D&D General Chekhov's Gun and the Hickman Revolution- What Type of Campaign Do You Run?

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
It's been a minute, hasn't it? Let's give this a try.

Something I've seen pop up recently, in conjunction with the long-awaited release of the 5e Dragonlance product, is the conversation behind the "Hickman Revolution" in D&D. While I think that is an interesting topic, I wanted to think about the issue of modernism and open worlds more generally in media (as I think it's interesting in and of itself) before drilling down into the reasons why the issues behind the Hickman Revolution continue to pop up when discussing how people enjoy playing D&D.

Note on terms- I often refer to the "so-called Hickman Revolution," because, as I detail further below, this narrative (small "n") style of play was around before the Hickmans, and continued after the Hickmans. Nevertheless, the term has wide currency, and is most associated with a series of modules by Tracy and Laura Hickman, so I will just call it the Hickman Revolution. In the same way, I will refer to "Skilled Play" to mean the style of play starting in 1974 and arguably supplanted as the dominant mode of play by the Hickman Revolution, although I only use this term because it has a wide currency and not because I am implying that other modes of play are unskilled.


A. Classic Storytelling and the Open-Ended World; When Chekhov's Gun Never Fires.

Chekhov's gun is the principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary, and those elements that are irrelevant to the story must be removed. Typically this is explained by saying that if you see rifle hanging on the wall in first act of a play, then that rifle has to go off in the second or third act. If you aren't going to fire the rifle, don't put it on the stage.

As a matter of dramatic tension, this makes sense- the storyteller (whatever the medium) has complete control of the narrative. Every element is considered; to put something in the narrative is a promise to the audience that it will pay off. Conversely, to have something come out of left field without foreshadowing it would happen is considered poor storytelling.

The importance of this principle (dramatic payoff) can be seen in this passage from How Not to Write a Novel:

Before bending to stir the coals, she plucked from her mouth the moist pink wad of gum she had been chewing since coming to Petersburg from the family’s country estate. The mantelpiece was bare, and Irina planted the large, wet bolus of gum firmly upon it.

At that precise instant, Uncle Vanya, passing through the conservatory, paused at the piano to play one eerie, dissonant chord, which seemed to hang suspended in the air, presaging misfortunes to come.

“Irina!” Masha said with delight, entering the nursery. Her cheeks were pink from the wintry winds, and cold still rose up off her thick and luxurious furs. Of the three, Masha had always been the most fashionable, and treasured her furs more than anything, except perhaps for her beloved sisters. Masha threw her arms wide and crossed the room to embrace dear Irina, the sleeve of her most beloved sable coming very very close to the sticky lump of gum, kept soft and warm and really sticky by the flames that now leapt below it as it lurked there on the mantelpiece, nearly itself.

Just as Natasha ran to her sisters, an ominous wind blew through an open window and lifted up her long, beautiful hair to swirl about her shoulders, floating like a defenseless blonde cloud, innocent and unaware of any danger, only millimetres—counted in the French style—from the gum on the mantelpiece.

“Come, let us go to another room and slowly reveal to each other our unhappinesses!” Natasha said.

“Yes! Let’s do!” said Masha, and the three departed.

Later that day, Uncle Vanya came in from the cherry orchard and cleaned up the gum.


As an exercise in absurdist humor, that passage works perfectly. But in terms of dramatic storytelling, it fails. When you think of certain "cult" movies that are beloved because they unintentionally are breaking the norms of dramatic storytelling (The Room, Samurai Cop, Fateful Findings etc.) you often see this at play- the inclusion of irrelevant details that have no payoff, often with hilarious effect.

But there is a problem with this; if you want, call it the "Matrix Issue." When everything is constructed and has its place, then everything becomes artificial. The real world, and real life ... it's a lot messier than fiction. Not everything has a payoff. Not everything is relevant. Sometimes things happen that have nothing to do with you (I mean you, literally you ... the world is, in fact, Snarf-centric). And this real-world messiness, this lived-in feeling, this concept that there is a giant world beyond what you are seeing that is moving along ... this is something that a lot of modern works try to capture. Whether it's prestige TV, or some of the great modern (and postmodern) novels, the idea that there is a fully inhabited world that continues off the page appeals to people. And yet, it can also be frustrating. Our minds crave dramatic payoff- meaning. It's a constant push-pull between our desire for the consummation and satisfaction of seeing that gun fired, with the skepticism and knowledge that this is a fictional universe we are seeing, and that the gun will have to fired. Put another way- it's a really big universe; why is it always about the Skywalkers?


