Focused Design and Play - Is it worth it?

Over in the thread about Perception rolls, and what to do with them, @Bedrockbrendan asks the following question - and it's a deep one:

Paul_T said:


What tends to be missing from such discussions, in my opinion, is a certain clarity about the goals of the game. Nail that down, and you can get a sense of how and why we'd want the mechanisms to operate.

This is an honest question, do games that have clear goals and achieve them really lead to more enjoyment at the table? I think this is something we often just assume in game design but I don't know the it is always true. It definitely helps marketing to a niche. But when I look at the most successful games that the majority of people play, it seems like they are covering a very wide swath of territory, or at least not terribly focused on a tight set of goals or a single goal.
A fascinating question, in my opinion. Particularly, the idea that focused design could have a marketing component is something I've never considered; in my neck of the woods it's somewhat of an established truism that mainstream games' more diffuse approach is a marketing strategy (e.g. look at how D&D5 tries to avoid nailing down its goals or procedures so as to maximize its appeal to a wider audience). In this view, a tool which claims to do everything is likely not to do anything well at all.

Kind readers of Story Games, what have your experiences been like with this?

* Is focused design all it's cracked up to be?

The claim is that a focused approach to design - or to play, when the ruleset allows room to wander, so to speak - allows everyone to get on the same page and get the game to a more functional place, where everyone knows how to contribute to get the most out of the game, and everyone's contributions are appreciated by the others. That allows the game experience to be the best it can be.

* Do games with less focus allow more flexibility to actually make successful (and varied) play happen at the table?

(Brendan, tell me if you have a different take on this!) The position here is that gaming, like all human interactions and activities, is a nuanced activity, with the possibility for many different types of fun and pleasure, and a game which allows us to flexibly go this way and that as we wish is more able to work well for a group on any given night, as well as to adjust better to each particular player's interests and priorities.

* Or do you, perhaps, stand in yet a third (or fourth!) corner of this boxing ring?

Share your thoughts and your experiences.
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  • I personally find that extremely focused games are all my group and I can play, because we're all very critical of elements of a game that we don't have use for. Nonfocused games invariably have huge amounts of things that we don't have a use for. Those things drag us down. We try to use those things because we want to use all of the game, but those things get in the way of our enjoyment. They mess up our storytelling. They make us stop having fun.
    The focused games we play don't have that problem. We find every mechanic in them useful. The game is aligned with us as far as artistic goals. We have fun, because we don't have unnecessary elements holding us back. The game is as focused as we are on creating the experience and story that we want.
  • I have never had anything approaching reliably enjoyable play without having the game-as-played be very focused, a conscious project that understands what it is for. "Playing with purpose" as Ron Edwards likes to say these days. This doesn't need to mean that the game text underlying the project is very focused, but if it isn't, the GM (or whomever) needs to do the extra legwork to further refine the game until it is focused. I've had some great experiences in recent years doing just this, revising old games with my developing GM/designer powers to bring out the implied focus within.

    I think that it's possible to argue that a game text as opposed to a game-in-play is better as a culture product or a commercial thing if it's unfocused; after all, you could say that such a product offers "something for everybody" and therefore it is useful to most people. If this should be the case overall, I personally do not feel it; for me unfocused gaming products are an extra chore, or at best a fun opportunity to fix something broken and unfinished. I do not actually benefit from having ten items that are only 20% functional, when I can only use one item at a time; I would rather have a single 100% functional item than ten 20% functional ones. I wouldn't mind it at all if focused design had a greater market share, that would only be an improvement for me as audience.

    Overall, without going into the justifications, my opinion is that the single virtue that an unfocused game text has is that it makes for a shape of a thing that is better suited for being productized and sold to consumers. It is a great virtue in a consumerist culture for something to have the shape of a store shelf product, but for strict artistic value the only significance is that it makes it easier to find players for low-quality play. (Low-quality because having a common brand attracting players doesn't actually do anything to enable the forming group to discover a shared interest. You're all there for "Dungeons & Dragons", but that term specifically means nothing, because the game design is unfocused. The brand helps you form a group, but it does not help you form a coherent group. Still better than nothing, of course, but there are other ways to find players than relying on a corporate brand.)

    A follow-up question: does anybody argue that a game actually played at the table is better if unfocused, and worse if focused? Or is the question just whether game texts serve the gamer audience better with focus or without? I could see the unfocused position as much easier to defend if it's just about game texts. Difficult to convince myself that I would want to be intentionally confused at the table about the point of play. So I'll say yes, potentially, to an unfocused game text, but my caveat is that somebody's gotta focus it before we start playing.
  • Paul_T said:



    (Brendan, tell me if you have a different take on this!) The position here is that gaming, like all human interactions and activities, is a nuanced activity, with the possibility for many different types of fun and pleasure, and a game which allows us to flexibly go this way and that as we wish is more able to work well for a group on any given night, as well as to adjust better to each particular player's interests and priorities.

    * Or do you, perhaps, stand in yet a third (or fourth!) corner of this boxing ring?

    Share your thoughts and your experiences.

    My take is that the common wisdom with game design is something like this Malcolm Gladwell TED Talk, where he explains there are actually three basic types of spaghetti sauce if you really look at what people want. It has been a while since I saw the video. I think the types were something like spicy, thin, and chunky (but I could be wrong): https://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce?language=en

    But I think this misses something really important (both about spaghetti sauce and games). If you are buying jarred sauce, maybe you are eating single serve, but in my experience pasta sauce is made for an entire family or table of people, and you can't just make sauce that focuses on one particular flavor angle. If Maddy hates oregano, you have to account for that (and if I recall the talk doesn't really address the question of things like the presence of oregano or fennel seed). And you have to account for the fact that Sammi loves spicy food by Sammi doesn't. So to appease Sammi you may put in a little red pepper, but not so much it displeases Alexa. If you have one person who likes chunky sauce, and someone who likes thin, you have to find a way to make something they can both enjoy. Obviously you could just say screw it and make the sauce you want to make. But the point is, the more you approach it as a stew for all, instead of a set of highly focused single servings of pasta sauce, the more happy the people at your table will be. I think with gaming, this operates both at the table level but at the broader fanbase level. Again, what your goals are do matter. If you goal is to make a focused game that fits into a niche, by all means. But if your goal is to have many people as possible play the thing (which I think is worthy goal) then focused doesn't seem as feasible to me. Ultimately we are making games that people are going to buy and play, so I just think it is fair to question this assumption. I guess the longer I game, the more my focus becomes what works at the table. And the more I do that, the more I start to realize what works at the table can't easily be put into a neat box with a bow. It doesn't really match a lot of the online gaming philosophies people embrace (even ones I've embraced myself) and it doesn't match a kind of focused, the game should do X really well approach. I would say it is messy, like a big pot of pasta sauce.
  • edited February 20
    I think I've seen a strong correlation between fun play and purposeful play, and a loose correlation between fun play and well-articulated purposes specifically.

    As long as the group is on the same page and going somewhere with their play, they don't need a mission statement from the book.

    That said, I've definitely seen a mission statement from the book help get a group on the same page.

    One note: when I'm talking about "fun" here, I mean consistency, not degree. Some of my most fun moments of play have occurred in somewhat unfocused games. :)
  • the longer I game, the more my focus becomes what works at the table. And the more I do that, the more I start to realize what works at the table can't easily be put into a neat box with a bow.

    I completely agree. But I find that continuing to get closer to that does constitute an improvement. :)
  • I think I've seen a strong correlation between fun play and purposeful play, and a loose correlation between fun play and well-articulated purposes specifically.

    As long as the group is on the same page and going somewhere with their play, they don't need a mission statement from the book.

    That said, I've definitely seen a mission statement from the book help get a group on the same page.

