Niche vs Schtick

I’m going to run a supers RPG for one of my game groups, and one of the players has never played in that genre before, so before creating characters they had a question: do we need to create the characters as a party so that we make sure we have all the bases covered?

After a little discussion, it became clear that they were thinking of, say, D&D, where your game might not go well if you don’t have a cleric or don’t have a thief. Not that you can’t have a D&D party without one of those roles, but that it significantly changes how the game plays. Or any number of other mission-driven genres where specific skills are expected—like Cyberpunk 2020 without a netrunner.

It seems to me that there are two distinct things going on here. I’m going to call them character niche and character schtick, slightly abusing the terminology to label the distinction I’m talking about:

  • character niche: a niche is a particular story-important mechanical capability of a character
  • character schtick: a schtick is a—or the—core reason that you want to play that character

Rules Define Niches

A niche is a part of the character mechanics that is significant in the play of the game. In some RPGs, niche diversity is important. The game assumes that certain niches will be filled, and if they aren’t, the game won’t play in the usual manner. For example, D&D assumes niche diversity. If you don’t have all the major niches filled (fighter, trap-finder, healer, spellcaster), the game will play very differently. Niche diversity tends to be important in team-based, mission-based genres, like dungeon-delving, espionage, military, and cyberpunk.

In other RPGs, niche protection is important: Having multiple characters in the same niche risks making it un-fun for one or more players as their character gets overshadowed. Being the second-best tracker tends to mean that you don’t get to track (unless there’s a need for multiple people to be tracked at once, or the game has a mechanical way for multiple trackers to work together). Most RPGs at least make the niches obvious, and provide enough of them that you don’t need to overlap. Powered by the Apocalypse games make niche protection explicit by requiring each playbook be unique and building each playbook around unique mechanical capabilities.

OTOH, some games are remarkably tolerant of niche overlap. For example, in D&D you can easily have three fighters in a game and everyone still have fun. Two clerics can work great. Even the trap-finder, probably the D&D niche most susceptible to getting their toes stepped on, doesn’t have to be unique, so long as the GM takes that into account. D&D even works fine with a single-class party.

Don’t Step on My Schtick!

Not every RPG has meaningful niches. But schticks apply in almost every RPG. When you sum up your character, say as “a drunkard dwarven warrior”, you’re describing their schtick or schticks—the core elements that matter to you about your character. Your character’s schtick might include significant mechanical elements of the character, or it might not. Schtick protection is almost always valuable in RPGs—without schtick uniqueness, you end up with Boromir and two hobbits you can’t tell apart. Or two characters riding a skeleton horse of fire. Which can be great fun if it’s intentional, but ruin someone’s fun if it’s not.

In some games, particularly those with classes or other strong categories as part of character creation, niche and schtick tend to overlap heavily. And I don’t think they’re ever completely distinct—they’re very close concepts, so it’s pretty easy for a character’s niche to also be their schtick, or for their schtick to completely subsume their niche.

In fact, in Powered by the Apocalypse games arguably the uniqueness of playbooks is more about protecting those schticks than it is about niche protection. After all, probably everyone in your Dungeon World game is pretty good in a fight, and there are even multiple characters who all fill the same niche—fighter, barbarian, and paladin all fill the “tough guy, able to dish it out and take it” niche, and there are multiple playbooks that fill the “casts spells” niche. But each has a distinct schtick encoded in the rules (like the fighter’s weapon).

My Schtick is “Superhero”

In superhero stories, there are a relatively small number of niches—look at the list of character types in Champions or the classes in Mutants & Masterminds—but an infinitude of schticks. While niche protection isn’t particularly important in superhero stories, schtick protection is. Let me explain with some examples.

A common superhero niche is “superstrength”. Sometimes a character filling that niche also has roughly that as their schtick—like Hercules or the Thing or maybe Colossus. But lots of superstrong characters—characters that fill that niche—have something else as their schtick—their core aspect. Superman, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman are a great example of how you can put 3 superstrong characters on a team and, for the most part, not have them step on each others’ toes narratively.

So it’s important to recognize whether something is your superhero’s niche or their schtick. Is it a thing they’re really good at, or is it the reason you want to play that character? If your character’s schtick is “super strong guy” and you decide the reason they’re strong is because they grew up under the ocean, you’re going to be frustrated if there are two other characters on the team stronger than yours—you’ll rarely get a chance to be in the spotlight as “the strong guy”. But if your character’s schtick is “king of Atlantis”, with command of everything under the waves and even the water itself, then the fact that the “good-hearted savior from another world” and “divine champion of the Amazons” are both stronger doesn’t really matter. Your character’s superstrength is useful, but it’s not the core element that makes your character special to you.

Similarly, Beast’s schtick isn’t “best fighter in the room” or “strongest guy on the team”, so the fact that, while superstrong and a terror in a fight, he has teammates who are stronger and better in a fight isn’t a problem. Because his schtick is “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide, at the same time”, and nobody else on the team does that better. Your schtick is what excites you about that character. Having two characters with the same schtick usually means at least one of the players isn’t getting to shine. If you’re not sure, ask! Find out what the other player thinks is important about their character—how they want to stand out in the game. And then do something else. If two of you come up with really similar schticks, maybe a small tweak can make sure you’re both unique. Maybe in talking it out you’ll realize that the part that excites you about your character isn’t the part that overlaps another’s schtick, so you can change that overlapping part and still have the character you want.

Necessary Superhero Niches?

Oh, and related to this: superhero stories are about unusual solutions to problems, moreso than most other genres. Characters are all about breaking the rules, even of the universes they exist within. So niche diversity isn’t particularly important. That is, there are no “necessary” niches. You can have a superhero team without a brick or without a speedster or without a blaster or without a flying character. Some of these would be unusual, but probably any superhero niche you can think of, there’s a story out there of a team without one.

So, to sum up:

  • Know whether you’re talking about your character’s niche—what parts of the game they’re good at—or their schtick—what’s important to you about playing that character.
  • Know whether the game you’re playing has required niches.
  • Know whether the game you’re playing works will with niche overlap, or is better if niches are unique.
  • Schtick protection is always important. Don’t use the same schtick as another character unless you’ve talked to the other player about it and you both want to do that.
  • In the case of supers, there are no required niches and niche protection isn’t particularly important.
  • In the case of supers, schtick protection is especially important. Don’t step on someone else’s schtick!

And due to the diversity of character options in superhero games, communication during character generation is extra-important. Talk to the other players. Make sure you know whether a core part of a character is their niche, and overlap will be fine, or their schtick, and you should steer clear.

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