Niche Protection
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"When my sishter's daughter vishits me on shet I watsh her like a bloody hawk I tell you"

…not a Shaun Connery quote.

Basic Information

There are two basic schools of thought in RPG design - the specialist character model and the generalist character model. The generalist model requires all players to create a broadly competent character suitable for the context of the game - any given character may be better or worse than any other at any specific skill, but there are no one trick ponies and incompetence in any relevant skill is to be avoided without a damned good reason. Adventure design will typically require players to work together but interchangeably. This sort of play is commoner in the more realistic, simulationist sort of game and is more easily performed in non-class-and-level-systems - good examples might be found in various crime and investigative dramas, assuming that the PCs are the field agents and the more unbalanced characters NPCs. The specialist character model revolves around the idea that each character has a specific role to play, specializes in the skill set for that role and then is expected to stick to their knitting - due to the creeping influence of cRPGs this role will tend to be primarily a combat role but even out of combat this concept is baked into a great many RPGs. That RPG is probably the Ur-example of it at work.

Niche protection is about enforcing the specialist model - developing rules which encourage or require specialization, usually by making characters incompetent outside their specialized field. This is really not as easy as it sounds - early examples (that RPG again) used a lot of "because we say so", with frankly predictable responses whilst later ones had a tendency to make some classes objectively worse than others by sacrificing protection for flexibility.

Niche Protection can be good or bad, depending on the extent it is implemented and the overall dynamic at the table.

Niche Protection, when handled well, help players come up with character concepts (e.g.: "I want to play a master of disguise"), and then helps the GM generate individual spotlight moments for those characters (e.g.: "I should make sure to include challenges and situations that can be solved by impersonating an NPC, or by disappearing into a crowd."). Many players find having a character niche or specialization to be "cool" or fun. Systems that build mechanics or archetypes around this help players identify potential character concepts, and enable them to communicate those interests to the GM.

Niche Protection can also reinforce the verisimilitude of the setting, by limiting the capacity for experience points to turn a total novice into a gold-medalist or nobel laureate overnight. If I want to be a master of disguise, I have to either learn that skill set during character creation, or acquire it later by purchasing a series of sequential upgrades over multiple "levels" or upgrade opportunities — as either option represents a significant period of training and practice. I can't just dump a big chunk of XP to go directly from "crude bruiser thug" to "smooth-talking master of disguise" overnight, and on some level that restriction feels more realistic.

On the other side of the coin, Niche Protection becomes detrimental when the Niches are unevenly distributed. Let's assume one player's niche is "master of disguise" and another's niche is "hot-shot pilot". If the GM crafts dozens of investigative or infiltration storylines where putting on a disguise is a dominant strategy, but only rarely includes a dogfight or chase scene for the pilot, then that's a problem. Even if both situations come up with roughly equal frequency, it can still be a problem if disguise scenes lead to lengthy roleplaying interactions with NPCs and chase scenes are generally resolved in one or two die rolls. Niche Protection hurts the game if it results in most of the table sitting around bored during one players overly long spotlight, if it prevents one or more players from engaging with the core activities (i.e.: the most common scene types) of the campaign, or if it results in one player feeling envious of the "screen-time" and success another player has.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • An example of niche protection gone badly wrong that isn't "that RPG" could be found in the old Cyberpunk RPG. There were, essentially (although I oversimplify) three niches: hacker, face and bullet monkey. The bullet monkeys were almost exclusively packed with cyberware until they were only technically human - in game this gave them poor social skills and tended to make them unfit for anything but combat. Conversely the "face" character needed to remain almost baseline human to max out his social skills, which made him a fly on the windscreen in combat. The hacker, meanwhile, could carry combat mods - and other mods, enough to rule him out as a social specialist but if he was in combat, he was generally in the wrong place because where he was meant to be was in virtual reality hacking the enemy's IT systems. Unfortunately, most parties only needed the one hacker and he was the only person that could operate in VR under any kind of challenge - this meant that whenever he was doing his thing (generally requiring quite a bit of virtual combat and other similar stuff) everyone else had to find something else to do. Thus, outside of the tedious detail of exactly what kind of bullet monkey you happened to be, the niche protection system served mainly to lock one or more players out of significant amounts of table time.
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