As some (if not all of you) may be aware – I am not a Dungeon Master. I don’t play one on TV, nor in naughty Craigslist ad role-play scenarios. I’m a player, a gamer, and a ‘character’ through and through. I’m here today to talk to you about a topic very near and dear to me: gamers who insist on Over-Optimization.
I think to truly understand what I mean by this, I’m going to have to first take all gamers everywhere and break them into three groups, which I KNOW is limited, but it’s a start:
First, you have the Role-Players, who play to create a character more than anything else. When these folks pick their powers and feats – they’re deciding what their CHARACTER would choose – not looking for optimization so much as something that makes sense in telling the story of their character. Granted, not every one of these characters are going to be like “Lollieillolioieau the Elven Ranger”, who has a complex and tragic back-story, which would take you two years to read because the guy who wrote it penned the entire thing in functional ‘Tolkien-Elvish’. Some might just be outlandish heroes like Badass McGee who lives in Castle Awesome with his Frat-boy buddies – downing brews, screwing wenches, and picking fights with the homeless peasants along the way. It’s still role-playing – it’s all about who you are and how you play.
Next you have the Roll-Players, who play D&D like its Yahtzee, but with a character sheet. It’s less about the characterization, so much as just running the combats and skill challenges as efficiently as possible. When their turn comes up, they’ll make their play, roll the dice, and then likely go back to their smart phone where they’ve paused their game of Angry Birds, or maybe were in the middle of tweeting about their plans for the weekend.
Then you have the Power-Gamers, who play D&D like they’re buying a Ferrari to curb their midlife crisis. It’s about taking the perfect feats that synergize with the powers, and then throwing on the perfect set of gear, hand-tailored to make the other heroes in the party know who has the biggest and most virile “member” in the Kingdom. But when every decision you make for your character is designed to incrementally increase your damaging potential via a complex mathematical algorithm that would make Matt Damon’s head spin, I cease to take you seriously.
[Authors note: I’m referring to Matt Damon, by the way, as a Good Will Hunting reference, not as a Bourne Identity reference… Because I’m sure that algorithm would make Jason Bourne’s head spin as well, but then he’d kill you with his bare hands. And that’s probably why we’ve never seen Jason Bourne playing D&D.]
But I do think that optimization has a place, without a doubt! Like for instance – if you’re in the D&D Championship at GenCon – then rock that mother out, and make the most hardcore character you can! If you want to be able to tell me what you’re average Damage per Round is going to be? Well, in that environment, it totally makes sense. But for the week-to-week game with your friends? I just don’t see it. Unless, of course, you’re trying to impress the girl sitting next to you, in which case – I’d remind you that the girl is already sitting down playing D&D with you! And if she’s seriously impressed by how HUGE your crit is, well, she’s probably packing a “monster’s vault” downstairs from all the Rangers and Rogues that tossed their 20’s before you.
But what effect does creating an insanely optimized character have if you’re in a party with folks who just want to sit down and have a good time?
Well, here’s the facts: If you’ve created the ultra-healer, then expect the DM to ramp up the damage. If you can personally slay an Elite in one round, then expect creatures during the next encounters to have a ton more hit points. If you can fly over combats and never take any damage while raining down death-blossom AoEs and making the DMs encounter into a giant game of whack-a-mole? Be ready for everyone in your party to just look at you and sigh, because all you’re doing is creating a more hostile world – a world that’s designed to pose a greater challenge, because YOU are raising the bar!
“But Tizzbin, are you telling me that I should arbitrarily DUMB DOWN my character and choose less than optimal abilities just for the sake of keeping things even?! How is it my fault that other gamers can’t make a character better, like mine? Am I supposed to sacrifice my enjoyment for the sake of others?!”
These are marvelous questions, and ones that I can only give my opinions to, but here are a few pointers for the sake of those folks who are caught in that scenario:
- Choose more ‘Group Friendly’ Feats: If you find yourself choosing all the “lone wolf” feats, try to expand your scope from just raising your own to-hit, damage, or defenses to finding ways to add synergy and team-work to your party. D&D isn’t a single player experience, and any player that focuses on being able to take on an encounter all by themselves is missing out on the ‘big picture’.
- Help Fellow Gamers with Character Creation: Talk to the other players and open dialogues about their powers. See if they may have options that would work together with others to increase the “party” dynamic. You can set yourself as the leader of your team, and also the ‘go to guy’ for questions when the DM is busy.
- Find your “Niche” in the Party: Is there some adventuring ‘thing’ that your party DOESN’T have? Maybe that’s a direction where you could stand out! But you should always be careful that you don’t step on anyone else’s toes. If you have a controller in the party already and you decide he’s not doing enough controllish things, it would be a nice thing to ask before you bring “ultra-controller” into the game, ya know?
- Look for a New Game: I hate to say it, but this might be your last resort. If you just can’t stand not being the Captain Planet to your parties Planeteers, it may be time to find a group in your area that wants to run your style of game!
But all of this really comes down to the fact that some people just don’t want to be a member of the team. They want to stand out and have attention lavished upon them. They want the other party members to leave the gaming table, and decide to name their real-life children after “that amazing character”. And in future days, when we have jet packs and flying cars, someone will dig up your character sheet and base an entire religion around your amazing ‘to hit’ numbers!
And in closing, let me give you, the reader, a gentle warning: If you tell me that you have to make your character amazing, because it’s secretly a “deity” in disguise, I’m going to be more inclined to conspire to kill your so-called “character”, and take all their belongings… because I have to assume that there’s a huge XP bonus for killing a deity – and your gear would definitely look WAY better on me!
[Editor's Note: The views expressed by Tizzbin are not necessarily the same as those of the Editor of Neuroglyph Games. Nor are those views necessarily the result of certain interpersonal "debates" which occurred recently in a certain D&D 4E campaign - but one also cannot deny the possibility.]
Illustrations courtesy of Wizards of the Coast – Player Strategy Guide