Overusing Coincidence in Game-Related Stories
  • Overusing Coincidence in Game-Related Stories


    Bear with me a while, as the following becomes a lesson for writing stories in RPGs. My wife and I have been watching the HBO Game of Thrones series on DVD. We’re now into the fifth season. Not long ago she started to read the Song of Ice and Fire books (I read them long ago, and only remember major events). It’s interesting to hear how the show simplifies things, and sometimes drops characters altogether, as they must to fit into a “mere” 80 hours*.


    I’ve noticed that as the show deviates from the plotlines of the book more and more, there’s a lot more coincidence in the plot. Part of life, part of stories, is chance. This is often expressed in stories via coincidence. Two parties happen to be in the same town or city, and happen to visit the same inn or tavern or brothel, at the same time. And at least one of the parties sees the other. Yes, something this unlikely happens occasionally, but when coincidence happens a lot, the author(s) are manipulating the plot, rather than letting the situation and the desires and propensities of the characters cause the story to flow naturally.

    To me, using a lot of coincidence is inferior writing. But it isn’t surprising in television writing, because television writing typically emphasizes dramatic incidents to the detriment of sensible plot. The viewers are just as jaded as modern gamers, and (I suppose) don’t have the patience for long, intricate, sensible plots. It happens in movies as well: Star Wars has always had huge plot holes and non-sensical major elements, but also vast numbers of fans (including me until recently). As my wife reads Martin’s novels, we see more and more instances where the show has thrown together characters for a dramatic incident that is not part of Song of Fire and Ice. That’s how TV works.

    Those who use coincidence a lot in stories are in good company. Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB), one of the fathers if not THE father of adventure fiction, litters his Barsoom stories with coincidences. Coincidence often drives the plot. But remember that ERB was writing only 65,000 words for serial publication. Coincidence is a way to move the plot forward much faster than by more organic means – just as it is in television and movies.

    You can do the same (or not) when you write a story as part of a game. Stories in games are pre-eminently the domain of single-player video games, where the designers can control what the player can do. The games are quite linear. In the same way, the GM of a tabletop RPG (the second most common use of stories in games) can create a linear adventure. The question is, how much of this adventure will derive from the situation and the characters, and how much from coincidence and other results of chance?

    I prefer to set up situations in adventures, with an overall arc (such as the war between Good and Evil), and let the players write their own story. Sometimes it won’t be as good as a story I might write, but it will be the PLAYERS’ story; to me, that’s what games are about, the players, not the story.

    Your mileage may vary: how you create stories in games is up to you. I try to avoid coincidence, so that when I do resort to it, there’s a big impact.

    * Reference: When I make a screencast/video for my Game Design YouTube channel, I talk at about 135 words a minute. (I transcribe the vids, so I can measure this accurately.) 80 hours of me talking constantly would be nearly 650,000 words. A TV show of that length would be far fewer words, but visuals would compensate. I don’t know how long Song of Ice and Fire is, but a typical novel is 90-100,000 words, and massive novels (such as these) can be 300,000. Online estimates put the series well over 1.7M. There are two more books to come, so we’re talking well over two million words for the entire series, over three times what the TV show has available. You can see why even a stupendously long TV program must drop or gloss over a lot of the detail we find in the books. It also becomes clear why a typical movie based on a novel must drop immense amounts of detail and even major plotlines. Book-based movies can at best only be the essence of the book(s).

    This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
    Comments 39 Comments
    1. Shiroiken's Avatar
      Shiroiken -
      I think it's acceptable to have a higher level of coincidence than reality, especially when used for the start of adventures. The party happens to be at a village when it's attacked, at an inn when it catches fire, or taking a shortcut through an alley where they find a dead body. In media res basically requires some level of coincidence, and I think it's to be expected. I will agree that coincidences during the middle of an adventure can be a bit of a hack move, but sometimes a DM needs to do something to get the party back on track (either after falling for a red herring, or because they failed to figure out the clues).
    1. Enevhar Aldarion's Avatar
      Enevhar Aldarion -
      Coincidence is a classic, and usually good, way to start a story, but yeah, using is over and over again as the story progresses is bad.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      As a general rule, any coincidence that happens in the backstory of the campaign is perfectly fine. Even if it's a million-to-one chance, if it already happened, then that's the premise which everyone has agreed to follow from. The prior probability of anything that's already happened is 100%.

      As a player, I'm constantly on the lookout for GMs trying to cheat. (Not because I've had any bad experience, personally, but because these forums are full of so many horror stories about terrible GMs who never understood what they were doing wrong.) As such, whenever something unlikely happens during the game, I have to ask myself whether it was actually a coincidence or whether the GM was cheating to contrive it.

