Panama!

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.

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8 Responses to Panama!

  1. Brad Nozik says:

    This would be a good topic to discuss in the room at DDC, after a late RPG session.
    So, just a few quick notes here. I find, as a player, that I like to plan, and I believe that good planning will result in the success of the endeavor. This is probably rare for players (certainly it has been in the Conan games), and this is probably why I try to become the leader whenever I get the chance. In SK, my character, Col Montoya, has detailed, written SOP’s, supply lists and contingency plans. And these have been provided to the GM (you). My expectation, as a player, is that with proper planning, I can have the resources and actions I need to achieve success. This may be also, due to the ‘mission specific’ nature of how the Colonel sees the scenarios we’ve been provided with. I don’t want extra exp, or other ‘game’ benefits for having a good plan, I want an increased likely hood of success.

    As a GM, I become disappointed with players not having a good plan. Or, at least a feasible plan. I reward and punish parties accordingly. A party (like the Colonel’s) which plans for and executes proper site selection and security while moving through the wilderness will be less likely to be hit by a surprise raid. Conversely, a lax party will be more likely to have a foe, or wandering monster attack them while they sleep. A party that fails to plan and bring proper equipment will be more likely to be stymied , delayed or attritted by an obstacle, such as a yawning 1,000 foot deep chasm. While a prepared party (ahem, like the Colonel’s) who brings along an engineer and proper supplies, will be able to bridge the chasm.

    Both the prepared and the unprepared (good planner and poor planner) party should face challenges. Serious ones. A famous axiom of war is that no plan survives its first encounter with the enemy. However, the prepared party should arrive at the climax of the adventure with more resources than the unprepared party. As a GM I do not reward carelessness, stupidity or bad decisions. I would be far more lenient to a player suffering bad luck than one who’s disaster occured due to his own poor planning…

    As a player, I want to be rewarded for my efforts by having incidental difficulties and dangers alleviated. I don’t expect a cake-walk, and I know that even though I plan and prepare well, I don’t have perfect intelligence or knowledge of what lies on the other side of the GM’s screen.

    I haven’t played enough or GM’d for others enough to know if good planning is common or not. I do seem to remember that Matt, Cy and Dan (Tom’s friend) were good planner. I also made an effort to ‘reward’ good, effective plans with increased chances of success.

    RPG’ing isn’t just about killing things and getting into fights. It is about achieving a goal. Even if that goal is just to survive. Good planning is a tool to achieve a goal, just as much as a good die roll to avoid the trap, or swing your sword.

    Frankly, if I were in an RPG that did not allow for planning and leadership, I don’t think I’d be much interested in playing.

    • iclee says:

      RPG’ing isn’t just about killing things and getting into fights. It is about achieving a goal. Even if that goal is just to survive. Good planning is a tool to achieve a goal, just as much as a good die roll to avoid the trap, or swing your sword.

      Frankly, if I were in an RPG that did not allow for planning and leadership, I don’t think I’d be much interested in playing.

      It’s interesting how different people’s goals are. For some people, killing things and getting into fights is precisely the goal. This would be Robin Laws’s “buttkicker” gamer archetype. There’s a reason I am so fond of his archetype system because it so clearly differentiates different gamer personalities in my mind.

      There are a lot of people who don’t think there’s such a thing as characters winning. The winning in playing a RPG is the player experience of having adventures, which may be killing things for one gamer archetype or telling a story that has the feel of a good book for another gamer archetype or having slapsticky funny stuff happen due to fumbled rolls or whatever.

      I have grown almost obsessed with setting expectations for a new campaign because I find that player interests vary so much. You have a very strong “tactician” element to your gaming style. I have a very strong “storyteller” element to mine. Tom plays like a buttkicker and Eric like a casual gamer. It still works. For some gaming groups, though, strong differences in interests are enough of a problem that the group isn’t all that functional.

  2. Brad Nozik says:

    Just one more comment:

    Ian wrote: “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.”

    I 100% disagree with you on these two points. I, as a player, want to make decisions and take responsibility for those decisions. I want to be proactive and I want to have the plans and resources necessary to succeed. A successful mission, which is accomplished by a solid plan, is greatly rewarding. I don’t want a game where I win, just because I got lucky, or someone bailed me out.

    As you have had far more RPG experience than I have, I have to assume that the above sentiments are common among RPG players. Which astonishes me.

    The only thing I can come up with is that my rather unusual career path, and (heavy wargame background), have created the rare attitude towards planning and responsibility that I exhibit. Most of my jobs have been action-oriented and with a very heavy responsibility. Literally life and death. Jobs which required that I take a decisive leadership role and the consequences are mine. So, if I were to follow your hypothesis above, I, of all people, should prefer to play a passive, non-planning, wallflower.

    But again, I may be in my own cocoon.

    • iclee says:

      I 100% disagree with you on these two points. I, as a player, want to make decisions and take responsibility for those decisions. I want to be proactive and I want to have the plans and resources necessary to succeed. A successful mission, which is accomplished by a solid plan, is greatly rewarding. I don’t want a game where I win, just because I got lucky, or someone bailed me out.

      You are an exception, in my experience. You love logistics and organization. You do look at RPGs much more as wargames, something to be won. While there are plenty of people with a similar bent, I’m sure, I don’t have the sense that they make up that large a percentage of the RPG player base. Of course, I haven’t spent a lot of time playing D&D, which lends itself far more to a wargaming philosophy.

      I could have mentioned how you are an exception, but I don’t think that would have added to my post.

      So, if I were to follow your hypothesis above, I, of all people, should prefer to play a passive, non-planning, wallflower.

      That’s not what I said. I’m not saying that people want “opposite day” when they play games. I said that people often* play games as an escape and put aside what they are good at in daily life. I’m an example of this. When at work or when doing things like work, like playtesting CCGs, I’m far more organized than others, highly detail oriented, and care a great deal about logistics. I have no interest in such things when gaming.

      * There’s no statement that’s going to apply to everyone.

      • Brad Nozik says:

        While planning, logistics and such aspects of RPGs are certianly not the favored aspect of the game for most gamers, there is a niche for it. i.e.; Dark Continent. Even though none of you (with the possible exception of Dan) are planners, you all did plan and got the logisitics done and did a commendable job.
        I think that planning, logistics… are work. not necessarily ‘real life job work’, but work. And many (most?) players want to play and don’t want to do work. Which is totally understandable. But, it is not universal.
        In addition, most of the very few RPGs I get to play have a grounding in reality. I could see myself actually in something like the situation presented (minus the location &/or time). I don’t role-play, I play myself. And I do plan and prepare.

        Those of us players who do plan for success should not be discourged from doing so, nor should good planning be without rewards. At the least, good planning should mitigate or eliminate the ancilary obsticles which confront and attrit the party. It should open up other paths to success when confronting the major challenge.

  3. Brad Nozik says:

    And another thing… Unlike the (presumed) majority of RPGers, I am not so influenced by Fantasy novels, but rather by historical expeditions, the Spanish exploration of the New World, the British (mostly) exploration of Africa, and the American (L&C, Kit Carson…) exploration of North America. These historical accounts detail the planning as well as the logistics that went into these adventures. Quite different than most fantasy novels. (I did grow up on HPL and REH though). As a quick aside, I’m including logistics as an integral part of planning. For me, the two are indivisible. However, I can see excluding logistics completley if that is what the players and GM wish.

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