    One note: when I'm talking about "fun" here, I mean consistency, not degree. Some of my most fun moments of play have occurred in somewhat unfocused games. :)

    I have seen it as well, but I have seen it just as much, if not more, with groups who are not all on the same page. I think more importantly though, if you honestly look at most groups, they tend to be naturally made up of people with different interests and different goals in mind. I do think that can become a problem when people don't know how to be flexible with the rest of the group (for example if you have someone at the table who is hell bent on competitive play, when everyone else has zero interest in that). If it is the case that most tables are made up of people with very different taste, or least, they are unlikely to be made up of people who all share the same exact goal of play in mind, it seems like it would make sense to design a game with less purposeful play in mind. Not that purposeful play can't emerge, just it isn't baked into the system. Obviously if you seek out like minded gamers, that is different. I just feel most tables are not that homogenous. And one of the enjoyable things of any groups is this difference in play style , play goals, etc.
  • edited February 20
    I'm inclined to disagree, Brendan, but I guess it depends on what sort of goals we're talking about. I play a variety of games and sports with a variety of people, and while individual differences are great, I wouldn't say that people are there at these activities with different purposes:
    • When I play Apples to Apples, everyone agrees that the purpose is to entertain each other and pursue the best prompt-answer combos we can.
    • When I play ultimate frisbee, everyone agrees that the purpose is to complete passes and score goals for some combo of competitive drive, exercise and fun.
    I realize these are very broad purposes, but that's how I think of purpose in RPGs too. Even in the most focused games, I don't expect players to be oriented identically. For example, I'm much more of an immersion guy than most people I play with. At the same time, I think it's constructive that we're all there for the purpose of exploring how far demon-summoning takes our sorcerer characters (or whatever). That helps us unify the unique tastes and angles we're all inevitably going to bring to play.

    Or are you just talking about different character goals? In that case, I'm totally with you! I can enjoy my scenario RPGs where it's all about all the characters doing one shared task, but no way would I want to play that all the time. My favorite games are often the ones where the players take things in unexpected directions.
  • What I am talking about is different player goals. I just think it is more common for player goals to be different than it is for them to be the same. So I feel it is not bad design to accept this reality and design for it.
  • edited February 20
    I think it is definitely more common for player goals to be different if the thing that brought the players together is "Let's roleplay!" But is that a good pitch, or is a more specific pitch better?

    Can you think of any other games besides RPGs which bring together people who have very different goals for the game?

    If not, I wonder if RPGs have been different because of the small player pool, so you play with whoever you can get, even if your goals are mismatched? If that's historically been the case, then I think you're right and broad design is the best solution for that situation.

    My recent experience has been different, though. Over the last 10 years, I've had large player pools to work with, and it's been viable to come together for a group purpose, just like we would to play frisbee or Apples to Apples. I suspect this is getting more common over time.
  • Personally, I can't play with a group where player goals are unaligned. I've done it in the past, and it was terrible. It didn't work out at all, and everything we tried to do fell apart because of it.
    If I didn't have the perfectly aligned group I have now, I know for a fact I wouldn't be playing rpgs today, because a mismatched group ruins play completely for me.
  • The question, I guess, is if you believe the axiom that bad gaming is worse than not gaming. Bad RPG sessions can be really unpleasant... and if everyone isn't on the same page creatively (broadly speaking), you're going to have bad sessions. The absolute best-case-scenario in those situations is that the group just marginalizes the person who's there for different reasons than everyone else, which is still crappy.
  • Now, in terms of getting the group sufficiently unified to run exciting sessions, you have basically three options:

    1) Focused design.

    2) Unfocused design, with someone doing the focusing work.

    There are good and bad versions of this option. For example, if a game has definite sliders and options and makes it clear the GM has to do some of the focusing work, but the underlying game system is mathematically sound, that's good. The bad version is when the game itself is mathematically flawed / unbalanced, or otherwise simply poorly designed. In that case, the focusing the GM is doing will also need to paper over those flaws, which makes it that much harder.

    3) Have a very minimal or nonexistent formal system, and a very charismatic GM.

    In this scenario there might be, nominally, a system book on the table, like Rolemaster or whatever, but the group isn't really playing that game.

    2) and 3) can overlap somewhat, obviously.

    Let me also say that focused design does not guarantee good play. There are all kinds of ways that play can fail despite the design being focused. The group can fail to be on the same page even if the game is clear about its themes. The GM or organizer can fail to know the rules. Etc. Focused design just makes things easier.
  • The question, I guess, is if you believe the axiom that bad gaming is worse than not gaming. Bad RPG sessions can be really unpleasant... and if everyone isn't on the same page creatively (broadly speaking), you're going to have bad sessions. The absolute best-case-scenario in those situations is that the group just marginalizes the person who's there for different reasons than everyone else, which is still crappy.

    I am rejecting this assumption. I don’t think being on the same page leads to good gaming. I think better gaming arises when there are a variety of creative goals at the table and the system and GM can support that. It might feel more crude than a cohesive, focused approach, but I am really thinking it is more enjoyable. Obviously this has its limits. At the extreme end of things, variety causes too much conflict. But games that are too focused, lately, seem kind of dull to me.

  • edited February 20
    Brendan, do you have a handy example for a fun game you ran or played where the players' creative goals differed significantly? I'd love to hear the details of who had which goals and see whether this is something that's super familiar to me or totally alien.
  • My experience has been that gaming has been more fun - or more consistently fun, as David specifies, more accurately - when the players have a clear sense of how and why the game is being played.

    I DO think this takes place in other games, too - even really specific/limited ones. For example, let's say you and I get together to play Chess. One of us wants to test his wits, to see if he can win. He brings a chess clock and is "all business". The other wants to learn about the game, so she wants to chat about strategy, try out maneuvers, maybe "take back" moves and see if we can play it out another way. (This is me, sometimes!)

    I used to play with a friend who understood this well, so we would often say something like, "Hey, you know what? You're in a pretty good position. Let's just say you won this one, yeah? But then let's take back that last move and see what happens if we did it another way." And then we would both try to work out a good strategy for the losing side, to see if we could learn a way to defend against that maneuver.

    If I had been trying to prove that I could beat him, I'd be annoyed at his attempt to say that - I'd want to play the game to the end, to prove that I really won.

    Just like in RPGs, it's been my experience very consistently that the more focused a game (or our interpretation of what the game is about), the more fun it is.

    In fact, my primary priority these days when I start to play a game is to orient the players as best I can to the creative and procedural goals of what we're about to do. The clearer I can make it, the better the game tends to be.

    In fact, one of the things I look for most in a fellow player is their ability to grasp this idea: "Let's see how we can get the most out of THIS particular game..."

    When I see that someone gets this idea, I get excited about playing with them.

    I wrote about this a bit here, in a thread about the "Ideal RPG Curriculum":

    http://story-games.com/forums/discussion/comment/453688/#Comment_453688

  • However, I have also seen the argument Brendan is making here before. It doesn't line up with my experience of gaming at all - I've only played unfocused games a few times in the last decade or so, and all of them might have had some good moments of play here and there (as David described, earlier) but overall had a lot of frustration and meandering, goal-less play mixed in with those moments.

    However, even though it doesn't match my experience, I understand it in principle:

    The idea is that human beings and human interactions are fluid and nuanced. Trying to limit ourselves to one particular play aim is unnatural and stilted; better to have a fluid and flexible framework which allows us to adjust on the fly (or even adjust for each particular player), so we can always make things interesting and fun, no matter who joins the table or what mood we're in on a particular night.

    It's kind of like the idea that picking a different restaurant every time we go out might be better in the long run than voting for a list of our favourites, months in advance, and sticking to that schedule.

    I get that, in principle... but, again, it doesn't match my experience.

    I've also never seen a super fun game I'd want to emulate which isn't creatively focused. I've seen some reasonably fun ones, but never a really great game.

