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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Rant: I Hate Niche Protection

Professor Oats was a little startled when, in a comment on my last post, I quite strongly stated that I don't like niche protection. In fact, I'm opposed to it.
I can understand why you'd have mixed feelings about skills, but opposed to niche protection? Could you elaborate on that, 'cause I honestly can't wrap my head around why you'd oppose niche protection unless you were also opposed to classes
Here's the elaboration: I loathe niche protection. It does terrible things to your game, your adventures, and possibly to your pets as well. It has no reason to exist, even in a game with classes. Perhaps especially in a game with classes.

But maybe we should be clear about what "niche protection" is, since when I first heard of it after 15 or so years of playing RPGs, I didn't have a clue what it could be; and after hearing an explanation, I thought "What the hell...?" It's like aliens came down from the sky and planted chips in some gamer's heads.

The theory of niche protection is that each character should have a distinct role in the group, something only your character can do, or that your character does best. Sometimes, niche protection proponents link niches to classes; other times, to MMORPG-style roles (tank, dps and ... healer? I think. Not really into MMORPGs.)

The general problem with that, from my perspective, is that old-school characters are supposed to be able to try anything. Telling a player, "No, you can't try to force the lock on the door, because that's the thief's job, and you might make him cry" seems contrary to the spirit of telling players to make decisions based on the situation, not on your character sheet.

Furthermore, classes and characters in old-school games often have very little detail. You are not supposed to differentiate your character by picking a unique race/class/ability score combination, but by, you know, playing your character differently. Old school play expects that there might be two fighters. Or three. Or maybe even ten. How do you protect that many niches, in just the area of combat? What if two people want to play Magic-Users? Do you tell one "No, the other guy might cry"? Do you force them to take different spells?

The more I think about niche protection, the more I realize that it causes all the evil in the world. Or, at least, the gaming world. You need more classes, because you need more niches. Or you play with smaller parties, so that you only have one character per niche. In which case, better design adventures differently, so that a party of four won't find it too tough. Can't have hirelings! They stomp on someone's toes! Classes have to be overdesigned, because you have to try to make each one distinct. You need skills, to help make two fighters distinctive. Feats, too. No randomly-rolled characters, because what if two players roll similar stats? Better make the ability bonuses finer grained, too.

Niche protection is the Great Satan. Go forth and stamp it out.


  1. Hear, hear. Sadly my players -- at least the ones with opinions on this -- all fall on the side of niche protectionism and making sure each character is mechanically "unique".

  2. Sounds like the source of our disagreement is what niche protection entails. You only protect those areas not every character should be doing. That's why the thief class is an issue: everyone should be picking locks, disabling traps or climbing walls! But if we decide only one guy can cleave through dozens of foes or wield magic swords, we restrict those abilities to some class. If you don't want everyone casting spells, or the same spells, you restrict them by class. Ability scores can be great for this too, encouraging characters to choose certain weapons or armor based on their strengths and weaknesses, thus further differentiating characters

    You don't need very many niches, of course. As you noted, players in old school games bring plenty of differences to the table, so it's OK if there are some redundancies with the mechanically defined ones. It's just that they provide diminishing returns, so you try to fill different roles first. I suspect the crying issue is more of a new school take on niche protection

    Skills and feats actually undermine niche protection, which is why I lauded 3.0's class, cross-class and exclusive structure. One has to be careful implementing these things. If everyone should be able to at least try to swim, that ability shouldn't be restricted to those who took the skill (in 3E terms, it can be used untrained). I reiterate, only restrict those things you don't want everyone doing!

    If there were no niche protection; if everyone could cast the same spells, fight with equal proficiency, turn undead, etc. That is, if you want the only differences to be due to player skill, then classes would be pointless (unless, I suppose, if they were a means of choosing what you wanted to be rewarded experience points for). Personally, I don't want fighting-men casting spells or magic-users carrying around greatswords

    1. It sounds like your are conflating niche protection with any distinction whatsoever. Fred the fighter can swim; Bob the fighter is poor at it. But, in an adventure, an area where swimming is need or useful is not there to make Fred feel that his choices were validated. Nor does Fred's ability to swim mean that Sue should not be able to cast Walk on Water.

