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Useless Useful Non-Combat Abilities
Put on a trenchcoat and fight some conspiracies.
Get experience and level up abilities.
Will you pick rifles or computers?
Don't pick swimming because it's fairly useless!
lyrics to the Deus Ex theme, Zero Punctuation

In many RPGs, there are many "non-combat abilities" that let you get through situations without fighting (like diplomacy for negotiating with enemies or stealth for sneaking by them), but these are often not nearly as useful as advertised, for the following reasons:

  • There are many enemies that players must kill to complete key objectives, such as bosses, that are harder to kill than enemies that you can avoid fighting. Hence, if your character or party is powerful enough to kill the bosses (as is necessary in order to progress in the game), it is also more than powerful enough to kill the grunts, so it is unnecessary to avoid combat with them.
  • Getting by enemies without combat prevents you from getting the experience and loot rewards that you would have received had you killed them, so it leaves you handicapped for later in the game.
  • The effects provided by the non-combat abilities can be more easily achieved other ways.
  • The effects provide things which aren't necessary or even useful in the game.
  • The non-combat skills are so easy to succeed with that there's no need to put points into/focus on them.
  • The use of that skill is situational.
  • There are simply not enough places in the level design that allow these skills to be used to their full potential. A hacking skill is only useful if there are enough systems that can be hacked to avoid combat reasonably often.
  • In games that have a "Barter" or "Persuade" type of skill that can be used to get discounts in shops or increase quest rewards, the extra money can often be useless due to Money for Nothing.
  • Certain skills can often be tried over and over again until they succeed, making any positive probability of success as good as a 100% probability, as long as you are willing to keep sitting there and pushing the button.

Useless Useful Stealth is a particularly common example.

Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Tabletop Games 
  • Though most tabletop RPGs have stat for non-physical skills, most GMs won't let the characters solve social interactions with dice rolls. It doesn't matter if your character has an amazing score in Persuasion, you-the-player still have to make up their lies and be convincing. Dice are mostly there to help you get the desired result, they're not an automatic win. However, DMs will often treat an awesome roll/ability score as a license to get away with Blatant Lies and be believed.
  • Examples from 3.5e Dungeons & Dragons:
    • Craft: At low to mid-levels, this was relatively useless because any item that could be made in a reasonable amount of time with the skill could be purchased very cheaply anyway. However, at high levels, craft could become a Game Breaker in combination with certain spells, most notably Fabricate, which allows the caster to instantly craft a number of objects limited only by the volume of material used, thus making a lot of money very fast. (Craft was removed from 4e due to these issues, although not without controversy.)
    • Profession: Even worse than Craft, the amount of money one could make with these skills was far lower than the amount of treasure found during even a single 1st level combat encounter. Unless the campaign involved a special situation where these skills could be useful, or your DM allowed you to use the skill in a particularly creative way to gain a bonus in a different situation, there was no reason to take this skill. (This skill was also removed from 4e.)
    • d20 Modern, which is built on the same system as Dungeons & Dragons, improves the utility of several of these. Most notably, thanks to the abstract wealth system, Profession goes from totally useless to a skill that most characters want at least a few ranks in. Heal (renamed Treat Injury), besides being the only method of healing in campaigns without magic, has new uses to restore hit points, and one advanced class can eventually use the skill to effectively bring people back from the dead. Craft is in some ways worse since crafting an item is usually more expensive than buying it, but some advanced classes use it in special ways (such as MacGyver style improvising). On the other hand, d20 Modern has its own examples, such as Knowledge (art), Knowledge (popular culture), and Perform, that are only useful in very limited situations.
    • Perform in particular says nothing more about an effect than "Masterful performance. Audience awed". The D&D 3.5 counterpart at least assumed you were busking and earned some money for your efforts (although see Profession, above). When asked about this, the game's designers basically admitted it had no purpose beyond giving flavour to a character or whatever the GM might homebrew.
    • Interestingly enough, with the most recent Expansion Pack to Neverwinter Nights 2 (that would be Storms of Zehir) and a new overworld map, a number of otherwise marginally useful skills suddenly become much more useful, such as Survival (you can track specific enemies AND get a bonus in resting and random battles) and most of the communications skills (Bluff, Diplomacy and Intimidate can be used prior to a random battle to gain a not-insignificant advantage).
