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Aramur

How do you do with character skill imbalance?

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In sessions, we've hit some a kind of difficult spot with regards to our character's development. Basically, we are getting more and more sessions where the GM has difficulty in creating a set of challenges that is appropriate for all the characters because of the increasing skill gaps between them.

When we were just starting the campaign the differences seemed less pronounced. When combat started, everyone had a decent contribution to make. When there was a social encounter, everyone could join in, when there was space combat, most felt that had something to do.

As XP levels rose, characters become more specialized and differences become more pronounced. What was an fairly easy task for a specialized character was often a difficult task for a non-specialized character and what was challenging to a specialized character was next to impossible for a non-specialized character. Non-specialized characters who tried to contribute often formed more of a liability. Unless the GM went out of his way to create an encounter with specific things to do for each of the character, you often had one or two characters who were basically  'sitting out an encounter'.

We are now at 400-500 XP, and I see a tendency back towards more generalization again as most are hitting their peaks on their areas of speciality.

Does anyone else experience this widening gap between the different characters that seem to put increasing demands on the GM to plug them?

The system, with its specific talent trees and increasing costs to switch between trees seems designed to provide characters a narrow focus and thus specialization. But in effect many encounters now creating a sense of being useless in a portion of the players.

 

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8 minutes ago, Aramur said:

Unless the GM went out of his way to create an encounter with specific things to do for each of the character, you often had one or two characters who were basically  'sitting out an encounter'.

I would argue that this is the actual job of the GM—"to create an encounter with specific things to do for each character." 

And yes, I think that specialization is part and parcel of the game: after all, every character has literal "Specializations" that they can invest XP in. So you're going to see that to some degree unless a player is being very intentional to not specialize but to be a generalist. It's hard to do that effectively in this game, but it can be done.

I also think that there could be a flaw, not necessarily in the game design itself, but in the presentation and the player-perception side of things. Those talents are so appealing, so shiny, that players will often forego rounding their character out (by developing their skills) at the expense of hyper-specialization, just plowing through the talent trees. So the skill checks are going to be harder for those kinds of characters by virtue of the fact that they are building very top-heavy characters—a lot of talent, but not much in the way of foundational skill ranks. 

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16 minutes ago, awayputurwpn said:

I would argue that this is the actual job of the GM—"to create an encounter with specific things to do for each character." 

And yes, I think that specialization is part and parcel of the game: after all, every character has literal "Specializations" that they can invest XP in. So you're going to see that to some degree unless a player is being very intentional to not specialize but to be a generalist. It's hard to do that effectively in this game, but it can be done.

It is the job, but it is the job of the rules to help him as much as possible. His job is already the hardest of everyone. He now also need to figure out a way to fit every character mechanically into the story. Because story-wise it is not a problem for the characters to help out. But if the mechanics tell them: 'no, sorry, you can't deceive that guy, only character X can do that', then they won't.

I'm not saying specialization is bad, merely comparing they way is handles it to other systems. Say in a d20 system, the 1-20 score has a pretty big impact mechanically. It says to players: well, he might have +8 to hit, and you only +4, but as both of you get to add 1-20 to your roll, the fact that he is 'twice as good' in something doesn't mean you can't contribute meaningfully. In Star Wars the mechanical gaps between characters feels much bigger at 400-500 XP than they were with a typical d20 system.

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That is one of the side-effects of heavy progression mechanic systems. In the beginning, everyone can pick the lock, but as the levels go by only the Specialized Thief can pick the lock and everyone else must rely on him. If it's a combat discrepancy and some characters are non-combat they will only be able to assist or do background things while the fight with the Adversary 5 Nemesis enemy is going on. 

One of the tactics I have seen is for the GM to kind of retire those things the players are best at from being a mainstay of play. The occasional test of the biggest abilities happens but it isn't something that happens all the time. 

Also you can have a game with slower XP and progression so that the differences do not rapidly appear and the GM and the Group have time to adjust to their capabilities. 

Finally, you can have an Unbalanced Approach to combat and other things, which is sometimes called treating combat as war instead of as a sport. That promotes having to do other things than always automatically engaging the situation as presented. 

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23 minutes ago, Aramur said:

It is the job, but it is the job of the rules to help him as much as possible. His job is already the hardest of everyone. He now also need to figure out a way to fit every character mechanically into the story. Because story-wise it is not a problem for the characters to help out. But if the mechanics tell them: 'no, sorry, you can't deceive that guy, only character X can do that', then they won't.

Well failing anything else, there's unskilled assistance. Have the player narrate it, and throw a boost die to the character forming the dice pool. Player go crazy for those little things, it's like seeing a mini schnauzer flip out over those tiny little doggy treats :)

(I'm exaggerating...mini schnauzers aren't nearly as excitable as nerds at a gaming table)

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50 minutes ago, awayputurwpn said:

I would argue that this is the actual job of the GM—"to create an encounter with specific things to do for each character."