      If the party shows up at a tavern which the king is patronizing incognito, along with a doppleganger trying to assassinate and replace him, then that's an unlikely coincidence. The chance of such a thing naturally occurring based on the events of the world is very, very low. To contrast, the chance of such a thing occurring if the GM is cheating in order to contrive interesting events around the players is not-as-low. Therefore, the only rational belief on my part is that the GM is cheating, and I can be confident in that belief to an extent based on the prior probability that this would be a bad GM multiplied by the difference in probabilities of the explanations for that observation.

      In essence, contriving coincidences around the party is a form of meta-gaming. It is the GM role-playing the setting inauthentically, by abusing their out-of-game knowledge that the players are playing a game. That being said, contrived coincidence can be perfectly acceptable, if the circumstances would otherwise warrant meta-gaming. For example, if a new player is joining the game, then it's acceptable for the party to find them under such circumstances that would allow them to trust each other and work together. Even if it's moderately improbable, the alternative - making a player sit out of the game for hours at a time - would be worse. As always, though, the GM should avoid going overboard by making the events more improbable than they need to be.
    1. Aaron L's Avatar
      Aaron L -
      Seriously? The idea of the king being at an inn incognito with an assassin after him, and the PCs "happening" to be there to rescue him, is coincidence so bad as to call it "DM Cheating?" To most other people that's called "running a D&D game." Do you prefer games that are all random chance, mundane events, and uninteresting happenstance like real life? I imagine my PCs get their clothes washed and go to the bathroom but I don't roleplay it.

      Leaving aside the question of whether or not it's even possible for the DM to "cheat" (it isn't; they could be a bad DM but they aren't "cheating") you can realize that the game is a story with the PCs as the main characters; stories focus on the main characters because the main characters survive (mostly) to the end, and vice versa. Imagine a unit in a grueling war that starts out with 100 people; at the end of war there are only 6 of them who have survived, becoming grizzled veterans on the process. These are the main characters. Telling a story is about focusing on these characters from the beginning. You could make a story that focused instead on random grunt #12 who dies on the second day, but that would be a short, boring, pointless story. Calling that "cheating" is an epistemological misunderstanding of how narrative storytelling works.

      Some advice: being "constantly on the lookout for GMs trying to cheat" is going to seriously suck the fun out of the game for you, and possibly for the people playing alongside you. The DM's job is to craft an interesting and entertaining narrative and make sure the players are having fun, not to abide by the same rules as the players nor make sure events follow chains of real world logic.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      There's definitely an element of "this is a story *because* of the coincidence, as opposed to the 7 billion dull tales which also happened but we're not telling because they're not interesting". Doesn't mean those stories don't exist.

      Same as the "the PCs are the heroes" thing. Nobody wants to hear the stories of the 7 billion people who aren't heroes. Doesn't mean they don't exist.
    1. Wraith Form's Avatar
      Wraith Form -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aaron L View Post
      Seriously? The idea of the king being at an inn incognito with an assassin after him, and the PCs "happening" to be there to rescue him, is coincidence so bad as to call it "DM Cheating?" To most other people that's called "running a D&D game." Do you prefer games that are all random chance, mundane events, and uninteresting happenstance like real life? I imagine my PCs get their clothes washed and go to the bathroom but I don't roleplay it.

      Leaving aside the question of whether or not it's even possible for the DM to "cheat" (it isn't; they could be a bad DM but they aren't "cheating") you can realize that the game is a story with the PCs as the main characters; stories focus on the main characters because the main characters survive (mostly) to the end, and vice versa. Imagine a unit in a grueling war that starts out with 100 people; at the end of war there are only 6 of them who have survived, becoming grizzled veterans on the process. These are the main characters. Telling a story is about focusing on these characters from the beginning. You could make a story that focused instead on random grunt #12 who dies on the second day, but that would be a short, boring, pointless story. Calling that "cheating" is an epistemological misunderstanding of how narrative storytelling works.

      Some advice: being "constantly on the lookout for GMs trying to cheat" is going to seriously suck the fun out of the game for you, and possibly for the people playing alongside you. The DM's job is to craft an interesting and entertaining narrative and make sure the players are having fun, not to abide by the same rules as the players nor make sure events follow chains of real world logic.
      I don't normally retain an entire quote (I usually edit for brevity), but....

