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Standing Operating Procedure

A discussion on the GM Mastery mailing list (an adjunct to Johnn Four’s excellent Roleplaying Tips weekly e-zine) involved speeding up game play, and the concept of the Standing Operating Procedure was brought up. For routine and repetitive tasks (setting camp, visiting town, etc), SOPs are a handy technique to quickly put the players and GM on the same page. In addition, they allow the GM to handle situations like an attack at night without repeating the “who’s on watch?” discussion every single time, and without necessarily alerting the players that ‘this time, it’s different’.

(Although the common term is “Standard Operating Procedure”, I’m going with the military’s “Standing” terminology, because it implies “until further notice”.)

An overly cautious group can take this too far, but take a few minutes with your group and nail down SOPs for various activities. When ‘something happens’ during or subsequent to those activities, you’ll all have a previously agreed-upon idea of the situation. They key to an SOP is to keep it simple; complexity is not wholly compatible with flexibility.

For instance, here’s a sample ‘camping SOP’ for a fantasy game: Starting two hours before sunset, the Druid and Ranger find a defensible campsite. The ‘buddy system’ is in full effect; nobody wanders off alone. The picket line [1] (if any) is set up close to the sleeping area, if a bit downhill. A cook-fire will be used, then banked down [2] after twilight so that it can be restarted in case of emergency; oil, dry wood, and prepared torches are stored nearby. Everyone will sleep in the open, under wool blankets and waxed canvas covers, if necessary. Characters in leather armor will sleep in it, while those in metal armors will not. A two-man watch will be held, although everyone gets at least six hours of sleep. Priests and wizards have the last watch, so that they may go straight to their prayers and spells at dawn.

In more dynamic situations, such as opening a door, a more flexible approach may be needed. In descending order of importance: The rogue will crouch in front of the door until it’s untrapped, unlocked, and opened (in that order). The fighter will stand at most five feet from the door, weapon drawn. The ranger will be positioned so she can see into the room once the door is cracked open, with an arrow nocked and drawn back to shoot as a ready action [3] (or the equivalent). The REMFs [4] will cover any rear or side approaches.

Other situations that may call for an SOP:

To reiterate, SOPs should be simple and flexible, and can be changed or deviated from at a moment’s notice. They are strictly for routine or repetitive situations and tasks that don’t require repeated discussion.

Can you think of any other tasks that might call for an SOP? Then sound off in the comments and let us know!

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Standing Operating Procedure"

#1 Comment By Razjah On September 2, 2010 @ 8:24 am

I am definitely going to use this on Saturday. I really like the ease of use, simplicity, adn above all- the ability to be changed at a moment’s notice.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On September 2, 2010 @ 10:53 am

I can’t think of anything less interesting than this idea, which has at the heart of it the theory that a loose gang of people drawn from all kinds of life will act with military precision at all times. The “door” SOP I can get behind, maybe, but the campground policy? No-one ever goofs off or is simply too tired to stand watch there and then?

I guess it’s all down to immersion. If your game style is all about encounters (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as WoC have proved by naming a totally engrossing gaming milieu for the phenomenon) I can see you’d not want to clutter it with non-encounter claptrap. If you are about immersion in the world, I think that the chance to bathe in a nearby lake or hunt venison for a change of diet would interfere with any plans made while sitting some inn.

If some player whines “but I ALWAYS do such-and-such” I guess you might feel this sort of measure to be in order, but then what happens when the monsters get wise and start planning for the party to arrange themselves a-la Tucker’s Kobolds? Are those same players going to broaden the scope of their SOP to say “We always adapt this to cope with any danger we encounter?” and what do you say if they do?

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 2, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

[5] – Thanks!

[6] – I think I get where you’re coming from, but there’s no military precision or even enforcement in the above. The SOP simply comes into play when the players don’t otherwise specify what their characters are doing. If the Ranger hasn’t had enough solo time brooding and working on his scruffy beard, then he’s free to wander off alone (and suffer the consequences), but otherwise he’ll be with a buddy.

I’ve found that two things happen with an SOP:
– When something unexpected happens, the GM has a player-approved template for how the party is arrayed, and has some latitude to proceed. (This also prevents the “I wore my plate mail tonight, but only tonight” situation.)
– Less time is spent on routine or repetitive tasks. This may not be immersive to some, but it does make for a faster and more exciting game.

