Was talking to one of my GMs when the topic of PC planning came up. As I’ve been on a kick recently of trying to understand what it is RPG players really want versus what they may appear to want, following up on this seemed important.
If I were to make a list of the things players, collectively, are worst at in my RPG play, coming up with plans and executing them would be near or at the top. To me, this has been understandable for one reason – playing games is often a release or an escape from the drudgery of real life. No matter how good someone may be at planning when it comes to work or finances or whatever, that person may just want to put that skill aside. Then, planning means making decisions and may mean taking responsibility for decisions – I can easily see why someone would rather have an experience that is more entertainment than it is responsibility. Players often just want to be entertained, so having things happen to them rather than being proactive is just fine and, possibly, preferred.
But, another reason may be at work, consciously or unconsciously. What reward does a player feel when a brilliant plan is enacted? What I’m getting at is that the better one plans in real life, the less challenging life is supposed to be, but games aren’t terribly rewarding without challenges. One could say that the challenge is in the planning phase rather than the execution phase, but I don’t think the two phases have equivalent value to players.
Take a look at stories, whether books, movies, TV, whatever. Don’t things go wrong in the protagonists’ plans? Isn’t that what makes the scenes exciting? Cut a hole in the roof of the museum, drop down on a line to get past pressure plate sensors, grab priceless jewel, … escape with none the wiser until the next morning?!? Hardly. Have to drop something and set off the alarms and then run across the rooftops being chased by dudes with guns.
It may be interesting to have a RPG session’s primary challenge be coming up with a plan that bypasses physical challenges – guards, traps, etc. But, satisfying? I find that the people I play with, myself included, like to roll dice (or the like*). They want to feel like an adventure is happening, not an exercise. I’ve posted before about what I value out of RPG play. Doing things that don’t happen in real life should be at the top of everyone’s lists, otherwise, could just play the game of real life.
* A topic for another time on how systems that try to get away from random resolution can be unsatisfying, perhaps.
But, one might say, some people love to scheme. Isn’t scheming planning? First of all, I find that schemers are relatively rare. Second, when I scheme, I know I find it utterly unsatisfying when there’s no challenge to it. Who cares if you manipulate everyone if manipulating everyone is easy?
But, wait. I need to modify that. I brought this up previously – I think players enjoy challenges that they think are challenging but that really aren’t nearly as challenging as they appear. Being behind the GM screen often for HoR play in the last couple of years, I’ve found that challenges that seem fair and balanced as a GM are brutal to parties. Just think about the numbers. If a combat is a 60% chance of a win for the party, what’s the other 40%? TPK (total party kill)? One third of the party dead? One PC dead?
As a player, I like feeling in danger. Actually, another of my GMs has said as much – that a lack of feeling of danger makes for a poor experience. Though, “danger” to me can mean a variety of things beyond just danger of dying. The ideal combat, it is easier to see these things with combat, is one where the party feels like they were one die roll or resource expenditure away from being wiped … yet where nobody dies, gets maimed, or really loses much in the way of permanent resources at all.
That’s tricky to achieve. Unless. Unless, as a GM, you are good at fooling players. Now, I don’t know that being good at fooling players is all that difficult. In hindsight, I have realized that I’ve been fooled on many occasions, that a lot of experiences that were fun because they seemed challenging really weren’t as challenging as they felt at the time. The “laziness” that players embrace that causes them to avoid planning may be the same “laziness” that affects perceiving the truth about the difficulty in a game. That last sentence was awkward and confusing. What I’m trying to say is the refrain that being entertained is often what a player wants rather than being challenged and this manifests in not looking too closely behind the curtain when it comes to challenges their characters face.
So, back to planning. There are plenty of asymmetries in RPGs. A common one, for example, is how certain classes (or equivalent) are only suitable for NPCs. With plans, a bad plan may give the GM an opportunity to make the PCs’ lives a bit more difficult, but a good plan should not make the PCs’ lives any easier. Well, to a degree. A player and a PC are not the same thing. Within the story being told, a better player plan can make better things happen to a PC, yet whether a player comes up with a good plan, an okay plan, or a bad plan should still lead to the same level of feeling of challenge, the same level of feeling of excitement.
