Designing a Focus is a lot harder than writing a Descriptor. There’s a lot more to balance and the Focus, by its very nature, has more impact on the character than a Descriptor does. On the other hand, there are so many Foci and they take so many different tacks that it’s hard to compare them.
At this point in time I’ve written about four dozen Foci, including 22 for the supplement I’m releasing this week (Angels & Ashes). Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.
In many ways the Focus is the cool part of the character. Finding an interesting and succinct concept will help you greatly in the design process. Naming is a big part of this and I like to name my Foci before I design them, so that I can fit the powers to the specific theme. “Carries a Quiver” from the core book would be somewhat different if it were called “Hunts Prey”, “Shoots Flaming Arrows”, or “Hits Small Targets”. The concept needs to be broad enough to fit a couple Types and a few Descriptors, but narrow enough to be a true focus of a character. It shouldn’t be about a single cool move or power, but a larger lifestyle. And it should sound cool at the table. People should want to say your Focus out loud (and not get tripped up over the wording).
Start Small, Get Big
Give the characters a taste of their coolness at first Tier. Let them ignite a weapon with their power or talk to things they couldn’t normally. Just enough of the Focus’ power to get them hooked. You want to tantalize them into progressing to the second Tier. A character that feels finished at first Tier is boring. Who wants to just start off as a badass hero when they can become one instead, through hard work and perseverance?
Just make sure they get some of that coolness. Waiting until second Tier to get any of the flavor of your Focus while everyone else is revelling in the glory of a thematic hero is not fun.
Keep it Brief
This can’t be overstated: Make your abilities brief. Shoot for one sentence, two tops. Seriously, this is the greatest trick you’ll ever learn in game design. It’s the difference between ok and quite good, because not only does it make it easier for the player to play (VERY IMPORTANT), but it also makes it easier for you to look at and notice the flaws. People don’t want to read every possible use of your power, they just want the basics. This game really emphasizes rulings over rules, so don’t get caught up in all the edge cases.
The exception to this is Tier five or six, when powers can get a little more complex, but whenever possible extend your brevity all the way to the top.
Most official Foci have half or more of their powers devoted to being helpful in combat. Keep this in mind. I’ve written and even published a couple that were more based on skills, or establishing long-term connections and power, but those are generally a rarity.
The standard is a Focus that’s about action, but don’t worry too much if yours only helps a scholar. For some people that’s fun too.
Bear in mind that many Foci, especially those that are about supernatural power, affect Esoteries and other powers cast by the character. They’re flavorful, and that’s pretty cool. A nano who explores dark places will get to have darkness powers, etc. This is a great way to add options, since it’s not great to write a Focus with an obvious Type associated with it. Have a luck-based seat-of-your-pants Focus that screams Jack? Why not make it flavor Esoteries with luckiness, so Nano’s get something too?
This is a tricky one, but it’s worth mentioning. You’re designing powers. Do what you can to make those powers at least somewhat broadly useful. Too specific, and the character will play like a video game toon. Sure you could have a telekinetic power that grabs weapons from people’s hands, but why not broaden that to objects in general, allowing for more creativity?
This is a fairly controversial subject, but let’s dive in. Generally speaking I make my Foci abilities cost their Tier in pool points. This is not, strictly speaking, true of every power in the core book, but it’s close enough for hand grenades. If an ability seems overpowered or if you’re giving them more than one ability on the same Tier, go ahead and increase a cost by one or two. If something seems underpowered, lower it by one (to a minimum of 1). No big deal.
Action vs Enabler
This is a minor note, but worth a mention. At the end of each Focus ability it will generally say “Action” or “Enabler”. If it takes an action to do, write Action. If it takes no time, such as a skill you just get from that point forward, or a mechanical alteration to the character that’s permanent, it’s an Enabler. If it takes an action to get started but will continue functioning after that “Action to initiate” might be appropriate. If it’s something the character does, but it doesn’t take a full action to complete, I usually write something like: “Enabler, usable once per round”, though if a person could use it more than once a round you could just write Enabler, as strange as that sounds.
Make Tier Six Really Shine
This one’s tricky because all of the Focus should be cool, but try really really hard to make Tier six the one that people look at and drool over. Chances are most people will never make it to that ability, but it should be there as a goal for all the others who take up your Focus for a little while. Nothing sells a player on a Focus like a great Tier six power.
Here are a few things you generally shouldn’t do, because they’re often too powerful:
(Any one of these is fine if it’s the point of the Focus, but be careful with this stuff)
Add Armor value
Do things that Type powers already do
Kill enemies outright
Provide attack Skills
Provide defense Skills
Provide extra actions (!!!)
Provide extra Pool points, Effort, or Edge (besides as a 6th Tier ability once in a while)