Why Character Optimisation is Pointless (Unless You Enjoy it)

I’ve been running my Borderland of Adventure campaign—in one form or another—for over four years now. In that time, I’ve come to a—possibly controversial—conclusion: character optimisation is basically pointless.

Ryane by Matt Morrow
Ryane by Matt Morrow



Before you flame me, let me explain. Flame me at the end (in the comments).

A normal optimisation cycle goes something like this:

  1. A player optimises his character to be particularly good at something. This could be his physical attacks (melee or ranged), his defences (normally armour class), the power of his spells or something else such as a certain skill. Even taking into account his level, in whatever he chooses to specialise, this character is epic. He rules.
  2. The character begins adventuring, and crushes or defeats everything standing before him.
  3. The GM notices this. The GM wants to challenge his players and so he adds in harder monsters, opponents or challenges to defeat than normal for the character’s level. He’s not trying to kill the characters, just challenge them.
  4. The player (or players) notice the adventures are getting harder and tweak or optimise their characters to be even better at the thing or things they are already awesome at.
  5. The GM noticed this. The GM wants to challenge his players and so he adds in harder monsters, opponents or challenges to defeat than normal for the character’s level. He’s not trying to kill the characters, just challenge them.
  6. Repeat steps 4-5 until someone gives up.

Of course, that’s a pretty simplified view of optimisation, but it’s basically accurate.

Now if you are the kind of person who likes tinkering with rules, coming up with new power combos and so on—all power to you. Feel free to ignore my opinion. Have fun, enjoy.

However, if you are the kind of person who optimises purely to win I can “sensationally” reveal you aren’t really increasing your chances of victory. If the GM is paying attention and matching the challenges your group faces to its abilities (like a good GM should) you aren’t achieving anything. You are just rolling more dice, or adding better numbers to your die roll. Your chance of victory essentially stays the same.

So I’m here to tell you not to bother (unless you want to). Just relax, have fun and trust your GM to provide appropriate challenges for your PC and group. (And if you don’t trust your GM, why are you playing with him?)

The downside of optimisation (for me) is that it takes more time and money. I’ve got to buy and read more books and experiment with more character builds. This takes time I could spend developing a background and personality for my character, plotting his hopes and dreams and generally creating a more rounded individual.

The Living Exception

My comments above apply purely to home games. In Living-style events—where the GM has no control over the adventure’s contents—optimisation is a viable strategy.

Flame On!

Well, what do you think? Am I unbelievably wise or an idiot? Do you optimise—or not— for a different reason? Let me know, in the comments below!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

55 thoughts on “Why Character Optimisation is Pointless (Unless You Enjoy it)”

  1. Not a flame, but a pair of linked observations:

    (1) In a sandbox-style game it is the job of the players, not the GM, to determine what the PCs can handle. I.e., in the original Castle Greyhawk model, if you thought you could survive the 3rd level, you headed down there, because there were bigger treasures than on the 1st level.

    (2) As a consequence, optimization may indeed provide a benefit in this model, in particular if there are multiple competing groups operating in the same region (as is the case in the original Castle Greyhawk model, or similar sandboxes such as the West Marches).

    1. Daniel–thanks for the comment and thoughts!

      It’s a great point about sandbox-style games, in that the players decide where to explore–and thus can “self-regulate” the threat level (at least to a certain extent). I think it’s important in a game like that for the GM and players to be on the same page regards the general danger level of the game. If the GM is assuming “better” PCs the party could come to a rather sticky end!

      1. Thank you.

        That the PCs could come to a rather sticky end if they misread the danger level is actually desirable in a sandbox game. Which is one of the reasons that, for such a game, fast character generation is important.

        I am not a fan of optimizing characters as a sub-game within the game, but enjoy clever use of the resources available in-game to improve characters. That’s one of the reasons that Dungeon Crawl Classics hits the right spot for me.

        In a sandbox game like I am describing, though, while the GM doesn’t have a responsibility to balance encounters, he does have a responsibility to provide enough contextual information to allow the players to do so.

        Best of everything!

    2. I think you are right, but in my games, the parts from 3 to 6 don’t work. This is because the optimizers have hostages: the players that don’t optimize! Usually I don’t make the encounters harder because it will just mean mass murder of the weaker PCs. Sometimes I make encounters that play on the optimized characters’ weaknesses, but I can’t do that all the time.

        1. Great stuff as always!

          Well, to use your own words, then the GM should adjust accordingly to try and give the foes a tactical edge. I don’t optimize but I’m fine with those that do, but there are creative ways to challenge the party without wiping out the non-optimized members.

          As the DM- Use PC tactics against them to provide a challenge- perhaps the goblins all gang up on the beefy fighter and ignore the rogue- who can then get some flanking for a sneak attack.

          The ghost tries to dominate the arcane caster to limit spellcasting.

          The orc champion sunders the cleric’s holy symbol.

          The PCs might be optimized, but the enemy doesn’t need to be tactless to provide a good encounter.

        2. I optimize because I want more control of the narrative. I want my character to do heroic stuff, not keep rolling 1 point short of success the entire evening and looking more like Charlie Chaplin than Charlie Bronson.

