Trad and the Planning Fugue vs What does that look like?

We’re still playing Godbound here and I’ve noticed the most interesting table phenomenon. I think it has to do with the OSR-style framework the game is built on and the players’ relationship with it. I’m going to poke at that.

This week’s session, we introduced a fifth player to the game. Five is a lot, and we’re eight-ish sessions in, so the learning curve for our specific setup is nearly vertical. So I thought, hey, let’s start by introducing everyone else’s characters and how they’re embedded in the fiction.

Me, to the table: “Okay so it’s been a few weeks since you dealt with your last major challenge. I took the time to run another faction turn, so some stuff has shifted.” I go over the setting changes, folks take notes, ask questions. I continue. “But let’s talk about what you’ve been doing the past couple weeks.”

Me, to player 1: “Where do you think you’ve been spending your time?”

Player 1: “Yeah, I’m ready to spend my Dominion to … “

Me: “Wait. I meant, like, in the city. Where do you live? What does that look like?”

Player 1: “Oh, with the troops I guess. Anyway, I’m going to spend Dominion…”

Me: “Hold up! So, like, with the troops. Fine, good, makes sense. So what does that look like? Just bunked with the soldiers? Have your own space?”

Player 1: “I was gonna spend that Dominion…”

Me: “Oh my god! Stop! Who are you spending your time with? Are you withdrawn from the rest of the pantheon? Do you guys hang together? What does that look like?

So player 1 finally slows down a little, gets out of that mechanics-driven mode, and talks with the other players about what his character’s daily life has looked like as time passes. Physically, I keep redirecting them to talking to each other, rather than using me to relay their direct communications with each other. I’m not the hub! The players can talk to each other!

So after we do that, I move on to player 2.

Me: “Alrighty then. You and player 1 have been hanging out, great. Your magical medicinals are useful to the troops, and his troops can protect your cult. Good good. So where do you live? Where and how do you spend most of your time?”

Player 2: “Yeah I had this idea for how to spend my Dominion…”

Me: “Auugggggh!” Charlie Brown style.

I get that everyone is eager to engage with the game. Cool. Great, in fact. But boy howdy is it hard to get anyone to slow down and engage with the game’s fiction. To my mind, all the mechanisms they’re trying to grab onto are in service to that very same fiction! I’m not even sure what they’re trying to accomplish when they jump right into the rules and keep veering away from the context.

After about 45 minutes, I was able to get everyone slowed down. I felt like a cop in a school zone, holding up my hand, flashing my cop lights, handing out warnings. Slow, slow. We have time.

Finally, I brought up last session’s plan. In Godbound, in service to the difficulties of spending time efficiently prepping for a sandbox, the players always give the GM a plan for what they intend to do next session. Smart policy, and I end up prepping much more interesting stuff when I do it iteratively, rather than in one huge chunk. Last session ended with a plan to complete their first Impossible task, clearing out this alchemical miasma that clung to their nearly-liberated city.

That’s when they fell into the Planning Fugue.

I’ve seen this in the past when I played a lot more conventional RPGs, but in the past decade-and-some of storygaming that ceased to be the air I breathed. I’m sure you know the Planning Fugue: the players look at a big upcoming task – a dungeon delve, a major obstacle, a known upcoming boss fight – and brainstorm a solution. They pool their resources, math stuff out, talk through contingencies.

This all happens at the player level. In fact trying to drag this planning back into the fiction is so disruptive that I’ve given up even trying. This week’s game, when I asked “okay so where is this planning taking place?” the answer was a general “Oh in the city somewhere.” Yeah, fine, okay.

Like, in-character planning embedded in fictional context is just too hard. It’s too distracting to the players, who just want to beat the thing. So they pull all the way out of the fiction of the game but remain within the magic circle of the play session. It’s a fugue state, like group hypnosis.

Here’s why I think the system itself lends itself to the Planning Fugue.

