Thursday, March 1, 2012

Niche Protections vs. "Redundancy"

In my post on assassins the other day, Peter commented that what I call redundancy is basically the same thing as niche protection, something I have deplored in the past. His comment made me realize I hadn’t been very clear with what I meant (not unusual for this blog, especially when I have a different point to the post altogether) so I figured I’d better explain what I mean.

Here’s what I consider “niche protection:” attending to game design in such a way that one class doesn’t “step on the toes” of what another character class does. A few examples might include:
  • Complaining that a cleric can detect traps with 100% accuracy using a 2nd level spell (available in B/X at 4th level) or complaining that a magic-user can open all locks with a knock spell (available at 3rd level) thus stepping on the thief’s specialized abilities (which don’t reach nearly that level of accuracy for many levels).
  • Complaining that a barbarian can outfight a fighter in melee combat (due to higher hit points and, in some editions, a Rage ability) which is a traditional specialty of the fighter class.
  • Complaining that generalists (like bards in several editions) simply duplicate other character’s capabilities to a lesser extent instead of having their own protected niche.
The IDEA behind discussions on niche protection are (as far as I can tell) something about “giving every player character a chance to shine and be effective in the game.” Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but the discussions I’ve read seem to center around the idea that without enough specializations or areas of expertise, characters start to look cookie-cutter-esque. What’s more, poor class design (where one character is inherently lesser or stronger than a similarly skilled class…as in my fighter-cavalier example) results in one class (the lesser) being deemed “mostly useless,” and thus shunted aside in favor of the stronger class. And that can have further ramifications, too…if the only fighter-types in your game are chivalric-code-type cavaliers and honorable samurai, what does that do to your “down-and-dirty-dungeon-crawl” campaign?

But whatever. The fact is, I’m NOT very concerned with niche protection, especially in D&D, for a few reasons.

A) Player Characters DIE: in Dungeons & Dragons, you never know when someone’s going to blow their poison save or get petrified by a cockatrice. And for that reason, it behooves most parties to “double-up” in a variety of areas. I always find it a touch ridiculous when I hear new players asking, “okay, what class are we short of?” because at any time misfortune can make your party short in a LOT of areas. This is why when Old School DMs design adventures…
B) Old School DMs Challenge PLAYERS Not Characters: for most obstacles, encounters, and dangers found on an adventure, there should be more than one way to “skin the cat.” IN MY OPINION (I know not everyone does this) it’s probably best NOT to worry about character classes when designing an adventure. What? Yeah, you heard me.

Now this is my personal philosophy, but there’s a bit o logic at work here that might be helpful to people so I’ll try to enumerate my reasoning:
  1. I want players to be able to play the characters they want. I don’t want anyone to think “Oh, I HAVE to play a cleric (or thief or whatever) because we NEED one.” To me, maximizing fun is giving players at least a little choice regarding their heroic avatar.
  2. PCs can die at any time…sometimes unluckily, sometimes stupidly, sometimes inexplicably. It’s no use designing an obstacle that can ONLY be navigated by the pre-gen magic-user with the knockspell scroll if he gets gutted by a hobgoblin early on. And I’m not about to water down the game fudging rolls. Hell, there’s no guarantee players are going to read your mind and know what they’re supposed to do anyway…see my earlier post on gamer telepathy (they don't read minds).
  3. Likewise, players can be FLAKEY. Who’s to say the normal “thief guy” is going to show up? In the LL game I’ve been playing the last few weeks, our only thief player has failed to appear something like three weeks out of five. Yeah, Dave, I’m talking about YOU.
  4. Players are, by and large, a CREATIVE bunch of people. If you give them a challenge, they’ll think of a number of ways to meet that challenge, and a good DM will let them try things. That’s more fun than hoping they remembered they wrote down the special potion or whatever needed for a particular encounter. Let them be creative; encourage that creativity.
[okay, back to the main discussion]

C) With Large Groups, Doubling-Up is INEVITABLE: In post-2000 play this may not be an issue (because of the huge variety of class-race-multi-classing options), and even with AD&D you might avoid too much of this, but certainly with B/X a 9 player group is going to have multiples of some classes. Which is fine because…
D) In Old School Play, Players Get Out What They Put In: Your character’s personality is determined by his (or her) behavior and the choices the character makes. You can choose many ways in which to distinguish your character from others without any additional game mechanics: maybe your wizard only wears a certain color, maybe your cleric’s deity requires a particular sacrifice or prayer at random times, maybe your warrior has a phobia of spiders and won’t fight them in melee (not a bad rationale to keep from being poisoned), maybe your thief refuses to carry a weapon larger than a dagger. There’s little to prevent you from developing a personality and personal history for your character (within the limits of a campaign setting), and you can feel free to add all that to your game play to enrich your own (and fellow gamers’) experience. Your fighter doesn’t HAVE to look like, nor act like, someone else’s fighter.

