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Nerdarchy > At The Gaming Table  > Subpar Character Optimization is a Foolish Perspective for 5E D&D
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Subpar Character Optimization is a Foolish Perspective for 5E D&D

Salutations, nerds! There’s a lot of discourse online about optimization of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons character creation and what options to take when you level up. And honestly…we’re still talking about this? A lot? In 2020? In 5E D&D? This has to be an exaggeration. Excuse me a minute while I do a quick online search — oh. Oh, I guess we are.

In the video above YouTuber Ginny Di shares a very spicy hot take — she wants you to create an unoptimized 5E D&D character!

A note on character optimization

Before the dogs start barking if you’re the kind of player who finds enjoyment in optimization of your characters and squeezing every little bit of damage you can get out of them more power to you. You are loved and valid. Go forth and make your spreadsheets and deal triple digits worth of damage at 12th level. I play with a couple of these people regularly and they don’t make our 5E D&D experience any less fun.

If you’re seeing where this is going and getting a wee bit hot under the collar this post probably isn’t for you and this is totally fine. You aren’t obligated to lean into narrative at the expense of mathematical superiority. Just bear in mind the people who share your table aren’t obligated to lean into crunchy rules mechanics for 5E D&D or any other tabletop roleplaying game.

Good? Good. Let’s move right along then.

Tabletop RPGs (typically) aren’t competitive

We’re not playing against each other here. We’re not even playing against the Game Master. The object of the game isn’t to win. If someone asked you if you were winning your D&D game you’d probably take this as a clear sign they didn’t know what D&D is, right?

We’re all together trying to tell a story. And no, not every table is going to run this way but even if you’re a group of four adventurers playing in a game being run as a big combat simulation you’re still basically working together against content that, if you’re GM is doing their job, shapes itself to fit your party composition.

Play what seems fun to you

I’m reminded of a specific milestone in the Scarlet Sisterhood. I think it was around 8th level (it might have been 12th level). Definitely one of those levels where we earned an Ability Score Improvement increase. Sam and I were sitting on camera talking about what we were going to do with our level up benefits and I remember her saying, “I think I’m going to increase Agnetha’s Intelligence because after everything we’ve been through I think it makes the most sense she’s gotten smarter.”

And you know what? She was right. It did make a ton of sense for the character to get smarter. There was no real mechanical benefit to this. A barbarian doesn’t need Intelligence. In fact she could have gotten more mechanical use out of almost any other choice in front of her but narratively speaking it made the most sense in her story in the moment to have grown more clever instead. I remember being super impressed by the decision because even though I agreed with it I know I wouldn’t have been bold enough to make the same one.

Not every “subpar” decision in front of you is going to be like this one. Not every example will be this extreme. Sometimes there are just better options when the numbers come in.

Mechanically there’s really no reason to learn vicious mockery because it’s super low damage and you have to use your action to cast it and it’s way too easy for a target to pass the saving throw and take no damage at all. But you know what? I’ve seen people have more fun with this 5E D&D cantrip than basically any other. As a spell it makes both the player and the character use their wits. The idea of a burn so sick you actually take damage from it is just wonderful.

Glorified dump stat

Okay look, you knew there was going to be a part of this post where Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance stories came up.

People love this guy. He’s got a huge fan base. As far as D&D characters go the only one who might be more beloved by the people is Drizzt and that’s a pretty big might. But generally speaking people tend to think of Raistlin as a Pretty Cool Character ™.

And he had a 3. In Constitution. As a wizard.

Read this one again and let it settle for a second. A Constitution score of 3 in an edition way less forgiving of this than 5E D&D. It made Raistlin a more interesting character who remains known and talked about to this day.

And yet I’m sure some of you reading this give a hard side eye to anyone who doesn’t take eldritch blast. We’re better than this y’all.

There are hundreds of characters out there playing to mechanical strengths. You can do an internet search right now for “5E D&D barbarian optimization” and just copy and paste a character build onto your sheet. You’ll probably do a lot of damage and be able to soak a lot of damage and that’s valid. But you’ll also be playing the same barbarian as like, a hundred other people. I’m almost certainly low balling this.

secret 5E D&D character optimization

A spellcaster with a crossbow, a warrior with a dagger and speak and anyone wielding a morningstar? We’re clutching our pearls of optimization. [Art by Skiorh on Tumblr]

A Game Master’s job is to facilitate

That’s right, I can imagine some of you whinging about how if one person doesn’t practice optimization it unbalances the party and makes combat harder on everyone. Guess what? My long suffering Sunday group comprises the following players:

  • Two guys who are super into min-maxing to the point they have all kinds of charts and spreadsheets to squeeze out every possible bit of damage and cheese the system.
  • A guy and a gal respectively who know how about optimization but often make suboptimal choices because they sound more fun.
  • An enby who doesn’t give remotely a crap about any of this and just wants to immerse themselves and play their character in the game world setting.

As a result one of my damage guys regularly pulls down triple digits with his Sneak Attacks while the doesn’t-give-a-crap enby still basically deals like 12 damage with an attack. The big numbers make Stalkurn go brrr and no one at the table begrudges him this.

A pretty obvious issue arises in a super dramatic case like this — what happens when your heavy hitter keeps one shotting adversaries and no one else gets to deal damage? Well, I’m glad you asked because this makes an excellent and convenient segue into my next incredibly heretical point likely to get the pitchforks to come after me.

I don’t keep track of enemy HP in combat. (At least not with this group.)

I add up the amount of damage the party has done and when they seem like they’ve hit their crescendo of feeling like this combat is awesome I wait for a cinematic moment and make that the kill shot. And before you ask, no, my heavy hitters do not get salty about this. Their 236 damage attacks are still just as impressive. The most important part is each of your players (including you) gets what they need for the game to be fun for them. For my min-maxers in particular the thing is just being able to roll a metric buttload of dice and math flex.

This only works at my table because the min-maxers don’t fuss at the heavy roleplayers and vice versa for enjoying the game wrong and because as the GM I am aware they don’t see what’s going on behind my screen unless I tell them.

You are the GM. You are the illusionist. Don’t tell the party about the illusion — just let them enjoy it.

Whew! I’m cutting this one off because it’s gotten a bit long on me. Feel free to rant at me about how I’m having 5E D&D fun wrong in the comments below if you want to — algorithm optimization doesn’t care if your feedback is negative or positive. And of course, stay nerdy!

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Robin Miller

Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Robin Miller lives in southern Ohio where they keep mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. They have a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and they are happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Their fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

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