“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything” Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
How many times have you gotten halfway into a mission or a story or a roleplaying encounter and started to feel frustrated because you didn’t have a sense of direction or your team wasn’t working together as a cohesive whole? It can happen even to the most experienced players and best COs. Once a story starts to go off the rails problems tend to increase as more players get frustrated and start reacting to what’s being thrown out in the plot; and reactions often prompt bad decisions and the situation can easily snowball.
A lot of things can derail a mission. Maybe one team was more clever than expected and they solved a part of the story too fast so the player portraying the adversaries tossed out some unexpected new opposition to entertain that group while the other teams catch up. Maybe too many players decide to escalate a situation until it becomes ridiculously tough to handle or maybe the mission leaders decide to spring a surprise on unwary players who react badly. Derailing doesn’t have to be solely the fault of poor mission planning and it can happen to anyone. But the good news is there’s some ways you can deal with it when it happens and plan to stop it before it starts.
The best way to keep a mission on track is for the players to have a goal. Goals are closely related to plans because they dictate how groups set about planning. If the mission goal is to ‘get information about Felonius Rex the wanted criminal’ and the players sense an impending fight while they watch Felonius, they may plan to avoid the fight and track Felonius through other means. But if their goal is ‘capture or kill Felonius Rex. Do not let him escape’ they may feel they have to wade into the fight no matter the risk. Fortunately goals are easy to communicate in mission briefings and you can touch base with team leaders so they can reassert team goals to their team in character.
If you’re planning a mission resist the urge to change a team’s goals partway through the mission unless absolutely necessary. Consider that the players on each team go though planning and preparation to achieve that goal in character and they will feel a sense of accomplishment in getting it done. It’s unfair to players to take that hard work away from them and make them start on something new unless they have already reached their first goal.
Once a team has a goal, encourage communication and planning within that team. While players need to understand that they shouldn’t get too invested into set plans, the act of planning and having plans gives them a much better bedrock to deal with the surprises that get thrown into the story. Also, the more communication that goes on in the team the more that each player will better understand the motivations of their teammates. Taking the above example, if a team is waffling about whether or not to get involved in a fight it’s good to know how many of the team are pacifists vs. officers trained in combat. Or whether any members of the team have knowledge or skills that could circumvent the fight. Planning and communication also helps the team leader to recognize the strengths of every member of the team so they can call upon them to use those strengths in the mission.
Lastly, if you’re planning or helping run a mission, be careful about surprises. Great surprises are ones that fit into the setting and that the players have clues about before they happen. They might not know exactly what is coming, but the players will have more fun if they have some awareness that their situation will change. Damaging surprises are ones that are sprung on the players with no warning, leaving everyone scrambling to react. Remember, reacting from time to time is dramatic. But when players are forced into a pattern of reacting without the ability to plan or to understand what the goal is they stop feeling like their characters can make a difference in the story and start feeling helpless. And that’s a surefire way to make players feel like they’re losing a game that shouldn’t have winners and losers.
Players with a goal can plan. Players who plan start communicating. Players who communicate work together to succeed and successful players feel that their characters have a powerful impact on the story. That makes for good missions. Hopefully these tricks will help you in your next mission whether you’re planning a mission, leading a team or just encouraging your teammates to take a moment and plan their approach to the next problem.