Back in my early Dungeons & Dragons (Moldvay/Mentzer) gaming days I used to complain that D&D didn’t have a skill system, which was true, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “from a certain point of view.” Looking at it another way, D&D did have a skill system; it was embedded within the character classes. Each character class had what it needed to delve dungeons and explore new lands and, while there was some overlap, each class specialized in things the other classes couldn’t. Only together could they form a balanced team, with each class shining at the appropriate time.
In short, if you wanted to bash things and take a lot of punishment you were a Fighter; if you wanted to be sneaky and clever you were a Thief; if you wanted grand arcane power you were a Magic-User; and if you wanted to be the glue that held the party together and kept them healthy you were a Cleric.
When other RPGs have used skill systems I’ve noted that all too often the niches are blurred. In many games it is very easy, for example, for every player character to have the highest possible skill in the one or two weapons that they use 90% of the time as well as the best protection available, which chips away at the utility of the party Fighter. And while a ‘thief/rogue’ type may have a versatile suite of criminal/espionage skills, it is very easy for a Fighter PC to concentrate on one or two of the most useful ‘thief skills,’ thereby limiting the need for the Thief. Depending on the game system, it’s also possible to come up with hybrid Fighter/Magic-Users that are good warriors and great magicians, albeit with a smaller bag of tricks.
This can sometimes crop up in “soft niche” games such as the later iterations of D&D or games with ‘archetypes,’ where certain classes are actually class combinations with more limited options and certain skills may be open to all, with or without restrictions.
I’m sticking with fantasy here but the point works in other genres – how effective is a martial artist superhero when her best buddy is wearing powered armor? I once played in a fantasy/cyberpunk Shadowrun where my chiphead/decker outclassed the street samurai of the party because I’d only specialized in one weapon, which made me the most lethal member of the team when I used it.
From a realistic standpoint, limiting character options seems arbitrary; why can’t a wizard learn how to wield a sword? From a gameability standpoint, it makes a great deal more sense. Since many modern systems utilize skills as the defining feature of what a PC can do, a GM that wishes to institute niche protection will have to determine what those niches are and then modify the rules accordingly (e.g. only certain classes get certain skills or access to particular equipment, or maybe certain classes can only take particular skills at pre-determined limits – only Pilots can have Starfighter Piloting and may have all Piloting skills up to X rank; all other PCs are barred from taking Starfighter Piloting and may only take other Piloting skills up to X-Y).
So what benefits does niche protection offer?
1. We need YOU to do this. There are certain things that only a particular character can do, necessitating the other PCs to not ignore her or get by with another character that may have a slightly lesser-ranked skill.
2. That’s funny you failed; now I’ll try! Without niche protection, there can be so many redundancies that a party could have three or four tries at succeeding in a roll. A player feels less important if her niche is shared by most of the party.
3. I thought you were a fighter? My brawling skill is higher! Without niche protection, and especially with inexperienced players, another PC may actually be better at things that that niche PC is supposed to be good at.
4. You can’t climb? And you’re a ninja? As niche protection limits particular abilities/skills to certain characters, it acts like a flashing neon sign as to what skills are important for a particular character to take. Sometimes a skill/advantage list is so overwhelming that a player simply forgets to pick things that her character should be good at, either because she missed them or she thought another character was supposed to pick them.
5. These kewl powerz are yours! With niche protection, each PC gets access to toys that the others don’t. Only the Space Marine can operate the railguns, while only the Infiltrator can use the superspy equipment.
So how about you? Have you left niche protection to the bygone days of gaming? Do you use some sort of niche protection with your group regardless of how open the rules are? Do you prefer ‘soft niche protection’ where versatility is possible with an increased cost? Have you ever felt stifled by attempts at niche protection?