Jan 012010

I’ve been playing and thinking about superhero games quite often as of late and it got me to thinking about how different systems ensure that everyone at the table has something fun and unique to do in and out of play.  It’s not something most of us think about very often when rolling dice around the table, but I feel that solid niche protection between characters is nearly essential to ensuring that everyone at the table has a good time.

To my mind games break down into three broad categories of niche protection.  You have strict niche protection, also known as class based RPGs.  Then you have semi-rigid niche protection, common in a lot of White Wolf games (via the Clan/Auspice/Tradition style breakdown). Finally you have no niche protection, which is common in most point-based games and a lot of superhero games.

Now there’s a lot of wiggle room within these broad categories, but for the purpose of this little thought exercise I’m going to stick to generalities within the three categories and how they relate to game master and player enjoyment.  Over the next few days I’m going to examine each type of game and talk a bit about the common problems and benefits of each game style and how to use them to the fullest.


Strict Niche Protection (I.E. Class Systems)

It’s no surprise that class-based game systems offer the greatest degree of niche protection (to a certain extent).  In games like Dungeons & Dragons (of which I am a big fan) you have a narrowly defined area of expertise at which you excel and then a broad area of minimal competence or outright restriction.  To take a very obvious example fighters aren’t going to be tossing around fireballs and wizards aren’t going to be hewing through monsters with huge weapons (exceptions, of course, exist).  In a lot of respects this is actually a good thing: if you’re the only wizard in the party you pretty much know that you’re the boss when it comes to arcane magic.  They party is going to look to you when such problems occur and you’re always going to have something that you’re the best at doing.

The downsides are also just as obvious – sometimes there are going to be things that your character should be able to do that the rules don’t support.  If my fighter happened to be a member of the thieves guild chances are he should know how to pick locks – but some games won’t let you do this (though many others do allow for this sort of customization).  The cost of having a defined area of expertise is that exceptions and corner cases tend to very difficult or outright impossible to model sensibly.

There’s also the problem of class duplication – in class based games two members of the same class sometimes end up looking very similar.  Some systems are better at dealing with this than others but at the end of the day there is at least some degree of sameness between characters of the same class.  Ironically this actually leads to the very problem that class based systems are meant to prevent – characters that don’t have their own shtick.


Maximizing the Strengths

If you’re using a class-based system you obviously want to play to its strengths as much as possible.  You can do this by choosing a system with a broad spectrum of classes or niches to give your players a great deal of choice while still retaining a solid set of niches for your players to fill.  For me this system is D&D 4e, but it could be any other class based game with good deal of selection.  You want your players to point toward a class and say “that is my character exactly!” if at all possible, or at least offer enough selection that a class can be molded to fit with little work.

Beyond selecting an appropriate system you also want to make sure that everyone selects a class that compliments but does not overlap with an existing class (save for the generalist, which I’ll cover just a bit later).  This is best accomplished by setting aside a full session for character creation or using some other method to ensure that everyone knows what everyone else is playing.  This way you can avoid the “party full of thieves” problem that can crop up when you create characters in a vacuum.


Minimizing Weaknesses

As mentioned earlier, class based systems do have their weaknesses, but with a little work you can overcome nearly all of them pretty easily.  The biggest weakness is that of class and ability duplication.  In a perfect world everyone would choose a different class but we all know that the world isn’t perfect (even our game worlds).  When you do get duplicates you can either try to differentiate them with crunch or with fluff.

Differentiating duplicate classes with crunch is usually the more difficult proposition.  Yet it can be accomplished, especially if the system you’re using has rules for multiclassing (or something similar).   After all, a Fighter/Cleric and a Fighter/Wizard are going to feel pretty different from each other.  Obviously you’re not going to be able to use this all the time, but it can help quite a bit.

If multiclassing isn’t attractive or unavailable, start looking at hyper-specialization.  If you have duplicate classes chances are that the basic are covered, so go right ahead and encourage the players to really specialize in one very narrow spectrum of the class.  If you have two fighters encourage one to go sword and board and the other to go with a big two handed weapon.  That way the two characters still feel a bit different, even if they aren’t all that different mechanically.

