I walked down the street, headphones on, and a song from high school came up. It brought me back to the summer I turned sixteen. I call that summer “the summer of love” because, well, it was the summer I first fell in love. Hell of a thing, and it made me smile. Then, as I reached the crosswalk, I look left and there’s my first girlfriend in her car.
Duh, yes, of course it was.
At the time of that story, we were living in the same town. It’s a small one and there’s only a single main street with a single major intersection. If anyone is going anywhere they have to pass through it, either on foot or in a car. I was working in a studio in the center of town. She was probably on her way to the grocery store. Plus, I haven’t cleaned out my iPod in a very long time.
But if this were a proper story, it wouldn’t be a coincidence. It might have been the catalyst for a sudden meeting or a major turn of events in my life. Maybe we would have tried to get back together, or maybe we would have decided we needed to try to assassinate each other. It would mean something, anyway. And in the stories you create, you cannot suffer coincidence to live.
I should make clear that I’m talking about GMing here, not fiction writing. Obviously it remains true no matter what kind of storytelling you engage in, but the range of effects coincidence can have varies depending on the medium. In a novel, it can have a very subtle sort of impact, lingering with a character through some decisions and scenes before it finally reaches the point of significance. Maybe it will even keep until the very end, when it suddenly becomes clear why it was important. For a game, though, the result needs to be more immediate.
The Role of Coincidence
In real life, coincidences are just that: a random act of chance. At best they serve to remind us that the world is a small place, and that serves fictional coincidences in making suspension of disbelief easier. In fiction, coincidences are non-existent because there’s only one author who makes all the decisions about what happens in the world, and in real life they happen all the time because each of us has the same amount of control over our own lives. Even if an author goes out of her way to prove that some event really was just a coincidence, that in itself is significant.
The gaming table is a strange middle ground. The players each control a life in the gaming world, with all the control a real person would have in the real world. However, all the other lives beyond theirs are controlled by a single individual, the Game Master. She must shake off the idea that coincidences can happen.
Sometimes it’s a contrivance to make the story work: the party finds the nobleman they’ve been looking for in the tavern, despite having been rebuffed by his guards (failed Diplomacy check) and a botched break-in attempt (failed Stealth check). It’s the GM throwing some desperate players a bone because, frankly, she wants the campaign to continue and doesn’t want the fickle dice gods to control the direction of the story. She also doesn’t want them staging a full assault on the keep.
Sometimes, though, it’s an indication that there’s more at work than the random capriciousness of the universe. This is an example of a coincidence that’s not really a coincidence at all, but rather forces beyond the PCs’ ken, at least at that moment. Luke living on the same planet as exiled Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi seems like one hell of a coincidence in A New Hope, but Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi both make it clear that Old Ben was really there for a reason. (All right, fine, so did Revenge of the Sith.)
Coincidence, therefore, is a tool of the storyteller, and tools are meant to help you build something.
Making Coincidence Work for You
Both of those types of coincidence I listed above are useful in constructing stories. The first, the contrivance, is good for making a story. Continuing with the Star Wars example, Obi-Wan is a contrivance. He’s a Jedi Master, he knows the Force, he knew Luke’s father, and he’s willing to get Luke off-world on the condition that he have an adventure while he does so. Maybe a few people were scratching their heads at that one, but overall the effect is necessary: the story needs to continue, and he’s the gateway forward.
Notice the use of the word “contrivance.” It conjures up the word “contrived,” as it should, given their mutual root. And being contrived is bad, right? Well, the dictionary definition of contrivance is “a thing that is created skillfully and inventively to serve a particular purpose.” Conversely, contrived means “deliberately created rather than arising naturally or spontaneously,” but it also means “created or arranged in a way that seems artificial or unrealistic.” So a contrivance can certainly be contrived (take that, Tautology Club) but if you do it right, nobody will feel that way. So long as it’s necessary and believable even a little, audiences and players alike will suspend their disbelief and keep going with the story. Obi-Wan’s presence may have been a contrivance in A New Hope, but it was a necessary one.
