General - Why Character Optimization?
Last Updated: September 12th, 2020
Every once in a while I see discussions pop up online about the merits of character optimization. Inevitably the people in these discussions fall into two opposed camps; one which enjoys character optimization, and one which sees character optimization as a scourge on the hobby which reduces the game to math and grid-based combat.
As with most debates that occur on the internet, the topic is considerably more interesting than those two opposing camps make it look. Regardless of where you fall on the pro- or anti-optimization opinion spectrum, I'd like to ask a few minutes of your time to explain why character optimization is valuable, why people have problems with it (and why those opinions might be valid), and where character optimization fits into your game.
This article is going to discuss primarily "Dungeon Fantasy" RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, though much of this discussion applies across a wide range of RPGs.
The Three Pillars of Dungeon Fantasy RPGs
The designers of 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons describe three "pillars" which are central to D&D, and to a great extent to all "dungeon fantasy" RPGs, including Pathfinder, Dungeon World, and other RPGs which I haven't had the pleasure of playing yet.
Exploration is the act of going to novel places, seeing strange, and fantastic things, and discovering new or lost creatures, objects, or places. Exploration might include exploring a mountain pass, delving a long-forgotten dungeon, or seeking the ancient king's crown in the ruins of a once great castle.
In many cases, this part of the game is handled narratively. You don't need to roll dice to walk through a market or gaze over a serene valley, but even during exploration there may be rolls to percieve hidden or obscured things or to address certain obstacles like locks and traps.
Social Interaction is fairly straightforward: non-violent (ideally) social interactions with other creatures in the game. This is the most "Role Playing" part of a Role Playing Game because in many groups you are speaking for your character and portraying their words and actions rather than merely moving a pawn around on a chess board and rolling dice. Many enjoy this part of the game in 1st-person because they're comfortable play acting, but other players are more comfortable in 3rd-person if their own social skills can't match their characters'. (My "How to Play 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons" article series goes into 1st-person and 3rd-person roleplaying).
Even in this highly-social part of the game, there are still skills and stats and dice rolls which goven what your character can actually do, rather than allowing silver-tongued players to charm their game masters despite their characters' utter lack of charisma.
Combat is a distinct part of Dungeon Fantasy games and similar narratives. Regardless of the reasons, violent conflict is a part of many games, and it's an interesting narrative tool because it's contentious, impactful, and even the smallest combat has the potential to impact the ongoing narrative by killing or otherwise harming the protagonists.
Because combat is so contentious and impactful, it necessitates more rules than other sections of the game. Most RPG's don't have a chapter dedicated to the intricacies of picking a lock because spending 10 minutes simulating picking a lock is incredibly dull and usually failure doesn't result in death. Because the rules for combat are so much more expansive than other parts of the game, character stats reflect that complexity, and in many cases huge portions of a character in games like Dungeons and Dragons center on their capabilities in combat.
What is Character Optimization?
"Character optimization", also commonly referred to as "min-maxing", is the act of building a character who is mechanically effective within the limits of any given rule system. Players who engage in this practice are often referred to as min-maxers, munchkins, and occasionally less-friendly names like "try-hards".
At its most basic, character optimization is the simple act of making choices when building a character that make your character mechanically effective. For example, wizards in Dungeons and Dragons use intelligence to cast spells, so giving your wizard high intelligence makes them a better wizard. More complex character optimization involves weighing opportunity costs, considering complicated build choices, considering complex rules interactions, and occasionally math and statistics.
While the majority of character optimization centers around combat, it is by no means exclusive. Character optimization can easily support talkative "Face" characters, master explorers, or any other aspect of the game.
Why Do People Enjoy Character Optimization?
People enjoy character optimization for the same reasons that people build fast cars or make better computers or try to improve recipes. You have a given set of constraits, and you want to squeeze as much performance out of the resources available to you. Sometimes you do it just for the challenge. Sometimes you do it to solve a problem. Sometimes you just do it to see what will happen.
There's a lot of fun to be had in flexing your creative muscles. Just as it's fun to think up a personality and a backstory for a character you might never play, it can be fun build a character around a mechanical idea you want to explore even if you know that you'll never play it. Maybe you want to see how high you can get your AC without using magic, or maybe you just want to build a character with the fastest land speed. Maybe you're building a character that you actually intend to play, and you want to be a legendary spear wielder and you want to build your character to match the idea that's in your head.
Is Character Optimization Bad?
People who prefer to emphasize the social, roleplaying, play acting portions of the game will disagree with me here initially, but hear me out.
No, character optimization is not inherently bad. Making a character that's effective or that meats the idea of the mighty hero in your head is not a bad thing to do. If you want to play a wizard, there is nothing wrong with your wizard being smart. If you want to play a mighty barbarian, there is nothing wrong with making them strong but probably not very smart.
However, there are people who take it too far sometimes. If you walk into a game and one of the characters in your party is so much more powerful than the rest of the party that no one else matters when dice are rolled, some mistakes have been made. But don't let singular experiences like that poison your opinions. We'll discuss imbalanced parties and how to handle them below. I promise that it's easy.
Is Character Optimization Good?