    (When I mean "focused game", I mean it in the sense @Deliverator is using, above - it requires a focused design, or a focused group, or a focused GM who is able to enforce that on the whole group... it doesn't *necessarily* need to be codified in the ruleset, but that makes it a whole lot easier. I consider the OSR gaming phenomenon to be kind of like this: it's possible to switch rulesets on the fly, but the community seems pretty well connected by a combination of spoken and unspoken principles for focused play, so that pretty much every game I've seen is functional and fun, even though the quality of the rulesets really varies.)
  • Brendan, do you have a handy example for a fun game you ran or played where the players' creative goals differed significantly? I'd love to hear the details of who had which goals and see whether this is something that's super familiar to me or totally alien.

    I think if you pay close attention, this is really quite common. I had one campaign where one player was interested in fighting and having cool combat scenes, one player was deeply invested in playing his character (wherever that led him to), another player was clearly interested in puzzling through the setting and exploring, where another was very interested in the story of his character (not the same as a person interested in playing their character), and another was there for the genre elements. Stuff like this arises in campaigns all the time. Just like you sometimes have players there who are more interested in the grid combat than the dungeon, or more interested in searching for clues in the city than questing for a lost artifact. Fundamentally, even if people share goals, they are still going to have contrasting preferences. The way I resolve it is to try and recognize what each player wants from a session (I don't think in terms of creative goals, I think in terms of what is this player trying to get out of the campaign---I just don't find creative goal a particularly useful way of thinking). It is like being a comedian or being a band, you have to understand your audience and figure out what the right formula for the campaign is. I know if the in character guy is present, I need to make sure there are opportunities for him to get some character interaction. If character story and backstory guy is playing, I will try to weave some of that stuff into the campaign as well, so he is getting what he is after. If wade into battle and kill things guy is there, I will throw in enough fights to keep it interesting for him. It is like the sauce analogy I used before. I have balance it all out and find the right flavor for the group.

    And I think this isn't just about the GM. As a player you have a choice how you engage the game. You can be jerk about adhering to your highly focused play style, or you can recognize there are many play styles at the table. The longer I play, the more I see that a successful group requires that people understand they are not the only one playing the game. It doesn't matter what your prefrence. Let's take mine as an example, so it come off as me swatting at your styles. My baseline preference is in-character, immersive play. But let's say I am at a table where that just doesn't happen with some of the players (because they are shy, or because they prefer to focus more on the plot elements without speaking in character). Whether I enjoy myself in such a situation isn't just about whether my playstyle and goals are met. It is also about my attitude. I can tell myself, "this isn't how I play the game!", and I'll definitely never enjoy myself. Or I can be open-minded and adapt to the table. I find the biggest problem in games isn't players not sharing goals or preferences, its the one or two players who show up and insist on a given play style. And frankly, I find campaigns with this kind of variety much more interesting than campaigns that are just focused on one thing. I am not saying you can't have a focused group who all like one thing. I am just saying, I don't think it is the answer that everyone seems to think it is these days. Especially if your table is pretty typical.
  • Paul_T said:


    (When I mean "focused game", I mean it in the sense @Deliverator is using, above - it requires a focused design, or a focused group, or a focused GM who is able to enforce that on the whole group... it doesn't *necessarily* need to be codified in the ruleset, but that makes it a whole lot easier. I consider the OSR gaming phenomenon to be kind of like this: it's possible to switch rulesets on the fly, but the community seems pretty well connected by a combination of spoken and unspoken principles for focused play, so that pretty much every game I've seen is functional and fun, even though the quality of the rulesets really varies.)

    And I am very much someone who is interested in the OSR. But as much as I like playing 100% OSR games when I have chance, when I am running games, my groups just are not made up of completely people who fit neatly into one category like that. If you have a table of people who are all OSR and on the same page, by all means you, can easily run such a game. But I'd say my tables are pretty typical (I have three regular games I run--two weekly, one bi-weekly). I incorporate some OSR elements, but I have to do other things as well. Believe me, I used to be a big believer in the one approach that I had embraced as my gaming philosophy. But in a mixed group of preferences, that just doesn't work. You have to adapt to the table or you will not have a long term survivable campaign. My games improved vastly when I stepped away from the online gaming philosophy, and just focused on what was working at my specific table with my players. I came to realize, cleaving to this idea of 'this is the gaming preference I have and it means I run the game this way' was genuinely hurting my ability to successfully run sessions.

    And I am not knocking these schools of thought. There is a lot of value in the OSR. Most of the tools I use are OSR based. There is a lot of value in other approaches. I just think it is better to understand how to switch gears because your preferences and goals, probably are not an exact match to all of your players. Even if you start a group with people who share the same goals, they shift over time. And doing one thing over and over can get very dull. I think keeping a game going is more like being a successful show runner. Not in the sense of your telling a story to the players, but in the sense that you have to know when and how to shake things up to keep things interesting. My general approach to this is to run games in settings and systems where a wide range of gaming conceits and goals are feasible.

    Keep in mind, this advice is mainly about long term survivable campaigns. I am also in plenty of shorter games or even one shots, where more focus makes a great deal more sense. In those instances though it is usually something like the GM has a particular vision of the kind of campaign he or she wants to run and people buy into that idea and agree to play it for the next 1-3 months.
  • I spent decades playing D&D and other less-focused games and was very unhappy with the play I was getting out of them. I found the Forge, played and designed very focused games, then found myself drifting away from them again.

    Not because focused games didn't produce fantastic, fun play. They did. Because they gave me skills to take back to D&D and Traveller and whatnot and play those games effectively.

    I think focused games produce fun more reliably than unfocused games.
  • edited February 20

    I had one campaign where one player was interested in fighting and having cool combat scenes, one player was deeply invested in playing his character (wherever that led him to), another player was clearly interested in puzzling through the setting and exploring, where another was very interested in the story of his character (not the same as a person interested in playing their character), and another was there for the genre elements. Stuff like this arises in campaigns all the time.

    Okay, cool, we are talking about the same thing. Yeah, I've experienced this a lot too (though not recently).

    I know if the in character guy is present, I need to make sure there are opportunities for him to get some character interaction. If character story and backstory guy is playing, I will try to weave some of that stuff into the campaign as well, so he is getting what he is after. If wade into battle and kill things guy is there, I will throw in enough fights to keep it interesting for him. It is like the sauce analogy I used before. I have balance it all out and find the right flavor for the group.

    It sounds to me like you've gotten very good at doing a thing lots of GMs struggle to do. It makes sense to me why you'd enjoy continuing to use this skill set you've honed -- I prefer to GM to my own strengths too!

    I wouldn't recommend your approach to novice groups or GMs, though. I think that (a) serving the shared needs of people who want similar things is a much easier GM assignment than (b) serving the disparate needs of people who want very different things.

    If finding/assembling a group of people with shared tastes (in what they want from their gaming) is not an option, though, then I'm sure GMs in that situation could learn a lot from your approach.

    And I agree with you that in those cases (a group who must have diverse tastes, or a GM who likes GMing for diverse tastes), it's good that there are RPGs which support this.

    I can tell myself, "this isn't how I play the game!", and I'll definitely never enjoy myself. Or I can be open-minded and adapt to the table.

    I completely agree that this is the right approach once you're there at the table. This is certainly how I try to approach convention games, whether as a GM or as a player.

    I think it's a fun way to hang out, get to know people, and enjoy whatever moments of satisfying play emerge.

    I do enjoy play itself more when I'm with a group that more or less shares my tastes, though. I'll elaborate in my next post.
  • edited February 20
    Here's my primary problem with the in-character player / story and backstory player / wade into battle and kill things player group:

    Let's say the in-character player has no interest in combat. Now, they can still have a positive attitude and be a good sport about it, and the group vibe as a whole won't suffer. Still, though, if the game's combat system takes a while, and 40 minutes later the in-character player is still just trying to be a good sport through some stuff they're fundamentally not interested in... I consider that a problem.

    If I were that player, I wouldn't come back to play that game with that group if I had any other options. If I had other options, I'd pursue one where I was not politely bored for 40 minutes at a time.