Okay, so those are some of the reasons I don’t care about niche protection. So then what the hell am I talking about when I say my design attention (when it comes to character class) is lasered in on “redundancy?”

I’m talking about how one plays the game itself.

It’s a subtle distinction (maybe too subtle), but I’ll try to explain it a bit. There are plenty of ways to “play” D&D. You can blaze ahead of the party (probably, eventually, perishing in a blaze of glory), or you can cower in the back ranks doing little but firing the occasional arrow and collecting your share of treasure. You can be a healer or a crusader; you can attempt to negotiate encounters with silver-tongued words (and a high Charisma/Reaction roll), or you can treat every monster as an enemy to be spit on your halberd. You can purchase mercenaries to do your fighting for you, or you can bury your gold in the ground for that heady day when you have enough to buy a fortress. Hell, you can stay invisible through an entire adventure, never attacking and thus never breaking the spell!

Certain character classes are better suited for different ROLES. I’ve talked about this before. However, while certain character classes are better suited for some roles than others, it’s possible (with a little effort and perhaps a magic item or two) to find a degree of over-lap. If my fighter is carrying a bandolier of healing potions, he is a de facto “healer.

But it’s in the method of accomplishing a role that I’m wary of redundancy. Here’s a pretty blatant example:

A party includes (among its other members) two characters that consider themselves “Master Thieves.” One is an actual thief, the other is a magic-user with a penchant for theft.

For the sake of discussion we’ll give them the same number of XP: 280,000. This means the thief is 10th level and able to use ALL thief abilities (including the ability to read magic scrolls). 280,000xp limits the magic-user to 8th level (another 20,000xp to reach Name level…just need one more Big Fat Score!). I don’t have my B/X books with me, but according to the LBBs (which I now carry everywhere), an 8th level magic-user has access to 11 spells: 4 of 1st level, 3 each of 2nd and 3rd level, and 2 of 4th level. That sounds about right.

Now we already have a good idea of the 10th level thief’s capabilities; the magic-user determines HER role based on spell selection (and we already said she styles herself a thief). We thus take the following spell selection:

1st – Read Languages, Read Magic, Shield, Sleep
2nd – Invisibility, Knock (x2)
3rd – Clairvoyance, Fly, Lightning Bolt
4th – Polymorph Self, Wizard Eye

Perhaps she has also prepared a spell scroll with one each additional spell of invisibility, knock, and fly.

You can see the magic-user is trampling all over the “niche protection” of the thief with spells like invisibility (stealth skills), fly (instead of climbing), knock (duh), and clairvoyance/wizard eye (for “scouting ahead”). Clever use of polymorph is also going to let the magic-user enter and/or escape places the thief can’t, and while the mage can’t pick pockets or backstab, an 8-dice lightning bolt is a pretty good sneak attack, and a well placed sleep spell can enable pocket picking and throat slitting. And should the magic-user end up in melee combat, shield will give her a better AC than leather armor would.

For me, it doesn’t matter one whit that the magic-user is horning in on the thief’s territory…I’d find that an interesting and valid (and useful) character choice for a wizard. Especially if the thief goes down in combat, at least someone will be able to find a way through thief-type obstacles. Nope, my only concern is redundancy and from that perspective, we do NOT have a problem with Stein and Gertrude, here…because both characters PLAY DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER.

Stein (the thief) has a devil-may-care attitude in his approach to adventuring. Why? Because all his abilities are right there at his finger tips. At any moment he can stop, drop to the ground, and “check for tripwires” and such. The only piece o equipment he needs to worry about preserving is his trusty lock picks as he won’t be able to replace them in the dungeon setting. Any weapon he picks up can be used in combat or for a backstab, and he can hide or sneak in an instant, presuming no opponent is already aware of his presence. If he comes to a barrier or pit, he barely breaks stride to scurry up or climb down with his climb walls check. The higher level a thief, the more brazen their actions become with increased survivability (hit points and saving throws) and much higher chances of succeeding in their skill checks.

