This was another difficult prompt for me. Focus on what? What should be the focus of the piece? What’s your focus when you game — as a player, as a GM, as a game designer? Are they the same focus? Do they have to be?

I figure I’ll start with the GM approach, since its the role I normally find myself. When you pick a game to run, there are several things you need to consider: genre, overarching themes, plots — whether serial or episodic. What is the focus of a setting? For Star Trek, for instance, it’s usually about exploration and discovery. Does that discovery have to be things and places, or is it important to have self-discovery as part of the themes examined. For Battlestar Galactica, the themes were survival, and at what cost? What is it to be human? For Alien or Call of Chthulu, it’s about exploration of the unknown and finding out that leaving it unknown was probably a damned fine idea. Now die. Dungeons & Dragons‘ focus in high fantasy and wish fulfillment…but for me a game about people taking on monsters took on a different focus (ha! worked it in!): I looked at D&D when I decided to run it a few years ago and saw horror, instead of mythic heroism in the vein of Lord of the Rings or even Greek mythology. The characters were involved in tracking down things that were best left alone, and they should be scary.

What kinds of stories work best in the game setting you chose. Our Star Trek game has yet to hit the exploration theme. We’ve focused on the politics and social disruption that comes after a near-catastrophic war. How is the Federation recovering? How do the colonies feel about being the stomping grounds of the Klingons (we’re set just post season 1 Discovery.), and the perceived lack of help from the Federation? Why colonize — the Federation is supposedly a paradise? Well, some folks don’t want your Starbucked monoculutre, and now they really don’t want your interference in their lives. Which meshes with the attitudes of the colonists in the early episodes of the original show; no one was happy when Enterprise pulled into orbit to do a health & welfare check.

I was looking at the new Alien RPGs quickstart book and found myself less interested int he eponymous monster (or any others) and more interested (much like Ridley Scott, based off of Prometheus and Covenant) on how the corporations and synthetics are endangering people. Space itself is pretty deadly — the horror of the game could come in just the simple things like environmental issues associated with space travel.

For players, what to focus on? Are you interested in your character’s background and how they might interact with that? Do you prefer to leave all that and simply be a 3rd level elf ranger who wants to kick the crap out of some monsters, get their treasure, and level up? Nothing wrong with either option, but it does move your focus — the former might not care so much about their stats, while the latter is probably very focused on the specific mechanics of their character.

Then there’s the interaction of character and story: Does a session of the game focus on the development of one of the characters in particular, with the others playing the supporting cast? Does everyone get a moment in the spotlight? It’s not uncommon, when I’m running a game to have a particular episode focus on one character’s development, with the others getting a chance to do their schtick, but the focus is on the “lead” for the session or two. For an example let’s use Captain America: Winter Soldier — it’s without a doubt, Steve Rogers’ story, but it’s also Bucky’s, and it introduces Falcon and fleshes him out with some important beats, as it does develop Black Widow. They all get time in the spotlight, they all get to participate, but this is really Cap’s emotional journey. Contrast that with Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame, in which everyone gets to do their thing, but the spotlight is shared around between the characters — everyone gets their beat. Another example might be Captain America: Civil War — which really should have been a “Avengers” movie — it’s about Iron Man and Cap’s respective journeys, with the other characters getting their beats, but the emotional development is really between Steve and Tony over Bucky and how he’s affected them. Bucky isn’t the focus, but he is the plot device to make the story move. Giving one character that position of plot device to help define the other characters is a fun and tricky way to play with focus, as a GM, on the players’ characters.

Flipping between all of these approaches makes for vibrant and interesting games where everyone eventually gets to be the lead, and everyone still gets to do their thing.