... because knowing is half the battle.
In my last post, I made mention of 'roles' at the table. In most groups, every person will usually have that one job or niche that they fill and do well. In the original edition of D&D, there were 3 classes: Fighter, Mage and Cleric. A hard to kill warrior-type, a high-damage cannon, and a mender of wounds. People who play MMOs will be familiar with the idea put into terms like tank, dps and heals. The 'Holy Trinity' as it is sometimes called. This is an age-old paradigm that has been retained, retrained, and remained since... well.. D&D first started. Teamwork. Teamwork necessitated and facilitated by the core mechanics of the game itself.
Over the years, as more classes have been added and other genres tapped, methods of teamwork evolved. Cross-role classes emerged. Wild new roles appeared. Some systems didn't have class-defined roles, and were super-effective. In the end though, group based activities work best with a cohesive team-dynamic. Once more I state the obvious, so let's explore ideas surrounding this thing.
Enforced Method Acting
Old School pnp games, and MMO video games based on classes and levels have upheld the idea that certain classes must do certain things. Every team needs a tank, some dps, and a healer. This is a very mechanical approach to teamwork. The core mechanics of the game are constructed and calibrated under the assumption that these things are present in the group at large. Which makes sense in a certain way. That's how granddad did it, that's how dad did it, and damned if we're not gonna do it too. Seriously, why would you not go into a combat situation in one of these games without someone to hold off the enemy, someone to kill the enemy, and someone to pick up the pieces of your team? Makes sense right? Cool! So who's gonna play the healer? Anyone? Where's everyone going?
Let's face it. Under this mandate, certain jobs need to be done. That's the problem, though. It feels like a job. We can't all be the wizard, I played the healer last time, and one bard is hard enough to deal with that we don't need 7. When a system at it's core demands things like this on a base mechanical level, you either force your players to make characters they may not want to play or you force the GM to compensate for things that aren't a part of the team's arsenal. It's limiting and it assumes that there is a 'right way' to play the game. I'm not fond of that. (I have a similar issue with the 'Christmas Tree Effect' of magic items and assumed quotas thereof.)
This is a rather limited issue as a lot of newer pnp systems take this out of the math, as far as I can tell. On the MMO front, Guild Wars 2 made a point of removing the so called 'Holy Trinity' causing a bit of stir for some I know.
A more novel approach is more narrative in scope. The nature of the gameworld and storyline make diversified concepts desirable to the task at hand. Take Shadowrun as an example. The idea is that you are team pulling a heist or similar job. There are routs that characters could go for and specialize in. Melee combat, social ability, hacking, rigging, ranged combat, magic, etc... nothing specifically required, but plenty to shoot for. Options. There are plenty of roles that can be filled but none that specifically must be filled. Instead, we have archetypes formed not from mechanics but from the actual story and mythos of the world we're gaming in. What we promote here is multiple ways of approach. We conquer the challenge in any way we can as opposed to one that is assumed for us, fed by fluff and backstory. This feeds into the creative side of gamers encouraging them to not only innovate in problem-solving tasks, but also integrate a concept both into the mechanics but also the gameworld in one fell swoop. Teamwork and designated roles are assumed, but because the narrative encourages it, rather than base math.
Yes, I Reference TvTropes
Stories can sometimes be described in terms like story-driven or character-driven. That last example was story-driven. Roles were taken because the plot suggested them. What happens when we look at it the other way, character-driven, instead?
The group of fine chaps I've been gaming with introduced to me a concept that they used for some of their earlier campaigns, and still use as a Standard Operating Procedure, called "Niche Protection". What this boils down to is that each character has a given shtick. Everyone discusses characters ahead of time so that each shtick is different. Pretty similar in scope to the roles discussed previously, but used somewhat differently. There's a bit of overlap when a shtick is based on a mechanical role, but the role in question could be narrative in it's entirety. You might have the hacker, or the gunslinger, or the gadget user, but you might also have the big guy, the rookie, or the chick. What this does is provide shorthand for a character archetype and a story-based approach for the GM to provide custom content for his players. In narrative focused groups, this also helps to simulate certain genres of storytelling.
Putting It All Together
Even if I don't agree with them, I do applaud multiple approaches to a situation. While I don't like the ironclad implementation of the 'Holy Trinity' approach, I still build some concepts with that particular method in mind. Mostly because it's a damn good strategy. Should roles and diversification be an enforced thing? No. Not unless that's the kind of thing you're going for. Sometimes it's good for team dynamics to emerge naturally, with everyone gravitating to what they enjoy the most. Even if you end up with a half dozen bards. (No matter how many wenches rue the decision.) And who knows? You may come up with a way to use a class that not even the designers could foresee. Does that mean enforced roles are a bad thing? I say No again. Variety is the spice of life, after all. It's good to have all of your bases covered, and if everyone has something to do, less chance of them feeling superfluous and useless. Also, watching two thieves trying to pick the same lock is just depressing.
That's enough outta me for one day. Tastes great, stay classy!