Game Design Misconception 3: Planning Stifles Improv

Welcome back to my series on game design misconceptions! Today’s topic is the idea that if one plans too much it can get in the way of being spontaneous and in the moment.

I started noticing this misconception a handful of months ago when I started acting as Game Master (here forth contracted GM’ing) in Dungeons & Dragon (5th Edition). It’s been pretty exciting (especially as a new way to put game design skills to work in a very immediate sense), but whenever I start up a conversation with an experienced player about GM’ing I always get this advice:

Don’t overplan.

and it always struck me as a little strange.

Isn’t planning a good thing?

Long term planning is generally considered a virtue and certainly a game of D&D is a situation in which being caught off guard can lead to poor results, so why is this advice so popular? The two reasons I hear most often are that not having a plan teaches improv and discourages railroading.

Teaching Improv

In addition to information organization, scheduling, and numerical facility, the ability to go off script when players do something unexpected is a skill it would be absolutely impossible to run a smooth and enjoyable D&D campaign without.

Thus the reasoning goes that, since there isn’t a well known one-size fits all way to teach aspiring GMs how to adapt to player-chaos, a new GM might as well jump into the deep end without the flotation device of having a planned out story.

Discouraging Railroading

Within role playing games, the concept of “railroading” refers to a GM closing off all other options in a world besides the one that they want to do. Most of the time this is not due to unfettered selfishness (though it’s often joked that GMs do this out of spite), but due to an aversion of the disappointment of having the players miss out on a story the GM planned ahead of time on a simple whim.

While that’s somewhat understandable, for players this is antithetical to the freedom that they’re playing the role playing game for in the first place and will often lead to a frustrating experience.

Naturally, it’s thought to be an elegant solution for the GM to not plan too much story ahead of time, since it won’t tempt the GM to railroad the players into their story and the players can’t wiggle their way out of a story that doesn’t exist.

Why is this a “misconception”?

If my tone and labeling of this thought process as a “misconception” hasn’t already given it away, I’ll say that I actually disagree with it quite vehemently. While I don’t deny the benefits and reasoning behind it, I find that their shape as a philosophy to be that of a crutch: it gives short-term benefits, but inhibits long-term ones.

The short-term benefits are the ones I highlighted earlier, a GM that has no plan can’t have it ruined by their players, at some point they’ll pick up some techniques for lessening the creative load on themselves, and it’s less prep time for the GM to boot!

However, I find the consequences for these immediate gains to be far to severe in the context of how what I’m looking for in a role playing game. Without long-term planning, the DM would be throwing to chance the pacing of long story arcs and the opportunities for meaningful character development would happen be much more seldom.

If getting a story arc to an end without it feeling abrupt or too long were easy enough to throw to the winds of chance and improv, writing, screenplay and directing would be valued much less as professions. Similarly, because the concepts of heroism, depravity, character development, and the like are human constructs, stories need to be focused and embellished to happen at any satisfying frequency.

This doesn’t mean I’m deciding which arcs my players’ characters are going to make heroic sacrifices in, but that I am doing a host of other things like paying attention to make sure no one hogs the spotlight, setting up contexts in which the characters can make meaningful choices (see also: discouraging excessive murder-hobo’ing), and pushing myself to find more vivid and fantastic ways of describing the stories I’m inviting everyone into.

So what are good types of planning?

The truth is, the good kind of planning isn’t very fun or exciting.¬†Organizing combat and loot notes, honing exposition for introducing regions or characters, and simulating action by other parties or characters can all get pretty tedious pretty quickly! Especially if you’re comparing it to the misplaced thrill of having creative authority to tell whatever story you want.

Instead, I’ve found that the best planning is setting the table: honing your delivery of the first impressions your players will have with the environments, characters, and drama and the excitement of anticipation as you wait to see how they have things unfold.

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