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When creating characters, I often face a dilemma between making a character. It feels like they can either be optimized so they can "pull their own weight" or having a character I think is creative and fun to play.

When I say 'pull their own weight', by and large I mean by filling out the role expected of them (e.g. doing your best to maximize your DPS as a striker in 4E D&D, or choosing useful life paths in Traveller as opposed to interesting ones) and contribute to encounters at the same level as the rest of the group.

I was wondering if there were situations or game systems where one is categorically not OK? For instance, 4E as a system seems more inclined towards optimisation than others. How have people handled this as a group before? Was it handled IC or OOC?

Edit: As examples, I've tried to play a scholarly warlock in 4E, buying magic items with flavour (goggles that let you read any language, for example) which was criticized by my gaming group because I had to spend money wisely so the group was strong enough to defeat encounters. Also, I've created a Tremere in Vampire with no Thaumaturgy, as the character in life was a skeptic; it was resolved in character by the sire co-ercing him into learning those powers eventually.

Second Edit: I saw this graph the other day on the WotC forums: Optimisation Graph

And it made me realise the issues I've had before were due to not wanting to sit in the blue box, or that close to it, for roleplay reasons. Hopefully this should clarify my points above.

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Yet another reason why I run systemless games: game balance as character numbers is intrinsically flawed. Just try to state yourself as either a starting character or as you should be -- give yourself what you have as skills/states. You will notice a massive discrepancy in most system you try to do that in -- maybe Fate would be the best one, maybe not. –  Sardathrion Dec 15 '11 at 14:38
    
I think what I'm trying to say when I talk about optimised characters is people subscribing to theorycraft over making a fun character. –  Pureferret Dec 19 '11 at 12:56

11 Answers 11

up vote 19 down vote accepted

I'm going to go against the prevailing advice here:

If the other players won't let you play a character that you find interesting, because that character won't "pull its weight" in combat, they're violating Wheaton's Law.

If you want to play a character that is ineffective in combat but effective in other situations, that is your right as a player. You don't have to be part of every combat situation. Or every situation.

The exception is a character who is clearly and specifically against the party's best interests. If someone in an all-Jedi group wants to play a Sith, well, sorry.

I'm a DM/GM, so I handle this out of play, and I let people play the characters that they want to play. In the case of the explicitly antagonistic characters mentioned above, I'll steer the player towards a different character concept.

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Great advice so long as you remember the other characters (not just players) have rights too. "OK, the last of the band who have sworn to kill the Evil One can - talk to animals? " Or equally "We need somebody who can help us survive the wilderness and you can - do 297 points of damge in one blow? Don't call us , we'll call you" –  TimLymington Dec 18 '11 at 23:00

Your question is incorrect, as you've fallen prey to the stormwind fallacy. A character built and validated against requirements should perform to those requirements. The requirements, if necessary, should include role or combat performance and how to use creativity to enhance that. This may require consultation and support from your DM.

I address this in my paper on constrained optimization for characters here. The stormwind fallacy states:

Just because one optimizes his characters mechanically does not mean that they cannot also roleplay, and vice versa.

However, this argumentation presumes that creativity qua roleplaying is dominant. Extending beyond that, however, "creatively" designed characters are intended to fufill a different set of constraints and interact with the world differently.

There are two situations we must address here: failing to build a character adequately to constraints, and not sharing the same requirements as the rest of the party.

A character's role is the manifestation of the consequences of your choices. There are no rules elements to require you to play in a certain way, though they do change the design space of possible options. Through the requirements imposed by your own creation process you may make a character that fails to fufill that requirements. It is important to catch this early by articulating those requirements and how they can be failed. These requirements can be theoretical, mechanical, or narrative.

Adding additional constraints for "interesting" characters can make for a more challenging process, as it demands additional system mastery if the rest of the group expects performance at a certain level. However, the build cannot make up for poor game play, but highly effective game play can make up for a poor build. Furthermore, designing for high "power" characters tends to be self defeating: the DM escalates in response for a stalemate. (((Add link to magbonch.wordpress.com when I can find correct post)))

Fundamentally: any character that meets the personal requirements imposed on character creation should be able to fufill those requirements. Those requirements should reflect chosen directions of agency-expression within the game. If you violate normal tropes, you should have other competencies that provide for useful agency, so long as you are aware of the type of game everyone else chooses to play.

You may have to inform the DM as to your chosen competencies, and ask for a shaping of challenge, but given that it happens naturally against optimized characters, the same should happen in the other direction. Most critical here is managing the expectations of your party and figuring out how to contribute usefully to the party within your own chosen avenues of agency. One way could be to perform a narrative reflavouring of the powers to match your chosen story-expression, while maintaining a more traditional "mechanical" build to support your party in their aims. More interestingly, however, you can take advantage of terrain and other environmental aspects of the world to creatively express agency and provide sufficient support for your party. Some DMs do not support this environmental interaction by default, and you should go out of your way to request this means of interaction.

