A discussion on the GM Mastery mailing list (an adjunct to Johnn Four’s excellent Roleplaying Tips weekly e-zine) involved speeding up game play, and the concept of the Standing Operating Procedure was brought up. For routine and repetitive tasks (setting camp, visiting town, etc), SOPs are a handy technique to quickly put the players and GM on the same page. In addition, they allow the GM to handle situations like an attack at night without repeating the “who’s on watch?” discussion every single time, and without necessarily alerting the players that ‘this time, it’s different’.
(Although the common term is “Standard Operating Procedure”, I’m going with the military’s “Standing” terminology, because it implies “until further notice”.)
An overly cautious group can take this too far, but take a few minutes with your group and nail down SOPs for various activities. When ‘something happens’ during or subsequent to those activities, you’ll all have a previously agreed-upon idea of the situation. They key to an SOP is to keep it simple; complexity is not wholly compatible with flexibility.
For instance, here’s a sample ‘camping SOP’ for a fantasy game: Starting two hours before sunset, the Druid and Ranger find a defensible campsite. The ‘buddy system’ is in full effect; nobody wanders off alone. The picket line  (if any) is set up close to the sleeping area, if a bit downhill. A cook-fire will be used, then banked down  after twilight so that it can be restarted in case of emergency; oil, dry wood, and prepared torches are stored nearby. Everyone will sleep in the open, under wool blankets and waxed canvas covers, if necessary. Characters in leather armor will sleep in it, while those in metal armors will not. A two-man watch will be held, although everyone gets at least six hours of sleep. Priests and wizards have the last watch, so that they may go straight to their prayers and spells at dawn.
In more dynamic situations, such as opening a door, a more flexible approach may be needed. In descending order of importance: The rogue will crouch in front of the door until it’s untrapped, unlocked, and opened (in that order). The fighter will stand at most five feet from the door, weapon drawn. The ranger will be positioned so she can see into the room once the door is cracked open, with an arrow nocked and drawn back to shoot as a ready action  (or the equivalent). The REMFs  will cover any rear or side approaches.
Other situations that may call for an SOP:
- Getting back to civilization/base – Repair equipment, restock on supplies, sell treasure, touch base with contacts, seek rumors, etc.
- Post-combat actions – Clean and reload weapons, first aid/healing, secure perimeter, loot bodies, secure and segregate prisoners, communicate with superiors, etc.
- Entering a large area – Establish a ‘beachhead’ around the point of entry, identify any danger areas or defensible positions, leapfrog along the perimeter to the closest position, and recon in force until the entire area is cleared or passed by.
To reiterate, SOPs should be simple and flexible, and can be changed or deviated from at a moment’s notice. They are strictly for routine or repetitive situations and tasks that don’t require repeated discussion.
Can you think of any other tasks that might call for an SOP? Then sound off in the comments and let us know!