B. A History of the Hickman Revolution

The above section was very brief considering the subject matter, and this section will be as well. Original D&D (OD&D) sprung forth as a mixture of wargaming for combat and improvisational roleplaying for social situations, largely under the rubric of what we now call Skilled Play. In the first few years of the 1970s, there was already a plethora of playing styles springing up, but the predominant mode of play in D&D remained Skilled Play- treating D&D like a game, and using the skill of the player to advance.

That said, there were a large contingent of people who were using D&D to play more narrative games. One of the more prominent early advocates for narrative play was Ed Simbalist, who started by arguing for more realism in D&D and then switched to advocating for increased illusionism in order to craft more satisfying narratives for the players- an idea that was already common, especially among the D&D devotees who came to the game from the Science Fiction convention circuit (science fiction also being a larger rubric for both Science Fiction and Fantasy back then).

It was in this milieu of the late 1970s that two gamers, Tracy and Laura Hickman, married. Shortly thereafter, they wrote the adventures Pharaoh and Ravenloft. While most of us are familiar with the later versions bought (and published) by TSR in 1982 (Pharaoh) and 1983 (Ravenloft) there modules were written in the 1970s. Importantly, they exemplified a more narrative and (on occasion) railroad-y approach to D&D than had existed before. While these narratives and railroads were always a part of the game, even in the 1970s, and even in other modules (the "A" or Slave Lord series), the idea of going hard into narrative really took hold with Pharaoh/Ravenloft .... Dragonlance. This trifecta, indelibly associated with the Hickmans, formed the backbone of what was later referred to as the Hickman revolution that gradually became the dominant mode of play in late 1e and especially in 2e.

To an extent, we can see the echoes of the Hickman Revolution today. The idea of Adventure Paths is certainly a concept that would have been unusual in the 1970s- while there were certainly dungeons, and campaigns, and even linked modules (the G series) and even one linked superset of modules (GDQ), it was generally thought that campaign worlds existed to explore, not that parties would be put on a set adventure path within that world with narrative payoffs. In short, the idea of DM as neutral referee began to be replaced with a concept of DM as storyteller; in essence, that is the Hickman Revolution.

Now, before getting into the final section (which gets more into the heart of the issue), I wanted to make sure that the following was noted- there are some people that make a lot of youtube clicks by saying that the Hickman Revolution was bad, evil, nogood, whatever. I'm not saying that at all. In fact, I'd like to point out what the Hickmans themselves said in the original introduction of Pharaoh as to the types of modules they wanted to write-
1. A player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing.
2. An intriguing story that is intricately woven into play itself.
3. Dungeons with an architectural sense.
4. An attainable and honorable end within one to two sessions playing time.
(Daystar West Pharaoh, 1978).

None of this is objectionable, and arguably most of it is a reaction to some of the other things going on at the time (such as the (in)famous MIT Meatgrinder Megadungeon). Things change and evolve, and the Hickman Revolution (or evolution) would not have occurred if people didn't want it. As I wrote above- people have a need for stories, for payoff. The difference between a great storyteller that commands crowds at cocktail parties and Bob, the dude from accounting you're trying to avoid, is that great storytellers have a point, and tell stories with a payoff. People like that, and always have.


C. Understanding these Distinctions, and Why it Matters for Your D&D Campaign

I just wrote a lot of words up there, and now I am going in for the payoff. Why does any of this matter? Well, it matters greatly when you are thinking about the type of campaigns that your characters enjoy. Let's take an example- one of the great episodes of the show Sopranos is called Pine Barrens. Now, I assume that this isn't a spoiler at this point (the show is twenty years old) but in that episode there is an unresolved issue. This issue never gets resolved (yes, I know that they might have resolved it in the last season and chose not to). That's kind of the point- in life, some things aren't resolved. Some things aren't found out. A lot of great modern TV shows are like this- they have dramatic payoff, but they also allow for the messiness of real life.

