The previous session of our campaign was a couple of weeks ago (before Christmas). We left on something of a cliffhanger– the PCs ambushed and slaughtered the Evil Dwarf King’s elite guard, in two back to back battles that were almost a session long apiece. After their victory, I started to skip ahead and sketch out some downtime, but the players had a quick conference and stopped me. They had an idea ready to go right now. The players had a plan– one that they gleefully chose not to share.

We resumed three weeks later and memories of the plan were hazy. A couple of questions at the time led me to guess the general idea behind the plan, but I wasn’t sure exactly what they were planning.

What did I think they would do?

While I wasn’t sure, I could guess based on their questions and the status of the world at the end of the session. The PCs ambushed this elite guard, because it’s responsible for securing the location of the evil king’s ceremony. Their understanding of the plan (based on intimidating the heck out of a few captured prisoners) was that the king would scry to find his loyal troops and teleport to join them on the volcano’s lip. Then king would cast his big ritual and open the portal between planes, ending the world. Or unleashing demon hordes. Or whatever evil he needs this spot for.

My guess was that they intended to fool him when he scried and would wait for him to teleport in, then kill him while he was alone, undefended, and far from home.

How do you prep for that?

A lot of prep could have been wasted, particularly if I planned for one course of action and they reconsidered or I guessed wrong. I hate wasting time prepping– while I enjoy play, statting out characters in 3.5 is too much like work. Still… I wanted to have a solid session ready, so I prepped. Here’s what I spent my time on.

  • First, prep enduring content. I didn’t know if their plan would work, or even if I had guessed the right plan. I do know that some things are going to happen sooner or later. I suspected that the King of Dwarves was going to tangle with the PCs– if not during this session (due to the plan failing, or me guessing at the wrong plan), then soon. Spending time statting him (and his companions up) would prove useful whenever they meet. (Or, as it turns out, however many times they meet.)
  • Look at the overall situation. While the PCs might have picked any course, they make their choices based on what they know and expect of the world. It was time for me to review the world and remember what they’ve seen, so I could update what everyone else in the world was up to. (Allies and enemies both.)
  • Be ready to stop. One hard thing, especially after missing many sessions, is to stop and pause, or even end the session early, to figure out what happens next. It is very important– going on without thinking could have led to me overlooking very obvious things. A five minute break to quickly replan the session and tab a few pages can make a huge difference. Committing to it up front helped me resist the lure of running ahead blindly.
  • Be ready to improvise. Even though my guesses were close, this session was not planned out in much detail at all. There were too many branch points to predict and too much guessing for detail. Working from my review of the overall situation, I had to be ready to respond with characters they already know and new ones they’ll meet.

How did it go?

I didn’t get as much prep done as I’d have liked, but it still went pretty well. They improvised some changes in the plan (mostly due their mastery of teleport, which is going to kink all kinds of plans from here on out).

The session started off a little slow, both because they had a lot of loot to sort (from the previous two sessions of battles) and because we had the holidays to catch up on. As we got further into the session, the game came into focus and we concentrated on the game more. There were a few fun twists that no one anticipated– that’s one reason we like to roleplay. In the end, my guesses wound up being close enough that the session moved along smoothly and we played late into the morning.

Would I do anything differently?

The battle was something of an anti-climax, but that’s due to the dynamics of the situation. Whenever the group has a chance to dictate the situation, they kick ass. The plan worked as well as most of their plans– meaning victory was total and quick to come.

Ironically, next session will also be hazy… this time due to events while they catch their breath and the numerous responses to their actions. The work I did on reviewing the overall situation before last session will be very useful in helping plan the world’s response to their latest victory.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.



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9 Responses to Flexible Planning

  1. Why didn’t they share the plan with you? Seems like you have an adversarial relationship there. My players love to plot and plan between sessions, and I make a point to make the results follow what they had in mind, as long as it’s reasonable.

  2. They usually do share the plan; I think it was the excitement of finding a new spell and springing a great trap that led to their silence. It’s not the norm– usually the problem is failing to make a plan, not failing to share it. ;)

  3. My players like to tell me they have a plan, then come back to the session with three different plans, none of which have been thought all the way through. It’s almost worse than when we end with no plan, because in those cases, I plan for anything. When they tell me they’re going to do something specific, and then don’t, it throws me off.

    I think my favourite is still their plan to give the goblins radiation poisoning by leaving a broken nuclear generator near the goblins’ lair. It was discarded when someone pointed out that no one has any idea what effect radiation has on goblin physiology, and they might end up turning them all into mutant supervillains instead.

