Planning in RPGs has always been a problem. On one hand, it’s often necessary for a group of players to plan out something their characters are trying to accomplish. On the other, most groups are not adept at planning, and even if they were, the activity is never that exciting at the table – worse if you are the GM who is more of a spectator. All of this is worse if you are under any kind of time constraint, like running a one-shot. 

That is the problem I was having. In a few weeks, my high school gaming group is having a reunion, and we wanted to play some games. One of our group’s main games was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Rather than run TMNT, I offered Mutants in the Now, which I think is a better overall game. It will be a one-shot, and likely time bound to 4-6 hours. The scenario I wanted was a raid on an island of the evil genius Dr. Feral. But planning…

Other games have done a good job of designing around planning, but Mutants in the Now does not have any direct planning rules. So I started to think, what if we didn’t plan everything but the group just made some choices? That is when I got the idea for Plan by Mad Libs. So let’s talk about it. 

What are Mad Libs?

A Mad Lib is a word game where one player asks for certain words – a noun, a verb, etc – with little or no context. The words are plugged into pre-written text. After all the words have been collected, the person reads the text, which often results in a silly, but entertaining narrative. For more info see:

What is a Plan?

A plan is defined as a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something. There is an objective, and there are the steps to achieve that objective. Typically when this is done in RPGs the group knows or decides the objective, and then works to figure out the steps. This often results in iterative discussions as details that are discussed prompt a new discussion about older details. It can be time-consuming, frustrating, and boring. 

Plan By Mad Libs

The idea is to use the Mad Lib format to streamline planning so that we can quickly define the plan and move on to its execution, where the characters are taking action. 

The idea is to use the Mad Lib format to streamline planning so that we can quickly define the plan and move on to its execution, where the characters are taking action.

To do this, I needed to take some of the agency from the players, for the sake of time. That is, I needed to come up with the pre-written text – the plan for how the characters would raid the island. I did this using a simple story framework for a typical raid kind of story. The plan would need info on infiltration, a diversion, achieving the objective, and exfiltration from the island. 

The blanks could then be the WHO and in some cases the HOW. Those choices could be left to the players so that they could customize the framework and make the plan theirs. 

Here is an example of how I used the WHO to define the infiltration to the island:

We first have to get onto Dr. Feral’s island. NAME will smuggle themselves aboard Kris Pierce’s yacht in Miami, and arrive on the island at the docks. At the same time, NAME and NAME will take a private flight out of Ft. Lauderdale and will parachute onto the southeast grasslands with our backup gear. NAME got a job as a bodyguard for Linda Davenport and will arrive on the island as part of her entourage, and will be at the arena. 

Here is an example of how I used the HOW for the diversion:

While that is going on, WHO will go to the CHOOSE (DOCKS, AIRSTRIP, POWER STATION) to cause a diversion by BLANK (ACTION or METHOD). 

Implementing the Plan By Mad Libs

The full plan is written as if one of the characters is going over the plan with the rest of the group (this was highly inspired by a scene from the A-Team movie). The players will fill out the Mad Lib plan and then one of them will read it back to the group. As soon as it’s read, we can jump right into playing.

Advantages of Planning by Mad Libs

There are a few advantages to this. The first is that it should be quick. Filling in the blanks won’t take long and we should be up and running quickly. Second, the plan is written out and on the table while we play. There is little chance people will forget the plan with it there on the table. Third, I can prep for the plan, which means that I can add some nice mechanical details that I might miss if I was ad-libbing based on a plan made at the table. Fourth, I can roughly manage the duration of the game based on the size of the plan I write.

Kind of Sounds Like A Railroad

Not really. Of course, there will be twists in the plan – some from me and others through the actions of the characters – and that I will manage while we play. The players can abandon the plan as soon as we start, or they can follow it all the way through. Both work.

The goal of the Mad Lib plan wasn’t to control the whole adventure, it was to minimize planning and get into the execution of the plan. The Mad Lib plan accomplishes that goal. 

One-Shots vs. Campaigns

For sure, this idea works great for one-shots, but could it work for a campaign? I think so, if the players were to buy into the concept. Hijacking a bit of agency in a one-shot is not that big of a deal, but in a campaign it could be more of a complex topic. 

I think it would work in a campaign where planning was not the norm, where the core loop of the game is something other than planning and for a specific story there needs to be a plan, and you use the Mad Libs format to streamline things so that the story goes smoothly. For instance, I would not use this for a Night’s Black Agents op, but I might use it for a one-off supers heist in the Marvel Multiverse game. 

Anything But Planning

Planning is not a fun activity in most RPGs. There are a lot of ways modern designers are trying to reduce or remove planning from games, all for the better. That said, there are plenty of games out there that need a design for minimizing planning. For those games, something like a Mad Lib plan can help.

I hope that this Mad Lib plan will help my table come up with an interesting and entertaining plan that unfolds into an exciting session. 

How do you manage planning at your table? Would you try a Mad Lib plan?