Premise = Simulation = Planning?

edited April 2016 in Story Games
Planning can be a big problem in RPG play. An exciting adventure is rolling along at a nice pace, and then the characters have a moment of safety and leisure to ponder their next move, and then, thud. They speculate. They theorize. They second-guess. They argue. They obsess. And the momentum dies. The table loses energy.

There's a reason why TV shows and comics and movies and novels don't dwell on the planning phase. The necessary component of just sitting and mulling the options? That isn't much fun to watch. If someone cooks up a cool plan in a movie, they do it off screen, or they do it in a split second, or they do it as part of a dramatic sequence which develops characters and relationships and maybe happens in a speeding car amidst a hail of gunfire (and even in this case it's usually pretty quick).

A lot of recent RPGs have decided to follow entertainment's lead and elide the planning. If the characters need to decide what to do, the players just pick whatever sounds fun or effective at first glance, and then we jump into it, retconning the characters' process of getting there as needed.

I think this generally works pretty well from a script-writer or audience perspective.

There are other perspectives, though.

Many, many people are drawn to RPGs in order to explore an imagined situation or premise. "Let's see what would happen if..." can be a means to an end, or an end in itself, but either way, I think it's a natural fit with the nature of the hobby, and I think history bears that out. Maybe it's about modeling scimitars vs rapiers via probabilities and dice, or maybe it's about asking how first contact with aliens would go down in Iceland, or maybe it's about seeing how a group of compelling people navigate a challenging situation. In any case, the players are very interested in getting an answer, rather than just picking one. They don't want to just workshop it, like, "wouldn't it be cool if rapiers and scimitars are perfectly balanced for a fair fight?" or "wouldn't it be cool if the aliens bonded with Icelandic culture and then judged the rest of humankind in contrast?" or "wouldn't it be cool if the enemy soldiers trapped in the tunnel together fell in love?"

They don't want that. What they want is to play it out and see.

To me, this presents a problem for the anti-planning approach. Why? Well, most RPGs, and most stories, and most entertainment worth emulating, and most fictional premises worth exploring, include characters making important decisions. And the way RPGs tend to explore "what would happen" (as opposed to storyboarding "what would be cool"), is by assigning the players to act as the characters -- tasking them to develop a good sense of, and then adhere to, how these fictional people work.

Well, if your fictional people are like real people, and they have important decisions to make, and they're not crazily impulsive, and no one's holding a gun to their head... they're probably going to mull things a bit. They're probably going to take their time and make the best decision they can.

If you're playing them? Choosing as they would choose, to see how that plays out? You kinda have to take your time to do the best that they can do too. You need to search for the best solution, and vet your candidates, and troubleshoot, and compare risks and rewards and pros and cons.

Unless we are way smarter than our characters, making the best decisions they can make will take us a while.

I'm not saying that the only two options are (a) shallow making stuff up in the name of pace and action or (b) interminable pondering for the sake of authentic simulation. I'm just saying that I think the tension here is real, and if you care about both pacing and authenticity, you'd better keep an eye on what you're sacrificing from one while pursuing the other.

What do you think? Agreement, disagreement, completely separate takes on the same issue, and ideas for having our cake and eating it too are all welcome.

Comments

  • I ran a realistic military game a few years ago which was all about planning. Think special forces. Think desert.
    They forgot to pack water. They died before getting halfway to the target area.
  • Please note, I never said it was fun, or good, or satisfying.
  • That's a pretty amazing story...

    (I've seen a few situations like those in my gaming history, too, although usually it involved some bad dice luck as well as bad planning or decision-making. For instance, a crash landing on a barren ice planet: with no way to refuel the ship, the characters died once their oxygen supply ran out.)
  • edited April 2016
    Dave,

    This is a great post, and I couldn't agree more.

    I see lots of modern games trying to cut through this Gordian knot with different techniques, and I'd like to think that we will see a lot more progress as we move along.

    In the past, this issue has generally been managed through scenario design (e.g. ever-present time pressure); more recently, we've had more mechanical solutions (which often work by making planning unnecessary or irrelevant to success). I'd like to see other directions to take this in.

