Preventing character skill from impeding player enjoyment

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?