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RPG Guide to Practical Character Optimization — Part 3

D&D Ideas -- Blind
Mapping the Road to Adventure | Tool Time with Cartographer's Tools in 5E D&D

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. In Part 2 we covered optimizing your RPG characters for combat, a significant part of many games. You can find that part here. In this last part I’ll share general tips and tricks for approaching optimizing while maintaining a well balanced character for both in the game and your fellow players.

RPG character optimization

RPG character optimization tips

Focus on character strengths

Jack of all trades, master of none is a fun concept but it really is pretty far from good optimization. If I get shot I want an awesome doctor, not a pretty good one. I want Sherlock Holmes to solve a mystery, not someone who did some logic puzzles one time. In an RPG there are three really good reasons for this.

  1. Party Cohesion. If you are a solo character this isn’t nearly as true but in a party you have people who are good at their jobs.They want to do the jobs they built their characters around. Unless some particular area is especially needed, being the second best party member at something is often useless. Party members, in and out of character, may want you to pull your weight and this means being good at something.
  2. Time. We talked about time at length in part 2 of this guide. If you have one action in a round you want it to be as effective as it possibly can. If your combat action has half the impact of the character next to you it’s like you are only taking half a turn. Obviously this has to be balanced with the necessity of having more than one combat option. Ideally you want to have a few key strengths you rely on and backups to keep you relevant without spreading yourself too thin.
  3. Multiple Routes to Success. Imagine I want to see what is going on inside an enemy building. A super charismatic character could talk their way past he suspicious guards. A stealthy ninja could creep past them. A combat master could blow them away. A skilled hacker could break their computer security and look inside. A guy who kinda knows computers, combat, stealth and social skills couldn’t do any of those things with much reliability.

Overcoming obstacles usually involves being good at something. A character’s roles don’t necessarily need to be as formulaic as fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons made them but a character should have a role in the party they fill completely.

Partial Exception: Many systems key lots of skills to ability scores. If you character is super smart because you’re focusing on a particular strength like spellcasting or computer hacking you may be able to use the high score to diversify into a larger range of skills very cheaply. The same is often true with physical skills for a dexterous character.

Focus on player strengths

I have a friend who is a really good mechanical optimizer. He builds strong characters. For a long time we would go to games and his character would under perform, and on the trip home he would curse himself as he realized he didn’t activate the spell or power that would have made him into a powerhouse in whatever he was doing. He just couldn’t keep focus in play. Optimizing for him means focusing on static bonuses so he doesn’t have to remember to activate them, he just needs to write all of it down in the math section on his character sheet.

Some kinds of abilities like illusions and fast talk or bluff rely heavily on player imaginationr. In the hands of a player who isn’t good at thinking on his feet, they simply aren’t as strong.

Ultimately, knowing your limits and what works for you as a player is the first step. If you’re optimizing a character for another player it isn’t always best to build the character as if you were going to be playing it. Sometimes simpler builds are better. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: In 5E D&D this is why Champion fighter is often recommended for new players, not because it’s less effective, but there’s less possibility players will miss out using more active features.]

Common powers

I am going to discuss some common powers or areas of character optimization in science fiction and fantasy RPGs and evaluate them. Please interpret the following concepts in lieu of these 2 rules.

Play what you like

If there is a character concept that is fun for you, play it. If you realize it isn’t as strong to play you still have options. You can pull out the optimization chops and try to make it as useful as your can muster. You can try to specialize in something else as well while retaining the key parts of your original concept. You can talk with your Game Master and make sure there are opportunities for your character to contribute. You can optimize anything.

Opportunity costs are everything

Opportunity Cost is an economic term that means what you gave up to get something. If you are looking at a power that costs you 10 XP, the opportunity cost equals the strongest other thing you could have bought with that same resource. Even a really strong ability might not be worth a high price tag in levels, feats, XP, money and so on while a nearly useless ability available for free or negligible cost can be worth it.

Smiting the Enemy (Often Good): Hitting them with a weapon or knocking them out with a power. Ultimately, most parties want the most effective ways to remove enemies from combat.

Hard to Kill (Often Bad): In the words of Admiral Akbar, “It’s a Trap!” Obviously characters shouldn’t blow over in a stiff wind (unless they’re Raistlin). You don’t want your character to die easily. But hard to kill is only as good as your most effective combat option. Having supreme magic resistance, armor, dodge, hit points or whatever doesn’t do much if you don’t also have a way to help put your enemies on the floor. Remember, you are probably in a party and being the last one standing in your group in a TPK isn’t as good as being the MVP in a party victory. If you have a reliable way to take the enemy’s hate and focus it on your instead of on allies, hard to kill becomes much better.

Augmenting Allies (Often Good): Being good at this lets you be a team player while still being able to contribute to combat. Let the other players roll all the dice. You can sit back and smile knowing it wouldn’t have succeeded without you. Transmutation specialists (and wizards in general) are notorious for this.

The point is there are lot of options and possible routes for optimization. And there are a lot of very situational builds. In old World of Darkness a new unoptimized werewolf can utterly trash a new unoptimized mage. A veteran optimized mage can utterly destroy a veteran optimized werewolf. Which of those concepts is better to play depends largely on how long you expect the game to run and the level at which you expect it to run. It’s really frustrating to build a character around the idea of a particular power or prestige class only to have the campaign end right before you get it. In a game you expect to run from beginner to veteran levels try to make sure your character is competitive throughout their growth cycle.