      Niche protection is not preventing each character from being able to do everything, but preventing other characters from doing Fred's Schtick as well or better than Fred. It is saying that no character should be able to fight better than Fred, because Fred is a fighter, and no character should be better able to get past that trap that Sneaky Joe the Thief.

      But, in a non-Niche Protection racket, sometimes Fred can clever his way past the trap that flummoxed Sneaky Joe, and sometimes Sneaky Joe's backstab meant that Fred didn't get to do his whole swordy-stabby thing. And perhaps Flo the Magnificent casts Knock and opens the doors, showing the lock-picking thief and burly fighter.

      Niche protection limits the way you can come at a problem, for fear that someone's niche will not be protected. Differentiation can occur with or without niche protection, and is far better without.

    2. I don't think I'm conflating the two (or I'm at least not the only one, since I've heard others describe niche protection in the same way), but it does appear we're not quite discussing the same thing. After giving the issue more thought, I'd say there's such a thing as an excessive amount of niche protection, in which everyone needs their own unique niche with absolutely no overlap, and this sounds closer to what you've described

  3. For me, this comes down to interesting trade-offs. If there are no interesting trade-offs entailed by class selection, then classes are pointless (or, at most, cosmetic). Thus the traditional OD&D class capabilities. If you want to be able to use magic, that comes at the cost of combat ability and skill. If you want to be able to use magic swords, you don't get to cast spells.

    The best way to implement this, in my opinion, is not by full restrictions, as D&D is often (usually?) played, but by allowing only some classes to improve in various areas. So, anyone can try to sneak, but the thief gets better at sneaking. LotFP takes this approach to fighting as well, as only the fighter improves in attack bonus with level.

    Is this "niche" protection? I suppose so, if niche is seen as capability to improve, rather than ability to try at all. I don't, however, care about the "player spotlight" issue that often seems to be raised when this topic comes up, because I have never once had a problem with that in practice, either as a referee or player. Spotlight comes from personal engagement and creativity, not mechanical opportunities.

  4. The first time I heard of the term was in an MMO, City of Heroes. And there was a bit of a rebellion on it there already. "We can't do anything without a Healer or a Tank".
    It wasn't till later on I saw folks using it for TTRPGs.
    It always struck me as an odd thing to fret over... more nonsense that elevates rules and character sheets over actual in-character play.

  5. I don't think anyone ever used niche protection the way it's portrayed in the OP.

    Nice strawman, though.

    1. http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/classical-play-niche-protection/

    2. Good job! I knew it wasn't a straw man argument, of course, because I've seen the examples I've given on forums. But I wasn't about to go hunting for the URLs, especially with nothing but an Android tablet.

    3. It is used so often that way that it is surprising to have anyone say, if they are part of the online gaming community, that they have never come across it.

    4. I was thinking more of

      «Telling a player, ‘No, you can't try to force the lock on the door, because that's the thief's job, and you might make him cry’ […]»,


      «What if two people want to play Magic-Users? Do you tell one ‘No, the other guy might cry’?».

      If someone actually plays like that, I’d say it’s more to do with that person being a dick than niche protection as such.

    5. Yeah, those examples have to do with the social level of gaming, which has nothing to do with the mechanics (which, in turn, might utilise niche protection, although in a very different way and at a different level).

  6. "The idea behind niche protection is to ensure that this is the case by demanding that other characters have zero, or at most very limited, powers within another class or archetype’s niche."


    1. I agree with some of the commenters who say it is a design choice not inherently good or bad, and can be applied successfully; its consequences need to be taken into consideration by the designer, that's all.

      As for niche protection in D&D, Thieves even in B/X seem to be "niche protected", as their ability to find and disarm traps far exceeds everyone else's.

  7. Niche protection provides a particular experience that you either like or dislike, but it's apples and oranges (no wrong way to do imagination)...