  4. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    (unsolicited advertisement)
    Use the HeroForge spreadsheets for anything 3.5. Seriously – nearly all the sourcebooks are integrated, it’s good for up to 60th level, and you can add levels to just about anything in the game that advances by class. For “advances by hit dice”, use MonsterForge. All you need for either is Excel.
    http://nzcomputers.net/heroforge/default35.asp
    Caveat: I’m on the HF team.
    (/unsolicited advertisement)

    If you can narrow down the players’ options, flexibility is a wonderful thing. Otherwise, you might end up having to stat up the whole world. (At which point one of them will discover a planar travel spell/device/etc… *Sigh.* No rest for the weary.)

    As someone who wore a uniform, a well-planned battle should be an anti-climax. But that’s not exactly why we game, is it? *wink*

  5. Improvisation is very important for a GM. It was a key part in making my last session work out.

    The players were protecting an NPC that was the target of cultish assassins, because she was a threat to revealing the truth about the cult leader. I had planned to have the assassins attack the next time the players were together with the targeted NPC. I stated out the opposition with their plans, methods, and means of support. The players then did what players are best at. They DO NOT meet up with the targeted NPC at the “when and where” that was expected.

    Since the bad guys had been waiting to attack the NPC since their first attempt in the opening session of the series, they have had military trained terrorists/mercenaries on stand by, awaiting a second opportunity. This opportunity was going to be planned for the NPC target’s place of employment, using a security pass card to get them into the targets location.

    Since the PCs didn’t meet up at the target NPC’s workplace, I had to determine when the second attack might occur. When the NPC took the PCs to dinner, it provided an opportunity for a cult spy to notice the NPC target entering her favorite dining establishment at the top of a grand hotel. The well-organized assassins were then able to send their hit squads to the improvised location on relatively short notice.

    Players can improvise to!

    It helped the group that one of the PCs trailed the dinner party and entered the hotel separately from the rest of the group. It gave the group a tactical advantage; One that the bad guys had no way of planning ahead for.

    It took a little bit of adjustment but the game rolled on. The most important thing to remember about improvising: Consistency. One should try to make sure that the planning adjustment is a practical one and isn’t something that seems illogical, irrational, or improbable. That can be a tough judgment call sometimes…

  6. Don’t be fooled by the word “plan.” As a part of that gaming group I can tell you it was more of an “evil idea.”

    Usually we discuss our plans out in the open, but this was an idea some sparked right near the end of the previous gaming session. So it was more of a “oh, man, you know, we should xxxxxx.” And then we didn’t meet for weeks to game. In fact, Scott remembered the “plan” far more than I did.

    But, as a gamer, I’m also OK with some planning out of the GM’s ears. Not if that planning is meant to intentionally make the GM’s life harder, but rather if it’s a chance for the players to talk about possibilities without wasting valuable game time. Plus, it really does help make it seem like the game is open ended and not a “path.”

    Now, as a GM (and a total newb at that), I’m bad at handling flexible planning. I’m still in the “read the block text” stage for the most part. But having people go off-the-beaten path helps me as a GM remember that I get to roleplay as well, and need to stay quick on my feet.

  7. @Swordgleam – The same thing happens to me often– one plan becomes three plans requiring debate, or someone comes up with a cool idea between sessions and we throw out the old plan on the spot.

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I’m going to try Hero Forge again. I don’t have excel at home, but hopefully Open Office will run it well. Macros can be tricky, but a shortcut’s definitely good at this point. Thanks for the reminder!

    (Your final paragraph, about a good plan making it an anti-climax reminds me of the 3:1 doctrine. If PCs always setup a 3:1 advantage, they’d never be at risk, even if it’s the best strategy.)

    @BryanBIt helped the group that one of the PCs trailed the dinner party and entered the hotel separately from the rest of the group. While it’s not always a good idea to “split the party”, it was fun for it to help this time. You never know how it’ll work out– next time the bad team might grab the one guy while everyone else dines on unknowing.

    @Jennifer_W – I’m glad my guess was a good one– as Kurt mentions, it’s tough to stat up the whole world. It’s fun to follow the player’s lead, but it does demand a very different type of prep.

  8. Whenever the group has a chance to dictate the situation, they kick ass.

    Our group tends to be the same. When we have our act together, we act with military precision and rock our DMs’ worlds. When we don’t we tend to fall on our collective asses.

    It comes with age and familiarity. A mature group comes to understand one another and operate together more efficiently, and DMs have to deal with the “numbers versus one” disadvantage.

  9. @Jennifer_W

    I concur with planning some things outside of the game session. While some short-term planning is inevitable, long-term planning can suck the life right out of a role-playing session if one overdoes it. E-mail is a powerful tool this day and age. I recommend that my players use it. They are always free to exclude me from the loop. I just like to know where they want to go and who they want to see, not necessarily the why and how.

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