Every member of an adventuring group should have a special niche that s/he fills, something that makes that member invaluable to the others. In some games, this niche is fairly obvious. In others, the player may need to work to develop a good niche for the character.
In Dungeons and Dragons and other class-based RPG systems, for example, niches are usually built into the character type. Fighters take front rank and smash the monsters. Thieves, er, rogues pick locks and do the sneaky scout work. Clerics heal. Mages blow things up. Easy. Even in classless, skill-based games, characters are usually built with a goal in mind. This character will be a brick. That character will be a sneak. This character is good with computers. That character is good with vehicles.
But characters can and should fall into less obvious niches, too. In this case, roleplaying and strategy begin to take precedence over raw skill.
Paramedics and Buddies
After an adventuring group has been in combat together a few times, it should begin to see ways to make its fighting most efficient. For example, characters with range weapons might fire first, then step back for characters with melee skills to go into action. One character, probably the one with the poorest fighting skills or best movement skills, may get dubbed the “paramedic” and spend his or her time dragging wounded, unconscious, or dead companions out of the fight for healing. One character may get dubbed the “lookout” and keep an eye out for enemy reinforcements. In one of our campaigns, we set up a “buddy system” in which the characters were put into groups of two and ordered to keep an eye on each other so that no companion would be left behind, dragged off by the enemy, or permitted to bleed to death.
Spies and Distractions
When planning something sneaky, each character should be evaluated for certain types of skills. Some characters are built to be quiet and sneaky, but others may be just as good at spying because they have magical or telepathic powers, or can infiltrate a particular group easily, or can hack into a computer and avoid physical danger altogether. Characters who are not good at sneaking can be used to create a distraction or be held in the wings for an emergency bailout should the sneak be discovered.
Diplomats and Thugs
In this case, the player’s own skills may affect the character’s skills, so certain players might fall into these roles over several games. Is one of the characters particularly well-spoken and polite? That one should probably be the diplomat and spokesperson for the group. Is one of the characters particularly adept at political or market manuevering? That one should probably represent the group at court, in city hall, or during contract negotiations. Is one character good at puzzles? That’s your official riddle-solver. Is one character particularly scary? That’s who you send to deal with punks and double-dealing bureaucrats.
Comic Relief and Peacemaker
Some players are simply funny people, and their characters can be counted on to keep the party chuckling. This can be a great asset to the adventuring group, especially when temper or tension is building up. Although the comedian isn’t always appreciated—for example, when the GM is working hard to create a scary atmosphere that’s dispelled by the comedian’s wry comment—in general there are plenty of roleplaying situations, including negotiations with nervous NPCs, where a dash of humor can help a great deal. Related to this is the “feather-smoother,” the peacemaker in the adventuring group. This character may not be a natural diplomat, but s/he is excellent at soothing hurt feelings, preventing or ending arguments, and keeping the player characters talking to each other. Whether or not the peacemaker is good in combat or other active roles, s/he can help party efficiency by keeping the adventurers from killing each other rather than the monsters.
It’s fine to have an obvious niche based on your character’s skills, but look for a way to develop a niche for your character that doesn’t just depend on game mechanics but on roleplaying skill! Not every vital link in the gaming chain needs to be based on statistics and powers.
Originally written January 26, 2001
Image Source: Green Willow and Other Japanese Fairy Tales, 1910