    • On the other hand, some games that use D&D rules but focus mostly on combat make almost all skills useless. Eye of the Beholder, for instance, made Forgery completely worthless, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Climb mostly useless, and even the cool-sounding Spellcraft rather less impressive than you'd think.
    • All this being said, without DM intervention Diplomacy can become a game-breaker... and because of that, so too can any skill due to the Exemplar prestige class.
  • Lampshaded in the GURPS Discworld supplement, with the skill Astrozoology. Finding a use for the skill is left as an exercise for the player. Well, the only real buy there is the specialization astrochelonology, the study of Star Turtles, but as there's only one around, the study is kind of limited.
  • Fantasy Flight Games Warhammer40000 like DarkHeresy and Rogue Trader have a lot of skills thta are at best highly situational, such as perform, wrangling and many knowlege skills. From BlackCrusade onwards they've streamlined the system by rolling several niché skills into other, more useful skills. For example the, tracking and wrangling skills are now all covered by the survival skill and swimming and climbing by the athletics skill.

    Video Games 
  • There are several examples from The Elder Scrolls:
    • Speechcraft: You can easily max out a target's disposition with a custom-made charm spell, making speechcraft unnecessary.
      • Etiquette and Streetwise, from Daggerfall: Supposedly, Commoners and the Underworld liked Streetwise better; supposedly, Nobles and Scholars liked Etiquette better; realistically, if that NPC isn't going to tell you something, he isn't going to tell you something.
    • Security: ...
      • In Oblivion, the lockpicking minigame is easy enough that it is rather trivial to unlock even a very hard lock with even a low security skill. Additionally, the only penalty for failing is that you break a lockpick and have to start over, but lockpicks are cheap and easy to come by (you can have over 40 by the end of the tutorial alone). Finally, later in the game you can get a Skeleton Key, an unbreakable lockpick which also raises your security skill by 40 points.
      • Morrowind, having no lockpicking minigame, relies solely on Security skill, lockpick quality and pure luck to determine whether you'll open a lock. However, not only you can find scrolls and spells that will open any lock for you, but near the middle of the main quest you get a ring that buffs your Security skill and your Luck by 10 points each.
      • As long as you're not within sight of someone, there's no penalty for failing a lockpick roll, so you can keep hammering the lockpick button until you eventually succeed.
      • As a corollary to all of the above, any broken lockpicks can be brought back with Save Scumming. Any pickable lock could theorically be opened by a level 1 character this way.
      • Skyrim attempts to subvert this by using a more difficult lockpicking system (while also having it easier to understand) and making it so you only have the Skeleton Key for a short time. It fails, as lockpicks are plentiful and while you do need to return the Skeleton Key for a quest, you can just hold off on returning it until you reach 100 Security and get unbreakable lockpicks.
    • Mercantile: Most dealers quit as soon as you ask for one single drake under the total price, which makes haggling useless, which makes it nigh-impossible to increase your Mercantile skill unless you use a Mercantile Game Breaker guide.
      • Morrowind: Or simply set the price as whatever you want and spam the accept key until they accept. (The game makes a separate skill roll for each attempt. They do get harder, but you'll critically succeed eventually. Oh, and the disposition drop will reverse itself if you stop talking to them and then reenter conversation.)
    • Medical: You recover more health points per hour you sleep. Why was this worth making into a leveling skill?
    • Acrobatics: How often do you actually need to jump long distances?
      • Especially since if you make a cheap jump-boosting magical item you can end up jumping over mountains with normal skill...Keep in mind that Acrobatics is leveled just by jumping...meaning you'll get a few odd levels every so often just by navigating the world.
      • Jumping was more useful in Daggerfall when it was an actual Skill and there could be pits in odd places in a dungeon. Bad jumping skill also forced you to reduce or stop all horizontal momentum and jump completely vertical, either stalling you or dropping you down the pit/hole. Or worse: casting you into the void through the wall.
      • Languages, from Daggerfall, is like that. Most people might see no use in learning how to - for example - speak Orcish when they are dungeon enemies and, at least in the beginning, will attack you anyway. However, take Orcish as a Minor skill and use it once before you attack that Orc Sergent; you're now leveling two skills in virtually the same amount of time you're leveling one.
  • Some examples from Knights of the Old Republic:
    • Security: All locked doors can be bashed open very easily, making lockpicking unnecessary.
