Monday, April 29, 2019

Niche Protection at the Table

Once upon a time, I played Dungeons & Dragons. A lot of Dungeons & Dragons. This was back during Third Edition, and I loved it. It was a blast. Everything felt new, and shiny, and wondrous, and everything fantasy should be.

But Third Edition had its flaws. As time progressed, the cracks in the system become more and more apparent. Wizards of the Coast released more and more bloat. And eventually, I found myself houseruling the game heavily.

It started with patching the broken bits. Then I started expanding the system with new spells, and equipment, and feats. Eventually, I moved on to making entirely new classes that offered the sorts of characters I wanted to play. But cracks in the class system itself began to show.

So it comes as little surprise that when WotC decided to release Fourth Edition – a system I did not care for –, and all of my friends updated, I went in search of a new system. This led me to GURPS. I loved the customizability of it all. Want to play a cybernetic psychic were-rabbit cyborg mage? Just convince your GM, because you can make it and the rules do support it. And that’s how I ended up playing GURPS.

Right now, you’re probably wondering what this all has to do with niche protection. See, GURPS has these things called templates in Dungeon Fantasy, and I have a love-hate relationship with them. Templates are essentially classes, but with more flexibility for the players. They greatly speed up character generation, and they ensure that PCs have minimum skill and trait levels to be viable in the game at the intended difficulty level (unless you’re gaming in Felltower). However, in DF as written, it is encouraged that players use these templates and there are even suggested mechanics for enforcing them because they, themselves, enforce niche protection.


What Is Niche Protection?

Niche protection is the practice of making sure that every PC has a role to play and that no other PCs step on that role. So using DF as an example, the barbarian template covers the role of “good at nature”, and the scout covers “good at ranged combat”. There are a ton of templates, so I won’t cover them all. The point is, these templates act very much like classes in Dungeons & Dragons.

So why don’t I just ditch them? Because there is something to be said with each player having a thing that their PC excels at. Everyone should share the spotlight and get their moments of awesome. That can be hard to do when two PCs are similarly awesome at the same thing. So niche protection is not without its up sides. And that’s what creates the quandary for me – I want players to be free to surprise me with their PC designs, but I want to make sure each player gets his Awesome Time.

What to Do about Niche Protection

So let’s begin by taking a quick look at what is good about niche protection:
  • Everyone is good at something
  • No one steps on each other’s Moments of Awesome

Now, let’s consider what is bad about niche protection:

  • Stifles creativity by restricting choices
  • Inherently meta-gamey and thus risks breaking suspension of disbelief
Lastly, what is ugly about niche protection:

  • Erodes what makes GURPS an amazing system

With these things in mind, I am going to make a couple of suggestions that might blow your mind. They may well revolutionize how you GM. TALK TO YOUR PLAYERS.

Yup. That’s it.

You don’t need to protect niches if you just have an open conversation with all of your players. Let everyone hash out what they want to play, what roles they see their PCs filling, and so on. If two players want to cover the same role, make sure they are okay sharing the spotlight. If a role isn’t covered, let the players know there is a hole in the party’s skill set. You’ll be surprised what good communication can do for a game table.

Where Does That Leave Templates in DF?

Well, for me, it doesn’t leave them much of a place. I don’t plan on enforcing niches mechanically in any way. I do plan on offering competency packages to speed up PC generation, but they are just that – competencies. Want to be good at breaking into places? Take this package. Want to be a mountaineer? Take this package. No text to suggest reasons for taking them. It’s up to the player to figure out why his master swordsman is also a world master ballet dancer.

Does this mean that players have complete and total free reign at my table to make whatever psychic blueberry muffin they want? Nope. I talk about what is appropriate. I provide guidelines and review all PCs. And I give meaningful feedback on strengths, weaknesses, and how well they fit the game. In other words, I talk to my players.

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