The other option is using background, characterization, and other “fluff” to make the characters distinct.  If both your fighters want to play guys in plate armor, a heavy shield, and a longsword you’re obviously going to have to do something to avoid the “we’re twins!” problem.  Perhaps one fighter is a noble knight all hung up on chivalry and honor while the other is a mercenary who works for the highest bidder.  Now you have a situation where two contrasting personalities share largely the same abilities, which can lead to a fun sort of “friendly rivalry” as each character attempts to show the other the error of his ways.

The other problem that is likely to arise is that of the “special snowflake” character.  Some players just have a very specific idea in mind for their character and sometimes the classes don’t cater very well to that idea.  If this happens you don’t really have a whole lot of solutions.  Either the player needs to adjust his character so that it fits within a certain class or you have to find a mechanical representation that works.

About the only other option is to take an existing class and “reskin” it enough so that it works for the character concept.  This obviously works better in some systems than in others.  Mostly this is a thematic change, where you take the raw mechanics and graft on new “special effects” to the existing class.  You can also take a class and make minor tweaks if you know the system well enough, such as changing a fire caster to a cold caster by changing a few damage types.  It’s not always recommended and it’s definitely a more advanced option, but it can work.


Attack of the Clones

So what happens when you have an entire party of adventurers all filled with one character class?  Obviously this isn’t going to happen very often but when it does simple reskinning and different personality types aren’t really going to give you enough differentiation between the characters.  This is the time where you have to start looking at your campaign itself and where you might have to bring in a few optional rules to make things interesting.

The first step is going to be working heavily with hyper-specialization.  Hopefully you have a robust enough system that each class has at least a few different options within the system itself.  If you have an entire team of priests perhaps each one of them worships a different god with a different set of divine abilities.  If you have that group of thieves perhaps each one of them specializations in a certain area of crime.  Break out all the extras for that class that you can and encourage the players to use as many optional extras as practically possible.

Then figure out why this group is together and form a story around their similarities.  The easiest example is that of a thieves guild, but anything will work.  The key here is to focus the game entirely around problems that can be solved by the class features of everyone present and then overwhelm them with so many problems that no one character can possibly solve them all.  Going back to the thieves, perhaps they have to break into a house covered in traps, with dozens of locked doors, and very alert guards.  Some of them are going to have to sneak in, some are going to have to disable the traps, and some are going to be unlocking doors.  Instead of giving everyone something different to do give them so many of the same thing to do that they all have to work together.


The Generalist

When discussing class based games there is one final exception that needs specific mention: the generalist.  This is the character who’s shtick is actually being the “jack of all trades, master of none.”  This is a class based upon being the second best at everything and they’re generally thrown in as a “fifth wheel” character.  How do you cater to a character that is by definition a lesser copy of everyone else?

The answer lies in how you design your games and encounters.  If you have a generalist try to set up situations where one character class isn’t quite enough to get the job done.  Perhaps the door is both locked and trapped and they have to get through it quickly.  Normally the thief could do both jobs but when time is of the essence the bard can step in and help out, effectively doubling their manpower for a short time.  Generalists also shine when the skills of an absent party member are needed, as they can step into that role for a short time and perform admirably.  Sometimes you can manufacture this yourself by splitting the party but at other times this will arise naturally – which is all the better if you have a generalist character in your party.

But playing second fiddle the entire time isn’t very satisfying, so you’ll want to come up with situations that require a broad area of skill to accomplish.  This is far easier said than done and I’ve never really mastered the art of doing this beyond a few specific circumstances.  The one saving grace is that even generalist style characters generally have one narrow area of expertise not covered by everyone else in the party, so you can sometimes play to this when you want to shine the spotlight on a generalist character.


Final Thoughts

The most important thing to remember when using a class based system is that communication is the key.  Players have to communicate with one another when creating their characters and the GM and players have to communicate with one another to ensure that everyone is getting equal spotlight time.  After all, classes are only unique if they’re the only ones at the table at any given time.

As a final point I would like to state that not all game systems work for all players.  If you’ve tried a class based game and found it too rigid or unappealing, there are many other systems out there to try.  Perhaps class based games aren’t for you and all you need to do is go looking for a system that does work for you.  There’s no reason to keep using the same system if it doesn’t work for you.