The Motif Way 3: RPG Focus and Flow

RPG Focus and Flow is the 3rd in a series of articles about “The Motif Way”,
the philosophy & design principles behind the Motif Framework and Runs On Motif games.

What is “focus and flow”? What do they mean in context of RPGs? Focus is the scale and detail level of the narrative and action. Flow is the movement of story and events as things unfold. Focus and flow work together in roleplaying games to create the emerging story. Being conscious of them can improve game design and RPG experiences.

Adjusting the Zoom

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You can think of our viewpoint of a game as being through a camera lens. We can pan out for a broad view of what is happening in the world. We can flashback while an NPC is telling a bit of history. The “camera” may pull a closeup of a given character while they relate their woes. It can then zoom out when a barfight breaks out in the tavern, then focus on different action sequences as the protagonists react and defend themselves. All of that is “adjusting the zoom”.

Whether it is a movie, a novel, or an interactive game, the equivalents of framing and blocking are important. Framing is what you are putting into the camera frame. It is the viewpoint from which you are seeing the scene. Blocking is how everything is arranged in the scene and the choreography of it.

When we adjust the zoom, we are setting up the framing. When we populate the frame, fill the scene with characters and details, we have the basic blocking down. The image resolved, the scene set, things go into motion and things shift from focus to flow.

Common Sense and Intuition

For flow, the Motif Story Engine and some other titles frame common sense as “the obvious” and intuition as “the invented”. They use a category of “the understood” that crosses across both sense and intuition. It works well for a suggested play flow. Here, we are looking at things from a different and broader perspective. But they are expressions of the same principles.

Common sense in this context is everything immediately sensible and obvious. If someone pours kerosene all around a house and puts a lit match to it, you do not need a rule or roll to tell you that the house burns down. It is just common sense and simple logic. What rationally happens next? What is the obvious or sensible outcome?

The common details and tropes of your genre and themes are part of common sense and the basic logic of a setting. The type of story and the themes it focuses on will shape what constitutes common sense. What is rational and obvious in a survival horror game is very different from what is logical and normal in a wacky cartoon game. What would happen next in the type of story you are exploring? What is the obvious reaction of NPCs to a given situation?

Intuition is made of your random thoughts, gut feelings, subconscious knowledge, and similar facts. It is the impulses and ideas that immediately jump to mind. If an element or outcome immediately comes to you and fits, go with it. You do not need a roll for every random detail. It is common sense and intuition. After common sense details are filled in, go with your first thought by default. Embrace your creativity.

Does a non-player character immediately jump to mind for a scene? Do you feel like you already know what will happen next? Go with it and keep playing! Do not waste your time or defeat your own creativity by interrupting or contradicting it. Use your intuition; do not fight it.

GMs and solo players should lean hard into their intuition. Rather than look at running a game as a massive worldbuilding task or overwhelmingly big improv attempt, view it as simply playing the game. You no more need to know every last detail or a dense plot outline than a regular player. Let the story and world emerge over time. Use your common sense and intuition as you go along to fill in blanks and move things forward. Have fun in the moment and embrace the joy of play.

Context is Everything

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Context matters! Everything is relative, even the same genre or specific game. Failing an intimidation attempt for an entertainment stare down contest in a bar is quite another thing than losing an intimidation attempt in a high stake faceoff. The focus and zoom are main considerations for context, directly reflecting scope and scale. Everything shifts in line with the focus of the scene and flow of the action.

One way to view it is as a universal usage or generalization of leaning on genre and themes. Even the short descriptions of those scenes provide a lot of guidance on typical or expected events, results, characters, and so on. Just as you rely on tropes and natural outcomes from the type of story, you can also rely on the scope and type of scene to let it fill in itself, in a manner of speaking.

Another way to view it is as an application of common sense and intuition. Anyone who has been to a dive bar or shady pub (or even knows of them through cultural exposure or stories) can apply common sense to the general layout, scene, and details. Intuition can be used to imagine variable flavors like the exact subculture or music scene the bar attracts, the decor, the quirks of the quirky bartender, or such. It is simultaneously using context (the type of pub that would have a stare down contest) and creating context (all the little details).

