You’ve no doubt heard – or uttered – the phrase that “no adventure survives contact with the players.” The argument being that even the best GM cannot possibly account for all the permutations that players come up with. Typically the bonzo, crazy ideas that come from out of nowhere (“I steal his pants”) are the ones that make us shake our head, pause for a moment, and then pick up the pieces. But this isn’t about handling those types of plans, it’s the opposite: the perfect plan. When is perfect perhaps too perfect?
It’s the situation that you’ll never see on a TV show – well, perhaps “Leverage” excepted – but is often a trope of movies where the audience has imperfect information (“Ocean’s Eleven”): the plan where everything goes right. The reason being that being perfect isn’t particularly interesting or engaging from a storytelling point-of-view. Without the element of failure or a complication, it feels like a hollow victory.
The obvious solution is to introduce a complication in an effort to “spice things up.” Now we’re venturing into dangerous territory, the same territory occupied by the “fudge or do not fudge die rolls”
argument conversation! Pick your side and fight!
Do No Harm
The players have spent the time and made the perfect plan. They’ve accounted for every conceivable problem, resolved them, made any necessary task rolls, and earned their victory. To introduce a complication sullies the work of the players and, in essence, makes them feel powerless by virtue of pre-destination: no plan will survive contact with the GM who will conspire to add artificial roadblocks, perhaps in an effort to strengthen their power base or, mistakenly, to add drama.
Instead the players should be rewarded and see their plans come to fruition. The dramatic tension exists, not in introducing a complication, but through the execution of the plan. Will it indeed succeed all the way through? Much like a no-hitter in baseball, as the endgame approaches the tension mounts: will he or won’t he?
Thus, there’s no need for the GM to introduce a complication, as the drama is self-sustaining. In fact, the players who tend to over think and analyze every detail may introduce their own complications inadvertently! The GM need only adjudicate the rules, provide the framework of the adventure, and then guide the player’s plan through resolution. Success is its own reward and the players are reaffirmed that the foundation of the game is based on story integrity.
Too Perfect To Be Believable
On the rare occasion where the player’s seem to have the GM’s notes beforehand and plot out the perfect plan, there are still elements that are unforeseen. In fact, no plan is perfect by virtue that no plan can possibly account for all eventualities. These “random elements” provide the perfect backdrop for the GM to insert an element of tension or drama into the equation. After all, without the possibility of failure – or even the perception of failure – there is inherently no conflict, an essential element of every good story.
This isn’t waging a war against the players, it’s dynamically altering the elements by introducing new, unforeseen complications to challenge them. Now these elements can be very minor, adding the illusion of capture and failure (“oh no!”) or more pronounced, in that things may not be what they seem. The players have been acting on imperfect information all along; the GM’s power of omniscience let’s him rewrite history without anyone directly knowing (but likely suspecting) that wasn’t the real case all along.
Ultimately the foundation of this position isn’t one of actively conspiring against the players, but one of manufacturing drama for the sake of fun. It’s working with the players to introduce elements for them to overcome so that the eventual outcome of success feels that much more rewarding. Success is drawn from overcoming the conflict, not circumventing it.
Taking A Stance
Where do you fall in the continuum of the perfect plan? As a datapoint, how does this position relate to your feelings on fudging die rolls? Those GMs that fudge die rolls, are they also fudging adventures, in a manner of speaking? The position of “let the dice fall where they may” and steadfast sticking to your adventure may give one the moral high ground, but does it necessarily equate to a better play experience?
Sound off below on how you would handle the Perfect Plan in your game!
I think there are places in game design which are using mechanics these days to introduce complications and “fudge” the adventure. So I would suggest when your playing a game which doesn’t suggest that kind of play you shouldn’t do it. If you want a game which allows for that kind of play then play those games.
Two examples of games which allow you to introduce complications into the adventure or scenario are Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and Apocalypse World and its spin offs: Dungeon World, Monster Hearts, Tremulus. EotE has threat and advantage on the dice as symbols on top of success and failure. When threat is rolled the GM can complicate the players life in unforeseen ways from causing them some mechanical hindrance for a short period of time to introducing a new element to the story to complicate the players lives.
The X World games use a 2d6 plus modifier system to decide if you succeed or fail but there is a range of things which happen. Three ranges to be exact. 10+ you get the best result, 7-9 usually you get what you want with a cost or make a choice to get what you want with a complication or don’t get what you want, 6- rolls allow the GM to cause the players grief in some way or introduce an element to the game which will cause the players trouble.
I’m a fan of games exploring mechanics which allow for the GM to “fudge” the scenario/adventure because its something a lot of GMs have been doing and having to explain away as making an effort to make a game a more enjoyable experience for the players at the table. Now that we have a wider variety of games which promote a larger spectrum of experience and plays styles so if your game if about adjudicating rules to see what happens or being inventive to see what happens then I think you should play the game for what it is, see what happens, then decide if you like it or not and if you don’t find another game which does what you want or design a game which does what you want.
