Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Stop trying to win D&D

AD&D Player's Option: Skills & Powers
AD&D's power gamer wet dream
Over the last few editions, there has been a trend toward "winning" at D&D. The seed was planted with the AD&D Player's Options: Skills & Powers, which came out late in the product cycle of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition... but the tree of this trend really grew from the soil of D&D 3rd Edition (and also Pathfinder).

I'm not simply talking about power gaming here, but a change in the way the power gamer approached character generation due to the internet. Power gamers across the world now could converse and compare optimizations, which have lead to forums meant for just one topic... "character builds".

Character Builds

Perhaps it's the grognard in me, but the whole idea of a "build" raises my hackles. I can already hear the critique of this post. This post will likely be labeled as a "Your fun is wrong!" rant without actually considering my words, so bear with me a moment and read on before you judge.

Here's the thing. Role-playing games are form of improvisation. Your PC acts within the story and the story changes. And the story will also (ideally) change your PC. I don't just mean levels and hit points, but hopefully non-mechanical personality growth will occur. Goals will change. Motivations will change.

Perhaps a PC who is a bit churlish and grumpy will experience something that softens his heart. Or, conversely, a faithful paladin might experience something that hardens her and she eschews her deity for a demonic warlock patron... or the wizard, having experienced a divine intervention of some kind, decides to become a devotee of Pelor.

The whole point is that when you start out with that new character, you don't know what will happen at the table over the course of the next several months. Consider not planning all your feats and multi-class options at first level. By focusing on a "build" you may be missing out on opportunities for your PC to grow organically within the campaign. The "optimal" wizard build doesn't take into account that you might want to change to a cleric or paladin for story reasons for a couple levels.

If you are so fixated on the pre-destination for your character (as outlines in some build guide), you are closing yourself to changes that could occur during the actual play at the table. You don't know what will happen in the game to your PC at level 5, or 8, or 12... so consider not planning every single mechanical leveling up detail at level 1. Let what is going to happen be determined by play. If you are locked into a single character strategy, you have shut out the in-play possibilities.

D&D Ultimate Warlock Build
Skip the game guides. Build a personality.
This is my biggest issue with the focus on builds. They have nothing to do with character growth through role-playing during the game. They are completely about playing D&D as if it were a video or strategy board game. Not only that, but excessive optimization often leads to one character hogging the spotlight over other PCs in the game due to having the highest... everything.

Stop worrying about every little +1 bonus, feat, or ability score improvement from level 1 through 20. Play the character, not the mechanics. Then, when you actually achieve those levels, perhaps make a choice that makes sense for the character's story arc instead of trying to gain the highest possible DPS. I'm not talking about making a "gimp" character here. I'm just talking about not focusing so much on every minor bonus and think a little more about what makes sense within the fiction of the game, rather than the mechanics.

Character growth within the fiction of the campaign is one of the primary reasons we play in-person RPGs instead of games like World of Warcraft. Stop trying to make the perfect monk that can move 400 feet and stunning strike every enemy on the field in 1 round. This is D&D, not League of Legends.

Embrace the non-optimization.

I'm getting a lot of "Stop telling me your fun is wrong" replies, and that's NOT what I'm saying.
1) To be clear, I never said you should purposely build an ineffectively gimpy character.
2) I never said you shouldn't pick a combat-effective option or think about what's coming up level-wise.

One of the comments from Peter Olsen on Facebook put it best:
"... extreme focus on progression and builds lends itself to removing attention from where the character is right now."

This. So much this. I'm just trying to advise players (especially newbies) to not think about what's happening 8 levels from now. Think about what is happening in the game right now. Make character choices based on those events. Don't be a slave to the cookie-cutter "optimal build" if something happens in game that might lead your character to multi-class into something slightly less optimal (or pick a different feat, or whatever) because it makes more sense within the story.


