This post is inspired by John Arcadian’s recent post, Ah, the good old Scry and Fry. Before I get into this post, however, I want to whip you into a frenzied mob. March with me and demand a solution to the whole “Scry and Fry” thing, especially the fry part. Gnome Arcadian, show us the solution or (raising torch high in gnomish hands) we’ll show you the meaning of fry!

Ahem. He brought up an excellent point that has plagued many campaigns I’ve enjoyed as both a player and as GM. The problems he mentioned reminded me of the similar problems encountered in some board games, resulting in analysis paralysis. In recent campaigns I was a player who helped waste a lot of time on discussion not deeds. Let’s look at two specific cases.

Cloud City Conundrum:

In previous sessions our rebel agents posed as rich gamblers and came to Cloud City aboard a gambling yacht. Now we were on the station and facing a huge obstacle: how do four agents disrupt an imperial guardpost, mining operation, and gambling Mecca? We spent some time investigating in various ways (we spoke with our local contact, took a tour of the station, rented a cloud car to look at the station from the outside, infiltrated the mob, etc.) We came away with a wealth of options.

That was our mistake. We had many interesting options and could make good predictions. We lost half a session (something like two or three hours) debating what approach we should take and lovingly crafting a plan. A couple of players mentally checked out as the planning went on and on, but in the end we came up with a brilliant, layered plan. Of course, now it was too late to actually implement it, but next week we’d start off strong.

During the week, however, one player noticed additional flaws in the plan. We started the next session with him mentioning the problems he’d spied and describing the new plan to the players who hadn’t read his email during the week. Just as we started to bog down in debating the merits of the new plan, one player piped up, “I though we solved everything last week.” I remember explaining the reasons for the changes for a sentence or two before I stumbled to a halt. We all hit the same point at the same time– we’d do the new plan now and trust to the dice. It was awesome– we wound up running three or four simultaneous, crazy cool plans at once. Two characters sabotaged the fighter bay, another sneaked into the imperial commander’s room while posing as a gambling boss’s bodyguard, while the third group got into a secure zone, sealed the station, and took over the communications array. It felt very like the movies. [And it got even better as the session went on... but that's plenty of example.]

Cormyr’s Ruler:

Our characters had previously done great deeds on behalf of our nation, when word came to us that the King had been assassinated. Prior to that we’d kind of known that he had no heir, but on hearing of his death we knew that our country was in trouble, that civil war might break out. The families and factions were divided… and everyone wanted to know who we (the recently minted heroes) thought should be king.

We had a thumbnail sketch of the five factions, as rumor presented them. The group decided that we really had to meet the various candidates before we could endorse any of them. So we had a few sessions of traveling around the country, being wined, bribed, and asked to throw our support behind one faction or another. It was interesting for a while; we approached it like a mystery, trying to decode which was the “good” faction that we should support. But there wasn’t one good faction and four bad factions… there were a lot of tradeoffs and shades of gray. Traveling the realm and gathering information from people who were trying to impress us cut way back on the combat, which drained a couple of players’ interest.

Finally we had met everyone we were going to meet and discussed who the characters wanted to support. A curious thing came out of it; while the players couldn’t really come to an agreement on who should be in charge, we did agree that our characters looked up to the nobility. So we told the GM that our characters didn’t feel it was their place to interfere… and that OOC, we would love to solve the problems that came with their poor selections. We’d solve the new problem by spell and sword when the wrong person came to power. With that decision the game unstuck and resumed a happier course.

Factors influencing analysis paralysis

Hopefully the examples were entertaining– I think that there are some common issues that they illuminate well. Several factors seem to contribute to analysis paralysis:

  • Too many options. If you have to pick between two or three things, the number of comparisons you have to make is one or three. If you compare five options, you’re making many more comparisons (something like 24).
  • Too much information. When you have information, you use it to make the best choice. The more information you have, the more finely you can evaluate your options, but the longer it takes to do so.
  • Overwhelming outcomes. If the PCs are in a situation where one misstep means instant doom, they’ll plan for all they’re worth to avoid that misstep. Many of our Shadowrun missions have fallen into planning paralysis because once you’re in the corp’s territory, you’re out of luck when things go wrong.
  • Puzzle solving players. If you present a problem, then some players (raises hand, me!) will try and solve it. A roleplaying conundrum can be a lot more interesting than any Soduku puzzle; there’s the responsibility of power, the weighing of claims, the outwitting of cunning foes and more. If it wasn’t a problem to solve, that results in a lot of wasted time and effort.

