Planning in RPGs is not a fun activity, so don’t do it.
Planning in RPGs is necessary so that we don’t get our characters killed.
Both of those statements are true.

The optimal way planning should work in your game is somewhere in the middle of those two statements. The optimal way is a combination of genre and play style. And if we were to discuss what that looked like up front, we could define how much planning was necessary for the game we were playing, so that our games had the right amount of planning, minimizing the un-fun-ness (take that Bob, our editor), and making it effective enough to keep the characters alive (at least most of them). Let’s talk about how to do that.

Is Planning Un-Fun?

I think so, and I say that as a person whose day job is planning things, and outside of work I plan everything else in my life. In RPGs, planning is just not that fun of an activity. It often consists of the table coming up with ideas and then saying “…but what about this?” going around and around in circles. If you are a player participating in the process, it can be a bit draining, but if you are the GM, waiting for the players to come up with a plan, then you are just sitting there on the outside. It is not how I want to spend my gaming time.

Is Planning Necessary?

Having a plan is a good idea because it aligns the group in terms of their goal and how they are going to achieve it. It allows the group the time to figure out how to best use their resources (equipment, powers, etc). These things greatly increase the group’s chances of being successful and surviving. 

The Components of a Plan

Let’s take a few moments and discuss what makes up a plan. A good plan has all of these, and lesser plans lack detail or are missing some of these parts: 

  • The Goal/Objective – A plan must have an objective. What are we doing? This goal should be shared by the entire group. Are you going in to steal the money? Or are you here to rescue your ex-wife from the Prince? If you are not on the same page about the goal, the group may pursue different goals, split up their resources, or at worse come into conflict.
  • Milestones – The smaller objectives you need to achieve to build up to the goal. It could be disarming the alarm system, or stealing a key from the guard. Some milestones will be in temporal order while others may occur at any time.
  • Information/Intelligence – plans run on information. You can’t plan if you don’t know where you are going, what to expect, how many guards, the terrain around the location, etc. When you lack information you start to make guesses (see below).
  • Risks – Risks are the things you don’t know but think are possible. Risks can be things like a hidden alarm system. Or something like, “What if we can’t take out the guards quietly?” In addition, Risks have a probability (how likely they are to occur) and an impact (how big of a problem it is when they come true). A lot of people who are bad with risks spend too much time worrying about how to handle low probability/high impact risks over high probability/lower impact risks. 
  • Mitigation and Contingencies – Hand in hand with risks are Mitigations (how do we make risk less likely to occur — lower probability) and Contingencies (what do we do if that risk comes true — lower the impact). You can manage neither, one, or both of these. The trick is deciding for each risk what you want to manage. 

This is why Planning is difficult and may not be fun. It is a lot to manage and done well it takes time – time that you are not playing the game. 

The Trust Issue 

The reason that people tend to over-plan is that they fear that there is some piece of information that if the players knew before they put their plan into action, would ensure the success of the goal or prevent excessive harm/death to the characters. To combat this, players do one or both of the following: 

  • Collect as much information/intelligence as possible; at times to excess. 
  • Perform excessive Risk mitigation — naming risks, and coming up with mitigations and contingencies. 

In fact, as a GM, you will know this is happening in the game when these two actions take over the session. When characters feel like they know enough, is when they are ready to switch from planning to action. 

Genre and Playstyle

Before we get to the social contract part of this… we need to discuss two more things. 

Some Genres have plans as one of the tropes. If you are running a game about thieves and heists, or a military game about Spec Ops missions, then those genres require some degree of planning. These games are also best served by mechanics that help compensate for suboptimal planning or help mitigate the lack of planning that occurs at the table. Look at how Blades in the Dark and other Forged in the Dark games remove the need for extensive planning by using mechanics to simulate good planning done by the characters rather than the players.

The other thing is play-style. Some groups get off on playing the cat and mouse game, where the GM comes up with a plan and twists and the players face off to come up with a plan to outsmart the GM. Others want nothing to do with planning. Whatever brings your entire group joy, then there is no wrong-bad-fun, as long as you all, as a group are on the same page.

The Social Contract of Planning

 The truth is that not all RPGs need the same level of planning, but unless you establish that fact, most players will assume they do. 

The truth is that not all RPGs need the same level of planning, but unless you establish that fact, most players will assume they do. 

Some genres do not lean into detailed plans. Superhero games often rely on bold action and powers to overcome problems, not intricate plans. Pulp games also favor action over plans as well. So as you establish your game, consider what the genre and your setting should favor and then combine that with your play style. 

An example: My players had recently finished a Night’s Black Agents campaign. It was a game where planning was key, and the game had some mechanics to support planning. The players knew not to move from planning to action until they had enough intel. They would sometimes spend a session collecting intel and making a plan. Currently, we are playing Mutants in the Now, a game inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game and comic. In our most recent session, the players were working on a plan for how to attack a Yakuza hotel where some mutant animals were being trafficked. They started to work on a plan worthy of Night’s Black Agents when I reminded them that this game was more action-based. They quickly simplified their plan to “We rappel to the top of the hotel and fight our way to the bottom while rescuing the other mutant animals along the way”. A perfect plan for the setting and genre. 

The key to having players not over-plan is trust between GM and the player. As the GM, I am telling the players that I am not going to punish them for choosing a simple plan. For the players, it is trusting that I am not withholding some key piece of information that would break their simple plan. 

That is not to say you cannot have a twist. The twist is a time-honored trope in all plans. The twist is the unexpected thing that the players have to deal with in the middle of executing the plan which can cause the plan to alter it on the fly. The difference is that what I am promising, as GM, is that the twist will not up-end or thwart the plan. Rather it will be a fun surprise that the characters can deal with.

This is the social contract of planning as a group, for the game you are running (genre and mechanics) and the way you like to play (style). Agree with how much planning is necessary for this game, in general. You can come up with things like this:

  • This game is about a sci-fi Spec Ops team, and the mechanics are gritty, you are going to want to have a good plan before executing an operation. 
  • This game is about mutant animals fighting other mutant animals and criminals, you don’t need more than a simple plan, as most things you encounter are going to be resolved by fighting.

By doing this you are creating expectations for the whole group on how you should handle planning. This is the social contract that you agree to and guides how you play. Establish this in Session Zero and you can set the tone for planning in your campaign, and help keep planning to exactly what it needs to be for your game.

A quick note. Even after you establish a level of planning as part of your game, you can have a story where you change the amount of planning for that session. All you have to do is indicate to the players the change so that they can reset their expectations.. 

Plan Out Your Planning

Planning is not always fun in games, and it can be worse if you are over or under-planning based on the game you are running. But like most things in RPGs, if we do some upfront communication and set some expectations we can dial in planning to just the right amount for the game we are playing. 

This expectation along with any planning mechanics that the game provides can make planning far less tedious while being effective, and make for an overall play experience. 

How do you handle planning in your games? How do you set those expectations with your players? What planning tools do you use or what planning mechanics do you employ?