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An Apology to Some Min-Maxers

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…

Character Protections

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.

  …the player’s best defense in a game without in-game protections is to min-max their characters. 
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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.

GMing Min-Maxers

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?

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "An Apology to Some Min-Maxers"

#1 Comment By Adam Ness On April 17, 2015 @ 6:59 am

While you covered the “max” part of “min-max” pretty extensively, it’s also worth paying attention to the “min” part of min-maxing. Min-maxing is kind of an outgrowth of the “creating a party” mentality, where your goal is to have various characters each with a different strength and weakness. The party mentality encourages players to minimize their effectiveness in areas where other party members are highly effective, and maximize their effectiveness in areas where the party is lacking.

For example, let’s use the common example of “perception”. Perception is an important skill in the game, and “organic” characters who aren’t part of a party would likely all choose to have a moderately high Perception. Say the “skill levels” in my game run from 0-10, most characters on their own would want to have a perception of 5-7.

However, when building “for a party”, if everyone has a perception of 5-7, then a secret which requires a perception of 8 will be missed by the entire party. So, the typical min-max response is for one player to sacrifice competency in another area (like a Knowledge skill) in order to buy their Perception up to 10. The rest of the party, secure in the knowledge that someone has Perception handled, are free to use the 5-7 points they would have spent there to specialize in other arenas, and leave their perception at 0, or maybe 2-3 just for roleplaying purposes.

Min-maxing is not about eliminating weaknesses from your character, it’s about specializing your character into excellence in a specific arena, at the cost of complete ineptitude in another arena.

#2 Comment By ooviedo On April 17, 2015 @ 9:17 am

I think the question about the merits of min-maxing is a heavily system dependent conundrum. According to Ron Larson (author of Sorcerer), “system does matter”.

The point about optimizing a character for survivability purposes makes sense, but please take a step back and ask yourself “what sort of game am I playing in the first place?”. If character optimization is required to have a viable character, and the player must spend a substantial quantity of time studying the game manual in order to effectively do this, and going with your gut and making a character based on narrative cohesion is just plain lazy, then I am not sure this is the game for me. If I want a simulation game, I can just play it on my computer, right?

I believe that the best role-playing sessions I have been a part of (regardless of what system was used), were the ones in which the majority of the game was spent sorting through the most salient dilemmas in the narrative. The unexpected turns the plot takes as people react to things and deal with conflict can be amazing. When we consume a narrative experience through some other medium (movies, TV series, a book, etc.), not a lot of time is spent on failed saving throws, TPKs, endless grinding out of trivial obstacles, or other such nonsense.

What makes role-playing games amazing and compelling is not the grind of mechanically simulating reality, but the allure of being part of a narrative that you can create with your friends. Engaging in a collaborative act of imagination adds a dimension of novelty to your creativity, and neuroscience teaches us that novelty means dopamine release…

What about min-maxing the SYSTEM, rather than the characters? What if a d20 supplement came out where if you picked “fighter”, you were automatically assigned the stats needed to be functional and competent in that role – so you could focus on being a protagonist rather than using all your time studying a rule book? What if balance was inherent in the mechanics, and not something players and GMs had to agonize over constantly?

Don’t get me wrong, I adore a lot of the traditional games. That is where I got started way back when I was 13 – and those games were ground-breaking! It was fun back then, and it would be irrational to assume that the appeal has faded for every person on the planet a mere 27 years later. These games have merit, and should be enjoyed. It is good we are discussing the pros/cons of such mechanical considerations. Just don’t loose sight of what is fun, and what is not. It is O.K. to have fun, and also O.K. to jettison what is not fun.

#3 Comment By Rob Abrazado On April 18, 2015 @ 3:39 pm

Ron Edwards?

#4 Comment By ooviedo On April 19, 2015 @ 9:06 pm

Ron Edwards is a game designer who has written an indie game called Sorcerer which I am currently playing and learning from. Here is a wikipedia link with more info on the guy: a href= “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Edwards_%28game_designer%29”

#5 Comment By Rob Abrazado On April 19, 2015 @ 9:14 pm

I know. 🙂 I’ve got a few titles from the guy. I’m saying…Ron Edwards, not Ron Larson.

Sorry. I should have been clearer. Was just a small point.

#6 Comment By ooviedo On April 20, 2015 @ 7:04 pm

Jeez – you are right! Nice catch. Ron Larson is the main author on my calc textbook – I have an exam in two days… Sorry about being absent minded!

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On April 17, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

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?

I think min-maxing is a way to show interest and engagement with the rules of a system. It’s one of the things that’s trickiest as a GM. I’m personally okay with a group of fully optimized characters, all the way to the other extreme of fun concepts that are way under-powered. The trouble comes when you have both character types in one group.

