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Let's consider a player, whom we shall call Bob. Bob loves exciting gunfights and is a big John Woo fan. So he makes up "Shooty McShootenstein," who is a master with a gun. One thing that Bob is not interested in is the cyberpunk hacking trope. So Shooty doesn't really have any ability at that. From the player's choices, it seems they want a game with lots of gunplay but no hacking. But here's what happens in practice:

  • When Shooty gets into a gunfight, his high skill means he blows everyone away in a round or two, or a few minutes of table time. Bob's real choices during this time are largely restricted to taking actions to stack additional bonuses that are mostly unnecessary or making tactical choices that are often rote. Bob is left unsatisfied.

  • When Shooty finds he needs to hack a computer, suddenly his choices open up! He can hire a hacker, threaten the owner, bluff about already having the information, etc. This will take considerably more table time. The problem is that it's still indirectly all about hacking and is exactly what Bob didn't want to play. He ends up bored because he doesn't like this theme and his character is bad at it.

Many proposed suggestions don't seem to help. Putting Shooty against better gunfighters is a good idea, except that in most systems, a gunfight between two characters with Firearms and Dodge skills at 20 have the same actions, probabilities, and modifier stacks as one between two sides with Firearms and Dodge at 2. Essentially, Bob might as well have played a much weaker character. Making the consequences for failing at the hacking-related stuff easier on the character might encourage Bob to experiment a bit, but fundamentally he's still going to be bored because his share of spotlight time was spent in 2 minutes about him being awesome with a gun and 2 hours about him being a lousy hacker.

What techniques can be used to overcome this contradictory tendency in play, either as a game-master or as a player?

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This exact setup happens all the time in movies, so let's examine how they handle it.

If they are the only character, then as a GM, completely tune the story to them. They shouldn't have to do hacking, or at best they have to shoot their way in to where the Russian hacker who already knows stuff is. James Bond doesn't use keyboards. Avoid his minimums except for once in a while for dramatic effect, or to introduce Bond Girls who have that skill set. As for addressing his strength - he's an expert shooter, but is always having to go places where he doesn't have a gun, or just has a pistol when others have machine guns, or has a machine gun when they have tanks. Or places where you can't just shoot the heck out of everyone (like a public casino) without having long term consequences.

If they are not the only character, the other characters are in danger. What do The Killer and Hard Boiled have in common? Lots of OTHER people who get killed. The chick who's along that's in danger. Or your buddy movies with one killer type and one intellectual (or even just not a killer, take Rush Hour) - the killer has to spend a lot of their time protecting/coaching/handling the less combat oriented person. One of the big risks of having a min-maxed PC in the group is the min-maxed bad guys the GM has to toss on, who can often terminate the non min-maxed PCs in a round. It becomes the combat monster PC's job to avoid that, or else the whole party dies and they say "new game, and be less of a goon this time please."

This is of course advice for in-play. You should try to head this off ahead of time by disallowing (GM)/forgoing (player) total min-maxing by choice of system or GM guidance. Because as you note it ends up being unsatisfying even in your maxed area.

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You could try adding other elements to the gun fights to make them more interesting (e.g. Environmental Hazards, Reinforcements, Timelimits etc).

For example, imagine a gun-fight set in a chemical laboratory. You can have various explosive hazards or other dangers he needs to avoid while also fighting against his opponents.

Maybe someone is trying to capture him, you could have more opponents arrive every few rounds so his only option is to run away and he has to figure out how to escape.

Another idea: A smoke filled warehouse where no-one can see more than 5ft in front of themselves. He has to use his ears to hear where his opponents are and move quietly enough that they won't be able to locate him. You can add stealth and perception skills to the fight.

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Provide Shooty with situations where he gets to use his shooting, but it isn't enough to just shoot. A gunfight doesn't just have to be some people shooting at each other.

Letting the NPCs have a huge situational advantage, and using non-standard dirty tricks is a good way to introduce tension to gunfights that have gone stale. For a prime example, check out Tucker's Kobolds.

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I'm not sure what to do once this has already happened, but it should be preventable.

Don't let players begin the game at the peak of their ability, unless you're planning on running a very short campaign.

Try using a system that lets characters buy additional choices instead of just static bonuses. 4e powers are a great example of this. I can't think of any games that do this for gun skills though.

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Why is Shooty doing the hacking at all? Is he the only PC in your game? Have another PC pick up hacking, or let him have an NPC hacker on retainer, which could be a fun relationship to deal with in play.

The fact that Shooty is an expert shooter and you're throwing other expert shooters at him consistently means, yes, they're perfectly matched. So don't to that all the time. Mix it up. Have him face a gang of mediocre shooters, people with skills just above or below his, or someone with a bazooka or sniper rifle or superior armor. Give him a chance to kick ass most of the time, but not all of the time.

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The conundrum is that, against lesser opponents, he cleans house fairly easily. He's built to do just that, which means that the fights tend to end quickly. –  Jadasc Dec 3 '11 at 16:02
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Yes, let that happen sometimes. Then throw him against a couple lesser opponents, and have them throw down their weapons and surrender after he kills the half of them. –  okeefe Dec 3 '11 at 17:06
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