This post starts with some conversational war stories, and then segues into GURPS advice. It might be useful for non-GURPS games, because it's pretty general, but your mileage will vary if you're running a different game system.
At our last game, there was a bit of player discussion about the utility of, well, utility PCs. That is, non-front line fighter types.
The occasion was Hjalmarr dying, at least temporarily, and his player considering some other types. These included a cleric and an assassin (a combatant, but a backstabby-specialized one). We briefly had some mention of past thieves and clerics.
Really, though, that session was a pretty good example session of the usefulness of the non-fighters. For example:
- I rolled an 18 on the weather table, and further rolled that it was all-day weather. If it wasn't for the druid and Weather Dome, this could have severely impacted the group. Instead it was just a ration drain and a delay.
- Survival and Naturalist and Navigation were critical expedition skills this session, like all of the other Lost City sessions.
- the PCs utterly failed to detect a trap (default Traps is no substitute for a trained thief).
- the PCs had to resort to magic to open a locked door and utterly failed to open a locked chest, resulting in setting off a trap, because they lack Lockpicking.
- Lack of a healer was a serious issue.
Had the party also had a thief and a cleric, none of those would have been an issue. Conversely, had the druid not showed up, they'd have been compromised by the "the gods hate you" level of rain and storm.
A few years back I blogged about this from one angle:
Thoughts on Dungeon Fantasy & non-front line fighter types
Today I want to give some advice to people running such characters.
In my experience, utility characters benefit from doing the following things.
A non-front-line fighter really needs to be able to stop at least one or two attacks, even if only for a few seconds. Being vulnerable to a one-shot kill because you lack defenses puts a strain on your allies. It also means their effectiveness in combat is restricted by your weakness. If you can reasonably expect to survive a shot or two, you let them do their job.
A few good ways to do this:
- get good Active Defenses. Dodge as high as you can, as it's the most versatile. But also Parry and Block. Make sure you can at least stop a single attack.
- have some DR. You don't need a lot, although it helps to have as much as you can. It's best to keep your encumbrance level reasonable so you aren't even very slow or very exhausted or both after a fight.
- have some supernatural help. Invisibility, Missile Shield, Luck, Bless (not that I use Bless in my game), points saved for Impulse Buys, etc. are all good ways to minimize risk.
- have some mundane help. Smoke Nageteppo, a good Stealth score (and a covered light source), hirelings or allies, and just plain good Move are all useful.
- At worst, up Acting and play dead! It's fishy if you just "die" instantly upon seeing the bad guys, though. (DF2, p. 11)
- Know your options - what the defenses do, and how All-Out Defense and Defensive Attack work. Feverish Defenses, too, if you're using extra effort in combat (my group does not.)
These can keep you safe for the seconds it takes a front-line ally to intervene. You'll still be fragile - DF is high powered, and offensive powers tend to nasty. But these will help.
Contribute to Combat
Even if you're mainly a utility character, you still want to have some contribution to combat.
This can be:
- a ranged or missile attack. Get a sling, bow, thrown grenade-type item, darts, whatever. If it's lethal and quick, that's perfect. If not, it'll still help. If it's weak, it's mostly useful to see who has Missile Shield and Reverse Missiles up! But it'll still be useful. Add Poisons if you're my kind of scum. And overpowered crossbows you can't reload yourself are just a fun kind of thing to tote around, if you can make the shot count!
- a combat-useful spell. For casters, find a cheap and quick offense spell and make use of it. Regular spells such as Frostbite or Dehydrate (or Daze and Sleep on the higher end) can be resisted but (depending on the spell) you can sometimes rip off a 1 or 2 pt version quickly. Or going for a buffing spell to help your friends. Even a minor buff (Shield at +1 DB, or Haste at +1, or Armor at +1) is helpful. Some Area spells can help shape the battlefield and keep the back safe - Wall and Dome spells can block up corridors, Illusions can misdirect, etc.
- combat-useful skills. Tactics can help you shout suggestions. Leadership helps against scary monsters by aiding ally's Fright Checks. First Aid or Esoteric Medicine can work in one second with a roll at -10 - but don't critically fail!
Knowledge skills are good here - spent a turn looking and see if your Hidden Lore, Naturalist, Occultism, Thaumatology, etc. can tell you what you are facing. Knowing it's a golem, not undead, or that it's a terrible & dire wombat and not your standard dire wombat, is helpful. Use Animal Handling, Psychology, Religious Ritual, or Singing (as appropriate) to taunt monsters, or Intimidation to scare them. (DF 2, p. 9-12)
- direct combat actions. Thieves and assassins do well with backstab (DF 2, p. 11), especially if they buff it up with Backstabber. (DF 11, p. 35) Casters do well with Missile and Area spells. Clerics can have True Faith (with Turning).
If you pretty much stand around a fight waiting for it to be won or lost, you're probably not pulling your weight as effectively as you can. It's tempting to get caught up in a circle of, "I'm almost useless in combat, so I won't do anything in combat." You know, "Don't just do something, stand there!" Finding low-risk ways to contribute to combat is a good idea. A healing-focused cleric or a thief or a utility wizard isn't going to be able to deal with a worthy or boss-level foe directly, but you can help contribute to the cause.
Exploit Your Niche
If you're a utility character, you have a non-combat niche. Make as much use of it as you can. Whatever it is you do well (spot traps, open locks, talk to animals, exorcise curses, map, sell stuff in town, negotiate with monsters, etc.), make sure you do it. Get skilled at it (no one likes hiring a burglar who can't sneak, or a guide without Area Knowledge, etc.) Don't be obnoxious about it, any more than combat folks should try to fight everything. But make sure you know what you're capable of and try to exploit your skills to aid your group. If you don't do this, you're in danger of just being dead weight (if you don't aid in combat, or are weak enough to need constant protection) or just a weak combatant (if you do.)
Outside of your niche, just see where you can help. There is one especially helpful Power-Up to help you help others: the Team Player advantage (DF 11, p. 16). It's ideal for guys who also seem to help friends or make Complementary Skill Rolls.
It all comes down to, just try to find a way to contribute outside your niche without being a drain.