March 28, 2014

Plans are Worthless but Planning is Everything

As a GM I love to prep.  This isn't because I like to "tell a story" - I like to build toys and see how my players play with them.  I'm 75% toymaker / 25% storyteller.  I've talked about my prep process a little before.  I build a session in detail, but I never plan in significant detail more than two steps ahead.  That lets me throw everything out if my players go in an unexpected direction.

The title is a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower, from the 50s.  He knew that no plan survived contact with the enemy, but he also knew the value of planning.  Planning creates movable pieces that can be rearranged to respond to unexpected events.  It fills in rough areas so that you have details thought through when they come up.  While you may still need to improvise in many places despite your plan, it will help there, too.  It makes sense:  If I spend an hour learning about carrots, I know a lot about carrots, but a little about root vegetables, gardening, vegetable farming, nutrition, supermarket supply chains, cooking, cell biology, etc.

WARNING!  SPOILER ALERT!  My Eberron players should not read any further!

What's in the file at the bottom of this post?

Today's post is my prep notes for an upcoming Eberron game.  This is for a long (12 hour) session, and may resolve in less than the full time, but I have other material prepared (not included) in case that happens.

This is Not Advice!

Most of the time on this blog, I give general advice that's good for any GM running the type of game I'm talking about that week.  This week, I'm not.  Not every GM is a "prep GM" like me.  I wouldn't say "there is no wrong way" to run a game.  Otherwise, I wouldn't have this blog, right?  I know there are wrong ways to run a game, because I've done almost all of them.  But there are a lot of right ways.

I'm also not saying "if you prep a lot, you'll do fine."  You can prep well, and you can prep poorly.  If you write a scenario that says stuff like "the PCs will do this and that," you may be railroading, or at least making too many assumptions.

Not prepping, or prepping very little, can also be done well or poorly.  There are lazy dungeon masters and then there are lazy dungeon masters. Sly Flourish doesn't advocate being lackadasical, he just wants to cut out the prep that you don't technically have to do, if you don't want to, so you can focus on the parts you like best.  If you like to prep, like me, Sly Flourish's advice is still good at helping you more efficient.

My prep notes attached here make the assumption that the PCs will follow the hook.  But this is dozens of hours into the campaign, and it's a hook they've set themselves:  They're the ones who sought an artificer to have Aric Blacktree's doomsday device analyzed, so presumably they will follow up and investigate the supposedly-sealed lab where the artificer says it must have been made.  I don't make assumptions about how they will get to the lab.  Encounter 1 is just a framework for a skill challenge, not the actual details.  It contains the DCs and success/failure check boxes, and some skill choices if the PCs choose stealth.  But they could try other tactics, and I can use that page to crib a skill challenge for any strategy they choose, from bribery to slipping in during a party to digging up from the Cogs.

More non-assumptions:  These notes have 6 combat encounters, but 3 have alternate non-combat resolution options, and 3 are totally avoidable -- After the first encounter (unavoidable action scene to get the pace up) the PCs can choose to go to LABORATORY or STORAGE.  They know the plot is in the lab, but being PCs, they will probably want to go loot the storage area.  I just have a feeling...

Some Ideas You'll See

Also, I like having ways to end a combat other than just killing everyone.  This is part of why I try to make around half of my encounters have built-in options for avoiding them with skill checks, and I try to mix roleplay and skill scenes in for variety.

  • Encounter 1 is a very open skill challenge.  My players like planning and executing "runs" in the old Cyberpunk 2020 / Shadowrun style, and this will probably entertain them for an hour.
  • Encounter 2 must end with the PCs destroying the sentinel automata
  • Encounter 3 can be avoided or prevented by bypassing the traps; but if it is triggered, it must end with the PCs destroying the guardian golems and escaping the traps
  • Encounter 4 can be avoided or prevented with a mystical challenge; but if it is triggered, it must end with the PCs destroying the wraith figments
  • Encounter 5 can be avoided; but if the PCs go in that room, they must fight to the death because the trap haunts will try to possess them and make them kill each other.
  • Encounter 7 can be prevented with a tense social challenge; but if triggered, the PCs can fight the warforged to a rout and chase them off or force them to surrender; or they can knock them all out and tie them up.
  • Encounter 8's opponents have different goals:  Hammerhand is trying to defeat the PCs, and he and the two berserk warforged must be killed or knocked out; while Beryl d'Cannith is trying to flee.
  • Encounter 9 is actually a live-action roleplay scene.  The rules don't get involved at all, and it uses an unusual GM technique.  

Encounter 9 is not something they teach you in the Dungeon Master's Guide.  I've said it before:  LARP is a crucible of GM skills.  Encounter 9 is an example of a technique I picked up from a LARP, brought into other LARPs I ran or played in (by talking to their GMs), and imported into tabletop gaming a long time ago.  It's also a great example of a situation where heavy prep can be superior to improv (the opposite is also true: Improv can be superior to heavy prep in some situations).

The idea is that if one PC is getting a roleplay scene (or a few of the PCs), but the others aren't present, and you can predict this, you can design the scene so that there are exactly as many NPCs as players whose characters are not in the scene.  Then you can write NPC bluesheets to give the players of absent characters.  In LARP - especially adventure style LARP - this is a great technique because it involves more players in a scene, and if you are running a scene with more NPCs than GMs, you need people to play them anyway (otherwise you're running a tabletop game at a LARP, which I generally oppose).  NPC bluesheets are hard to write.  In one side of one page of well organized, large font text with lots of white space, NPC bluesheets have to instruct the players who get them who they are, what they should try to accomplish in the scene, and how they should make it resolve.  The bluesheets need to be continuity checked -- that means you write them, then make sure they cross-reference each other correctly, their goals are in just enough conflict, the PC's role is clear, and they know how the scene should start and end.

So showing my prep process is a very self-conscious task.  Attached are my notes for this session.  I claim no ownership of trademarks or copyrights of stat blocks or rules or images or anything (I sometimes use art in here, and I pull stats from the compendium).  This is just for educational purposes, to show you what I do to prep.

Click here to see it. (PDF, served from

Self-conscious disclaimer:  This is NOT meant to be published or printed.  It hasn't been copy edited.  There are probably tons of typos and sentence fragments, awkward sentences, and occasional inconsistencies.  It hasn't been playtested or even run once.