      • Unless it's the second game. Bashing a chest open will usually break something valuable. You may be able to get "parts" from it.
    • Stealth: See the first example under Useless Useful Stealth. The only time it is remotely useful is when you're sneaking past the rancor in the Taris sewers or choose Mission to break you out of the holding cells.
    • Awareness: There are very few stealthed enemies in the game, and those that are stealthed cannot be detected with the awareness skill (they can only be detected after being triggered by an Event Flag), making awareness useful only for detecting mines, and mines are so easy to spot they can usually be spotted without investing very many points into this skill.
      • The second game at least made Awareness useful for the main character by making it double as Sense Motive in conversations.
    • Persuade: It's helpful most of the time, but it's not going to help one whit in The Very Definitely Final Dungeon. That diplomacy-optimized Jedi Consular you built? Yeah, you're gonna have a rough time.
  • Notably, BioWare has been learning from this. In Mass Effect, the skills for Decryption and Electronics (used to open chests and repair damaged electronic equipment, usually for items that are likely to be Vendor Trash) have useful combat abilities attached (though Charm and Intimidate are still strictly optional). In Jade Empire, social skills are based on your combat skills and not purchased separately, though they can be improved independently through techniques or gems.
    • Mass Effect 2 and especially 3 improve further by making Charm and Intimidate not only useful for getting through conversations, but can have quite drastic effects on how well the endgame goes.
  • Speaking of BioWare, Dragon Age: Origins. Traps lags behind, you don't get as many of the materials for it as easily as you can for Herbalism and Poison making, and as a whole they're rather situational. Pretty much the best way to use them effectively is to trigger an encounter, then revert to an earlier save so you can set up traps and bring them over or have prior knowledge. However, one of the best uses of traps is to make a Bonus Boss easier. Surround the area where you fight Flemeth with traps, talk to her, and when she turns hostile... they all go off. While it may not be entirely useless in that regards, you can literally go the entire game without even investing a single point in traps or even using the traps you find. Which is not to say that Trapmaking is actually useless — if one knows what they're doing, it's a great source of experience and money too.
  • Puzzle Quest's Cunning stat: the main benefit of which is the player with the higher Cunning stat makes the first move. You will have to dump a disproportionate amount of Level Up points into Cunning to outrank some of the higher level enemies and bosses (And just forget about Lord Bane). However, Cunning also gives you bonus Experience Points and gold after you win a battle. The real skill never to increase is Morale. Morale raises your maximum Hit Points, which is well and good... but you don't need to waste a single Level Up point on it, because the game hands you bonus Morale points every time you stop to tie your shoes.
  • Deus Ex:
    • The swimming skill. It makes you swim faster and hold your breath for longer, but there are very, very few underwater areas in the game. The Aqualung nanomod is useless for the same reason and takes up a slot a more useful nanomod can take. You're better off keeping a couple rebreathers in your inventory (which you often find around the levels that have underwater areas) instead. Hell, once you get the Healing Augmentation, you can activate it to heal the damage that running out of oxygen does to your body, allowing you to stay underwater for as long as you want, provided you have enough bio-energy.
    • The alternative to Aqualung, Environmental Resistance, is even worse. The game conveniently places a Hazmat suit (an item that negates the damage Environmental Resistance protects you from) near any situation where Environmental Resistance would be useful. You also would need to upgrade it to the maximum rank to completely negate damage, thus working as effectively as a Hazmat suit, which means not leveling up more useful skills. At least Aqualung at the first rank completely negates the need for the Swimming skill and there are points where swimming underwater is helpful, even if specifically leveling the skill or upgrading the augment are not.
    • For that matter, in the same way that it can be used to cure drowning while you are drowning, the healing augmentation can also immediately reverse the effects of radiation and patch up bullet wounds - in short, the only reason to ever choose a different main torso augmentation is as a self-imposed challenge, simply because levelled-up regeneration is too useful.
    • The sequel, Human Revolution, has a minor example: the Hacking Analyze augmentation allows you to see the chances of being detected by the security mainframe for every node, even though you can already tell what the chances are for every node you can currently capture and since chance of detection is based on security level (which you can already see for every node) it's not that hard to guessnote .