So how do you have plots with these great themes and complex choices without bogging down in discussion and planning that loses half the group’s interest? I’ve had some success using these solutions, but I’m sure there are many more. Contribute them in comments!

  • Emphasize genre conventions. If you’re playing a pulp game, remind the players that the straightforward choice is usually the right one. Encourage them to do what’s most interesting (pulpy), not what’s most likely to succeed. They’ll probably succeed with the riskiest option and their character will look cooler in the bargain. (Note: This is true only if you or your system make it so; if you carefully add up all the negatives of their direct plan and the system punishes them for it, they’ll learn to plan instead.)
  • Limit predictability. If players think they can predict everything three or four choices down the decision tree, they’ll be tempted to debate not just the best next step, but the best series of choices. This runs smack into the too many choices and too much information problems above. If you let players know that chance will make any long range planning less useful, they should waste less time making long range plans.
  • Identify plots as background. You can have lots of political debate and treachery without the PCs trying to fix it. Make it clear that those attitudes and actions are part of the setting, the PCs are not expected to solve them. The time I most regret wasting is time used to debate actions never taken or without impact.
  • Present things emotionally. If a character is confronted with something important to them, something that tugs their heart strings (or inspires revenge), they’ll move. Everyone has a motive– present the case as the NPC sees it, not objectively. [Dogs at the Vineyard has great advice for doing this.] If players react, they’re not wasting time intellectually analyzing the problem and “solving” it.

Are planning delays a big problem for your group? Tell us about your problems and solutions. I hope that you can combine John’s article about streamlining information gathering and this one to streamline decision making and get to the fun parts of your game faster.

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.



21 Responses to Planning and Analysis Paralysis

  1. Great topic today. I’m currently playing in a campaign where our current goals are to infiltrate an enemy coast and prepare the way for invasion.

    Such broad goals have led to a lot of session time being spent on planning. And our last session spent 4 or 5 hours in planning an assault. I actually enjoyed the planning, as well as another PC. However I did sense just about everybody else vegging out.

    Too little direction and too many options can be a very bad thing for a ‘kill them and take their stuff’ kind of group.

  2. I think a lot of it comes down to player preference. I’ve been a part of a game where we planned for 6 hours and took 1.5 hours to execute. Everyone loved it. We were given very little information and the job was based on the first big run in Neuromancer (getting the Dixie Flatline). We had not read Neuromancer, and we were given no options, per se. We had to plan the whole thing out from scratch, from reconnaissance to execution. And we did. Gleefully.

    I actually don’t see overplanning as being a GM issue. Players need to regulate themselves. If some aren’t having fun, why aren’t they pressing the others who are to make a faster decision? If there are too many options, why don’t they pick the one that seems best and work from that? The GM just needs to ensure the options, if given, are presented evenly. If they are, then the players just pick one and work from it, or make up their own.

    The other thing to do is to use between-session emails to create and refine a plan. In this way, those who are uninterested don’t need to worry about it and their game time isn’t being stripped from them. End a session with the need for a plan and begin the next one with execution and consequences.

    As for overwhelming consequences, don’t have them. Have them be minor ones that build to larger worse ones if repeated mistakes/bad rolls are made. (Thinking D&D 4e skill challenges here.)

    Sorry, I just don’t see this as an issue. There are so many ways around it. For those who like action and not discussion, have them go off and do the “heavy lifting:” they do the reconnaissance, gather info, steal uniforms, etc. They get some combat and dice rolling in while the others discuss the plan with what they know.

    The only time it becomes a problem is when the GM sets the expectation that one small mistake will bring the whole thing crashing down on them. Don’t do that. That’s pretty fundamental GM’ing advice. Avoid that, and this whole issue shouldn’t arise. I’m not a fan of spoon-feeding players; I trust them to make their own decisions and they trust me not to wreck everything they’ve planned because a roll or two go awry.

  3. Target: Sometimes it is hard to remember that half of the group wants to get back to the action when you enjoy the planning. Planning assaults is fun!

    Rafe: It sounds like you have a very compatible group; if everyone enjoyed six hours of planning, then it sounds like you’re all on the same wavelength. For your group, it sounds like success is providing lots of information in interesting ways so that who whole process is interesting. I differ with you about lack of planning = spoonfeeding. I enjoy both types of fun, but they are very different– depending on the week (or, particularly, depending on the players, genre, and game system) I might look for fun in one silo or the other.

  4. An ‘anti-freeze’ tool I use is Time Limits. That way, the players don’t have much in-game time to prepare an over-complex (in my opinion) plan.