    In high school, my best friends and I wanted to hang out regardless of the activity, so when game time came, we played together, regardless of our gaming tastes. So when the "kill things in battle" guy got the battle he wanted and the "character play and comic relief guy" was not interested in the battle, comic relief guy could just chat with his best friends (those who weren't actively engaged in the battle) about something else. The game was unified at times, but at other times it was one player and the GM playing the game, while the other players hung out with half an eye on the game. It was pretty fun overall. We played 8-hour sessions every weekend and mixed in some shorter sessions throughout the week, so we got plenty of hang-out time and game time.

    Since college, though, I don't get to game nearly as often. So now, when I do get to play, I really want to pack as much awesome play in as I can. And I definitely do not want to spend 40 minutes of my biweekly 3-hour session being politely bored or chatting with a friend while other people play. I want to be engaged in the type of play that I find interesting for the full 3 hours. Thankfully, that is in fact an option for me!

    We clearly agree, Brendan, that it's good that there are different games and different play options for groups and gamers with different tastes. My main addition is just to opine that I think very diverse goals can entail the downside of periodic disengagement, which strikes me as both unfortunate and avoidable.
  • Is a well-planned mean, as good as something done purely spur of the moment?
    Is shitty fast food better than a gourmet meal?
    Sometimes? It depends?
    Who cares?
    Game designers have to design.
    I mean, there's decades of great music out there, but I still make music for myself. I view it as something similar.
    I'm glad there's role-playing games that attempt for something different.

  • Here's my primary problem with the in-character player / story and backstory player / wade into battle and kill things player group:

    Let's say the in-character player has no interest in combat. Now, they can still have a positive attitude and be a good sport about it, and the group vibe as a whole won't suffer. Still, though, if the game's combat system takes a while, and 40 minutes later the in-character player is still just trying to be a good sport through some stuff they're fundamentally not interested in... I consider that a problem.

    If I were that player, I wouldn't come back to play that game with that group if I had any other options. If I had other options, I'd pursue one where I was not politely bored for 40 minutes at a time.

    I had this problem when I played in unaligned groups and played unfocused games. The problem also gets worse for the in-character uninterested in combat play, because combat gatekeeps the rest, assuming a group is playing with character death on the table, which groups like that pretty universally are. You can't have the in-character roleplay if you can't survive combat, and if you can't survive combat, you're permanently locked out of playing that character, and the whole thing just implodes. Especially since approaching play from the in-character roleplay perspective is making suboptimal decisions, the sort of stuff that without a group interested in what you're doing, will get you killed in a lethal combat sort of game.
  • edited February 20
    I really like @Bedrockbrendan 's "spaghetti sauce" analogy, because it's a nice illustration, to me, of a fundamental philosophical split I've noticed in the gaming world for the last two decades or so.

    It's also possible that some of these differences in opinion are based on the social circumstances of a person's gaming life, which actually lines up very nicely with the "spaghetti sauce" metaphor.

    In short:

    When I started playing RPGs, I remember that the predominating view of roleplaying was one where the GM was both king and leader, a sort of parent-figure. The players came to enjoy the experience of playing, and the GM's job was to "provide" that experience for them. In a good game, the GM provides a good time, fulfilling the players' individuals needs and wants.

    In this paradigm, most roleplaying advice was aimed at the GM, and most of it had to do with figuring out what the players wanted, and giving it to them. Much like the spaghetti sauce a parent might prepare for dinner for his whole family, the GM has to consider each player's interests and try to provide that. Julie doesn't like oregano, so none of that, and Quentin loves cheese, so lots of parmesan... the meal has to satisfy everyone.

    This is exemplified by books like "Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering", which separated players into "types" (hence all the talk or Real Roleplayers vs. Munchkins and so forth, which I remember dominating RPG discourse in the 90's), and gives you ideas for how to give them the things they need in the game. A bit of combat for so-and-so, some NPC interactions for so-and-so, and make sure there's some intrigue for your aunt.

    In the "spaghetti sauce" analogy, it's the parent's job to cook dinner for the whole family, and they should all be able to enjoy the meal.

    The new view, it seems to me, arrived with online "rpg theory" discussions, which started talking about the focus of play as something a group does together, as opposed to a thing which is provided by one person for the others.

    In this view, it's not one person trying to make spaghetti sauce for the whole family. Instead, we plan to cook a particular kind of meal together, and invite the people who are interested in contributing to that. When everyone is excited to have that kind of food and able to contribute to it, you get a great meal.

    Different priorities between people get accounted for in another way: Jim, who hates tomatoes, is simply told not to come on Friday if he thinks he want enjoy the pasta, and, hey: let's do a sushi night for him next week! No tomatoes there! That will be fun.

    There is a fundamental philosophical divide here, and I wonder how much of it comes from newer thinking about RPGs and how much comes from people's differing social realities. Like David describes, above, when he was playing long hours with the same group every week, they were fine doing a long session which included a bit of everything for everyone. However, as a busy adult, you don't want to show up to a 3-hr session and find that the stuff you came for is only going to happen for the last 30 minutes. That's frustrating, and you will be tempted to skip it next time.

    In the analogy, if you're a parent cooking for a family, you're cooking for a group of people you don't get to choose, and you need something that's going to satisfy everyone long-term, because you have to cook for them - the same people - every night for years to come. It's fine to leave out something one person really likes, so long as they get fed. We have to do this together! You don't choose your family, and they're going to be with you for life.

    In the newer paradigm, though, it's more like announcing that you're going to a Thai restaurant on Thursday, and giving an open invite to anyone who is interested in doing that. This assumes that the players can vary from session to session, or are willing to enjoy something different for a while, because we'll play a different game in two weeks.

    But, maybe, the father with a family of four can't afford to take that attitude, right?

  • Ben Lehman once said to me that most roleplayers have seen either 0 or 1 functional Creative Agendas in play, so that when they see discussion of coherence / focus, they don't even believe it's a real thing. Either a game is good or it's bad and that's because of some combination of the GM's skills and the willingness of the players (who are *never* going to be all on the same page creatively) to compromise with each other. That comment is always in my mind in these discussions.
  • edited February 20
    Where do I stand on this, personally? The older attitude - that it's the GM's (or the game's) job to present all the players with a bit of what they like - makes sense to me conceptually. And, furthermore, it makes sense that we should be able to be flexible and to adapt what we're doing in the moment, and perhaps adopt rules which allow that to happen all the time. I'm quite sympathetic to this view... in theory.

    However, also in theory, I like the idea that the game is seen as a collective endeavour that we are all responsible for. In this view, the game gets better when we all take responsibility to contribute and support each other. It's not one person "providing the fun", but a group effort. In the spaghetti analogy, it's a big potluck dinner, perhaps, or a meal we all cook together. That view, to me, is a better perspective to take: everyone's responsible for the fun.

    However, confronted with people who strongly support the idea that "unfocused" gaming is better and more flexible, and who report that it works better for them, I have to think about my actual, practical experience.

    So, that's the theory. What about in practice? I've thought about this a fair bit, so I've put it to the test on multiple occasions. You never know, after all, when a theory that sounds good in principle might or might not pan out in real life conditions. Important to check in with reality.

    For me, when I look at my history of roleplaying, it's incredibly clear that the ideas and concepts I've taken from the latter view have done a lot more to improve my gaming. When I've tried to apply the "Robin's Laws" approach as a GM (of trying to satisfy each player), it's been a lot of work for very little reward. Trying to apply the same ideas as a player... I'm not even sure how I would do that! As a player in such games, my experience is like David's, above: "very diverse goals can entail the downside of periodic disengagement, which strikes me as both unfortunate and avoidable." Those games have great moments of fun, but sandwiched in lots and lots of "polite boredom", as he so nicely puts it.

    I've never played a campaign where I feel like I got a great result because I applied the "Player Types", and distributed each type of fun appropriately for each player. I've had OK ones, but never great ones.

