One of the side-effects of playing a large number of games, and starting to design your own, is that you start to see what the mechanics of a specific game are doing or not doing. As my understanding of game mechanics has begun to grow, I came to a few realizations about games, especially d20 games, which made me realize that I have been too hard on my fellow gamers who have been min-maxing those games.
I feel like an apology may be in order…
What is Min-Maxing?
Let’s get some terms set, starting with Min-Maxing. This term has a range of definitions and often has a negative connotation. At it’s core, the idea of min-maxing is character optimization. That is the process of selecting the most optimal combinations of attributes, race, skills, feats, equipment, etc. to produce a character with the best set of bonuses for play.
There is a spectrum of min-maxing, from making solid choices in character creation to looking for specific rules exploits that will create in-game loopholes that will make your character nigh invincible. It is the latter where min-maxing derives its negative connotation.
In the past, I looked down on nearly all forms of min-maxing. My preference was to create more realistic characters whose choices would often be suboptimal. Then when I underperformed in comparison to the min-maxed characters, I would regard them with a certain degree of disdain. I was pretty sure I was right about this, until I discovered something about certain types of games, especially the d20 variety…
As I began to understand what the mechanics were doing in an RPG, I came to realize that there was a mechanic in some games, a type of character protection, which often came in the form of some in-game currency. A player could use this currency to improve the situation of their character. These are things like the Savage Worlds Bennie, or the Fate Point in Fate Core. Both of these points are used to change the outcomes of rolls and to mitigate damage taken by the character. In games using these mechanics, the player has the option to use this currency to improve situations for their character, providing them a degree of in-game protection.
Other games, especially the d20 family, don’t have this feature. Those types of games do not have an in-game currency (by default, a number have options to add them in) to provide protection. The players are at the fickle mercy of the roll of a die, be it their roll or that of the GM. On top of that, in d20 games that roll is often a single d20, which has much more random probabilities than something like Fate dice or dice pools. Overall, the player is at the mercy of the fates when they play these types of games.
Min-Max as Self-Defense
So when we look at games that lack any kind of character protection, the only protection a player has, is to make sure that they have the best bonuses possible to help minimize their reliance on the roll of a fickle die. In other words, the player’s best defense in a game without in-game protections is to min-max their character.
Nothing else in those types of games is there for their protection. If they are targeted with a save vs. death spell, and they have not done all they can to give themselves the best possible bonus, then their fate relies on the roll of a single die. So if you want to live, you had better have done your work outside of the game session.
I would be remiss not to mention that death in most d20 games is less permanent than in other games. By the time there is a save vs. death power, there is also a way to bring someone back from the dead. Which is fine, assuming someone lives long enough to raise you from the dead.
It was that revelation that made me realize that in and of itself min-maxing is not evil. It does not warrant my disdain. In fact, if anything, my sub-optimal character builds were me being lazy, and not doing the homework other players were doing to build more optimized characters. And that is where I reach the point where I can say…
“All you d20 min-maxers, listen up. I apologize for looking down upon the work you did to make better characters. You did your research, you experimented, and you came up with strong characters who had better chances of surviving the fickle roll of the d20.”
Now before you all let that go to your head, I have a few caveats to that apology…
Min-Max is not for Every Game
I was clear in saying that in games where there are no player protections, that you should min-max. That means that in games that have in-game protections, you do not need to min-max, the game provides you adequate protections to protect your character.
In game systems like these, take chances – don’t razor hone your characters – make some choices that are not optimal, because you will have a Bennie or other point to get your bacon out of the fire. In fact, min-maxing a character in a system like this is a bit of overkill.
So look at the game you are playing and optimize your character to the level of the system you are running.
Wheaton’s Law for Min-Maxing
Second caveat: When you do min-max, don’t be a dick about it. Picking a good set of complementary feats to get a better bonus is fine, but exploiting rules loopholes in the same way a hacker exploits vulnerabilities in a system is just bad form, regardless of in-game protections. Choose to use your powers for good, not to trash the game. The GM is not enjoying your uber-tank with the 50 AC, and neither are your fellow players who are all far more vulnerable, and likely going to be destroyed when the GM finds a monster that is a match for you.
Before we get out of this article, Gnome Stew is about GMing and we should discuss some GMing tips when it comes to min-maxing. The first thing you should do is figure out which type of game you are playing. Are you playing one with an economy for in-game protection, or are you playing one that does not give in-game protections for characters? With that understanding you should gauge your tolerance for min-maxing and discuss it with your players.
You want to come to an agreement of how much min-maxing everyone is comfortable with. Once you have had that discussion then go and make characters. If someone goes too far, you can remind them of the discussion and rein them in. Also, don’t be afraid to close off any loopholes when they are discovered. If a combo breaks the game, then make a ruling to close the loophole, and give the player who discovered it a chance to make another choice.
At the same time, as GM you should min-max the opposition to the same level as you have allowed for your players. Dig into the system and look for how to optimize NPC’s and monsters. That is likely going to be more work for you, as you may need to take stock stat blocks and beef them up, but it will create challenging opponents for the players, making encounters more exciting.
Minimum Conclusion – Maximum Questions
Min-maxing is often thought of as a bad form of gaming. Certainly, there have been stories where this is justified. Like it or not, min-maxing is sometimes all a player has to ensure that their character can survive. When limits are established and no one is trying to break the game, a group of min-maxed players against a group of min-maxed monsters can make for exciting and challenging battles.
What are your feelings about min-maxing? How do you handle it at your table? What is the craziest thing you have seen or done in min-maxing a character?