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I'm fairly certain I agree with this answer, but for some reason I'm finding it quite hard to read. Maybe it's just me, but something about the way it's written makes me feel like I'm reading something explaining how to fill out my tax return. Possibly a couple of edits to make it a bit more lay-person friendly might be helpful? –  Braiba Dec 15 '11 at 19:23
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This. Roleplaying well and optimizing the mechanics are orthogonal; doing one doesn't necessarily help or hinder doing the other. You can do both, or neither. –  Tynam Dec 16 '11 at 15:01
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@Tynam That really depends on what "roleplaying" means to you, and what kinds of game mechanics we're talking about. The games I prefer tend to tie mechanics and fiction pretty deeply, such that your fictional choices are directly reflected in the mechanics, and the mechanics drive the player's roleplaying actions. In such a game, mechanical and fictional choices aren't orthogonal at all -- that's the whole point of the mechanics. –  Alex P May 30 '12 at 18:38
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-1. The OP's example of buying gear that is fictionally-interesting to play with but useless for combat effectiveness is an example that falls outside of the assumptions that go into the stormwind fallacy: If treasure is a fixed resource, then spending it optimally is never going to be identical (as in a Venn diagram) with spending it for roleplay reasons. Yes, there is overlap in any Venn diagram of resource allocation, but the overlap is the only part of the diagram where the stormwind fallacy is meaningful. –  SevenSidedDie May 30 '12 at 18:45

So long as your characters arent making stupid decisions that are detrimental to the party, I dont see any reason you need to change how you play them. For example, if you buy some magic beans because you think they might be interesting, then thats simply role playing a whimsical character. If you buy the same beans with money you need to purchase an artifact that will prevent the world from being overrun with demons, thats flat out stupid, and the other player would probably rightly be annoyed at that. Though the GM might be amused.

It sounds like you are in it for the role playing, and some of the others are in it for the tactical exercise. Both are fine appropaches, but you'll get this sort of conflict whenever you mix player types. You could change to conform more with the other players expectations, but then you may not enjoy it as much.

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The best of tacticians should be able to come up with a way to save the day via magic beans anyway –  Lunin Dec 16 '11 at 21:29
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@Lunin Yes! Saving the day with magic beans is way more awesome than saving it with +8 to hit. –  SevenSidedDie May 30 '12 at 18:41

From my own experience, the power level of the character is utterly irrelevant. What matters is that the character (and thus the player) gets as much "camera time" as the rest, that his characters have room to develop within the story told, and finally, that the character is vital to the game story. This is why I find rules get in the way, so I don't use them.

As an example, imagine that JRRT was running LotR for four players each playing Gandalf, Aragorn, Sam and Frodo. Would you feel left out by playing any of them?

However, if the stats/skills are not suitable and you insist on using them, why not have "potions of fixing past mistake"? Drink it and you can re-skill/re-stat your character to be more what you think they should be like? Many computer games (Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Witcher, ...) do just that.

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It very much depends on the group. My current Werewolf character has fully 6 points of flaws and 4 points of merit towards making it really difficult to shift, despite being the group's biggest combat monkey, and no-one has batted an eyelid at it. Similarly, when playing the Crimson Throne Pathfinder campaign (with a completely different group of people) our group came across a completely impractical magical item that my character developed a liking to and spent ~90% of the money he had at the time on paying the rest of the party for the share they would have got from selling it, rather than spending his money on anything even remotely useful to the group as a whole.

Clearly your group is very different to the people I play with in this respect, so it may be that you have to suck it up to some extent, however I suspect that 4th Ed is a system that may exacerbate this problem somewhat, especially if - as I get the impression from your edit - your GM is running a pre-made campaign that they are unwilling to scale. Otherwise, as other people have commented, the GM should just be scaling the encounters to your power level and so mechanically unproductive behaviour should not cause a difficulty issue.

I'm interested in the idea of handling this in-character though - from both sides of the argument. In 4th Ed, I think In Character is very much in your favour; although the choice to buy some scholarly eyewear is a character choice (rather than spending xp on skills, for example, which I would argue is circumstantial), as an adventurer you're essentially freelance, so it's not really any of the other characters' business what you spend your cash on, and really, they're unlikely to even know unless you go around wearing them all the time with the price tag still on. On the other side, my (admittedly very limited) knowledge of Vampire suggests that your sire co-ercing you to learn useful things is entirely legitimate thing for them to do in character, so it very much depends on the situation. I would say this only covers buying and learning things however; there's no real in-character argument I can see for influencing how someone spends xp on stats or skills (other than convincing them to devote extra time towards improving them by practice, and that requires specific down-time really).

