The Alexandrian

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.

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14 Responses to “Thought of the Day – Optimization Arms Race”

  1. The Storeman says:

    Really like your writing style and ideas.
    You made me lose a few hours reading through the archives, so I call that a success. Congratulations!

  2. goal:dilmun says:

    Another thing is that really skillful/powerful people tend to attract a lot of attention. This is a standard trope in western movies, for instance. If the main character has a reputation for being the fastest draw in the west, lots of people are going to be interested in testing that out. Some will believe its all a hype, while others are trying to make a name for themselves.
    In addition, powerful groups in the local communities can get scared if they see someone becoming too much of a threat, and may seek to neutralize it.
    But the point is that great power can quickly become great hassle, and you can easily find yourself suddenly surrounded by powerful enemies, who often will try to hurt you where your ability to defend yourself is lowest.
    I’m not really saying that I think it’s good to force your players to your kind of thinking by constantly attacking them in game, but if done well, this kind of thinking can provide some interesting side stories in your campaign. Also, if it’s going to work, it is important that the player understand that his/her own power is the cause of the trouble.
    Well, just a thought.

  3. Dasrak says:

    If a player has a really good hammer, then every problem starts looking a bit like an oddly shaped nail. And if every problem is really just a nail, the obvious course of action is to get a better hammer! If you don’t adjust the player’s perspective on the issue, then there really is no difference between diversification and arms race. The nail is just a little weird, and a player determined to solve all their problems with the hammer is going to respond by hitting it harder and getting angry if it doesn’t work.

    Communication and setting the right expectations is definitely of the utmost importance.

  4. Brooser Bear says:

    Dasark, why does every problem in a game starts looking like that game mechanic that is the player’s hammer? Doesn’t this mean that the story-telling and setting component of the game is poor? Power gaming player is my favorite pet peeve, and I despise “game balance” as un-natural. Here I am, spending my time and energy creating a vivid setting and an original story that is unlike anything the players has seen before, a sandbox for them to get lost in, and they spend their efforts trying to figure out the proverbial plate mail armor and the two handed sword in my campaign! My goal as a DM is to challenge players and get them to think and make tough decisions in terms of the story-setting.

    Most power gaming I’ve seen occurs in D&D, where the DM does not use ALL of the combat rules presented in AD&D and an already weak combat system is further simplified. I strive as a DM to tell the players a story, have them tell me a story of THEIR character, what THEY are trying to do whether in battle, single combat, or at the Baron’s reception, and then I get to figure out what dice to roll and what modifiers to apply. Players who see the game in terms of stats and die rolls, are just poor players. For instance: I had a Christian cleric PC, who lost his faith and could not cast any spells because he took some Ahuayasca he took off a shaman NPC and used it to try and see angels. He had two spectacular fumble rolls on percentile dice and I translated it into story terms as the deity Losing Faith in 1st level Cleric. A major crisis for a beginning party about to enter battle. I had another player character, a (historic) Zen Monk. Zen goes: I would like to see if I can help the Priest regain his faith, so that he can cast spells again. DM: How are you going to help him? Zen: (thinks) I don’t know… My character is a Zen monk and I just want to see if he can help the Priest. What die do I roll? I pointed to the cleric’s player and told them to decide how they are going to do it, and let me know. If they would have told me that they were going to PRAY together, I would have prodded and encouraged them and translated it into some sort of a die roll, but alas, they were at a loss! The Cleric eventually caught on and role-played well enough to regain his faith, the other player lacked imagination, did not last and eventually quit. In my experience, people who never played D&D play more imaginatively than those who played a lot and have a lot of assumptions.

    There are several ways in which to control power gaming. Don’t let players Min-Max. Let story telling dominate. I do all search checks secretly so that players don’t know if they failed or succeeded and found nothing. I use non-weapon proficiencies extensively and the initial number of skills, as well as time to train and resources are limiting factors. As a matter of fact, the Barony, where my campaign takes place has three environments that an Outdoorsman can master/specialize in – the River, the Forest and the Field. Will you be a Woodsman or a River-boat man?

