14 September 2013

GGF #2: We Have To Have One Of Everything

No, we really don’t.  The concept of “niche protection” is one of the more bizarre tropes the wargaming roots of our hobby’s stuck us with.  Let's see if I have this straight: we decree that a questing team needs an artificial balance of certain archetypes (archetypes that, I might add, are not necessarily found in all of the fictional stories which are the underpinnings of the hobby). The players are compelled to make the expected selections, often ensuring that one or more run a character he or she does not wish to play. We then design pre-packaged, commercial "modules" so that a party lacking the proper percentage of these archetypes is punished for their failure to make the "right" choices in rollup.

What are my problems with it, I’ve been asked?

*  It's not only entirely artificial, the roles are arbitrarily chosen. The Tank / Blaster / Healer / Rogue paradigm presupposes -- farcically -- that these are not only the only roles conceivable, but that they're the only ones desirable. 

*  It's a self-justifying paradigm; we need to “protect niches” because some game systems are designed so that you can't succeed without them. 

*  Decades of RPGs with freeform or skill-based systems have proven we don't need them ... and never really did.  Heck, this isn’t universally the case across genres.  I’ve heard some of the most rabid defenders of niche protection concede that they don’t feel it’s necessary for SF or supers games.  Why not?  Is there some reason why “niches” for fantasy is essential, but not for other genres?  Is it that SF novels or comic books lack identifiable archetypes?  Or is this more of a case that the first really big RPGs for SF (Traveller) and supers (Champions) were classless systems lacking easily definable and exclusive niches, so people weren’t conditioned to think they had to have them for those genres?

*  It’s quite easy -- truly it is -- to write scenarios that don’t require (say) a thief or a priest to succeed.  Heck, I’ve had all-warrior and all-magician groups, and I’ve had campaigns go for years without characters who were any good at disarming traps or could call upon divine healing.

* It retards creative thinking. I remember quite well a niche protection debate where a poster flung the gauntlet at me: what if a locked door is key to the scenario and you didn't make the party bring a locksmith along? Huh? Huh? Well, says I, the party could bash the door down. Or the wizard could witch their way through somehow. Or they could pull the pins on the hinges. Or they could look for another way into the room. Or they could find out who had the keys and filch/bribe/seduce them from the owner somehow. Or the GM could devote a scrap of brainpower to developing scenarios that didn't revolve around a skill the group lacked. (This, of course, would require that (a) the GM didn't play out of "modules," or (b) exercised his privilege to change them if he did.)

* What’s wrong with redundancy?  Characters die.  The player with the key skill can't make the session. There are countless circumstances where multiple characters with the same skill make the task go much faster or much more safely ... never mind that combat redundancy is only ever, well, “redundant” if you never fight more than a single opponent at a time.  (I view the "But I have to be The Best in the party at something!" as the province of whiners channeling stereotypical 1950s Hollywood women who go into hissy fits if another woman shows up to the party wearing the same dress.)

* It reflects fictional sources but poorly. Especially before the late 1970s and the advent of gaming fiction, duplication of skills was rampant. Did JRRT worry that Aragorn and Boromir had much the same skill set? Did Fritz Leiber worry that his dynamic duo were both thieves? For every movie with Only One Of Everything, there was a Seven Samurai.

Beyond that, niche protection is one of the more angst-ridden subjects in gaming.  People get pissed off when they feel their "thunder" is being stolen.  People get pissed off because they think it was their turn to run the mage.  People get pissed off because they're being forced to play the cleric, again.  People get pissed off because it seems THAT guy always gets to play what he wants.  People get pissed off because one niche is (or is perceived to be) poorly balanced against another.  People gets pissed off when playing Niche A because someone in Niche B is doing a perceived aspect of Niche A better.  People get pissed off because the only face time they get is when someone wants a lock picked or a wound healed, and the rest of the time they’re relegated to being REMFs.