    Examples from a recent game of England Invaded:
    Characters couldn’t meet to plan for very long because of enemy patrols/nosy neighbors.
    Perfect opportunity for action (party at garrison) was in two days.
    New information about an enemy general being in town that evening revealed mid-daring raid.

  5. Fantastic post. As a DM it has been a very useful thing for me to frame possibilities as clear options, to keep the pace going. I agree that some groups revel in planning more than others. In my own games, the pace is much quicker because I found excessive planning got a little old.

    In the end, what matters is that you have remedies for getting bogged down. This post posits some great bullet-points to that end.

  6. Joe Sixpack: Time limits, or even just having the planning take place in character over time often helps with paralysis. Good advice.

    DocBadWrench: Thanks! Clear choices does a good job of keeping things fast… and it’s not constraining as long as the group remembers that they can always take option (z), not listed, when inspiration strikes.

  7. Emphasize the PCs’ power

    I had this occur recently: The PCs (“The Saviors”) had recently destroyed a vampire. They’d been scrying his tower for weeks and learned that half blue-dragon kobolds, who had been the vampire’s allies, were now infesting it. The tower was also constantly conducting electricity and was patrolled by razor-bladed iron golems (modified to be empowered by lightning) and feral, steel cat like creatures.

    A great amount of planning went into the strike. When they met their first invisible iron golem, they became even more cautious.

    It seems pretty bad, but the party is all 16th-level. An iron golem is CR 13. Frankly, I was surprised at all the planning that went into the strike, as the Saviors’ collective power might be best described as “overwhelming.”

    The idea behind the world is that an imminent illithid army invasion led to a pre-emptive githyanki invasion. The githyanki invasion destroyed most major cities and killed a lot of powerful NPCs. Once the githyanki left, the illithid thrall army rose up and started battling those who resisted. The PCs started at 3rd level but have quickly risen up.

    Because all the bigwig NPC are dead, it’s been a theme of the game that there’s no one more powerful than themselves to which they can turn to for help. Right now, they are about the most powerful people on the continent, if not the world.

    I had designed the tower expecting that the PCs would stomp through it easily, but it became a cautious strategy session instead. I think this could have been avoided both if I had emphasized how powerful the PCs are, and if the players had kept that in mind.

  8. Thank you for a very thought provoking article. Although excessive planning maybe the bane of some groups, others thrive on it. The key is to know your gaming group and tailor options for them.

    Frequently, I find the groups I have played in and with dislike the limits of options. It truncates creativity and forces players to feel like they are being shoe horned into the plot rather than having the plot be dynamic depending on their actions or lack of actions.

    Being flexible and allowing for several options eliminates some predictability of the plot, and can allow for interesting situations especially if the characters do not find valuable information and intercede at the right time.

    Cheers,
    RD

  9. Great topic, Scott. For some reason I never connected the term (that I use quite often) in boardgaming to roleplaying…

    This seemed to happen a lot in my last campaign. There’d be a scenario, I’d wait for the players to give me a plan of action, and they’d debate it to death before telling me what they were actually doing (and often before then the party instigator would get bored and do his own thing anyway.)

    What I blamed it on is related to your genre conventions point. In previous games, they had played with a DM that was very punishing, and if you hadn’t worked everything out, there was a good chance your character would die. In my games, I encourage pushing things forward, and dealing with the consequences (also PC death was rare.) So it also helps to make sure that your players are on the same page as far as risk-taking.

  10. Planning is all good an well, but I do one more thing to keep things interesting — I make the players roleplay their information gathering events. I try to put the characters into their planning phase in the form of action instead of just talk. If the players need to research technical information, have them go to a library. If action is needed, along the way (or back) they may be approached by enemies or an unexpected NPC.

    However, if the party decides to sit on their haunches and deliberate on a plan, you can also bring the action to them. This might be as simple as a message received to ‘pull’ them out of their hiding (court summons), or as extreme as an attack on them.

    In any case, I like to break up the planning with unexpected extra action events to keep the planning from being too single minded.

    And, as already stated, I try to encourage the players to work on it ‘offline’. If I know the players are going to go into planning stage at a certain point, I try to end the previous game at that point. Even if they don’t do the plan until the next game, usually one person has been mulling over the situation with the information they had on hand and devised a plan at least to get more info.

  11. Great topic Scott…

    I’ve seen planning go to either extreme and I think that genre emulation has a lot to do with the value or practicality of said planning.

    Years ago, our group would meticulously map out every conceivable planning angle for our Shadowrun games. Certainly Shadowrun can require a great deal of well thought out plans, but our group went overboard. Often times, we would spend four hours planning a run that took an hour to play out. Our plans shifted during the course of play so much that they rendered the original plan moot. Much time was wasted by our group until we realized that we could take 20-30 minutes to make a plan of approach and then modify the general plan on the fly instead.