    With regards to Cyrano de Bergerac, he may have been the greatest swordsman, but the conflict that he had to contend with was on the field of romantic conquest, where he was decidedly an underdog, where his fencing skills were of little or no use. DM can follow suit and create a situation or a string of encounters, where the player is out of his or her depth, challenging the player’s ability to think and not his PC’s stats.

  5. nDervish says:

    I suspect what Dasrak was getting at with the “hammers and nails” analogy was that many RPG players would say, “Cyrano’s conflict is on the field of romantic conquest, you say? And I have no skills at wooing women? No problem! I’m the greatest swordsman who ever lived, so I’ll just run my rivals through!” A player with the gigantic hammer of being able to hack the NSA will often try to solve every problem by figuring out what to hack to achieve his goal. Etc.

    The benefit provided by diversifying is heavily mitigated if players respond with “how can I apply my uber-specialized ability to this situation where it doesn’t really fit” (Dasrak’s oddly-shaped nail) rather than by stepping away from their uber-specialization and using a different ability.

  6. Jason Packer says:

    I agree with Dasrak as well – so often the problem isn’t merely “I’m a one trick pony” so much as it is “my trick is fighting, so everyone and everything that can be killed, gets killed.”

    And the simpler/lighter the mechanics, the worse this can be in the hands of a true power-gamer. They’ll min-max only in those areas that are important on the sheet, but still leverage player ability over character ability in things like puzzle-solving, in-character interactions and the like.

    Much of this behavior, in my experience, is driven by a very American “need to win” mentality when it comes to any activity. If there’s a way to win, they’ll find it – and if there isn’t a way to win, they’ll make up their own victory conditions. So it definitely helps to ensure that everyone is playing the same game.

  7. facep0lluti0n says:

    Certain story potential comes from the consequences of the character trying to use their best hammer on every problem. If you have a 20th level Fighter who tries to win at romance by running his rivals through, and actually goes through with it, we have a story, because he’ll probably get rejected by the object of his affections (who wants to be wooed by a sociopath?), and big, important entities, like the authorities, and most of civilized society, also won’t be too keen on someone using violence to solve every one of their problems.

    Now, if the player isn’t interested in cooperating and making a good story out of it, they might leave the table when they realize that killing things won’t auto-win the game. If that’s true, then they weren’t interested in role-playing to begin with – they probably should have been playing CCGs, tabletop wargames, or Xbox Live.

    I’ve had players – extremely dedicated optimizers – throw fits *in-character* when they can’t solve everything with their optimized skills or classes, but the *player* is usually having a great time being immersed in character, so long as the GM keeps the consequences believable.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    Re: “Hammers and nails.” This is where focusing on the consequences of success comes into play. Cyrano is responding to the Roxane situation by killing every suitor who comes along? Okay. He’s murdered Christian and De Guiche. What are the consequences of that?

    How does he respond when Roxane reacts to Christian’s death by entering a convent? Does he start murdering nuns? Challenge God to a duel? Okay. What are the consequences of that?

    Meanwhile, De Guiche’s political allies have responded to his death by getting Cyrano’s military commission revoked. How does Cyrano respond to that? Does he start murdering more government officials? Become an outlaw seeking to overthrow the government? Okay. What are the consequences of that?

  9. Ascalaphus says:

    I think sometimes GMs and game systems encourage this. Take D&D for example; suppose the GM never really calls for Diplomacy checks, because he thinks it’s better RP to make people play out social interaction rather than solving it with a die roll. However, combat is dead serious; characters can die in combat.

    So is it really strange if players put no more than maybe a token skill rank into Diplomacy, and spends the rest on life-saving skills like Perception?

    Because actually all the REAL problems happen to be nails, mechanically speaking.

    If as a GM, you’re not actually going to make people roll Diplomacy, why not get rid of the skill altogether?

