Friday, January 21, 2011

Focused or Not?

Focused games are fashionable, and when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I have no problem with focused games - Tools of Ignorance is focused, as are most of my In Harm's Way games - but big, sprawling games that cover everything have their place too, and they get little attention on the net. Why? Because it's hard to say what it is you are 'supposed to do' in the game, and that seems to be a common, though not universal, expectation lately.

In ToI, I can say "You play a troupe of professional baseball players, on the field and off." One sentence, high concept, elevator pitch stuff. If that's what you want to do, that's perfect. For In Harm's Way: Aces and Angels, I can say "You play fighter pilots on either side of the second world war." Badda-bing, badda-bam, badda-boom. This is totally cool with me!

The only problem is the expectation of a default mode of play gets transferred to non-focused - note I did *not* say "unfocused"! That has a very wrong connotation! - games where this is not only difficult to articulate, but does the entire game a disservice. For example, AD&D, according to this fashion, was 'all about' dungeon delving, killing things, and taking their stuff. Yet that doesn't at all get to the heart of what that game was about. I ran (A)D&D for twenty years, and I can count the number of proper dungeons we raided on one hand. We played it as a high stakes politico-religious game, almost entirely in the open air or in cities.

I'm not trying to say 'AD&D was all about the urban politics and religion' either. It isn't. The thing is that it was a game that was designed to be non-focused, malleable, customizable, like Traveller and many others. When you start talking about a default mode of play in a non-focused game, people get the wrong idea entirely. There are no assumptions in a non-focused game. The designer supports many kinds of play, and encourages the group to define what it is they want out of it. How? By trading detail for field of view, Depth for Scope.

This is a LAW OF NATURE. Given the same amount of data, increasing the field of view decreases the detail, and vice versa. When you look at it from far enough away, everything looks flat. Focused games zoom in on a narrow field, and because of that can show great detail. Non-focused games show a much larger area, and consequently lose detail. Every game is a compromise between depth of detail and scope. You can only increase one at the cost of the other - unless you increase the amount of data, and that increase is geometric, not linear.

Thus, giving a 'default mode of play' in a non-focused game is *wrong*. It encourages the group to think along certain lines and not others. This limits play without the compensation of greater detail. Expectations are likely not to be met, with dissatisfied players and a disgruntled GM. "We played it the default way, and it was bland."

So I have been refusing to name any sort of default play for my non-focused games. That is something that must be discovered in play, by you.



  1. Interesting assertion. I shall watch to see how you develop that.

  2. So am I! Rich Rogers suggested that non-focused games should give several different example approaches rather than a single default, and that sounds like a much better approach to me.


  3. Looking at AD&D from a modern perspective (I played my first game in 2008, more than a decade into my RPG-career), I wouldn't say it is "designed" at all. It is just a big jumble of disconnected and badly thought out rules, similar to the original MTG cards (Giant Growth vs Lightning Bolt vs Ancestral Recall).

    The only game that can work in with a rules system of mediocre quality is one that does not adhere very closely to it. And because everyone instinctively understood that, they all had a ton of fun with their own adaptations and house ruled versions of the early editions of D&D.

  4. Hi Anonymous!

    I think you are looking at it with modern filters. In my very first blog post in July of 2009, I wrote about systems and structures, and this came up. D&D is designed, but in a very different way from more modern systems. All of the first generation of RPGs, and many of the second, used a structure I call Accretive.

    From that post:

    "Accretive - This is the way the first RPGs were created. Rules are added ad hoc to the existing rules as problems are encountered. Each problem has a separate but equal solution, and exceptions are handled via judgement calls. Rules inter-relate in strange and unpredictable ways. There is a lot of flavor inherent to this model - quirky, messy, and interesting."

    One of the many positive aspects of this structure is that - like Frameworks - they are inherently a joy to tinker with. The various components are stuck together like those sedementary rocks that are made up of dozens of other rocks msshed together. It's easy to remove and change various bits and pieces without really harming the overall flavor. It's a design philosophy that works well. It's currently out of fashion - though the OSR guys are doing their best to change this - but it's perfectly valid.