“Out of perfection nothing can be made. Every process involves breaking something up.” ~ Joseph Campbell
Now before I even begin here, I’m going to admit that this post is going to sound a bit like a rant, and I hope folks will forgive me for dragging out the soapbox and raising my voice over this issue.
That being said, I have been hearing the term “character optimization” thrown around a lot on message boards over the past year. And now with the Player’s Strategy Guide, we have WotC publishing an entire sourcebook which had half its contents devoted to creating optimized Characters. On the surface, the idea of creating an optimized Character seems like a non-issue, but I am beginning to really have some concerns about this whole Philosophy of Character Optimization.
The Philosophy of Character Optimization seems to be this idea that one needs to select the best race for a given class and build. This in turn gives rise to the best ability scores, the best skills, best feats, and best powers to
make the best darn Character you can. Ideally, Optimized Strikers would deal the most damage possible, and Optimized Leaders could heal through any combat no matter what damage was incoming. And Optimized Defenders could lock down multiple foes and take the brunt of their attacks, while Optimized Controllers could hinder all enemies on the field by blasting them to bloodied status before they even reach the party.
Certainly, everyone wants to play a “fun” Character, and I would tend to define “fun” as one which has a number of key elements, such as a memorable back story and personality, does well in combat encounters, and has something to contribute to skill challenges. To my way of thinking, a “fun” D&D character is one capable of contributing to any sort of game situation, whether it is a heavy role-playing moment, a tough battle, or unraveling a cunning mystery (i.e. skill challenge).
But does a Character have to be optimized to be “fun”?
In a heroic fantasy game such as Dungeons & Dragons, everyone wants to feel that his Character is a Hero, and not some sidekick or hanger-on to the group. The problem is that not every Player is as good at designing the “nuts and bolts” of a Character as their teammates are, and we have a problem with some Characters simply outshining the rest. And then there are Players that are simply too good at Character design, and in the name of optimization, can create Characters that actually force the DM to react and change his encounter design specs.
Now as a DM, if I have to severely change my encounter designs to in reaction to a single Character in my campaign, which through optimization is now almost overwhelmingly powerful in one facet, be it healing, damage, control, or defending, then I think I am looking at a potential “game breaking” Character.
Some would argue that its good for the DM to be challenged sometimes, to “up his game”, and to get him to work hard at creating vibrant and challenging encounters, despite what a Player has done with his or her Character. For the most part, I agree, but this takes me back to the concern that some Players are not as good about optimizing their Characters. How will these new-and-improved encounters with an increased challenge level, designed with the overly-optimized Character in mind, affect them?
Case in point, back in AD&D days, there was a campaign I played in with a Player that wanted to try out the new Cavalier Class from the old Dragon Magazine. For those not familiar with this class, the Cavalier was a “special case” character class, with a large number of special rules, such as gaining hit points from pre-Level 1 levels, access to massively potent and expensive armor right from the get-go, and ability scores which were already potent and actually continued to increase as the game went on! A Level 1 Cavalier was more potent than a 4th Level Fighter in both hit points and Armor Class, and capable of dishing out solid melee damage. And now enter in his companions – a Level 1 Monk (me), and a Level 1 Cleric, and a Level 1 Druid – who were expected to keep up with this brute in full plate. It was not long into the campaign before the Dungeon Master was creating encounters to challenge the Cavalier, which in turn had a tendency to simply brutalize the rest of us “lesser mortal” Characters. Many combats ended with the Cavalier only slightly mussed up, while his companions lay comatose, and drifting away toward -10 death!
That is what I envision as “game breaking”, and while perhaps an extreme example of an imbalanced party, I am looking at this same sort of situation rear its ugly head in one of my 4E campaigns.
In my 4E situation, I find myself trying to DM to an Optimized Leader, capable of healing the party to the point where
they do not even spend healing surges anymore. Obviously, my only recourse is to increase the difficulty level of the encounters, creating combats with monsters that hit harder and more often, and/or creating terrain effects which reduce healing or cause continuous damage, or possibly other measures which compensate for a Heroic Tier Character that already has 8 encounter healing powers! But for those members of my adventuring group that have not optimized their Characters, these new combat situations are likely to seem capricious and brutal, and are likely to lead to Player dissatisfaction.
I have already started a dialogue with my optimized Leader, in the hopes that I can guide them into considering that a wider diversity of powers – beyond healing powers and temporary hit point bonus powers – can be just as enjoyable and effective in the long run. And while I do not like telling anyone how to design and play their Character, as a DM I have the responsibility to be the final judge in what I deem to be overpowered and game-breaking.
But having played D&D for over 30 years now, I worry when I see this tendency toward Character optimization becoming more widespread, and think it might be inherently bad for D&D as a Role-Playing Game. Shouldn’t D&D be more about playing a unique and interesting Character concept, and less about playing a pile of optimized powers? Doesn’t optimization tend to run counter to role-playing a good Character?
Are all the Characters in your campaign optimized? Do you run an optimized Character? How does having optimized and non-optimized Characters affect your adventuring group? I look forward to hearing your feedback and opinions on Character Optimization, and your comments are always welcome.
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Artwork courtesy of the Player’s Strategy Guide by Wizards of the Coast.