Overusing Coincidence in Game-Related Stories
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  1. #1
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    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. Were 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). Its interesting to hear how the show simplifies things, and sometimes drops characters altogether, as they must to fit into a mere 80 hours*.

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    Ive noticed that as the show deviates from the plotlines of the book more and more, theres 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 isnt 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) dont 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 Martins 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. Thats 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 wont be as good as a story I might write, but it will be the PLAYERS story; to me, thats 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, theres 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 dont 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 were 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!
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  2. #2
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    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).
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    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.

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    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.

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    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.
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    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.
    Last edited by Morrus; Monday, 10th September, 2018 at 02:39 AM.
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    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.

  8. #8
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    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.
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    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.<br><br>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.

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    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).

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