How Much Does Character Optimization Count?

A lot of the critique surrounding the new Pathfinder iconic previews seems to be that they’re not fully optimized and therefore not viable characters.  Some people feel that only optimized builds will see play, and that classes can only be valuable if compared in their most optimized form.

This post by rgalex sums up my thinking, which is that making an interesting character is more important than the optimization.  But let’s see what people out there think.

I feel like the minority’s obsession with optimization is one of the things that has caused the major class and magic redesign in 4e.  Without real spells or the flexibility of 3e, it’s nigh impossible to devise “uber” builds and you get enforced balance.

I personally like not having to optimize.  But I’ll admit, I feel pressured into it in some campaigns.  If an adventure or campaign is tuned for high power, then – I don’t like dying any more than the next guy.  So I’ll step it up.  Similarly, if all the other characters are high power and you’re not, or even worse if one guy is Pun-Pun and no one else is, that degrades the fun.

But all it requires to work out and be fun is to not be obsessed with optimization.  All the classes and other choices are equally viable at normal levels of tuning. But it does require a social contract between players and DM – and some groups appear to not be able to moderate anything that’s not rules as written.

Is it this syndrome that’s “forced the hand” of the D&D devs to go to the new “next class, same as the last class” model?

17 responses to “How Much Does Character Optimization Count?

  1. “Character Optimization” is such a pleasant euphemism. It’s called min-maxing and powergaming both of which have had negative connotations until very recently.

    • Well, that’s a good point. Seems like that change happened pretty fast, too. What changed such that the inmates got to start running the asylum?

      • 3e came out and introduced prestige classes, the 1-2 level multiclassing dip, and the stratospheric save-or-lose DC. Earlier and later editions of the game lacked these, and so min-maxing was more limited in scope, if not in depth.

        • Yeah… Seems like with more options naturally comes more potential for abuse. But I have to admit I have no desire to go back to OD&D/1e times. I played some Castles & Crusades recently as a low level cleric and thought “Oh right, this is what it’s like to not be able to do shit.”

          I think it comes down to a design decision between interesting options and the potential of imbalance, and managing that via social contract, or total balance at the cost of interesting options.

  2. Character optimization is more of a hobby for me, though I do like to play with well made characters. with the character builder its fun to get all of the options and pick the best ones for a certain purpose.

  3. Playing a fully “optimised” character is basically playing in easy mode. I’d much rather play a harder character who is competent but not “optimised” and enjoy the extra challenge.

  4. One of the things I like about playing these games is rolling 3d6 six times and seeing what kind of character I can make from those numbers. High or low, it doesn’t matter; a run of 11s would be worse, as there’s less to work with there.

    While I don’t mind playing 4e, I really really hate creating characters for it. I don’t care about spending hours poring over the books trying to find the best combination of stats, powers and feats. I want to play the game, not the sub-game.

  5. First, I would put the quiz into the category of “unscientific” since it didn’t use random, systematic or any of the other legitimate sampling technique. That said, I think that more people who are on the forums at are likely to have been a gamemaster at some point and see the flaws in uber-stats and the fun of playing characters with flaws that aren’t balanced by anything other than luck. There are a number of people who just don’t think that way, who were really excited when 3.x started talking about how you should plan your character’s advancement 10 levels ahead so you can pick the best prestige class.

    @kelvingreen: I think you’re overstating how long it takes to make a 4E character. I’ve thrown together 1st level characters in a few minutes that were pretty tricked out due to taking a few choice feats and one good stat. Of course, if you’re making a 14th level character, that gets complicated no matter the system or edition you’re using.

    • All blog polls are “unscientific,” but in this case it doesn’t look like perfection is required to indicate the general mood of those who come here, mainly from RPG Bloggers Network,, and reddit currently. Psychotic min-maxing doesn’t appear to have the adherents that the loudest maniacs in pretty much all the RPG forums think.

  6. @Steve “Of course, if you’re making a 14th level character, that gets complicated no matter the system or edition you’re using.”

    That statement is untrue. In OD&D/Swords&Wizardry it’s

    roll stats
    pick race/class let’s pick MU
    record alignment
    record spells per day off of MU table
    roll hitpoints 9(d6-1) + 5 btw
    record save (in OD&D this is table so no need to record)
    Determine spells known (probably by random rolls which won’t take long)
    Ask DM about starting eq/magic (either more random rolls or None sucka!)

    I can’t think of anything else. (attacks are in a table so no need to record) That should take 10-20min tops and is nearly identical to creating 1st lvl char.

    AD&D and BECMI D&D aren’t all that complicated either.

  7. @Steve, 4e character generation is not complicated in terms of rules, but what takes time is looking for the best powers for your character, and the best powers for the team. It takes ages, especially if you’re working from multiple books, and there’s just no benefit. I just want to generate a character then jump into the game.