Major caveat: Do not obsess over every possible variable or factor. Remember common sense and intuition! Context should be informative and supportive, not an obstacle or mathematical requirement. Pay attention to what is generally happening. If you have enough in mind to continue on, you have enough. Context is not supreme as a dataset or source of calculation variables. Context is everything for generating and providing intuitive meaning to sets and reactions.

Protagonist Focused, Player Driven

Roleplaying games are, in our opinion, user experience generators. That is, RPGs and their rules exist to help create a state of experience. Ideally in game design, the same playset should enable similar experiences with different player modes. RPGs and storytelling games should deliver on their themes and intended experience regardless.

Briefly, there are many different ways of looking at player modes. We divide the main categories into: immersion, toon, interactive, narrative. Immersion is taking on the role of a character (“I am…”). Toon is using an avatar, like a video game (“My [X] is…”). Interactive is approaching it like interactive fiction or branching choice videogames (“I decide [X] is…”). Narrative is an author or director voice, dictating story in third person (“[X] is…). We will write more about them later, but for now it enough to say that roleplaying games should usually invoke their tone and feeling in most if not all common player modes.

In typical RPGs, both traditional and modern, the player characters are the main interface with the game and its world. When players act, it is usually through their character’s actions. When they respond to events, it is through the lens of their character’s perspective. Player characters are the absolute keystone of a roleplaying game. And very importantly, when you let PCs drive the action, you are letting players drive the action.

The most amazing setting still needs well-designed player character for players to fully engage with it. They largely define play in themselves. In a world of monsters, who are you? Are you a monster hunter? Are you a special emergency agent answering monster-related calls? Are you one of the monsters? What the PCs are can deeply shape a game. Remember, context is everything!

Again, player characters are the main player interface, as the name gives away. They are the main characters or protagonists. Scale everything relative to them. Place everything in context of them. Keep the focus and flow centered on the main characters and their viewpoint of mythology and events.

The PCs need not be the center of the world or even given any particular plot armor. But they are the center of their own personal world and narrative, just like regular people. Think of Batman or Superman. Big Justice League and saving-the-world stories are occasional big fun. But the smaller local stories of Gotham & Metropolis and their circles of found family & sworn enemies are what really defines them. Even when telling big damn stories of the biggest of Big Damn Heroes, their personal scale and local life fill most pages and tell us the most about them. Similarly, RPGs should be protagonist-focused, keeping the spotlight and perspective on PCs.

We believe games work best when you embrace the pre-existing knowledge, gut reactions, and cleverness of players. Players should be encouraged to take part in the collaborative storytelling. Let them fill in places from their backstories. If someone jumps up with an idea for a type of NPC for a scene or plotline, roll with it. Let their genre savvy and intuition do some of the heavy lifting. Use their gut reactions and cleverness as random generators.

Favor reacting to players over restricting them. If the cheese factor is getting too high or simply too much advantage is piling up, react to it. Add hidden costs or high prices. Make them a target. Have them deal with fame. Enemies target allies. Neutral parties get alarmed. Any number of consequences and reactions can evolve from even the most favorable player choices. Try to limit restricting them to when it is keeping to power limits, the hard contraints of the world, or so on.

Camera Control

movie camera photo

Put all together, we have “camera control” or the sum total of focus and flow. Subtle variations within the different pieces can change the full “shot” or complete experience of a scene and game. A small change in the zoom or the angle at which things are presented to the players can result in major differences in feel and outcome. But do not overthink it. Lean on your genre knowledge, common sense, and intuition to do the hard work. Describe and react to things in the framing that feels right. Adjust the camera a bit if things feel out of focus or otherwise off.

But what if you don’t want control? What if you need that thrill of uncertainty and random results? We will begin exploring that in the next entry about the core Motif Engine oracles.

The Motif Way Series

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