Campaigns in D&D can be set up like this as well. Part of the issue is that D&D has, in its very foundation, a dramatic arc ("zero-to-hero"). But we see, repeatedly, people discuss (or argue) as to whether the PCs are simply characters moving about in a world ... the world not framed around the characters ... or the characters are, in fact, integral to the world ... that the PCs are the protagonists of a dramatic arc. Part of the messiness of D&D is that this question is not explicitly answered. Some modern games are quite explicit- they go heavily into the idea of "story" and "fiction" and mold the world to the characters. Other games (such as OSR or FKR seeking to replicate Skilled Play) go the opposite direction and eschew these story ideas completely. But if you're running a D&D campaign, it helps to understand what type of campaign you're running, and what the players prefer, because there is a difference.

When they find a magic arrow of dragon slaying in Act One, will there be a Dragon in Act 3 to shoot at?
 

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Celebrim

Legend
When they find a magic arrow of dragon slaying in Act One, will there be a Dragon in Act 3 to shoot at?

Not necessarily, but there is a rule of good adventure design that applies to both styles and that is that the dungeon ought to include sufficient resources within it to solve it. You don't necessarily need all the resources because the PC's bring their own prior resources into the adventure, but you should make sure that careful play and utilization finds the resources that make victory not only plausible but likely.

And you can see this in a module like S1 Tomb of Horrors, where Gygax carefully puts in items like a magic ring and a gem that provides true seeing, both of which are necessary to solve the tomb if the PC's aren't carry items of that sort already. Yet we don't normally think of S1 as being a narrative focused dungeon.

So at least in this case, regardless of the style of play, if you find an arrow of dragon slaying in Act One, there is a very good chance that at some later point there is going to be a dragon to shoot it at. Or, to put it another way, there is a very high chance that the dragonslaying sword is illogically guarded by a dragon, and the vampire slaying sword is guarded by a vampire, and so forth.
 

Ringtail

World Traveller
I'm a younger player, started with 4e in High School around 2012, really got into it in College when 5e dropped in 2014. For most of my gaming life I was playing or running the more "narrative" style of games because that was the norm. That was, as I understood, the intended way to play. In the last three years or so I started getting into the OSR scene, sandbox gaming and skill based play. Almost entirely based on my love for the game Darkest Dungeon.

I kind of like the idea of the Low-Level sandbox, that leads into a greater narrative adventure. I've noticed players do have fun at low levels just running around, doing "side quests" and earning cash, but they'll get bored of this after awhile. Maybe running 1-4 or 1-5 and then launching into a large adventure. (Like how Matt Colville describes his low-level Sandbox leading to Red Hand of Doom.) I also like (as do most of the friends I play with) an "arc." Rather than one continous narrative from Level 1 - 20, several smaller narratives that wrap up nicely, before starting a new one. The feeling of "completing" something is a big goal I think and having a fewer smaller payoffs throughout a campaign is good for keeping up motivation and energy.
 

Put another way; game design (which should be the guiding principles of Skilled-Play adventure design) has something akin to Chekov's gun - everything you put into the game should have at least a chance to matter.

IE if a board game has cards with special effects on them, all of the cards should be able to impact the game, somehow. They might be useless in this playthrough, as in the use case for the card didn't come up - but it could have if other random elements/decisions had happened.

Of course Chekov's Card has the same collieries and whatnot of Chekov's Gun - there are cases when you can and even should break the rule, but it's usually true.

(plus the only real rules of writing are copyright law; the rest is just guidelines. And for every guideline there's a way to break it with flair.)
 

payn

Legend
Im for sure a post-Hickman style GM in the games I run. I do like pre-Hickman skill play on occasion, but only short lived campaigns. I am very upfront about this as GM and as a player.

The three act story is an interesting way of describing campaign play. However, I think with D&D's 1-20 level growth, its more like a series of three act stories along that path. More like a trilogy, but perhaps with even more parts. When I do sandboxes, I tend to think of them in three stages that could be viewed as acts.

I do enjoy adventure paths and they for sure have Chekhov's gun on occasion. Its funny how players think about that. In one adventure I ran the PCs were going to delve a huge haunted complex. Before hand, they discovered a cache of items helpful in such situation. One player just wanted to sell it all to make their weapon magic... The group overrode such a suggestion and it turned out very wise they did. I always leave such decisions to them though. I dont always use Chekhov's gun specifically (actual dragon slaying arrow, etc) but the gun might be a general specialized background instead. If Chekov is an expert in esoteric knowledge, then the adventure will include ways for Chekov to exercise that background.

