GM Prep Tip: S2 Adventure Planning

GM Prep Tip: S2 Adventure Planning
There are several, actually quite a few, ways that a GM can plan out an adventure for their players. I've used a variety of styles before and will go into a couple of different options that may or may not prove beneficial to you.

The first of these GM planning styles is the subject of today's GM Prep Tip and is what I'll simply call the S2 style.

What is the S2 style you might ask? Well, when I was in the Air Force I worked in the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) as an Enlisted Terminal Attack Controller (ETAC, now called JTAC). I know, a lot of words and acronyms most people don't care about, but the point is that a big part of my job, especially during training events, was interfacing with the Army staff in planning for the upcoming battle. The S2 is the staff position for intelligence and when it came to planning for combat it was the S2 that took on the role of the enemy......again, just for planning purposes.

Now I'm not advocating for an adversarial relationship between the GM and the players, although I do believe their should be some level of "GM vs. the Players", but that is a topic for another time.

Military Planning
My point is there is a corollary between our Army units planning to engage in battle and the GM planning on engaging the players at the table. The table-top GM cannot possibly plan for every scenario. I've seen this attempted....hell, I've attempted this myself back when I was (over) relying on poor guidance for writing a "Wurld Open" GenCon adventure for 4th Edition HackMaster. It took about two years to write that adventure and countless resources in playtesting*.

Even with all this work I couldn't be prepared for everything.....nobody can.

This is why I love the S2 approach. During the initial planning phases the S2 would play the enemy, in this case the players, and present three....and only three possible scenarios as he saw possible given the enemy's capabilities:

  • Best Case
  • Worst Case
  • Most Likely Case
This might seem rather simple, but in many ways it is brilliant, or at least I think it is. Think of it in game terms. As the GM maybe you have your map and you have your monsters & treasure placed. Odds are you have already laid things out naturally with what you expect as the Most Likely Case scenario. You know your players and their PCs.....maybe they have a tendency to always go left in the dungeon. They have a standard rule of always decapitating their foes to ensure they cannot come back as undead (one of my groups I play in does this......started in a brutal zombie campaign). It is perfectly natural for a GM to plan their adventure with the party already in mind. Odds are you won't have to really do too much for this scenario.

Too Easy
Now let's take what you perceive as most likely and turn it on its side. What is the Best Case scenario for the party? Is there a bee-line through your adventure that the party could take to totally wreck things? I once played in an AD&D adventure were we were expected to enter a labyrinth of halls and corridors of a huge castle complex and get whittled down in the process. Instead we, by pure coincidence, headed "straight" through to the Big Bad Guy (BBG), although we were on a higher level overlooking the event we were trying to prevent. I don't think the GM expected my PC to start picking up the rest of the party and hurl them into combat as missiles......the damage from falling/hurling was less than we'd have been whittled down. For this GM, if he'd seen there was a possible way for the party to turn multiple sessions of gameplay into a one-shot, he could have changed his adventure up. Maybe we go there too soon to stop the BBG, and the terminus of our path ended overlooking a large hall where preparations were just starting to be made for the event.

On the flip side from Best Case is obviously Worst Case scenario. Is there a way the party could realistically go that might end up in a Total Party Kill (TPK). Now I'm definitely not saying a TPK is bad.....in my experience TPKs aren't a twist of fate, but earned. I do think there isn't an issue with making a specific scenario/monster too tough for the players to handle. Nothing wrong with setting a Black Dragon against a small 1st level party, as long as the purpose isn't to kill the PCs, but to get them to realize that they should not wade into battle against a Black Dragon as 1st level PCs.....

Off the rails train wreckWere I see Worst Case scenarios important from a planning perspective is not to account for bad roles or bad decisions by the players, but for bad design by the GM. Maybe your BBG can only be hurt or killed by a specific type of weapon. I've actually seen this a lot.You need item X to accomplish task Y, but unless the party manages to do everything perfect they cannot get Y and it is a TPK. The fact the party didn't find the magic thingamabob in the false bottom of the small locked chest strapped to the underside of the latrine in the basement of the dungeon and now they cannot use it to stop the BBG........that is a GM design issue. If the players do have the small locked chest, but decide to check it out later....might be a planning issue for the GM. If the players have the thingamabob but decide to secret it away because it is worth serious cash and they want to try to take out the BBG using more conventional means....that TPK is all on them.

Now obviously all these design/planning flaws that might spring up with Best Case, Worst Case, and Most Likely scenarios can often be handled a little bit on the fly by most competent GMs, but the real issue here is planning for these three scenarios. By examining the possible pitfalls a GM can either place or remove obstacles in a fashion that fits the story and will be more easily accepted by the group. Pulling off a major fix in-game is often noticeable, so taking this three-tiered approach might work to help mitigate problems before they arise...

....which isn't this the point in planning to begin with?

*I actually flew cross-country to have this adventure play-tested by the Reigning Wurld-Champion group, at not an insignificant expense. Luckily they were friends so I could justify the trip.