Here’s where things get interesting (and potentially cheesy) — the concept of flaws and disadvantages. Many systems allow you to take options that limit your character in exchange for rewards in other areas. The terms flaw and disadvantage are used in different systems but are otherwise pretty much indistinguishable. I mostly use flaw because it’s shorter.

In systems where there is a limit regarding how many points in flaws you can take it is almost always a good idea to take the full allocation of flaws. Optimization involves being good at your optimization goal. Having more points or feats or whatever usually allows you to achieve those optimization goals more quickly and effectively

Stealth flaws

Just because there isn’t a big section in the rule book entitled Flaws doesn’t mean the game doesn’t use them. To give a few examples:

  • A wizard in 3.5 D&D who specializes gives up schools of magic they don’t plan to use in exchange for improved proficiency in schools they do.
  • A WoD mage who takes a flaw banning them from using a sphere they don’t plan to use and spends the points improving their magic.
  • A character in any D20 game with a point buy system who uses Wisdom as a dump stat to increase their combat effectiveness.
  • A GURPS character who takes Weak Will and Bad Eyesight flaws and uses the points to raise combat stats.

Suggestions for good flaws

Moderate Level Enemies. Here’s a secret. RPGs are based on conflict and tension. Your party will have enemies so why not pick them yourself? Don’t pick godlike antagonists unless you have a death wish but antagonists close to the party’s level are great! You are guiding the campaign in a direction you want it to go. You are making the GM’s job easier. This makes them happy. This kind of flaw is so good that in games without flaws many players include enemies in backstory anyway.

Plot Hooks. A driving goal. A favor owed to a mysterious benefactor. An organization or boss to occasionally ask you to do stuff. Think of it this way. Are you actually giving up your free will when you take these flaws or are you guiding the campaign in the direction you want it to go, getting hints on what the GM wants the party to do and getting points for it?

Companion Flaws. Your barbarian is illiterate but everyone else in the party can read. Your character has bad eyesight but the two others standing next to you can count the fleas on a flying eagle. Unless you plan on wandering away from the party a lot you can often rely on their strengths to cover your weaknesses and vice versa. That’s why you have parties, right?

Build Negation. You are Daredevil. You are blind but this flaw is irrelevant because you can pilot fracking spaceships with your super touch and hearing. You are a 3.5 D&D character with a 5 Constitution but whoops, now you are undead and that stat goes away. This kind of flaw is great if you can get it, but handle with extreme caution. Some GMs won’t give points for flaws they don’t think are flaws. Others might get angry. It’s not worth causing strife for a free feat or a couple points of merits. Not worth it.

Planning to Play Anyway. If your character concept is hobo a flaw limiting your starting wealth isn’t a hardship. If you were planning on playing your character as a smartass who mouths off to powerful authority figures you might as well get some points for it to help you survive. Check the rules for the roleplay flaws even if they match your concept in fluff. In many games they can control your actions if the dice don’t go your way. This is fine if what they make you do is something you would have done anyway but sometimes you may feel your character wouldn’t act in a certain way on this occasion and they will hurt your suspension of disbelief or player agency.

Final tips on flaws

A few games, rather than giving character building points for flaws, reward the character when the flaw comes into play. In such cases a player may want to pick flaws that come up often.

The term Min/Max means you maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. You don’t leave gaping holes in your character sheet by piling flaws on top of flaws to encourage your GM to screw you. A fighter with low Wisdom or a Brujah with low willpower is asking for trouble if they then take a Weak Will flaw. It is fine if your flaws sometimes inconvenience you. If they kill you, sideline you or threaten to turn you against the party they probably aren’t worth whatever you got for them.

D&D alliances RPG character
In Dinner Party, part of Out of the Box Encounters, alliances between adventurers themselves get put to the test. [Art by Kim Van Deun]

Optimization tips and tricks

This last section is for general advice on practical optimization in character building or play. If it doesn’t really fit elsewhere, I will put it here. I’m okay with including system specific tropes if it is for for a really popular system and it isn’t something that would go in a more specific guide. For example: “In 3.5, you want to keep your armor class between x and y” is okay. “Never play monks,” or “Always ban evocation” are too specific.

What is Good Damage?. If your default move is damaging an enemy and it isn’t piggybacking other beneficial effects like battlefield control, debuffs or instant kill effects you have to be able to dish out good damage. This will vary by system, campaign and level. Good damage for a new character is not the same as good damage for a veteran. This is my rule on the matter. A damage based character should usually be able to kill lower level mooks in one turn (not necessarily one attack). They should do enough damage that enemies of a power level equal to or higher than the characters, like bosses, should notice and fear you if they get hit. If you hit things and they shrug and keep attacking someone else you aren’t doing good damage. In very optimized games you can crank the goal all the way up to stupid damage. Stupid damage involves numbers that make the GM shake their head in disbelief and manage a desperate attempt to remain balanced when you have people in your group who can rewrite reality with their mind.

Anatomy of a TPK. Unless your GM is trying to kill you by making you fight impossible odds, overwhelming threats rarely kill parties. Characters usually realize they can’t duke it out with Darth Vader and three AT-ATs standing behind him, so they will run away, surrender, negotiate or try something else. RPG characters die in close fights that go bad. The monster gets a lucky crit on the fighter, other players cluster in to help, the monster is reeling, it seems like you can turn it around in one more round and then everyone is dead. Experienced players know this. It’s just something to be aware of.

Don’t Quit your Day Job. Having character goals more involved than killing more monsters is a great thing. Have a plan for what your character does when they are in town for a few weeks. Time in game is a resource smart players use and most GMs reward proactive players.

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