          Even rules light games seem to need minimal optimization – you figure the usual target numbers you need to make, purchase stats and skills accordingly, and stack the deck with conditional modifiers where possible – and you often score those conditional modifiers through good roleplay and tactics. If you don’t do any of that, you’re probably going to be “comic relief” or “waste of space” instead of “Big Damn Hero”. Which brings us back around to your comment about the “hostages”!

  2. I agree whole-heartedly! I play with a seasoned group and they bring there A game every session. To challenge them, I have to thrown harder and harder encounter at them every week. They adjust in kind.

    Personally, I tend to build flaws into characters to make them interesting, yet limited.

    Ex. A paladin whose goal was to become a knight of oder in a pathfinder game

    1. Wow… my fat fingers posted that too soon.

      Anyhow… paladin wanted to become a shielded wielding, two-weapon fighting, knight of odem. Dexterity was too low to ever achieve goal or be a good shield and sword fighter. But her back story and battle with this limitation (back story injury) made her awesome to roleplay.

      1. The way I see this is that when a player makes a build, they’re telling me what they want to play. So, a character that is optimised for combat tells me the player’s not interested in being challenged in combat – so I don’t set up combat encounters to “challenge” them. I pick other area to challenge them instead – areas where they’re not optimized.

        As a player, I’m in the same boat. If I make a character designed to plow through combat encounters like a hot knife through butter, I don’t want the GM to make ‘tougher monsters’ for me to fight. If I wanted tough encounters, I’d make a character lacking in combat.

  3. I think this speaks to different styles of gaming: trying to “beat” the game, displaying your mastery over the ruleset, versus character development and shared storytelling.

    I prefer characters with serious flaws — one really low score gives a focus around which a fun character concept can coalesce, and provides a lot of ready-made roleplaying opportunities. Characterization can be harder to come by for a character whose raison d’etre is just a perfectly optimized set of numbers.

    Not saying that knowing how to use abilities well is a bad thing. But making that the entire focus of the experience isn’t my idea of a fulfilling RPG session.

    1. It is a very manichaestic approach. Nor those “styles” are the only ones possible, nor are they antithetical to one another.

      Nothing against a character built around flaws. I have some. But good ideas for good characters can come from anything. The creative mind can work from almost any material.

      Optimizing a character doesn’t mean only having that in mind, not thinking about weaknesses, or anything else. It doesn’t mean nothing alone, and if you keep such a concept, the only thing you’ll do will be judge characters before you can know them because they were “just mastery over the ruleset”.

      Some will, of course. But you can be missing some incredibly good characters that were created around or just including optimization. They aren’t by default better than non-optimal characters. But they aren’t worse, either. Just another way to make the character happen.

  4. In the manga and anime Berserker, we have a complex and anguished protagonist whose core concept is the silly “really strong guy with a really big sword”. The big tough guy is also the core concept of legendary characters like Samson and Heracles.

    Most comic characters are superlative. Usually, each is in its own comic the topmost at their thing, even when dealing with opposition of their level or above.

    Sorry to put it this way, but most affirmations here are simply false, born from a skewed perception of the game. The perception that the “optimization cycle” identified is the only thing in an optimization. That a player only wants to make a optimized character to better overcome battle challenges. And since those challenges just scale in accord, it is a pointless cycle.

    Well, it is a pointless cycle. IF the battle is the only thing in the game, IF the GM can’t find another solution, IF the player don’t want anything else than kill and loot and the GM things this is the only motivation the game needs.

    And sure, it is completely ok for a game to be only about fight and loot endlessly going on, and this game would have issues with optimization.

    But to say that it simply is that way is to oversimplify the game and the people playing. Some chars are created around weaknesses. But some equally interesting characters are created around their strengths alone. Peter Parker and Booster Gold are awesome characters made around their failures in some regards. The Incredible Hulk and Batman have dramatic backgrounds that greatly adds to the characters even being just the explanations for pure badassery. The TMNT guys are mostly optimized without it having nothing to do with their core concepts (except for Donatello), but it doesn’t diminishes them at nothing.

    Optimization does have an effect. It makes the character be what the player wants to play. It makes the character epic when it is what the player want. Maybe not the best character overall (ideally it shouldn’t be possible), but the best at what it was meant to do. That’s all. Aside that, of course that the GM can veto anything that can become harmful to the game. But do not put the blame on the guy who wants a character a certain way.

    Now, responsibility should go where it truly belongs. Ideally, a coherent RPG system shouldn’t let players make optimizations in a harmful way. That is, equilibrium, defined by the parameters of the game, should always be preserved as long as the player keeps to the rules and presented material. Usually that means that a character never should be actually better than other characters built under the same conditions, though it can be better at limited aspects, and such should reveal itself with decisions changing how the character deals with the challenges proposed by the game, but such challenges being roughly equally hard to all those characters, with exceptions roughly following a Bell Curve. When optimization creates real advantages, the system failed. And even that is an oversimplification.

