Quantum Ogre meet Schrödinger’s Troglodyte | Chekhov’s Gun – adventure design vs play

I recently read about Chekhov’s Gun. Here’s what the web had to say about it:

“Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed. Elements should not appear to make “false promises” by never coming into play.”

It made me wonder: does Chekhov’s Gun have a place in RPG adventure design?

My answer is: Yes, but mainly no-ish (helpful!).

LT:DR ~ The key difference here is that a traditional story is fixed, whereas an RPG session is not.

Planned adventure

A planned adventure normally has a framework from where a story can collaboratively emerge. This framework should include things (dare I say ‘Chekhov’s Guns’) the DM hopes/expects the players to interact with. The ‘guns’ might be NPCs, monsters, magic item, weird stuff, traps etc.

However, an RPG session is not a fixed story (railroading, story arcs and Quantum Ogres aside). An RPG session is more like a sporting event, where nobody, not even the referee, knows the final result until the game is played.

It is a well-known cliché that the players will miss/ignore ‘important’ NPCs or plot hooks and obsess over what appears to be a trivial detail (e.g. a captive goblin becomes an important and loved NPC rather than simply more dungeon XP fodder; and the DM did not plan for this). In the end, the DM might not expect or like the story the players ‘write’ within the DM’s framework, but nonetheless it is the emergent ‘story’. Similarly, another cliché is the DM stealing players’ table speculations and fears, making those speculations the new reality e.g. a player wonders if the sword contains the essence of the disgraced paladin? Yes, yes, it does now! 

So, the DM can plan ‘Chekhov’s Guns’ in their adventure, but it is only through play that these becomes real.

Erhm … the blog title said something about a Quantum Ogre vs Schrödinger’s Troglodyte. Here goes:

Schrödinger’s Troglodyte

Quantum Ogre (sort of) meets Schrödinger’s Troglodyte

In essence, the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment can be used to describe every (non-scripted) RPG session ever played.

As a recap, in the Schrödinger’s Cat experiment there is a cat in a box, the cat could be alive or it could be dead. It is only when we look in the box we discover if the cat is alive or dead. So, before we look in the box, the cat has the property of being both alive and dead.

A planned RPG adventure is just like the Schrödinger’s cat experiment, where the box is the adventure. Before the players interact with the adventure (the box) everything planned by the DM is not fixed.  It is only after the players interact with the adventure (the box) does anything become real and so fixed.

So, if the players explored 15 rooms of a 20-room dungeon, skipped the boss troglodyte room, leave and never return, then for now, only those 15 rooms are real. Dare I suggest that only the things the PCs interacted in those 15 rooms are the Chekhov’s Guns (from the story POV) and everything else including the boss troglodyte might as well not exits (from the story POV). At best those things the PCs missed exist in a Schrödinger’s Cat-like state of not quite existing.

The Quantum Ogre is the anthesis of the Schrödinger’s Troglodyte, because the ogre comes into existence regardless of the players’ interaction, and so deprives the players of the ‘game’. Not only is the Ogre in the box, it will also climb out and find you! Fixed story arcs and railroad adventures are no more than a Quantum Ogre in plot form. Fixed ‘Chekhov’s Guns’ are also no more than Quantum Ogres.  

So, in RPG adventure design nothing really exists in the RPG world until the players interact with it, in emergent play the players (predominately) decide what is important and hence what the ‘Chekhov’s Guns’ are. Other things in effect fade into obscurity (unless revived by the DM later in a later session) and so are not really ‘false promises’. In adventure design, perhaps the best policy is to create lots of interesting situations and let the players figure out what is important to them and roll with it; embrace the uncertain existence of Schrödinger’s Troglodyte and shun the (perhaps misnamed) Quantum (tunnelling?) Ogre.

Nothing is dogma – Quantum Ogres can have a place (but hopefully only exceptionally).

To conclude, I suspect I’ve told you nothing new, but that said, until you read this post you existed in a state of both knowing and not knowing that.

:O|

(PS don’t argue with me, I have PhD in particle physics <– not true)

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Me on DriveThruRPG

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