For all of the groaning my groups have had about min-maxers, we grew up in the era before the internet, so at least there was real engagement and study of the rules. And, honestly, most of the people I’ve played with would work within the existing books in a campaign–they weren’t so dedicated that they’d seek out the crazy overpowered book and whine to the GM until it was allowed.

At my table, as a GM, I tend to ignore it–the players who hate losing and want to invest hours of research to ensure that they’re unscathed can do so. I try to make sure that the plot’s not all about combat or a single solvable variable; so that the min-maxer feels good about their emphasis, but other characters shine when the spotlight comes to them.

These days, my groups are far more into showing off weird concepts or demonstrating their character’s humanity. It may suck to have been transformed into a stone statue… but when you’re flesh again, you’ve got quite a tale to tell.

#8 Comment By Tomcollective On April 17, 2015 @ 2:57 pm

I once played in a party which had a player I once called a “Johnny Cochrane Rules Lawyer”, who earned this label for his dubious (and occasionally illegal) min-maxing. He had a “kitchen sink” maneuver involving some Jenga like stacking of bonuses which would just flatten things. (He also had a “bathroom sink” move as a secondary, but he never had to use it.)

Oddly enough, this didn’t cause any real problems. There were some furrowed brows and stink eyes, but overall the GM fit the combats to compensate. We rarely were able to just roll over people. We also had some epic knock down drag out fights, where the outcome was anything but certain.

Another funny story, a few years later I had a min maxing wizard. My solution was to deliberately, without “cheating” or hand waving, make him work up a sweat. It was really amusing to watch because he would freak out when threatened to any degree. But because he was so uber, he was almost always fine in the end.

#9 Comment By mercutior On April 17, 2015 @ 4:13 pm

@Adam Ness

In the case of the min/maxing discussed here, minimizing is limiting your own weakness while maximizing your strengths. In this situation the players are not limiting their characters for the good of the group but creating an uber character for themselves. Your idea of min/maxing is, in many ways, the “default” assumption for many systems (D20, old school clones,etc..). Those systems assume that each player will play a character that adds a skill set to the group that will help make the group whole. That’s innocent enough. It’s when players are more concerned with creating an invincible character that things breakdown.

Some other things to consider as a GM:
1. Min/Maxed characters tend to hog the spotlight. Almost by default a player, who has worked to create such a great character, hogs the spotlight. Why have such a character if people don’t see the awesomeness in action…over and over again?
2.Min/Max players tend to more concerned with preserving their “amazing” character, then they are with group preservation—For example, I’ve seen min/maxed fighters, fearing the uber baddie’s ability to slay them instantly, watch said baddie savage other members of the party as he dealt with fodder.
3.If everyone doesn’t min/max, encounter management can be difficult. Realism is lost if the toughest bad guy always attacks and/or deals with the min/maxed character.
4. Min/Maxed characters take extra time to prep for. That can be frustrating. I mean look at this blog, much of it is dedicated to prepping lighter. Min/maxing can force GMs into more prep when time is a very limited commodity for most of us.

#10 Comment By Adam Ness On April 18, 2015 @ 8:48 pm

As you said in the original article, there’s a “spectrum” of min/maxing. Building for a party is on the “low end” of that spectrum in my mind. There are certainly min/maxers who pay close attention to the party dynamic, and try to make sure that their min/maxed characters actually do fill a party role. However, depending on the degree of Min/maxing, the rules set, and the “rules competence” of the player, even building for a party can cause some really bad effects in a game. Most often this arises when the GM builds encounters and challenges to suit the “maxed” characters (physical, puzzle or social challenges), and somehow that character is incapacitated or removed from the scene. The GM is then left scrambling to drop the difficulty of the encounter by orders of magnitude to deal with the fact that all of the other characters are “minned” in the challenge arena for this encounter.

Then of course, there are min/maxers who are smart and/or charming in real life, and build characters with minimum social skills, minimum puzzle solving skills, maximum physical combat skills, and then “metagame” their characters social and mental skills. This would be like the person who has the “Bestiary” memorized cover to cover, so as soon as the GM describes the Lightning Mephit he’s got out a Decanter of Endless Water even though his character doesn’t have a single rank in Knowledge: Planes.

Also, you keep focusing on Combat Twinks, which are only one flavor of Min Maxers, depending on your game system. For the average Fantasy-20 game, Combat Twinks are certainly the most noticeable variety of Min/maxers, but I’ve also seen charm specialists and knowledge-mongers who were able to really cheese out their characters too.