      HEAR HEAR. Well said.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      I think REH Conan stories (if we bracket the racisim and sexism) provide a reasonable model for FRPGing. I haven't gone through the whole catalogue, but here are some coincidences I remember without much effort to recall them:

      * In Tower of the Elephant, Conan tries to rob the tower just as the other thief is doing the same thing;

      * In The Scarlet Citadel, my recollection is that some of the timing of the guard who frees Conan, and the snake, is pretty convenient; and then there is the encounter with the sorcerer;

      * In Hour of the Dragon, Conan turns up in the Stygian temple at the same time as the Khitan monks;

      * In The People of the Black Circle, I seem to recall that he has a conviently-timed encounter with the Khozaks;

      * Etc.

      Coincidence is what makes stories happen; and not just in pulp fiction. I revisited Howards End not too long ago, and its plot turns on coincidences of character connection and also, at the end, timing of events - ie that Leonard and Charles comes to Howards End at the same time.

      In RPGing, there are two main ways to handle coincidence. The GM establishes them via framing - which is what much of the discussion in the thread has concerned (like the king being incognito at the inn where the assassins wait for him, just as the PCs arrive) - or they are the result of action resolution (eg the players make a good reaction roll, and it turns out the NPC has some past connection to a PC, a PC's family member, etc; or the players make a good evasion roll, and their friends the elves turn up to cut off the orcish horde).

      I think the latter approach might be less often used, but is worth thinking more about as a "storytelling" device in RPGs.
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      When it comes to coincidence I tend to follow the Terry Pratchetism that something with a 1 in a million chance of happening will in fact happen 9 times out of 10.

      Which I guess means for every ten adventures there will be one where the Party is sitting at the wrong tavern when the King gets attacked.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Shasarak View Post
      When it comes to coincidence I tend to follow the Terry Pratchetism that something with a 1 in a million chance of happening will in fact happen 9 times out of 10.
      Pratchett was writing a comedy series about a world that operated on narrative causality. His ideas about such a thing were intended as a joke, only to be taken seriously as satire.

      Actually running a game as though it was Discworld would be like trying to run a game in Alice's Wonderland (which was also satire, in case anyone has forgotten).
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      Pratchett was writing a comedy series about a world that operated on narrative causality. His ideas about such a thing were intended as a joke, only to be taken seriously as satire.

      Actually running a game as though it was Discworld would be like trying to run a game in Alice's Wonderland (which was also satire, in case anyone has forgotten).
      Narrative Causality is a good term for a DnD game. You have to have events happening at the speed of plot.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aaron L View Post
      Seriously? The idea of the king being at an inn incognito with an assassin after him, and the PCs "happening" to be there to rescue him, is coincidence so bad as to call it "DM Cheating?"
      Not if it's part of the premise. If the premise of the campaign starts with four adventurers at a tavern where the king might be assassinated, and the point of the game is to explore from there and see what comes of it, then that's a fine way to get things started.

      If the PCs wander into town after an extended adventure, and they just happen to wander into such a contrivance, then the DM is messing with you.
      Quote Originally Posted by Aaron L View Post
      Leaving aside the question of whether or not it's even possible for the DM to "cheat" (it isn't; they could be a bad DM but they aren't "cheating") you can realize that the game is a story with the PCs as the main characters;
      False! Meta-gaming is equally a violation of the rules, regardless of who commits it.
      Quote Originally Posted by Aaron L View Post
      Telling a story is about focusing on these characters from the beginning. You could make a story that focused instead on random grunt #12 who dies on the second day, but that would be a short, boring, pointless story. Calling that "cheating" is an epistemological misunderstanding of how narrative storytelling works.
      Failing to see how that's cheating is an epistemological misunderstanding of the difference between narrative storytelling and a role-playing game. If you want to tell a story, then write your own novel by yourself. Role-playing games don't operate on narrative contrivance. (Storytelling games might operate on narrative contrivance, but that's a different matter entirely.)
      Quote Originally Posted by Aaron L View Post
      Some advice: being "constantly on the lookout for GMs trying to cheat" is going to seriously suck the fun out of the game for you, and possibly for the people playing alongside you.
      I'll stop being on the lookout for cheaters when they stop trying to cheat. In the meantime, the only way to stop them is to call them out at every opportunity. Eventually, they'll shape up or ship out. We don't need those kinds of kill-joys within the RPG community.
      Quote Originally Posted by Aaron L View Post
      The DM's job is to craft an interesting and entertaining narrative and make sure the players are having fun, not to abide by the same rules as the players nor make sure events follow chains of real world logic.
      False! The DM's job is to describe the environment, role-play the NPCs, and adjudicate uncertainty in action resolution.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Shasarak View Post
      Narrative Causality is a good term for a DnD game. You have to have events happening at the speed of plot.
      The plot of a D&D game is whatever actually happens as a result of the PCs and their choices within the world. There's no guarantee or expectation that it would qualify as a plot, from a narrative critical standpoint.