  1. In general I wholheartedly agree with you, and as a longtime 3.x/PF player, I can not stress enough how annoying it sometimes is to have players in your group that obsess over the tiniest detail of their builds. But I feel that I have to add that organic character growth and "builds" aren't completely exclusive to another. I'd wager that character mechanics and narrative can be separately looked upon and most of the time don't really influence the other side of things. So the kind of character development you were talking about regarding the story told in a game is absolutely possible even with a PC designed by a build. Also, "builds" aren't necessarily done for optimisation reasons only. In real life I took several career paths before I ended up where I wanted to be, and while I learned different skills on my way, that I don't necessarily use in my day-to day job, they also didn't keep me from learning all skills essential to it. in D&D/PF, you can only have a certain number of abilites at a given time, so if you tried to build a character according to my biography, they would probably turn out to be a real incompetent Jack of all trades.

    But yeah, if you do it only to "win the game" (which was never something I did care about) and to get the maximum numbers possible for your character build, that I hate very much.

  2. Dude, you anticipate the"your fun is wrong" argument and then go right ahead and indulge in it.

    It is a GAME. Why the playstyle shaming?

    1. Reread the post. I think you missed the point. This is not about optimization, but about this new devotion to "build guides" and perhaps sometimes not picking the most optimal path due to the game play.

    2. That's because your point was expressed, I'm sorry to say, very poorly.

      If you intended to say "I dislike lavish devotion to someone else's build guide," sure. You'd kind of have a point. But you buried it in a load of playstyle-shaming dreck.

      "the whole idea of a "build" raises my hackles."
      "Play the character, not the mechanics."
      "Stop trying to win."
      "Builds. . . . have nothing to do with character growth through role-playing during the game."

      I don't think you comprehend the optimizer's mindset at all. Or at least the mindset of optimizers like me. Copying someone else's build without variation is an incredibly boring way to play, and a better fit for a videogame. That's not even remotely like the creative, tinkering process one uses to design a build from scratch. You've cast your net too wide, and slammed a whole group of people who enjoy the game differently.

    3. It is absolutely possible to build a character's background and personality in a fashion that is divorced from the mechanics. The "build" is how the character functions in the mechanics-driven portion of the game (primarily combat, some skill rolls when needed). The personality, the character's evolution as a person, and their RP choices are all them. It's a lot like a career. I'm a social worker, and I even have sections of my professional code of ethics that dictate some of my behavior in my personal life. But being a social worker is not all that I am. The same holds true for characters: the class is their job, not who they are. Also, the classes were much more tightly locked in the older editions, which forced you to optimize your stats where possible. Some classes even had strict requirements (paladin requiring CHA 17 out of a max of 18 and only available to humans). Dual classing required insanely high attributes to pull off and was only available to humans. Multi-classing was available to only members of various races and only to certain levels. The later editions unlocked this and allowed for more flexibility, not less. TL;DR: Try to keep up gramps. Sometimes the whipper-snappers have good ideas (I've played 1st through 5th edition starting at the age of 10).

  3. There are a great many reasons to enjoy the mechanical side of the game that aren't "powergaming" or "trying to win." A good group of mechanically minded players can work *creatively* to overcome challenges in a way that others players would not.

    Some folks just like fiddling with the mechanics because, gosh darnit, it's fun. Not amateur dramatic edgelord fun (which is fine), but playing-with-legos fun. Some people enjoy designing things, but you playstyle shamers can never get off of your flyings rungs of condescension to bother seeing it.

    1. If you've already planned all your feats and advanced from levels 1 to 20, where is there room for changes to your PC for something that happens in play at level 5?

    2. When you get there. If you so choose, in a game that isn't railroaded by the DM.

      Really, truly, it is possible to RP AND enjoy designing builds.

  4. You missed your own bias here. That the only way to grow organically or role-play is with strict adherence to the rules. This isn’t true for everyone.

    You wrote: “The ‘optimal’ wizard build doesn't take into account that you might want to change to a cleric or paladin for story reasons for a couple levels.”

    But that states I can’t be a priest or proselytize for Torm unless I am a cleric or paladin.

    Your position is that I can’t be a farmer who made a dark pact to gain power and express that by becoming a 20th level fighter.

    You are limiting role play and character growth by trying to tell us we should all multi class. You are telling us our fun is wrong.

  5. I never said "we should all multiclass". I said, if you are focused on following the build, you have left no room for changes that occur in the game.

