17 August 2011

Why is it a Bad Thing to Optimise?

One of the things I really like discussing, when I get the chance, is not the mechanical parts of roleplaying games or some sort of circle-jerkery with people who already agree with me via platitudes that most people will agree with me about, but actually considering questions that are actually questions.

Like this link from EnWorld.org. If you don't want to read it, it essentially asks:

"Why can't I optimise my character? I like doing it and make sure to make interesting characters and I'm not trying to intentionally break the game, so why do people look at me funny?" 

Since he's talkind about 4e, I can't comment to that edition. My knowledge persists of a single game played roughly a year ago, but honestly, I kind of thought that was the whole point of the edition. If you give somebody multiple repeated choices, who's going to intentionally pick the awful ones? Yeah, I'd love to be a Wizard with Plate Mail and a Greataxe! No, why would I mind that I'm not actually good at anything?

It seems a bit to me like calling the kettle black- since character building is as involved of a process as it is in 4e, everybody's optimising their characters by default. You're going to penalize a guy because he spends more time on it, or does it better than you? You're really going to say that because he picked a better selection of abilities from a group you also had access to that somehow that makes him a worse roleplayer? 

The best way is to look at it like a disease and its symptoms, if you'll excuse the expression. The reason that this guy is getting called a munchkin or whatever it is they call people now is that acknowledging that you're optimising your character is one of the warning signs of being a douchebag who's just trying to kill as many things as possible. Spending hours on a character building program thing making characters that are optimised is another. People are going to hear what you're doing and assume that you're another one of those boring guys who think that the idea of a good roleplaying time is to kill everything they come across, antagonize other players, whine when they're not allowed to look "cool" via their characters, and everything else that's pretty awful about having the types of players who think the words "optimising characters" isn't some sort of bizarre doublespeak.

The other answer is that optimising so that your character is the best possible in combat feels a lot like playing to win. You don't play to win in a roleplaying game, at least not in those terms- there's nothing wrong with playing your best to accomplish your goals, obviously. But there's a subtle and extremely strong difference in being character-goal-based and being player-goal-based.

Character goal based means that you're doing what your character would want to do. Plumbing dungeons because you need the money, saving towns because you're a nice guy (and could use the money), exploring the wilderness, becoming a king; these are goals that shift and change as your character changes. They're goals that make the game more interesting. Who's playing roleplaying games to sit around and do nothing?

Player based goals, on the other hand, are pseudo-meta-game constructs like trying to be the best at combat, or getting the most gold. They're essentially elements of competitiveness, and if you've ever had somebody be competitive of you when they're supposed to be on your team, you know what this is about. It's the sort of "I swear to god if he doesn't stop showboating I'm going to let this effing otyugh eat his ass and then I'm going home." The key element in competition is that somebody has to "win", and if there aren't any built-in metrics of scoring, than people will make them up and lord them over you. "Yeah, you did great but I did more damage!" or "I totally out-healed you, punk!"

Not that there's anything wrong with friendly jabbing or a little playful competition, mind you, but it has to be mutual, and if it's competitiveness to the point where it overshadows actually playing, then it's not mutual and it's now a problem. And that's the sort of message that intentionally optimising your character in a group of non-optimisers sends.

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