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Well, luckily I don't have Power Gamers, in my game table, they all like to tailor skills according to the character background; however in many situation this makes them pick skills that are rarely (if ever) used during my campaigns.

Like, right now we're playing Savage Worlds with Super Powers Companions 2nd Edition to play a Scion-esque game. My players have been picking stuff such as "Knowledge (Music)/(History)" or "Boating" when the campaign is mostly Hack and Slash, and even though such Knowledge specialities seem very unusual for a supers game.

It's happened before, no matter the system, I don't know how to handle those "small" skills that seem like a waste of space on the character sheets.

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    \$\begingroup\$ sounds like real characters, as opposed to war game characters. Is this bad, like choosing all Knowledge skills and no combat skills? for all characters? or is it just specialties (meaning something that wouldn't apply every roll necessarily even if it was on combat)? if it's the latter don't worry 'bout it, or maybe talk to them and see if they'd like to repick. I worry reading several of your questions that you're also just trying to run a game that your players are telling you they don't want to play. e.g. hack 'n' slash rather than investigatory/social \$\endgroup\$ – xenoterracide Aug 28 '14 at 15:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sometimes I wish I had problems like that with my players. \$\endgroup\$ – user4000 Aug 28 '14 at 15:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ If it's because they're real characters, then the players will find ways to introduce their skills. Like, playing music or buying a boat at the first opportunity. On the other hand, if they never show any inclination to use them then they aren't inherent to the character after all no matter what the background says. They're decorating their otherwise-twinked character with a few pieces of trivia, which is fine. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Aug 28 '14 at 19:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Some of my character skills that turned out to be the most beautifully useful were of this "situational" type. Biology, in Shadowrun. Courtly Graces, in Rolemaster. Public Speaking, in DSA. Beautiful, beautiful moments where problems were solved with wit and charm, not with steel, giving the story a very "movie"-like twist. We still talk about some of them, decades later, because those moments -- and the characters in them -- felt so alive. Why not be that kind of GM that makes such moments possible? \$\endgroup\$ – DevSolar Aug 29 '14 at 8:58
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Give bonus skill points for a good backstory!

If someone writes up a good backstory, and the character should logically have certain skills from that backstory, that aren’t actually useful (or, at least, unlikely to be useful) in the campaign, turn those skills into rewards for writing a good backstory.

That’s a great story of how a former basketweaver became an adventurer! As a reward for a well-written backstory, the skill points you put in basketweaving are free; go pick some other skills with your new skill points.

This way they maintain the skills they logically should have, but you also get to ensure that the party covers the basics between them and everyone has skills they’ll actually put to use. Since you have players who don’t abuse the system (and in fact shoot themselves in the foot even when not strictly necessary), you shouldn’t have to worry about them abusing this reward (“fishing” for extra skill points – though, if they actually do write a good backstory to get them, well, mission accomplished and they can and should enjoy their extras).

Then, of course, you shouldn’t be afraid of having these skills come up once in a blue moon – it will make the reward actually rewarding, it ties into the character’s backstory, and could be a good way to set up a crowning moment of awesome. But you also don’t have to shoehorn in situations where they are relevant, which is a common response that I find particularly unsatisfying. Because they are free rewards, they can come up almost never and it will be fine, so you are free to only bring them up in the situations where they actually make sense – which will make them far more rewarding to the player than an obvious Looks Like a Job for Aquaman!

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the final paragraph - let the players use the skills occasionally, don't force these situations too often on the campaign, and a reference to tvtorpes to top it all. Nice! :) \$\endgroup\$ – G0BLiN Aug 28 '14 at 15:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Disappointed the final paragraph didn't include an example of Knowledge: Basketweaving NOT being shoe horned into a plot =P \$\endgroup\$ – Culyx Aug 28 '14 at 15:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Culyx Hahaha, I'll have to think about that one, though honestly anything I come up with will be exactly the same kind of arbitrary shoehorning I'm talking about, because I don't have an ongoing plot where it could naturally "come up". \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Aug 28 '14 at 15:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan "Oh no it looks like the lich's phylactery is a basket how can we unravel his connection to undeath?" \$\endgroup\$ – Culyx Aug 28 '14 at 15:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Culyx Doesn't seem complicated enough to warrant specific skills, plus couldn't they just smash it? But it does make me think of something that might be better: the "choice" at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade but with baskets rather than goblets, and without the obvious "one of these is not like the others, one of these does not belong." Possibly only a specialist would be able to know the history and relevant techniques to pick out the "right" basket. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Aug 28 '14 at 16:01
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In my experience, the best way to find uses for obscure skills is to let the players come up with them, and just go along with their suggestions if they're halfway plausible. If your players are creative enough, as yours seem to be, they will come up with ways to use their oddball skills if you let them.