    Pulp is a genre that asks for more of a “play-by-the-seat-of-the pants” approach. After playing in two Spirit of the Century games, the one that was more successful at emulating the genre was definitely the one that had little planning and more improvised plans of action. The second time I played Spirit of the Century, the PCs planned too much and thought too much about what they were trying to do. The game was still fun, but it could have been even more pulpy if we had been more in tune with the genre elements (as we were in the first SotC game).

    I think the strategy “chit chat” that our Hanford group had (via e-mail) during the Star Wars Saga Edition series was very helpful in keeping the planning focused and shorter in duration. This allowed the PCs to get right to the chase once we had gathered for the next session.

    I’m much more about playing than planning, but there has to be a happy medium that can be achieved during actual play. I think sitting around for an entire session in planning mode is way too much, while having no planning at all doesn’t necessarily work well in all cases either.

  12. “We lost half a session (something like two or three hours) debating what approach we should take and lovingly crafting a plan.”

    Hmm… If it were my group I’d call that using half a session, not losing it, and if I were GMing it I’d being handing out loads experience for debating the merits of various approaches in character.

    I love those kinds of sessions. I’ll often tweak an adventure or challenge in my head as players argue various plans because they might come up with a logical solution to a challenge that I hadn’t anticipated, or their plan might be doomed to failure the way I’ve planned the adventure, but I’ll change it because I like their plan and want to give it a chance to work.

    I actively avoid creating solutions to the challenges I provide players, I find that their solutions are far more innovative, bold and creative than any I would have imagined.

    And three hours spent in role-playing among the players is three hours of game time with no corresponding prep-time cost for me. I can use the time I would have spent creating entirely new maps and NPCs to flesh out the existing NPCs and make the setting that much more interesting, and that means even more fun for the players as they move to execute their plan.

  13. Hmm Perhaps there is a subtle difference when planning sessions are roleplayed out at the table instead of players talking only in gamespeak.

    I’m sure the mileage varies on that one. :)

  14. We have a very flexible playstyle in some of our groups, informed by some of the indie games, one of the things we allow are “flashback scenes” allow us to set up cool effects in mid-game.

    However, for games like Shadowrun, I have always found that the planning and information gathering were vital parts of the game. Especially when you get in character debate about means and ends. But action is ultimately where it is at.

  15. One of my most memorable examples comes from one of my modern games, when the party was told to take down an allegedly evil businessman. They were under strict orders not to expose the existance of magic.

    They spent hours of in-game time researching this corporation, and found out a few helpful things. They spent at least an hour of realtime discussing their options. They finally decided that they were going to pose as lawyers for another coporation, who needed to talk about something of interest to that particular businessman’s division. After some successful bluff checks and conversations with secretaries, they made it to his office.

    First thing they do? Blast of fire to the face! This guy being a “boss villain,” one attack was not enough to finish him off. He yells, “Guards! Guards!” and three security guards burst in from the next room. The party barely managed to kill him and escape with their lives, and were none too happy about the collateral damage they ended up inflicting to try and preserve their secrecy.

    We all laugh about it now.

    Something that worked very well happened in a friend’s game. We needed to protect this village from a small army of evildoers, who we were pretty sure would show up within the next few hours. The GM said, “I’m taking a break and eating some snacks. This corresponds to the time it will take for the army to get there. When I come back, tell me what you’ve done and what your plans are.”

    We knew we had a limited time, but not exactly how long that was. We focused on the most important things, and kept disagreements to a minimum – if we had differing opinions, we compromised immediately or yielded to the other person’s idea, even if we still had reservations. A couple of players were less interested in planning, so they just took a brief break as well. When everyone came back, those of us who had planned told the others what we’d done, and the battle began. The result was an awesome battle, where are our planning was rewarded, even if there were a few things we hadn’t counted on.

  16. Excellent post! I want to be part of the frenzied mob demanding things from Gnome Arcadian! That guy still owes me 20 bucks!

    I love the term Planning and Analysis Paralysis. It really gets to the heart of how extreme planning can cripple the flow of a game. In the star wars game I am currently playing in we could have gotten into a planning paralysis. We went through elaborate steps to gather information on a rebel base we were going to take on. When it came down to it the GM just wanted to have us do a quick dungeon crawl, but it was hard not to want to be completely prepared for what would go on. Since the GM presented the game as “intrigue in empire” we focused on how much info we could gather to help us at a later date. We’re trying to plan two steps ahead because of our perception of the situation. I’m definitely pointing our GM to this article. It’ll definitely speed up our game.

