I find it a frequent problem in RPGs that characters designed for combat and those that aren’t don’t function well together.
I’m currently arguing on the Conan d20 forums that noncombat builds in Conan aren’t especially useless in combat in comparison to other systems. But, still, there’s the “playing two different games with one party” problem that occurs far too frequently. In Conan, it’s actually how useless the soldier class is in any game where you don’t just fight all of the time.
All problems come back to planning and expectations. If the party is planned well to meet the expectations for what sort of adventures it will have, then there shouldn’t be this problem. But, let’s pretend that people don’t go to this effort (since they often don’t). Further, I’m going to assume that the rules can’t be changed to balance things better.
So, the onus gets put on the player to figure out how to be useful in most situations. There’s being useful in combat and then there’s out of combat (knowledge, social, athletic, perception, thiefiness, etc.).
For combat usefulness, one needs to understand the game mechanics to a much greater extent as combat is frequently more sophisticated. One also needs to know what the game’s style is. Is the game extremely lethal like L5R where you either need really, really good defenses to be competent defensively? Or, is it a game where you can take a few licks no matter how noncombatty you are where having some sort of effective attack may make more sense?
Size of party is extremely important. The smaller the party, the more defense matters. The courtier may hide long enough in a group of 6 or 7 to do one banzai attack – assuming the combat isn’t over before the character takes an action – but will just get shredded in a group of 3 or 4.
The Conan discussion is about a temptress in a party with a barbarian and a pirate. It’s a system where offense is much better than defense but where it’s possible to get all defensive without putting a lot of resources into it. The small party size and ability to easily take the Combat Expertise feat suggests to me a defensive build.
In Heroes of Rokugan, where parties are often 5-7 and combat is absurdly lethal, I’d like a few defensive “tricks” – Earth above 2, Strength of Earth (to slow a death spiral), TN to be hit bumps, and so forth. But, I’d look to have at least one offensive angle. In that system, that means having some way to generate a high attack roll since any hit might do heinous damage.
I’m not sure what to do in systems like Vampire: The Masquerade and other old World of Darkness and new World of Darkness games as I always seemed to end up with combat-useless characters unless I started with combat effectiveness when conceiving the character.
Noncombat can be even worse than combat. The superskill or magic class/school/whatever may so outclass the combat builds that the fighters have nothing to do while investigation, intrigue, sneaking, infiltration, knowing, or whatever is going on.
For noncombat abilities, it’s extremely important to know what the other player characters are good or strong at. No sense being the third tracker in the party, for instance. Usually, if two characters have something covered, better to look elsewhere unless it’s something the party does all of the time. Sometimes, when stretched thin on noncombat abilities, leave an area entirely up to one character.
L5R makes picking up skills cheap, so having a bunch of rank 1 skills is reasonable, plus there’s using Void to “know” a skill. Of course, jacking the nonfighty attributes like Awareness and Intelligence above 2 has a huge impact.
Meanwhile, in Conan and other d20 games, some classes have serious disadvantages. In Conan, I would start every character as a thief, maybe a scholar for a pure scholar build. (Actually, I’d change the rules, but …) Going from starting with 16 skill ranks to starting with 32 is absurdly hot. In fact, except for supercombat builds, I’d have every character take ranks in scholar and/or thief because the difference in skill ranks is so mighty. Scholar also has the advantage of giving magical abilities, and as usual, magic can do things that can’t be duplicated otherwise.
In Hero System (Champions, et al), overall levels are interesting for making all of one’s skills more useful. Dexterity and Intelligence, as in many systems, have good noncombat benefits while Dexterity is frequently useful in and out of combat in systems.
Class choices, multiclassing, skill choices, points put into flexible abilities like magic or things that can be moved around like levels – there’s usually some place in the system that enables a more flexible character.
Because, who wants to sit around while others are playing?