  5. Basically, as a GM, I see that as poor game mastering. When a player makes a character, they’re telling me the type of character they want to play, and what they expect in the game. If someone is making a social fu character, this tells me they want to be awesome in social scenes. If they make a combat-fu character, this tells me they want to rule the battlefield. A bow-monkey or sniper tells me the character wants to be deadly at range.

    As a game master, I should be expected to give them this. This means I don’t make social conflicts for the social-fu master that’s tougher than normal, I don’t make creatures more dangerous for the warrior, and I don’t screw around with the ranged character being able to do ranged stuff. The players have declared this is the battlefield they want to rule, and I give them that.

    What I do instead, is challenge them on their weak points. The social master gets to dominate the social landscape, but gets called out into a duel. This becomes Real Risk for the character, and they have to think their way out of the situation. The warrior on the battlefield dominates, but gets called to court to be rewarded, and has to navigate the social field. The ranged master dominates at range, gets plenty of times to pick apart his opponents, then winds up hunting an opponent in an urban environment, requiring them to pick and choose their perfect shots as they hunt prey.

    Escalation is a terrible way to do things. Expanding the area of challenge helps to keep the game interesting without making it an arms race, and the characters can assist one another to cover up the weak points. The diplomat asks the warrior to fight in his place, the warrior asks the diplomat to help him navigate court, and so forth.

    1. I think we basically agree Christopher LaHaise. I particularly agree with your last paragraph: “Escalation is a terrible way to do things.” Every game should have a variety of challenges to keep everyone on their toes and to provide both a change of pace and an opportunity for different PCs to shine!

  6. I agree with you completely in this. The game is supposed to be fun for the GM too, and if I have to worry about challenging one players PC without killing or boring the rest of the party it takes the fun out for me.

  7. One problem that seems ignored is when part of the party is optimized and part isn’t. Then when the escalations happen, part of the party feels like they can’t be useful or gets killed. Then its a cycle that those players dump the roleplaying characters that can’t make it and start focusing on even more optimized characters, out doing the current optimized character. It becomes a vicious cycle.

    Overall, I think either (optimized or not) can work and be fun, but it seems to work best if the entire party is either optimized or not.

    1. I completely agree with this and think that this is why session 0 is very important. I think that if the players optimize against each other games are much more fun (and easier for the GM to make encounters that feel good for everyone).

      There is nothing more frustrating for me as a Gm than when say the barbarian deals 3 times more damage than the fighter due to optimization and in order to have a combat encounter where the fighter feels useful you have to find a way to blank the barbarian, which makes the game less fun for them. It can be done but it limits what you can do.

      In this situation I try to encourage “the barbarian” to add more depth to their character, making it clear that they wont be punished for it and wont be losing out for this as they can coast on their current build and still be ahead of the rest of the party for a few levels. And then I see what optimization we can help “the fighter” add without breaking their character idea. With the goal of standardizing the power level of the party, Yes the barbarian will always do more damage but make it comparable enough that other players don’t feel that they aren’t contributing.

      My players are usually pretty good with working with me when I recognize issues but I do wonder what other methods GMs use. Does anyone have other methods they could share?

  8. I agree with this observation, as a GM who often finds himself in this cycle, mainly when I am dealing with players who have come in from the Organized Play model, where the goal is to win rather than tell a good story.

    I don’t believe that optimization and story telling/role-play are mutually exclusive, but I do find that players at the table who optimize first before considering their character’s role in the story tend to cause this cycle you describe and spoil some of the story telling we’re trying to do as a group.

    Two instances speak directly to what you’re saying here, both from the campaign I am running now.

    First, when players came in to create characters, one of the three who joined after our Session 0, who came in from playing Pathfinder Society, created a two-handed weapon fighter. OK. No problem. But he chose a character nationality that should have by all rights been the enemy of two of the other player characters – only because that nationality optimized his scores as a fighter. Then, he wrote up a background as an afterthought.

    The second was when a player who had put a bunch of ranks into Knowledge skills wanted to circumvent figuring out things about a creature that had central plot implications through me leaving clues and trying to pace the players’ discoveries about this creature (a giant) by rolling a Knowledge check. No attempt to piece together the information I was feeding in small doses, she just rolled a Knowledge check and expected me to spill the beans on everything in one large dump because she rolled a high check.

    In some ways, certain skills kind of ruin some of the sense of mystery that makes this game appealing. In the end I am actually very happy the three of them left.

  9. Every character has a weakness, VARIETY of challenge is actually a better way to get characters to broaden their focus than an arms race in my experience. This approach also allows characters with differing focii to shine at different times and occassionally yes, the specialised skills of some will shine too.

  10. Totally agree. As a gm, however good the party is, I can throw something that is challenging at them, be it something they missed in their optimization or something that is just better than they are. Winning is not the point in table top games.

  11. Depends on what you optimize your character to do. A “Green Arrow/Hawkeye” style archer is a must for most two fighter party, especially as fire support for a mage. I have optimized characters before. One was a 3.0 Bard/Cleric, a Jack-of-all Trades support platform. The other was a 3.5 Courtier/Rogue Social Skill platform. Both filled niches the parties needed.