  10. Brooser Bear says:

    If a DM is a good story teller, s/he can always take the game, where the game mechanics are temporarily irrelevant and the player decision accounts for everything. Throughout history, Warlords and Rogue Barons have been the real world equivalent of munchkin players, who raided and rule rough-shod and refused to cooperate as the nations were built. More often than not, the future rulers of future nation states found ways to invite these real world power gamers to meetings/banquets at which these rogue leaders were separated from their followers and murdered, or more often, more mundanely and not at all D&D-like, arrested, tried in some fashion, and executed or imprisoned and taken off the scene. Nothing precludes the DM from designing a game session, where players are captured via a legitimate game play (i.e. players are not able to outwit the DM’s design and avoid capture), and after that, the trial proceedings can all be role played. With players’ decision actually influencing the outcome of the trial, whether players will remain in the game or be executed. Pure role-playing. No hack and slash. No roll playing. No power gaming. For instance: Take a Munchkin player and invite him to the King’s Royal Ball in his honor. Ask him politely to leave the weapons and armor at the door, which he will refuse. Then surround the Munchkin with a coterie of unarmed folk and a bunch of giggling girls poking fun at him and putting him down, until the angry hero kills one of them, or maybe chases and murders a Court Jester in stunned silence! The rest of the session will be an uneven fight or maybe even escape from the castle, manhunt and eventual capture, and then we can have the trial and the Royal Wrath, and the breaking at the wheel, with every painful roll for damage, while the munchkin player gets a friendly roasting about having a sense of humor, evils of power gaming, and role versus roll playing. That player will either leave the group or become a better player.
    BTW, check out Rutger Hauer’s great film, The Mill and the Cross!

  11. iserith says:

    I find the simplest solution is to present situations where the monsters/villains are pursuing their own goals and their success at that goal is tied to whether the scene is a success for the PCs or a failure. Once that dramatic question has been answered, the scene just ends. Sure, you can do the most damage per round, but can you get the go-juice from the still before Ratty Bobby does while zombies are closing in on all sides? Can you stop Doctor Tendril from finishing his work on the moon laser before the end of Round 3? Can you prevent the gnolls from getting past your trenches and into the city?

    Optimization, especially in a game like D&D, is generally an answer to that game’s default dramatic question: Will Team Hero grind Team Monster down to 0 hp (or vice versa) in a straight-up fight? That’s the question that the math is “balanced” around. Change that dramatic question and suddenly combat optimization is still effective, but not necessarily the only (or even best) solution anymore. Plus it just makes the scenes more interesting and dynamic.

  12. goatunit says:

    Mr. Alexander,

    I discovered your blog yesterday afternoon while doing some research in preparation of a 1st Edition AD&D campaign. Your series of articles on Hex Crawling was so exciting and interesting that, once I’d finished it, I then managed to shuffle through a huge swath of the remaining blog, reading nearly until midnight. Then there are all the other interesting blogs you managed to turn me on to, including Cyclopeatron, Dyson Logos, and others.

    I’m really just completely blown away by the quality of work you guys are doing. Every once in awhile, a critic comes along whose critiques border on being art in and of themselves (Red Letter Media’s Plinkett, Errant Signal’s Campster, The Escapist’s Yahtzee), and I would whole-heartedly count you among that hallowed pantheon.

    Just wanted to say thanks for the excellent source of material. I am mining it greedily.

  13. Mach mit beim Rüstungswettlauf — De Malspöler says:

    […] Alexandrian hat kürzlich einen coolen Artikel zum Thema “Rüstungswettlauf zwischen SL und Spielern“ geschrieben. Er schlägt darin vor, […]

  14. ThatPurp says:

    Another problem with the arms race is that by effectively neutering the “max” portion of the min-maxed character, you turn them into just a min-character.

    If a DM gets tired of a player who always hits with a character built as the world’s most accurate marksmen, and raise the defenses of all monsters to compensate, well now the player has average accuracy, and still sucks at everything else.

    If every NPC suddenly becomes far more insightful regarding the bard’s wily bluffs, now he’s just a wimpy little singer who can’t even smooth talk a lady.

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