Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Perils of Character Optimization

            When I used to play Dungeons & Dragons 3.0, I would spend hours sitting on my bed, surrounded by books, with a notebook balanced on my lap as I made notes and built all kinds of characters:  dual-wielding, flamboyant Fighters, power-hungry Wizards, wrathful Drow Clerics, and mysterious Psychic Warriors.  I flipped through a dozen books, comparing Prestige Classes and selected the best Feats available.  I assembled the best progression of levels and feats and skills and Prestige classes that I could.  I wasn’t as successful at creating truly optimized characters like those found on many of the Third Edition or Pathfinder boards.  I certainly wasn’t clever enough to create the infamous Pun Pun.
            However, I do recall a few of those optimized characters of which I was really proud:  the “perfect” progression for a lightsaber focused Jedi in WOTC’s Star Wars Revised Edition and a female Drow fighter that migrated through three campaigns run by three different DMs but never really completed her story.  After several years and a couple of campaigns of Star Wars Revised Edition, I had a revelation about how I approached optimizing characters.   I began to think of a character’s growth through the levels as a story arc in and of itself much like JosephCampbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces except the progression was mapped as choices of Character Classes and Prestige Classes. 
Not Tomoe, but a pretty awesome Jedi
            Beginning as Jedi Padawan, my character, Tomoe was corrupted by one of the other PCs, a power hungry nascent Sith masquerading a politician’s aide who wanted to one day rule the galaxy following a similar story trajectory as Palpatine without the bad dialogue and fall into a reactor pit.  Tomoe was a prideful, young Jedi warrior from the Outer Rim who joined with the crew of a ship after they rescued her from some pirates.  Tomoe became close to the politician’s aide who had a knowledge of the history of the Jedi and Sith.  Eventually, Tomoe trusted this man more than her own Jedi Master.  The politician’s aide allowed the Jedi Master to discover that he was adherent of the Sith forcing Tomoe to choose between the Jedi and her friend.  She chose her friend and struck the Jedi Master down, but the Jedi slashed her across the face, blinding her.  Under the tutelage of the politician’s aide/Sith apprentice, Tomoe fell completely to the Dark Side and learned to use the Force to see without her eyes. 
            These events were planned by myself, the Game Master, and the player controlling the politician’s aide.  We’d agreed that the campaign wouldn’t be a traditional good defeats evil kind of game.  We’d play the villains, but I didn’t want to start my character as just another Sith.  I also had the idea of a blind Force-user that had empty black sockets instead of eyes and how terrifying that would be to face in battle.  The three of us worked on that character as a group and how Tomoe would fall to the Dark Side and eventually become a Sith Lord in her own right. 
            One of the mechanical benefits of becoming a Sith and taking levels in the Prestige Classes Sith Warrior or Sith Lord is that the player can trade levels of Jedi for levels of Sith Warrior or Sith Lord on a one for one basis.  Doing so has the benefit of giving the character more powers and feats.  Essentially it’s the same mechanic as a Black Guard trading away his or her Paladin levels which are no longer useful to an Evil-aligned character.  The downside to trading in these levels is that the Black Guard must remain Evil-aligned and if he or she returns to a good alignment then that character loses most of the benefits from the Black Guard levels.  All that’s left of those levels of Sith Warrior or Black Guard are the base attack bonus, skill points, feats acquired normally (not bonus feats), saving throws, and hit dice.  Class abilities, special abilities, bonus feats, and so forth are lost, never to be regained unless the character atones and becomes evil or a Sith again.  Essentially, the levels are an albatross around the character’s neck forever weighing her down and quite the opposite of optimization. 
            Completely taken over by the corruption of the Dark Side, Tomoe traded in her Jedi levels for levels of Sith Warrior gaining her the power and combat prowess she always knew that she should have.  Unfortunately, hubris was also her downfall when a much more powerful Sith Lord challenged her.  She couldn’t resist the challenge and set off alone to fight him, and the Sith Lord killed her.  The player and the character were both guilty of hubris in this instance.
            Nevertheless, I thought long and hard about this character after she died.  She had a great story and really fit into the world and the plot of the game.  Because I’m sentimental, I still have the character sheet which is the only reason I know that character’s name.  I began to wonder what would have happened to Tomoe if she would have lived.  By the time that she died, the politician’s aide was on his way to becoming a Senator of the Galactic Republic, and I’m certain if the campaign would have continued he’d have declared himself Emperor.  Would Tomoe have stood by him after he finally became Emperor?  
