgotten why in God’s name I’d gone to visit Frankie in the first place. I knew there was some bloke, who wanted something, but I couldn’t remember his name or what it was he wanted, and I didn’t know why I’d thought she might have anything to do with it.

(It eventually transpired that not only had I gone there to obtain his name from her, but that General Tangent’s character had already got the name out of her at the end of the previous session).

So anyhow, I announced to TAFKAC that I would search the room, thinking that might jog my memories.

TAFKAC: You already did that.

Me: Did I?

TAFKAC: Yeah. You found some keys.

Me: Keys? I’ll have a look at them.

TAFKAC: They’re the keys to a seaplane.

Me: [Confused] How would I know that? Do seaplanes have different keys or something?

TAFKAC: No, but it’s got the Dornier logo on it.

Now given that my character, Lord Edward, is a pilot, this was clearly of some significance.

Me: Ah! These are the keys to Chekhov’s seaplane!

All: What?

I was, of course, referring to Chekhov’s famous literary technique, popularly referred to as Chekhov’s Gun:

“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.”

Me: If you find a gun on the wall in the first act, someone gets blown away with it in the second act! Clearly, we’re going to need a seaplane sometime later on in the scenario.

TAFKAC: Right.

The key point here is that roleplaying scenarios have plots, and plots follow basic rules and principles, and if you know those then you can deduce things that strictly speaking your characters shouldn’t know.

Now I can see all sorts of objections here. I can just imagine regular GMs sarcastically asking if I’ve never heard of the concept of “red herrings”. Well the answer is that yes I have, and they annoy the hell out of me.

Plots are hard enough to follow enough as it is, without throwing in deliberate misdirection. When you roleplay, everything your character sees and hears is experienced by you as second hand hearsay. Events that your character might experience over the course of a day are experienced by you as separate chunks, each a week apart, perhaps spread over months. Add in tiredness, factor in the fact that you were never that bright to begin with, and your PC is not so much Inspector Morse as Clouseau.

Let’s be honest: roleplayers have enough difficulty following a nice, easy linear plot as it is without adding actual complications.

Which is the second way in which Chekhov’s Gun can aid you: by acting as a red herring killer. It can do this in two ways.

Firstly, if your GM is ever stupid enough to put a loaded pistol (or other dangerous item) on a wall, then you can bloody well grab it and shoot/stab/decapitate someone with it. If he protests that you were supposed to be police detectives sent to investigate a murder at a stately home, that he only described the sword hanging above the fireplace to add colour and flavour to his description, and that his scenario is totally ruined given that you, Chief Inspector Carruthers of the Yard, have just grabbed said sword and skewered the Duke of Devonshire – just quote Chekhov’s gun at him.

And then loot the body of course.

Secondly, when something you’ve wasted a lot of time on turns out to be a red herring, you can accuse the GM of having poor story-telling skills, given that this plot element has clearly violated Chekhov’s gun.


You know? I’m thinking maybe Chekhov never roleplayed.


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