Response Series: “Why I Don’t ‘Optimize’ Characters”

Response Series: R4I “Why I Don't ‘Optimize’ Characters”

Note: There is a thing in D&D called the “Stormwind Fallacy” which implies that RP and optimization are mutually exclusive, which is, of course, untrue. It deserves a mention because it will come to the mind of many viewers.

1. She doesn’t optimize characters mechanically because she prefers to start with a concept (that is sometimes inspired by a mechanic), and will accordingly choose suboptimal abilities that are more in line with the RP concept

Holistically on board with this, but not fully.

It’s true that in any game system, there is always one ultimate build. Once played, yes, it becomes boring, and one must deviate from it to enjoy a different playstyle.

That said, in my view, deviation from the single most powerful build does NOT equal non-optimization. D&D is still about rolling dice in a relatively unforgiving d20 system, even during the interaction and exploration phases, so even if pursuing a RP build the mechanics must be optimized or you can’t achieve your goals (in any phase of the game).

Ultimately, therefore, even combat-suboptimal character concepts should be optimized FOR YOUR GOALS. You have to make choices from scarce options, and since D&D is a story that isn’t told but written, there is no reason a good RPer can’t justify a more powerful ability over another.

Note that this also requires the cooperation of the DM, to curate your encounters to your weaker power level. As monsters get harder, RP necessarily takes a back seat to survival (that is, one must be alive to RP and in combat survival is dominant over RP).

2. Death is OK; she enjoys the emotional rush of failure 

Strong disagree here and the clearest indicator that we have wildly different perspectives (which isn’t to cast judgment but just as an observation). 

In my view, death/TPK isn’t fun, any more than losing in sports is fun. One experiences “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat,” as they say. D20 games are lethal by design and more optimization is necessary than in more forgiving dice systems.

3. Fully optimized characters are boring to play because they can’t be challenged

Of course you like to be pushed, as autowins are boring. However, this is on the DM and it shouldn’t be a goal of players to be suboptimal (in combat particularly but also in other phases of the game). No player, even wielding the ultimate build, can defeat the DM who has limitless resources.

4. Repeating optimized attacks over and over is boring to play

Again, hard disagree. Dunking is always fun, even if it’s a high-percentage shot. Watching Steph Curry drain 3’s never gets old.

IOW, winning the combat phase with your best punch is never boring, in my view, because the DM is trying to counter and throwing haymakers as well. Combat is not about being fun and non-boring, it’s about survival and you don’t get style points.

I do agree that the Exploration and Interaction phases over and over are boring if overly repetitive. 

It’s on the DM to throw wrinkles into your main tactic, not the PCs to self-sabotage.

5. Powergamers want to “win” D&D (and are thus bad), while suboptimal tactics are just about having fun (and thus are good)

I strongly disagree with this view. Powergamers want to “succeed” at the goals we pursue in D&D. 

Pejoratively framing it in this fashion is technically an Appeal to the Stone fallacy, built on:

 1. an epistemology of power dynamics that seeks to label views as belonging to the 

out-group and thus marginalized without honest consideration; and 

2. based on the unspoken premise that “winning” is a negative goal because this 

apparently disrupts or degrades group harmony and total social utility (i.e. the 

overall “fun” of the table). 

I do not agree. Someone has to put food on the table, despite the fact that, once accomplished, others will criticize him/her for the very competitiveness and focus on productivity that feeds the room. RP is a luxury reserved to those who survive combat, and this is easy to forget but a massive error, IMO.

All RP is predicated on surviving combat. I strongly believe that ignoring this is suboptimal.

Final Comments

“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Eisenhower

“Everyone has a plan, until they’re punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson

1. No 1-20 armchair build survives contact with the game, because every game is different based on the DM.  One starts at low levels, and as you level, you start to adapt to what the DM has been throwing at you, and VICE-VERSA. The PCs and DM mutually build the world and game. This is optimization, and is a huge part of the fun

2. Personally, I don’t like dying and the lethality inherent to d20 systems calls for strong optimization even for PCs who are not pursuing the ultimate build. RP is predicated on surviving combat.

3. Real talk: no one likes the shirker who doesn’t pull their weight based on personal pursuits, except the shirker and their shirking colleagues. I don’t like to be that person, because in my experience, no one really likes him/her regardless of their entertainment value, or what is said to their face. EVERYONE should be having fun, not just the RPer, so pull your weight.

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