Areas of Focus

I’ve been thinking of a quote from Gygax that appeared in something he wrote in Strategic review years ago: “…the major factor was always envisioned as the underworld adventure, while the wilderness trek assumed a secondary role, various other aspects took a third place…”

He was speaking of OD&D with this. I understand that more recent versions of the rules speak of three pillars, though they seem to be quite different from what’s mentioned in this article. (Note: I’ve no experience playing 3rd edition on, just know of things from reading discussions about them.)

For my purposes, this touches on games in the OSR, whether retroclones or not. An OSR game, I reckon, can be set out from others based on how it prioritizes the various possible focuses. While OD&D was primarily about the dungeon–underground exploration–another OSR game can focus on social interactions, foremost, another on something else. (3rd edition and later appears to have chosen combat as the primary focus of play.)

That leads to the question: what various focuses or pillars do you design for? Do you focus on one primarily?

It offers an easy answer to the question of “What does your game offer that D&D doesn’t?” (which I find kind of silly, in general). If you can identify what aspects of adventure or character or whatever your game deals with, and how your design prioritizes those things, you’ll gain a better understanding of what your game is and how to polish it.

Yes, I find having high level design goals is really helpful–both to focus the work I’m doing, and to provide context for collaborators, and to remind you at the end, after you’ve spent so much time in the details, what are the big picture things you want to communicate about the game. (Of course, the more detail work provides “reasons to believe” your game does these cool things)

For my space opera game Return to the Star the most important “high level requirements” were thematic (optimistism, pulpy adventure, cosmopolitanism, exploration).

Audience was also important–I very much wanted the game to be playable by people new to roleplaying. I was building off the Fate SRD, a system I find very simple, but one which is explained rather awkwardly, so I spent a good deal of time reordering and rewriting and simplifying rules and examples, as well as creating a introductory adventure to scaffold player knowledge of rules and the setting. I also took a good look at where people often “got stuck” and asked for help online in the six years after Fate Core was released. All in the service of making the game more approachable as to people who have never played an RPG, and to gamers who haven’t yet played Fate.

I’d say that if you aren’t creating your own totally original set of rules, you need a really good understanding of what you see as core tenets of the rules you are adapting.

And, everything is interlinked. I knew that the primary mode of play was very much like classic Star Trek: an episodic adventure encountering an “new civilization” or cool anomaly to be investigated, So I could build the entire setting and game mechanics around travel and communication to support that goal.

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Ok - a few caveats. I’m an amateur designer and as a player I skipped from B/X and 1E straight to 5e.

What do the games I’m working on now offer that D&D doesn’t? Nothing - Absolutely nothing, and I’m perfectly happy with that understanding.

At the same time, they offer everything. They offer my unique ideas. I focus on tone, setting, and flexibility. I believe I should be able to create a Lasers & Feeling, Fate Core or 3e version of my game and it should still work.

Each rule set will appeal to a different type of player, but if the setting holds up, I’m happy with the work I’m doing.