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Based on some feedback from my players, I'm going to allow them to plan their next mission, which will be a 'seemingly' straight forward heist affair onboard a moving vehicle (limiting their geographical range).

What I'd like advice on, is how can I impose limitations on their plans to prevent them from going completely off-track?

Narratively, I'll provide them with the objective and some key facts and stats, but what's the best way to try and 'plan for the unthinkable' from my perspective? Normally as the DM, I can react to the team going off-road within the context of a quest because I can generally foresee the branches they might take, but in this instance, giving them the ability to map out their approach might make things tricky for me to manage.

How should I prepare when the players decide on how the adventure will play out, i.e. if they provide the different plot points instead of me?

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    \$\begingroup\$ How do you do things usually? How is this case different? Are the players not allowed to have their own plans and ideas? \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Jun 18 at 11:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ So you ask about running a game without imposing many constraints from your side? And methods handle it smoothly? \$\endgroup\$ – Anagkai Jun 18 at 11:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this to make sure you have the right maps, NPC's, balanced combats etc planned? \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jun 18 at 11:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ For the most part so far, theyve been following a very linear path questwise. I've given them an objective, told them the parameters of that and what they need to do. This time I want them to essentially plan the entire thing out from start to finish; how they arrive, how they execute, how they escape. I want to give them a high level overview, and they refine the planning details/get more control over it. I want to keep them contained to the one map, but there's potential they could want to go 'off-road' with an approach not considered \$\endgroup\$ – mrc85 Jun 18 at 11:32
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If they give you a map, you can control the branches.

You wrote,

Normally as the DM, I can react to the team going off-road within the context of a quest because I can generally foresee the branches they might take

They're flipping the script now in a way that should make it easier for you. You don't have to react to the party going off road - they're telling you what the road is going to be. You no longer have to foresee the branches they might take. They've told you their plan, and in my experience, PCs stick to their plans until the DM throws them off. You get to control the branches now. You get to insert things that keep the situation tense. You get to control how much they deviate from their plan.

Without your intervention nine times out of ten the PCs are going to stick to their plan.

Additional thoughts, from the comments.

Ifusaso helpfully pointed out that there needs to be a distinction between what the DM knows of the plan and what NPCs disrupting the plan know. Remember, you as the DM are not trying to foil their plan. You're trying to make their execution of the plan more interesting and to give it some risk. If you foil their plan, let it be because they made poor decisions in response to your reasonable dishruption, and not because you knew exactly how to foil their plan.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks - I guess that makes sense, I just need to make sure any curveballs I throw at them aren't enough to steer them off course. Appreciate the answer! \$\endgroup\$ – mrc85 Jun 18 at 12:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is basically Shadowrun GM 101 stuff: "What speedbumps can be plausibly introduced to make the mission more interesting?" The biggest thing to watch out for is something you usually have to watch players for - metagaming. As the DM, you know the players' plan, but your NPCs do not. As DM, you've got a little more leeway to make the story interesting, but if your NPCs know everything the players have laid out, that's just as much cheating as a player making decisions based on pre-reading a module. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Jun 18 at 13:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ For clarification, I might add that it should be made clear that the GM should be "in on" the plan (and as TJL pointed out, not have enemies specially prepared for the plan). I know some players think it's their job (or the only way to "win" is) to "gotcha" the GM, and it does not sound like that's something desired here. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Jun 18 at 15:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @T.J.L. - Some degree of the GM-metagaming you referenced may actually be desirable, particularly for more organized foes. Unless the PCs come up with some completely off-the-wall unorthodox plan, the odds are good that any competent CorpSec threat response team will have prepared for a similar scenario and can put those plans into action as soon as they identify what the attackers (PCs) are up to. Less-organized foes would not have that kind of preparation, though, so use it to add another way to differentiate between opposition groups, not just to screw the players. \$\endgroup\$ – Dave Sherohman Jun 19 at 12:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the comments guys, I'll try to work your thoughts in as appropriate, with attribution. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Jun 19 at 12:39
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You can use planning which happens in an earlier session

If the players' planning happens in a session prior to the one with the actual quest, your planning for the respective session won't change much. Normally, you create a basic outline (heist on a moving vehicle). Then you create different encounters and challenges that you envision appearing on the path through the adventure. The difference is just, that your players create the path here.

Tricks for planning less constrained adventures.

Making things work on the fly is more difficult, but there are strategies to make it work.

Make content by impact and difficulty

Even if you have no exact idea on the path through the adventure and you let things unfold as they come, you will always have some ideas on what is important. When creating content beforehand there are two important questions to ask:

What is the probability that this will come up?

How difficult is it to make such a thing on the fly?

There more likely something will come up and the more difficult it is to make while running the game, the more reason you have to have it prepared.

Me, for example, I can usually make a combat encounter in under one minute, but not the stat blocks which will take several minutes each. Therefore I create some stat blocks which fit the adventure and choose the monsters in a specific encounter while running the game.

What is or is not easy to improvise changes from person to person. Just check what you usually need for an adventure and check if you would be able to improvise it.

You might want to have a look at the book Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. This book contains a lot of info about preparing the right things for flexible games.

Use your time in the session

When the players decide their course if action in the same session, you need to use your time wisely. When the players decide to go see an NPC you did not prepare, you can come up with the important things while the players discuss the details of their plan.

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