    It also occurs to me that there may be interesting cross-pollination between paradigms. For instance, a lot of "storyboarding" games have a "scene economy". Could an entirely different kind of game also benefit from this? If we have a structure which says we only get a planning scene after three action scenes, that could do something for pacing.

    Setting limitations on mechanical advantages can be interesting, too, like how AW's "read a sitch" (a very short-form of analysis and planning!) limits you to a specific number of questions and bonuses. When a mechanism like this is in place, you know when you've reached the limit of effective planning. ("Ok, so we only get bonuses for the first three contingencies we plan for? Let's go, guys!")
  • edited April 2016
    No plan survives contact with the enemy, but it doesn't have to take you a while to draft contingencies.

    Leverage RPG and John Harper's Blades in the Dark kind of captures that comic/TV show magic of how missions go down through their use of cutting to the action and revealing preparation through flashbacks. The most significant advantage in this approach is that it keeps the game's focus on the problem immediately facing the players at all times. You're using a flashback to explain how your planning was set up to combat this issue. Both games fantastically represent that approach in my opinion.

    The Sprawl on the other hand has a different approach. It's "legwork" phase of mission creation is designed to provide you quanta of abstract [info] and [gear] that players can cash in for what they need to secure fictional positioning during the actual mission phase.
  • edited April 2016
    Eric, I agree that all three approaches are cool! Personally, though, I see them as firmly outside the "what would happen" simulation paradigm. The outcomes they produce are always plausible and sensible, but because the process of getting there is abstracted, we don't get to see how the character decisions create those mid-adventure opportunities or fail to.

    I actually haven't played Leverage, but I talked with one of the writers about it at length, and your recap agrees with what I remember.

    In The Sprawl, I love the dynamic of "use pre-mission actions to generate flexible currency for mission use" and I think the "info" and "gear" categories are perfectly on-point for the genre. At the end of play, though, I was definitely left feeling like I was crafting the story as a player rather than inhabiting it or watching it unfold organically.

    Of these three games, I like Blades the best on this front, because there is some meaningful choice involved in the abstracting -- we have to at least decide what kind of approach we're taking to the mission before we start jumping ahead and retconning back.

    I think that's a pretty solid step toward having the best of both worlds, a system that allows us to jump past some things without jumping past everything.

    To preserve my sense of seeing "how does this work out?" though, based on fictional causality rather than gameplay, I'd like to get a little deeper than "type of approach".

    This actually sounds kind of promising to me:
    it doesn't have to take you a while to draft contingencies.
    Perhaps an RPG could include a simple flow chart to structure planning, with a few simple "on the other hand, if..." contingencies.
  • If we have a structure which says we only get a planning scene after three action scenes, that could do something for pacing.

    Setting limitations on mechanical advantages can be interesting, too, like how AW's "read a sitch" (a very short-form of analysis and planning!) limits you to a specific number of questions and bonuses. When a mechanism like this is in place, you know when you've reached the limit of effective planning. ("Ok, so we only get bonuses for the first three contingencies we plan for? Let's go, guys!")
    Yeah, some neat variety is evolving out there!

    Along the lines of mechanized resource-management planning, I recently had an idea, inspired by The Sprawl:

    Prior actions establish future "I was prepared for this" options:
    - prior Scouting opens up on-site Info
    - prior Entry opens up on-site Resources
    - prior relevant fiction w/ no roll enables point spend for Resource
    - prior relevant fiction w/ successful roll enables free use of Resource

    Much more gamey than simulationy, for sure, but maybe adds some more toys to the toolkit...
  • Planning can be a big problem in RPG play. An exciting adventure is rolling along at a nice pace, and then the characters have a moment of safety and leisure to ponder their next move, and then, thud. They speculate. They theorize. They second-guess. They argue. They obsess. And the momentum dies. The table loses energy.
    The adventure may loose momentum, but if the players are engaged in planning, is the table the really loosing energy?