For instance, let’s say that bad guy has kidnapped hottie and taken hottie to fortress of doom. PCs are supposed to plan the penetration of the fortress to succor the hottie. Suppose the plan is brilliant. Get in, get hottie out, … zzz … boring. To make the session interesting, at least for groups I’m used to, need to at least have the whole fortress pursue the party home. Or, maybe there’s a complication during the rescue that forces the party to do something more difficult, like free additional prisoners or go to another locale after the rescue where monsters abound or liberate the hottie *and* turn around and challenge the bad guy to a duel once outside because the bad guy needs punishing.
Another way in which dungeon crawl RPGs, which nowadays I often term videogame role-playing due to how well videogames reflect how games like D&D have often been played, have worked well at being satisfying is that they can naturally balance challenges. You have a dungeon. Because there’s hardly any role-playing in the roll-playing in this example, the party pretty much just cares about becoming wealthier and more powerful. That the dungeon may be infested with evil is just hand waving for why the party is good rather than entirely mercenary. The party goes as long as it thinks that it can profit from another encounter. If the first orc sentries kill half the party, it’s time to go back home and maybe resurrect some PCs (more likely, roll up new ones if the encounter was “only” orcs). If the orc sentries all get taken out by one Sleep spell, then orc barracks. Fight, fight, fight … orcs dead, “Got any healing potions left? Two.” Orc shaman and his bodyguards. Nuke them? Ogre master. Nuke him, still have a couple of Fireballs left? Trolls out back that have bunch of treasure from adventurers they’ve taken out.
While I’m increasingly coming to respect dice resolution and combat, I’m still mostly about there being a satisfying story. If the story is “We worked out how to abuse some spells to get the Treasure Sword from the Evilmen.”, it’s no more satisfying then “We came across The Ender of Life and Bork the Barbarian crit nuked it on the first round.” The mechanics party will want to continue on when challenges aren’t challenging because the game is about profit. The story party will want to continue on because challenging challenges make for better stories. As much as wish fulfillment might be part of playing RPGs, the journey of a thousand harems should have a few exciting steps.
I think I rambled there. The point being that a good plan is actually unproductive. The GM can reward the players in some way, I personally think more XP or the like is a terrible way while story rewards of having more groupies or the like is vastly better, but the level of challenge should not decrease just because the party was smarter.
Similarly, a bad plan should not suddenly make it likely for PCs to die, as tempting as it is to punish stupidity. Again, in my experience, people play RPGs to escape, so there’s no desire to be smart; the desire is to have exciting adventures. That’s one. Two, if it’s reasonable to adapt to party brilliance by coming up with new challenges, then it’s also reasonable to adapt to party stupidity (which, btw, is the norm) by not having additional challenges or, even, bail** the party out when it gets in over its head.
** This is trickier because it’s incredibly unsatisfying to be bailed out, even in cases where the situation isn’t fair to the PCs. There are cases when TPK is actually preferable because any sense of punishment for failure is gone.
Now, because failure should be punished as, otherwise, there’s not really a reward for success, there should be some consequence to plans going awry. An interesting question is whether the punishment should be based only on the execution of the plan or on the planning. That is, it’s not unusual for poor planning to end up with success due to favorable die rolls or for a better plan to have poorer results than an inferior plan because of random factors.
As a GM, should I care about the planning or the execution of the plan? Especially given that a good plan was going to be compensated for, anyway, by having additional challenges crop up, what is the system for adjudicating the results of the execution of a plan?
Actually, as a GM, knowing how it feels to be a player, I’m in favor of taking planning out of the hands of the players. Planning just tends to bog things down for little gain due to the above. On the other hand, don’t want the feeling that players are railroaded into always taking the same actions, either, even though I think most players are perfectly fine with being railroaded – valuing the resolution of scenes more than having the freedom to make consequential decisions.
Of course, there’s also the belief that plans are of little import. What really matters is having contingencies. If I find planning to be poor, I find contingency planning to be scarce.