D&D Character Optimization Really Miscasts My Cantrips

Make Combat More Interesting with Monster Abilities for D&D Creatures and NPCs
The Dungeons and the Dragons of Dungeons & Dragons: Green Dragon Lairs

Within the Dungeons & Dragons circles the conversation about optimizing, min-maxing, and power gaming is always in a perpetual spiral. I’m here to lay out the case that a focus on mechanical advantages does not benefit play or the party. A focus on D&D character optimization can reduce focus on an interesting character, most certainly leads to grabbing more than your fair share of spotlight, and piles work onto your Dungeon Master’s lap. This argument is not intended to stop you from playing your way. If this is fun for you, I’m not coming to your table and knocking your minis off the battlemat.

power gaming D&D character optimization share the spotlight create a character not a build
Whether you build a character, create one of anything in between, the possibilities are endless in D&D. [Art by Wayne Reynolds]

Create a character, not a build

A focus on optimization is very alluring. There are many games within the tabletop hobby that have almost phases where enjoying it alone is a much different experience than experiencing it with others.

Trading cards games have the deck construction phase where you buy cards, research strategies, and construct a deck. This can be a lot of fun and can take a considerable amount of time fine-tuning to make it run exactly how you want. Dungeons & Dragons has that aspect as well. Hell, I’ve done it. Sitting down with a few books and pouring over them, finding all of the pluses and cool combos to make a build that either bends the rules or really focuses on one mechanic within the system to do something very well.

This practice can be very enjoyable, especially as most of us spend a majority of our hobby time solo, enjoying our time until we can get to the game. The problem can arise however, when we take this solo experience and bring it to game day. I borrow the term from miniature gaming, mathhammering, where someone tinkers and builds endlessly but never plays. They make builds that are effective, but even on paper you can tell are devoid of any interesting aspects and bog down play. This happens in an inherently competitive game, where you play against your friend and it tends to be tiring there. What happens when this mindset comes to a game intended to be a cooperative experience?

This point can get a little sticky as I openly admit. Not everyone pulls enjoyment from acting, using a voice, and delving into character arcs. However, I believe the cooperative nature inherent to contemporary Dungeons & Dragons makes the character aspect of the hobby the most uplifted. If you’re a player who really enjoys crafting unstoppable builds but can’t get behind acting or the like, you may want to try your hand at other circles in the tabletop hobby. Pre-painted miniatures games are amazing for being able to really wrench and bend a system, then taking the fight to a player who loves the same. It’s the reason why I took a wide step away from the miniature wargame hobby, because I like a much more narrative focused game and list building just wasn’t something that interested me anymore. I believe this is a variable as to why Magic: The Gathering is so popula,r because it really does deck construction well and leans into hyper competitive play.

The open and free nature of roleplaying games runs into a problem that even wargames and the like deal with, just not nearly the same scale as RPGs. There cannot be a written system that deals with every situation. The more and more a system fights this fact, the more it feels like trying to plug up holes in a sinking ship. The Game Master in any given system will ultimately have to come in and make a determination and probably multiple times in a campaign.

If you are deriving enjoyment from the mechanisms of Dungeons & Dragons, you have to contend with the DM make rulings you might not be happy with, that might directly undermine your build. If you can’t stand the idea of someone at the table being able to take away your effectiveness for the sake of the scene, story, or simply putting you into a situation where you can’t be most effective, you might be in the wrong hobby.

There is nothing wrong with playing the game the way you and your friends want to. If you’re having a good time, then keep it up. However, you might want to think about dabbling into other parts of the tabletop hobby because they might be much closer to your interests. I know I did it with my migration from wargames to roleplaying games. This may be a controversial statement but I truly believe characters make RPGs run at their highest level of enjoyment, not builds. I believe these because its one of the few hobbies where you can explore characters from this unique perspective with other people doing the same. You can explore interesting mechanisms in any game.

Share the spotlight

share the spotlight
Yeah, yeah, we know. Your flying archer with magic missiles can solo the tarrasque. The spotlight is all yours.

One of the most important learned skills by players has to be the art of sharing the spotlight and doing it in an elegant way. The idea that you include other players in scenes and uplift them, allowing everyone to have moments to shine in the narrative. Optimization can lead to an inability to exercise this very important skill and can sometimes actively subvert other members at the table’s will or ability to share the spotlight.

The first case I have for this is by far the most common. Your character could be so optimized that other player’s characters can no longer add to these scenes. The immediate riposte from optimizers is that everyone at the table should be optimized as well and they’re happy to help players do so. Now, if your table finds this fun to have you turn the wrenches and give them pointers to make more optimized builds, then that’s great, but often this can be alienating for players who really just want to tell a story. They use the book that has been laid out for them, maybe even making a few sub-optimal choices here and there because it’s interesting to them and don’t really have an interest in only playing dwarven fighters or half-elven warlocks.

There is a fine line between helping players and playing it for them and I truly believe making a character is a huge part in playing this game. Don’t just simply take it away from them so you can more comfortably have a few more pluses across the table.

The second issue with spotlight that comes from optimization is when you make an optimized character that is far worse than being great at a few things, and is being good at everything. If you found a way to be the best or close to it in social scenes, combat scenes and even investigation scenes, it can be frustrating to not use those bonuses.

You have to share though, so was there any point in optimizing so much that you’re above the rest? This can be even worse if your table discusses ability scores and skill modifiers. If they find out through abilities and spells you can be similar or better than what others at the table have the core character created around, this leaves a nagging thought in their head questioning why should they ever make the check? This can be terrible for players as they might have picked something like ranger because the like the idea of being the wilderness survivor who leads the party through the dangerous wilds, but if you took the Outlander background just because you want to make sure you never run out of food and they didn’t, you can do what they can without a check. They no longer get to provide that unique character trait they were hoping for.

Give your Dungeon Master a break

An argument that often gets levied when someone holds a stance against optimization, min-maxing, or power-gaming is the Stormwind Fallacy — the idea that you can optimize and still create and play an interesting character. This is a red herring argument for me as ultimately, the effect of optimization is often unintentionally selfish.

This problem is made apparent when you think of the DM, their expected objectives and the capabilities they have to meet those objectives. At the end of the day, it’s the DMs charge to make interesting scenes they and the players can play within. When you start stacking those + 1’s or bending mechanics to be increasingly efficient, ultimately you are stacking your numbers against foes that are controlled by an omnipotent creator.

The DM has two options: let you steamroll the scene, or throw more pluses on the foes’ side to make up for your optimization. So, instead of focusing on interesting writing, the likely time-crunched DM has to spend more time making encounters and challenges more difficult just to make the scenes tense. This is even further compounded when they have to ensure the other characters can participate to some degree, like we talked about in the stealing spotlight segment.

At the end of the day, optimization simply undermines tension and forces the DM to figure out a way to keep the scene interesting. Why not just focus your efforts on helping the scene instead of winning the scene? The reason this defeats the Stormwind Fallacy is because its premise relies on optimization being a virtue. I would argue there is no virtue in optimization when it comes to tabletop roleplaying games. You cannot beat the DM, because they are all powerful and are charged to challenge you.

There is always the argument asking why not just have every character below tens or something similar. The issue is not the stats themselves, it’s the disparity. If all characters are similar in strength, then there is no issue in regards to spotlight. However, if ability scores and capabilities are too far on one side of the spectrum, we run right back into the issue of over working the DM. There isn’t much difference between a party with 20’s and a party with 2’s when it comes to trying to make an interesting scene. Unless the DM is making every encounter from scratch, and I mean with no books or supplements, characters should fit into a statistical framework your system of choice was written around. This might sound boring to some players, but it might be because your expectations are misaligned. Focusing on mechanism to a high degree in such an open and cooperative game is bound for disappointment.

What do you think? I don’t want anyone to feel like this is some sort of attack, I just find when I challenge my views I either find better ways to reinforce my position by understanding it more thoroughly, or find that I was wrong the whole time and find a better position. There is nothing lost in a calm, rational debate, only that all individuals gain understanding. I want to know what your position is. Ultimately, there is no answer that fits everyone, but we can still exercise our minds in an effort to make us better thinkers within the hobby.

In the video below, the Nerdarchists discuss character creation from several perspectives, like focusing on mechanical perspective or creating a character purely from a story standpoint. But what about you? What’s your approach to creating characters for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons? Care to wax philosophical about optimization? Sound off in the comments below and, of course, stay nerdy.

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Follow Jacob Kosman:
Child of the Midwest, spending his adolescence dreaming of creating joy for gaming between sessions of cattle tending. He holds a fondness for the macabre, humorous and even a dash of grim dark. Aspiring designer spending most of his time writing and speculating on this beautiful hobby when he isn't separating planes.

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