I’ve engaged in a couple of discussions recently about designing games to eliminate powergaming or character optimization.
My personal opinion is that you can’t: Any system featuring 2+ choices in order to create or advance a character in which those choices have a mechanical impact is going to have people using those choices to optimize their characters. (Note: Equipment choices count.)
This becomes even more true if the content of the campaign can be varied: As a I discussed in “Fetishizing Balance” many moons ago, a character loaded up with seafaring skills is going to be non-optimized for a campaign based around Robin Hood, but is absolutely going to rock it in a campaign based around Treasure Island.
When game designers try to solve the “problem” of character optimization they generally end up falling into the fallacy I describe in “Ivory Tower Design“: The belief that you can allow for meaningful choice in any kind of complex system without having some choices be inferior to other choices. And the result is that they limit either (a) the flexibility of character creation, (b) the scope of the game, or (c) both.
(Which isn’t to say that game designers should just completely ignore issues of balance: Correct obvious imbalances between options aiming at the same effect. Remove anything that radically alters the fundamental experience or nature of the game in unintended ways. But trying to make Blackbeard just as effective in Sherwood Forest as he is on the high seas? Or making fighters specialized in a bow just as effective in melee as the fighter who specialized in a longsword? You’re wasting your time and your efforts will probably cause a lot of collateral damage.)
GMs vs. OPTIMIZATION
So we’ve concluded that all RPGs are going to feature CharOp and we’ve also concluded that there’s very little or nothing that game designers can do about it. But what if you’re a GM faced with optimization-obsessed players and you don’t like the effect it’s having on the game?
First, recognize that there’s nothing about optimizing your character to be good at X that’s incompatible with enjoying a good story. In fact, a lot of character optimization originates as a completely logical, in-character motivation: I need to be good at X to succeed/stay alive, so how can I be really good at X?
Where this becomes problematic is when it turns into an optimization arms race: The PCs keep getting better at X, the GM cranks up the difficulty of X to “keep things challenging”, and the players respond by making their characters even better at X. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
When there’s a clash of expectations or problematic behavior at a gaming table, I generally recommend solving those problems by sitting down and just talking out the issues involved. But the optimization arms race is a slightly different kettle of fish because it originates in-character. A conversation about expectations may still be useful (particularly if the behavior has become reflex or habit), but you have to solve the in-character motivation first.
(1) Diversify your game. If X is the only thing that a character ever has to do in order to succeed, then the character is highly motivated to optimize X. If players have to do a bunch of different stuff in your game, then they won’t be able to hyper-optimize one facet of their characters.
(2) Worry a lot less about “challenging” the PCs at whatever the PCs are badasses at. For example, if one of your players creates a badass hacker, you shouldn’t necessarily respond by cranking up the difficulty of every computer system they want to hack. If you do that, they’ll respond by trying to figure out how to crank up their hacking skills a few more notches.
In other words, just opt out of the arms race. And this remains true even if the results seem extreme: Have they created a character that can hack the NSA on a whim? That’s OK. Cyrano de Bergerac was the greatest swordsman who ever lived. Edmond Rostand didn’t negate that or ignore it, but he also didn’t respond to it by creating an elite brigade of soldiers who could match Cyrano in a swordfight. (Think about it.)
Sometimes, of course, you’ll want to throw a hundred swordsmen at Cyrano. Or have the NSA contact the PC because they’ve seen what she can do and they need some help cracking the encryption on an alien artifact that the Martian Rover just found.
What I’m saying, though, is that you should spend less time trying to one-up your players and more time thinking about the interesting stories that result from the consequences of success rather than the risk of defeat.