A Different Look at Player Styles: Planners and Improvisers

Have you thought about player preferences in relation to the kinds of adventures and campaigns that you run? I hope you have, since knowing your "target audience" is fundamental to meeting their needs. But you may not have thought in terms of the styles I'm going to describe today.

I call these modes "playing styles," as opposed to preferences such as Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist. Today I'm talking about Planners and Improvisers, about the fluidity in the game.

I'm using "fluidity" to designate how quickly (or how often) the state of the game changes significantly. In some tabletop games there’s relatively little change from turn to turn, or minute to minute, or move to move. In others there's a great deal of change in those same timeframes. Players sometimes have strong preferences about the fluidity of games, especially serious or hard-core players. In RPGs, it’s as much the GM as the game rules that determine the level of fluidity, making this an important consideration for GMs.

“Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” Sir Winston Churchill

Planners like to think well ahead, to plan their path through the game. You change your plans to accommodate circumstances, but always plan to the end. Planners are often good at military strategy (as opposed to tactics). They're especially interested in what happens before the battle.

At the other extreme, Improvisers don't want to think ahead. They want a game where they only need to figure out what to do in the short term. They focus on tactics.

Many players are in between; they plan for the middle term, a few moves ahead but not the entire game (Adapters).

Planners like order and may not care for games with lots of overt uncertainty mechanics such as dice rolls (partly depends on how they’re implemented, I’m a planner but I like 1e D&D). Improvisers like chaos, they may like games with lots of uncertainty.

Chess players are often planners, poker players often improvisers.

Planners like to have lots of information; they’ll take prisoners for interrogation, for example. They’ll use spells to gather information. Improvisors are more likely to just barge into a situation. Planners also like time to think; they’ll dislike a GM who suddenly speeds things up when there’s an encounter, trying to turn it into real-time. Improvisers like a bit of chaos.

RPGs tend to be fairly fluid by nature, I think, especially if combat is the primary activity. Whether intended or not, D&D 4e catered to Improvisers when many of the strategic, information-gathering, spells were removed and the game was heavily focused on combat.

If a GM wants to encourage one style or the other:

  • Give planners time to think, move improvisers right along.
  • The less information players can get "up front", the less they can plan.
  • The "strategic" side of the game helps planners, not so much improvisers.
  • The greater the emphasis on combat, the more improvisational the game is likely to be.
  • "Just wandering around" favors improvisers; clear objectives helps planners.
  • In general, the more fluid the game, the more it favors the Improvisor.

Another time I'll describe Classical and Romantic styles.

This article contributed by Lewis Pulsipher

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I feel like between the first and second half of this piece you switch from one kind of Planner/Improviser split to another. By this I mean it starts out kind of focusing on an overall playstyle consideration but ends up focusing on combat and encounters. I think your descriptions of the two types are apt, I just don't think that a Campaign Planner is necessarily a Combat Planner, and likewise for Improvisers.

Some players are Campaign Planners. They want to plan out their character arc and try and figure out what the nature of the overall campaign is going to look like well ahead of time. This might include level by level ability planning, but also includes things like achieving character goals and engaging in certain mini-games and subplots. On the other hand, Campaign Improvisers are just as likely to wing it all the way, letting their character develop in response to in-game events rather than trying to follow an arc is spite of them. That isn't to say they don't have goals in mind for their characters, just that they are more fluid. Again, neither of these categories (and of course most people fall somewhere on the spectrum between them) necessarily roll over into how the player engages combat and encounters.

Otherwise, good bit.


First Post
This sentence summarizes the topic for me:
"Many players are in between; they plan for the middle term, a few moves ahead but not the entire game (Adapters)."

Replace 'many' with 'most' or even 'all', and you're as close to reality as you'll get.


I try not to categorize players as it can often lead to assumptions that create unforeseen issues. Players spend time planning out there characters and what they would like to accomplish in the campaign setting provided. Likewise players will also want to improvise certain actions depending on how the story is going in that moment. I believe that every effort should be made to accommodate any planning or improvisation brought to the table by the players.

