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Character Design: Optimized or Game Breaking?

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 32
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 17
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.

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


10 Responses to “Character Design: Optimized or Game Breaking?”

  1. Rob McDougall says:

    We’ve all heard the expressions “Speed kills” but an alternative point of view I’ve heard is that it’s not speed that kills but rather “Difference in speed” that kills.

    I think this situation is similar. It’s not character optimization that throws off game balance, but having some players more optimized than others. It’s this “optimization discrepancy” that leads to a difficult time for DMs.

    If anything, I commend WotC for publishing the Player’s Strategy Guide in order to guide those players less interested in optimization on how to do it. I think this will help offset the hard-core optimizers that troll the forums looking for broken rules and ways to maximize their characters.


  2. Wyatt says:

    Have you checked the errata? Your player sounds like he has the type of build that WOTC would look into cutting the power of. If that’s not it, then I would suggest you continue talking to him like an adult and telling him about it, and if he is your friend he will under that although you’re the DM you should also have fun too.
    .-= Wyatt´s last blog ..NAA D6: Stuff For The Next Edition =-.

  3. Jeff says:

    Speaking from personal experience, I’ve always been a big fervent of character optimization until I realized that doing so was actually limiting my fun to only during encounters and as you say, run counter to role-playing. So during the past few months, I decided to try a little experience; a half-elf bard with the 14-13-13-13-13-13 stat array and it’s been, by far, the most enjoyable character I’ve ever played since I started back in third edition. It made me realize that character concept and background are way more worth it, not only in the long run but also from the get go, than optimizing everything I could on my character.

    Also, I dm’d a game of paragon level campaign with a fighter, a cleric and an artificer with the Battle Artificer paragon path from the Eberron Player’s Guide and I was finding myself throwing encounters that were at least 3-4 levels above character level just to give them a hint of a run for their money. I can’t even begin to imagine what I would have to have done if that artificer was actually optimized. Although that was a case of overpowered abilities rather than optimization, the end result was probably the same; a loss of interest in the campaign for me (as a DM) and possibly the same for the players seeing that they don’t even have to struggle to pass everything I threw at them.

    Bottom line is that optimize characters seem to take all the fun away from playing D&D in my point of view but I don’t go out of my way as a DM to prohibit them in my games but instead suggest my players to create interesting characters who will benefit the story instead of just being the one who did 5000 damage on the level 35 solo that served as the end-boss of the campaign.


  4. wickedmurph says:

    This is a pretty tough question. I have to say, though – I have the Player’s Strategy Guide, and only the first chapter really deals w/character optimization. There is a lot of other good stuff in there.

    I started DMing on Online 4e game last year, and found that most players just naturally optimize to a certain extent. Some a bit more than others. There were one or two players, the ones with the least RPG experience, who didn’t optimize much at all, and their characters were considerably \weaker\ than the rest of the party.

    Which presented to me a bit of a conundrum. Do tell the player \Too wussy. Try again.\ I ended up working with them to make characters that were a bit more optimized, but still something the player wanted to play, but the experience left me a bit cold…

    When it came to actual sessions, though – I didn’t have much trouble with optimized characters. I tend to make very large, multi-phase encounters (sandbox encounters, if you will), and give the players a lot of leeway on how they approach them. Frontal-assaults tend to be brutal, but the nice thing about 4e is that good teamwork takes away from individual weaknesses.

  5. @Rob McDougall – if you checked out my review of PSG, I pretty much had to give them a good review, becauseit was a solid book with good content. But it’s rather sad that WotC has to publish a book just to balance optimizers vs. non-optimizers. It’s what I was kinda getting at – optimization feels like a path to game-breaking.

    @Wyatt – yea the Character is legal, per the most recent DDI Character Builder, and I’m planning on continuing our dialogue and hopefully we can meet someplace in the middle.

    @Jeff – yep, we’re in agreement. I think some of the best Characters tend to be non-optimized, but with interesting back stories and odd personality quirks, and less about how much damage they can throw around the battlefield. Sadly, we tend to see this kind of optimized thinking in MMOs, and 4E bears some resemblance to WoW and Warhammer and other successful online games – including the apparent need to have “best spec” and “best in slot items”.

    @wickedmurph – actually the first half of the book, pages 1 – 86 covers optimization options! No lie, I counted pages! LOL. But I think that the reason you were left with an icky feeling about helping the less character-design-savvy members of your campaign is because you were helping them in the wrong direction.

