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
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?
I’ve had a lot of sessions where we planned too much. Following your suggestions, particularly decomposing the problems and making individuals responsible for each step–instead of trying to make each step consensus based–would have made some memorable planning failures much easier to endure.
Three things inhibit plans in my gaming group:
1) Too many PCs
2) The frustrated/bored player
3) The not a team player
1) My gaming group is a group of 7, six PCs and a GM. This makes planning anything a committee. Committees do not work quickly or terribly efficiently when people are juggling what they want, what the character wants, and what the character knows.
2) The bored player looks something like “Fuck it! I throw a brick through the window and grab the gem.” The player then forces everyone in the group to adhere to his or her plan or make huge compromises because consequences are occurring now that action has happened. This is definitely common when someone needs to wait for their scene to happen (thief moving in before the distraction has been made because the thief’s player was bored).
3) The not a team player is either just a jerk or playing the PC to the hilt in a destructive manner. I’ve seen this most in players who play a cleric and “aren’t a healer” and let other PCs die to throw a not very effective offensive spell or the player who throws a fit (in character or out) about the situation and basically holds everyone else’s fun hostage or as less of a priority.
I guess the three things boil down to maturity and size. Large groups often have someone out of the spotlight for longer periods of time and just have more opinions happening about how to best plan something.
One thing you can try with a large group: after breaking the plan into it’s component parts, have the group split into smaller groups to plan the parts themselves. This works even better if the groups are split based on what the characters are doing. So if the wizard and the barbarian are running a diversion, have them plan their diversion. If the rogue is in charge of getting into the treasure room but needs the fighters to help out with the mooks, have her set up a plan with the fighters. This way you’re using the large group to your advantage, because planning should take less time when parts of it are happening at the same time.
It doesn’t always work; I’ll admit it. But sometimes it can really help! When splitting into groups like this, one thing that makes it work better is if each group comes up with a Plan A and a Plan B. (Or even more if they’re overachievers.) Then, as a whole, the players can decide which particular plan to use for each element, in order to make an overall plan that is cohesive.
I’m going to try pitching this to the group. Our next campaign is Shadowrun so there will be lots of planning/legwork to accomplish before the heist. Hopefully this helps somewhat. If it goes well, I’ll try to get the group on it for more games.
I see even smaller groups than yours find themselves going in circles at decision time because of frustrated and/or bored players. A common pattern seems to be that “Player 1”, the smartest one in the group, offers an idea that’s actually pretty good, but he’s not very patient at explaining it. When Players 2 & 3 start to debate the merits of the idea, Player 1 cops an attitude and stops being constructive. This leaves 2 & 3 trying to figure out the details while 1 snipes at them for being “indecisive”. Player 4, who hates this kind of drama, avoids being drawn into the fray by pulling out his smartphone to watch cat videos instead.
When I see “anti-patterns” such as this emerging I step in to try to break it up, prompting the group with some constructive suggestions for how to devise a plan. Phil identifies a few pretty good basic approaches above. One I’d add to any basic toolbox is, “Identify important things you don’t know and determine if and how you can get answers.”
I think some player over-planning comes from playing with old-school GMs that use a lack of detail or overlooking one small point against the players. Just a couple years ago at Origins, I had a GM use something like that against the players. We hadn’t explicitly said how we were tying up the horses to camp for the night, so they obviously wandered away. That type of GM obnoxiousness tends to make players try and overcompensate.
Another issue I have with planning is when players are unwilling to compromise their ideas. I’ve experienced game tables where the players just go around in circles because two or more people have a plan and they’re just banging heads until someone else gives up and goes along with their plan.
As a GM, I do try and herd my players into action before planning goes on for too long. Even it’s a loop of indecision of their own making, I know it’s no more fun for them than it is for me.
OMG, those old-school GMs who routinely seize upon the stupidest little reasons to punish players with bad in-game results drive me crazy! Like, really, why do we have to roleplay the exact choice of knot our PCs use to tether the horses at night? Almost certainly at least one character in the group knows how do it right and simply does it. It’s sad to think such a trivial thing is worth spending valuable game time on. But evidently “Your horses ran away because you didn’t tie the right knot” is the best caliber of plot these adolescent clown GMs could come up with.
My “adolescent” trick is to have firearms not work optimally because of lack of care.
This is invariably because I’m fed up to the back teeth with the 26 hour day the players are conveniently using to do everything in the best way it can possibly be done without actually saying they are doing it (let alone doing it with particular attention to detail).
I’ve done outward bound expeditions for real and trying to tell me that your party just hiked for twelve hours sans rest breaks and took care of every important detail and proposes people stand watch while everyone else sleeps (in full armor with weapon belts on of course) runs up against my clear memories of people going to bed without properly erecting their tent because they were just too ****ing tired after six hours hiking with rest breaks and an hour for lunch.
And no combat.
So if your GM starts being a dickweed over some “unimportant” in-game detail, start looking at what your assumptions as players are doing to make him or her angry and unhelpful.
And if you spend fourteen hours in full-press anti-cultist mode in my Call of Cthulhu game, don’t try and tell me you stayed up to clean swamp gunk out of your shotgun yesterday (because you thoughtlessly dropped it into the swamp so you could get a free draw weapon action every time you had an encounter) when trouble looms today, especially if you want to cite the filthy conditions as a reason for the cultists to be suffering firearm woes.
Because that is annoying and trying to weasel a super hero situation from a everyman vs the evil scenario.
There’s a sea of difference between the players abusing a GM’s willingness to overlook small details and a sadistic GM using every small detail as an opportunity to assert power over the players.
In cases like yours, where the party is going on an expedition, I work with them in advance to agree to reasonable parameters. Based on the rules and my own experience traversing a variety of terrain and conditions on foot I’d propose something like this:
I’ve proposed outlines like this for different terrain and weather conditions. I’ve always been sensible and collaborative, and serious players have never pushed back against me.
I think this discussion is circling around some interesting and persistent side effects of “planning”. For one, the players need to understand the relevant facts in order to come up with an effective plan. The GM must convey these facts to them. Simply handing the players a list of facts without letting them explore or ask questions is a fairly boring option. I think that ultimately, the GM has to be involved to a point, and then has to hand things off to the player.
In my own games, I prefer an approach where I confront the players with a problem/dilemma/obstacle, and then leave it up to them to deal with it. I try not to have expectations about how the problem is best solved, but I will encourage them when they come up with something that seems plausible. I favor approaches that have interesting side effects, or compelling narrative elements. I try not to make them grind too much, and I never try to perfectly simulate real-world details unless doing so adds to the story.
@Roxysteve – I fail to comprehend how keeping track of every neglected firearm or every missed potty-break adds to a game. I think computers handle such detailed simulation much more effectively than people do, so this level of realism might be better suited to a digital game. That being said, creating immersion in a story is hard. When players fail to articulate the details of not only what their character does but how, it makes a game too mechanical. So much of role-playing depends on verbal description, I can see why a GM would want players to be more verbose about how the character is acting.