      Four adventurers wandering through a dungeon, fighting monsters and then dying to a trap they didn't see, is a good description of a D&D game that would make for a lousy story. The most important thing about a D&D game is that the players make choices that actually matter, and a DM contriving coincidences is interfering with their agency within the world. One of the worst things that a DM can do to a player is to try and protagonize their character.
    1. Josiah Stoll's Avatar
      Josiah Stoll -
      Hmm.
      I mean, I’m not nearly as experienced as basically anyone else on these boards, but I remember being part of a TvTropes article on this.
      The conclusion we came to was basically “does it add something interesting to the story?”
      So if the players are in a tavern, and seeing an incognito king getting attacked by assassins would add something to the story, then go for it.
      But if the players were doing something else, like trying to have a conversation with their employers, that’s probably a bad time to have a big distraction like that.
    1. Jhaelen -
      The thing is: Coincidences happen all the time in real life, but they are hard to believe in fiction:

      "When the author lets fall a coincidence right out of the sky, readers instinctively reject it. They know this isn’t a true coincidence. In fact, it’s totally explicable: the author caused it to happen because he was too lazy to think of anything better." (quoted from https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauth...n-youre-wrong/)

      I especially like the following quote .
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Saelorn View Post
      The plot of a D&D game is whatever actually happens as a result of the PCs and their choices within the world. There's no guarantee or expectation that it would qualify as a plot, from a narrative critical standpoint.

      Four adventurers wandering through a dungeon, fighting monsters and then dying to a trap they didn't see, is a good description of a D&D game that would make for a lousy story. The most important thing about a D&D game is that the players make choices that actually matter, and a DM contriving coincidences is interfering with their agency within the world. One of the worst things that a DM can do to a player is to try and protagonize their character.
      When PCs steal an idol from an abandoned temple and then on the way out get ambushed by their hated rival and the tribesmen that he has hired, is that a coincidence or just good role-playing of NPCs?
    1. jedijon's Avatar
      jedijon -
      Hmm - based on the intro I was expecting a comparison of at least a few anecdotes where the books had a natural plot progression vs the TV shows coincidence.

      What I experienced instead was the author of this post dumping on Star Wars. Coincidence?
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      We do not make posts that might, coincidentally, upset GRR Martin.

      I would not say such things if I were you.
    1. Mark Craddock's Avatar
      Mark Craddock -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aaron L View Post
      Some advice: being "constantly on the lookout for GMs trying to cheat" is going to seriously suck the fun out of the game for you, and possibly for the people playing alongside you. The DM's job is to craft an interesting and entertaining narrative and make sure the players are having fun, not to abide by the same rules as the players nor make sure events follow chains of real world logic.
      First, I don't think advising player to be on the lookout for their DM cheating was the intent, nor was itmen mentioned by this author.

      Second, while the author has every right to keep himself from overusing coincidence, the DM faces players who are active at different levels and even different sessions. If I'm lucky, I have an active player, outside of combat in 1 out of 3 players. They drive the story, but I have to dig and dig sometimes to shed the spotlight on a player. Novels, video games, and films have writers driving the action. That's entirely different from players driving the action. It would be great if all players were as active as on Critical Role, but that is not the case and that is okay. The point is for everyone to be able to play, even if they never grow into being an player who drives the game.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Shasarak View Post
      Narrative Causality is a good term for a DnD game. You have to have events happening at the speed of plot.
      It very much depends on the game. Too much plot with no downtime or an excessively fast pace starts to feel really cramped. I can be guilty of that as GM and need to make sure to leave a bit more space. IMO it's one of the real flaws of modern movies, which are often cut too fast to the point of being illogical.

      In a much more simulation type game, presumably one would want to have events go at a more "clock" time.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Shasarak View Post
      When PCs steal an idol from an abandoned temple and then on the way out get ambushed by their hated rival and the tribesmen that he has hired, is that a coincidence or just good role-playing of NPCs?
      It depends entirely on the nature of their rival, and whether they laid the appropriate groundwork in the days before the PCs conducted their raid. If he'd gone through the trouble of hiring help, then that indicates someone with reasonable planning skills, so it would appear to me as though it was good role-playing rather than contrived coincidence.

      As long as the DM had shown themself to be trustworthy before this incident, I would certainly give them the benefit of the doubt.
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