One place trad-style game designs excel is that players can actually plan things. I propose this is because resources are explicit and mechanical. In D&D it’s hit points and armor class and spell slots. Adding in Godbound, it’s Effort and Dominion and the Words themselves. Then, when you go off to execute your plan, the scene in which the plan happens doesn’t veer off course. You might lose some HPs but you’re still entrenched in the scene. You might have spent Effort and had Effort spent against you, but you’re still on target. Some of that is the blow-by-blow scale of play in these games, some is the binary success/failure of each roll, and some is play tradition. “Missing a roll always means a consequence” is a fairly recent addition that’s becoming more common in conventional games, and it is enormously important.

I can’t help but compare this to storygaming, where I’ve found planning to be difficult if not actually pointless. Obviously “storygaming” is a huge sprawling thing, and in many cases accomplishing things isn’t even the point. But let’s look at the big dogs: PbtA and FitD games.

In both cases, misses come with consequences. In the case of an Apocalypse World style Move, there’s also a structural imperative to constantly spin the fiction, to snowball, to literally move the fiction in a new direction. Repeatedly, my players (raised on decades of conventional ttrpgs) have expressed frustration with their inability to see things through in any of the PbtAs we’ve played here. If the GM/MC tilts the action somewhere new, that’s where the action goes. The players could probably dig their claws into their plans a little more, but fictional snowballing is a constant pressure. It’s exciting and very satisfying, story-wise. Totally frustrating if you want to get anything done.

Blades in the Dark evoked an even stronger frustration from my players the first time we played. The holding environment of the game is gangs doing jobs, right? But the game itself says “don’t plan your job.” Instead, you get injected into the job at some critical juncture as determined by your Engagement Roll. Then, you backfill the planning by using flashbacks. It’s very cinematic and you get into play right away. But I swear on my B/X book I had players ask, “But where’s the roleplaying?

Blades was designed to bypass the Planning Fugue and by bypassing it, the players decided the Planning Fugue is the roleplaying. Even though everyone’s perfectly clear on the fact that the planning happens purely between players and not characters. Wild.

This tension shows up in our Godbound game quite a lot. I’m running the game with a lot of PbtA-style agendas and principles at work, because I find the game both more satisfying and easier to make rulings on when everything is embedded in the fiction. I regularly have players try to drag me into the Planning Fugue by asking me to hypothesize and math out stuff they want to try. I push back with “I’m not going to pre-play this. Play to find out.”  They want me to make rulings out of context of actual play, right? I’m sure if I recorded these conversations, a full third of our time would be spent in this uncollapsed wave state of pseudo-play.

Sometimes I wonder if pushing a fiction-first agenda through any trad game is fair play. Like, that’s just my aesthetic preference, but it’s not necessarily supported by the system we’re using. Folks, including the creators, will point out that Apocalypse World is a fairly conventional game. And it is, in some obvious and maybe inobvious ways: there’s still a strong facilitation role, there’s still character monogamy, there are still tasks being resolved. But PbtA-style games disrupt the conventions in big ways: system engagement is constrained to specific fictional triggers, most outcomes are defined by the move language, and more often than not the system adds fictional twists that trigger new engagements that add more twists and so on.

Can you still “play to find out” in a trad game? The meaning of failure and the lack of system-driven fiction-twisting (misses complicate, 7-9 “yes but” type outcomes, and so on), I think, means modulating that a bit. Talk a little but not too much, get your ducks in a row, and then play to find out.

It’s hard, but I’m going to keep dragging everyone out of their fugue, their uncollapsed wave state, and get them thinking about their plans and their actions embedded in fictional context and filtered through their characters’ priorities. Maintaining a fiction-first focus is hard in a game where failure stakes are explicitly higher than in most storygames, although at least in Godbound if you zero out your hit points, you get one last blaze (divine fury) to finish your conflict. It’s pretty hard to straight-up lose via character death, but it’s always on the table. I speculate that this is why the safety of the fugue state is preferable to just playing to find out. Storygames are frequently pretty safe failure-wise, which is such a frustration to the folks who want to feel meaningful risk. “Meaningful” of course meaning “did my character die,” not “can I achieve my goals?” or “was I true to my characterization?”

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