  6. I've been playing D&D for 36 years now and I have done both the Optimize everything and play a fop character has no useful purpose on an adventure, too. Neither were satisfying. My preference is to create an interesting concept, do some digging into what is possible with the chosen milieu and work with the DM not to break the game pursuing an interesting arc for the character, but also one that is not so off track I have no place in a group. I like setting goals for my characters "Achieve immortality", "Invent a New Spell", "Found a Religion", "Topple a Monarch" or "Build a trading or smuggling empire", then start with skills, abilities and class choices that reflect those aspirations. Plug away at those lofty ambitions until game conditions or events present better or more interesting options or you screw up so bad that you take yourself way off your path. Either way, if your playing a character is about living an alternate life, you should do so from the perspective of the character, which with few exceptions, has to live in the moment or near future as they make plans. Your Wizard does know the specific feats they need to do X at first level. That is meta knowledge. Play the game and let those things be revealed organically and I promise you the time you spend will be less about managing up to you expectations and more about exceeding them in new and "interesting" ways.

  7. To be honest I agree... their fun is wrong...

  8. As a 5e DM I do not allow multiclassing or feats unless their is an in story reason how the individual could pick up those skills...

  9. I don't see how your rant can come across as anything BUT a grognard proclaiming that the younger crowd's fun is wrong. You don't seem to understand why character build guides became a thing, and are reacting accordingly. Character build guides are a confluence of the increased options starting with the 3.0 PHB and Wizards of the Coast's more tolerant attitude to D&D players posting material on the internet. You correctly point out that TSR released the Player's Option series in 1995, but at the time TSR had a draconian policy of forbidding players from posting on Usenet about the game. Had that policy not been in affect, and had use of the Player's Option series been more widespread, you would have seen these sort of guides pop in the mid 1990's. Why? Because the plethora of options includes bad options as well as good ones. Feats like Eschew Materials or Animal Affinity, while flavorful pale next to a Feat like Quicken Spell, which could save the life of a Druid or Wizard who takes it.

    I learned the hard way that the RAW of 3.X can be punishing for the unwary. I played in the Living Greyhawk campaign for four years, until the RPGA discontinued it in 2008, and in that Organized Play campaign, taking Eschew Materials could be a death sentence. When I discovered the help of other players to help me optimize the Human Sorcerer I started playing in 2005, it was too late since some of the choices I had made were locked in.

    When I started playing 4E I did not make the same mistake. I carefully vetted every feat and power my Dragonborn Cleric took, considered the mechanical benefit of the various Paragon Paths, concluded that I wouldn't be able to take certain feats at 11th level unless I carefully used ASIs to afford them, and generally shepherded the character into an optimal path that ended at 14th level when I dropped out of the campaign.

    Was it more fun to plan the 4E character from inception to 14th level than to blindly stumble with my 3.X character? I don't know, but the frustration was lessened by my attempts at system mastery. In 5E there are fewer movable parts than there were in either 3.X or 4E, but there is still a need to plan. Want to multiclass a Wizard into Paladin, like you mentioned? Better hope you put a 13 into both Strength and Charisma or have a DM who will let that slide, because if you don't have either you aren't going to be able to multiclass into Paladin.

    Finally, a note about character growth. Your character grows as a person based on your roleplay at the table, not necessarily mechanical benefits you accrue as you level up. I am currently playing a Warlock. I wrote down on her character sheet that she would like to become a member of the nobility, then return to her hometown and rub her new status in the face of the nobles who live there. That desire was the inciting incident that drove her to make a Pact with her Warlock Patron. Since starting play she has acquired a minor title of nobility, and would like to return home soon to give some well deserved comeuppance to the locals who scorned her. None of that has anything to do with the character build I selected, which feats I may or may not take, and whether or not I multiclass. It all came about at the table. Is my character optimized? Depends who you ask. She's a Celestial Tomelock, not a Hexblade Bladelock, so my DPR isn't as good as some Warlocks. It is much better than if I didn't carefully choose my character's spells and Invocations in advance. Did I have fun preparing the character? Yes. Is the character fun to roleplay? Yes. And yet you consider my fun wrong.

  10. This, so much. Optimization can kill fun in just about any game, and you won't realize it for years, potentially, until you start wondering why you no longer feel like playing your favorite game any more.


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