    Taking the attitude of a focus on the fun and the creative goals of a particular game, though, in constrast, has very reliably and repeatedly led to better gaming. It's everyone pulling together to make things good, instead of stumbling around in the dark, hoping to stumble on the fun here and there. There have been some notable failures, but, overall, it's been much more fruitful. So many more effective tools to be found here, things that actually have a major impact on my gaming.

    It's also given me techniques to enjoy games I couldn't enjoy before, which means I can play with a wider crowd and in a greater variety of games. Adopting the idea of myself as a contributor to everyone's fun, instead of as someone who is there to have fun provided for me, makes me a better player.

    So, that's been my experience.

    On a sidenote:

    @Bedrockbrendan, you're not the first person I've heard say that trying to "play with focus" has been frustrating, and ultimately impractical.

    My best guess as to how and why this would take place is the following scenario:

    You, as a player or as a GM, read about an idea online (or a particular focused ruleset) and then try to come enforce its standards on your home group (or some other group). Perhaps you're used to having so much sway over the game, as the organizer or the "always GM", that you're used to simply being to make something like that happen. So, you try.

    No one else came with the same intentions, however, so they fight you (even if in subtle ways), or the ruleset you're using fights you, and you end up in a frustrating tug-of-war, where it's a lot of constant work trying to get that "focused play", and it never really comes off, anyway. You work hard and get very little in return. In the end, you relax your standards and allow yourself to play the way the group wants to, and gaming is easier and more fun.

    Does that sound familiar or totally off the mark?

    The missing element, of course, is that the group (the other players) were never on board; were never willing or able (e.g. didn't have the tools or the skills) or even interested in playing that way. One person can't do it; it only works when everyone has the same goals in the first place (and the tools to accomplish them, which is where a good ruleset helps).


    Now, the one counterpoint I've heard which may undercut all this is the idea that focused play requires sufficiently skilled participants, and that a more vague, GM-led style of play is much easier for people to drop in and out of. I'm not sure what to make of this - on one hand, like the Player Types, it seems reasonable. On the other hand, do I want to play with people who aren't as capable of making the game great? Or would I prefer to learn how to *teach them* or show them how to contribute more effectively? I'd love to hear arguments for this perspective; I feel like I could be convinced.

    However, it would be hard to convince me that gaming with players who "don't get it" at that level is somehow superior to gaming with people who do. That's a tough sell! I could buy it as a compromise, but you'd have to work to convince me that it's actually preferable in some way.
  • Given the number of excellent gaming experiences I've had playing focused games with people who'd never roleplayed before in their lives, including literal children, it's tough for me to buy the argument that playing focused games requires a rare or higher-order skillset on the part of the players.

    Playing focused games does require an openness to letting the rules actually do their thing, even if the results are initially counter-intuitive. See Vincent Baker's whole thing about the role of the rules being to introduce the unwelcome into the game. And that can be hard with an established group, as Paul's post alludes to.

    There's a story I like to tell about that. One of my friends from my college gaming group married this guy John, and when they were both in my city, she wanted to introduce me to him, so we had lunch. He was talking about his gaming group back in their city, and he mentioned to me that they've been playing together a long time, often had whole sessions where they never touched the dice, etc. He also mentioned wanting to try out some of these new-fangled story-games he'd heard about, like Monsterhearts or whatever.

    I told him that was awesome, but that under no circumstances should he try them with his usual group. Because for them, the group is the system! There'd be no way in hell they'd be able to actually change their play habits sufficiently to be able to really experience focused design.
  • Yeah, I've never had trouble getting people on board with a particular game, either - particularly non-gamers! It's sometimes taken me some time to figure out how to express what to do a with a particular game, but once I have a way to explain it, it's pretty painless.
  • Paul_T said:




    I've never played a campaign where I feel like I got a great result because I applied the "Player Types", and distributed each type of fun appropriately for each player. I've had OK ones, but never great ones.



    On a sidenote:

    @Bedrockbrendan, you're not the first person I've heard say that trying to "play with focus" has been frustrating, and ultimately impractical.

    My best guess as to how and why this would take place is the following scenario:

    You, as a player or as a GM, read about an idea online (or a particular focused ruleset) and then try to come enforce its standards on your home group (or some other group). Perhaps you're used to having so much sway over the game, as the organizer or the "always GM", that you're used to simply being to make something like that happen. So, you try.

    No one else came with the same intentions, however, so they fight you (even if in subtle ways), or the ruleset you're using fights you, and you end up in a frustrating tug-of-war, where it's a lot of constant work trying to get that "focused play", and it never really comes off, anyway. You work hard and get very little in return. In the end, you relax your standards and allow yourself to play the way the group wants to, and gaming is easier and more fun.

    Does that sound familiar or totally off the mark?

    The missing element, of course, is that the group (the other players) were never on board; were never willing or able (e.g. didn't have the tools or the skills) or even interested in playing that way. One person can't do it; it only works when everyone has the same goals in the first place (and the tools to accomplish them, which is where a good ruleset helps).


    Now, the one counterpoint I've heard which may undercut all this is the idea that focused play requires sufficiently skilled participants, and that a more vague, GM-led style of play is much easier for people to drop in and out of. I'm not sure what to make of this - on one hand, like the Player Types, it seems reasonable

    However, it would be hard to convince me that gaming with players who "don't get it" at that level is somehow superior to gaming with people who do. That's a tough sell! I could buy it as a compromise, but you'd have to work to convince me that it's actually preferable in some way.

    Note: had to cut some of your text so I could stay inside the character limit.

    There is a lot here, and I see many other responses. It has been a very long day for me, and my brain is not in working order. I will try to answer as best I can (but I am definitely on skimming mode right now so if I miss anything key, or misunderstand, let me know).

    I don't think those two situations describe my experience with focused play. I might not be super into the kind of focused play people here are, but I have been into other kinds. And I found over time, painted into a corner by it. I also started to realize, I just honestly liked the old days of groups with mixed preferences. I get a better sense of enjoyment from the game when there are people with different goals in mind. Event the occasional tension, provided it isn't too serious, is actually kind of a necessary ingredient for fun for me. It is sort of like being at a coffee shop where you talk with the regulars, and people have strikingly different points of view, and sometimes bust one another's chops. Focused play feels like being in a coffee shop with people who all agree. And I think that agreement, makes me feel closed off. Like I am only experiencing one aspect of play.

    I see you mention player types. I wasn't advocating for that. I was advocating for taking people as individuals. I described people as types just to make my point. But when I cater to Bob, I am catering to Bob's specific set of tastes. I think the player types thing is useful (I remember liking the types from the Campaign Source Book and Catacomb Guide as well because that really gets at the personality differences at the table). However, my father was a sales trainer and had this model that he used for sales called Social Styles that divided people into Amiables, Analyticals, Drivers and Expressives. The purpose was to identify the kind of person you were dealing with and modify your interaction with them accordingly (for example expressive value human connection and relationships, so have to be more personable with them, while Drivers just want to get results and get to the point. This could definitely be useful for sales, and I was pretty much reared on these four types being talked about endlessly at the kitchen table (for what it is worth, my dad categorized me as a Driving Analytical). But it can also imprison your thinking a bit. I would say the same thing can occur when grouping players by goals types. The longer I play, the less I use these mental models and the more I take people as they are. It can still be handy to say "Joe is a kick in the door kind of player" because that immediately conveys something. But it also reduces Joe one thing he does during play, and there are probably many other activities that engages in a session. This isn't really a specific response to your statement about types. It just sparked my thinking on the limits I find with models in general.
    . On the other hand, do I want to play with people who aren't as capable of making the game great? Or would I prefer to learn how to *teach them* or show them how to contribute more effectively? I'd love to hear arguments for this perspective; I feel like I could be convinced.
    I guess my feelings is I am not that into ranking people by their ability to make a game great. If someone is dragging the group down, then sure, I wouldn't want them at the table. But I am there to play with people I like being with. As long as I like you and we get along, I don't have this expectation that others are supposed to make the game great for me. They are there to play and have fun. It isn't a contest or a performance. We are not a band on the road that needs to nail the song every time. This is just not how I look a the hobby.