To make this work best, you'll need to let your players have some control over the setting. For example, if your player has picked Knowledge (Music) as a skill, deliberately introducing an enemy that's vulnerable to music would be cheesy. But if the player asks you if, say, the giant snake monster thing attacking might be entranced by playing music to it — sure, that's a totally valid and, moreover, cool[tvtropes] thing to try, and you should totally let them use a skill roll to find an appropriate tune.

(Of course, a trick like that shouldn't necessarily finish the encounter, even if it succeeds. Sure, the snake is charmed now, but what's it going to do when the music stops? And it probably won't be deeply enough entranced that you could just walk up to it and stab it, or that it wouldn't react to ranged attacks...)

Similarly, designing a puzzle whose solution is "weave a basket" would be silly. But if your players decide to set up an ambush in the woods, and one of them wants to weave a sniper platform out of some bamboo stalks (and why shouldn't there be bamboo stalks?), then yes, you should definitely let them use their Basketweaving skill for it.

Or maybe the players need to carry some water but have no bucket, and one of them suggests weaving a reed basket and lining it with clay? Great idea, and excellent problem-solving. And yes, there should be some reeds and clay available, unless you've got some very good reason why there wouldn't be.

As a real-life example, in one vaguely horror-themed Roll for Shoes one-off I ran, one of the players decided to pick Knowledge (Waterfowl) as their free starting skill (I gave every player one). They found several uses for it during the game (such as, IIRC, using a duck whistle to summon some ducks to distract an enemy), even though I didn't deliberately introduce any waterfowl into the scenario. Of course, Roll for Shoes rather encourages such shenanigans as part of the system, but that doesn't mean you can't apply the general technique in pretty much any system.

The point is, your players will come up with uses for their skills that you never would've thought of alone. And because the uses for those skills come from the players, rather than being shoehorned in by the GM, they'll seem cool and creative rather than awkward.


Ps. One potentially tricky part, especially if you haven't been letting your players do much of this before and they've gotten used to your GM style, is getting your players to start thinking of creative applications for their skills. Of course, some groups might have no problem with this, but others might need a bit of nudging to get out of their current rut.

One approach is just to bluntly tell your players, out of game, that you're going to be trying to make your game a bit more player-driven, and that if they come up with any cool out-of-the-box solutions or uses for their more obscure skills, you'll try to accommodate anything they'll suggest.

During the game, you can also try gently nudging your players whenever you think of some way they could apply their skills. For example, if the players in the last example above are going to just try carrying water in their hands, you could just mention offhand that, hey, there's some reeds on the riverbank and probably some clay too, and didn't one of you guys know how to weave a basket...? Don't make it seem like it's the only possible solution (or the "intended" one), but just throw it in as an idea that one of the characters could plausibly have, if it makes sense to the players.

This is not a technique you should overuse, but hopefully, after doing it a few times, your players will start to come up with such suggestions on their own. Then it's just up to you to make the suggestions work (or at least fail in interesting ways) whenever possible. You can also use the nudging technique if you notice that some of your players are applying their skills much less than others, to encourage the less proactive players to contribute more.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One tiny problem with an otherwise amazing post. A snake would be entranced by knowledge (dance), not knowledge (music) popsci.com.au/science/… \$\endgroup\$ – Scott Aug 28 '14 at 21:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Scott: Well, sure, but it'd still be cool enough to let slide in a game with super heroes and giant snake monsters. ;-) If necessary, it might be justified by the music being magical, or by the monster not being a real snake. And besides, even if the attempt to charm the monster with music fails, at least the player got to try using their skill. \$\endgroup\$ – Ilmari Karonen Aug 28 '14 at 23:10
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What's wrong with just letting them use the skill? Even if it just happens once or twice in the entire session, give them an opportunity to have their skill become useful. Often, allowing a story to go in this direction becomes a memorable experience for the player.

For example, one of the characters has a "Boating" skill. Perhaps the players could normally fly, teleport, etc. Change one of the locations that the players can reach into an island and give them a good reason for trying to sneak in undetected. Perhaps there is a detection system in place that could get them into trouble if they just blaze in, but if they move silently in a boat under the cover of the night, they will gain some kind of tactical advantage (like a surprise round, finding a secret entrance or a stealth bonus).

The player will probably be like "Aha! I am SO ready for this!".

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I believe that if you have a definite plan for a genre/setting for your campaign, you and your players have to work together to make it work. This includes character creation. It's going to be tough to fit a pacifist, privately educated art historian into a campaign based around the mob and violent crime.

The first thing I do with any campaign is to present a list of useful skills to the players. This is part of the general introduction as to what I have planned, and helps guide them as to the types of characters they might want to create.

This helps set expectations and give them a sense of the kind of thing that is going to come up the most often. If players still choose skills that don't mesh with what I have planned then I don't stop them taking them - I try to build them into the story as much as I can, but players need to be aware that they aren't going to come up that often.