  17. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    I think there are a couple of things here.

    Some players (and even entire groups) are fine with long planning sessions, while others aren’t so happy. Your mileage may vary, etc…

    Also, a well-thought-out planning session might be a joy, but an over-analyzed, over-argued, and over-thought-out planning session is sheer torture.

    As a GM, I tend to ‘help out’ when the party gets too deep into the planning. If they’re completely barking up the wrong tree, I usually have an NPC provide a ‘common sense check’ on their plans.

  18. Great discussion everyone. Several of you brought up a good point– if the whole group loves planning then there’s nothing wrong with planning. I try to keep an eye on the players who start drifting off when the planning gets hot and heavy– otherwise I get lost in the joy of planning and they drift off to sleep.

    Sarlax’s suggestion to Emphasize the PCs’ power is good– powerful characters can act in direct (pulp-like) ways in any genre.

    Information gathering, mentioned by many of you, is its own beast. In the Cloud City example, we had a lot of fun gathering the information– it was once we had the information that we dropped out of character and planned for so long. Ignore the nominal title: John’s article is packed with good advice on information gathering.

    I love your example Swordgleam; I’ve played in games that worked out exactly like that. “Blast of fire to the face” indeed!

    I hope the article’s useful to your GM, John. If you find the gnome, be sure to point him out to us. ;)

    Kurt: Your second sentence is a perfect summary and an important reminder– if your group IS currently having fun planning, don’t yank it out from under them. It’s only a problem if some players don’t enjoy it. I know that I’ve played in groups that have pushed into the over-xed, torturous sessions… though I’ve rarely noticed NPCs hanging around when the planning goes on. NPCs in our games seem to have an almost supernatural ability to dodge those planning meetings.

  19. I wonder if there’s a mechanical way to go to speed up planning. I’m thinking of an information vs. reward system, with a limited amount of benefits available to the party, which the GM tells them they’ve received at a certain point, so they know to stop planning. By way of example, consider this scenario in which the PCs (assuming D&D) are traveling to assault the bandit king’s castle.

    Find out the guard schedule: +4 to initiative checks for the first 3 battles in the castle.

    Discover castle layout – +4 bonus to Search checks for secret paths, +4 to spot to notice hidden guards.

    Study guard behavior: +4 bonus to Sense Motive & Intimidate Checks.

    Research magical defenses: -2 to enemy saving throws.

    Etc.

    By building a list of bonuses that can be racked up, you might be able to streamline players’ efforts. Once they know they qualify for a certain amount of bonuses, they might be content and ready to roll.

  20. @Sarlax: I really like that line of thinking, but I don’t know if that means the players will just try to rack up ALL of the bonuses they can find instead of just ‘enough’. But it does have the advantage of providing a ‘shopping list’ of bonuses they think they may need — a list that can be made generic for most adventures.

    However, it is kind of abstract and people who like to plan the nitty gritty details will either push it aside for more precise details or will try to collect the bonuses AND the nitty gritty details. I guess as a GM you could force them to stick to the ‘shopping list’ and give them little info.

    Of course, now that I mention a ‘shopping list’ you could make the party have a certain amount of research points they can use to purchase chances to get information. The GM would then need to provide the information in bite size chunks, but it would at least put a limit on the total amount of information the party can receive. You could then make each research item require a skill based roll to get the complete information. If they fail slightly, they might get the watered down version of the information. Fail badly and they get no info. In any case, after all their research has been expended, the party will know they are done and will receive no more information. Its a bit artificial, but I find it interesting.

  21. @Sarlax: Your system probably won’t work for all groups, but I definitely like the sound of it. I’d rather deal with the in-game effects of +4 to init, than spend half an hour arguing over the best time and place to sneak past the guards.

    I agree with Lesnik that it should probably have some sort of limit. Maybe, “You can get a total of 10 (or whatever) points as bonuses to good things or maluses to bad things. This represents the time and resources you have available. Prioritize.”

    Then they can say, “We think it will be important to have the bonus to initiative against the guards. We’re going to bribe one of our contacts to watch them and note when they change shifts. How much is that worth?”

    It involves “colorful” planning as opposed to just numbers, but at the same time limits how much information-gathering the players can do.

    Of course, then you might get the number-crunchers in the group stuck with endless calculations on whether it’s better to have +4 init, or +2 init and +2 bonus on sneak checks to get past the perimiter.. But then, at least there’s something for everyone!

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