Jan 122017

It’s Throwback-Thursday, where we revisit an awesome article from years ago…

I find devoted (read as, crazy) power gamers perfectly adorable.  It’s funny how they will spend so much time reading rules, seeking synergy, and comparing characters on message boards.  The goal, as far as I can tell, is to make sure that the stats, attacks, damage, and checks are all as humongous as possible.  If you were to ask about their favorite gaming memories, I can almost–ALMOST–guarantee that they will talk about numbers:  “I did 107 damage against this nightwalker once” or “We were fighting an iron golem and I hit four times in a row:  42, 37, 40, and 38” or “At first level, I rolled a 30 Athletics check and easily jumped the chasm.”

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this.  Honestly I’m not.  I don’t mind the numbers game.  I’m not going to pass judgment on anyone else, either passively or aggressively.  Sure, people who declare things like, “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this,” usually ARE saying there’s something wrong with this, but I’m speaking truth here, hallelujah, testify!

So while I’ll never hold it against anyone else, optimization is something I choose not to do.  Part of it is that I’m not very good at it (let’s face it, math sucks), and part of it is that I don’t want to turn character creation into a multi-week research paper (also known as I’m-lazy-as-all-get-out), but most of it is that I have trouble finding the character if I spend all my time seeking the plusses.  The two goals can be mutually exclusive.

When creating a character, I’ll do one of the following:

1.  I’ll pick a class and/or race that I’ve never played before.
2.  I’ll pick a class or race that I totally love with all of my heart.
3.  I’ll be totally contrarian and pick a combination that makes no sense at all.

There’s often some overlap here, so I might be able to pick a class I’ve never played before (like warden) and a beloved race (like halfling) for a combination that makes no sense at all.  As I build the character, his story starts coming into focus:  picture a primordial halfling village, with thatch-roofed huts and a coconut-based technology and maybe a picturesque lagoon, and all of it defended by the Chosen One who uses the power of the volcano and the majesty of the palm tree to make a really killer mai tai.  Or something like that.

Sure, I don’t yet know how my halfling warden fits into this setting.  Is he the Chosen One?  Is he the Chosen-One-In-Waiting?  Is he the son of the Chosen One?  Eventually I’ll figure this out as time passes and I let my brain bat it around like a squeaky toy, but for now, this is a class and a race I can have all sorts of fun playing.  The only down side?  The completely useless +2 to Charisma and +2 to Dexterity.

The desperate power gamer, who has been pulling his hair out during this creation, might perk up a little at this point and say, “Hey, you can still dump your 8 into Charisma!  It’s not a total loss.”  Until he sees me lower my Strength to pump up my Charisma, since I picture my little halfling as a chatty and gregarious fellow.  I’ll probably even pick a background that gives me Diplomacy, just to complete the ensemble.

The argument against my halfling warden goes like this:  as he goes up in levels, he becomes less and less effective against opponents, and thus becomes a greater liability for the party.  Eventually he’ll be a chatty and gregarious black hole, consuming resources and providing nothing.  And this is actually a pretty compelling argument, except for the teeny, tiny point that it’s stupid.

These games are not played in the cold, black emptiness of an objective setting.  The rules are not forged from callous adamantium.  The laws are not established on an eternal unbiased bedrock.  If we were talking about a computer game, then yes, you’d better make your character as dangerous as you can, since the programming logic will be unmoved by tears or rage.  But this is a game managed and mastered by a human being, and one who’s charged with showing all of the players a good time, preferably with pants on.

A human DM (or reasonable facsimile) can lower the soldier’s armor class so my halfling can hit it, or reduce the brute’s hit points so my halfling can kill it.  This DM can reduce the Difficulty Class for the required skills so my halfling can jump across the pit, can find the secret door, and can sneak past the slumbering ogre.  Simply put, the DM can choose to make a fun game, regardless of the numbers on my character sheet.

At this point, the power gamer shouts, “Well, you’d never survive in MY game!” That’s fine.  If you look your table, you might notice that I’m not sitting there.  I wouldn’t fit in.  I would only bore all of you to death with my most dangerous attack, a long and detailed history of my halfling and his village.  I might pepper my talk with an occasional aboriginal word, like chaska for star or taima for thunder.  Yeah, I would be THAT guy.

Granted, there could be a problem when you blend optimizers and non-optimizers, but I’m not even willing to accept that this is lethal to the game.  If I choose to play this character, then I will live with the consequences of your scoring huge numbers while mine are more, shall we say, modest.  I’ll still be able to contribute, won’t I?  My eladrin cleric can still use healing word.  My tiefling fighter can still mark.  My dragonborn wizard can still go boom on minions.  And I get to play the character I always wanted to play.

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Dixon Trimline

Dixon Trimline is a halfling that occasionally (and reluctantly) plays a 40-something human who likes to write, dream, and travel around inside the cobwebby darkness of his own mind. This human grew up with role playing games, but his first love and his first choice was always Dungeons & Dragons. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  22 Responses to “What’s the Opposite of Optimized?”

  1. First of all, welcome to the Shack! And secondly, great article. You make a good point here, play what you want. I’ve had all sorts of gamers at my table and like to think that I’m able to gear the campaign to meet each of their needs, whether power gamer or self-deprecating character masochist.

    Anyway, once again great article!

  2. Dude, this once time, I totally criticalled with a maximized 20th level disintegrate, and did 480 points of damage!

    No, really.

    Also, yes, I realize that I embody a trope, but like the guy said, different strokes.

  3. @John Lewis: Thanks for the welcome and the read. The Shack is certainly bigger than it looks from the outside. You gear your campaign to meet all the gamer needs, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. That’s a lucky bunch of players.

    @Olodrin: Hehehe. Yup, dead on right. I might not want to BE that character, but I sure do want to ADVENTURE with that character. You can exterminate the big bad, and I’ll give you a couple Cures after the battle.

  4. Fantastic read! I love how you put words together.

    You know, I read your article, and I say to myself, “Yeah, that’s right.” Then I go back to feeling that when I play with power gamers and optimizers, that I have to follow suit. I hate it when others change the way I play. I know, how I play is ultimately up to me. I just need a game where optimizing can’t be done, is there such a game, or am I being too much of a baby.

  5. @Charisma: Hey, I talk a good game, but when I’m creating a character for a mostly optimized group (or a group of unknowns), you know I’m holed up in my room, agonizing over point buys and feat selections, desperately trying to make a character who’s more dangerous than interesting. The primary target of this article is me, because I can tend to be the weakest sort of get-along wimp.

  6. The opposite of optimized = fun. When everyone is maximizing in my group I can usually slip in an oddly built character that isn’t particularly effective but is fun to play. This has been harder in my 4E group as mutant builds are trickier to make and roles are more defined, plus, you don’t want to let the group down. In a 3.5 Rappan Athuk campaign I played a Halfling Barbarian/Cleric and it was a blast. The character couldn’t do anything well but always seemed to pull a trick out of the bag when the time came.

  7. You know, I think I’m going to design a one-shot with pregens where everyone is totally gimped – Sort of like a Three Stooges / Three Amigos kind of thing.

    I think that would either go over really well or really bad.

  8. Huh, I like that. I still think it might be a good idea not to make the character -too- stat-poor, because D&D is still focused around some manner of simulation. Odd characters are much easier to make in rules-liter games, like Wushu or Risus. So part of it is definitely the system.

  9. @ Andy: Yeah, I could see that.

  10. @Crose87420: I have had fun with players who were mad for optimizing, and as I’ve mentioned to Tourq, those mad optimizers are usually extremely honest. Ultimately, it comes to my preference for center stage, and I don’t really care. I would like to hear more about this Halfling Barbarian Cleric. Sounds like a hoot!

    @Tourq: If you’re going to build a Three Stooges game, you’re approaching it in exactly the right way. EVERYBODY understands the rules and EVERYBODY is on board. It becomes a tougher sell if during the first encounter, you say, “Oh yeah, knock 6 points off of all your stats.”

    @Andy: You’re right, of course. It can present certain challenges if the rules get in the way of “creative interpretation.”

  11. @Andy & Tourq re: 3Stooges

    But pulling off the eye poke and making Chris go “woop, woop, woop” while bopping Stacey on the head has its appeal… I’m retooling the warlord powers for Moe as you read this.

  12. Making a character that is not optimized (in theory) is an excellent idea. The problem (in practice) is that it doesn’t always happen, even when intended.

  13. @Dillon: You make a great point. It’s awful enticing, combining race and class and powers and feats and accurate, deadly weapons. I’m not necessarily advocating a wild swing in the other direction, where you must take combinations that make no sense. But maybe a step or two away from raw optimization, just to see if we players can still have fun.