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Generally speaking, how the group sees itself is going to be the biggest factor. In a game like Vampire or Mage, where the setting tends to be more "slice of weirdo life" it's a lot easier to weave in archetypes like "whole team's little sister" or "eccentric, but expert, professor."

In a game where you play professional adventurers, though, you're probably going to deal with in-character consequences for the perception that you're either not as good at your job as you could be, or that you just don't care. If you like that sort of attention, by all means play it, but it is part of the kit that comes with it.

As a DM, I usually give players the option of taking a fully-me-controlled, rolled-by-the-book, single-class NPC at 1 level less than the group average with them. This costs a full share of the treasure, items, and XP and will be played as someone who is solely in it for the money. At that point it's up to the group which they prefer. The in-and-out-of-character benefit to that is even if the character PC isn't perfectly optimized, it's still the better of two choices, and hiring you instead of them was a choice the group made with their eyes open, not something they were forced into. You live with your choices, they live with theirs.

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One of the common solutions seen in my gaming group is the use of NPC allies in combat (we run GURPS, so it's actually the Ally advantage). This lets you play the non-combat capable PC, while still being able to partcipate in combat as the NPC.

Currently, I'm playing a utility mage whose only real combat ability is explosions (which isn't so much conducive to melee combats where I have party members who'd like to remain un-exploded) - as a result, I made sure to take an Ally of an iron golem that I'd created before the start of the game. This leaves me capable of giving my golem combat orders and healing during combat, while still getting to participate (my GM lets me roll for the iron golem, and since he's literally incapable of making decisions, it's appropriate and in-character that I make them for him).

Similarly, we have a wealthy, well-connected alchemist character who isn't very fit for combat. As a result, he took an Ally of a mamluk/slave (Middle Eastern setting) who is his bodyguard.

GMs should take care to keep balance in mind - letting a PC play a combat-capable NPC without having to put up with the real consequences of that character's dismemberment/death (or even the out-of-combat disadvantages he/she may have) needs to be offset with something. This something is usually the threats against the non-capable characters in combat - the non-capable characters should still be present (so that a bodyguard needs to actually be a bodyguard). If you're playing the NPC for a whole session while your actual character sits back in a tavern waiting for the party, who's really the NPC?

EDIT: You mentioned in comments the example of a character with an eyepatch taking penalties in combat. It may be a function of your system that's causing some of these issues - for example, in GURPS, having one eye is a disadvantage, which gives you extra points to spend on skills, advantages, attributes, etc. So you could offset the penalties by improving your combat skills, buying a higher dexterity, or any number of possible mitigations to help make you more effective in combat.

As for these types of situations in other systems, I'd talk to your GM if you feel like you're intentionally (for flavor) de-powering your character - maybe he'll allow for some mitigation or compensation for it.

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Prepare for my infamous walls of text.

The fact that you are playing a character who is filling in a role no one else can do doesn't mean you can't have fun with the character, or that he won't be interesting.

So, basically, what you need to do is to think on multiple levels. Let me simplify my answer with some of my own experience.

I love rogues.

Oh, no, I don't think you understand.

I.

LOVE.

rogues.

Every manifestation of them. Pickpockets, cat burglars, assassins, acrobats, spies, swashbucklers, you name it. Once, in Pathfinder, I had to play a tank, as no one else could fill in the role.

I forgot the fact that I loved rogues for a while.

I imagined the game as if it was a movie. A movie that I had watched, but forgot. This is a very important step to keep in mind for the rest of my answer.

So I sat down and tried to remember who my character was. The fact that he was a protagonist in a movie meant that he must've been interesting. But he must also have had some characteristic, or more, that distinguished him from similar roles in other movies.

So I gave him some unique characteristics. A crimson red full plate armor, no weapons (I made him a pacifist) a mirror tower shield (so that his enemies could see their faces as they slowly realised they couldn't harm this guy :P), white hair, even if he looked in his mid 30's, and an eyepatch.

These things look good, and they help me remember the character, but what makes him interesting? Why did I like him when I saw him in that movie?

So I gave him a story for every one of his distinguishing features. The eyepatch, the white hair, the armor, the massive mirror shield and the fact that he did not use weapons.

Ok, so now I remember why I thought he was interesting. But what gives me the hint that he was in that particular movie?

How does the character fit in the world? How does he treat others, what are his worldviews, his ethics and ideals? Why is he doing what he's doing, where is he from and why is he here?

And suddenly, I remember it all, and it makes sense.