Also, I know you've specified that the question is system agnostic, but given that you mention Savage Worlds, there are a couple of system specific things I wanted to mention. Savage Worlds is particularly tricky, as there are a limited amount of skill points, and ploughing these into skills the character hardly ever uses is going to weaken things significantly. For example, I've read a rule of thumb that suggests it is only worth taking a skill if it is going to come up at least every other session.

There are a number of Savage Worlds settings that use something called 'defining interests', for example Realms of Cthulhu. These are specifically designed for the types of skills that you talk about in your question. The number of these you get is linked to your Smarts, and you get +1 to Common Knowledge rolls related to the skills in question.

So, I would suggest there are a few steps you need to take:

  • Talk to your players. Make them aware of your concerns, and be certain they understand that the skills they have are not going to come up that often.
  • Ask them whether they might tweak their characters to swap out the inappropriate skills for something more fitting to the campaign you have planned
  • Revisit your campaign plans and see if you can tweak the setting/story to include more of the skills your players have chosen
  • Consider introducing 'Defining Interests' for this particular campaign as a way of allowing characters to be well rounded without sucking up skill points
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Generally, when I player picks a skill that is to help flesh out his background, he doesn't expect it to come up very often (if ever).

You could treat knowledge skills as passive in the sense that the character knows a little more than the others at appropriate times. Telling them that they know something interesting or relevant when describing a scene because of their background (that they took skills in) makes them feel like they are doing something , even if its just the feeling of "I know something the others don't".

Skills that can be actively used like boating are easier, you just need the occasional instance where they can actually use them. Most skills can be used for avoiding a problem, getting around or finding something out. Getting around just means that you can lead them towards one type of transport or geological hazard to make the skill more useful.

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One possibility is to handle those "background.skills" a little broader. This depends hugely on the specific system involved, but if it's open to interpretation reflect on what those skills could represent. For example Basket-weaving. a Basket weaver needs patience, concentration and has a firm grasp on complex "structures". So give him a bonus when solving logic puzzles, leave him alert longer when on a stakeout or better accuracy when shooting and aiming carefully.

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You could take those skills as a hint to provide them opportunities to use those skills. I’m increasingly seeing the GM’s job as providing obstacles to what the players and their characters want to do. These may be a hint as to what that is.

On the other hand, as a player, I may choose a skill simply because it fits with my background. I don’t expect it to come into play. Just like in the real world, there are skills I devote time and energy to acquiring even though they may never serve a practical purpose in my life. So, there is no need to do anything about such skills.

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  1. That's awesome. Even if they never come up, the character is more interesting.
  2. If they ever do suggest a way to use those skills, play along with it as much as possible. I love moments where a random background skill is useful. Throw in some hooks that give more opportunities for them to bring it up.
  3. Ask if there's things they want more of in the campaign. Are they happy playing a hack-n-slash campaign with adventurers who are ex-opera-singers? If so, great. Or do they want more opera singing? If so, see if you can slowly introduce more, or suggest someone else has a go at GMing for once.
  4. A more specific question is, are the characters insufficiently effective during the campaign? If they're ALL insufficiently effective, just pitch the enemies a little easier.
  5. If they're genuinely suffering from the lack of relevant skills, gently point it out, and offer a bonus to relevant skills.
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If your players are crafting characters that do not fit the structure of the story you are trying to tell, you need to sit down and talk with them about what both of you want out of this campaign.

Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with wanting a simple hack-and-slash adventure. And it's clear from the way you've worded your question that this is exactly what you want.

Your players, on the other hand, do not seem to want a hack-and-slash adventure, and are much more comfortable creating elaborate characters with colorful backstories. This indicates a failure of communication between DM and Player, and you need to resolve this before the campaign starts.

Sit down with your players and discuss what you want out of this campaign. Explain to them that it will be a hack-and-slash campaign, with less role-playing and more action-oriented combat scenes. If you are okay with them adding some color to their character's backstory, mention that too. Be specific, tell them exactly what level of role-playing and action you're looking for.

Then, listen to what they want out of the campaign. Find out what kind of story they want to be a part of, how much action they want, how much role-playing they're looking for, and whether the characters they want to make are compatable with that sort of story.

Once you both know exactly what you want, you need to resolve how both of you are going to be happy. You may need to give the players a little room to color their characters so that they have more interest in who they're role-playing, and they may need some help assigning valuable combat skills to their characters rather than a list of colorful background traits.

Ultimately though, what you want and what the players want might not be compatable. If your players are dead-set on playing a role-play heavy game, your campaign might not be right for them, and you may need to find different players. If you are willing to run a more role-play based game for them, you might consider that instead. Or you might convince them at a later date to try a more action-oriented game, but if they aren't interested in the same game as you are, it's better not to force them into it.

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