I’ll put aside games that have mechanics which include an explicit “screw with the player’s plans now” option, much though I love them, because the game itself is telling you to screw with the players; it’s what everyone signed up for.
But take a game without a complication/hard move mechanic. Maybe one of the d20 descendents. If the players somehow have a brilliant plan, why mess with it? As “Do No Harm” notes, there is still the challenge of execution; there is a good chance that a bad roll or an error in implementation will complicate life, and that possibility creates tension and excitement.
But let’s go all the way: the players have constructed a brilliant plan that somehow avoids any game mechanics that might through a monkey wrench into the works, and you reasonably expect them to execute the plan correctly. Let them have their win! The occasional landslide victory can be fun too. It would stop being fun if it was too common, but I find it unlikely that the perfect storm would form every week.
Upon reflection, I suspect I haven’t been the best at taking my own advice. I occasionally think, “Well, that’s too easy. How can I tweak things to add a bit more excitement.” Bad me. Probably just as well that I’m increasingly preferring games that give me explicit permission to screw with the player’s plans. (Leverage and Dungeon World are high on my list at the moment.)
The above poster* is a fool and is being completely blind to an important reason to alter the world in response to player plans: because the antagonist sometimes should be smarter than the GM. If you’re playing Shadowrun and the PCs are raiding a major corporation, what’s the likelihood that they’ve actually found a major loophole in the security system? Or maybe sneaking into the lair of an ancient and highly intelligent dragon? The GM is a single person and is expected to create defenses that a team of highly skilled specialists or a super-genius would create. The poor GM then faces a team of players. Altering the world after the fact is just a reasonable way to simulate intelligent opposition. Just be sure to play fair, including ensuring the players have reasonable access to the retroactive world state after you change it and before they begin executing their plan.
Generally speaking, if the players really out-thought me and came up with a truly genius plan that bypasses all of the challenges I had laid out before them, I’ll let it ride. You have to take the good (plan is staged perfectly and goes off without a hitch) to balance out the bad (blundering into a life or death scenario where a couple characters don’t walk away) to have real meaning.
That said, rarely have I ever encountered a scenario with a truly perfect plan that requires no challenge or chance. Even a very good plan has contingency points. Guards that need to be sweet talked, skill rolls that could come up as critical failures and on the spot ad-libs. Even if they have accounted for all of these things and come up with ways around them, they still have to remember *to do* all of those things and could slip up in the process, forgetting a step and opening up an opportunity for complications.
I personally do not fudge die rolls and I do not fudge adventures. If the players come up with a ‘perfect plan’ that bypasses all the challenges I have prepared, I would let them have the victory and move on rather than throw in some extra artificial roadblocks in an attempt to add drama or tension.
I have played with GMs who like to throw in extra twists and setbacks in spite of a good plan and it is usually obvious and frustrating as a player. IMO, both as a player and a GM, seeing a good plan lead to an easy victory feels more rewarding than any bits of drama/tension which might arise from throwing in artificial roadblocks to derail the plan. YMMV.
I tend to create situations so complex and opaque that a “perfect” plan is impossible. I call these “opportunity-rich environments.” The key is to give the players lots of information to work with, but definitely not all of it; complications can lurk in those shadows.
On the rare occasion that everything goes according to the player’s plan, I let it stand. They earned that victory; the next session may not be so forgiving.
This is the ONLY “adversarial” situation I see in RPGing. I come up with a BBEG and a scenario, and it is up to the group to “screw up” my scenario. This is EXACTLY what I love – and why I love diversity in my groups.
I’m a guy. I think like a guy. I make guy plans. If my group is all guys, I can make devious plans all day and USUALLY thwart the most obvious foils to my plots. I just sit back and think: “If faced with this, how would _I_ defeat the situation?” Once that’s done, I come up with two or three contingencies, and then I’m ready for the group.
And this is where the diversity comes in. I grew up an average White dude. Diversity is gaming with someone that is less than dirt-poor, or wealthy as heck. Diversity is gaming with non-Whites, and with women.
Why do I love it? Because THEY (insert all the various differences here) don’t THINK like me. I make a scenario and set up three or four ways to get over/around/through it, throw someone in the group that isn’t like me and invariably, they’ll come up with “Plan F”… or “Q”… or “Fish”. Come up with a cottage with one door, one window and one chimney, and a “non-me” will come up with a FOURTH or more option to get into the cottage.
And that’s when I have to wing it… and that’s what I love about gaming. I LOVE it when a group out thinks me.
And, like others have stated, if they “defeat me,” I let it stand. If not, they’ll think more the next time.