Skills and Niche Protection [Pt. I]: Framing the Argument

This is something I’ve been thinking about the last few days and, apparently, I’m not the only one. [1. Though, we’re looking at it through different lenses, we’re still examining the same issue.] I’m not mulling it over so much for hacking a system nor necessarily for anything beyond a thought experiment, but it does have practical applications at the table. One of my big concerns when designing something is to bring respect to the genre in question, yet not inundate it with a bunch of mandates explicating a singular interpretation of rules at the molecular level. In other words, if you want to get meta on rules, you could presume in some circumstances even the rules themselves have a certain, airy space, and are subject to individual interpretation. This is the way of all games, so it’s best to acknowledge it and move on. However, it’s essential to have a company line where it’s a baseline level of expectation from which however we may do things in our home games could differ a bit. The way we test a game is not necessarily exactly how we may play the game ourselves privately. I know other designers who are pretty much the same way. We want fun first and may hand wave a rule we ourselves designed as it may not be particularly appropriate to the moment, the atmosphere, or it may compromise a transformational roleplaying moment. Do we really want to do that? Absolutely not. But all these little slices of times, these little moments, cannot be placed into a compendium, unless they recur with enough frequency to necessitate some construct of mechanics for both consistency and ease of use. A case example is ScatterPoint is corrupt and players always wanted to have their characters throw coin at the guard, so I made certain the rules facilitated gameplay and provided the aforementioned consistency we’ve been talking about. This is the purpose of skills.

Traits are the measure by which a character can perform a task or how they measure up against others. You can use attributes and skills as natural subcategories of this logic. [2. And Savage Worlds does.] To use the old, yellow box Marvel as a perfect example, if I have a Fighting of Unearthly and yours is Poor, I should be able to pound you in the face and there is little you can really do about it, beyond bloody my big, green fist. This is fine for something like fighting, where it’s a macro-skill, capable of encompassing a broad spectrum of punching, sword-swinging, and whatnot, [3. Again, depending upon system.] but it gets trickier when someone has a Knowledge (Mythos) or doesn’t, as the case may be. I want to move beyond skills for the purposes of discussion, but I want to be comprehensive. If you want to introduce Edges, Feats, or whatnot into the mix, they generally serve to break the rules or, you got it, enhance a skill in some way. Yes. You could say, this Feat gives me low-light vision to which I’ll respond, which, in turn, mechanically negates your penalty to see in the dark, hence improving your fighting and notice skills. Let’s get away from the particulars of skills and look at how they’ve traditionally been used.

I had a discussion with Ed Wetterman as he was driving to Houston this morning, and it came up in conversation how dramatically the RPG industry has shifted, especially with regard to such things as balance. Back in the day, designers made stuff that seemed cool, and moved on. I can’t blame them. It was a burgeoning industry, and who knew some of the stuff cobbled together in dark, moldy basements, kitchen tables, and stifling attics would still be going strong decades later? The mind boggles. One of the things still in effect today is the point of niche protection. Most designers move forward on the assumption there are five to seven players at the table. A GM and four to six players. Is that even true anymore or is that the exception?  This is what has me thinking about how the GM needs to step in and tailor things to his particular group. Do you go narrow and let the chips fall where they may when a skill is missing from the smaller group or do you make allowances? This is the big compound question we’ll be delving into more deeply tomorrow.

You have two cents. Please throw them in.

Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!





3 Notes on, Skills and Niche Protection [Pt. I]: Framing the Argument

  1. Yep I’m part of a classic 5 person group – four players and a GM that rotates. When I’m running a session and there’s a missing skill or if the group fails a significant (in regards to the progression of the adventure) skill check then I just tailor the game to take this into account. Maybe an NPC comes to the rescue or they bash the door down rather than picking the lock or using the key they didn’t find 3 scenes ago. Part of running a game is adapting the story to fit the actions of the players. I’m sure most people who have run games have the experience of a Big Bad that you had great plans for, being killed by a player’s probability bending role and so you have to adapt. The lack of a skill in the party is exactly the same.

  2. In the past I had issues with the missing skill problem but by adopting a more “Say Yes” approach and generally winging more then following a script this has become a non issue. I can however see where it still takes effect in pre written adventures and the likes where you have to define a certain situation the players have to circumvent. Simply stating “Use Knowledge(Mythos) to solve the secret of the ritual” is of course much more streamlined and easy then trying to describe every possible way the players could approach a situation. However adapting something like the three clue rule ( to a “three solutions rule” could provide enough choice that a missing skill will be far less of an issue. Going narrow seems to be a recipe for pains and frustration for the players. I firmly believe an adventure should be tailored to the players, not the players to the adventure. Of course that should not be read as “Players can´t fail”.

    But niche protection is something I still try to strife for. If one player invests in some rarely used skill or edge I will try hard to give him the possibility to use it and try to somehow produce an advantage over others without the skill/edge in that particular field.

  3. I’ll be looking forward to your post tomorrow with interest, as I’m not sure I understood today’s post at all. You described a number of general truths (designers are also inveterate house rulers, skills define what your character can do, modern RPGs are different from older RPGs), but I’m not really sure I see what point you’re heading towards.

    As to niche protection, it’s a tricky subject that often goes off the rails. Part of that is that it’s built up a lot of connotation over the years, and people assume that it implies certain things that it doesn’t necessarily. What do you see it as meaning?

    When I have a group that is missing a skill that would be necessary, I generally leave it up to the group to fix it. Either they need to find an alternate solution, or they need to find help. I’m usually pretty generous when it comes to that, but I don’t feel that building in three right answers is actually that much better than only building in one right answer. All you need to do as GM is provide the questions, leave it up to them to provide the answers.

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