RPG Guide to Practical Character Optimization — Part 2

RPG Guide to Practical Character Optimization -- Part 1
D&D Ideas -- Blind

Part 1 of this guide to character optimization for tabletop roleplaying games goes over some general guidelines and touches on a few key points of the practical optimization process. You can check that out here. Now we’ll dive headfirst into combat.

RPG player character optimization
The cover of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide illustrates a diverse group of characters. [Art by Tyler Jacobson]

RPG character optimization guide to combat

Why focus particularly on combat?

Most RPG systems include a greater or lesser degree of combat. Games that don’t tend to be mostly rules light games in which the concept of character optimization bears meager merit. In many games, and under many Game Masters, noncombat encounters focus more on roleplaying and problem solving abilities of the players than their characters. The variety of social and other rules between games makes it exceedingly difficult to generalize noncombat optimization other than simply following trying to build your character so they will be useful in a wide variety of situations.

Combat basics

Plan Your Default Move. This is usually pretty easy. When a generic antagonist draws their weapon and comes after you, do you charm them, blast them with fire or take up a defensive position? Your default move is the thing you do most often in combat and should be a focus of your character optimization efforts. It should be your most effective option, backed up by whatever forms of specialization or equipment based optimization your system allows. This is your trick, and this trick can take many forms from a Path of the Berserker’s Frenzy, warlocks’ eldritch blast or another spell or feature almost impossible to resist. Sometimes with a starting character you are only really good at one combat option. This is acceptable for the short term but even with a starting character you should have a plan for some other options.

Three Combat Strategies. This is a personal rule I’ve used for a long time.

“What if my modus operandai won’t work?”

Every character in any relevant game system should have at least three plans for how to participate in combat. The more widely varied these options are the better. All three should be effective, and not a waste of time. The backup options should be as strong as possible while not diverting major resources from your default move. For example, a fighter in 3.5 D&D might have these three combat strategies:

  1. Hit the enemy with pointy thing (default move)
  2. Grapple/trip/net/otherwise immobilize enemy
  3. Withdraw and shoot enemy with ranged weapon

This lineup is weak on a couple of levels. First, all of his combat strategies are similar. A good defense against one (like high amounts of Damage Reduction, Armor Class or incorporealness) is very likely to defend against more than one. Worse still, given the nature of the system it is difficult to make all three options effective. The fighter who is good at all three is likely to have severely crippled their default move.

Compare with a 3.5 D&D cleric who could have these three combat strategies:

  1. Buff allies
  2. Blast enemy with magic
  3. Hit enemy with blunt weapon
  4. Heal allies

While I readily concede some of these options are better than others the cleric could choose to pick any of those (or others) as their default option, using limited resources like feats, long term spells or wealth to make it more effective without significantly harming their ability to do any of the others. Even better, one or more of those are likely to be useful in combat.

This illustrates why in many systems spellcasters have a real advantage over those without spellcasting features. It is often easy for a spellcaster to pick truly different combat options where a mundane warrior is often limited to permutations of “I try to hit the enemy with my weapon.”

Understanding Combat Elements. There are lots of different ways to phrase these concepts. I got my tactical training through chess, where I learned there are four elements — time, space, material and position.

Position refers to the ability to meet tactical objectives. In chess the ultimate positional advantage is checkmate. In RPG combat this translates to having crossed the bridge, rescued the hostages, cleared the room, run away or otherwise achieved whatever the goal of the fight was. Putting your team into position to flank the enemy, getting partial cover, focusing the fire of your party to quickly down one enemy after another or trapping melee foes in a bottleneck are positional advantages. From the generic sense it is most important to realize that positional advantages are possible and helpful. How they play out will vary by the tactical sense of the Game Master and players and the system involved. The effort in combat is often trying to figure out a way to take advantages in the other elements and convert them to material or positional elements.

Material is the most obvious element. In chess it refers to having more, or more valuable pieces than your opponent. In the gaming sense it could refer to outnumbering the enemy or to being better than the enemy like a higher level or better equipped. Unfortunately optimizing here is often either impossible or too obvious. Buy good weapons and armor. Bring the whole party to the fight. Level your characters when appropriate. If you have the option to recruit more people such as retainers, charmed enemies, summoned creatures or through incredible leadership you usually should. If you can strengthen your allies you usually should.

Space in chess refers to controlling more of the board than your opponent. On the forums, the element of space is usually referred to as battlefield control. This is the inverse of the three combat strategies rule. If you can take away options from the enemy you can predict their actions better and force them to choose less effective actions. If you can prevent an enemy from casting a spell or using a ranged weapon by getting in their face or keep them from clobbering you with a mace by freezing their feet to the floor you have obtained a spacial advantage. This can also include aspects of tactical combat without including the physical location of combatants. For example if an enemy spellcaster  can’t blast you with magic because you have drained their mana or a vampire can’t use their powers because they’re low on blood, they have fewer and less effective ways to contribute to the fight.

Time is the last and probably most important of the elements for optimization purposes. Time in most RPGs is measured in rounds or some variation thereof, and every participant gets a certain number of actions. A time advantage is also referred to as an action advantage. There are generally three basic ways to secure a time advantage.

  1. Actions Before Combat. Anything you would normally do in a fight. Anything you can do before the fight starts, however, is a huge advantage. When people talk about the broken shenanigans of Divine Metamagic they are talking about a time advantage. It doesn’t make affected spells more powerful it just keeps them from taking several rounds to activate. Summons, buffs, use potions or items all happening before you kick open the door is much better than after.
  2. Initiative. Rocket tag refers to the phenomenon in some games where the first person to hit the enemy wins. This is underscored by the importance initiative has in many area fights. Simply put, going first gives you an extra action and as long as turns alternate back and forth and you don’t waste a turn, you will always have one more action than the enemy has had so far. Keeping a high initiative modifier is almost always a good idea.
  3. Actions Per Round. This is huge. All else being equal, the character who acts more often wins, or at least gets away. You have at least three different combat strategies, right? How awesome would it be to use them all in one round to see which one works? Time stop, celerity (spell or vampiric power), augmented reflexes. It doesn’t matter what the game system calls the ability. If if lets you take actions outside of your turn and during the same round, get it. Items or powers that let you take actions without using up your turn (like swift or immedate actions in 3.5 D&D) are almost as good.

What can we extrapolate from this? Positional advantages are situational. You have to analyze them as you go. Material advantages are static. You can’t usually pick your level or how many characters are in your group and the GM usually adjusts for it if you do. Bonus points if you have powers to allow you make more allies but this isn’t always possible. Time and space are the elements you can best optimize for in most games. Go first and go more often — this is key to maintaining control of the combat.

Don’t Be Afraid To Be Afraid. Some GMs occasionally present parties with superior opponents to make characters think on their feet. Sometimes GMs erroneously misjudge the difficulties of fights. The CR system in 3.5 D&D is notoriously inaccurate and many systems have no method of evaluating fights at all. You may wind up in a fight that is too hard by accident. Other times fights just go bad. Most RPGs use dice and sometimes the gods of chance do not smile on you. Players sometimes forget running away can be the best option. Don’t forget!

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