Making coincidences believable also ties in with the second type I mentioned above, the one about unseen forces. Later in the trilogy, it’s revealed that Obi-Wan and Yoda had been watching over Luke for quite some time, meaning his presence on Tatooine wasn’t the happy accident it seemed. (It was implied in A New Hope by the line, “Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough,” but it wasn’t explicitly spelled out.) Later still, we discovered that Obi-Wan had agreed to watch over Luke and protect him. None of this was apparent to Luke at the time, or the audience, but in the context of the world it had been decided on some time before.
Where the contrivance can start a story, the unseen forces can deepen an existing story or mend a broken one. It’s a key of many “Chosen One” narratives, the realization that nothing in the hero’s life that put him on the path to adventure was an accident. When telling a story in a game, you can use it to reveal that the old man on the road, the one who sold them the amulet that kicked off the campaign, was really in on it the entire time. He was an agent of the antagonist, or maybe a personification of a god, or an old treasure hunter who knew the legend but wanted to shift it off to the next rube looking to buy something shiny.
It might seem like a lot of work, making those coincidences make sense or mean anything more than a chance encounter, but there’s one more nice thing about coincidences.
Coincidences Offer Invisibility
Maybe the best thing about coincidences is that they happen all the time, so when they turn up in stories nobody is surprised. This works to your benefit if you’re running a game: you can make use of your players’ perceptions of an event as a coincidence, or even your own. You want to introduce a mentor for the Force sensitives in your party, and you realize that the crime lord they did some work for five sessions ago fits the description you’re thinking of. Later, when she becomes their mentor, it seems like a fateful crossing of paths rather than a desperate attempt to keep the NPC count low.
Let’s go back to that lord in the tavern. After the players roll a 1 on their Diplomacy check and can’t manage to sneak in, the GM is desperate to get the story moving. So, when the dejected PCs go to a local inn for the night, they see the lord in plain clothes sitting in the corner and nursing a drink. At the moment it serves a purpose, and aside from idle curiosity, the players aren’t likely to delve much into the reasoning.
Fast forward ten or twenty sessions. The PCs are up to their necks in a mystery and a civil war over the right of succession is about to boil over. The GM is again wracking her brain, trying to come up with a way to make the story tight and believable, when she remembers how the PCs first met the lord. What was he doing in the tavern? Well, maybe he wasn’t thinking he’d run into the PCs – he was actually there for another reason, a different meeting, perhaps with a secret mistress.
The GM then resolves to put something in the next session that reminds the players of their encounter and makes them think twice about it. With that little push, they’re sent off on an investigation that leads to a hidden heir or the truth behind the lord’s real reason for challenging the throne. Whatever the reason, the story’s back on track and the GM can play it off as masterful storytelling and not grasping at straws.
Use Them Sparingly
The only problem with coincidences is that they should be used carefully. Too many will rob the players of their sense of agency, make them feel like they’re adrift and vulnerable to the whims of others. Worse, it may make them start to expect coincidences. This isn’t the worst outcome, but it can make your game as formulaic as an episode of Scooby-Doo if the first minor character they meet in every adventure turns out to be the mastermind. It’s just one short step to paranoia and throwing every tinker they meet down wells.
Instead, leave just one or two good coincidences open, and let everything else unfold from the direct action of a PC or NPC. When playing, if a nameless NPC has a short or vague interaction with the PCs, jot down their description and what happened. Maybe that person will become important later. If not, you haven’t wasted anything.
For me, seeing that old girlfriend again didn’t turn into anything. She wasn’t a contrivance, and it wasn’t the result of forces unseen. If it was, I’m still not privy to how us crossing paths there was significant. However, it was significant in one respect: it was proof that I’d moved on since then. Despite a dramatic breakup and hurt feelings all around, I smiled and waved at her, and she did likewise.
So use those coincidences in your stories and games, but remember: they shouldn’t really be coincidences. Make them mean something.