Loading Chekhov’s Gun

Recently, I had a discussion with a member of my gaming group concerning game systems and the game’s narrative.  My assertion was that the rules system will ultimately dictate the game’s narrative.  The assertion was influenced by a conversation at RPG Stack Exchange. The original poster asked:

Does choice of system impact the game as it’s played by real people at the table, or is it all a matter of who the GM and Players are?

My answer is yes.  My argument is as follows:

A role-playing game will have a narrative.  The narrative begins the moment the rule book is opened and the players explore and begin fleshing out their characters. It is during character creation that the players begin building their character’s backstory but more importantly, at least from the game’s perspective, begin defining their character via the game’s rules.  This act of character creation is an agreement to play by the rules of the game.

The rules of the game define the framework for how the different entities of the game will interact and resolve conflict.  Those entities include the environment, PCs, NPCs, Game Master, and players.  By defining the framework, the baseline interaction is established.

Each group will clearly elaborate on that baseline: Will we talk in first person?  Third person? Pantomime our actions? Play with props? etc.

Given that a plot requires conflict, and conflict represents two or more entities in opposition, then when it comes time to adjudicate conflict, the rules will be brought to bear.

Much like Chekhov’s gun, if the rules, and thus the “first chapter” of the narrative, strongly emphasize one conflict resolution mechanic over another (i.e. physical combat over verbal dispute resolution), then the salient mechanic will be the more likely system used for resolving conflict.

In other words, if most of your rules are about melee combat maneuvers, then you can expect most of your story to involve melee combat maneuvers.  After all the rules foreshadowed it and tacitly required it.  Likewise, if you invest lots of your resources in a big shiny weapon and armor, then you will be inclined to use that weapon and armor.

7 thoughts on “Loading Chekhov’s Gun

  1. I find it amusing that the original conversation was locked by moderators O_o

    I would not say “yes” or “no”. I think “dictate” is too strong of a word to be used in this situation however. I would say the system “influences” how the game plays but not “dictates”.

    I would also say that your use of Chekhov’s gun is incorrect. Perhaps if the game in a system that was mostly about combat avoided combat until the very end where there was a huge important battle, that I would view as an example of Chekhov’s gun. I would suggest that what your trying to illustrate is more like a musical; you expect there to be lots of singing to tell the story.

    I think you have to look at each system individually for how it can be used. The 4+ groups of D&D3.0 that I was involved of all played differently (with 2 of them being almost completely opposite of each other). Yet some games really push their rules on the players and even ask the players make roleplaying decisions based on the game system rather than role playing.

    • I will still hold that the principle of Chekhov’s Gun applies. It’s not a matter of when the gun goes off as much as if you introduce a gun it will go off at some point.

      Dictate is likely too strong of a term, but the rules are a strong influence, a large gravity well if you will. The players will all too likely acquiesce to the rules.

      Yet some games really push their rules on the players and even ask the players make roleplaying decisions based on the game system rather than role playing.

      I think I know the point you are trying to argue concerning this, but I would like a little more clarity. My personal perspective is strongly influenced by the idea that good games are designed to be played how the designers want you to play them. Burning Wheel pushes decisions about “Is this something I’m willing to fight for?” because the underlying mechanics can be unforgiving if you don’t invest Artha in your tests, but it also has a powerful system for resolving social conflicts (Certainly more accessible than Diaspora’s social combat). Dungeons and Dragons is likely to push decisions through the combat system. In both systems, I can role-play a character to what ever end, but it is in the conflict resolution that the game manifests. In writing this, I wonder if our internal definition of role-playing is different, or at least it’s consumate parts are in different proportions.

    • I noticed that the conversation was locked as well. It did make me chuckle, because this is a strangely “sensitive” topic. As we want our form of role-playing to be the true form, and we want our rules to be the one true rule set.

  2. By the strict Roleplayers that I had the enjoyment to play with in Battledale, they would say that roleplaying is doing what your character would do using his motivations and personality; the other extreme for them being Powergaming which is playing the system for maximum player gain (includes min/maxing the character to begin with).

    As an example, Burning Wheel really makes players go out of their characters normal way to find opportunies to use the skills in bizzare ways in order to level them up how they want to. But D&D 4E, as combat heavy as it is, could still have an entire session without combat and be just as successful in game terms.

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