  14. …Perhaps stats that are a bit more evenly spread out.

  15. A technique that I find works well is to take one low stat and role-play up the lack of ability associated with the stat. My current character (first time I’ve been a player in years) has a really low Wisdom. This doesn’t get in the way of his bard abilities, at least not mechanically (I can still do what the party needs me to do). However, I role-play Malik as pretty oblivious, overly trusting, and often a bit foolish. He’s a smart guy but fails to make the most of that and continually makes poor life decisions (which is why he’s stranded in Argonessen with a bunch of crazy people).

    I’ve always thought that what makes a character really interesting is the things that he isn’t good at and the personal obstacles that he must always work against.

  16. @John Lewis: That’s a great idea, an apple sauce from lemons kind of thing. You are saddled with this crummy score (and yes, I do sorta miss the days when your low score could be LOWER than 8), so you turn it into a roleplaying opportunity.

  17. I’m lucky enough to have been introduced to D&D by a group of Living Greyhawk veterans who are masters of both sides of the coin; producing characters with incredible back stories, incredibly fine tuned stats, and occasionally the really weird builds like the madly multiclassed halfling who was literally only good at one thing. Diplomacy, to be specific.

    Of course, my buddy is now having to DM Pathfinder for them, and it sounds like we’re learning that the challenge ratings in the monster manual just . . . don’t take that level of optimization into account, anyway. Maybe we’d be better off trying a little less hard to perfect our builds to the last feat?

  18. @Xarathos: It may be a matter of being competitive, but not against the DM or the other players, but rather it’s you, the player, versus the rules. While remaining within the boundaries of the rules, how deadly can I make this character? If 4 – 6 players are all doing that, then you’ll have to toss any kind of challenge rating right out the window. Unless, of course, the players’ joy comes from mercilessly stomping the monsters.

    Those poor, poor monsters.

  19. When I first started making a Monk, a Warforged didn’t seem like the typical first choice. Doubly so with it being for a Dark Sun campaign. However, I worked it out with the DM and ended up with a slightly unlikely character, an Obsidian construct from the green ages, locked away in a box for the better part of two thousand years. To make all matters worse, due to some strategically drilled holes, he whistles when he walks. It’s going to be a good time when we have to be sneaky. I’ve been having a blast so far!

  20. @Sus3an: Oh, that’s a beautiful character, absolutely stacked with coolness. I like the “locked away in a box” touch. And whistles when he walks? Hehehe.

  21. excellent read.

    i tend to be a power gamer, hoverever, because i greatly enjoy the challange. our group tends to come from a long line of cold, merciless DM’s i myself have destroyed several of my own characters, tearing their arms off in torture while party members looked on, simply because my teammates couldn’t get to my character in time to save him. we don’t like to be catered to and have the rules changed to give the gimps a better shot.

    however, that doesn’t mean our groups doesn’t see the absolute oddest matches of characters. infact, our favorites are always the ones that somehow survive even though they shouldn’t. Our Bardbarian (yes, a bard barbarian) is a prime example. so is our sorceror barbarian. he ended up being a powergamed character without intending to be though. (buffed himself with spells, then charged in, enlarged, with enhanced strength, armor, and resistances)

    anyway, i ramble. to me, powergaming is only fun when i am amongst equals. if my character is overpowered compared to everyone else, i begin to hate it, and i shelf the character and create a new one. i love the equality and balance of d&d. but i love to make the most of what i can, and try to maximize something different each time. that to me is fun, but i am not out to be the best at the table… just the best at the system. (like blackjack, you aren’t beating your fellow players, you’re beating the dealer) when the table gets unbalanced, no one has fun.

    (currently playing a level 5 duergar fighter, level 1 rogue, with a greathorn minataur warhammer… (1d12+9 19-20×4 crit) and is feated to be a sunder and overrun character to balance his low armor class of 18… every battle is a life or death thing for his armor class… heh)

  22. @Brandon: Absolutely, I think it’s a fair point (and understandable one), if you’re coming from DMs built out of pure cruelty, you need to build for that lethality. It can definitely be fun if you turn it into a competitive exercise, players vs. DM, as both parties bring everything they have to bear. Success is that much sweeter!

    I love the bardbarian and sorcerer barbarian. What concepts!

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