The topic of my blog today is focus fire. This is the tendency of games to encourage all of the attacks on one side to be directed against a single opponent on the other side, instead of being spread out among the opponents. Focus fire is number 1 on my list of hard-to-fix problems with classic game mechanics; the problem is omnipresent in many games of many kinds, and I have been thinking of ways to deal with it for a long time. But this article is mainly about describing the problem.
Focus fire is a major problem on 2 fronts - it is not fun, and it does not simulate the source material or reality. For the first point, focus fire definitely is not fun when it is performed against the players. The effect on the game of encouraging focus fire is to cause the characters on one side to be "whittled down" one at a time. Being taken out of the fight is not fun for a player. If the player is only controlling one character, he is out of the game completely at that point. Game mechanics that encourage this sort of thing to happen are very directly anti-fun.
4th edition D&D helps deal with this problem by making different rules for players and monsters, and making it very difficult for players to be permanently knocked out of the combat. But even still, having one character be the focus of all enemy attacks is still boring, because the other players don't have a chance to use their powers and abilities to defend themselves. Although making attacks is certainly more fun than taking attacks, it is quite common in many games for characters to have powers and abilities that help them defend, powers that they want a chance to use.
In a role-playing game where one side is controlled entirely a game master, the question of whether it is a fun to have the monsters be whittled down one at a time is much less clear-cut. Defeating foes one by one can give a sense of progress and accomplishment, and if players can do it but their opponents can't, it provides a way to have good dramatic pacing where the villain seem very powerful at the start but eventually they get weaker and the players come from behind and win. But I'm not sure focus fire handles this in the right way. What you really want dramatically is for the players to become more heroic, start outfighting the monsters, and defeat them in a climactic blaze of glory. When the monsters are whittled down one at a time, what you get is that they become less and less dangerous, but even after the characters know they have won the fight because they have defeated the most dangerous monsters, it takes a long time to chew through all the hit points of the undamaged remaining monsters. Focus fire tends to mean that scary, interesting monsters get killed very quickly, so the monsters become less interesting and capable as the fight progresses. Of course, you can sometimes lessen the problem by having the monsters run away when the fight becomes less interesting - but this isn’t always practical or desirable.
Also, when the characters know that focus fire is incredibly effective, it greatly constrains their actions. Instead of attacking the target that seems most interesting or most appropriate to attack, or who is most vulnerable to whatever power or tactic they plan to use, every character must attack the same target. Of course, a tactical game involves making some decisions better than others, but this isn't a very interesting tactic. It is monotonous to concentrate fire on the same target all the time, especially because it usually isn't very difficult to do.
Focus fire also isn't generally consistent with the source material for the genre of the game. Most fictional characters and units just do not focus all of their fire on one target at a time. Instead, they “engage” and matchup against individual opponents, though often the engagements are ever-shifting in the confusing excitement of a general melee. This sort of excitement is fun, but it doesn't exist in a game where everyone is clustered around the target of the moment, concentrating on beating in one head of the time. Compared to the exciting action of fights in movies and comic books, a fight with focus fire seems “dorky” - repetitive and out of place, more reminiscent of a mindless computer game than a story.
The fundamental source of the focus fire problem is the game mechanic of hit points, a tried and true game mechanic going all the way back to first edition D&D. When using the classic hit point game mechanic, each attack has a chance of causing some amount of damage to the character, and the main or only effect of damage is that when the total damage reaches a certain level, the character is defeated. This is a simple, reliable system that works well in many ways, but it adds a certain artificiality that creates the focus fire problem.
Specifically, the problem is that an attack has no effect on the target or anything else unless it is the final attack that brings the opponent over the threshold and defeats them. The only way to gain any tangible benefit in the combat is to knock out or kill you foes, and the best way to do that is to concentrate your fire on one target at a time. Spreading your attacks out over multiple targets simply means that none of them will be defeated until it is close to the end of the fight. In most games there is very little that controls your choice of targets, so this becomes the overriding game mechanic.
This key element is one of the elements that makes focus fire seem so unrealistic. With the classic hit point system, you know with certainty that making an attack against an opponent who hasn't been attacked before can't possibly have the slightest effect on them. This doesn't seem to correspond well to many real or cinematic fights. When you attack someone with a sword, you expect that the attack poses a serious threat to them. Characters in the movies don't "know" that sword attacks aren't allowed to hurt the opponent unless the opponent has been attacked many times previously.
Also, in a real or cinematic fight, many things are happening and you have to pay attention to defending yourself and making whatever attacks you can get away with amidst the chaos of the fight. You aren’t just sitting there launching one attack every 5 seconds against a target of your choice. Role-playing games try to manage the havoc and complexity by breaking things down into simplicity, and they need to do this in order to make the game playable. But an unfortunate side effect is that they don't model “engagement” very well - in a game, it is awfully easy to ignore the guy standing in front of you and attacking you with a sword, so that you can run somewhere else and attack the most efficient target.
It is interesting to compare how classic strategic wargames typically do not have the focus fire problem. In real life, "concentration of forces" is a valuable goal, and classic wargames give you a major bonus for concentrating your forces, which might seem like it would create a greatly magnified version of the focus fire problem. But in a war game, concentration of fire really means getting a lot of troops in one area, and the reason this is interesting is because the game provides other incentives that make you want to spread your forces out, such as the desire to conquer or hold territory. In a classic war game, even if you are allowed to make yourself unbeatable by putting all of your forces into one city, the enemy will simply ignore you and destroy every city except the one you are in, and thus win the game. The problem with many tactical and role-playing games is that concentrating your fire or your forces is encouraged by the rules and is trivial to do, so the proper tactics degenerate into merging all of your forces into one homogenized glob.
There are 2 very simple alternatives to the classic hit point mechanic that remove the focus fire problem, but neither is practical in a typical role-playing game.
The first is to make the damage stateless, so that the effect of a hit does not depend on the number of previous hits. Most often, this means that a hit has a chance of defeating the target, and if it does not, the target is completely unaffected. This works well in games involving one player controlling large numbers of units, none of which is terribly crucial. Hypothetically, it is fairly realistic for certain types of combat, such as gun fights with on unarmored combatants. However, it is much too simple, random, and sudden for the important heroes and villains in a role-playing game.
The second approach is to make the offensive capability of the character proportional to the number of remaining hit points. This also has a certain amount of realism, and is more practical to do in a role-playing game. In fact, many games have tried some version of this, giving attack penalties to wounded characters. But in order for this to really be effective to prevent focus fire, the penalty has to be quite large. I recall playing games with such large penalties, such as MERP, and the rule was generally loathed by the players because it made them ineffective when badly wounded, and it just isn't fun to be ineffective. The general feeling was that it was better to be knocked out completely then stumble around the combat is an invalid. Role-playing games are about heroes, and heroes are supposed to fight even more bravely when wounded, whether it is realistic or not. So this rule isn’t practical. However, when trying to make more entertaining rules, it is interesting to compare the effect they have to this "mathematic ideal".
Many games have other rules which explicitly encourage focus fire, such as many-on-one bonuses, or implicitly encourage focus fire, such as limits on the number of parries a character can make in a single turn. Such rules are typically added for greater "realism", but I generally dislike such rules because they make the focus fire problem even worse. In theory, some of these rules could be interesting if there were other rules that made it tactically difficult to concentrate fire on a single target. But because concentrating fire is so easy, I prefer to ignore rules that give you extra bonuses for doing so.