This is an essential task and it's not done if it's not done this way.  "Sitting it out" is not usually fun and not usually an option.

This isn't necessarily going to be fixed mechanically, since it seems like OP's players have characters that share foci and a quick table chat with the players could help alleviate that.

In-game, were I faced with this again, I would do what I always do - add environmental factors that provide far more opportunities for players to do things than they could possibly accomplish in that time, then set a time limit to get it done.    This tactic scales well, to boot, but would become tiresome quickly if used too much. 

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35 minutes ago, Archlyte said:

In the beginning, everyone can pick the lock, but as the levels go by only the Specialized Thief can pick the lock and everyone else must rely on him.

Or nobody can. One trap is starting out artificially lower Difficulties so characters can succeed. If you want to rule that the average starship lock is Difficulty 3 from the start, there shouldn't be a galaxy-wide security upgrade in effect raising said Difficulty to 4+ as the characters level up. For specific highly hardened targets, sure, but be sure to keep the feeling that the galaxy operates under consistent rules that don't necessarily inflate with PC XP accumulation.

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What I sort of wanted to say is: at the beginning of a game, I see the players have their characters do more, participate more. Most of them have their characters join in deceiving, coercing, negotiating, fighting, hacking, trying to fly etc.

As the game progresses, the mechanics of the game are telling the players more and more: just don't to try these things, we have someone that can do it so much better, that your attempts might actually hinder the goal. They players might not want to do this, but the dice are telling them that their brilliant ideas and initiatives are better left to other characters. The coercing guy will take care of the coercion, the pilot guy will do the piloting, the hacker guy will do the hacking etc.

It is as if the game tells the players not to be too creative with their characters and follow their given roles, which I think is unfortunate. Perhaps this is because of the way we approach it. In a typical fantasy dungeon the thief might try to pick the lock, the fighter might try to break down the door, the wizard might try to open it magically or teleport past it. But each of the characters get to apply their particular skillset to solve the same problem. In Star Wars, piloting is piloting, and the Marauder is not able to put his skill set into action to contribute to the task of flying from A to B nor is the Politician. 

UNLESS: the GM specifically thinks up creative ways for those characters to contribute to this piloting thing. But as I said, in the default situations, many characters get to 'sit out' more and more in such situations. I would prefer the skills to operate in such a way as to present multiple pathways to solve recurring problems, but in Star Wars, the mechanics seem to indicate that there are a limited number of pathways to solve common issues. Perhaps this is also the result of an SF type world itself being 'specialized' in the sense that it is difficult to imagine how a high brawn and skilll with an axe can contribute to say, piloting.

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23 minutes ago, HappyDaze said:

Or nobody can. One trap is starting out artificially lower Difficulties so characters can succeed. If you want to rule that the average starship lock is Difficulty 3 from the start, there shouldn't be a galaxy-wide security upgrade in effect raising said Difficulty to 4+ as the characters level up. For specific highly hardened targets, sure, but be sure to keep the feeling that the galaxy operates under consistent rules that don't necessarily inflate with PC XP accumulation.

I agree, this is a good way to do it. But, there is this teeny tiny problem: you wan't to challenge the players as well.

You can see in combat, as many skill checks stay the same difficulty regardless of the strength of the opponent. But in practice what I see is combat types accumulating ever more soak, defense, attack rolls and damage output. To the point that either if it is dangerous for the non-combat characters is a cakewalk for the combat characters and that if it is challenging for the combat characters, it lethal for the non-combat characters.

The players realize everyone wants to participate, but for the characters it would make sense to say: hey mr. Pilot/Mechanic and ms. Diplomat, there is going to be a fight, so please stay back and sit this one out, you are only going to be in the way of the real professionals and die quickly.

A pod-race in-game is cool, but for half the characters it would not make any sense in participating. If it is a challenge for the pilot character to win, it will be impossible for them and they will likely crash and burn on the fourth section or something.

Edited by Aramur

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You're comparing apples and oranges imo. Getting through a door can be solved many ways. Flying a spaceship requires a certain skill. Just like picking a lock requires lock picking.

Having Ocean Eleven/Mission Impossible checks where three terminals have to be sliced simultaneously or a complicated lock on a vault requiring 4 people working together, 1 mechanic killing power, 1 slicer killing an electric lock, 1 mechanic killing the explosive trap, 1 slicer BSing security, etc. Prevents one player from doing everything.

