A good game is all about choices. The players should make real, meaningful choices, and those choices should have a real effect on the game. It all comes down to where you put the variables. The variables—that is to say, the meaningful choices—are where the smart play happens.
Variables Before the Game Even Starts
In some games, the real variables are in character creation. “Character builds” are where smart players make smart choices. The choices can make the difference between an almost worthless character and a character that potentially dominates the game. In these games, the actual play of the game has far fewer variables. The challenges a character faces are fairly predetermined and meticulously balanced in their power. You can imagine that the game is set up in this way so that the rules provide an accurate measure of how well the player did in the character-building phase of the game. Introduce too many variables in the game play, and you can’t adequately reward a player for making a great character. If you spend six hours creating a great combat monster of a character, and the GM throws encounters way out of balance for you, or creates encounters without any combat, how do you know if you played well? The most creatively and craftily built 1st level 4E D&D character and the absolute worst one are both going to die in the first round of combat against Cthulhu.
To make this work, the game’s design—rather than an individual GM—controls the character creation phase of the game. In other words, the game designer can’t really control what a GM throws at the PCs (although he can try, providing strict guidelines on matching character level to threat level to reward level). But he can absolutely control the way a player creates a character. The rules are very specifically designed, and the choices are very carefully balanced.
Variables at the Table
Other games—Numenera among them—put plenty of interesting choice in character creation, but the emphasis is on interesting rather than powerful. Oh, you can put together some options that make for a powerful character, but there are fewer really bad options and fewer secret awesome combos. Because that’s not the point. The variables—the emphasis on meaningful choices and smart play—comes from the actual play that occurs during the session, not before it. It stresses the social aspect of the game, where you’re actually at the table with your friends, over the part you might do at home alone, beforehand.
This is, of course, an entirely different sort of smart play. In this kind of game, creativity at the table is highly encouraged. Coming up with “out of the box” (or maybe, “off the character sheet”) solutions to problems are sometimes the best way. To put it another way, during the actual game, do players spend more of their time looking at their character sheet, or talking, asking questions, and simply thinking?
In other words, it’s the choices you make with your character–fight or not fight, use your sword or your one-use item that blasts a foe with fire, go into the maelstrom or go around it, charge in against the horde or go up to the top of the ridge and start an avalanche that crushes them, and so on–that really matter.
The game is intentionally designed so there is no such thing as “appropriately balanced foes.” In fact, it’s designed so that there’s a point to the game other than defeating foes in combat. In such a situation, it doesn’t ruin things if the players think, rather than chop, their way through to their real goal. In such a case, it’s the play, rather than the character build, that has the meaningful choices.
Which means that’s where the variables should come in. The GM should be encouraged—empowered, even—to interject complications, introduce obstacles that can’t be overcome with a die roll, and allow unconventional and unexpected solutions to problems.
The Reason the Distinction is Important
This isn’t a judgmental observation, but it’s an important distinguishing factor. It’s quite possible to divide most rpgs into those that have a pre-play focus, and those that have a play focus. Some will claim that there are games that do both, and while some are closer to that than others, I’d say–for the sake of this particular discussion–that those are really games with a play focus. Because if you’re really going to allow the GM to introduce complications that can’t be overcome with die rolls and that doesn’t enforce the use of balanced foes and rewards, you’re really saying that game play is more important than pre-game play.
In a game where character builds are the most important part, the gameplay is rather regimented. In this scenario it is, in fact, the sign of problematic adventure design if there is some way to skip to the end of the adventure, or defeat the “boss monster” in some fashion that isn’t duking it out in the most straightforward manner possible. Because if a player spends hours perfecting the intricate play of advantages and abilities he’s chosen to optimize his build, he should darn well get the chance to put that build through its paces, and pit it against some powerful—but appropriately balanced—opponent.
None of that is true in a play-focused game. In fact, the pre-game play (character creation) is probably not an “intricate play of advantages and abilities.” It’s probably flexible and open-ended. Players might even be encouraged to develop their own skills and abilities to fit their character concept. Because if what you do is not as important as how you do it, then why enforce rigid strictures on it?
So Numenera is designed very clearly to be a play-focus game. Character creation–while filled with customization options–is a pretty quick process so that play can begin. I designed it with this focus because I longed for those early days of rpgs, when we would sit around the table and interact with the story and the setting more than the mechanics. Sure, we didn’t have all the tactical options back then, and those are really fun, but I felt the lack of a different kind of fun. The kind where a problem can be solved not by hunting for just the right power or item on your character sheet, but by coming up with a smart plan (or if not smart, at least imaginative).
I designed Numenera’s rules to allow players to become immersed in the world and the story. So that they would think of their characters as more than a collection of stats. Numenera GMs are encouraged to not just allow but actually reward players for coming up with interesting actions that don’t fit into rigid definitions. This means, of course, that the entirety of the game needs to be open-ended and loose rather than definitive, and that logic would have to be the GM’s best friend, rather than an extensive catalog of rules. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea–I know that. But I wanted to create something that harkened back to the way I played RPGs long ago.
Since people are going to ask, this is where I put D&D on this spectrum: OD&D, Basic (all flavors), and 1st and 2nd edition AD&D are all play-focused games, although there’s a bit of a progression toward pre-play focus with the transition to AD&D. 3rd Edition D&D is still play-focused, but let’s be honest: it’s muddled in that arena. So much so that the relatively small changes made in 3.5 make D&D into a pre-play focused game. And of course 4E remained on that track. The 3E to 3.5E switch is a fascinating look at game design in retrospect. As someone deeply involved in the 2E to 3E switch, I can tell you that we tried to keep the play focus (although we never used that term). But by providing guidelines for treasure, challenge ratings, and so on, combined with a far more robust character building system, we unknowingly set the stage for the switch in focus.