When the monsters get wise (and they will), the SOP is subject to change in both specific and general instances. “So long as we’re in these gorram Kobold caves, we take a custom approach at doors.” The SOP should not be a setup for a GM trap.

FWIW, I’m not a fan of the ‘encounters only’ style either. I find more immersion in stringing together scenes with dialog, but that doesn’t mean that every night’s camping is RPed. 🙂

#4 Comment By XonImmortal On September 2, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

Okay, but this seems like something the players should come up with, not the GM.

Anybody got any ideas on how to hint at this to the players?

I just can’t picture myself saying, “okay, what are you standard operating procedures?”

#5 Comment By Ismael_DM On September 2, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

My group uses SOP for campsites, marching order, chests and doors.

@XonImmortal These typically evolve from repetition. “So what do you do tonight to setup camp?” “The same thing we did last night…”. I’ve never seen them laid out before something happens.

#6 Comment By Toldain On September 2, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

Following the link for REMF introduced me to the word “FOBBIT”. I love this word. Thank you so much.

#7 Comment By Ben Scerri On September 2, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

[7] – Well personally, due to me GMing Dark Heresy, I am going to have the parties handler tell them to organised in a more strict and disciplined group, as structure is the best way towards survival… As such, I will then ask them what their various SOPs are.

#8 Comment By Bookkeeper On September 3, 2010 @ 6:19 am

Once more, Gnome Stew throws me something to immediately turn out to my players. Thanks!

I think there are two ways to approach this from the player perspective. If your party has a few military/paramilitary types in it, you could certainly discuss SOP in character, laying out tasks and making plans. If not, do it out of character – it’s mildly meta-gamey but in a way that speeds play so I’m for it.

#9 Comment By Silveressa On September 3, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

@Roxysteve: While this can become boring and take a lot of rp/interaction out of a game session, it can prove very handy for speeding things up for those games that take place over chat programs or for those times when the group is on a shorter then usual play time. (late players, need to stop early for whatever reason, etc..)

In those situations the chars can quickly state they do their “uaual _” and move on to more fun scenes then waste game time running around town stocking up when they would much rather spend the time actually doing the “meat” of the adventure.

Also the gm can always interrupt their “SOP” at any point to highlight an interesting scene or encounter if they want to.

#10 Comment By DocRyder On September 4, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

In 3.5, a couple of the later books had “team benefits” in which characters get bonuses or special effects from practicing certain routines. This is a sound article on defining those practices.

Like Roxysteve, I don’t really need such an extreme paramilitary level of detail, but it gives a good example of what the author wants to see in his games. YMMV. I am forwarding the link to my players.

#11 Comment By Razjah On September 4, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

I just finished my first session for my pathfinder game. My players loved it!

They have not come up with a camp one, but they have one for doors, narrow pathways (the mage in the back got shot once and almost died, so now the mages are in the middle with a fast moving sword sage in the rear who can get to the front lines in a hurry), in town “down time” duties, and some other random ones.

One of the best ideas ever!

#12 Comment By scruffylad On September 6, 2010 @ 1:19 am

I’ve used something like this a bit as well, although not as formalized. Usually, I would ask who was standing watch at different times, the first night of camp. And then my players would usually simply say they were using the same schedule every night, and we’d sort of agree that that’s what they were doing, unless they said otherwise. For us, the benefit was speeding past the “boring” parts. Specifying the order isn’t what’s exciting; it’s the orc attack that happens during 3rd watch that gets everyone rolling dice and excited about the fight.

For camp watches, and for marching order, I can see something like a SOP being useful, because it’s just minor organizational things, that usually don’t contribute to the story much, in and of themselves. (In town though, we usually didn’t have an SOP, probably because towns were so different, had so many options, etc., and the party’s needs were different every time, so an SOP didn’t work, for us.)

#13 Comment By IcebergTitanic On September 6, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

On a related note, I have often created a list of “adventure packs” offered by kindly merchants, which allow an adventurer group to purchase a big pack full of standard goodies (torches, rope, tents, food, etc, etc) without having to sit down and take 20 minutes of the game session every time we come to town. Sort of the same concept as the SOP, but for items. I think they did that in one of the iterations of DD but mine had a wider variety. (i.e. Subterranean pack, high seas pack, desert pack)