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March 1, 2013

Re-Blogging: Broadened Focus

Reinhart's game design blog discusses the idea of "broadened focus" this week.

Take a look.

The D&D Next team talks about using feats only to add breadth.  Pathfinder uses them to add power and depth, building a hyper-focused specialist.  Even 4e D&D does that, to a lesser degree.  But Reinhart's point is basically advocating a staggered breadth/depth progression.  First you focus, then you add breadth until a threshold is reached and you can focus again.

Broadening Focus in Action

I'm getting to something actually useful for GMs here, I promise!

The FATE system for skill allocation follows this rule.  You must always have equal or more skills of a lower value than you have of a higher value.  That is, if you have four 1's, three 2's, two 3's, and two 4s, you have to raise another skill to 3 before getting another 4; and to do that, you need to raise something to 2, and to do that, you need another 1.  Your skill points wind up making a pyramid:  1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4 (given 24 skill points).  That system always bothers me, because it seems like a burdensome, unnecessary restriction.

On one hand you don't wind up with kung fu masters who can't run a ten minute mile, master negotiators who can't lie with a straight face, and crack drivers who don't know a crankshaft from a timing belt.  On the other hand, you DO wind up with dilettante socialite nightclub owners who are also ASC-certified auto mechanics and competent burglars.

Not only does the FATE skill pyramid system prevent you from being a master of a few things and incompetent and way behind the curve everywhere else (the problem Reinhart identifies), it also prevents you from being a master of one thing and "pretty good" at several things (e.g. 5, 3, 3, 3, 3, 3, 2, 2; given 24 skill points).

Like a lot of point-buy stat/skill games, FATE allows any character to take any skill at any level (with the aforementioned restriction).  In that sort of game, just like a class-level game, the players tend to talk with each other to make sure they have all the important adventuring skills covered.  Can everyone at least survive a combat?  OK.  Do we have at least one guy who can win a combat?  OK.  What about contacts and resources?  Social situations?  Stealth, scouting and B&E stuff?  Investigation and research?  And so on...

The party will always have someone who is good at every skill.  With the pyramid, it may not be a max-rated skill, but it will be one or two shy of max.  GMs build scenarios with skill difficulties based on that assumption.  So in a stat/skill system, a player who has invested in a minimum-level skill has basically wasted that resource.  Why would I use my "Mechanics 1" when someone in the party has "Mechanics 3"?  Why would I use my "Intimidate 1" when someone else has "Intimidate 5"?  The problem is that players are forced to spend resources on things they will never use.

A game design solution is to keep the "broadening focus" idea bounded is described in Reinhart's blog post. Basically you bring everything up to level N before anything raises to N+1, so your focus is always better, but your other skills aren't far behind.  That works for class/level systems, but for stat/skill systems, you get the FATE skill pyramid or something like it.

There are two GM solutions to the problem.  I used to run a lot of World of Darkness games (and I would still, but I don't have the time).  I found two reliable ways to make those low skills pay off.

The first is to allow players who have the skill at all to contribute a free die to help the best player.  That is, if Sam has Investigation 4, and Bill and Tim each have "Investigation 1," they can each add a die to Sam's Investigation roll.  Now you can really raise the difficulty, and the PC party can achieve some dramatic things...  if they have broad talents.

The second technique is going to be the topic of a post next week.  It's the most dangerous thing PCs can ever do.  It's generally considered anathema to gamers, yet done well, it can be incredibly dramatic. The reviled dark ritual of which I speak is...

S p l i t t i n g   t h e   P a r t y

Stay tuned!


  1. The extra die idea is awesome. I only ever used it for magic in Mage, extending it to skills is downright elegant. It's too bad WoD's game design now seems so damn arbitrary to me. I'd almost rather run their table-tops using Mind's Eye at this point.

    To add (and immediately deconstruct) a solution to what you've outlined, there's also the idea of what I'll call "active" skill use. "Passive" would be the traditional method where only a set number of skills apply to a challenge and those are set by the GM. "Active" is where it is up to the players to choose and describe a skill and the GM has secretly incentivized (or disincentivized) certain skills. 4e started on this track and consequently brought it into the wider gaming consciousness though there have been others in the past. Even White Wolf said that's how things were supposed to go, though few people ever played it that way.

    The biggest challenges with this method as I've seen it are what I'll call authorship and transparency. Authorship in that many players -- especially beginners -- lack the confidence to use skills actively. It turns out a lot of people want interactivity only to a point. Transparency is the ability for the players to see and notice the GM is playing by some kind of structure and isn't being arbitrary. This is an incredibly important aspect that way too many GMs and games miss. Active skill use, then, requires a higher level of authorship and may strain somewhat at transparency.

    I still have faith in broadening scope by broadening skill application, but it also hits on what I feel are the fundamental limits of the genre. We either enforce the "sentai" style of party development where skill overlap is mechanically eliminated by making character classes or we let full customization create characters who will always overlap or overshadow one another, creating waste and forcing the encounters themselves to reinforce specialization in order to keep up with specialized characters.

    Can we invert this problem somehow? Perhaps by giving the Aid Another option only to the people with the highest skill levels? Perhaps by building challenges that are more about combinations of skills or quantity than about a single specialist? (as an aside, the Super Specialist conflict resolution may be connected to that American style of storytelling that wants us to have single individual heroes) I'd love to hear y'alls thoughts on this.

    1. See my post on Sim Scenes: