Hail and well met! I thought I’d share with you all something that’s been on my mind for a while and that’s the concept of character optimization in tabletop roleplaying games. I’ll occasionally refer to third edition (v. 3.5) Dungeons & Dragons because it’s one of the systems I’m the most familiar with (it’s also the system I’ve been using for most of the games I run nowadays). My intention is for this guide’s content to include such systems as GURPS, old or new World of Darkness, Rolemaster and so on. There are so many great systems out there it’ll make your head spin. Anyway, onto the show and the first of three parts of my collected thoughts on what it means to optimize in RPGs.
Practical optimization for RPG characters
Practical optimization is the technique of using the established rules of a given game system to make a character more effective. It is different from its cousin theoretical optimization in that the inherent goals of practical optimization is to build a character for use in a game, whereas theoretical optimization is the intellectual exercise of building a rules legal but often bizarre and, if the days of Gleemax and CharOp forums are anything to go off of, vastly powerful, character.
Practical optimization usually involves building a character towards one or more goals. These goals are usually some variation of combat power, flexibility or survivability. There is a lot of synergy between these three. Practical optimization can cover a lot of ground. Let’s say I wanted to make a character who was really good at a particular skill like acrobatics or computer science, or who was effective in play despite some unusual or suboptimal skill choices like an unusual race, a weak class or a less than desirable allocation of physical or mental abilities. These are all applications of practical optimization.
Practical optimization runs its course over a wide spectrum. Having a melee fighter with a high Strength score or a spellcaster with a high spellcasting ability score are basic levels of practical optimization. Most people do this without realizing they’re optimizing. Picking effective weapons and spells, however, is a touch more advanced. Designing a clever combination of powers and gear from eight different sourcebooks to make your character supremely effective at your job is what I consider advanced optimization.
Optimization can be, but is not necessarily, in opposition to good roleplay. Building a freakish monstrosity of rules effectiveness that you don’t have the faintest idea how it would act could be optimization opposing roleplay. One the other hand designing an interesting concept you want to play and then figuring out the rules on how to make the concept work is an example of optimization supporting roleplay.
As a wise person once said, “You can’t roleplay when your character is dead.” It supports good roleplaying when you can do what your concept was intended to do. It inhibits good roleplaying when your character cannot mechanically carry out his concept.
Getting started with practical optimization start
Knowing the Rules
Maybe you don’t need to know all the rules for the entire game system you are playing (although it helps) but you must at least master the rules surrounding your concept. Practical optimization is a rules exercise and it cannot be separated from the rules. If you’re making a wizard you need to know the magic rules. If you’re making a martial combatant you need to know the combat rules. You’d certainly need to know the character creation and advancement rules.
Know what the system rewards. If the system rewards heroic behavior, this is imperative information to have when making your character. If the system makes combat super deadly your group should be avoiding fighters and a character who is only specialized in fighting won’t be very active. If the game gives extra points for humor or roleplaying or doing things associated with your archetype make sure your character is able to pick up those points.
Talk with the Game Master
Does the Game Master have house rules that touch on your concept? Does your concept fit into the game they plan to run? You could have the greatest vampire slayer concept in the game but if their campaign won’t have any vampires in it your concept is now rendered useless. Does the GM have any suggestions on character concepts or qualities they want to see in their game? If the GM likes your character, your character will benefit. If there are unusual goals you have for your character like godhood, becoming a king, joining a particular faction or learning particular abilities it is your job to check and see if they are appropriate to the campaign and give them lots of time to think about the best ways to include your character concept.
Pick your battles. Ultimately the GM’s word goes and sometimes you’ll disagree with their rulings. If you frequently argue and your concerns aren’t shared by the GM and other players in the group, you lose credibility over time. If rulings crush your character concept and the GM won’t come around you can develop a different character concept or perhaps consider finding a different group with a play style matching your own more closely. If your character is approved but at the cost of upsetting the other players including the GM, have you really won? If you need to discuss your concerns with your GM, approach the situation maturely, perhaps in private.
Talk with the GM again after you have built your character and ask if they have any suggestions. Does your character fit with the theme and power level of the game they plan to run?
Talk with the other players
Are there particular things the group needs? What concepts are they building or are already in play? If the game culture allows try to look at their character to get an idea of what power level they are running. Try to discuss with them what they would expect from your character and how you plan on meeting it. For example in 3.5 D&D if they expect your divine caster to provide healing and you don’t want to, let them know early when they can adjust their expectations.
Will your character fit in with the goals and character of the party? If they are playing or building a righteous group of crusaders for justice your necromancer may not be the best idea. If you want to play something with a different moral outlook from your group make sure the other players are cool with it and try to work out reasons why they would include your character in their group instead of leaving him high and dry.
Have a plan
Try to have some idea of how you want your character to develop. If this changes during play that’s fine but knowing what your character is building towards helps you get there. This may mean that you have a detailed 20th level build or a plan on where spend your first 150 XP or just an idea you might want to take up spellcasting later on so you need to arrange your ability scores so it’s possible when you want to move in that direction. In 3.5 D&D this can be particularly important to plan several levels in advance because some thematically appropriate classes may require prerequisites you will need to build to.
In some games when you take certain traits matters a lot. In 3.5 D&D a 1st level rogue who then becomes a 1st level wizard is vastly more effective than the other way around. In many point based systems allocating points during character creation uses different costs than it does to raise them in play. If you know you’re going to want a high Strength and a decent Dexterity in these systems, for example, it may be cheaper to start with a high Stength and a lower Dexterity and then raise your Dexterity in play than it would be to start with both scores at decent thresholds and then raise one to a higher level. This is where your understanding of the character creation and advancement rules will greatly help you.
Aim high and optimize with moderation
Try to design your character to be notch better than any other character in the party. Don’t steal their spotlight. Don’t blow them out of the water and most importantly don’t be a wangrod. Try to make your build a little bit stronger. The reason for this is simple. It is easy to play your character below their power level. You can always blow a turn maneuvering into position or using your second best attack instead of your best. I have never heard of a GM getting angry if you attack using lower bonuses or for less damage than you should have. If you find your character isn’t as strong as you thought or the other players are stronger than you anticipated it is much harder to fight back the ramp and play above your own power level.
If you find you have way outpaced your teammates, pull yourself back. First, this is mature, responsible gameplay. Second, the nerf you pick yourself almost always hurts less. There are a lot of powers like polymorph spells or Wild Shape that can be fun and thematically appropriate or ridiculously game breaking, depending on the how you use them. Maybe Wild Shaping into a fleshraker dinosaur and casting venomfire isn’t the best idea unless you have other party members running at this level of optimization. Showing your GM you can play responsibly with your toys gives them little reason to take these abilities away. Learning the line between a good character and too good a character is at the heart of practical optimization. There is nothing wrong with keeping a couple of overpowered abilities in your back pocket and only using them to prevent a TPK.