Yes, and to some degree it's not only good, it's required.
Take this example: In 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, you have the choice to roll for hit points or take the numerical average (rounded up) for that hit die. If you have a negative Constitution Modifier, you can potentially roll a negative value for hit points and your character can actually die by gaining a level. Assuming that you build characters using a method that allows this (4d6 drop the lowest is still popular), you could choose to build a character who bears this risk. If you are in a situation where this is possible, choosing not to take this option is a character optimization decision. If you want your character to survive leveling, you'll likely take a Constitution score above 10.
Should I Optimize My Characters?
Yes, and to some degree you probably already are. If you make your rogue nimble and stealthy or you make your warlock charismatic to power their magic, you're optimizing your character.
Building a character is full of decision points like this. You could intentionally take the absolute worst option at any given point, but short of a joke character where being worthless is the character's biggest value, you're going to make build choices which benefit your character. Your going to give you character more hit points and better gear, you're going to make them more charming or more stealthy or more whatever you want them to be so that the character's stats on the page match the idea of them that you have in your head, and so that you can succeed in the game when the dice come out.
Character optimization isn't a "yes or no" question: it's a bell curve. At one end is the worst character you've ever seen, stretching the conceptual limits of the game to produce a character so profoundly useless that improving them may result in their death. At the other end are characters who are so exceptionally effective that the rest of the party becomes window dressing. Most characters fall somewhere closer to the center: effective in their central capabilities, ineffective in others, but neither so good or bad that they're a problem.
Arguably the hardest part of character optimization when you're actually playing is knowing how much to optimize. It's a bit like driving the speed limit in a car. If you're going too fast, you're going to crash. If you're going too slow, you're going to slow everyone else down, and you might cause a collision. The first thing to do is to check the speed limit. Talk to the rest of your group and get an idea of how powerful characters should be, and stick close to that to avoid problems.
In my regular group, we're all experience players and we all enjoy character optimization. We lean towards the high end of the character power spectrum, and we compare notes on our character builds. We have a few gently-enforced rules to keep things from getting off the rails, though. For example: my group no longer allows me to play wizards, and the more I write on this site the more confident they are in that decision because I will inevitably break things if I do so. Similarly, one of our players is no longer allowed to play rogue/paladins because he played a series of them back-to-back and they were all mechanically underwhelming.
But I've also been in groups where that level of character optimization wasn't appropriate, and I've had to moderate myself. I've had newer players ask me to fill in during games when someone was absent, or when they wanted to learn to DM, and those have been fun games where I could put together a workable character without a ton of optimization work, and that was right in line with the rest of the players. Having a character that's roughly in line with the rest of the party is usually more fun than having a character that's miles ahead of your group.
To my fellow character optimizers: It's okay to intentionally choose less-than-perfect options to adjust your characters effectiveness to be more in line with the rest of the group, and in many cases it can be a lot of fun because you can explore weaker character options and still be comparatively effective. If you read my work, you're familiar with my 4-tier rating system, and that's often a great barometer. If you're playing with character optimizers, go for 4-star/blue options. If you're playing with experienced players that aren't into character optimization, stick to 3-star/green options. If you're in a group of inexperienced players, stick to 2-star/orange options and few 3-star/green options.
To players who don't enjoy character optimization: If you have a character optimizer in your party who's causing a problem, the first thing to do is to talk to them about it. Sometimes just calling out the problem is enough, like pointing out a speed limit sign when somone's driving too fast. Maybe they can adjust their build to be more in line with the party, or maybe they can add some extra limitations to their character building process like limiting themselves to a fixed number of source books or prohibiting specific character options.
To players struggling to keep up with their fellow players: Ask for help. The basics of character optimization aren't hard to master, but sometimes having someone walk you through the process can be very helpful. Ask one of your fellow players, or look through the Character Optimization portions of my site. You may not need to rush to build the perfect character, but sometimes a few pointers can a huge difference.
Character optimization is an inherent part of any game where the choices made while building or advancing your character have an impact on the game. It is not bad, or wrong, or a problem, or a flaw in the design of a game. Just as there are people who like to build suped-up race cares and there are people who just want drive a sensible sedan, there are people who enjoy exploring the extremes of character optimization and there are people who want a character that's workable but without the effort of reading every sourcebook for scraps of extra power. Neither of those groups of people are wrong, and neither are any of the people who fall somewhere in between.
There are certainly those who over-optimize a character for a specific group or ongoing game, but that's easily addressed with a bit of honest conversation just like any other disagreement between friends. Character optimization has its place, but just as you wouldn't try to break land speed records in a residential area, you shouldn't bring a disproportionately powerful character to your game. Keep the race car on the race track, and save those crazy builds for games with fellow optimizers. The res tof the time, you just need to roughly keep pace with everyone else so everyone is safe, happy, and having a good time.
I honestly hope that this article softens some hardened opinions. If you're all-in on character optimization (and I'm sure many of my readers are), I hope that you've learned from this article that moderation is totally fine. If you're totally opposed to character optimization, I hope that you've at least larned why people enjoy it, and I hope that I've instilled some curiosity.