Delver Design: Character Specialization

In this series, I’ll be putting up some ideas game design ideas and seeing how they apply in dungeon crawl games like D&D. Let’s kick things off by looking at character specialization.

Specialization Overview

A specialized character is one which has developed one set of abilities significantly further than their other abilities. How much better they are in that one area depends on how heavily specialized the character is.

Specialization Benefits

  • Expertise: Heavy investment in their area of expertise makes the character a top performer in that area.
  • Focused Concept: Having an area of expertise can provide a good starting point or hook for getting a quick handle on the character.

Specialization Costs

  • Weaker in General: The heavy investment in a single area leaves the character less to develop other skills. This in turn makes the character less effective out side of their area of expertise.
  • Flat Concept: If the character is defined solely by their specialty, they can seem “flat” and one-dimensional.

Team Effects

If specialists are grouped with others with the same specialty, you run into the same strengths and weaknesses a lone specialist runs into. However, if you a group where each member has their own specialty, you get some interesting effects.

Group Benefits

  • Expanded Coverage: If each member has it’s own area of expertise, you’ve got a wider range of situations where at least one member is fully effective. This helps specialists mitigate their weak areas by passing it off to an ally better equipped to handle it.
  • Niche Development: Since each member has fewer situations they need to handle, they’re freer to focus on their area of expertise. This can also help them develop a unique identity and role within the group.
  • Interdependence: Each member’s mutual reliance and support for other team members can help build a sense of cohesion and unity within the group.

Group Costs

  • Limited Coverage: Unless a group has a specialist for every possibly situation, they will end up with some challenges they simply are not well suited to handle. While the group has wider coverage than an individual specialist, full coverage of every situation is harder to achieve.
  • Limited Participation: During a given challenge, specialist in that area will usually contribute more than those who don’t specialize in that area. The higher the degree of specialization, the lower the contributions of those secondary participants drop. Taken to an extreme, you have a few party member essentially doing everything in certain events.
  • Composition Pressure: In order to give themselves the best chance of successfully completing an adventure, the party will want to make sure they have enough ability and man-power to cover the most common challenges. This in turn, creates an incentive to have a certain number of members who can handle one situation, another set which can handle another, and so on. Taken far enough, this can become something like “we need 2 warrior, a talker, and a scholar”. While this does create a distinctive group, it also reduces the player’s flexibility in what they can play without limiting their play experience.

General Suggestions

So how do you gain the benefits of a specialized group while down playing the costs? Here a few tricks we can use.

Limit Specialization

First, let’s but a cap on how much a character’s are of expertise can exceed their general abilities. Even a modest amount of specialization can give us the benefits mentioned above. Higher levels of specialization do increase niche development, but they also aggravate the limited participation and group composition problems. After all, the strong specialization is the greater the feeling of needing a specialist for a given situation becomes. With lower specialization, if becomes easier for other members to stand in for the missing member.

I’d suggest putting a fully maxed specialty at around half again (150%) to double the effectiveness of a undeveloped trait in any area you want party member to reliably and meaningfully contribute.

Multiple Specialties

Give the character enough development resources to flesh out more than one specialty. This helps reduce limited coverage (more bases covered by fewer characters), limited participation (more likely to be active in a given event), and composition problems (more ways to cover your bases).

Extended Resources

Give the character a way to fill in their weak spots as needed by tapping into a flexible but limited use resource. This can range from calling in allies through buying special equipment or favors.

D&D Implications

First off, I strongly suggest cutting down on ability divergence. Skills in 3rd and 4th edition are excellent example of this. It’s easily possible to get a big enough difference in skill modifiers that anything a specialist doesn’t auto-succeed can become an automatic failure for a non-specialist.

4E did cut this down a bit by tieing skill progression to your level. However, this still leaves the ability score issue. Each character can and usually should pump 2 of their highest scores at each opportunity. However, this means the difference between their best and worst scores increases as they level up. Since difficulty is set to scale with their best scores, this means that high level characters effectively become worse at everything outside their specialty, leading to the problems mentioned above.

Second, I recommend balancing combat and non-combat abilities between classes. Currently in 4E, all classes are assumed to be roughly equal in combat, but some have significantly greater skill access and benefits which gives greater out of combat utility.

Third, I suggest allowing skill development outside of a class’ favored skills. While it’s alright to encourage or enforce some skills for a class, not allowing certain skills means if you want those skills you must have a member of certain classes, which limits group composition.

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