    I’m feeling more and more that despite my “hands off” feelings about player-characters in my campaign, and letting them have the freedom to build whatever they want, I’m beginning to think that’s a slippery slope straight to a busted campaign. If a character is too min-maxxed, too optimized, and simply over the top in game balance, I think there is little recourse but to declare that character “broken” despite it being legal, and will have to request modifications until it is “reasonable”. No one ever said it was easy being a DM huh?

  6. Anarkeith says:

    My gut reaction to the optimization discrepancy as a DM is to start throwing more skill challenges at players to de-emphasize combat a bit. I’d also consider limiting the array, or points available, for initial character building. The latter is, of course, a kludge fix. It doesn’t address the entire problem.

    But is there a way to encourage players to build more balanced characters? Diversifying challenges (encouraging Skill use, and out-of-the-box thinking in encounters seems key), providing incentives and rewards for non-combat solutions, and adding skill-targeted objectives to combat encounters. What if the uber-healer mentioned had to heal targets outside the party as part of an encounter?
    .-= Anarkeith´s last blog ..No Dice =-.

  7. UHF says:

    There is nothing wrong with lettting your player’s strategy work to an extent. I mean, didn’t you notice that in AD&D that going into a room in standard 2X2 formation with the fighters up front worked? Would you demand that the wizard go up front because you found it too hard to kill the fighters? (And face it, it was hard to kill fighters in AD&D.)

    So… I have a well balanced set of adventurers who are having fun. But frankly, they are younger kids and they just want to kill things. So I created another smaller party of highly optimized Strikers. (They dished out 220 HP damage in 2 turns at second level.) The Shock and Awe striker team are clearly what little kids need and are a definite hit. I was looking at adding a combat optimized cleric to the group. (Not healing, not damage… increasing attacks, and taking down defences.)

    That player you’re describing is affecting your Meta Game… (the other annoying words.) If the healer is making it hard to kill your players, it will affect two aspects of the game, use of resources (healing surges), and the outright difficulty of hurting the players in a meaningful way in a fight. Overall party stamina is a good thing at least they don’t spend all their time looking for a place to hide in a dungeon. (My Striker force has no stamina.) In a fight, crank it up, baby. I’d recommend increasing the EL of combats by 1 (I do this for the Strikers). Be careful not to do that by adding grindy critters, and only do nasty stuff to limit the healer in boss fights.

    Near as I can tell, your other players get to still have all the fun on the front lines.

  8. greywulf says:

    Amen to all that, brother.

    I simply told my players this: “If you optimize your characters, I optimize my monsters. Do you really want to take that risk?”

    I would much, much rather see a well-crafted an role-playingly (is that a word?) interesting character than one which has wrung all of the soul out of the game.

    Every time.

  9. Swordgleam says:

    My Iron Heroes character was built for roleplaying, but that happened to end up involving him out-damaging our berserker and out-facing our hunter. But since we need two high damage characters and two face characters, it works out. I don’t try to steal the spotlight.

  10. benensky says:

    I am not too worried about character optimization. Since, I can tailor the monsters fighting the characters in the party. In addition, I can determine what creatures attack what part members.

    For example, the “Optimized Strikers would deal the most damage possible” will be fighting with the Eight Eyed West Gola Monster with amazing amounts of regeneration. The “Optimized Leaders could heal through any combat no matter what damage was incoming” will have fun with the flying centipedes that come in and land on him intermittingly administering their sleep bite (save ends). The “Optimized Defenders could lock down multiple foes and take the brunt of their attacks” will have fun with multiple foes but still others come to challenge the rest of the party. The “Optimized Controllers could hinder all enemies on the field by blasting them to bloodied status before they even reach the party” will find monsters are crawling out of the wall or ground behind him. Else, the ground below that controller gives way and he falls into a pit causing him to disappear until combat is over.

    I am a DM and I can make all kind of stuff up behind that DM screen. Some call me a cheating DM, a badge I wear with honor. I play my party for max fun and excitement and I do not kill them. That is what the game is all about. Giving your players and exciting fun experience they can talk about the next time they get together. I am not running a tactical strategy game. I use the rules as tools to help the players experience the story. I do not think sticking to the rules at the expense of the player’s fun makes for accurate but dull games.

    That is why, when that optimized striker is in the next encounter, he finds that the double hooked Groton beetle flies between his legs, hooks (grabs) his ankles, lifts him upside down, and shakes him until all his weapons fall on the ground while I say, “Gee whiz, did not make that strength check break free again.” In the mean time, the remainder of the party has a great time beating up the monsters. The next time the optimized striker is in battle, I play it straight, he mows everything down, and feels satisfied he built such a great-optimized character. Then, the next day when he and his friends are walking down the street and a beetle buzzes them they say, “Remember when that double hooked Groton beetle . . . “

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