Last week I talked about optimizing your character in a role-playing game. I got some good responses from people and those made it clear that the first part of this was a bit polarizing in what it tried to state and came under certain unclear assumptions. So, let's start by getting into what I was talking about last week. When you make a character one of the things you generally need to do is set it down to paper. There are stats or abilities or some other things that apply the mechanics of the game to your character.
Or perhaps it is better to say they make your character apply to the mechanics of the game. Because, as some of you mentioned, it isn't about optimizing at all for many people. It is about creating a fun, interesting, and deep character to take into another world. That comes with as many flaws and downfalls as it does above average to superhuman abilities. Nevertheless, games tend to have mechanics to drive it forward, focus play, reward players, and advance characters. Some games are more heavy on these rules than others. Some rely on them more than others.
The point I made (or attempted?) last week is that there is a lot of optimization there to be had. Especially when it comes to a rules heavy game like D&D or Pathfinder. This optimization, or lack thereof, can make or break your experience with the character you dreamed up. Hell, if it breaks your experience there may be a better way of doing things or a different game system to fit your play style, but that's beyond the scope of this article.
Right now I want to talk about taking that optimization and the work and potential number crunching and put it aside. Maybe even throw it out with the bath water. See, there is a difference between optimizing your character strictly by number and optimizing your PC to be the character you wanted it to be. If you are into min-maxing, a heavy number cruncher, a in-depth theory-crafter of builds, or something similar then what I am about to say is probably not for you. If you already throw your cares for being the best you can be (mechanically) out the window, then you know what I am going to talk about.
You see, putting good scores into strength and constitution as a fighter is a great thing to do. Dumping intelligence because you have a wizard and most saves are Wisdom is a smart idea. It could be considered optimal. But now you are treading where I would suggest shutting the door on optimization. Seriously, do you want to be just another strong, dumb warrior who tanks for the party?
If you do then that's great, but just because its the best choice statistics-wise shouldn't drive your decisions. Be slow, or dense, or un-charismatic. These are all options for the so-called dump stat. Don't just choose the soldier background to get those bonus proficiencies in fighter-like skills. Personally, I love seeing characters that are maximized to a vision rather than a statistic and in order to do that you really do have to go and throw optimization out the window.
For games like D&D, it is still good to do a little bit, but you will not be following the numbers to their best outcomes if you want a half-orc ex-soldier turned warlock. Or if you decide to go with a gnomish barbarian. But these can make some great characters. Despite half-orcs being dumb fighters or barbarians a bit too often, perhaps yours was a tactical leader with great Charisma and with a good Intelligence but bad Wisdom. Smart people can make dumb choices for noble reasons, and perhaps that is what this character did. Maybe you won't have the best skill load-out, but you will have a fairly versatile one. At this point you could think about going pact of the blade. Maybe multiclass into eldritch knight. A long road to combat magic, and you may be spread thin in abilities for a while, but it could be a very rewarding character.
I use this example because it seems like a good compromise between optimization and throwing that crap out the window. It's how I like to make my characters. I like to have an idea in mind, and then anchor parts of that idea within the mechanics. Sometimes things, like multiclassing in that example, come from the potential of the stat layout. But of course some of you may be screaming about how eldritch knight isn't a Charisma caster. You're absolutely right, and that's part of throwing optimal choices out the window. It might be better choice to just go straight warlock and be that surprisingly strong and intimidating caster.
Or perhaps you talk to the DM and work something out so that your eldritch knight uses charisma. I never said optimization couldn't happen on the rules side. Tweaking them a bit to get the character you want is a solution for some things. The moral of the story here isn't that you should optimize by the numbers if you want to be strong. It isn't that you should ignore the rules completely if you want to enact your vision. The idea is that you go in with an understanding of what the game system you will be using is going to ask of you and what to expect from it. The GM and other players too, for that matter. Work with the rules, bend the rules, and work with the GM to make sure you get to play the character you want whether its a min-maxed PC or an off-the-wall, full of oddities and flaws PC.
What I'm trying to say, and kind of beating around the bush getting to, is optimize your experience and your fun above all else. This might mean sitting around the table and doing some co-operative story telling, no game systems involved. Or it may mean the careful planning of a character whose flaws and ability choices work out to something rich and fulfilling. In all likelihood you stand somewhere in a great grey area of wanting a games that feels good to play, lets you role-play the way you hope, and make characters you enjoy.
So, now that the optimization is out the window and in a puddle of bath water outside, go mop some of it up. Use it differently that those min-maxers. If you haven't already use it to find the right game for you and your group. Decide what rules are missing or need to be removed and take care of them. It may be that optimizing your character is all about playing a game or with a group where mechanics is at the bottom of your concerns-list. But that might just mean that you've already optimized your experience by getting rid of that word and enjoying the game for what it is: hanging out in another world with a bunch of friends. Optimizing has its place, but don't overdo it!