  12. I know a lot of people who love optimization and I don’t think can play any other way. That said, I also keep the regular and random encounters uniform and rarely scale it to suit the more powerful PC abilities. I do make the “boss” creatures more of a match, so it will be remembered as a grand victory. I look at it this way, the players play this fantasy because they enjoy being in a story and blasting through the monsters. As long as they have fun and are ultimately challenged, I have done my job. It’s a game of fantasy. People want to be Beowulf, not one of Robin hood’s merry men. It can become a tug of war if the DM isn’t careful and I think your line about playing with your DM is one of the greatest truths of gaming. “If you don’t trust your DM, why are you playing with him in the first place?” True, so true.

  13. Knowing your players styles is as important as knowing the game. If one of your players is weak in role playing aspects, he will tend to optimize toward combat. If they do not like combat, they tend to optimize toward role playing aspects. My current group is a RP specialist, a “I want to optimize to be utilitarian” and a gun bunny. Trying to balance out the group makes times when one or another is feeling left out. Add in the Utilitarian cannot wait his turn and just talks over the others, he has been coached on this several times but still does it.

  14. Well, there are some points I agree with and some I disagree with.

    First of all, I think this perspective will vary with the GM’s own internal judgments. I find that it is quite true that optimizing a character will make them very good at what they do. (Heck, I like optimizing elven archers.) It’s called “specialization”. And I don’t mean the feat, but the general concept. The thing with specialization is that it sacrifices generality, and without a doubt, it sacrifices everything else that character wasn’t specialized on. For D&D, the first glimpses of party specialization are clearly defined in the character classes: warriors specialize in battle, thieves in sneaky-stabby stuff, wizards in magic, and so on. Now, you usually don’t put a warrior in a thief challenge, nor a mage in a big physical melee. Usually.

    However, this might lead you to the idea on how to deal with the specialization countermeasure: put the highly optimized character in a position where their optimization does him/her no good. You can get an excellent challenge for a highly optimized warrior by having him try to navigate a goblin lair’s extensive pitfall and rope trap system. The traps can be as obvious as you like, but I bet he’ll have no climbing skills whatsoever. Or put the super sneaky thief in a position of having to persuade someone of something, and his low diplomacy skills will make him put his foot in his mouth. Again, not much challenge is needed, not even danger to the characters, to make an optimization suddenly become a liability.

    Now, I don’t wish to imply that you have to be cruel about this. The idea for you as a GM is to entertain your players. It is a game of having fun after all. However, if they are observant, and learn their lessons, on their next characters they will take into account all the possibilities where they failed and might decide to create a more balanced character. But while that happens, there is also the part of a GM’s job that calls for making the characters shine, giving them a moment of glory under the spotlight. For those instances, cater to their optimizations and given them a scenario where they absolutely wipe the floor with their opponents, hands down, in which ever way they feel their optimization is intended to do so. They will enjoy that. A lot.

    The interesting thing about specialization is that it can work wonders in a cooperative party: where one character is deficient, another one can make up for those shortcomings by being really good at what they do. When the party then learns to rely on each other, and become a cooperative team, and turn into a magnificently efficient machine, then you will see wonders of feats and party moves that will astound you. However, a certain level of maturity and self-awareness is needed for players to reach this level of cooperation. You may not find this very often in younger players, or very self-centered characters.

    So, I think optimization has a place and time for it. The only time when you know it is not working is when the players complain about how their characters can’t deal with things and that it is “so unfair”, and just generally whine. By that point you already begin to recognize what type of players you have, and whether or not you wish to replace them.

    The other obstacle you may run into is if as a GM, you find no way to challenge them other than battle, and then funnel the characters into optimizing their battle skills. That then becomes the escalation you describe in your article. That one I find hard to tackle as well.

    I think that in the end, you will have to use your judgment on what the players like, what they can handle, how mature they are, and what they are looking for in a game. In the end, if all your characters are optimizing for battle, you may have a bunch of combat monsters as players.

    And finally, D&D, as a game, tends to reward battle. Success often comes through the blind exercise of violence and aggression, despite the fact that there may be a greater wisdom in avoiding that. Many players enjoy it, and design their characters for that end goal.

    In conclusion, optimization has its place. I find that alternate challenges where optimization cannot be leveraged make for good challenges without escalating the “arms race”. And then again, if the players enjoy it, and that’s what they are looking for, but *you* have a problem with it, then, you may have to delve into your own reasons as to *why* that is a problem with *you*.

    Let me know that you think. These are my observations from my own years of playing with a number of different players, and character concepts. Not all these ideas will apply to all people, and there probably are more styles of play and GM arrangements than I have ever witnessed.

    So, to each their own. =)

    1. Of course–to each their own!

      Optimisation does have its place and to a certain extent everyone optimises their character. I think, though, it’s the extent of the optimisation that matters.

      As a GM, you certainly can create different and interesting challenges for optimised characters to overcome. Hell, that’s virtually part of the job description. But to do that on an ongoing basis–to add it into every module– is A) a hell of a lot of work and B) eventually will seem like you are out to get or nerf the PC in question.

      Of course, it comes down to the maturity of the players and the GM. It’s a game. We are here to have fun. If I’m playing a fighter with a big axe it’s pretty clear I want to whack stuff! The GM should–of course indulge that desire–but the trick comes in keeping the challenge level at a sane level for the whole group!

  15. A perceptive GM might also notice that a particular PC is really good at a narrow (or somewhat narrow) encounter type, but instead of going in for an “arms-race” decide to throw an encounter of a different type at the group. Such as a group of melee-optimized character suddenly being faced with a ranged engagement (or flying monsters who use ranged attacks like Manticores). Now they are challenged outside their specialty. Such an encounter might even encourage perceptive players to diversify a bit.

  16. I partially agree with you. This really happens in solo games, but imagine in a group gane where you have one great character sorrounded by several average ones. If the GM puts monsters who challange this characther, they will murder very easely the average characthers. So the GM will have to split the group or do something special.
    Also, even in solo games the GM might make mistakes. Its hard to evaluate the exact strengh of the characther and some times you might put a monster too strong or too weak. After all this supercharacther usually starts being great after certain feat or spell, which might come unotice by the GM.

  17. Spot on. However, there is another negative of optimization that comes when not every player wants to or knows how to optimize. Very unbalanced parties put the weaker PCs at risk for frequent death or non-contribution when the GM inevitably ramps up the opposition. I believe groups should agree ahead of time whether or not they are going to optimize to avoid this mixed-group problem.

    1. It can still work. If you have 1 “combat monster” among a group of more rounded characters (not weaker necessarily), encounters that do not play to the min-maxed character’s strengths can give the others a chance to shine. Which may give the “combat monster” pause. Also as GM even if a melee-master character outclasses his companions in a stand-up fight encounter it is easy enough to maneuver the monster’s “combat monster(s)” to face the melee-master character. Such as if the group is faced with a bunch of Gnolls, most of whom are just near standard, but 1 or 2 are Gnoll Champions who confront the melee-master giving him/her a challenge while still challenging the more well-rounded characters too. It is a balancing act though that’s for sure. You have to be on top of your group & aware of all the characters’ strengths & weaknesses. Making sure you have updated copies of the players’ character sheets so you can go over them when preparing for you game helps greatly. It also, as pointed out in other articles, allows you to set up encounters where certain other characters can shine too, rewarding their choices of less mini-maxing abilities that could be useful in such circumstances.

  18. Read through it……. same points being made by tons of other players and dm’s who, in my opinion, are just jealous that they don’t know how to organize themselves to the point where they could do those kind of abilities or inflict that kind of damage because of some well prepared organization. Or they want everyone in the group to come down to their level of non-preparedness because of laziness on their part not wanting to read and plan ahead. Those rules, abilities, Feats, and other such materials are there for a reason……..to use them in the game.

    I think GM’s or DM’s who don’t like optimization should be proud of their players for knowing well enough to use certain combinations together to devastating effect and in return, adjust the adventure accordingly because after all…….. that is the DM’s job.

    Do these players role-play any worse or better than people who don’t optimise? Probably not. The reason I ask is because thats usually the biggest gripe non-optimisers have.

    1. In my experience, the people who INSIST on being min-maxed (optimized) are absolutely less focused on story/role-play. We call them “roll-players” rather than “role-players” and frankly, if they’re so focused on numbers and gear and being optimized, they can go grind raid gear in WoW or another MMO.

      They’re the ones at our table who insist on interrupting roleplay with an NPC to start bashing down a door, who decide that rather than attempt any logical/intelligent method of egress they should just storm in the front door of the epic Ogre fortress, and who heave sighs and groan loudly when people want to roleplay at the table and end up playing on their phone the whole time so they have no idea what is actually going on and thus, ruin a carefully executed/roleplayed plan because they weren’t paying a smidge of attention to the story.

      I’m not saying you can’t be a MM’er *and* be a good roleplayer. My husband knows how to build incredible optimized characters; but he *roleplays* the character rather than just expects an MMO-style wade from one “white con” battle to the next until you get to the boss. But by and large, the guys are are SO FOCUSED on if their character is the most Billy Bad-ass at the table are SO NOT FOCUSED on background/characterization/story/roleplay.

      If your group loves that MMO-style game, more power to them! That’s awesome. Enjoy the game your way. But at my table, if you’re all roll-play and no role-play… you’re not gonna be welcome for long.

  19. I’m not against the optimization per se, A character that can be above the average of his level or that can do deeds way over his rank o what the world expects of him gives a really heroic aura. I’ve been mastering a campaign for over six years (3.5) the players, a really experimented bunch, made some powerhouse characters. But the four of them are highly OP, that means a lot of raw power, they storm over challenges at their lvl and surprise even me sometimes. Also the campaign has a hardcore roleplaying aspect, sometimes we play two session without a single roll. They are all in the same power rank and that helps a lot.
    It’s different when a party has powergamers and not powergamers, today the char OP is not a desition than a skill, anybody can type “bard handbook” in almost any comon use system and find great resources, guides or builds.
    As a master I ask for different characters, a barbarian two handed and a warrior two handed in the same party will make a comparison inevitable, even if there no optimization involved, this become way more drastically with OP.
    In resume the arms race is something inherent to a game that has lvls, the GM must think encounters, use the environment, the beliefs of the characters to make them interesting. All frontal battles can be fun, but only a limited number of times, take hostages, make the floor tremble to disrupt the concentration, use illusions, dominate that OP fighter and make him your asset.
    I’m not talking about roll players, I know them, just don’t play with them, if you want hitsmashthings play diablo or destiny warriors.
    Sorry for the possible mistakes, not native English speaker.
    BTW great blog! Just found.

  20. It all comes down to a two main items for me:

    1) Objective vs. Subjective challenges for the party
    2) Power level between party members – this dictates “screentime”…we’ve had some “useles” multiclassing faux pas in our games…in which the resulting character was really a lot less effective than everyone else in the party…even within this character’s “niche”.


  21. Love it. It intrigues me how people spend hours optimizing their character but none optimizing themselves.
    Of course much of this can be avoided with proper group communication. In some campaigns it may actually be prudent to “minmax” a character. Those aren’t the campaigns I enjoy.
    I enjoy campaigns that are full and rich with options. A campaign that gives plenty of opportunities to fail as well as to succeed. Much like life, but with football headed goblins.

  22. I wouldn’t call it pointless. Just not fun. For some of us players, we only have the one or two GMs available to us, and they’re terribly evil in every sense, minus the throne made of skulls. No, we don’t trust him/her/them because we know they are more than capable of optimizing and are simply looking to outright kill all of the players just so they can get their rocks while cackling with laughter at our characters’ deaths. And I know what you’re thinking: “Why don’t you just GM instead?” Because the players are lacking. GMs rarely like giving up their spot, and if they are forced to, they just simply won’t play. Rather difficult to game with only two or three players. And I don’t have a new enough computer to do online gaming of any sort whatsoever, short of PbP, but that’s boring.
    For players, optimization is for three reasons:
    1) Survivability. It’s kill or be killed. You know full well that you’re going into a game where you’re going to die, but it’s a matter of how long the character can hold out.
    2) Ego. For some players, especially the PFS ones I’ve met, they can’t have fun unless they can kill things in one hit and get all the glory for themselves. These players tend to get kicked out of games, and it’s partly why Core PFS exists. Some players either don’t want to optimize or don’t know how. When they’re put beside power gamers, they quickly realize that they don’t want to be part of a game with Joe “Everything has to die in one hit because diplomacy is for losers” Smith.
    3) Destroyer. These ones optimize for the sole reason of sticking it to the GM while flipping them the bird. Nothing gets them off faster than destroying the GMs game world and lording it over them that they’re superior.

    When I play, I just want to have fun. That’s how it used to be. Apparently everyone else seems to have not gotten that memo with the newer editions. Apparently I’m too old school and missed the updated rules where fun got tossed out the window, along with strategy.
    Honestly, the REAL reason why optimization is a bad idea is because it hinders other players. At least, in my eyes it does. The optimization players would just say it thins out the herd and shows who the weaklings are, or maybe they’ll even say something like “it’s a good lesson to learn with these trials by fire”. Either you get stronger and learn how to build your characters in an optimized fashion, or you get purged and leave the group. If you’re seen as weak, they’re not going to miss you. Trust me on that. If players don’t want to or can’t optimize, they’re left in the dirt, and likely will lose their character and interest in the game altogether. You said it yourself in your steps. GMs will adapt to what the player(s) can do. So if one or two of the group of 4-6 players optimizing the bejeezus out of their characters, and the GM has to throw in an army of super tanks at the party to balance things out, then where does that leave the other 2-4 players? Either they sit back playing on their phone while the god characters take out the baddies, or they try their best to not completely die. Chances are they’re dead or unconscious in the first or second round. Gee, that sure sounds fun.

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but I do think you’ve missed a chunk of the important stuff that absolutely needs to be said and pointed out. In my town alone, we went from an average of 30-40 PFS players a week down to maybe 5-9 every two weeks, over the course of one year, and nobody new ever shows up anymore. This is mix of people quitting and people getting kicked out. Even now, only Core games are run to keep the few players they do have.

    1. Wow. I’m really sorry you’ve had such a negative experience with other players in the locality. That really sucks. You are right–I’m tremendously lucky in that my gaming group has been stable for the best part of 20 years. Sure people come and go, but we all seem to share a very similar play style which reduces friction at the table. I haven’t really had to go “into the wild” to get a game. I have dabbled in local groups in the area, but never really had an epic time (for a variety of reasons).

      I hope you find a group that suits you soon!

      1. Most of the gamers have quit tabletop outright. They only do online MMOs now. Not sure how that’s any better because there’s way more trolls online than at home, but I guess it’s because there’s so many people to choose from, and you never see their faces, that you can block who you want, and join up with like-minded people. Probably fun, but my funds make it impossible for me to do that. Also, never been a fan of point and click games.

        It’s sad to see the more veteran players retire because it’s no longer “our game”. The newer generation has “ruined” the experience for them so they just stay at home. This has been seen most at our local convention. It’s a bunch of teenagers who are looking to score the big win, or show off their rules lawyer abilities as opposed to sitting down and having a good time.

