Role playing games need a focus. Maybe foci. I laugh when I hear myself say that because I have had discussions with friends who are more like choreographers in their approach to RPGs. In these discussions I am usually the one arguing for more freedom and less contrivance. They very well may be chuckling at me now.
Even so, I have had the experience of games which really lacked a cohesive focal point. Ones that felt like we were simply meandering in a quagmire of uncertainty. This is never fun and can be quite frustrating.
I have also had the experience of games which had a very strong focus around something. Maybe it was a theme, maybe it was an interest or vendetta. Other times it seemed to be more about the relationship between the characters and exploring who they were. Sometimes the focus was a very strong premise that had a lot of buy-in from everyone at the table. No matter what it was, or if there were two or more foci, these sessions or campaigns felt much more engaging and immersive than those without.
So where does this focus come from? Does it need to be spelled out beforehand? Does the game itself need to support that? Can it just emerge over time through the events of play? I don’t think that there is one definitive answer. However, it is my belief that all of the people at the table need to talk openly about it. Having an open line of communication and talking about the game experience with each other is one of those critical ways to support the focus of a game. This video by my pal Eloy is an excellent look at the importance of open communication in the spirit of constructive criticism. It probably should be required viewing by gamers.
Assuming that this communication exists, we still need to figure out where this focus actually comes from. Or do we? I have had the experience of a focal point or theme arising naturally, I had the experience of one being discussed beforehand, And I have had some experience of games which try to create this focus via procedures and mechanics. All of them have their advantages and drawbacks, it is a matter of bias and preference which method appeals the most to you. But I don’t think that you can argue with the idea that a focused play experience is a rewarding one.
What is this game going to be about? What is our experience going to be like? What are we going to be doing? How will we do it? ~ contrasted with talking after the game and realizing all of a sudden that this game has taken on a life of its own and no one could’ve seen the focal point coming before it showed up. Are these mutually incompatible? I don’t think so. But your mileage may vary.
In the same manner as the quality of the activities of play themselves, I have found that characters are most satisfying and engaging when they have a clear focus. Sometimes this gets developed during character creation, and sometimes it just emerges over the course of play. Just like the game itself, occasionally the focus of a character can change. Sometimes that shift can be just as surprising to the player as it is to the other players around the table.
I think it’s important to remember that the focus doesn’t need to be artificial. Not all characters have to have the same goals or need to be on the same page. That really depends upon the game and what you have agreed to do in the first place. The focus very well could be conflict and dissonance between the characters!
It could be different for you, but for me my favorite games are the ones that I can look back on them and can tell you what they were about. Sometimes it was obvious, and sometimes it was surprising, but it was always worth the time.