Much of what drives the ongoing controversy about railroading GMs is related; with the widespread practice of running nothing but commercially-produced “modules” straight out of the shrinkwrap, paired with a deep unwillingness to change a jot of them to suit their groups, GMs and groups require that the niches be filled because the modules (allegedly) demand it of them.

My wife, for example, played in a campaign in high school with her cronies. Around a bunch of testosterone-soaked boys, she was stuck with being the party healer. The concept didn't bug her, per se, and sure, she got to roll dice a couple times a session and do her healing spells. The "niche," however, didn't guarantee her a say in tactical planning or decision making, and in fact she didn't have one. What the rest of the group valued was the ability to put hit points of damage on the enemy, and that she lacked.  She was stuck, however, with the character she had and wasn't allowed to trade out for an archetype which would be better respected ... because they “had to have one of everything.”

Even the alleged virtues of the system, as articulated by its defenders, are weak:

* It's good to play characters who aren't good at everything?  Terrific, then design one ... who’s stopping you? 

* It's good for weak characters to be useful?  Shouldn't this be enforced with group dynamics and by the GM instead?  (Or, well ... in a skill-based system, a character doesn’t have to be “weak” just because he’s a performer or a scholar.  Better not jeer at Tanri the busker, because she works out at Saragam’s dojo and she’ll whap you upside your head.)

* Characters in class systems have different "flavors?" What makes restricting the number of available roles more varied and interesting than taking what you want?  (Beyond that, my flavor is oreo, thanks.  If you can’t hack any ice cream other than vanilla-chocolate-strawberry, whatever; you stick to those.)

* Characters ought to have defined functions?  Why do I need to have one-word labels for all my characters, and what makes this a virtue? 

* "Enforcing the genre expectations?" Please. If the GM can't manage to run the anticipated genre and the players aren't interested in running the anticipated genre, no character class written will compel them to do so. You can never legislate the munchkins out of existence. You can say, bizarrely enough, "Nice try, but no."

* It’s too hard to design characters outside of pre-defined niches?  Quite aside from that there are countless gamers out there who don’t need training wheels, many a game has optional “templates” based around popular roles, without requiring that players choose one or the other.

Alright, so some game companies would have to do a lot more work to write adventures which could be solved in more ways without niche protection.  (Other game companies, the ones who work with classless systems, seem to manage just fine, of course.)  But how many of us don’t work with commercial “modules?”  What’s our benefit in buying into this fallacy?


  1. Strangely, despite playing RPGs since the 80s, I never heard of this concept until I started playing in MMOs. City of Heroes had it a bit but it wasn't codefied into the game the way it was with World of Warcraft.
    It really bugged me.

    Since then I've seen it a bit in TTRPGs. I remember the my first meeting with the group I currently play with where they sort of ran down the various classes and discussed what the group needed... almost as I had no say in the matter.
    In our current run of 3.5 I wanted to play a magistrate/inquisitor like Detective Dee... so I took a cleric of Law (closest thing in concept it seemed) but I'm NOT a preacher and I'm not going to be the 'healbot'. We've had a few 'discussions' between myself and a player who thinks I'm playing my character wrong.
    Fucking D&D.

    [quote]* "Enforcing the genre expectations?" Please. If the GM can't manage to run the anticipated genre and the players aren't interested in running the anticipated genre, no character class written will compel them to do so.[/quote] Oh hell, shout that from the rooftops... I'm so tired of people making this excuse for annoying rules. "Well, it encourages people to roleplay"... WTF? I'd assume if they're playing an RPG they want to roleplay? Did you lie to them and tell them we were gonna play Monopoly?

    1. It's quite common in D&D circles, more so where people use commercial "modules" exclusively, and even more so in the later editions that have brainwashed people into thinking that they have to have X characters of Y level with Z abilities and W number of magical items of V power so that all the "Challenge Rating" nonsense lines up just the way the publishers wrote it. That a generation of even D&D players managed to figure it all out without the training wheels doesn't seem to occur to them.