    I used to look at it that way, but that was when I - as a game master - had a goal in mind with the adventure that the players needed to reach. I forbid "greed" as a personality trait, as an example, because that always slowed down the pace of the adventure with the characters arguing how to divide the loot.

    Nowadays, when I play to find out with no real goal for the adventure (but not Story Now), I tend to lean back whenever the players starts planning. My goal is to engage my players, and if they are engaged, then I succeeded. It doesn't matter what they are engaged in.
  • Rickard,

    That's an interesting point.

    I think there's fun planning.

    This is when everyone's throwing around ideas, and you're just really enjoying brainstorming and everyone's have a great time at the table.

    There is also productive planning.

    This is when planning is rewarding because it produces results. It may be quick or it may be slow, but everyone is aware that things are being accomplished, and the plans will pay off in some way.

    And there is necessary/expected planning.

    This is when the group makes plans either because a) the GM/game expects them to and demands it (for a micro-example, consider scripting in Burning Wheel), or b) the players are just used to doing it that way, and won't break the pattern.

    In a way, the ideal game situation is one where all three are present, but they could be combined in any old way.

    For instance, I think that "splitting up the loot" could be construed as a form of planning. (Especially if you're tracking encumbrance, and/or the loot includes useful objects like magical items, or splitting them up improves your chances of holding on to them - let's say the characters are about to go through security and valuables could be confiscated.)

    If the players are enjoying it, it's fun, but perhaps the GM finds it dull, because it's not productive - it's just a tangent, not necessary to the game's functioning, and the GM has effectively been cut off from play. If the players are only engaging in it because it's become part of the flow of play, and is therefore expected, it's possible that everyone would enjoy the game more if they just skipped over the process or set up a standard way of doing things. (Much like "standard marching order" in a lot of dungeon crawling games allows us to skip over certain parts of "making a plan".)
  • edited April 2016
    Yeah. As GM, if the players want to plan, my default has always been to just kick back and let them plan, enjoying their speculations about stuff which is often my future content. But productive often gets mixed in with a bit of expected beyond the point of fun.
  • edited April 2016
    Planning can be a big problem in RPG play. An exciting adventure is rolling along at a nice pace, and then the characters have a moment of safety and leisure to ponder their next move, and then, thud. They speculate. They theorize. They second-guess. They argue. They obsess. And the momentum dies. The table loses energy.
    I still can't wrap my head about how this comes to happen. I'm with Rickard on engaging the players as the GM goal. Going this way actually capitalizes on those moments to create another kind of fun, with a slightly different pace. Whenever I've been in a group that does planning, that is actually a good part of the game, so the only concern of the GM is to put limits to time & other resources for adding pressure and keeping the planning stage short.

    Either if players are talking about theories about the plot or a plan to defend a town, it's time for the GM to listen and take notes. I've gotten great ideas from this kind of player brainstorm. Even when players comment jokingly about the worst case scenario and you make it happen in front of them at that exact moment or even later, their surprise is still genuine because now you're playing with their actual expectations and not with whatever you assumed their expectations could be (which may be the same only if you're a heck of a good GM and know your players very well).

    Part of the trick is to notice when they absent-mindedly talk about things that just came up to their minds, without thinking of the consequences of the GM taking them seriously. It happens more often that you would believe, and those ideas are almost always really fun to engage. The other part is to see the difference between these and metagaming behaviours, which aren't as common in this aspect of play as you might think, even when players are used to having you stealing ideas from them.

    On top of that you can easily prompt them to speak their mind about what could come up next asking them "What do you think about the situation?". They will start theorizing and if you've been GMing right, you will often have material of superior quality to whatever you had prepared. Why? Because human imagination works that way. Think how fear works in real life: you get small signals of danger and your mind starts to amplify them and connect them, expanding its possibilities.