  • The old RPG Wasteland had a few of these. Some skills were useful, like Rifle, Energy Weapon, Perception, and Brawling. Some had limited use, like Demolitions, Swim, and Gambling. And then there were Metallurgy (two uses: to identify free money in a mine, to diagnose a car's issue—and an NPC you could recruit could just fix it himself), Cryptography (one use, though it's to get a lot of good stuff), and Bureaucracy (that one makes sense actually).
  • Fallout:
    • What Fallout player has ever found much of a use for Trapsnote , Throwingnote , or Outdoorsmannote ? The viability of investing points into some skills, such as Science, Repair, and (in the sequel) Unarmed is undermined by the many books and teachers in the games that make it easy to boost a skill to 100% without investing a point into it. Many of the Perks are also infamous as pretty useless.
    • Fallout 3 at least averts some of the negative aspects of this trope: A successful speech check instead of killing a foe or using a computer to shut down a turret instead of blowing the turret up will net you the same amount of XP, if not more, than if you tried fighting.
    • Fallout: New Vegas adds to this by giving you different, often more fun ways to complete quests by using your speech skill, as well as frequent, often useful bonuses. Also, if you work with Yes Man and have 100 Speech you can literally ''talk'' two armies into backing down. New Vegas's Survival skill may appear to be this at first, replacing the aforementioned much-maligned Outdoorsman skill, but the ubiquity of food versus stimpaks and the utility of several of the campfire recipes makes it quite useful in normal mode and positively essential in hardcore mode, where the Courier must eat and sleep regularly and medicines are not as immediately effective.
  • Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Final Fantasy Tactics A2 have several abilities that remove enemies without harming them. Parley lets you convince a humanoid enemy to leave, Oust sweeps away monsters, and Wyrmtamer removes dragons. However, the chance of these abilities working is directly based on the damage you've done to them at once you've done enough for them to have a decent chance at working, you're better off just killing them because that gives you loot and experience. In Advance, these abilities would work less often, and eventually never work if the user kept killing targets. In A2, they can always work, but again, based on the target's remaining HP. The only reason someone would want to use these types of abilities often is to avoid being instantly killed by a Tonberry since they have an ability that causes damage based on how many units that target has killed and by the time you fight these guys, they will usually do 999 damage every single time they decide to use said ability.
  • Early versions of the Mac Shareware RPG Realmz had a large number of skills like Break Bars/Gate/Door, Climb Wall, Hear Noise, Hide In Shadows, Move Silently and Pick Pocket that were practically never used, as well as heaps of oddball spells such as Dig, Hold Portal, Locate Object, Ventriloquism and Wizard Eye, and items like iron spikes, mirrors and wine. Most of these were removed in later versions, long before the Divinity scenario editor was released.
  • Pokémon: The Run Away ability, which ensures you can always flee from wild Pokemon. Most Pokemon with the ability tend to already be fast, so the inability to flee is rarely a concern. As a result, Run Away is situational at best, and is made even more useless by the existence of the Smoke Ball hold item, which provides the exact same effect for its user.
  • Two Worlds lets you put points into a "swimming" skill, which lets you wear armor in water and increases your swimming speed. Since you can't drown, never fight in water, never have a time limit, and can put on and take off armor instantly, this serves purely as a convenience.
  • Runescape has this problem for a long time with the Firemaking skill. It's only purpose was to increase the total level of bored players with money to burn. Higher levels of the skill let you burn more expensive wood, creating longer lasting fires. Except that if you're cooking a lot you'd just use a stove or permanent fire, making the skill completely useless. Fortunately, Jagex noticed the problem and has added various minigames and quests where firemaking is actually useful.
  • Skills in Star Ocean generally tend to be of the "Skippable" variety. HOWEVER... if you take the time to invest in skills, you'll wind up highly rewarded with free items that restore HP&MP, infinite experience, building the best items in the game, and learning your relationship values.
  • World of Warcraft has a few, but patches over the years have removed them, or at least made them less annoying to use.
    • Druids used to have an ability that would reduce the Aggro Radius of NPCs with the Beast type. This was basically useless, because druids can become nearly invisible if they really need to avoid fights anyway. Around the time of Cataclysm, Blizzard recognized the problem and the ability was changed to a "tranquilize" effect, which removes Enrage buffs.


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alternative title(s): Useless Useful Non-Combat Abilities
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