Gertrude (the magic-user) never really becomes “devil-may-care” as the magic-user’s nature is one of consideration and careful choice/selection. How many knock spells will she need for her adventure? Probably not more than 1 or 2, but one can never be sure. How many times will she need to turn invisible? Only once, so long as she can keep from attacking or running afoul of an anti-magic zone. Her spells will always remain a precious resource…like an archer’s quiver of arrows. With the proper spell application, the magic-user is guaranteed success in her endeavors…but wasteful application or poor choice can lead to ruin and the only thing she’ll be able to rely on is her D4 hit points per level and dagger +1 for protection. And woe-betide the wizard who loses her spell book!

While both characters can fill the same role (or “niche” in the party), the part that differs is the APPROACH and APPLICATION in that role. As I said, MY philosophy is to allow players to choose characters they will enjoy playing, not one they feel they have to play. You don’t NEED a cleric to get past a half-dozen skeletons…a few strong swords might take a bit longer than the turning attempt, but afterward the creatures will be crushed splinters with no danger of returning to the area. Characters don’t NEED detect magic to find an enchanted item, as careful examination and experimentation will usually provide the necessary revelation.

Using a class in the strength of its niche can be EXPEDIENT, leading to a quicker, easier resolution. But in the end, the most important part of playing the game is the PLAY itself. If I’m not enjoying how my character plays, my long term prospects for satisfaction aren’t good. If I don’t enjoy being the support/buffing/medic guy then it won’t matter (to me) that the party is kicking ass and going up in levels. If I don’t want to be a 3rd level medic then I probably don’t want to be a 12th level one, either! Same holds true for the guy who gets the “designated thief/scout” role.

THIS is why my design interest is making sure there ain’t a lot of redundancy in class choice…I want each class to have its own style of play, to give players a better option of finding that character that suits their temperament. The Witch-Hunter (for example) doesn’t play like a cleric, nor like a paladin. It’s a sneak around, inquisitor-type that kicks ass when it comes to demons and undead and coven members (good, bad, and imagined). But the WH ain’t no healer, and isn’t a stick-up-his-ass lance-and-destrier guy, either. This is Solomon Kane or Van Helsing, using forbidden knowledge to destroy the Unholy.

[that’s just a quick example from my upcoming book The Complete B/X Adventurer]

For the most part, none of the B/X classes are redundant, which is one of the reasons I really like B/X. The dwarf and fighter come pretty darn close, unfortunately (you really have to account for the dwarven bonuses below ground to make them feel like anything different), but the others have very distinct styles…even though they might be adapted to fill the same role.

Okay…does that make more sense?


  1. Sure does. I'll also add that some redundancy is actually a good thing.

    In most parties there is often room for a second anything and basically as many fighters/related as anyone wants to play.

    More than just the excellent points you brought up having a second "whatever" can make up for failure. Lose a cleric? The other one fills in. Fail a thief skill roll? The other one gives it a try. and so on.

  2. It makes perfect sense, and it's a good point, although your numbers are a bit off: at 280,000 xp, a thief would be 11th level and a magic-user would be 10th level (Necromancer,) according to the LBBs (and Greyhawk.) Not sure about B/X, though; maybe the xp levels are different. But although the M-U would have a few more spells (including two 5th level spells,) your example still works.

  3. Well put. In some ways, this is the core philosophical difference between how PCs are handled in B/X versus AD&D (and most later derivatives). To continue the example, the B/X elf shares some characteristics with both the fighter and the magic-user, but plays differently, so there is no redundancy.

    I once brought up this same point in the comments on Zak's blog with regard to the redundancy of the warlord class. He pointed out that sometimes a class exists to provide a "hard mode" to the game. I think that OD&D hobbits fit that description as well. Level cap of 4 as a fighting man. Unlimited progression as a thief, but only if you're using the Greyhawk supplement (if I recall correctly).

    I'm personally still with you: I prefer not to have two classes where one just seems like a superset of the other (like the cavalier and fighter example).

  4. Yes, this absolutely does clear up your thoughts - and I largely agree. I've posted about it on my blog here as my response got very long.