    You could give your players several totally incongruent clues and they will assemble them into a plot. All you have to do is look surprised and say "I can't believe you solved it!", and players will remember that session forever. :D ok, that might be too illusionistic, but hearing players expectatives and using them a bit for your prep or impro doesn't have to be illusionistic at all.
  • Either if players are talking about theories about the plot or a plan to defend a town, it's time for the GM to listen and take notes. I've gotten great ideas from this kind of player brainstorm. Even when players comment jokingly about the worst case scenario and you make it happen in front of them at that exact moment or even later, their surprise is still genuine . . . you can easily prompt them to speak their mind about what could come up next
    I do this too as GM! It's tons of fun. I always like it when the players start planning. The only problem is when the planning goes on too long and they get stuck in a rut.
    the only concern of the GM is to put limits to time & other resources for adding pressure and keeping the planning stage short.
    That's a quality solution -- sometimes!

    My players tend to plan when the characters are safe and there isn't any existing time pressure. It feels weird for me as GM to say, "No, your characters never have an hour to just chill and talk." In that case, characters should all go insane from constant stress, so I don't want to go there. I will definitely hurry them with time pressure if they try to plan while in a dungeon or something, but that's usually not a problem.

    There are certainly other things a facilitator can do to keep planning short, such as saying, "Okay, I decree you get five more minutes!" But I don't want to make those sorts of decrees about how other people have to play. I'm happy to start a discussion where we agree that we only want to spend five more minutes on planning! But that can be a tough sell. Sometimes the players are pretty invested in earning the best outcome by making the best plan.
  • edited April 2016
    My first impulse is to tackle this issue not by reducing or eliminating planning, but by providing some sort of system to help it stay fun. I've tested out a few play aids in this direction, but haven't had a big hit yet. I think the most success I've had is just in driving home a few simple principles:
    - When you are coming up with options, do not discuss them in detail before doing the following:

    - Mention all the options that immediately occur to you.

    - If any of them are urgent, discard any that aren't.

    - Identify what you stand to gain from each option.

    - Identify which options you're ready to act on now and which ones require more information.

    - Of the options that you're ready to act on now, are there any whose prospective gains motivate you to just do it?

    • If there's one, then do it!
    • If there are many, then do the one with the best gains!
    • If not, then look at the ones that require more info and continue below

    - Of the options that require more info, identify which ones you know how to pursue more info on, and which ones you don't.

    - Again, among equally actionable options (in this case, starting with known pursuits), go for the one with the best prospective gains.
    You can probably tell that this isn't necessary for a simple planning moment like "given that we're going to frontal assault the orc guards, should we go in daylight or at night?" but that's fine because those moments of planning are the least prone to drag and can probably ignore such lists entirely.

    The riskiest planning moments, in my experience, are the ones where you've just completed a mission or task and you have a bunch of other interests developed from prior play and you're pondering which to pursue next. These planning discussions often go south when the group starts getting into the details of how to besiege the castle but then starts questioning whether they'd rather start raising an army first, and throwing out 7 different ways to start, before remembering that the cursed tomb sounded pretty cool and other adventurers might get to it first and blah blah blah...

    I'd say that most planning discussions in my games have been somewhere in between.

    Also! My groups almost always enjoy planning the how more than planning the what. So getting to a basic plan as quickly as possible is one key. I think my list above is a solid step in that direction, at least for a mere list.
  • I'm all for not eliminating planning, but there are moments when what I call "The GM Fun" must prevail. You see, we're all playing the game for fun, even the facilitators. We've got the duty to respect each other's fun and between those limits, the right to have our own. That's why in a group of friends it's totally fine to say "Hey, this is how I like to have my fun, let me have some!" and people will probably joke and complain about it but they won't have the right to deny it to you.

    So I totally let my players plan, but often interrupt them with suggestions and mental notes, either to confirm their thoughts or offer some foresight on the consequences. Because part of my fun is participating in the conversation, and also, keeping things going. I want to see what happens next as much as everyone on the table! Remember that as a facilitator, you're the one leading the conversation for the sake of optimizing the flow of the game.