        I hope I find a group that suits me as well. It’s sad that I’m currently in three small home groups and none of them fit my personality. But like with a job, you don’t have to like or enjoy who you’re working with, you just have to do what you’re there to do.

  23. Optimization is a double-edged sword. Half my group OPs, half the group doesn’t. If I, as the GM make the challenges too tough, the non-OPs get creamed. I’ve found a delicate balance by stealing from video games. I’ll have one or two tough foes, and a group of “trash mobs.” The OPs get to whip on the tough foes, while everyone else tackles the masses. They’re all having tougher fights now and seem happier. They’re even having to come up with new Tactics when they can’t bring down a foe with brute force.

  24. Agree with you whole-heartedly. If I play again, I’m going to a system that is a lot simpler, that will just allow the players to RPG and have a good time rather than focus on numbers and more numbers.

  25. But what you’re describing isn’t optimization. It’s referred to as “Min-Maxing.” Optimization is when you try to be the best character you can be, in all areas. Min-Maxing is when you choose one aspect and try to get the highest numbers while sacrificing all other areas. Maybe I’m reading you wrong but it seems to me that you’re describing “Min-Maxing” not Optimization. The reverse of optimization would be building a character “organically” meaning to build them using their experiences as a guide. Character nearly died or hurt the group due to mental domination? Iron Will. Character had to run away from a horde of enemies and barely made it out alive? Run. Etc, etc.

  26. Any gm worth their salt will be creating challenges that stretch characters without breaking them, whether by more difficult things they are good at or presenting challenges that involve things they’re not so good at. As long as everyone playing is entertained the game as a whole wins in the end.
    As for you being an idiot, the numerous blog posts I’ve read by you suggest not.

    Sorry that’s as flamey as I’ll get.

  27. I agree with this article, by and large.

    From personal experience I’ve seen how a “min/max” mentality can wreak havoc on a game/campaign. I do admit games like D&D, Pathfinder, even GURPS (my favorite) have rule-sets that favor “tweaking the numbers”, and “optimization run rampant”. That may be fun for some… but not for me.

    As a GM I’ve come to favor systems that center on genuine role-playing; systems that allow “fate” to decide. The real reason we all gather on a Saturday night (or on any night) with fanatic devotion is for ONE reason… to tell epic stories.

    It’s the stories we remember… not the numbers, not the “überness” of one character. We come together you tell the story of the party; the story of overcoming insurmountable odds, of facing great evil and defeating it… not to tell the story of one a-hole who broke the book. It’s a community organization, and the mentality of the “meta-gamer” can be a poison that destroys good stories.

  28. It depends greatly on the DM. I’ve heard tale of games that were all out competitions between players and DM, where neither one shared anything about their character builds and stats until dice started rolling. Anything in the books was fair game and u hit the game mat in and all out brawl for survival. This type of game sounds like tedious torture to me but some ppl love it and in this environment optimization rules. In my game and the games of my preferred DMs, we like building character concepts more than padding stats. I often play characters that are jacks of all trades and masters of none, like cunning fighter/rogues who seek to fight the rogues and sneak the fighters. Characters who have a variety of tactics to fight and win with both skill and wit. That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to play ur odd half Orc barbarian, or Elven wizard, a one trick pony, simple and elegant, BUT even that character tends to come alive in the encounters where his chosen specialty is useless or less effective. It’s fun wen the Half Orc has to go full defensive while fighting the gollum who’s resistant to his damage, until he can manage the DC 15 Spot check to see DnD Crystal in the obelisk that if destroyed shuts down the machine. These are break the mold scenarios where the character has to improvise and it’s ALWAYS what the player remembers most. The game is designed for fun. Find ur fun however u can, power gamer or no, but at least once in a while, step outside ur box and play a “quirkier” character. As long as u have a good DM who knows ur experimenting a bit, and won’t crush u for it, I’m sure ull find a good time.

  29. The aim of the game is to have fun – not to win or tell a story, though in game victories can be fun and good games generate good stories with can be fun to retell.

    Optimization is fun to do for many of us, but a good player does not do it in a way that spoils the fun of others. It need not get in the way or roleplaying or characterisation. I prefer to have just an outline background before play starts and to develop it further in play, but the most difficult part of optimization is done before play starts.

    The game is about a group of heroes (normally). Each should have their own way to shine; their niche at which they are the best. Then the GM can provide opportunities for each speciality to be useful, and the players should recognise when it is time to let another player take point.

    When a party is created I look for a useful niche that the other players are not taking and build a character to be good at that niche whilst not stepping on the toes of the other characters, and also looking fun to play. That can take quite a bit of optimization – not going for raw power, but for the the best fit to the concept with power in the right area.

  30. You forgot to mention that if one person out of the group is optimizing and the rest aren’t this also skews things and can make it really boring for the optimizer or really painful for the others and just makes things uncomfortable and painful for your GM.

  31. The GM in your premise is failing to do his job.

    Sometimes, yes, challenge the characters within their chosen specialization so that each character gets some time in the line light.

    But, far more important than that: challenge them at the things they are NOT optimized for, but in a way that is fun/interesting-to-the-story and not just a TPK.

