Players never like to feel unprepared when it comes to situations in games. If there is a way to have an upper hand or even to “hovervan” past an encounter, the players will usually take that as a win in their book. That desire to be ahead of the game can often lead to massive slow downs and lags in the game as the players endlessly attempt to position themselves perfectly to address a challenge – especially if you are playing any flavor of Shadowrun. Luckily, any game that uses a point system to affect the narrative or mechanics in any way has a built in structure to help lubricate these slowdowns while also helping the players feel prepared for situations.
This happens all too often
Rogue’s Player: I want to look down that tunnel, but I’m going to be very quiet and I’m going to look for traps along the way.
GM: Okay, give me a stealth roll and two perception rolls.
Rogue’s Player: Is one for trapfinding?
GM: I can’t tell you otherwise it would reveal there is a trap.
Rogue’s Player: But I get a bonus to trapfinding.
GM: Okay, roll one with and one without the bonus.
— 2 minutes of dice rolling and adding up bonuses and feats later —
GM: There was nothing down the hall.
Rogue’s Player: Okay, I go down the next hall – VERY carefully and VERY aware.
Fighter’s Player: I want to hit something! Can we just move on!
Yeah, it’s a tropey scenario, but I can think of at least 3 or 4, wait 5, wait 7 times from games where that exact sort of scenario played out in some fashion. One player with a particular skill-set (sneaking, hacking, magical sensing, etc.) wants to use it to the best advantage, but that takes time to really bring their abilities to bear. Part of that is a game design issue, but part of it could be handled in a different and quicker way. The player who is playing the rogue isn’t doing anything wrong. They want to get the most out of their character and be of benefit to the party, their play loop is just built to be separate in some way. Everyone engages in combat, but if everyone engaged in sneaking around it would be detrimental.
You don’t actually have to prepare to feel prepared
So, how do you make those scenarios quicker while still making sure that players with those types of characters feel relevant? SUMMARIZE!
Rather than splitting one character off, pull that side-scenario into a more compressed meta-space. Before going into the situation, and maybe even at the start of the session, ask the person doing the sneaking / hacking / magical scrying / etc. to give you a handful of the relevant rolls. Depending on the number of successes and any perceived difficulty modifiers for the task – such as more difficult because it is a well guarded space or easier because it is an ancient computer system with 12345 as the password – you can award a number of extra inspiration points that can only be used when relevant to that research or skill.
When you get to the time those points are used, narrate a brief montage of the event, or even better let the player do it within some guidelines, and you can move into the more group based play loops. With those extra inspiration points available, the player can get advantage and then call back to some element of their sneaking, hacking, or preparation phase. Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn’t, but the player now has a currency to use and feel justified in the use of their skills and their character build. You can also ask for a multitude of rolls without triggering any suspicions about specific areas.
If you want to acknowledge that the player might have found a trap or accessed a blueprint and thus know where a laser grid is, you could just let the player know they have 3 “prep points” and that you will remove a few things based on their successes. Maybe you ask them if they want to spend a point before they go down the next hall. When they do, you show one trap they would notice, tell them about an ambush spot they could avoid, or reveal a secret door that bypasses the lockpicking challenge on the main door.
It all comes down to abilities, reward, and currency to spend in some way. The players with solo (ish) gameplay loops want to use their abilities, and you should reward them for doing well with those. Sometimes those moments should be zoomed in on but sometimes they pull you away from the rest of the game. Adding in some method that justifies the expenditure of time and effort without always having to pause the rest of the game for it can create the same sense of accomplishment. This sort of system doesn’t remove the solo-gameplay loop, it just moves it outside of the shared action phases while still letting that character interact at the same pace as the others. The rolls may happen earlier in a mini-game sort of situation, but the narrative is experienced at the same time as the other players.
Points and Meta-Currency
One of the reasons this works well is the idea of a meta-currency that you spend for benefit on the narrative. Gaining this currency is the reward for the rolls, but it also triggers that core idea of being prepared. Even if the players don’t know the narrative around how it is used when they gain it, they get to use it to circumvent disaster and thus feel like they were prepared. If you wrap in the narrative requirement as well, it mimics the concept of the heist movie prep scene, but in reverse. Rather than the protagonists explaining the heist and seeing small snippets of it, you know how prepared you are for the heist and then get the flashbacks of the preparation showing off how cool that character is on their own.
When a game system has some kind of points that affect the narrative – like D&D 5e’s inspiration, 3.5’s Action Points in Eberron, Fate Points in Fate, XP’s non-level up use in the Cypher System, etc. – you can easily tack the prep point idea on top of that. Hacking an existing framework like this gives a way for the players to easily tie into it. It gives a framework for the benefit to be applied and you can limit it to only certain uses. Can the advantage be used in combat or just for avoiding traps? Maybe the player can give a good narrative for why it is relevant for a combat use.
“I knew there were a couple of loose cobblestones in this hall from my sneaking through, so I back up until the enemy is on one of those and it puts them off balance a bit.”
That solution is clever as heck, so why not? It also lets the player be heard for their clever ideas and their character builds.
Of course, the prep points don’t need tied to the exact use of the already existing point, such as inspiration being used for advantage. You could have them be spent in an entirely different way. Maybe the player has 4 prep points that can be used to grant advantage or… as the character gets into the dungeon you offer to reveal as many traps as they want to spend prep points on. They give you two and you show them two traps they can now avoid. They save the rest for other uses and when they get ambushed they ask if they can spend the other two to retcon that they knew it was going to happen and avoid the first surprise round.
The fact that these are treated as currency lets them be malleable in just that way. You can spend them on different areas and still feel as though you have the same amount of benefit, even if the results are vastly different. Do you spend that $20 on 3 fancy coffees, one good meal out, or a new game book?
Another way to take this concept is to make the prep points shared. It’s not just the hacker who benefits from knowing the base blueprints after all, but everyone. Creating a generic challenge of 5 rolls of relevant skills with a threshold of 3 successes for the hacker / rogue / scout /etc. could give every player two more inspiration or story points to use. Rather than the hacker getting 4 points, this helps everyone benefit while also making the traditionally solo play loop feel relevant to everyone. You can still do the flashback and narrative justification for the character who did the solo loop, but now the fighter or cleric gets to narrate it or ask the other player to. This makes their contribution feel relevant while also removing the time sink that might disrupt the flow.
I have iterations of this that I use in different games, but ultimately the concept needs tailored towards your play style. In my D&D games I give 5 inspiration at the start of every session. I then find ways to bleed them out earlier in the game before big climactic battles, but if the players are wise to that they save them and pull victory from the jaws of defeat with them. Because of how I use inspiration in my games, 1 – 2 more per player for prep doesn’t overbalance things, but that’s because I run from the Tome of Beasts or at a few CR higher than the player levels. In a game that is less generous with inspiration – and closer to RAW – maybe leaving prep points as their own kind of currency makes more sense. In a game where the “Plot Points” are very powerful, maybe you have a chart where a certain number of successes in the prep phase yields different results.
However you use it, the idea of separating the narrative and mechanical elements of the more solo-centric gameplay loops and generating a type of currency to reconnect them during the group gameplay loops can really change the dynamic. It prevents the solo-action from bogging things down while still letting the player make full use of their character. Have you used systems like this before? There are some games where this style of mechanic is baked right in, but those usually focus around more heist-centric mechanics or investigation as full-game sorts of scenarios. What point-based systems would you envision this working well with?