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39 minutes ago, awayputurwpn said:

Well failing anything else, there's unskilled assistance. Have the player narrate it, and throw a boost die to the character forming the dice pool. Player go crazy for those little things, it's like seeing a mini schnauzer flip out over those tiny little doggy treats :)

(I'm exaggerating...mini schnauzers aren't nearly as excitable as nerds at a gaming table)

Oh, we definitely do that. But I sense the feeling of 'oh, its a space battle again, I must really make a big effort to add a one lousy boost die to the pilot's or gunners checks' is slowly starting to set in as the skill gaps widen and widen.

What the mechanics tell players is that their character's contributions are often minor at best. You can of course narrate against the mechanics to alleviate some of this, but it sometimes feel you are 'fighting the system'. I was wondering if people share the same experiences.

As players we are looking at ways for our characters to become less-specialized, but with the XP costs of extra specializations, the difficulty in raising attributes and costs of cross-class skills, the game is again telling us (by its mechanics) that we really should not do that. That is a *waste* of a rare resource: XP.

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3 minutes ago, 2P51 said:

You're comparing apples and oranges imo. Getting through a door can be solved many ways. Flying a spaceship requires a certain skill. Just like picking a lock requires lock picking.

Having Ocean Eleven/Mission Impossible checks where three terminals have to be sliced simultaneously or a complicated lock on a vault requiring 4 people working together, 1 mechanic killing power, 1 slicer killing an electric lock, 1 mechanic killing the explosive trap, 1 slicer BSing security, etc. Prevents one player from doing everything.

Well, then how about: the Star Wars game lends it ways to throw more oranges the characters way than apples. Getting through a door is a common occurence in fantasy RP just as flying a spaceship from A to B is a common occurrence in Star Wars. I find that in fantasy games, common challenges are better suited to be tackled be a wider variety of character abilities, while in Star Wars, the set of abilities matching a common problem is much narrower.

And yeah, the Ocean 11 example is what I meant! The GM has to put in a lot more effort to not simply put in a door, but actually thinking of way more complicated and time-constrained 'challenges' to offer a variety of characters to be able to contribute significantly. I have GM's complaining about it. That it is quite a challenge to come up with challenges that keeps everyone involved and still build a sensible story around it.

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@2P51 is correct here. The trick is to make sure that, even if certain characters end up "sitting" certain situations out, you make sure that over the course of the adventure/session, everyone gets to shine at least once. That means setting up various scenarios where each character can strut his or her stuff: a combat encounter for the combat focused characters, a social encounter for the charmers, scoundrels, and politically minded, tech scenarios for the hackers and mechanics, Force centered encounters for the Jedi, space battles for the pilots, etc. as well as encounters where everyone can contribute. It is also why it is never a good idea to become too focused on any one particular skill set, but, rather, branch out into at least one other skill set so that you have more opportunities to contribute. A character doesn't "need" to be hyper specialized, nor hyper generalized. He or she should have a nice balance between those two extremes. 

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3 hours ago, Aramur said:

As XP levels rose, characters become more specialized and differences become more pronounced.

There's your problem.  Rule of thumb:  if you cap skill progression at 4 dice it will force everybody to spread out, and you'll be able to play well past 1000XP with plenty of challenges.  1000XP is not enough to have more than 3 specs half-filled (maybe dabbling in a fourth if not a Force user), and a few rank four skills.  4 dice isn't difficult for the GM to find challenges for, and there will still be plenty of 2 dice (or 1 die if you use a non-human) skills for the GM to leverage.

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A skulduggery check might open a door, but so might: 

  • a lightsaber 
  • an explosive charge
  • the Force
  • an inside man
  • a persuasive argument
  • deceit

The situation, of course, will often dictate which options are optimal.

Or, if you are the player.. just refuse to stay on the sidelines, and be prepared to fail in epic fashion.. forcing the other PCs on the sidelines to jump in!

Edited by Edgehawk

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8 hours ago, HappyDaze said:

Or nobody can. One trap is starting out artificially lower Difficulties so characters can succeed. If you want to rule that the average starship lock is Difficulty 3 from the start, there shouldn't be a galaxy-wide security upgrade in effect raising said Difficulty to 4+ as the characters level up. For specific highly hardened targets, sure, but be sure to keep the feeling that the galaxy operates under consistent rules that don't necessarily inflate with PC XP accumulation.

Well there's stuff that nobody can and there is stuff that everybody can as a natural course of the environment. I don't believe in balancing any of it so it's certainly not my way to make the world where you won't meet stuff until you hit the right level to do it, but most of the big progression games do this and it is kind of the standard. 

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6 hours ago, Edgehawk said:

A skulduggery check might open a door, but so might: 

  • a lightsaber 
  • an explosive charge
  • the Force
  • an inside man
  • a persuasive argument
  • deceit

The situation, of course, will often dictate which options are optimal.