When I run a sandbox "Chekov's gun" is turned on its head. There is a grand conspiracy in which the PCs are free to discover, encounter, and deal with as they see fit. If Chekov thinks having a gun is important, then he can quest for it. Once Chekov has a gun, there will be things for him to use it on. So, in this instance instead of the GM setting up the acts for the players, the players set up the criteria for the acts based on their interests instead. I enjoy both these styles. YMMV.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
4. An attainable and honorable end within one to two sessions playing time.
It's still weird to me how this morphed into a full-blown 1-20 campaign.

I came across a video from DM Lair that goes into this. It's worth the watch.

Part of the issue is that D&D has, in its very foundation, a dramatic arc ("zero-to-hero"). But we see, repeatedly, people discuss (or argue) as to whether the PCs are simply characters moving about in a world ... the world not framed around the characters ... or the characters are, in fact, integral to the world ... that the PCs are the protagonists of a dramatic arc. Part of the messiness of D&D is that this question is not explicitly answered. Some modern games are quite explicit- they go heavily into the idea of "story" and "fiction" and mold the world to the characters. Other games (such as OSR or FKR seeking to replicate Skilled Play) go the opposite direction and eschew these story ideas completely. But if you're running a D&D campaign, it helps to understand what type of campaign you're running, and what the players prefer, because there is a difference.

When they find a magic arrow of dragon slaying in Act One, will there be a Dragon in Act 3 to shoot at?
I'm definitely in the verisimilitude, immersion, skilled play, OSR, FKR camps.

Sometimes an arrow of dragon slaying is just an arrow of dragon slaying.
 

payn

Legend
It's still weird to me how this morphed into a full-blown 1-20 campaign.

I came across a video from DM Lair that goes into this. It's worth the watch.


I'm definitely in the verisimilitude, immersion, skilled play, OSR, FKR camps.

Sometimes an arrow of dragon slaying is just an arrow of dragon slaying.
That video is a good description of Hickman. However, all the complaints are pretty much obviated at 8:05 "Of course there are spectrums inbetween...there always are". Everyone who complains one way or the other about Hickman entirely ignores that point. I mean, entirely.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
That video is a good description of Hickman. However, all the complaints are pretty much obviated at 8:05 "Of course there are spectrums inbetween...there always are". Everyone who complains one way or the other about Hickman entirely ignores that point. I mean, entirely.
The context of the quote is important. He's specifically talking about people's opinions about either loving or hating the Hickman Revolution. The spectrum he's talking about is there are varying levels of loving and hating the Hickman Revolution. That in no way obviates people's complaints about the Hickman Revolution.
 


payn

Legend
The context of the quote is important. He's specifically talking about people's opinions about either loving or hating the Hickman Revolution. The spectrum he's talking about is there are varying levels of loving and hating the Hickman Revolution. That in no way obviates people's complaints about the Hickman Revolution.
Complain all you want, but be fair about it. Many folks are not.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
When they find a magic arrow of dragon slaying in Act One, will there be a Dragon in Act 3 to shoot at?
Maybe.
Sometimes it's there to give the PCs an easier key to a later encounter (though not a necessary one), and sometimes it's just there and it's up to the PCs to go out and find a use for it if they choose to do so. And, I think, there can be a good tension between those two ideas, but I understand not all players might like that.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
When they find a magic arrow of dragon slaying in Act One, will there be a Dragon in Act 3 to shoot at?

Usually,there will be a dragon for the arrow to slay, but this blatant foreshadowing might be misdirected by other potentially meaningful objects whose sole purpose is to obfuscate too straightforward telegraphing of events to come.

...either that or I will find an important purpose for one of these items mid-campaign and pretend I planned it all form the start.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Complain all you want, but be fair about it. Many folks are not.
And many folk are fair in their complaints. Trouble is, when we like something we tend to view any complaints as unfair. Equally, when we dislike something we tend to view any compliments as unearned. That's people.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Usually,there will be a dragon for the arrow to slay, but this blatant foreshadowing might be misdirected by other potentially meaningful objects whose sole purpose is to obfuscate too straightforward telegraphing of events to come.