    Make them start developing areas that aren’t part of their optimization, so that they can meet the challenges. Force them to choose whether they want their weakness to be in lack of depth or lack of breadth. And always make them second guess if that was a good decision.

  32. Generally speaking, a GM need not up the ante to challenge the players. Characters who are too specialized will suffer in other areas. A melee specialist will have a harder time with traversing terrain, especially where climb and swim checks are involved. It’s usually better to present a variety of challenges than to just make harder challenges.

  33. In my experience optimising is the process of making a cool character idea work. I had a ptsd sergeant dwarf in a prty of spell casters in a high fantasy setting rendering my character often useless so I have to push the action economy and min max to keep up with my sorcerer and paladin/rogue teammates.

  34. This explains why I have so many problems in games, and why some GM’s out of the larger gaming family I’m part of don’t invite me to their games.

    I do not optimise. I play the character as per the character backstory and personality I developed for it. I play the character in its environment, and base don how it got to where it is today.

    For expample: In a recent DnD5E game I’ve been part of, I’m playing a Rogue (first time in this system with that character type). When my Rogue became an Arcane Trickster, one of the cantrips chosen was Mend. The entire party (6 of 7 other players actually) laughed at my choice and advised me to take a different cantrip (and spells, and equipment and supplies, etc. etc.).

    A level later (a couple game sessions), our one good Archer is lamenting the loss of her bow. It physically broke trying to block a melee attack. The party is several days away from town, and already a day into this cavern network following an underground river. The party is trying to decide what to do, if a crossbow would service the Archer just as well, perhaps a shortbow for the time being…

    I pass a note to the GM. He reads it, looks at me like I’m insane, then looks angry for a second. He says to the group “The Rogue picks up the broken bow and hands it to the Archer, and when the Archer takes it is perfectly intact again, almost like it was new.”

    Later I found out the GM had forgotten I had Mend as a selected cantrip, and he had done this specific act in order to make the party leave the caverns so he could essentially reset things and make our work that much harder. He was upset that I actually played my character as it was written using what I had available, and the party on the whole was relieved and thanking me for keeping Mend in my arsenal even after they pressured me to remove it.

    For background, my character was on his own for several years in the wild (long story). He had to learn to make, use, and repair what little he had or do without. When Arcane Trickster became available, he no longer had to worry about breaking what little gear he had as Mend made it all better. His daggers were whole again, his simple armor repaired, his lantern was working, etc. etc. Through that, he was eventually able to make good his escape and return to civilization again (again, long story). The Mend cantrip had become a staple spell in his arsenal, and he would not easily part with it.

    Through all of that, my Rogue ending up foiling the GM plan, kept the party on task and engaged, and we were able to complete the underground cavern complex in that one session. The GM as it turns out had intended that cavern system to be enough to get us all to level 6, but with my meddling that didn’t happen. A couple encounters on the road on the several days journey back to town did however provide XP enough to make it happen, and that was also the end of the session for that day as well. A couple of the guys asked to read my character sheet, which I let them do and I also provide the 2 page backstory to go with it. They read it, understood the choices and how the character developed, but again started to pressure me to change a few things to make the character more combat-centric. I simply stated this is a Rogue, not a Fighter or Paladin, and if I had done that previously when everyone said I should then we’d have to basically do that whole cave thing again. I’d rather not, would like to move on to the next thing. They agreed, but still said I should change some stuff (I didn’t).

    Today, there are 4 different games going (we alternate weekends) and I’m only part of two of them. I was asked or invited to the other two. I suspect it is because the GM in both cases doesn’t want me in the game as I end up being a radical element in an otherwise perfectly structured game. I play role-playing games for the fun of role-playing, of developing a character/person and then living a life as that person. Those other two games, those GM’s, it’s all about combat, armor class, damage-per-second and recovery times. If I wanted hack-n-slash I’d play a video game, and I’ve said as much in the past which is why I think I’m never part of the games run by these few other people.

    Honestly, that fine. I want to PLAY, not just roll dice all night long.

  35. I’ll start with this:

    player skill > stats

    Now that I’ve said that, in any human endeavour, there are varying degrees of skill. We are not all created equal. This includes character optimization. If your party chooses to go down this path, one player will be better at it than the rest, and one or more will have troubles keeping up. Thus, you end up with an unbalanced party. Some are very good or super characters, while others are merely above average or possibly good.

    As Creighton revealed, if you have a good DM who matches challenges to capability, it’s a little like an arms race. But for the party, it’s an ever increasingly fragile arms race. As you level, the gap in power level for the characters between the best optimizers and the not-the-best optimizers increases. And increases.

    So what happens if one of the best characters gets neutralized? That ‘matched’ encounter suddenly becomes more than 25% hard. Possibly 40-50% harder if that character was far better than the rest of the party.

    It is much more conservative, but safer for all, if the party remains as balanced in power as possible from character to character.

  36. Personally I am a MASSIVE min/maxer. BUT I also love a good game of role playing it out. I learned to role play when I started playing online over face book. Now I’m at a point that I need to kill thing, look awesome doing it, and chat up the bar keep when I get the chance.

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