As a DM I lean heavily on planning but you can't plan for everything and, even if you could, it may lead to a stale campaign story because I feel it limits contributions to the story by the players. It is never my intention to favor one style over another but it may be that I do influence more planning since I tend to do more of it myself. Perhaps I should spend more time panning to improvise? Anyway, I believe the best campaigns will likely have an even balance of both planning and improvisation though I admit my campaign currently leans more planning over improvisation.

Ynas Midgard

I mean, you _can_ categorise your players by figuring out how much time they are willing to invest into planning for a specific situation. For instance, three in my group spent nigh half an hour figuring out the optimal way of reaching their destination (given time, provisions, and encumbrance), whereas one other usually tolerates only 5-8 minutes of such arguments.


Re the Churchill quote, I think the point there is that while "no plan survives contact with the enemy" (Von Moltke) planning is vital to set strategic goals and intermediate objectives. I guess I like this combat-as-war style where the enemy acts & reacts realistically, with both sides attempting to impose their own vision on the battlefield.

There is a neurotic sort of 'planner' who is only happy when planning, and is not keen on actually playing - especially when the enemy does more than just react in a predictable and previously-envisaged way. These are the players most likely to object to being 'rushed', ie not having infinite time to decide on their actions in combat.

Of course it's a continuum, and I've learned to ease up a bit on planner-type players and give them a little time to decide, rather than saying "6 seconds are up, ok you Delay". :D


Thanks for the sometimes-waggish comments.

"Planning" doesn't mean you have to have just one plan; you can have a Plan B, C, and so on as backups, and still be a planner.

About the "neurotic sort of 'planner' who is only happy when planning", S'mon, that may be a reflection of one of the personality differences in Myers-Briggs' scheme: some people are much happier before they make a decision, then waffle and worry afterward, while others are much happier after they make a decision. The first type may research and plan "out the wazoo" in order to put off having to make a decision.

I understand George R. R. Martin posits a similar separation in fiction writers, between Gardeners and Architects.

For example, Maxwell Alexander Drake says he plots everything in his books in detail for months, and then writes exactly to his plan (Architect). Martin himself is a Gardener, he sits down and starts writing without any idea what's going to happen. In-betweeners may make a detailed outline, and find when they're done that they've followed about 50% of it.

Lew Pulsipher


While I agree that categorizing players is a sort of futile exercise, I also enjoy these types of philosophical/theoretical discussions. Because while I don't think that people fit into neat categories, they do fit into very messy and overlapping categories. Understanding a little better how somebody else (or even yourself) thinks can be a great way to address conflicts and misunderstandings, along with learning new perspectives, approaches and techniques.

I think combat easily favored the planners, not improvisers. Especially starting in 2.5e through 4e, where you could spend hours planning your "build" and "tactics" prior to session 1. I think that they often discouraged improvisation, due to the complexity of the rules. You wanted to make sure you didn't make a mistake in building your character. The approach shares a lot of similarities with deck building in MtG, planning out combinations and looking for the opportunities to use them

I'm not sure I'd agree that improvisers like chaos or games with uncertainty. I think improvising is one of the most important skills a DM has, because in any game where other players can alter the situation at any time, it's nearly unavoidable. Perhaps I'm a planner who has learned to improvise.

And I guess that's probably what I find most useful. If you agree with this assessment (or are making the actual assessment), what can you gain from that knowledge? How does knowing a categorization help you?

I think the trend in RPGs has been for more "improvisation" or reacting to the circumstances, rather than planning. Planning runs the risk of railroading. Improvising runs the risk of a lack of consistency, depth in the setting or scenario, or things holding together.

So if you are a "planner" who wants to be a better DM, how do you do it? As has been alluded to in the comments, you plan to improvise. You prepare bits and pieces that you can drop in as needed.

If you're an improviser, how do you improve your planning? I'd say it's a couple of bullet points with ideas as starting points.

In both cases I think that a planner can benefit from learning how to improvise better and vice versa.

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