...either that or I will find an important purpose for one of these items mid-campaign and pretend I planned it all form the start.

Or as an alternative to red herrings, as part of wanting to give the world a sense of reality, the GM likes to place a bunch of random stuff throughout the world to give it a lived-in feel. If part of your goal is to make the setting feel real and immersive, you can't have everything in the adventure directly pertain to the narrative because we know in real life it doesn't work that way.
 

payn

Legend
In regards to Hickman discussions, I think the biggest issue I have is the idea that linear adventures are all post, and nonlinear adventures are all pre. I think its entirely possible to have an overarching plot, while encouraging a highly lethal skill play environment. I also think its possible to have an open world total player agency game with an overarching plot. This, so to speak, cornered market idea often falls apart at the table. Players sign up expecting one type of play and get another. You need more distinction than adventure path or sandbox, IMO.
 

Celebrim

Legend
The context of the quote is important. He's specifically talking about people's opinions about either loving or hating the Hickman Revolution. The spectrum he's talking about is there are varying levels of loving and hating the Hickman Revolution. That in no way obviates people's complaints about the Hickman Revolution.

I don't think it's fair to equate the Hickman Revolution with the padded walls world that was subsequently created. He might have influenced it in some ways, but a lot of that occurred based on other subsequent choices by other people.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
While I didn’t get into D&D until 3e in college, my first group’s campaigns were primarily hack and slash games. The DM would set up the encounters, and we’d kill monsters. When I started DMing myself, my first campaign was mostly improvised (because I’m lazy) but more structured. I didn’t really have a narrative in mind, though I suppose in a sense it did evolve expected directions. Reflecting back on it, I suppose it was a misguided attempt to put the PCs in a world that doesn’t exist for their sake while also imposing my ideas on what should happen on it. There were definitely a few “and you get mass teleported to here” or “you need to go there for help” moments. It was fun at the time, but I wouldn’t run like that today.

Regarding the question: “When they find a magic arrow of dragon slaying in Act One, will there be a Dragon in Act 3 to shoot at?” My answer is, “no, not necessarily.” Actually, it’s more fair to say the question doesn’t make sense because my game isn’t structured into acts. It’s exploration-driven with a PC-set goal, but it’s on the players to navigate to it (whether and how they do is essentially what the campaign is about). My role as a referee is to present adversity while making sure the world functions as it should. I like to take that seriously, which is why my homebrew system (the campaign started in 5e but has transitioned through a few systems to what it is today) delegates certain decisions to the mechanics to avoid situations where I fear I would impose an outcome instead or create the perception thereof when that’s not what I want.

This kind of play is obviously not for everyone, but I’m up front with my players about what it is and what it’s about. I think that’s the best way to go about things (being explicit in intent, so those have certain preferences can find campaigns that will match their tastes).
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I don't think it's fair to equate the Hickman Revolution with the padded walls world that was subsequently created. He might have influenced it in some ways, but a lot of that occurred based on other subsequent choices by other people.
Sure. He didn't personally cause people to misinterpret his ideas nor was he the designer of any edition of D&D. I'm not saying he's personally at fault for how D&D changed over the years, nor is that video. But, the Hickman Manifesto is the source of what came later. And reading Hickman's X-Treme Dungeon Mastery you get a very clear picture that he's 100% on board with narrative railroads over any kind of gameplay concerns.
 

Celebrim

Legend
And reading Hickman's X-Treme Dungeon Mastery you get a very clear picture that he's 100% on board with narrative railroads over any kind of gameplay concerns.

I don't agree with that. I think he just thinks as poorly of rowboat worlds as winging it as I do.

But then maybe I need you to define for me what you mean by "gameplay concerns".
 

practicalm

Explorer
I think the answer to the question, "When they find a magic arrow of dragon slaying in Act One, will there be a Dragon in Act 3 to shoot at?" is more on the players.

Having acquired an arrow of dragon slaying, will they start to go hunting dragons or sell it to someone who is hunting dragons?
Players have a choice here and they may decide to do something else than use the obvious items.
If a player has a backstory of being friends with dragons, they could easily decide to destroy the arrow.
 

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