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03 April 2014 @ 07:13 pm
Niche Protection in RPGs: a Cautionary Tale  
Story time!

So, one of the first multi-session RPGs I was in was a Shadowrun 2nd Edition game in high school (with players I met through the Games Club I was in), which was also the first time I played Shadowrun and one part of what got me hooked on the game, the other parts being playing the Genesis game at uriany's house and seeing ads for Shadowrun in Dragon magazine. We only got through one run before the game fell apart, though, and now I'll recount to you why.

I played a mage, because it's me. I also played an elf because it's me, but that's much less relevant to the story. Anyway, I had bought the Tír na nÓg book previously and devoured it, and I was really taken with the different kind of magical traditions listed inside based on the old Irish social classes and the elements. If you've read that book, you're probably already shaking your head, but hey, I was 15, cut me some slack.

So mages are already an I-win button in Shadowrun just because of their versatility and the breadth of capabilities that spells can cover, and I played that up to the hilt. I took a couple combat spells, a telekinesis spell, a spell to control emotions, a spell called Chaotic World that makes people's senses go haywire (phantom sounds, visual hallucinations, etc.) as AoE crowd control, a healing spell, and some other stuff that's not relevant, and we went out on the mission.

I don't remember it that well, but I remember that we walked in to the front room with the receptionist, where my character proceeded to flirt with her and successfully gained access to the building (elf = Charisma bonus). We were stopped by a guard, but I used Control Emotions to allay his suspicions. When we ran into trouble and a squad of guards was summoned, I dropped a Chaotic World on top of the enemies to disorient them, then summoned a Spirit of the Great Fiery Firmament from a heating vent using my overpowered Tír na nÓg magical tradition powers. I don't think we even played out the combat, despite the presence of a street samurai in the group, since the GM realized they were totally outclassed.

I might have also used the telekinesis spell to steal something that we would otherwise have had to hack through, making the decker also superfluous, but I don't remember that clearly.

We went back and got the pay data, and the next mission involved transporting explosives somewhere. We went to the payload, and the street sam immediately threatened to detonate the bomb while we were all standing around it. We tried to negotiate for a few minutes, and then I used Control Emotions to calm him down so we could restrain him. The game fell apart shortly afterward.

I was confused at the time, but in hindsight it's obvious what the problem was even if it was handled in an incredibly passive-aggressive way because we were all 15. While some people like playing supporting characters, most people don't like being the sidekick, and even less do they like playing characters who are literally pointless. What we learned in that run was that the other characters in the game were just bullet-sponges for my super-mage who could solve any problem by himself. Sure, you could say that the GM should have stopped from casting that initial Control Emotions on the guard because waving my hands around and chanting is obvious, but I don't remember the circumstances clearly enough to know whether there were extenuating circumstances.

Some of this is just the wizard problem, hence my preference for casters to be "a pyromancer" or "a diviner" or "a skinchanger" or "an astromancer" instead of just "a wizard," but it also taught me a valuable lesson about properly spreading out areas of character competence and making sure there's at least one area where each character can shine. It's too bad I had to learn it through the implosion of a game.
 
 
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q99q99 on April 4th, 2014 01:32 am (UTC)
Indeed, too much flexibility in a specific class in a game that should have niche protection is a definite problem.
dorchadasdorchadas on April 4th, 2014 03:15 am (UTC)
I'm not sure if it's worse in a game with roles but no classes like Shadowrun, where it's easy to fall into traps that invalidate other people's characters without guidance, or with games with classes that are supposed to be equal like D&D 3.x, where you win the game at character creation if you make a druid.
q99q99 on April 4th, 2014 03:22 am (UTC)
It boils down to about the same, doesn't it? And normally with magic users.

Iirc Tristat had 'dynamic power,' where you could pay more points for an ability that could be shifted around... to much the same effect.
dorchadas: Pile of Dicedorchadas on April 5th, 2014 03:10 am (UTC)
It boils down to about the same, doesn't it?

Well, I tend to think it's worse in a class-system, because classes are theoretically supposed to be equal and level should be a reasonable measure of power. But yeah, magic screws it all up.

Like I said, very limited spell lists. Pyromancers can blow shit up, make people angry, and maybe charm people if you want to stretch the definition. Done. If they want to do anything outside those parameters, they have to leverage their limited skills like everybody else:
q99q99 on April 5th, 2014 04:46 am (UTC)
-Well, I tend to think it's worse in a class-system, because classes are theoretically supposed to be equal and level should be a reasonable measure of power. But yeah, magic screws it all up.
-

Indeed. Or at least, in most systems, there's some that don't pretend that they're equal/make it explicit that they're not.


-Like I said, very limited spell lists. Pyromancers can blow shit up, make people angry, and maybe charm people if you want to stretch the definition. Done. If they want to do anything outside those parameters, they have to leverage their limited skills like everybody else:-

'Xactly.

Hm, if I remember right Ironclaw did similar. Each magic school required a different trait and you had to work up each spell list separately. So if you wanted both mind magic and fire magic, it takes enough resources to get good at both that your comrades won't be overshadowed even once you're strong at them.