A recent thread over at RPGNet reminded me of something I’d heard long ago. I can’t remember the game designer that said it or the exact quote, but it went along the lines of “the problem with Western RPGs is that there are two types of characters; the good gunfighters and the dead ones.” Highlander, obviously, presents a similar problem.

This “Cowboy Syndrome” is difficult to shake once you’ve introduced a campaign where it’s clearly beneficial to max out one or two skills, as the majority of the setting focuses on those skills. In spite of any attempts to enforce “balanced” characters, your players are going to instinctively push those numbers up. Even if you do manage to maintain balance during character creation, you can bet that your players are going to spend the bulk of their XP pumping up the ‘prime’ skills.

While having high scores isn’t in and of itself a problem, it can limit the types of adventures you can run. Maxed out characters often have deficiencies elsewhere, and it can be hard to run investigative adventures with characters that have little to no skill in such matters. Paradoxically, combats tend to be even more risky, as the arms race encourages you to put all of the NPCs at the same level as the maxed-out PCs (and the players will cry foul if every NPC seems to have a higher score).

Here are some ways over the years that I’ve used to alleviate Cowboy Syndrome. Many of these can (and have been) be used together.

Take the skill out of their hands.

One of the brilliant things about all versions of Dungeons and Dragons (at least up through 3.5) is that combat skills aren’t purchased; each character level grants a particular competency. This competency, of course, may be modified by ability scores, but those scores are usually left to random chance or a point-buy system that prevents maxing out all relevant attributes.

Similarly, you can presume a particular competency for your PCs out of the gate. You may even allow them to barter away that competency for upgrades elsewhere on the sheet. By establishing a competency, it’s easier for you to scale the opposition accordingly.

Parse the skills.

If gunfighting plays a big part in your game, ensure that there are multiple skills that a PC needs to be reasonably proficient with. Riding would be very important for mobile gunfights, and Hide and Sneak would be important if a PC wants to get close to an outlaw stronghold without getting picked off by a rifleman. Also, some towns in the Old West required that guns be checked before entering town, increasing the desirability of other combat skills (or at least a good Conceal skill).

Highlander-style immortals also have to worry about things like carrying swords through secure areas (or pumping up an improvised weapons skill – you never know when an immortal is going to jump you as you’re leaving a nightclub!). You’ll also need other skills to protect your freedom; the police are going to get curious if you were at the same time and place as the last three beheadings.

Another way to parse skills is to subdivide an important skill into several. Rather than a single weapon skill, the skill is subdivided into Swing, Thrust, Parry, and Evade. Some games, such as All for One: Regime Diabolique and virtually every unarmed martial arts RPG may offer bonuses or penalties to particular combat actions based on the PC’s fighting style.

Accept that the PCs can be the best if they want, but emphasize other aspects of life.

So your PC is the greatest gunfighter in the territory. How does that help when she comes across someone falsely accused of a crime and likely to hang for it? If workers are stuck in a collapsing silver mine, how is the PCs’ sweet gunfighting skill going to help him navigate the dangers?

Similarly, adventures can simply revolve around the PCs trying to maintain normal lives and relationships with their “special ability” providing complications. Loved ones can be threatened, duels could break out at inopportune times, and PCs may find themselves caught red-handed in some way (maybe someone took a camera vid of a magical duel or the PC left her fingerprints all over the scene).

A word of caution here; some players are going to feel like the campaign is a bait-and-switch if they don’t get to use their abilities. Be sure to sprinkle in plenty of opportunities for them to show-off during the campaign.

Divorce the skills from usual point-buy and XP

Rather than allow the PCs to increase skills through points, there may be other things they need to do to increase their best skills. Perhaps, as per Basic Roleplaying, they need to actually use the skill in order to get a bump. Or, in AD&D monk fashion, they need to beat a higher level opponent in order to advance. Maybe there’s a ceiling on the skill, and only seeking out particular ‘masters’ can enable PCs to increase their rank in certain skills.

Play an RPG where the points don’t matter.

Some game engines utilize different rules that make high skills less important. In Primetime Adventures, a PC’s importance in a particular adventure affects the dice rolls rather than skill numbers. Smallville concentrates on the relationships between characters to generate dice rolls. Using systems like these allow players to keep the conceit that they’re masters of their craft while approaching the campaign from a fresh angle.

Don’t give them the skill at all out of the gate.

This is a bit of a radical suggestion, but suitable for games where PCs suddenly find themselves as part of a world that never existed. Modern Highlander immortals are rarely master swordsmen when they first ‘die,’ and modern characters that discover they have fae blood in their veins probably weren’t practicing magic previously. This option offers the opportunity for many interesting adventures as PCs have to come to grips with the new reality while learning the basics.

These are some of the techniques I’ve used; how about you? Is Cowboy Syndrome a problem in your games? If so, what attempts have you made to alleviate it? How well have those attempts worked?