Techniques for In-Genre Planning

by John Kim

         This is one of a series of essays on techniques for emulating common genre conventions in RPGs. My assumption here is that you have a given genre -- such as "superhero comic book" or "period martial arts movie" -- and you want to adapt it from its original medium into the medium of RPGs. This is similar to the problem of adapting a novel into a film, or any other change of medium. For more on the meaning of genre in RPGs, see my essay on "Understanding Genre in Roleplaying".

The Dilemma of Planning

         In many games, the players engage in much more in-depth planning than is shown in the corresponding genre in movies or other media. This can grind the pacing of a game to a halt, as players carefully discuss in-character what their next move should be. There are a number of possible factors which may contribute to this behavior. I outline some of them below:

  1. Player planning is vital to success:
    This is pretty simple. If planning vastly increases the chance of PC success, then the players will tend to spend a lot of time planning. This may or may not reflect the genre. Some fast-paced genres frequently have the main characters get into trouble because they are too impulsive -- but they continue to act impulsively anyway. In other fast-paced genres impulsiveness is portrayed as a strength.
  2. Inability for characters to do off-screen planning:
    In many movies, characters will carefully plan their actions, but the process of planning is not shown to the audience. For example, a heist might be shown to the audience only as action being done, even though the characters are clearly prepared and practiced for the job. However, in most RPGs if the PCs have planned something ahead of time, then the players need to have declared it to the GM.
  3. Risk of assumption clash:
    Players sometimes have a different view of game-world background than the GM does. This is called "assumption clash". If they proceed in play without resolving this, the PCs may act in a way which seems bizarre to the GM. A humorous example is the story of " Eric and the Gazebo", but the same problem can happen all the time on lesser levels. If the players proceed straight to action, the clash may only be revealed after many consequences have been resolved. Talking through plans in front of the GM may be seens as the best way to avoid having these clashes.
  4. Lack of decisive leadership:
    In many genres, there is typically a powerful and high-status leader among the main characters. However, because RPGs want to have equal participation from all players, they often take the approach that the PCs are a group of equal-status peers. With no authoritative figure to resolve disagreement, group debates can easily bog down.

         Now, that said, planning is certainly not always bad. One of the strengths of RPGs is dialogue. When planning, the players are speaking in-character about their views on what to do, which can provide great insight into their personalities. However, often the balance of planning versus action is not what is desired. This suggests ways to address that.

Importance of Planning

         This issue is a bit of a catch-all, but it is definitely true. The obvious solution is to try to ensure success if they do not plan. However, this can cause problems. It can destroy the players' sense of challenge as well as the believability of the story if the PCs win despite confusedly bungling up. The ideal would be to arrange things so that the PCs generally do just as well without planning as if they do plan. Here are a few specific techniques:

Off-screen Planning

         The key to addressing this factor is for players to be able to define during the action that they had a plan which addressed part of this. This is known as retroactive continuity or "retcons", which simply means defining things which happened earlier than the current game moment. For example, the PCs might take off in their starship, but only later the players decide that they left a careful set of instructions with their fellow agents before going. The simplest solution is for the GM to be generous in making assumptions for the PCs -- i.e. "Of course you would have previously agreed on a location to meet at." The faster you as GM want the game to move, the more generous you must be in this regard. You should consciously remember to assume that the PCs planned to the limits of their skill and intelligence. If it is in doubt, then you may call for a roll against an appropriate skill -- but you could also simply always err in the PCs favor. Alternatively, the players may have the power to make retcons directly. This may be tied to a point system, such as Inspiration Points in White Wolf's Adventure! system. This allows the players to determine for themselves plans which they made. However, each such retcon costs points based on how major a change it is, which sets definite limits.

Assumption Clash

         This issue is a crucial one for many campaigns, but especially for fantasy/sci-fi games or any game setting designed by the GM. In order to make reasonable decisions on the spot, the players need to know all of the relevant information that their PCs would know. If they don't, then making decisions requires considerable Q&A with the GM -- and even that can fail if the players don't ask the right questions and the GM doesn't anticipate their need for knowledge.

         The simplest solution to this is to rely on familiar genres and settings. Instead of police investigations in an alternate history where mythic monsters invaded in 1962 and special magic awakened in newborn children, just start with standard police investigations. Note that any elements which are supposed to be unknown to the PCs do not have this problem, however. i.e. If you start with modern police investigations and then have a mythic monster invasion during play, that is fine as far as assumption clash is concerned. Even the most well-documented fantasy world, however, can be a minefield for assumption clash.

         The alternative to this is to involve the players more in the design of the setting. Ars Magica deals with this by suggesting a scheme of rotating GMing, which it calls "troupe style play". All of the players take turns being the GM, so the world as a whole is the shared province of all the players. Another aid to this is any sort of meta-game mechanic which lets players determine external facts (such as "Plot Points" or "Whimsy Cards").

Lack of Leadership

         This issue is with PC group design. Many PC groups are structured as a group of peers or friends. Thus, they have no formal way to make group decisions. Some player groups may call for a vote or convention to respect the majority, but this often grates with the genre (i.e. on a medieval-era fantasy world where democracy is unknown).

         One alternative is having a formal or informal command structure. If a PC is the formal leader or decisive figure, then she can make the final decision and push on to the action. The problem is that this can disempower the other players, making them feel that they don't have equal say. This is similar to issues which I consider in my essay on Unequal PCs Some ideas on addressing this include:

         Besides making the final decision, having a command structure allows more options in how planning scenes are framed. For example, with a ship captain, he may call for a formal meeting. He asks his officers in turn for their input, making sure that each one gets a say. The leader can facilitate debate by defining which question is being addressed and putting aside disagreements which are not immediately relevant.


         I feel the issue of player/PC planning is actually one of critical importance for the overall pacing of game play. There is a tendency to try to generalize these as a problem of "GM control" or "player lack of initiative" -- but I think that the devil is in the details. Problems with planning are specific, and call for thought to the specific problem.

John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Sun Apr 20 23:24:55 2003