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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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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like this is a symptom of systems where being "good at X" means that you have very good odds of succeeding at the one way you can do X, rather than having many more options for how to use X. Not every game has this problem. Should I develop this observation into an answer? It seems not quite on topic since it addresses system rather than narrative technique. \$\endgroup\$ – sptrashcan Dec 24 '20 at 10:23
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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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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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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$ – Jadasc Dec 3 '11 at 16:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ 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. \$\endgroup\$ – okeefe Dec 3 '11 at 17:06
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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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Bob didn't get the character he wanted out of character creation. The GM should have helped Bob create the character he wanted to play.

So, Bob went into character creation expecting to get a character who would be challenged by high-end gunplay and not worried by the cyberpunk day-to-day. Instead, he created a character who would not be challenged by high-end gunplay, but would be worried by the cyberpunk day-to-day.

Something obviously went wrong there, whether it was Bob's lack of familiarity with the system (character creation or otherwise) or just a character creation system with poor player guidance from the jump.

And in a more general sense, Bob should be comfortable straight-up telling the GM what he wants to get out of the game, and the GM should be comfortable helping Bob create a character that behaves as Bob would expect of them. The exact reason why is going to have to wait, because first we need to talk about why Bob's impulse didn't work out for him as well as he'd expect.

How Cyberpunk Do

There certainly is a Shooty McShootenstein in your average cyberpunk universe. A savant with firearms whose transportation, provision, and intrusion needs are all provided for so he can focus on the thing he does best, murder other human beings with guns, and never be bothered by everything else. Just the way his corporate masters want it.

The kinds of characters PCs are expected to make, on the other hand, are cyberpunk protagonists, people who won't or can't fully participate in corporate society and as a result have to develop a more broad skill set. They're outside the support structure of corporate society that can cover for being a more narrowly skilled person. Not only that, but the corporate society forcibly imposes the chaos and hazard it doesn't want to deal with on them, either indirectly because their only meal ticket is Mr. Johnson at HappySmile Ltd who wants to make some bad PR for a competitor by hacking one of their self-driving toxic waste trucks, or directly because somebody hacked a self-driving toxic waste truck and it jackknifed into their squat and now everyone and everything they care about is at risk.

What Bob wants to make is a freelancer who's survived for a decent time in this environment and, in addition to cultivating a personal specialty in the care and use of firearms, developed that broader skill base but not to a distinctive degree -- even if sometimes it's just "knowing who to ask", that's still got to be developed as a personal relationship and not an entry in a corporate directory. So the day-to-day isn't an issue for Bob, and he can still be challenged by high-end gunfights against the Shooty McShootensteins of the world, though his role in them might not be so much to absolutely outshoot the Shooty as to engage the Shooty for a significant length of time while other associates work to dump more chaos on Shooty than he can handle.

Shooty McShootenstein can certainly be a cyberpunk protagonist, perhaps after he's been discarded by his corp in favor of the shiny new v2Shooty model, but the thing is that weaknesses are at least as dramatically interesting as strengths. As such, a natural part of Shooty's cyberpunk story is going to be about the day-to-day challenge of dealing with all the chaos and hazard that he was insulated from by his coddled corporate life, which is exactly the stuff Bob doesn't want to have to play out.

How GMs Do

But it's also important to talk about why Bob should tell the GM what kind of play experience he wants to have, and why the GM should help Bob make a character who will have that play experience. At its core it's about being a good sport.

Being a good sport means that the GM is generally very restricted in what they should do, as compared to what the rules say they can do. They generally have absolute narrative control over everything outside the player characters and can, in fact, drown the world in nuclear fire any time they want, but sporting GM conduct means that you don't threaten the PCs with impossible obstacles but with dramatic ones (or at least impossible obstacles with dramatic workarounds).

Players generally have fewer restrictions, at least compared to the scope of their possible actions. The GM is expected to adjudicate any reasonable course of action the players come up with, and sporting player conduct usually only means avoiding options which are in the rules but regarded as flawed somehow, such that the GM can't fairly adjudicate them.

Because the scope of player action is so wide, the scope of expected GM reaction is also similarly wide and often falls outside the GM's session prep. As a result the GM often has to work out an appropriate next step from first principles, and usually what they work from is their understanding of game canon, in this case cyberpunk canon, even if that's just limited to the setting flavor and play examples in the rulebook. They have to improvise the next step in the story, and that's much easier to do if they can pull a fitting obstacle from the entirety of the cyberpunk day-to-day instead of having to come up with a reason to have an even more shootier guy show up.

So it's also sporting conduct for the GM to help Bob create a character that performs as Bob will expect in the game as the GM will run it.

Final Notes

This all, of course, assumes that the GM understands how to fairly represent the challenges of the cyberpunk day-to-day in mechanical terms, and how to use the character creation system to create a sort of "baseline freelancer" who's capable of dealing with all of them. Ideally the system itself can create those sorts of characters without the GM having to worry, but if not, the GM needs enough understanding of the system that they can create a character template for people like Bob, who wants to be a baseline freelancer with a specialty in firearms.

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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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