    For example, if players want to make a frontal assault on the orks and have the doubt of doing it at night or on the morning, I'd remember them of things their characters already know but they may have forgotten as players, like, orks in this setting don't have a light sensitivity but still see perfectly well at night, while a couple of party members don't. I could introduce some doubt by quoting some NPC who implied this group of orks may had back-up and it may be better to attack them before they arrive; I could tell them that for a frontal assault they could be there and ready in twenty minutes and then add minutes or hours of prep time each time they talk about adding something else to the plan. I could describe how time passes as they plan. The main thing here is to remember that the more time they spend talking, the less immersion you have, because the world is going to be less and less present until it fades away. That's why you've got to keep the world getting back at them.

    Your list is great, but you still need to cut planning time at some point and get straight back to the game, especially if it looks like things are loosing momentum.
  • That's an interesting point/idea:

    What if you structure the planning process so that it must be interactive?

    A classic example is portions of planning which require you to ask questions of the GM: "How long was that corridor we ran through? What was on the walls?"

    There could be lots of other ways to make planning into more of a back-and-forth conversation, though.
  • edited April 2016
    Rickard,

    That's an interesting point.

    I think there's fun planning.

    This is when everyone's throwing around ideas, and you're just really enjoying brainstorming and everyone's have a great time at the table.

    There is also productive planning.

    This is when planning is rewarding because it produces results. It may be quick or it may be slow, but everyone is aware that things are being accomplished, and the plans will pay off in some way.

    And there is necessary/expected planning.
    I think you're on to something with these categories. I think only on very few occasions that »expected« planning is fun. Sure, if the players enjoy planning then it will be a reward in itself to do it (aka "fun"). And »productive« planning will show a result; getting a result (=feedback) is also a reward in itself, just like you said.

    So don't plan for planning as a game master. "Just do it." Let the game run, and if situations occur where the players think they will need planning, let it happen.
  • There's another part to planning that's worth mentioning, I think: planning things in-character gives players a chance to have their PCs interact with each other in an interesting, structured way without undue pressure or unwanted conflict.

    Because, yeah, no player at the table actually wants to do the "rush in and kill EVERYBODY" plan, but when Anna has her bloodthirsty assassin float that idea, Bonnie's master thief can be appalled at how inelegant it is and Camille's high-minded hacktivist can insist on no murder and Donna's necromancer can shrug and say, "Seems like a waste of natural resources, but I can wait until they're dead of something else." Everyone's characters get to show off a little personality and trade some opinions, and besides just being fun, it gives parties a chance to work out where their common ground lies, without that process having to compete for time with a crisis or a fight or some other emergency.
  • edited April 2016
    Interesting! I've tried plenty to streamline the planning process and trim out the un-fun parts, but I haven't really tried to design any processes which would add fun content to the proceedings. Could planning ever actually be a subsystem eagerly engaged for immediate fun above eventual utility?
    For example, if players want to make a frontal assault on the orks and have the doubt of doing it at night or on the morning, I'd remember them of things their characters already know but they may have forgotten as players . . . I could introduce some doubt . . . I could tell them that for a frontal assault they could be there and ready in twenty minutes and then add minutes or hours of prep time each time they talk about adding something else to the plan
    I do all these things too! Maybe I should write some of them down before the next time I talk to others about this stuff. :) Reminders, speculations, doubts, possibilities, updated feedback as plans evolve -- all great stuff for the GM who's looking to stay involved and keep the conversation lively.
    I could describe how time passes as they plan. The main thing here is to remember that the more time they spend talking, the less immersion you have, because the world is going to be less and less present until it fades away. That's why you've got to keep the world getting back at them.
    So true! When time pressure makes sense, that applies nicely, but when it doesn't, I wonder what else we have? Maybe subtle developments in their environment, like the sun rising or setting, and the onset of hunger, or fatigue? Maybe just interjections about how the lengthening shadows are beginning to lend an ominous look to the room, or how squirrels are scampering by? Hmm...

    I'm trying to think of fictional developments from characters sitting around and talking that might actually be relevant, or entail some stakes, but I'm not coming up with anything.