            Tomoe was a warrior first and foremost.  She enjoyed the thrill of battle and taking insane risks.  She loved that her name was spreading across the galaxy and that just her name was enough to cause her enemies to double check the locks on the doors at night.  More importantly, I realized that while she was devoted to the politician’s aide she was not evil.  Eventually she would become disillusioned with the politician’s aide’s promises of a better galaxy and realize that he was a tyrant with greater ambitions.  I don’t think she would have turned against him, but she wouldn’t have followed him after a point.  Instead, she would have set out alone disillusioned by both the weak Jedi who couldn’t stop the rise of a Sith Emperor and the Sith who were only interested in personal glory and power.  Forsaking both the Jedi and Sith and giving up the Force, I imagine she would have returned to the Outer Rim and joined a smuggler’s crew, leaving behind her name and everything about herself. 
            Tomoe’s character progression looked something like this:  for levels one through seven, she was a Jedi Guardian.  At level seven, she turned to the Dark Side and traded in four of her Jedi Guardian levels for an equal number of levels of Sith Warrior.  She eventually gained five more levels of Sith Warrior, one level of Sith Lord, and one level of Master Duelist.  So at the time of her death, she was a Jedi Guardian 3, Sith Warrior 7, Sith Lord 1, and Master Duelist 1.  This character was optimized for lightsaber combat and dueling which were my interests at the time. 
            If you’re a frequent visitor to some of the Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder forums, you’re probably familiar with the character optimization threads that are available.  Players have scoured the books and available classes to find exactly the best choices to make at each level in order to optimize a particular type of character class.  Whether you want to play a sword and board fighter or the all-powerful wizard, optimized builds are available where all the choices for feats, skills, and so forth are already made.  At each level, the best possible choices are weighed and then a favorite or favorites are given.  Even the individual classes are compared and divided into tiers.  In D&D 3.5, Wizards and Priests are in the highest tier with other classes filling in below them.  Fighter obviously in considered one of the worst classes just above NPC classes like Warrior, Aristocrat and Noble. 
            The players and Dungeon Masters who developed the optimized character builds and tier system have done amazing work that should be recognized for the impressive amount of research invested.  Going through the dozens of books available for D&D 3.5 and selecting the best feats and comparing so many possible character classes is a Herculean task akin to cleaning out the Augean stables.  And with the amount of muck found in some of D&D books, I’d rather be Hercules than the gamers who refined the tier system and optimization guides.  Entire guides have been made available for players who want to optimize their characters, and these guides are offered free of charge on forums or other blogs.  As much I laud these gamers for creating these resources, I consider these guides a serious problem for the gaming community. 
            We now know that there is a clear, correct choice for any character at any given level.  The best Wizard specialty is Conjurer.  Fighters, Monks, and Paladins are comparatively the weakest classes in the Player’s Hand Book.  Wizards shouldn’t choose Magic Missile as one of their starting spells; they should choose Color Spray or Sleep instead.  Some choices are obvious others are less so.  Given the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons, a best choice exists amongst the multitude of options.  This isn’t a bad thing, but it does have an unintended consequence:  characters become homogenous.  All Wizards follow the same general progression, choosing the same spells, the same feats, and the same prestige classes.  Fewer players select Monk for their class because of its comparative weakness to the Ranger. 
            I don’t mean to be unfair to people who play Dungeons & Dragons.  Gamers who play White Wolf products have the same problem.  Rarely does a player in Vampire the Masquerade have to do more than spend experience points to acquire a new Ability or Discipline.  How many characters in Werewolf the Apocalypse go on an Umbral quest to find the spirit who can teach them a new gift?
            The Storyteller games, Werewolf, Vampire, Mage, have their own versions of optimizers as well.  Activating Disciplines, for example, requires the character to roll an attribute plus an ability.  In order to optimize a character in this system, players need to ensure that their characters have high ranks in the attribute and ability in order to make sure that they can successfully activate the Discipline.  For example, a Toreador has Dread Gaze, the second level of Presence, in order to activate that ability the character needs to roll Charisma plus Intimidation.  If the character doesn’t have Intimidation and/or has a low Charisma, then the chances of successfully using Dread Gaze are very low.  Optimally, a Toreador with Dread Gaze should have points in Intimidation, but that doesn’t make sense for every Toreador.  Some Toreadors character concepts aren’t going to be intimidating, but will have Dread Gaze because they want the higher Presence abilities like Summon or Entrancement.  If I were to build an optimal Toreador character with Presence, I would put points in any Ability that was required to activate Presence Disciplines. 
And now you're off to play Bloodlines...