    I think one thing that causes a lot of grief in gaming circles is having too high expectations. This is just a game. You don't leave a night of Clue super upset because it wasn't perfect or didn't feel like just the movie. But you see this all the time with gamers. I am of the opinion that you should be as relaxed and chill as you are when you play clue when you play on RPG. People get caught up in believing they are a great GM, or they have a style that is the best. My attitude is, I am an okay GM, my campaigns are descent, and I have fun. It is just gaming. We are just there to enjoy ourselves, not get stressed because we are not some other persons ideal type of gamer.

    I am also not of the opinion that I have any responsibility to teach people the right way to play. I am happy to share what knowledge I have gained if people are interested, but I want people to make play style choices for themselves. I'm not there to build little immersionists. I also don't particularly like when a gm gets pedagogical on me. I am an adult. I have my tastes. I already have had teachers in my life I respect. I don't go to the gaming community find that. Which isn't to say I haven't had people who have served that role to me as a gamer. But I can say honestly there have been maybe 2-3 people who I would put in that category, and that usually went well beyond things at the gaming table.
  • Would it be fair to characterize your position as being one of non-engagement, when compared to people concerned with focused play? You're just not that interested in doing things like improving the quality of play or pushing your skills. The game is what it is, and questioning its quality is in itself an useless endeavour. The difference in perspective comes mostly from the fact that what focused effort offers (increased skill and performance metrics) is meaningless for someone who doesn't care that much about the quality of play.

    I guess I can understand that sort of thinking. It's not for me, I'm too driven about not just gaming but most things I do. I can vegetate by the television with the best of them, but gaming doesn't fall into that sort of casual category of activity for me: I don't do it to relax, and doing it without putting concerned effort into it is just stressful because I see how the edifice fails when I don't do the legwork necessary to make it work. I'm the type of gamer who would never use a store-bought adventure module to reduce the workload; if I'm using one, it's because doing so has an artistic purpose.

    I suppose that "no gaming is better than bad gaming" is a concise way to put this attitude.

    I wonder, do I even have social hobbies that express this lackadaisical attitude... I suppose that playing frisbee golf is a fair example here: it's something I do to hang out with friends, and although I keep score and work on my drive occasionally, I have no performance expectations for it. It's just a diversion to engage in with friends, an excuse to spend time together. Perhaps that's a bit similar to your gaming attitude, Brendan.
  • edited February 21

    Would it be fair to characterize your position as being one of non-engagement, when compared to people concerned with focused play? You're just not that interested in doing things like improving the quality of play or pushing your skills. The game is what it is, and questioning its quality is in itself an useless endeavour. The difference in perspective comes mostly from the fact that what focused effort offers (increased skill and performance metrics) is meaningless for someone who doesn't care that much about the quality of play.

    I guess I can understand that sort of thinking. It's not for me, I'm too driven about not just gaming but most things I do. I can vegetate by the television with the best of them, but gaming doesn't fall into that sort of casual category of activity for me: I don't do it to relax, and doing it without putting concerned effort into it is just stressful because I see how the edifice fails when I don't do the legwork necessary to make it work. I'm the type of gamer who would never use a store-bought adventure module to reduce the workload; if I'm using one, it's because doing so has an artistic purpose.

    I suppose that "no gaming is better than bad gaming" is a concise way to put this attitude.

    I wonder, do I even have social hobbies that express this lackadaisical attitude... I suppose that playing frisbee golf is a fair example here: it's something I do to hang out with friends, and although I keep score and work on my drive occasionally, I have no performance expectations for it. It's just a diversion to engage in with friends, an excuse to spend time together. Perhaps that's a bit similar to your gaming attitude, Brendan.

    No, this wouldn't be fair. You are not describing me at all. What I am describing is a way of getting into the right zone to play. The most relaxed boxer often wins a fight. Same principle.
  • Where focused games are really essential to me is that I'm not just there to play a game. In fact, that's a tertiary concern at best. My group and I are playing to make serious art together, so we really value things going as perfectly as we can make them go. And part of that is needing a tool as focused and specialized as we are, because anything holding us back is preventing us from playing at 100%.
  • So it's more like you're seeking to achieve quality play by allowing things to develop on their own? Rather than selecting and training players, and working out careful designs for how they should play together, it's more important to enter dialogue with each player individually and let them do what comes naturally.

    That reminds me of certain Confusian ideas, and eastern philosophies in general. The best leaders lead by example, the tao you can put to words isn't the real tao, and so on - the gist of the matter being that effortless natural action is superior to careful design.

    I guess that if it works, it works - can't argue with results.


  • I guess I can understand that sort of thinking. It's not for me, I'm too driven about not just gaming but most things I do. I can vegetate by the television with the best of them, but gaming doesn't fall into that sort of casual category of activity for me: I don't do it to relax, and doing it without putting concerned effort into it is just stressful because I see how the edifice fails when I don't do the legwork necessary to make it work. I'm the type of gamer who would never use a store-bought adventure module to reduce the workload; if I'm using one, it's because doing so has an artistic purpose.

    I don't know. I think it is possible to take gaming way too seriously and forget it is about having fun. I do think it can be creatively rewarding to make games, settings, etc. The reason I publish stuff is because I find that rewarding. But I also understand I am not making War and Peace here. And I am not terribly into things that feel super artsy in general. When I design, I do take it seriously. At the same time, when I run games, I think being relaxed is key. And I am there to game and have fun. When you lose sight of that, I think you risk missing something that is essential about gaming as an activity.

  • I wonder, do I even have social hobbies that express this lackadaisical attitude... I suppose that playing frisbee golf is a fair example here: it's something I do to hang out with friends, and although I keep score and work on my drive occasionally, I have no performance expectations for it. It's just a diversion to engage in with friends, an excuse to spend time together. Perhaps that's a bit similar to your gaming attitude, Brendan.

    I wasn't talking about not keeping score. If we are playing magic or something, we keep track of who is winning. And if it is competitive, people play to win. But who is at my table is more about personality than building a stable of ace-gamers or something. In other hobbies I actually tend to be much more serious and competitive. But gaming, by its nature, is meant to be more of a frivolous pastime. Thus the importance of things like Cheetos, cracking jokes and Mountain Dew. All I am saying is I don't walk into a game with this ideal perfect session in my head.
  • Where focused games are really essential to me is that I'm not just there to play a game. In fact, that's a tertiary concern at best. My group and I are playing to make serious art together, so we really value things going as perfectly as we can make them go. And part of that is needing a tool as focused and specialized as we are, because anything holding us back is preventing us from playing at 100%.

    I am definitely not at the table to make serious art. As a player or GM, this isn't my goal at all.

  • Circling back to the beginning of the thread, what do you guys think - is this attitude thing a big contributor to the market share of various games, the way the rpg hobby stands? That is, do gamers in general share Brendan's "beer and pretzels" approach, and for that reason people naturally gravitate towards relatively unfocused games?

    I'm asking because of what Brendan suggested upthread, that the most successful games on the market tend to also be the ones with the least amount of focus in the game text. It could be a coincidence (even if its true), or, as Brendan suggests, the bulk of the gamers prefer unfocused gaming.

    It occurs to me that having explicit artistic pretensions didn't prevent Vampire from success in the early '90s; both the game text itself and the people reacting it at the time saw it as a step away from casualness and towards making real "art". Likewise, the rather laid-back game text of Tunnels & Trolls was a major success in its time despite practically spitting at the then-current ethos of serious fantasy world building, which might be taken as one form of artistic pretension. So that's two games with, I think, very opposite approaches to writing style, at least: one exhorting artistic excellence in storytelling, the other with a jocular and laid-back attitude.

