Designing Scenarios for Classes

Ever since Threat Scenarios was in the concept phase, we’ve received innumerable suggestions from people of various backgrounds about which situations they wanted to simulate.

“How about a robbery at a 7/11?”
“An active shooter at the mall?”
“Can we do one where a guy breaks into my house?”

But what really makes a good scenario? What does the participant need to experience in order to keep things authentic while also allowing them to learn? Take the first example for instance. Let’s say the training brief goes like this: “You’re standing in line at the 7/11 when two bad guys come in and start to rob the place.” This scenario calls for precisely two decision points:

1. Do I decide to shoot or comply?
2. When should I take the above action?

First off, when we gear you completely up and give you a gun, I guarantee you’re going to be leaning towards shooting, even if the smart decision is to run. But how much time should we give you to shoot? Should the roleplayers be so focused on the cashier that they take their eyes off you? Should we put one in your blind spot, who will shoot you the moment you make a move? What’s the most realistic? Furthermore, should a training organization ever tell you whether you should have decided to shoot or not to shoot (which is a very personal choice)?

After extensive testing and evaluation, we’ve discovered that there are several golden rules which should always be honored:

Rule 1: Scenarios should never be binary.

In the above predicament, your challenge appears to be nothing more than observing the role players to determine whether or shoot or not. At this point, the scenario is now a drill. We might as well scrub the entire pretense of a store robbery and simply just put you in a room with two guys and have you pick the right moment to draw when their backs are appropriately turned. It becomes a game. As the scenario designer, I have to ask each one of the roleplayers to give you enough time to hit them. You might as well have two paper targets and a timer, because it’s not true force on force. There is no real element of surprise like there would be in the real world. There will be invariably only three things said at debrief: “I complied because I didn’t think I had enough time to get them both,” “I complied because I thought they just wanted to take the money and go,” and “I shot them because I felt like I could get them both without getting shot myself.”

Rule 2: Scenarios should focus more on tactics than shooting skill.

When we start, we know where you’re coming from, when you’re coming, and what you’re armed with. If we wanted to ambush you and shoot you up, you wouldn’t really stand a chance against us. In the 7/11 example, we could make it that you get nailed every time you go for your gun. This is especially true if you may be called upon to enter a room, as the person in the room always has a huge advantage. So, do we neuter our roleplayers and tell them to go easy, which gives the participant a false sense of confidence? Do we light the participant up as soon as he/she enters the fatal funnel? The short answer is that finding this balance is impossible. We feel that it’s much more important that the participant had a good plan and executed that plan decisively than whether they could out draw the bad guy. We want to hear the thought process of why a participant decided to do what he did, other than a simple opening or opportunity to pull a gun.

Rule 3: Scenarios should have realistic roleplayers.

It’s always fun in practice to just “have at” your opponent with UTMs. However, under what circumstances would a civilian ever encounter such a thing? Civilians and those they’re defending themselves against don’t want to get killed, and always have the option of running away or negotiating. Let’s say someone has broken into your house, and you have them trapped in a room. You’re armed, maybe they are too. Is it a good idea to “clear” that room? What are the chances you make entry and both kill each other in a shootout? Instead, both of you probably want exactly the same thing: the intruder to not be anywhere near the house. Is there an option other than shooting which would allow you to achieve that objective? There are probably several. A realistic roleplayer isn’t trying to “beat you” in a shooting contest. As mentioned above, we could make it that our roleplayers win 100% of the firefights. The interesting question for our training isn’t how to win that shootout. It’s how to maximize your safety.

Rule 4: Scenarios should have gray area to evolve.

Defense and deescalation do not always have to involve force. They have to do with your confidence and how well you control the space that you’re in. These are martial arts principles which have been around forever. A good scenario will change depending on how you interact with it. Roleplayers should respond differently depending on how you conduct yourself. Do you move and deliver commands with authority? Do you freeze or backpedal when faced with an adversary? This minutiae is important and should be reflected in the outcome.

The takeaway:

So, what should a student take away from a scenarios class? Let us answer that with an analogy. Do you remember that time in school that you got pushed around by a bully? Or you had your wallet stolen from you? Those experiences are sticky, and they have a strong effect in shaping someone’s personality. Some people have changed entire careers or lifestyles based on experiences like this, even though each may only last a few seconds. At Threat Scenarios, we intend to deliver classes which are as real as possible, so that you will be able to think about the decisions you’ve made and what you would do differently if you could do it all over again. Your takeaway is knowing what you would do in a dangerous environment under extreme stress.