Or, if you are the player.. just refuse to stay on the sidelines, and be prepared to fail in epic fashion.. forcing the other PCs on the sidelines to jump in!

That is exactly my point. A door allows many options for many characters with a variety of skills to solve them. That is why a door is a useful obstacle. However, doors are not a common obstacle in Star Wars games.

Piloting a ship from A to B. Overcoming hostile ships in space. Trying to uncover certain files in a database. Shooting your way past a stormtrooper squad. Those are common obstacles. And many of these obstacles allow only specific skills to come into play. Which again, is not usually an issue at the lower XP levels, but becomes more of a pronounced issue at higher XP levels. At least, that is what I experienced.

We didn't choose for this to happen. And GMs have to actively work around this aspect of the game to avoid 'sitting out'. I'm not saying you should stay on the sidelines or that you are forced to. I'm not saying there are no solutions. Merely saying that the system, through its mechanics, informs you that staying at the side is your most effective role at such times.



 

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7 hours ago, Edgehawk said:

A skulduggery check might open a door, but so might: 

  • a lightsaber 
  • an explosive charge
  • the Force
  • an inside man
  • a persuasive argument
  • deceit

The situation, of course, will often dictate which options are optimal.

Or, if you are the player.. just refuse to stay on the sidelines, and be prepared to fail in epic fashion.. forcing the other PCs on the sidelines to jump in!

Or make the sidelines into the front lines. Star Wars characters split up constantly. Let each deal with their own challenges. Bonus points if you drive the GM towards a vice.?

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2 hours ago, Aramur said:

That is exactly my point. A door allows many options for many characters with a variety of skills to solve them. That is why a door is a useful obstacle. However, doors are not a common obstacle in Star Wars games.

Piloting a ship from A to B. Overcoming hostile ships in space. Trying to uncover certain files in a database. Shooting your way past a stormtrooper squad. Those are common obstacles. And many of these obstacles allow only specific skills to come into play. Which again, is not usually an issue at the lower XP levels, but becomes more of a pronounced issue at higher XP levels. At least, that is what I experienced.

We didn't choose for this to happen. And GMs have to actively work around this aspect of the game to avoid 'sitting out'. I'm not saying you should stay on the sidelines or that you are forced to. I'm not saying there are no solutions. Merely saying that the system, through its mechanics, informs you that staying at the side is your most effective role at such times.



 

Piloting is a very specific act requiring a very specific solution.

Ship combat provides all manner of ways for people to do things and contribute. Analyzing data can also run the full gambit of skills and provide all manner of PCs an opportunity to contribute.

Personal combat is combat. There's a lot people can do in a fight that doesn't involve simply pulling a trigger.

 

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@Aramur

   Space Combat:

Pilot is piloting

Gunner is firing weapons

Leader is performing fire discipline

Slicer is jamming enemy comms

Mechanic is repairing the ship

  Ground Combat:

Brawny characters are engaging in melee combat

Agile characters are using ranged combat

Intellectual characters are manipulating the environment (locking doors, moving crates around with a crane, using explosives, messing with the lights)

Cunning characters are using dirty tricks to give their side an advantage

Willful characters are attempting to coerce their enemies into submission (especially if they have Scathing Tirade)

Personable characters are directing their allies and trying to negotiate a peaceful solution

 

There should always be multiple ways of solving a problem.

Getting past a guarded door could be a combat encounter, or it could be a negotiation, involve causing a distraction to draw the guards away, a deception to fool the guards into thinking you're authorized to enter, etc.

Also, the dice are crazy. I've seen four yellow dice come up blank, while two green dice succeeded.

 

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6 minutes ago, salamar_dree said:

Ground Combat:

Brawny characters are engaging in melee combat

Agile characters are using ranged combat

Intellectual characters are manipulating the environment (locking doors, moving crates around with a crane, using explosives, messing with the lights)

Cunning characters are using dirty tricks to give their side an advantage

Willful characters are attempting to coerce their enemies into submission (especially if they have Scathing Tirade)

Personable characters are directing their allies and trying to negotiate a peaceful solution

OR everybody engages in ranged combat since it's often more effective at a lower investment of XP than all of the other options. Agility 2, no ranks of skill, and a Boost from an Aim maneuver can easily hit a Difficulty 1 target at Short range.

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And Boost dice are your friend. As a GM, if my player's give me a creative idea, they will often get a Boost die to their own check. Combined with Aiming (and a DP), even a mediocre combatant can contribute to a fight.

Also, some situations can call for using a different Characteristic with a skill: Coercion is Willpower based, but if the group's Wookiee is trying to cow a primitive tribe, using Brawn might be more appropriate.

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