    Of course there are so many circumstantial factors to game success that anecdotal evidence counts for little. And then there's the ironic fact that those two games both sell mixed focus profiles, having an internal contrast in what they say and what they do: Vampire encourages artistic ambition while actually being rather unfocused as a game text, while T&T is very focused without making a big deal of it in the text. I don't even think that the audience really notices the technical focus when thinking of these games; Vampire fans generally talk about their game as very focused (lots of talk about what the game "is about"), while T&T fans tend to be non-committal about it. In other words, it seems that the audience understanding follows the game's own sales pitch more than its actual design, at least in these two cases.
  • I would contend that most mainstream games have a remarkably focused model of play that they all share. There is a strong assumed culture of play focused on GM plot, passive play, spotlight balancing, and chewing the scenery.

    I'll have more later.
  • I would contend that most mainstream games have a remarkably focused model of play that they all share. There is a strong assumed culture of play focused on GM plot, passive play, spotlight balancing, and chewing the scenery.

    I'll have more later.

    I'd argue that's a product of play culture, not the mechanics of the games themselves, thus it's not the games that have that focused model. It's the groups that play them.
  • But the writers of the books are surely players in some sort of play culture as well, right? So if the play culture is constant, then books written with that play culture in mind might naturally be less than exhaustive about explaining things that everybody knows. I would argue that if a game is consistently focused when in the hands of a compatible group, then it is fair to say that the game text is just fine in this regard - these are the people it's been written for, and they understand it.

    This is a big part of the perspective break between people for whom trad games are hopelessly vague and those who don't see it that way - if you have compatible reading assumptions, you don't need the text to spell everything out for you. A closer reading of the trad game text corpus is actually really interesting in this regard, as all sorts of games have been published for a long time: there are some clearly focused game texts, and then there are game texts that are focused if read in the right cultural context, and then there are texts that are genuinely, sometimes intentionally, ambiguous. Compare Rolemaster with Earthdawn if you will - the former is rather rooted in play, and only out of focus because it assumes so very much about common ground that rarely exists between the text and the audience, while the latter is, I would argue, written in an intentionally non-committal manner that points the reader towards an Eldorado play experience more than anything else.

    For a different example, consider how the original '74 D&D text relies on an implicit understanding of wargaming culture in getting its point across. The game text leaves out any mention of all sorts of things that you actually need to play the game in the intended way. I don't think that this is because the game is written without focus or in an intentionally ambiguous way; it's just the way communication works.
  • I'd argue that's a product of play culture, not the mechanics of the games themselves, thus it's not the games that have that focused model. It's the groups that play them.

    On the other hand, those games are also products of that culture and are made to reflect/reproduce it. Obviously it's not a total chicken/egg scenario as this whole thing is only a few decades old, but I suspect that very few people who set out to design a roleplaying game are actually reinventing the wheel.

    I am only speaking anecdotally, but I hear lots of stories of people picking up roleplaying games in the 70s and 80s and treating them as these bizarre, mysterious tomes that they explored and experimented with to try to understand. Starting in the 90s you get a lot more narratives that are akin to being "inducted" into roleplaying games.

    Likewise, my own experience with reading RPG texts from cultures outside of my own have often resulted in an experience of "feeling like I'm missing something." It's almost as if it's a (somewhat sad, if I am being honest) norm for the medium, unexamined cultural assumptions about how the games are supposed to be played.
  • Well, this conversation is getting pretty interesting. Thank you all for engaging with it, and the variety of viewpoints being brought forward. (I know enough about, say, Eero's and Emma's play experiences to know that they are coming at this from very different angles!)

    To @Bedrockbrendan:

    Some good answers, thank you!

    I think there is tremendous value in relaxation (and sometimes a sort of "stepping away from the ego") as well as in playing in an exploratory style. For instance, I might say, "I'm going to play a game with this person I just met. I'm going to let them play however they want to play, and respond in kind, just to see where it goes."

    I could see someone adopting that as their philosophy of play. (For me, it's more of an occasional curiosity, when I don't know the person, or if I really have a LOT of time on my hands and am not looking for any kind of artistic payoff or challenge.)

    Is that the kind of attitude you're talking about? If so, it makes sense to me. (Although I've rarely had consistently good play experiences that way... but there definitely have been some!)

    I think it would help me a lot to understand where you're coming from if you could relate some experiences from your gaming life: one where adopting the idea of focused play hurt or diminished the quality or your enjoyment of play, and another where adopting a more relaxed attitude was the right thing to do, because trying to find the "focus" in the game at hand would have actually hurt it.


    I might not be super into the kind of focused play people here are, but I have been into other kinds. And I found over time, painted into a corner by it. I also started to realize, I just honestly liked the old days of groups with mixed preferences. I get a better sense of enjoyment from the game when there are people with different goals in mind. Even[t] the occasional tension, provided it isn't too serious, is actually kind of a necessary ingredient for fun for me. It is sort of like being at a coffee shop where you talk with the regulars, and people have strikingly different points of view, and sometimes bust one another's chops. Focused play feels like being in a coffee shop with people who all agree. And I think that agreement, makes me feel closed off. Like I am only experiencing one aspect of play.

    I'd love to hear what it looks like when you get "painted into a corner". Or we talking about a variety of gaming, or a long, ongoing campaign with the same group, for instance? I've never experienced this, and I'm curious what it looks like and what it feels like.

    What kind of "occasional tension" is a necessary ingredient for fun? Are we talking something light, like a person cracking jokes in an otherwise serious game (which I also enjoy), or something more structural, like a campaign where two players are seriously immersed in their characters, but the third is always just looking for funny ways to get his character killed?


    I guess my feelings is I am not that into ranking people by their ability to make a game great. They are there to play and have fun. It isn't a contest or a performance. We are not a band on the road that needs to nail the song every time. This is just not how I look a the hobby.

    I am also not of the opinion that I have any responsibility to teach people the right way to play.

    I think that there is a distinction between this hyper-elitist view you're painting here, and a general concern for avoiding problems and making play enjoyable and smooth.

    I've had occasions where a total push for the highest possible aims is the goal of play, sure; but, more often, it's a question of a group playing something and running into a frustrating problem over and over. That's when getting everyone on the same page can really help - perhaps we might say, "Hey, clearly everyone is really attached to their characters and seeing their stories play out... and making characters in this game takes hours. What if we say that, from now on, characters can never really, true die without the player's permission, because we all want to see where they end up?" And, if everyone agrees to the good in that, the game just got a little less likely to be frustrating for anyone as we go along.
  • My problem: once you've been to the Promised Land, you can't really go back out again.

    I have tried, in total good faith, to play in groups with less focus than I get with my indie games. I've tried it at cons, in home one-shots, in ongoing campaigns. It's just... fucking boring. This has nothing to do with my artistic pretensions. I can enjoy a very lighthearted beer-and-pretzels game... if it's actually, you know, fast-paced and engaging. I've met very few GMs capable of pulling off b&p consistently; they're as rare as good GMs who deal with more serious subject matter.

    The only thing, and I mean the **o n l y** thing I can do, short of just disengaging entirely from that sort of play (and in some cases that might mean not gaming with those people at all, or only GMing for them), is to build up enough social capital to politely point out things that are making me unhappy and suggest changes.

    By the way, there were times in the recent past, say within the 2008-2014/15 period, where I could be kind of a dick about this stuff, in ways that damaged or even lost me friendships. I came to an important realization: I can't control what I find fun; trying to do so is a fool's errand. But I can control how I react to not having fun. So if I am going to try to work with someone to make a game more fun for me (which, again, is exactly equivalent to what-we're-calling focus, even if that focus is on something "silly" like killing ever-bigger monsters), it's okay to do so, but do it politely.