    If you mix planning in with acquiring and interpreting info, then there's room for abstracting out some successes and failures into die rolls and whatnot. That gives us tons of options. For example:
    You ask the GM some questions about what opportunities and issues are present, and you roll some dice, and the dice influence how much the GM tells you lies, truth, or "you can't tell".

    The list of questions you can ask the GM would have to be a bit different than PbtA "read" moves, so as to let the players' suggestions and theories lead the way, rather than the GM's answers to scripted questions.
    But that may not apply very well to the planning situations that most need help staying fun.

    I guess there are always fictional conceits that can help, such as giving every group augury or clairvoyance powers, such that you can combine info-hunting with planning even from safety and distance. Non-magical options also exist, such as giving the characters a network of spies to call on for such info. "What do we want to do?" could be interspersed with all sorts of die rolls and/or interactions with demons, magic, factions, business partners, underlings, etc., with the fate of those interactions at stake well beyond "do we get info for our planning?"

    Not sure, though... all the info in the world doesn't help you choose what's best to do with it. The process of concocting and comparing is usually what needs expediting. Very specific forms of augury can help with this -- "If we pursue X course, show me what might happen! Okay, now, let's try again for Y course!" Not sure what else...

    If we ditch fictional interests and go straight for player-level interactivity, I wonder what our options are.

    I tried out a system in Delve where the players voted on plans. The first player to get bored with the planning was supposed to offer a proposal and place a token on the table. After that, the only allowed response was to either agree with that proposal or offer a better one. Once everyone had placed their token for their own or someone else's proposal, the proposal with the most tokens won. This was assumed to model the characters' process -- maybe abstractly, or maybe it's an actual in-fiction practice passed down from one adventuring group to another. The basic structure of "I'm ready to act on a plan here, either agree or top it!" was excellent, but by the time we stopped worrying about where the tokens were coming from (I had some system about earning them by being a good sport or good contributor to earlier planning sessions -- that part was not excellent) our game was over. I never really got to test this idea fully. Perhaps worth revisiting.

    I can also imagine that we could gamify "who gets to come up with the plan" somewhat, with "just follow the GM's leads" being a functional failure state. So, like, if the players fail to come up with a good plan after a certain amount of minutes, or rolls, or questions, then the GM gets to start giving them PbtA-style facts like "your best approach is X" etc.
  • edited April 2016
    no player at the table actually wants to do the "rush in and kill EVERYBODY" plan, but when Anna has her bloodthirsty assassin float that idea, Bonnie's master thief can be appalled at how inelegant it is and Camille's high-minded hacktivist can insist on no murder and Donna's necromancer can shrug
    Great point. This might be where my love of good planning in RPGs actually originated!

    I think the key difference between this kind of planning and the kind where character personalities don't come out is "what should we do?" versus "what can we do?" It seems to me that a high enough level of concern for "we must figure out how to make this work, otherwise it will not work, and there will be awful consequences like great loss of resources or life" tends to drown out everything else. On the other end of the spectrum, an easily-survivable game where the characters win a lot just by being generally capable tends to use "planning" scenes entirely for character expression because the tactics don't really matter.

    I'm not sure what the takeaway is here. Maybe it's that, once you apply your tactical brains and concoct some options, you generally won't be able to objectively compare those options in a terribly meaningful way, so instead you should probably just go ahead and subjectively compare them via character values?

    Just last week my group had this come up. We caught sight of a hostile army with military tech (airships) we'd never seen before. After much consternation and a little bit of planning as to how best to change course to avoid them without abandoning our hopes of contacts and treasure, my guy suggested that we try to kick off a skirmish between the army and their local enemies so we could steal the airship in the aftermath. We vaguely knew that this would be harder and deadlier than our other options, but we all agreed that OMG an airship would be so cool, so we didn't spend much time debating it. The most pacifist character chimed in that kicking off skirmishes is immoral, but she was hungry enough for that ship that it was more complaint than opposition. (I don't know what impact this had on the next phase, though, where we settled on how best to start a skirmish. I think our lead guy being kinda foolhardy -- character and player -- was what expedited that.)
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