So, to summarise:

  • Create an interesting appearance (doing this will help you develop your character's backstory - Why does he have/How did he get those features/equipment/speech patterns/sayings/scars?)
  • Create an interesting story and background for the appearance(doing this will help you develop your character's personality - How did acquiring those features affect him? Did he have them since birth, or did they develop? Are they part of his religion, customs of his homeland, rank or did he choose to have them for personal reasons?)
  • Create interesting reactions your character had to his background; in other words, give him personality (doing this wil help you develop your character's motive - Why is he doing what he's doing? How does he view the world? What has his background made him best at? For example, this is where you would put adjectives to your character, i.e. sneaky, honour-bound, loyal, friendly, chatty, bitter, etc.)

Follow these guidelines, and any role you are called upon to fill, you will do so in an interesting and memorable manner.

Hope I helped. :)

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I don't really see how this addresses the question at hand (though it is an excellent aside on building characters). –  Ian Pugsley Dec 15 '11 at 16:13
    
I'm not sure if I worded my questions properly. you said The fact that you are playing a character who is filling in a role no one else can do doesn't mean you can't have fun with the character, or that he won't be interesting. It's more that I'm creating a character that's expected to fill a certain role but doesn't. Either they do it less well than if you ignored some of their flavour (negative to-hit penalties from the eye-patch, for example) or do something completely different. –  Pureferret Dec 15 '11 at 16:13
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I can only apologise. Let me see if I get this straight; You like playing characters who are interesting but are not good at what they are supposed to do? Is them not being good at what they are supposed to do part of what you like, or simply a side effect? Where does the problem lie? –  OddCore Dec 15 '11 at 16:25
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To answer, my character is interesting to me, but as a side effect not optimised for the party. –  Pureferret Dec 23 '11 at 0:17

Game systems are almost always biased towards particular kinds of characters. If you want to know which, just check out the chapter titles on your core rulebook. If it has a chapter on fighting, then fighters are welcome here. If it has a chapter on microelectronics, then you can play an engineer. If it has a chapter on courtship and weddings, then you can play a Jane Austen character.

Looks like your game has a chapter on fighting but not academics. Then you have two options:

Make your game

Work with your GM to invent new game mechanics and house rules regarding academics. Make academics an important part of the game, as critical and important as combat, with matching challenges. Then you can play your scholar in a game that has room for fighters and scholars.

In other words, write the missing chapter.

Fit your concept to the game

You can still play an optimized fighter with an academic flair. Give him just a description that gives a scholarly aura, and act and talk scholarly wherever possible. Then bash that troll's head who just happened to interrupt you while reading your book.

Is it just me or is Indiana Jones the perfect example of a scholar who is actually a rogue-fighter?

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I believe it depends entirely on the type of game that your groups wants to play. If your group is playing a primarily tactical game that is emphasizing combat over out-of-combat roleplaying, then it probably makes sense to actually min-max (within reason). For one thing, this helps you enjoy the focus of the game (which is combat in a tactical game). For another, it is actually fairly realistic. People that want to be truly expert in one particular area often do give up life balance and focus incredible amounts of effort and resources into that area, they effectively min-max their life to emphasize that particular part. This is true of Olympic atheletes, some professional musicians, and even some specialized professors and researchers (Paul Erdos comes to mind).

If your group is going for a more role-playing/story centered game with less emphasis on tactics, then it is likely they will be more tolerant of quirky characters. The character should still fit with the party of course, but the definition of that will be much broader. Some of the time, that still means the character needs to pull its own weight (a pro-athlete that doesn't carry his weight will be benched and then dropped), but there will often be more ways to do that (you speak the language of fluently? You're in).

Choice of system does affect this, but its not absolutely determinative. I have played ADnD with character driven plots that featured little combat. I have played Vampire: The Masquerade with a team of enforcers that was close to a "creature-of-the-week" and focused on combat.

In short, I would talk with the group about what they want to play. If it is a combat oriented, tactical game, it may be time to either start min-maxing or find a new group. Conversely, if you are going to story driven game, you need a balanced and interesting character or you may find the min-maxed combat monster standing around as a body gaurd while the more balanced characters run the show.

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If a character I make won't hold his weight, I put that character on the shelf and play something else instead. Maybe my scholar won't hold his weight in 4e. But he'll do fine in Mage. I try to play someone appropriate for the system I'm playing in. I don't see this as a rejection of my creative and interesting characters, since I do get to play them eventually.

What I have more difficulty with is figuring out exactly where that holding his own weight line is drawn, especially with a new group.

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The other way round for me: I try to play a system appropriate for the someone I'm playing. :-) –  Stephen Dec 15 '11 at 19:16

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