Ask The GM – Can You Plan Too Much

By John Serpico on


Chris asks – I’m someone who has just recently gotten into tabletop gaming as player, though I’ve been accumulating ideas for a game of my own down the line. I’ve started writing down the initial plotline, and thankfully, I still have some time before this game could get started in proper, so I can map out my world, my plots, etc. However, I also realized that I was steadily planning out battles and dialogues, unsure of how much detail I should actually put into things. My question is: what is a good way to tell where you should/shouldn’t plan so far ahead? I want to have the broad strokes of a story fleshed out, but obviously the players can change things in so many ways. Should I try to plan out a little bit for actions I think they might take, or just roll with it and work with what they do? The last thing I want to do is force them down a path they don’t want to go down, but I also worry that if certain events/dialogues/encounters get skipped that the story will suffer as a result.

Chris, you’re asking about one of the most common tensions in GMing – the balance between planning too much and not planning enough. And your question captures the problems with each. If you over-plan, you are stripping your players of choice and agency. If you under-plan, large swaths of your Grand Narrative fall by the wayside and the story goes nowhere. Where, then, is the middle ground?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer for that. Plenty of tabletop gamers love a preset mission and freeze up when the GM asks then open-ended questions. Other gamers feel stifled when they think they’re getting pushed toward the dungeon you mapped out on the battle mat. Because you’re still planning for the campaign, you’re not 100% sure where these particular gamers might lie on that spectrum.

That said, there is something you can do right now to prepare that will make you feel ready without locking your soon-to-be-players onto a set path. And that something is beginning to create a shared narrative, which is a concept that is crucially important to gaming. It is easy for you to think of a game as “your game” or “your story.” But tabletop role-playing is an exercise in community storytelling, and your players have just as much influence over what the narrative will be as you do. Given that, your approach to pre-campaign planning has to be as collaborative as the sessions themselves will be.

So your objective right now is to engage in planning and story-boarding that incorporates the characters and their backstories. As your players sit down to start building characters, give them some general sense of the campaign (“this is going to be a campaign about revenge” or “this is going to be a campaign about exploration”) and some guidance for their characters (“you’re all going to be from the same village” or “you’re all members of a mercenary company”). Then let them build their characters and their histories. If you want a campaign about revenge, let the big bad of the campaign be the one that has wronged their village or slaughtered their commander. If it’s about exploration, start them on a quest to find an artifact that is crucial to saving their kingdom’s royal family from a sorcerer’s curse.

If you follow that approach, then all you need to do is plan what, thematically you want to happen (exploration, intrigue, nonstop dungeon crawls) and what the main antagonist wants to do. Then you tie the characters into that. Using this methodology, you can have all the various elements of a great narrative in place – the characters, how they know each other, the main bad guy, and how that main bad guy has influenced their lives. That’s a heck of a good start and as much as you need before your first session.

Once you do that, there may still be a tug to plan more things. And you certainly can, but you need to be aware that many of the small elements you’re planning like specific non-player characters or individual encounters may not be used when you want them to be. Think of those things as being in your back pocket if you need them instead of things that will absolutely come to pass, especially if you find yourself wanting to make maps of cities and planning for epic chase scenes that are half a dozen sessions away. One fun thing to do to scratch that “what if they show up in this location” itch is to make and keep a list of stock characters that you can utilize as needed – a few bartenders (and their associated taverns), military commanders, guard captains, sage old hermits, etc. If the party finds themselves in a situation where they need to recruit a team of thugs to help them sneak past a night watchmen, you can reach into your pile of NPCs and pull one out that might be of use.

One last thing to keep in mind is that the players are going to take more time to get somewhere than you think they will. Whether a puzzle slows them down more than anticipated or some part of a town they’re in intrigues them, your players will only progress so far in each session. That is, you will rarely find yourself running out of maps and NPCs and plot because your players will move through your prepared material slower than you think they will. And, even if they do, trust yourself to improvise. You know the world and you’re working with them to build it. Make peace with the fact that you don’t have complete control over the narrative and that your players will be adding their own plans in as often as you are and you’ll be just fine.

Happy GMing!

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