Abandoned storylines Schrodinger's cat and Chekhov's gun
Schrödinger's cat spins many storylines. Some are abandoned. But as every scene needs to contribute to the story. How to handle them?

Abandoned storylines, Schrödinger's cat and Chekhov's gun


The DM and Schrödinger's cat

This is a follow-up article on The DM and Schrödinger's cat. If you didn’t read it yet, I invite you to do so. Otherwise, the following might not make much sense.

Chekhov's gun:

Chekhov's gun is a dramatic principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary. And that you should remove irrelevant elements. ref; Wikipedia

Now let’s apply that to tabletop RPGs.

The problem

If you use the Schrödinger's cat or Schoonover's kobold technique, especially in combination with the DM’s diary you’ll end up with abandoned storylines. Players might engage with a storyline but lose interest. Or get distracted by another optional storyline and abandon the current one.

These abandoned or unfinished storylines violate Chekhov's gun.

How I solve this…

The Magician DM effect

The essence of a magic trick is that reality forms where the audience's attention lies. The "Magician DM effect" lies in the fact that your players will remember the chosen storylines. They'll perceive them as the main, intended storyline. Don't count on the players forgetting abandoned storylines though. Sooner or later one will remember. One might even keep a quest journal. That’s why you need to "kill your darlings".

Kill your darlings

Clean up abandoned storylines. Do it early, using a short scene to most definitely end it. You can be dramatic but don’t be vague nor elaborate too much. You want to signal the end of the storyline, not refocus the player's attention on it. They didn’t go out and search for the missing children? Let them encounter city guards returning from a failed rescue mission carrying their bodies. Apart from devastating your players, it tells them this was a failed sidequest. Not a part of the main storyline. And/or that whatever this quest would reveal about the main storyline is no longer is available.

Merging Storylines

Once you're left with 2 to 3 thoroughly played-through storylines you can merge these into a single storyline. And make them believe it was all supposed to come down to this. This might prove to be a challenge, even impossible. Also, be careful not to railroad your players into the new merged storyline. Even after the merge, it's still their choice.


Luxury problem?

If your players enjoy your "main" storyline, abandoned storylines feel like a minor problem. Which is true, unless…

A greater plot

If you tricked your players into believing all scenes contribute to the main storyline, they might start to expect an epic conclusion. And as discussed above, merging storylines isn't always that easy. So you might be heading for a disappointing ending. This isn't ideal but the journey is more important than the destination. An epic conclusion is the cherry on the cake. But only the cherry. Who cares when your players had their cake and feasted it.

Storyline galore and focus

Players can only manage about 2 to 3 active storylines. More might cause them to lose focus. So pick 2 or 3 they engage with and kill your other storyline darlings. This prevents loss of focus and reduces the chance they remember an abandoned storyline.

3 Parts

This is part two of a three part article:


Schrödinger's cat and Chekhov's gun cartoon by
Flux cartoon by Deece Cassius Artist and Writer at Freelance Illustrator/Cartoonist/Graphic Artist Cast member of Freelance Heroism Podcast

Author(s): Gregory Vangilbergen - (Updated:Jan 25, 2022)