On a recent episode of the Misdirected Mark podcast, Chris and I talked about why planning never really works in RPGs, and why mechanics to emulate planning fare better at the table. If you are interested in that discussion go and check out the show. Understanding that planning is never going to leave RPG’s, I want to take this article to talk about ways to make planning less painful. This article is aimed at the Players, so send this link out to them and hopefully their next plan will be more fun.

Hello Players, lets talk about planning…

The Frustrations of Planning

Planning in RPG’s can be a frustrating event in a number of ways. First, it can be frustrating for the GM to watch the players plan for hours (but forget that part, because we are players!). Second, it can be frustrating for us players, collaborating on a plan to which everyone agrees. Lastly, plans can be frustrating when after a bunch of work, they fall apart a few dice rolls later.

Despite the whole process being annoying, it is still useful in terms of playing the game, so we can’t get rid of it. Plans are what help us take down the big bag guy, or steal that hard to get magic item. Since planning is not going away, things would go better if we could plan more efficiently.

When I am not Gnoming, I am a trained project manager, and I can tell you that planning is not a natural instinct. People are not naturally great planners. Rather, planning is a skill that can be taught, and once taught is able to be harnessed.

A Good Plan

What then makes up a good plan? Borrowed from my Project Management realm, and loosely translated to apply in RPG’s, a good plan should have the following:

  • A clear goal
  • A series of manageable steps that lead towards the goal
  • A temporal ordering of those steps
  • An understanding of dependencies between steps
  • Everyone in the group has contributed, and that the group was not dominated by any member of the group
  • The plan is proportional to the work being done

In other words we want to know what we are doing, roughly how it gets done, when it gets done, what gets done first, everyone contributed, and that we did not spend too much time putting the plan together.

Tips for Planning Well

With the goals above in mind, here are some tips you can use when you next plan during a game:

Know Your Real Objective

The most important thing you need to know about planning is that, as a whole group, you all understand what it is that you are trying to do. Many times a group assumes that their goal is one thing, and often the more complicated one, when in truth the goal is much simpler.

For example: The players are tasked with recovering the Gem of Danger being held by The Overlord. The players come up with the objective of killing The Overlord, a difficult task that will require everything they have, and may not work. What they have overlooked is that they only need to acquire the Gem, which could be done by stealing it rather than killing the Overlord.

Decompose The Objective Into Workable Parts

The next step is to break the objective into smaller workable parts. In project management terms we call this decomposition. The smaller pieces are easier to mentally grasp and allow us to see everything that has to go into completing the larger goal. There is no formula for how to decompose something. You just ask the question, “what would need to be done first? Then what? Then what?”

The reason we do this is that it is easier to plan things that are smaller and can be envisioned, than it is to make one giant continuous plan. In addition, understanding smaller parts will help you improvise when something goes wrong (see below), because you know what each step of the plan needs to accomplish.

For example: To recover the gem the group determines they need to do the following:

  • Sneak into the Overlord’s Tower
  • Create a Diversion
  • Steal the Gem
  • Escape

Each part could be further broken down, but there is a point of diminishing returns, so don’t decompose things down too much. In terms of how small you should go, think of what could be done in a single scene within the game.

Distribute The Planning

Once you know what the smaller steps are, hand out the responsibility for how they get planned to different people in the group, based on their abilities. Let each assigned person plan out some solutions for their part, with the understanding that all the parts have to come together at the end. In some cases the person will be able to work on their own, and other times they will pair up with another member of the party.

For example: Back to our plan. The Thief is assigned with sneaking into the Overlord’s tower. The Mage is tasked with coming up with the diversion. The Thief is needed again for stealing the gem, but will work with the Fighter since that may involve overtaking some guards. Finally, the Cleric will plan the escape, and will use the Mage for some additional support.

Sequencing and Integration

After the individual plans have been worked up, there is a need to understand the time sequence of the different steps and which steps are dependent on others. A default order of events will come out of decomposing the goal into the smaller steps, but it may not be the optimal order. Sometimes tasks need to be done in a certain order, and other times tasks can be done in parallel. Finding those relationships allow the plan to work smoothly.

After all the individual plans are done the group should come back together and assemble the final plan; checking it to make sure there are no gaps.

For example: After some discussion the group thinks it would be better to Create the diversion first, to lure The Overlord out of the tower. Then they can Break In, Steal the Gem, and Escape. In this order, the Wizard can finish the distraction and then meet up with the Cleric to work on the Escape.

When It Falls Apart

Here’s the thing, plans rarely work as designed; in RPG’s less so. Dice are fickle and that much needed roll turns into a critical failure. When things fall apart, knowing the main goal and understanding the decomposed tasks will help you improvise, because you will know what you need to accomplish at each step. Using that knowledge you can come up with alternative ways to achieve those goals, and keep building towards the main goal.

Last Example: The Diversion has worked and the Overlord has left the tower. While trying to sneak into the tower the stealth check fails, and the guards are alerted. Knowing that they have to get in, the Fighter takes point and they force their way into the tower. The Fighter holds off the opposition allowing the Thief to make a run for the Gem. Nothing has changed about the escape, so the group uses their original escape plan.

The Best Laid Plans

Planning can be a painful part of a game; for the GM or the Players. Some of that pain can be alleviated by learning to plan more efficiently. By setting your objectives, decomposing your tasks, and sequencing them, you can make a more efficient plan, and one that will hold up when things go wrong

How do your groups plan? What were some of the best plans that have been used in your games? What caused your best plans to fail?