WHY ISN’T MY GAME GOING LIKE I EXPECTED?
Imagine yourself in this situation. You’ve got some people together who want to play an RPG, you’ve plotted out a whole campaign already full of detailed worldbuilding and lore and NPCs, and you’re ready to run a legendary game that your players will talk about for years to come after the campaign wraps up. A few sessions in and you’ve finally left the first little village after a goblin raid, little Timmy was saved from a well, or a cave full of bandits was cleared. Now the players are heading to the next town, but you’re not having nearly as much fun as you were hoping. Things move so slow, and at this rate, they’ll never see all your cool worldbuilding and your neat BBEG, Malagus the Gray, Dark Wizard of Thunder Mountain. This isn’t what you were hoping for at all. Or, alternatively, all this GMing is a real slog. It’s like a full time job keeping up with the campaign, your players are completely off track, you’re exhausted and frustrated constantly, and now you’re not at all motivated to run the game anymore. RPGs are supposed to be fun, so why aren’t you having fun?
Or, imagine this: You’re finally getting the chance to try an RPG, or maybe you’re a more experienced player that’s finally found a game that works with your schedule. You perform the initial tasks of fending off an orc raid or learning that magic is real, or maybe you finally get to the spaceport, and now you’re on your way. But the world is bigger than you expected and your GM is excited about all this work they put into the world when you thought you’d be playing a game where you’d just be saving the village. It’s a lot of commitment, and you don’t know whether you want to keep coming back for… months? Years? Who knows? Or maybe, you’re in the situation where you’re already encountering the BBEG but it feels unearned, like you never got enough of a chance to really see the world. Maybe everyone else wanted to keep pushing through the towns and villages quickly but you wanted to stop to get some good roleplay in, or follow up on something important to your character.
Does that sound at all familiar? There are myriad reasons for this, such as pacing, how the spotlight is distributed, and conflicting personalities. However, I think a major culprit for these situations is scope. Or more accurately, a lack of defined scope for the game. This is something that I believe experienced GMs and players figure out intuitively, however they may still lack the vocabulary.
What is scope?
Scope is a tool for managing the focus of your game. You can think of it like a lens through which you view the game world, and it can be zoomed in, zoomed out, and moved around. Sometimes, the frustrating situations we have in this hobby (like those mentioned above) are caused by a scope that is hardly defined, if at all, or misplaced. You don’t have to stay in one spot all campaign, nor do you have to have ambitious plans, however everyone should be on the same page as to what the focus of the game is.
Scope includes a few things.
It can be geographic, such as in, say, Animal Crossing where it focuses primarily on a village. It could focus on a space station and the moon it’s orbiting, or it could be the entirety of Middle Earth.
Scope can focus on time - you may have 24 hours to get rid of these bomb collars before they explode, or you may need to get an audience with the king to request aid before the next army of dwarves attacks the valley.
It can be a focus on the length of play, distinct from in-game time. It could be a one-shot, where players and the characters alike only have so much time. You may be running a handful of sessions with the aim of completing an arc or a quest. It could be a campaign lasting several months, where players have time to become very invested in their characters and the party, and where something like the end of the world has more impactful consequences.
Scope can also be more qualitative. It can focus on the motivations of your characters and their personal objectives, like getting a boyfriend or avenging their sensei (or both). The scope here doesn’t concern things like boring adult stuff like taxes or managing the day-to-day work of the family cyberware shop, it’s probably more focused on romance and cute slice of life scenes, as well as rooftop duels and dramatic villains who truly have no honor. If that’s the game you’re playing, spending 20 minutes haggling with the shopkeeper is, more likely than not, outside the scope of your game.
The benefits of defining scope in your game
One shots have the potential to become unfocused pretty quickly, and campaigns can suffer from being too ambitious. When players and the GM work together to define what they hope to focus on in gameplay, they can avoid the problems with focus. This is especially important in games where the goal isn't clear - players may become muderhobos because they don't know what else they should do, so they start experimenting with the environment and the characters that inhabit it. It's a strange, violent reaction to the blank slate problem. When they have a clearer understanding of why they're there and what they want to achieve, I think they're more likely to attempt to pursue that rather than poke around at the world and see what falls over when they hit it with a stick.
Defining the scope of your game, particularly in terms of the length of play, is helpful for keeping players committed to the game and you'll probably be able to get more people interested in playing. I'm busy with work and I don't know that I could commit to a game once a week for a whole year. If I know I’m going to be playing a one-shot that’s 4-6 hours long, I’m much more likely to sign up for it. If I understand that the scope of the game is focused on one small town, I’m fine with that because I like games that involve being active in the community as opposed to glossing over whole worlds represented only by my interactions at the spaceport.
I think a lot of people sign on for the idea of playing an RPG with friends and that's the most that they consider, while the person who wants to run a game for friends wants a game where their friends will validate the work they put into the setting. And so, players are signing up because they just want to have silly, lighthearted fun and the GM who thinks the players will appreciate the setting and political intrigue gets frustrated because they have different expectations about the game. I don’t think this is really anyone’s fault, nobody’s to blame here, there just isn’t enough communication about what the game is going to be like.
Players get sidetracked easily, it’s just the nature of role-playing games. There’s a shiny thing that catches their attention but is irrelevant to the wider world, or they stop everything because they think the shopkeeper you hadn’t even thought of until two minutes ago could be hiding something because she matches a throwaway description the players heard a couple sessions ago. If things like bartering with the shopkeeper or finding artifacts aren’t part of the scope of your game that everyone agrees on, there’s a couple options. The first is to communicate that this poor woman doesn’t seem like she knows anything and likely wouldn’t have anything to do with the plans that the orc raiding parties have. The second is to adjust the scope - remember, it doesn’t have to be and often won’t be a fixed, immutable thing. It can be moved and the focus can change; the important thing is that everyone is on board for how the scope changes.
The last thing I have to say about the benefit of defining scope in your game is that you’re more likely to actually complete the game you want to run because everyone has a better understanding of what they’re in for.