Optimization is Not Four Letters

You hear the phrases min-max, and character optimization thrown around quite a bit around the tabletop, and often times with a negative connotation attached to them.  We get a sense of betrayal when our supposed allies feel the need to create a character that chooses the best stats to max out, while throwing the rest of them into the gutter.  They spend hours mulling over feats just to find the best ones for their half-elf sorcerer, never put points in Heal or Craft, and plan their character progression for the next dozen or so levels, taking every little piece of minutia into consideration.  Every single spell and ability is meticulously shaped in order to create the most powerful tiny little pewter figure on that table.

But why do we insist that this is a bad thing?

True, while no person out there is a culled piece of perfection molded into the body of an adonis (except for Captain America, of course).  However, doesn't a soldier not train to be all that they can be?  Or doesn't a musician practice endlessly to make sure that they're the greatest crumhorn player out there?  Obviously you want to make sure that you develop your skills in such a way that they emphasis not only your natural ability, but also the goal that you are driving towards.  It just so happens that in Dungeons & Dragons - along with most of roll-playing games - that the goal is to vanquish evil and rid the world of <insert name of your campaigns BBEG here>.

You might be saying out loud in a frumious tone, "But sir, those people are taking their natural abilities and enhancing them with training.  The douche-bag next to me is creating the optimal specimen for a specific scenario by giving his half-orc fighter a 22 Strength while completely neglecting his Charisma and Wisdom."  That is true.  However, the player isn't going to create a fighter with an eight strength, nor is he going to make a bard with a 20 constitution - You're going to put the points where they matter.  And if you really think about it, a person who is mentally weak is not going to be able to spend the time in libraries with their nose in a book to become a wizard, nor is a person who is constantly tripping over their shoelaces and fumbling with their chopsticks going to decide to become a thief.  So therefore, if you end up reverse engineering the character to say "Well, they seem to be naturally dexterous, so obviously the rogue makes perfect sense for them" then suddenly everything seems okay.  It's often times the fact that the class comes before the character that we become inflamed.

Now, do I think it's right that every character except for sorcerers and bards has a crappy Charisma score? No.  Do I think that the fighter necessarily needs a natural 20 Strength?  No.  Everyone out there has the capability to create a maximized character without necessarily delving too far into the minimize portion that we ultimately all dislike.  It isn't really when the wizard puts all of his points into Intelligence that we get upset, but rather that he takes an 8 on all of his physical abilities that truly gnaws at us.  Your caster could have spent some of his time running laps around the non-fiction section to keep himself awake during a long study session, just as easily as your fighter could have developed some pick-up lines when trying to flirt with the barmaid.

You can have the best of both worlds in the end - A character that has all of his key stats where they need to be, while also having a little extra something for flair that separates him from the rest of the bland cookie-cutter builds out there.  In the end, just try to be a little more creative at the table, and you'll dodge the flame of the grognards.



  1. I've only really seen this get daft when it involves genning a high level character. Someone who play from level 1 to 15 has a character defined by the things they've done and needed to do. Creating a level fifteen character will just be about putting those points into 10 ranks of awesome it whatever it is that you do.

    1. I couldn't agree more. We are currently running our first one-to-whenever campaign (well, not THE first, but hopefully the first one that they characters make it past level 4 in) and I'm already noticing a huge difference in the development of the characters. When your fighter wants to put points into Performance, then you know something good is happening.

    2. Yup, or the mage learning to swim. I always find it much more gratifying to have a character that has clearly earned their levels, seen through the things they've spent their XP on.