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Focus vs. Background

October 16, 2020

One of the questions I ask when looking at a game to run, is “What kinds of conflicts make sense?”.

This isn’t conflict in the sense of “combat” specifically, this is more like, “Is counting torches and supplies important, or is it background?” “Does your noble rank involve family and power struggles, or is it background?” “Does the crew of the Starcrossed Lion need to pay attention to fuel and bank accounts to get to the next spacestation or is that background?”

Years back, I remember playing in a game of Dog Eat Dog and one of the players tried to play it like a tactical game – he tried to have his character gather weapons and supplies and hide in a cave – but that kind of conflict doesn’t fit the game – it’s about culture, identity, and social power(lessness), not “x feet to target, partial cover, 18 more bullets left”.

So we had a pretty bad mismatch, and, unfortunately, a lot of games experience this because roleplaying has a ton of possible play space and things a game could be about, but for a game to run smoothly, folks should be coordinated on what specifically the focus is.

So, some terms to use to help talk about this:

Decorative

Another term I heard long ago was “furniture” to apply to things that were fundamentally decorative in a game, sort of how in many videogames there’s furniture in the scene but you can’t interact with it.

Is the fact your character a retired general mostly just a neat background fact that doesn’t mean much to the scenario? Is the keepsake necklace just a fond memory of the past that’s a cool costume decoration? Is the catty talk in the grand ballroom mostly just to show the NPCs are gossipy and not something you’re supposed to engage/challenge? Decorative.

Some games have you roll for your character’s height, weight, hair, and eye color or at least make you mark it down like it was a driver’s licence – and while it’s not impossible for some of these to matter in a game, for the vast majority of games, this is decorative.

Now, to be fair, tabletop RPGs are unique in that you can basically make up anything and your creativity means you might sometimes leverage a decorative thing into an angle or tool for a real conflict/situation, but the point in knowing what’s here is that it’s not the FOCUS of play, for this particular campaign you’re running.

Plot Device

Plot device elements are also background, but they provide initial motivation to move towards something, without necessarily being the focus.

Consider treasure hunting in modern D&D: few games actually are about walking off with the most treasure, as much as clearing the dungeon/stopping the evil/fighting the monsters. The treasure hunting is a plot device to enable the actual focus of play.

This specifically occurred to me as I was thinking about pulp fantasy and how much of any given story begins with a plot device style motivation that ultimately gets put aside or subsumed for the ‘real conflict’. Being washed up from a shipwreck would make survival seem like the focus, but actually meeting the sorcerer who is raising dead gods from the volcano is the real focus, for example.

This part matters a lot for player character backgrounds – the player and the GM should probably figure out what’s what – the GM wants to make sure they don’t neglect something the player wants to be a focus, the player wants to make sure the GM isn’t taking something that’s decorative/plot device and turning it into ‘a thing’ instead of what they really want to play with.

Of course, I’ve written about Flag Mechanics as the easiest solution for this problem.

Focus

Focus is actually the things you’re trying to have the play focus on. These are the elements that will be in conflict, challenged, brought as leverage either way.

Is the number of gold pieces you get from the treasures hunt going to determine how well supplied you are next time and whether your character gets stronger or not? Is the fact you’re a retired general going to be a situation where your status and political stance hold weight, and you’re forced to encounter people you’ve commanded, for good or ill, or even people who your armies fought?

I once ran a Legend of the Five Rings game, and a player had a interesting character concept – he wanted to play a character who couldn’t lie, as someone in the faction known for scheming. In hindsight, I guess he was expecting a game that would be railroaded and that things would ‘work out’ for his character, whereas I saw THAT, being truthful in a fundamentally devious social hierarchy, the real conflict.

When it came up that his character choosing to fight some ronin types didn’t earn him accolades, but scorn (“Why would you lower yourself to fight dogs in the street?”) the player froze up and actually freaked out a bit. For him, noble status was a background aspect, not supposed to be the focus.

Support

Support elements matter, but they serve primarily to help play around the focus of play. Usually support elements provide a small amount of leverage to the core conflict focus of a game; gear choices in combat, your wealth level in a political game, camping skills in most wilderness situations in games.

The thing here is to point out “Here is the focus, but don’t neglect these other things too.”

So…

Anyway, I think this is a good thing to keep in mind when you are writing a game or pitching a game to a group. It’s also not bad language to have if you are joining a game.

Again, this is one of those things that I think good game design solves – a well written game that is clear what things are the focus vs. background, OR, at least, gives you tools to clarify that as a group, would make this unnecessary.

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