This post is inspired by John Arcadian’s recent post, Ah, the good old Scry and Fry. Before I get into this post, however, I want to whip you into a frenzied mob. March with me and demand a solution to the whole “Scry and Fry” thing, especially the fry part. Gnome Arcadian, show us the solution or (raising torch high in gnomish hands) we’ll show you the meaning of fry!

Ahem. He brought up an excellent point that has plagued many campaigns I’ve enjoyed as both a player and as GM. The problems he mentioned reminded me of the similar problems encountered in some board games, resulting in analysis paralysis. In recent campaigns I was a player who helped waste a lot of time on discussion not deeds. Let’s look at two specific cases.

Cloud City Conundrum:

In previous sessions our rebel agents posed as rich gamblers and came to Cloud City aboard a gambling yacht. Now we were on the station and facing a huge obstacle: how do four agents disrupt an imperial guardpost, mining operation, and gambling Mecca? We spent some time investigating in various ways (we spoke with our local contact, took a tour of the station, rented a cloud car to look at the station from the outside, infiltrated the mob, etc.) We came away with a wealth of options.

That was our mistake. We had many interesting options and could make good predictions. We lost half a session (something like two or three hours) debating what approach we should take and lovingly crafting a plan. A couple of players mentally checked out as the planning went on and on, but in the end we came up with a brilliant, layered plan. Of course, now it was too late to actually implement it, but next week we’d start off strong.

During the week, however, one player noticed additional flaws in the plan. We started the next session with him mentioning the problems he’d spied and describing the new plan to the players who hadn’t read his email during the week. Just as we started to bog down in debating the merits of the new plan, one player piped up, “I though we solved everything last week.” I remember explaining the reasons for the changes for a sentence or two before I stumbled to a halt. We all hit the same point at the same time– we’d do the new plan now and trust to the dice. It was awesome– we wound up running three or four simultaneous, crazy cool plans at once. Two characters sabotaged the fighter bay, another sneaked into the imperial commander’s room while posing as a gambling boss’s bodyguard, while the third group got into a secure zone, sealed the station, and took over the communications array. It felt very like the movies. [And it got even better as the session went on… but that’s plenty of example.]

Cormyr’s Ruler:

Our characters had previously done great deeds on behalf of our nation, when word came to us that the King had been assassinated. Prior to that we’d kind of known that he had no heir, but on hearing of his death we knew that our country was in trouble, that civil war might break out. The families and factions were divided… and everyone wanted to know who we (the recently minted heroes) thought should be king.

We had a thumbnail sketch of the five factions, as rumor presented them. The group decided that we really had to meet the various candidates before we could endorse any of them. So we had a few sessions of traveling around the country, being wined, bribed, and asked to throw our support behind one faction or another. It was interesting for a while; we approached it like a mystery, trying to decode which was the “good” faction that we should support. But there wasn’t one good faction and four bad factions… there were a lot of tradeoffs and shades of gray. Traveling the realm and gathering information from people who were trying to impress us cut way back on the combat, which drained a couple of players’ interest.

Finally we had met everyone we were going to meet and discussed who the characters wanted to support. A curious thing came out of it; while the players couldn’t really come to an agreement on who should be in charge, we did agree that our characters looked up to the nobility. So we told the GM that our characters didn’t feel it was their place to interfere… and that OOC, we would love to solve the problems that came with their poor selections. We’d solve the new problem by spell and sword when the wrong person came to power. With that decision the game unstuck and resumed a happier course.

Factors influencing analysis paralysis

Hopefully the examples were entertaining– I think that there are some common issues that they illuminate well. Several factors seem to contribute to analysis paralysis:

  • Too many options. If you have to pick between two or three things, the number of comparisons you have to make is one or three. If you compare five options, you’re making many more comparisons (something like 24).
  • Too much information. When you have information, you use it to make the best choice. The more information you have, the more finely you can evaluate your options, but the longer it takes to do so.
  • Overwhelming outcomes. If the PCs are in a situation where one misstep means instant doom, they’ll plan for all they’re worth to avoid that misstep. Many of our Shadowrun missions have fallen into planning paralysis because once you’re in the corp’s territory, you’re out of luck when things go wrong.
  • Puzzle solving players. If you present a problem, then some players (raises hand, me!) will try and solve it. A roleplaying conundrum can be a lot more interesting than any Soduku puzzle; there’s the responsibility of power, the weighing of claims, the outwitting of cunning foes and more. If it wasn’t a problem to solve, that results in a lot of wasted time and effort.

So how do you have plots with these great themes and complex choices without bogging down in discussion and planning that loses half the group’s interest? I’ve had some success using these solutions, but I’m sure there are many more. Contribute them in comments!

  • Emphasize genre conventions. If you’re playing a pulp game, remind the players that the straightforward choice is usually the right one. Encourage them to do what’s most interesting (pulpy), not what’s most likely to succeed. They’ll probably succeed with the riskiest option and their character will look cooler in the bargain. (Note: This is true only if you or your system make it so; if you carefully add up all the negatives of their direct plan and the system punishes them for it, they’ll learn to plan instead.)
  • Limit predictability. If players think they can predict everything three or four choices down the decision tree, they’ll be tempted to debate not just the best next step, but the best series of choices. This runs smack into the too many choices and too much information problems above. If you let players know that chance will make any long range planning less useful, they should waste less time making long range plans.
  • Identify plots as background. You can have lots of political debate and treachery without the PCs trying to fix it. Make it clear that those attitudes and actions are part of the setting, the PCs are not expected to solve them. The time I most regret wasting is time used to debate actions never taken or without impact.
  • Present things emotionally. If a character is confronted with something important to them, something that tugs their heart strings (or inspires revenge), they’ll move. Everyone has a motive– present the case as the NPC sees it, not objectively. [Dogs at the Vineyard has great advice for doing this.] If players react, they’re not wasting time intellectually analyzing the problem and “solving” it.

Are planning delays a big problem for your group? Tell us about your problems and solutions. I hope that you can combine John’s article about streamlining information gathering and this one to streamline decision making and get to the fun parts of your game faster.