#11 Comment By John Kramer On April 18, 2015 @ 7:25 am

I think it should be noted that you cannot actually Min-Max in d20, there’s nothing to minimize, so you can only max-max. What do I mean? In d20, choosing to weaken one area doesn’t give you an advantage in another, for a specific example, lets take point buy stats, if I choose not to spend all my points it doesn’t give me an extra feat or skill points or whatever; compare to GURPS or Silver age sentinels where I can choose to minimize an attribute in order to buy another advantage at a later stage of character generation.

I think what you’re describing is more accurately called character optimization or powergaming if it’s taken too far.

#12 Comment By Malruhn On April 18, 2015 @ 11:01 pm

Actually, John, you can drop stats to give you more points – and I see it. Fighters running around with 7 and lower INT scores (on a 3-18 scale), wizards with a 7 or lower STR score… etcetera. That’s the “min” of the min/max problem.

#13 Comment By Darkzumi On April 19, 2015 @ 1:40 am

I am an unrepentant min-maxer and I will never apologize for it. Why? For self-defense of both the party and my own character. Our DM, Beth, constantly fudges dice rolls in the enemies’ favor and pads their HP well above the maximum result possible for their hit dice. As a result of this, we get our butts kicked EVERY fight. Most often we only win the fight when the DM lets us win. The first attack roll of the game against my friend Sarah’s character is ALWAYS a critical hit, without fail. We also usually get critical hits against one or more party members every single round from the enemies. It defies the odds of probability that she would so consistently roll and confirm critical threats so often. She also has repeatedly ruled certain things in the enemies’ favor, but when the exact same situation happens with our characters suddenly that previous ruling is reversed. All the monsters/enemies can pretty much do whatever they want, rules be damned, while we have to follow every rule to exacting detail. So one day I started purposely min-maxing my characters out of pure self-preservation. Besides, doing so draws a lot of the attacks to my character and away from the other player characters. Better my character takes a beating than the rest of the party! So it helps the party overall. 😛

#14 Comment By ooviedo On April 19, 2015 @ 9:13 pm

I think this is a perfect example of players and GMs agonizing over game balance. What I see is an arms race where preserving game balance is ambiguous and frustrating. The point of this style of game escapes me, all due respect to Darkzumi.

#15 Comment By Scott Martin On April 20, 2015 @ 10:43 am

That seems like a rough set of circumstances, Darkzumi. I’ve played in groups and under GMs where the GM’s understanding of challenge doesn’t match the group’s, and it can be painful.

Unfortunately, your mastery of game rules and character optimization can’t beat a GM who plays calvinball with the rules. In fact, your push-back and successful victory (or slower loss than the vision in their head) may be justifying to the GM stronger opponents and more cheating to get “the right result”.

Honestly, when you get together for the next session, it might be best to call for a discussion about the game, instead of playing the game–or at least not starting with the game. [5] can be difficult to discuss openly, particularly if your gaming relationship already feels strained, but talking about what you want out of the game might get you there. Optimizing and cheating just don’t have a path that leads to fun for anyone at your table.

#16 Comment By Shockwave On April 22, 2015 @ 6:07 pm

Allow me to offer some clarifications about Fate. Fate Points do not serve as shield, character protection or self-defense for PCs. They’re obtained through putting your character in difficult, uncomfortable and even dangerous situations. Their main purpose is to push the story in a way appealing to player/narrator, not defense. In fact, Fate offers protection in a different way – you can always step back from a conflict and be 100% sure your character will survive it. Even if you’re fighting your greatest mortal enemy. In Fate PC’s aren’t dying unless players themselves wish it.

You can see it as in-build defensive system. But i think it originates in fact that Fate isn’t RPG in D&D category. As a story game it have different philosophy and requiers different mindset from players. More accurate would be using Fate Points in WFRP, however Warhammer extra lives are protection from game mechanics rather than furious GMs.

#17 Comment By Phil Vecchione On April 24, 2015 @ 6:13 am

Sockwave, you are correct in that the largest defense a character in Fate has is to conceded the fight. When I said that Fate Points are a defense, I was talking about a player’s ability to use Fate Points as well as invokes on various aspects, created during a scene, to be able to raise their defense roll.

For instance, the PC is combatting a creature. The creature has a solid roll and deals an 8 stress hit. The PC has the option after their defense roll, to use some Fate points and invoke aspects to raise their Defense total. This allows the PC to take that 8 stress hit down to a 4 stress hit, which they are able to use their 4 stress box to absorb.

That choice is the players, they have to spend the points and invoke the aspects.

That was what I was meaning. But your point about concessions was very good, because that is the ultimate protection, and it is also in the hands of the players.