            Character creation offers a number of ways to optimize a Vampire the Masquerade character.  Generation is probably the most important stat to improve because improving Generation during game play is difficult and risky.  So putting your starting five Background dots into Generation is an obvious choice.  Doing so means that the character starts the game with the largest possible blood pool for a new character, 15 blood points, and the character can use the most blood points per turn for a beginning character, 3.  Willpower is another trait that can be maximized at character creation.  Willpower costs one freebie point to increase during character creation, but Willpower costs Current Rating times one to increase with experience points.  Of all the available Disciplines, Thaumaturgy is the most versatile with a myriad of available paths that are cheaper to learn and improve than other Disciplines.  The maximum points in Flaws can be selected without reducing the effectiveness of a character. 
            And after character creation is complete, the steps to continue optimizing a Storyteller System character can be decided to further optimize a character.  While the statistical progression for a Storyteller System character is not a clear cut as a Dungeons & Dragons character, an optimal progression can be determined.  By selecting out of clan Disciplines, characters can be further optimized.  An Assamite assassin would be improved upon with addition of Potence which would cause more damage or Protean 2 which gives the vampire claws that do aggravated damage.  I’m sure there are plenty of forums and blogs that offer excellent suggestions for optimizing characters. 
            Now, let’s put Tomoe into this situation.  I’d effectively optimized Tomoe, because if you are familiar with WotC’s Star Wars Revised Edition or just Star Wars in general, you know that the Jedi are one of the best classes.  Access to Force skills and feats make the Jedi or the Sith far better classes than Smuggler, Noble, or Soldier.  Much like the Wizard in D&D, a Jedi was a better soldier than the Soldier and a better smuggler than the Smuggler because of the Jedi had access to the Force.  However, assuming Tomoe survived, eventually she would have given up the Dark Side, forsaken the Force, thrown away her lightsaber, lost access to many of her class features, and begun to take levels in Smuggler.  Every choice at this point is sub-optimal. 
Yes, this is a real book.
            Every choice is sub-optimal from the stand point of generating a set of best system statistics.  However, from the stand point of story and character growth, those are the optimal decisions.  In Tomoe’s case, the character’s growth in the story is reflected in the progression of classes that were chosen when she leveled up.  From Jedi to Sith to outcast. 
            What’s really lost when players and Game Masters begin to think of characters as sets of statistics functioning within a rule set is they are also characters within a story.  In order to optimize a character, however, the player has to separate a character’s statistical progression from a character’s story progression.  Even the Game Master’s campaign becomes polluted by the separation between statistical progression and story progression, because the characters’ growth is only determined by their experience points rather than their progression in the world.  More so than the players, the Dungeon Master is at fault because he has designed a world that allows characters to progress from class to prestige class and so on without requiring characters to earn a new class or prestige class.  The acquiring of a new class or prestige class is hand waved.  It happens off-screen and isn’t even mentioned beyond the player saying that he’s met the prerequisites and is going to finally get that first level of a prestige class or whatever.  The Storyteller is at fault because the only thing separating a character from a new Discipline is the experience points required. 
            Perhaps the most famous Dungeons & Dragons character is the Drow Drizzt Do’Urden of the Forgetten Realms Setting.  Drizzt was trained by his father to be a Weapon’s Master for his mother’s house.  He eventually abandoned Menzoberranzan and set out into the Underdark where he was driven to survive by “the Hunter” persona which drove him to survive and allowed him to unleash his rage upon those who threaten him.  Finally, Drizzt arrives on the surface where he is trained by the Ranger Montolio.  Drizzt’s character progression is Fighter to Barbarian to Ranger, and according to the Third Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, Drizzt is a 10th level Fighter, 1st Level Barbarian, and a 5th level Ranger.  There is nothing optimized about Drizzt’s build.  He uses two scimitars which would incur an extra penalty for using a medium sized weapon in his off hand.  According to his character history, he would have gained his Two Weapon Fighting Feat as a Fighter, and not as a Ranger which means that he would have chosen the archery combat style (in 3.5) or not gained any bonus feat because he already had Two Weapon Fighting (in 3.0). 
Not Drizzt.  Just a clone!
Although I realize that Drizzt’s creation predates the introduction of D&D 3.0, Drizzt’s progression as a character still provides an example of story and character outshining stat optimization.  Drizzt is memorable because of his story and his fighting style, not because of the numbers on a character sheet.  If Drizzt had just remained a Fighter, he would have been a more optimized character.  If Drizzt had chosen to use one scimitar or one scimitar and a dagger, he would be a more optimized character.  However, personality won out over statistics, and every D&D game set in the Realms had a Drow Ranger who wielded two scimitars.  The prevalence of Drizzt clones was so wide that even today, gamers groan when they hear someone wants to play a good Drow regardless of class or weapon choice. 
