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I have a player (I'll call him Jeff) whose PC is a peaceful diplomat. He invested most of his points in Charisma and charisma-based skills. He also has minor telepathy (able to read and influence emotions). He also has great Wisdom and is a fair shot with a pistol. The game is three players and myself as GM, so making sure his PC is useful counts for 33% of the players feeling like they're participating.

They're both enjoying the game a lot! They both feel like they fit into their roles very well. So this one flaw of Jeff feeling useless a lot of the time is something that would make the game that much better.

Roughly a third to a quarter of adventures do or will take place in space. Jeff hasn't felt like his PC has been useful in non-social situations, particularly starship combat. He likes talking with the captains of other ships and stuff, but not so much starship combat, navigation, and space adventures in general.

He doesn't feel useful in ground-based combat situations unless there's a social angle he can work. (He once tried to avoid being shot by a bandit leader by literally offering to kill the others — once he stopped bleeding. This may or may not have been a ruse.)

How do I get him to feel useful in non-social situations, particularly during starship sequences? I feel like I could meld social encounters with other types, but I'm not sure how to go about that.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Since you are still around -- what system/setting were you playing? \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Aug 6 '18 at 4:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Stars Without Number! Great SF game in the style of old-school DnD. \$\endgroup\$ – John Doe Aug 7 '18 at 17:26
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There are really two problems here: the player/character isn't suitable for some scenes, and some scenes aren't well-suited to one of your PC's. You need to meet in the middle. (I think all sci-fi RPGs, and stories generally, have to deal with this problem to an extent; I'll be basing my answer on experience GMing a homebrew GURPS Star Wars game and playing in D20 Star Wars.)

The PC

First, ask your player - does he categorically not enjoy non-social roleplaying situations himself, in general, or is the frustration only coming from the fact that his particular character is a bit useless? If it's the former, your job is a lot harder, and it's all on you (see below). If it's the character, however, you've got some options.

  1. Make the character more useful. The difficulty of a "re-spec" is higher in DND than GURPS, but you could let him re-allocate a skill or two so he has something to do.
  2. Give him opportunities to be useful. D20 Star Wars includes a number of crew stations - you can be flying the ship, shooting, recharging the shields, at the comm begging for mercy, etc. The details will depend on your universe, but I suggest being both creative and generous.
  3. Become okay with not being useful. Have the player watch their favorite sci-fi TV show again. What do the talky characters do while space encounters are happening? Troi, Simon, Trance, whoever - they all do something to get screen time, even if it's just asking for updates and fretting about the outcome. If the player put all their points into Charisma and Charisma-based skills, they probably have a storytelling bent - make it up to them to put it to use and figure out what's going on with their characters while the ship is falling apart around them, and roleplay it!

The Story

If the player really doesn't enjoy non-social scenes, at the end of the day it's most likely that you'll all have to accept either a certain amount of rotating between activities you tolerate and ones you enjoy, or not playing together. But there are still some mitigations you can apply.

  1. Rethink your "combat encounters". The Angry DM asserts (in his classic angry, vulgar, and compelling style) that there is no such thing as a combat encounter, only encounters where different parties have different goals that could result in one or more parties choosing to resolve the conflict with violence. If you keep that in mind, your social PC has the potential to be meaningfully involved in every single encounter. Even if many of them end up in violence - either despite his best efforts, or because of them, as Surreal points out - that stil gives him some satisfying agency in the situation. (Of course, don't give him all of the agency - let the other players affect the course of events as well.)
  2. Think about the ratio. Sure, your story takes place in a sci-fi setting that involves space travel. But how much real-world play time has to take place in space? If everyone enjoys ground encounters, and one player really doesn't enjoy space encounters, it's totally fine to use narrative time compression. "OK, a week later, you arrive at the Himinbjorg system. As you're about to touch down, you receive an urgent communication..."
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I follow Angry DM, thank you for the link. Solid advice. \$\endgroup\$ – John Doe May 4 '16 at 22:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ FYI, your link is dead and now points to what appears to be a domain squatter serving malware from that address. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Thompson Aug 27 at 16:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've now fixed the link to point to the current website. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 28 at 0:29
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I just played a game in a similar situation. We were running a Stargate-themed game and I was the team doctor. We spent three to four game sessions in non-stop combat situations where our four soldiers shined and discovered of a "magic" healing device along with an NPC who could use said healing device and usurp my character's entire reason for being there, I was bored. to. tears. (Well, I was bored to internet chat sessions with non-gaming friends, which isn't the ideal solution.)

After a few very frank discussions with the GM about how I'd picked the wrong kind of character, he offered me a couple of soldier NPCs. But. I don't like playing soldiers or combat primary characters! Eventually we decided that I was also the team geneticist/xenobiologist, and he added more to the plot, like a character's sister in mortal peril due to a genetic illness being triggered like stress, and a whole passel of aliens to be dissected and their weaknesses to be disseminated around - along with a lot of me trying to figure out exactly what they were doing in conjunction with our xenolinguist.