  8. @njharman: I played a lot of 2nd Ed AD&D and picking spells was much more than just random rolls. I tried making some NPCs back in the day with random spells and ended up just poring through the spell-lists because they made no sense. Also if you start to take anything other than the main core book into consideration, there are enough options that it takes more than a little bit to develop a character. My point is that if you just use the core book and build a low level character, most systems are fairly fast. If you want to build a well-fleshed out higher level character, I think it does take a fair amount of time, regardless of the system. A character that is just thrown together can be done easily with any system, regardless of level, but I think that once you start looking for a quality character that will be fun to play and hopefully not nerfed or min-maxed by random choices, you do necessarily have to spend more time at it.

    @kelvingreen: Again, it’s the question of quality. I’d say the same thing about 3.X, where there were an infinite amount of books with new (and, due to power creep, often better) feats and powers to choose from. If you stick to the core books and don’t worry about how your powers mesh with the rest of your party, then it is fairly easy to build characters, but I agree that when you start to look at more options and whether you are compatible with the rest of your party, it does start to get more complicated. But that’s omnipresent (I would argue) in most systems.

    @ mxyzplk: I wasn’t meaning to argue that there is a great unrepresented silent majority of power gamers out there, just that most people who would have replied to that poll are likely a little more likely to look at their games in a more nuanced manner, thus leading to that result. I would be ecstatic if more gamers looked at their games as more than power-gaming sessions. I’m lucky with my current groups; I’ve not always been so lucky 🙂

    • @Steve

      2nd Edition != OD&D

      OD&D the spells only go to 6th level and there’s about 10-13 per level. MU is by far the most complicated class, none of the other have any spells or choices to make.

      Certainly most editions of D&D require lots of time to build high-level characters but *Not All*. There’s nothing inherent in high-level that makes it take time. It’s only rule systems with lots of dodads (skills, feats, class options, spells, splatbooks) that make it take time.

      • I know that 2nd Ed isn’t OD&D. I have little to no experience running or playing OD&D, so I was using the earliest system I played as an example. I will concede that you’re right that not all systems are complicated to make higher level characters, taking your argument on the trust that your knowledge of OD&D is accurate.

        I do think that there is an optimal amount of dodads in a game to appeal to the most amount of people. That’s been the trick in game design from 2nd Edition on. Some people likely think that OD&D was too sparse and too much of the character was open to interpretation. Some people likely think it’s fine as is and think that future editions were a waste of ink. I think they all just appeal to different people. I quite liked 2nd Ed (both as a player and DM), hated running 3rd Ed and really enjoy running 4th Ed. That puts me on some part of the spectrum of individual taste in gaming systems. 3rd Ed had too many dodads for me, as did 2nd Ed once “kits” were introduced. I’m sure that in about a year there will be too many options for me in 4th Ed (unless they continue to keep it as balanced as they have so far). I think that puts me closer to your end of the spectrum, njharman, than the end that most editions end up at, but I could be wrong.

  9. Steve, I’d argue that 4e encourages party synergy more than other versions of the game, simply because so many of the mechanics involved in the powers are reliant on what other members are doing, planning to do, etc. In other games, you might think “oh, we need a healer, so I’d best think in that direction”, but 4e is the only game I’ve played were a character choice can be made completely useless (or mandatory) by the rest of the party.

    If you don’t care about how you mesh with the rest of the party, then yes, a 4e character can be done in minutes, but the game as a whole is designed around that mesh, and you can’t ignore it unless everyone’s ignoring it. Similarly, unless everyone agrees to generate sub-optimal characters, then it is irresponsible in the 4e environment to do so, because your powers affect the rest of the party.

    While I enjoy playing the game well enough, I can’t be bothered to mess around with numbers to that extent. My current character is a warlord, and I essentially got the rest of the group to design him, simply because the juggling and page-flipping holds no interest at all for me.

    • I’ve found that with a group of beginning 4E players, that synergy is something that comes together in game and not before it. I had the best feel for the game, but I was running it, not playing it. The option to swap out feats or powers that aren’t being used well by a player when they level up their character is the part that encourages synergy the most, I’ve found. Players have taken powers that work if an enemy moves through a square based on the fighter using Tide of Iron a lot and it being effective. Of course, I still maintain that the best use I’ve seen of that power was to throw a goblin off a roof to his death 🙂 Besides the basic 4 slots that 4e encourages, I’ve found that other players pick what they’d like to play. In my group of 7 characters, we have 2 defenders (1 paladin, 1 fighter), 2 strikers (1 warlock, 1 ranger), 2 leaders (1 warlord, 1 cleric) and 1 controller (a wizard). And no one was strong-armed into playing a class, which is one of the first times I’ve ever dealt with that in any version of D&D I’ve played.

  10. It’s been a while on the poll, and this post has gotten enough hits that I’m happy with the numbers. Looks like optimization is very or absolutely important only to 8% of the audience. It’s somewhat important to 65%, but very little to 26%, a heartening number – the average thus falls in the little to somewhat area.

    Next generation of D&D designers take note! Don’t mess up our experience for those noisy top 2%. I know a couple people who are all pissed at Paizo and Pathfinder because they didn’t just give it all up for their CharOp number-wonkery, and I think this poll shows why. You may have the stamina to post thousands of times on someone’s forum, but it doesn’t mean you are a representative part of the community…

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