Contingency Plan Training Wargames - Dungeon Master's Guide

Overview’s “Contingency Plan Training Wargames” are a regular event that use a mix of process practice, chaos engineering, and group troubleshooting to hone skills and improve the readiness of our socio-technical system.

The fuel for our Wargames are spine-tingling scenarios created by our “Dungeon Masters”.

You don’t need to be a seasoned veteran of to create a good scenario, and many of the best scenarios take relatively little time to prepare.

If you want to stump your peers and learn a lot in the process, read on…


Categories of Scenario

There is no end to the type of scenario, but some common themes to consider include (in order of peril):


  • Outage - A downed service or component resulting in users being unable to use
  • Degraded service - Slow or intermittent problems causing user frustration
  • Denial of service - Intentional overload of (GSA IR)
  • Bad release - Buggy code impacting users


  • Data corruption - Invalid or incorrect data in database or cache resulting in errors or inaccuracies
  • Deleted or ransomed data - Accidental or deliberate data loss (GSA IR)


  • Data exfiltration / breach - Data leaving the ATO boundary (GSA IR)
  • Compromised server - Attacker with control of a system withing (GSA IR)
  • Insider threat - The call is coming from inside of the building (GSA IR)
  • Spillage - Sensitive data being sent to logs

(Items labeled “GSA IR” above should stress that response and mitigation would require GSA IR involvement. The DM or a member of GSA IR should provide guidance.)

Types of Sessions

Classic Wargame

Our classic game involves the DM intentionally breaking a test environment in a diabolical way. Bugs, simulated failure of a process, and attack are common themes. The key is to give the players something that takes work to resolve, but not too much work. Desirable difficulty should be the goal.

Steps for a Classic Wargame:

  • [Prior to session] Break/attack/mess with a test environment for the players to work with
  • If applicable, start the session with an actual alert (or simulation)
  • The players should follow our standard IR process and work in the #login-situation-practice channel
  • You may want to turn off your video if you do have trouble hiding your amusement as the players work to find a solution
  • Try to avoid giving tips unless the team is really stuck, and then only provide enough to unblock
  • Urge use of screen sharing, a particularly helpful way to get less experienced players engaged
  • Once complete discuss potential improvements and record in the running notes


For scenarios that are hard to simulate, you may need to revert to a more table-top-like scenario. For a “mindgame” think about a situation and what the various dashboards, logs, etc might look like. For example, if you wanted to have the team try to figure out a problem where there was a major Internet connectivity problem, you might say “you can get to X but you can not get to Y from your workstation”. If players are looking at the WAF logs, they may see little or no traffic. Etc.

Mindgames should be hands on to exercise troubleshooting skills. They are more demanding of the DM at the time of scenario because the DM has to actively tell the story and explain what the players would see. For these reasons try to avoid use of the “mindgame”.

The mechanics of the scenario are identical to the Classic Wargame except for the [Prior to session] component of breaking something.


A runbook scenario is one that focuses on executing a fixed runbook to verify and refine it. For example, you could conduct a Wargame where the team is guided toward needing to use our basic HA Test Contingency Plan Runbook to recover from an availability zone outage that did not cleanly failover.

These scenarios are also useful for addressing annual Contingency Plan Training requirements, so please take attendance if you run one.

Steps for a Runbook scenario:

  • [Prior to session] Prepare an environment for the players to work with
  • If applicable, start the session with an actual alert (or simulation)
  • The players should follow our standard IR process and work in the #login-situation-practice channel
  • You may direct players to the applicable runbook - This is a named scenario, so initial troubleshooting should be minimized
  • Once complete, note and assessing runbook refinements

Fault Injection / Chaos Engineering Tools

“Chaos Engineering” tends to refer to the use of automation/tools to introduce failure into a distributed system. Organizations have created a wide range of tools to do things like randomly killing processes, randomly disconnecting or slowing network interfaces, or blowing up entire services, all to test the resilience of systems.

While most of our Wargames involve deliberate specific breakage incurred by a human you should feel free to try using Chaos Engineering tools for a wargame.

To get started check out Awesome Chaos Engineering

Please remember that these tools are inherently dangerous and should only be tested outside of our ATO boundary in sandbox accounts and on sandbox application environments. (I.e. - Do not use NetHavoc on prod.)

Other than the use of tools and the potential for uncertainty in the specific types of fault, you may conduct the scenario the same as a Classic Wargame.

What Was That?

Looking at logs or metrics of production systems will often result in finding mysteries. “Why did that line go up?” or “Is that an error or is it just noise?”

A clever/lazy DM can crowdsource an answer using a “What was that?” session.

  • [Prior to session] Find your conundrum and capture it in a screenshot, snippet, or specific steps to reproduce
  • The players should work together to build a theory that addresses the mystery
  • The players should then explain their theory to the full group and be ready to show graphs, logs, and evidence to support the theory
  • It is acceptable not to arrive at an answer - The journey and the learning should be the focus
  • Though, answers should not be discouraged!
  • In post-game discussion think about tools or approaches that would make it easier to answer the question next time

What Would You Do?

Sometimes it is good to zoom out and focus on decision making. “What would you do?” (WWYD) sessions are conducted using a simple slide deck and multiple choices. The value is not in finding the “right” answer but in the team discussing and deliberating. Kobayashi Maru situations are welcome.

For a sample of prior sessions see this WWYD deck

Managing Larger Groups

If 8 or more players are present consider breaking the players into separate teams. Starting additional video rooms and moving a set of players to the new rooms is generally easier than using “breakout room” functionality. You will want a helper-DM to supervise each room in most cases, though you can hop between rooms instead if needed.

Suggested flow:

  • Start in the main room and present the scenario
  • Create additional rooms
  • Name players that should move to the new rooms - Make sure to share the link!
  • Monitor rooms and make sure teams don’t get stuck
  • Announce the return to the main room in each channel and ensure folks make it back
  • Complete the session with a full group discussion

Maintaining an Effective Environment

  • You may need to assign roles or ask specific players to help if you do not get volunteers
  • Remind players to share screens, explain what they are doing, and share their thought process
  • Try to expand the active players and avoid a silent room watching one person type
  • Consider breaking into small rooms if you feel there are too many people to maintain comfort
  • The DM can influence the atmosphere in the room - Try to keep it positive, action oriented, and generative
  • Sometimes groups are in a quiet mood or not “feeling it”, which should not be seen as a failing by the DM
  • Limit the incident response time to around 40 minutes to leave enough time for post-game discussion and any planning for the next scenario.
  • Psychological safety is a prerequisite for effective incident response and learning to take place, so be sure to take immediate action if you see signs of a room where players feel unable to openly share, question, and risk being wrong