I think you'll want to sit down and have a talk with your player about exactly what situations make him feel useless, and what he enjoys, and since it's only a two player game, I feel like you'll need to tailor about 50% of your plot toward what Jeff will enjoy. You'll probably also need to caution him that there will be parts of the plot where he's going to have to take a step back so the other character can shine.

That said, he's a fair shot, right? Because if you want to put him in a situation where his general peacefulness is challenged (for example, someone gun-not-melee-or-diplomacy distance away about to harm a child and ), you could give him a juicy moral dilemma. Will he act violently to save the child, or will he try to find a peaceable solution?

You mentioned minor telepathy. Can he influence emotions ship-to-ship? Because that would be awesome and possible in the middle of a ship-to-ship fight, even, and the consequences for a botch (or whatever it's called in your rules system) would be delightful for both him and the other player, I'd imagine. I don't know about Jeff, but I enjoy botches for the roleplay possibilities.

Certainly it'd help to get input with Jeff on what he wants to do and how he thinks he can work with the other player. I hope you can find a solution! I'd love to hear what you come up with.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Love the personal insight as well as the ship-to-ship idea! \$\endgroup\$ – John Doe May 4 '16 at 22:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ The question is about 3 players and a GM though, not 2 players. Does that change your answer? \$\endgroup\$ – MattettaM May 8 '16 at 15:22
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If the game really is switching from a role-playing game to a ship-to-ship combat game for long stretches, there's no surprise the diplomat feels useless.

Some folks reviewing sci-fi shows will talk about "highlighter battles" - scenes in the show where all the action is phasers, lasers, or blasters. They can be boring for a lot of viewers.

Add drama to your battles

The best space battles have more than that. Consider the final battles in Star Trek II or VI, or Return of the Jedi. There's person-to-person stuff going on there, adding depth to the action.

The social space cadet might:

  1. Chide the enemy captain into rash action
  2. Root out the sabateur hiding onboard
  3. Rally terrified crew members
  4. Pursuade a neutral observer (an alien or AI?) to lend them aid

Watch and read space sci-fi, or submarine/navy movies, for more ideas.

Maybe this character should be in some kind of a command role, either captain or (if he's not such a tactical thinker) captain's advisor.

Encourage Creative Solutions

If your player has a whacky idea about how to be useful, be sure to play a little softball and run with it for a while. It's better than shutting down the improv. His next idea will probably be better, as he gets the hang of it.

The player's complaint is a real opportunity to upgrade the shared storytelling of your game. Sounds like fun's in store.

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[Disclaimer I come from shadowrun]

Imagine a character built on sneaking around, stabbing people and stealing stuff, how would you handle situations when this character is caught sneaking? An alarm being flagged or combat starting, forcing a 'fight or flight' situation. These actions can be really fun, even if the stealth character is really bad at them stat wise.

Now imagine instead of stealth it's social skills and instead of being caught, its being caught lying. When the PC isn't talking his way out of a mess, it should be an exhilarating event. This can be in terms of a bad deal leading the social PC to become a hostage, or failing to talk his way through a space security check leading into a space escape.

Make him the 'event-starter' so even if he isn't useful or didn't land a single shot, the other PCs and either thank him for what he did, or make him buy the beers at the next stop.

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It's impossible to tell without being there. But it sounds like you are already doing a good job of including non-combat play. How useful are the other two PCs during the "Jeff parts" ?

If it's more a problem of patience and perception, then in the long run it might be easier to adjust Jeff's character so he looks more like the other two PCs and is useful whenever they are.

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I was participating in a game taking place in some fictional fantasy world from which me and several friends were sucked by some magic from our real world. My character had a Charisma of 1/10 and was mainly built around melee combat with a weapon in his hand. Guess what? Most of interactions were social, at which a close friend of GM was very good, and those few combat situations were resolved purely by magic (which all the characters slowly learned to use). Those few social skills that I had were useless. For example, my character had some skills of surviving in a prison or a similar community, prisoner language... of course, useless in a foreign world. He knew something in Law, but laws were obviously also completely different.

Now to the rules that might help you:

  • Don't build parties in which characters are strongly different in their role. I would even provide players (not characters) with some metagame info about the campaign before generation, so they don't pick useless things. Or probaly, moreover, ask them what do they want to roleplay mostly.
  • Never ever steal a job from a player by offering something that does it better, easier, more effectively, quicker etc., be that something an artifact, an NPC or anything else. This doesn't count if you provide that player with, for example, an artifact that only he may use.
  • If you assume that you are already in a campaign with a party of differently built characters, just divide the spotlight equally or nearly equally among them. Make breaks between their turns low, and give them roughly equal time of acting. Notice that in real life 2 warriors could roll dice for 15 minutes in order to only resolve a bare minute of combat, while a social character could spend those 15 minutes roleplaying trying to convince his enemies to give up before that combat actually began. Notice that a social character can negotiate while combat characters fight. And, for example, as they push stronger and further, it becomes more and more easy for the diplomat to force his conditions.
  • Assuming that he has some telepathy -- could he provide his combat fellows with some info read in enemies' minds?
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