                        While most of this article is directed at the players, an important note should be included for Storytellers, Dungeon Masters, and Game Masters.  Many of us play D&D or Pathfinder, and as a player, I love Prestige Classes.  They can help define an entire character because of their special class abilities, but they have strict requirements.  I have a three part suggestion for Game Masters of these kinds of games.  First, talk with your players about what they want to do with their characters.  Give them opportunities to earn a Prestige Class, but make sure that the Prestige Class serves the overall plot of the campaign.  No player has a right to any particular Prestige Class just because it seems cool or has an awesome ability or they need it for their build.  If the Prestige Class fits into your campaign, then make the character’s acquisition of that class a big moment in the game.  Not only that, but also make sure that the character’s growth towards that Prestige Class is equally as rewarding.  If they need a level of Arcane Spellcasting in order to qualify as an Arcane Archer, make sure they meet a Sorceror who can tutor them and provide clues about a special order of elves and half-elves who can make nigh-impossible shots with a bow.  Second, provide access to lots of different Prestige Classes throughout your game.  Rumors and hints of orders of powerful Eldritch Knights or mysterious cloister Lore Masters can provide reasons for characters to travel to new locations seeking mentors.  And perhaps along the way, the PC will be saved by a servant of one of the gods and decided to declare his service to this new patron and become a Paladin.  Third, because Prestige Classes have strict requirements, allow characters to retrain and change a Feat or Skill in order to meet the prerequisites for the Prestige Class they want.  Rules for retraining are available in some D&D supplements.  This minor change will allow players to adapt to the opportunities presented to them rather than being stuck in a rigid progression.
For those of us who prefer Vampire the Masquerade or Werewolf the Apocalypse, we need to make characters earn their Disciplines and their Gifts.  Learning Serpentis means making a deal with a Setite.  What favor is she going to require as payment?  Assamites will rarely teach an outside Quietus, but if the PC could diablerize one, then perhaps he gain power from the Assamite’s blood?  Even when a character finds a mentor willing to teach a Discipline with no strings attached, the V20 rule book states that the learner must drink a point of vitae from the teacher.  That’s one step blood bound to the teacher.  Is that worth the risk of learning a new Discipline?  Opportunities can present themselves as the vampire PC progresses through the plot of the Chronicle as well.  A blood hunt that ends in the PC diablerizing the target can offer access to a new Discipline that the player didn’t realize he wanted.  Unlike D&D or Pathfinder, the Storyteller System is more forgiving because none of the Disciplines have prerequisites like a Prestige Class. 
I've always loved Pathfinder's art style
While players often groan about the plot railroad, they have no problem putting their characters on a progression railroad.  I think it’s time for players to abandon their rigid stat progression for a more story and character personality based approach.  This would be no different from Storytellers putting aside their railroady plots.  The key to this process is that the Storyteller and the Player need to talk and discuss what each one wants from the game.  Both have to be willing to compromise and keep in mind that the goal of the game is for everyone to have fun, players and Storyteller.  The Storyteller needs to bring a clear idea about the plot and the world.  The player needs to bring a clear character concept.  Both need to be willing to let the world, plot, and character grow naturally rather than being confined to a progression or a strict plot structure. 
When you sit down, surrounded by books, trying to work out the best progression for your character so that he or she can get to the Black Guard Prestige Class at the perfect level, you are robbing yourself of a chance to see where a campaign may take the character you play.  Those carefully crafted pre-planned character progressions rob you of the opportunities you may encounter over the course of a campaign.  The characters begin to all seem the same.  The same progressions, the same wizards, the same spells.  The same clan, the same abilities, and the same Disciplines.  I am not saying that you shouldn’t have some idea where you want your character to end up.  I knew exactly how I wanted Tomoe to progress, but I made those choices to serve the story and not what would make her stats the best.   I was open to changing that progression as well, and in the end, Tomoe was not a collection of stats but a memorable character that changed the way I approach character creation. 


  1. I think this is a pretty common path, one that one takes as one matures as a gamer. I'm not sure if there's a system out there that doesn't allow this sort of optimization, just by virtue of the granularity of the rules, but it's a hollow victory at best. Eventually you realize that the joy of role playing is in playing the role. Optimization is just about winning, a concept that should be, but often is not, anathema in RPGs.

    1. You should be writing summaries of my articles. Especially ones as long as this one! I'm glad that I'm not the only one that has gone through these phases. According to my old friends I was pretty bad min/maxer back in the day.

  2. I must say, it is lengthy. But I guess when alll you've got are melees, all options tend towards brawls.

    What variety in characters, have variety in what those characters can do.

    1. If your only tool is a hammer every problem is a nail, right?