    I actually had just such a conversation a few hours ago, driving back from NYC where I went to run @DBB 's Harry Potter game. The person who rode with me is running 5E right now, and I'm playing. I had a fairly serious concern that I shared with him. He and I have a good enough rapport that he didn't take it as a personal attack, and in fact thanked me for raising the issue.
  • That all being said, there is one limitation that focused games often have, that may relate to the "painted into the corner" feeling. They often do not work well for the long term. Even something designed for campaign play, like Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark, may feel very complete after 12-14 sessions.

    Others are geared only towards one-shots (Fiasco and 1,001 Nights come to mind), or towards very short campaigns (Polaris, Grey Ranks).

    There are exceptions, of course: Burning Wheel is meant to be played for 50+ sessions. I have done that, and it's amazing when it comes together. Worth noting, though: all of BW's close relatives—which are probably more focused in their design, in fact!—are usually shorter. Mouse Guard, for example, works great as a 6-12 session campaign; Burning Empires is generally 10-12 sessions, though a true full campaign would be 30-36.

    So, for groups that want a really long campaign, many indie darlings simply won't work.
  • edited February 22
    Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine is another laser-focused game designed for long-term play. My group is currently 44 sessions into a campaign cycle we're working on with it that's probably going to be somewhere between 150 and 200 sessions by the time all is said and done (and with realistically significantly more than that if you count the like 4 side-stories we're planning to that campaign cycle, each of which will be like 50ish sessions approximately.
    But yeah, you're very much right about how most focused stuff is very much designed for shorter campaigns, where you move on to a different game or different set of characters after.
  • edited February 22
    Note that it may be a question of (un)ability. These focused games are those of the internet and mobile phone age. Maybe most players have lost the patience to play for a suboptimal "time to guaranteed thrilling fun" ratio. Adult players mostly, because teens have more free time.

    There are those suburban kids playing "trad RPG" in a garage and having fun (and arguments) despite the evolution of the hobby. Then again, they are playing themselves through a ritual (sharing soda and comfort food) more than they are playing the game.
  • edited February 22
    tbh, I can't do b&p, and that's completely a product of my artistic pretensions, but like... I'm pretty sure that's already assumed here. I'm nothing if I'm not consistent.
    I very much approach play from the POV of an artist, not a player-of-a-game, and stuff like b&p just flat-out can't engage me artistically. When I want to play a game, I play video games or board games or something (and even that's an impulse I very rarely have, because games aren't really something I'm interested in).
  • edited February 22
    DeReel said:



    There are those suburban kids playing "trad RPG" in a garage and having fun (and arguments) despite the evolution of the hobby. Then again, they are playing themselves through a ritual (sharing soda and comfort food) more than they are playing the game.

    I don't think this is true at all. And I think this exemplifies why a lot of people are having trouble understanding the the non-focused viewpoint. If you want into the conversation with a dismissive attitude toward other tastes, you really will never understand them. I see this is all corners of the hobby. Believe me, there are immersionist traditional gamers who hold similar assumptions about why people would play more focused games (particularly those of the story variety). I think if your conclusion about different playstyles after 'drilling down' and 'deep analysis' is "My style is awesome" but this other style is "less evolved", "For children", "Doesn't even meet the definition of game", etc. Then I don't think you are really analyzing in good faith. Because none of those things get at why someone would want to do something.

  • Paul_T said:

    Well, this conversation is getting pretty interesting. Thank you all for engaging with it, and the variety of viewpoints being brought forward. (I know enough about, say, Eero's and Emma's play experiences to know that they are coming at this from very different angles!)

    To @Bedrockbrendan:

    Some good answers, thank you!

    I think there is tremendous value in relaxation (and sometimes a sort of "stepping away from the ego") as well as in playing in an exploratory style. For instance, I might say, "I'm going to play a game with this person I just met. I'm going to let them play however they want to play, and respond in kind, just to see where it goes."

    I could see someone adopting that as their philosophy of play. (For me, it's more of an occasional curiosity, when I don't know the person, or if I really have a LOT of time on my hands and am not looking for any kind of artistic payoff or challenge.)

    Is that the kind of attitude you're talking about? If so, it makes sense to me. (Although I've rarely had consistently good play experiences that way... but there definitely have been some!)

    I think it would help me a lot to understand where you're coming from if you could relate some experiences from your gaming life: one where adopting the idea of focused play hurt or diminished the quality or your enjoyment of play, and another where adopting a more relaxed attitude was the right thing to do, because trying to find the "focus" in the game at hand would have actually hurt it.


    I might not be super into the kind of focused play people here are, but I have been into other kinds. And I found over time, painted into a corner by it. I also started to realize, I just honestly liked the old days of groups with mixed preferences. I get a better sense of enjoyment from the game when there are people with different goals in mind. Even[t] the occasional tension, provided it isn't too serious, is actually kind of a necessary ingredient for fun for me. It is sort of like being at a coffee shop where you talk with the regulars, and people have strikingly different points of view, and sometimes bust one another's chops. Focused play feels like being in a coffee shop with people who all agree. And I think that agreement, makes me feel closed off. Like I am only experiencing one aspect of play.

    I'd love to hear what it looks like when you get "painted into a corner". Or we talking about a variety of gaming, or a long, ongoing campaign with the same group, for instance? I've never experienced this, and I'm curious what it looks like and what it feels like.

    What kind of "occasional tension" is a necessary ingredient for fun? Are we talking something light, like a person cracking jokes in an otherwise serious game (which I also enjoy), or something more structural, like a campaign where two players are seriously immersed in their characters, but the third is always just looking for funny ways to get his character killed?


    I guess my feelings is I am not that into ranking people by their ability to make a game great. They are there to play and have fun. It isn't a contest or a performance. We are not a band on the road that needs to nail the song every time. This is just not how I look a the hobby.

    I am also not of the opinion that I have any responsibility to teach people the right way to play.

    I think that there is a distinction between this hyper-elitist view you're painting here, and a general concern for avoiding problems and making play enjoyable and smooth.

    I've had occasions where a total push for the highest possible aims is the goal of play, sure; but, more often, it's a question of a group playing something and running into a frustrating problem over and over. That's when getting everyone on the same page can really help - perhaps we might say, "Hey, clearly everyone is really attached to their characters and seeing their stories play out... and making characters in this game takes hours. What if we say that, from now on, characters can never really, true die without the player's permission, because we all want to see where they end up?" And, if everyone agrees to the good in that, the game just got a little less likely to be frustrating for anyone as we go along.
    Paul, I think we've reached the point here and at the other thread, where it is going well beyond the level of drilling down I am interested in engaging in. This line of questioning, to be honest, feels a bit like a rhetorical set-up. If you are genuinely not understanding, I will be happy to provide answers. If you aim is to get me to respond so you can make a further point, or worse, to 'educate' me, I don't want to keep answering them.
  • edited February 22
    You know, it's funny: when I was typing that message, I wondered to myself if I should include a "disclaimer". I've noticed that, throughout our conversations, you're constantly on the lookout for some kind of rhetorical trap, and second-guessing questions as some kind of disguised attack. Is Brendan going to take this as some kind of underhanded tactic? I thought of including a note on that point. But then, I thought: we've just been through this in the other thread! Surely we trust each other now, after working through it once.

    I can only guess that you've had a lot of really bad online dialogue experiences, and I'm sorry about that.

    I reread my message and I can't see what I wrote that might be seen as a "rhetorical trap". But I could well be blind to the way it reads to someone else. If you have any advice on coming across as more open to ideas, I'm all ears.

    I'm not sure what I can say, except that I'm genuinely curious and not trying to make a point or trap you. If you'd like, I can promise not to respond to whatever you write - would that take the pressure off? I'd be happy to do that. I just want to hear about people's experiences so I can learn about new ways of playing.

    For instance, Emma's playstyle sounds completely antithetical to pretty much all the gaming I do, and learning about it has been super interesting. I think I'm starting to understand it well enough that I could try it sometime, and that's a huge value added to my life, as far as I'm concerned. (And it took a lot of back and forth to get there! Thanks, Emma!)

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