Players love planning. Laying blueprints out on the barrel head, spending literal hours arguing contingencies, and then watching as their just-crazy-enough-to-work shenanigans come fruition is the cornerstone of whole RPG genres. (Looking at you there, Street Samurai.) But buried within this play loop is an important practical question: Is the GM listening in? 

From a practical perspective, it makes sense for the guy behind the screen to know the party’s plans. He can begin plotting out antagonists’ reactions, making for more nuanced anti-burglary obstacles and engaging castle defense strats. If they go for the sewer entrance, then the duke’s torturer might raise the alarm. If they drill for the cash vaults, then the casino’s seismograph might pick them up. That kind of forewarning can help with pacing when it’s time execute on the plan. It can also make for more believable / competent villains when the “super-intelligent” eldritch being has the foresight to realize, “Hey, what if they just fly to the top of my keep?”

Of course, there’s a very real downside here.  If you’re a player, giving your GM a chance to invent countermeasures runs counter to your interests. After all, would the torturer or the seismograph have existed if your GM hadn’t been listening in? It may be an adversarial mindset, but it can be tough to escape: If the GM knows our plans, that gives him a chance to mess them up!

The principle goes beyond breaking and entering and heisting though. Even if a GM attempts to “be good,” playing his monsters’ characterfully and not making the most optimal decision based on overheard info, simply moving monsters around the field presents a moment-to-moment challenge.

“OK you guys,” says the table-talking Sorcerer. “Try to herd the orcs into the hall, then get clear. Ima do like I do.”

“On the orcs’ turn,” says the GM, “They draw their bows and stand 25 feet apart. As trained warriors who have battled mages before, they would obviously know to minimize the risk of AoE spells.”

On the other hand, it’s not necessarily all about screwing over players. There’s also a very real advantage to planning within earshot of your GM. As the arbiter of “brilliant plan” vs. “dumb idea,” a GM can interject with common sense objections that PCs would know to consider: You would realize that dispel magic cannot destroy the artifact. Given his political stance, you don’t think the vampire prince will ever consent to ally with the werewolves. Players can take this sort of thing on board and adjust plans accordingly.

The basic question is whether the advantage of a well-informed GM (pacing, ease of play, and a more thought-out world) outweighs the possibility of un-fun metagaming on the GMs’ part. It also raises the thorny question of whether or not a GM can be guilty of metagaming. Is it fair to overhear players’ plans and adjust the dungeon accordingly? What if you use use scrying magic / spy networks to suss out the PCs’ info? How do you answer these questions in your own game? Sound off in the comments with your tales of surprised GMs vs. overly prepared ones!


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