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I want to learn how to optimize. I am aware of optimization and have seen examples of optimized characters, I have found many 'guides' on optimization but in reality all of these are simply lists of feats, races and traits that make sense for X class. This is not what I am looking for, I want to learn how to optimize things myself. I intend to use this skill to design games at whatever power level I want.

My limited knowledge of optimization are its possibilities (A wizard who can deal 1.5k damage at level 5) but not how it is done.

My end goals in this is to be able to know if something I design is optimized or not. I want to know what power level my character and monster designs are at. By knowing how to optimize different aspects of the game it will help me judge what level my designs are at, as well as the designs of my players (if I am the DM).

Knowing if my designs are optimized to the level I want them to be will help me to more quickly make designs when needed. It will also allow me more time for non-optimization stuff, such as character development, personality, role-playing and such.

Knowing how to optimize different aspects of the game so I can judge what level my designs are at will help to tailor creations to a certain level. This will also allow me to judge the level of my PCs if I am the DM, allowing me to tailor encounters and challenges to their actual level.

Example of where this would be useful as both DM and PC:

DM: As DM I could understand the power level of my characters and better tailor encounters to them. If I have a party of level 10 characters that are not optimized at all - to the point where they are actually weaker than they should be - I know I shouldn't throw them against a level 10 encounter as they could very well die.

PC: As a PC if I know the system well enough to optimize, I can build my character quickly and easily and then focus on the personality of the character.

How can I use optimization to design characters and creatures of a certain power level?

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3 Answers 3

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Start With a Goal in Mind

Optimization in Pathfinder can be class-based, but more often it's goal-based; you want to create a powerful archer, or control the battlefield, or have the smoothest talker to ever talk smoothly. Start with a mechanical goal, since we're talking mechanics, and that'll give you something to focus around for your initial explorations into optimization.

Do Some Research

That statement is deceptively simple; though it has less options than 3.5 did, Pathfinder is still a very large and ever-expanding system with tons of available content. What I've found to be a good practice is to do some initial digging with the PFSRD and/or your own books and then post the concept and build up online, where others can help you with it. Don't brag when you do it - say that you have X goal ("I want to control the battlefield") and this is what you came up with so far.

When you're picking up your options, ask yourself a few questions - how much is this option costing me? Can I get that resource back if I don't like it? If I can get it a different way, what're the relative costs of the two options? For example, cash is cheaper than feats so it's usually better to get something with money rather than spending a feat slot because you can't normally get that feat slot back - whereas you can always sell an item later. Learning a spell is cheap, but taking an entire level is "expensive". This is probably the hardest part of learning optimization - being able to think in terms of fulfilling a goal efficiently. The more resources you have to invest in something, the more things you aren't getting for those resources.

Whenever possible, take options that you can apply to more situations than just your goal. A great example of this are metamagic feats - if you're out to optimize, say, the enervate spell, then Empower Spell is a great feat. You can also use it for things that aren't enervate! The more situations you can apply an option to, the more chances for narrative power - the power to shape the campaign setting as you wish it to be - you have.

Think About Your Meta

What's optimal in a kick-in-the-door game with little-to-no-roleplaying is not necessarily what's optimal in a game centered around political intrigue. Most optimization discussions you'll find online are geared towards a 'general spread' kind of game where you'll experience combat, traps, puzzles, and social challenges all in the same game. If that's not the case in your game, the value of options shifts to reflect whatever is emphasized or missing. For example, in a game with lots of combats sustainability might be the name of the game when it comes to optimizing combat options, but in a sandbox game you might want to talk instead about optimizing threat-assessment, defensive options, and social skills.

Ask How Many Ways You Can Do This

One thing that helps you scale optimization to power levels is comparing many ways of doing the same thing. For example, say you want to have a given spell to hand whenever you need it as a Sorcerer. You could use contingency to make sure it's always up, which requires three resources - two spells known and your active contingency. You could buy it as one or several scrolls or wands, which eats up money. Or you could play a half-elf and use paragon surge to instantly learn the spell whenever you feel like you need it, which costs one spell known and gives you, literally, infinite effective spells known on demand. Then when you look at the power level of the campaign, you can decide which option - and its resource costs - is appropriate for you. Asking how many different ways you can do a particular task is also a great way to focus when you're diving through the piles and piles of options available to you, and a great way to look at direct cost-comparison since you have one end goal in mind which is then compared against the costs of the various options.

Diamonds Are Forever

The thing that makes the powerful classes in Pathfinder as powerful as they are is how casually they can recover from build mistakes and shift their focus to handle a new day's worth of adventuring. Wizards, clerics, druids - it's helpful to think of their spells as class features that they get to change every single day. To contrast, characters like fighters, rogues, and barbarians don't get to change their class features ever. Options you can change, or which increase or possess versatility, are always going to be mechanically superior to those that do not.

Some General Advice

  • Feats and Class Levels are generally the highest prices you can pay for a given option, especially if it involves giving up caster levels on a character focused around spellcasting. You can never get these valuable options back unless the DM is using retraining rules, and even then there's a cost to your 'refund' which you won't be seeing back again.

  • Money is almost always the cheapest cost to pay for any capability.

  • Prepared spellcasters can re-optimize their builds every morning just by memorizing new spells. Consider taking Cleric or Druid for a test drive to see how spell selection alone can affect a character's power levels.

  • Study the monsters in the PFSRD at various challenge ratings. When do special capabilities like flight become common? How about spellcasting? Pouncing? Incorporeality? Summons? Immunities? Ask yourself how you can prepare for encounters you can't predict, then ask yourself how you can predict them anyway and then prepare.

  • He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.

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I love your "Diamonds Are Forever" section. I was just trying to explain this to my three new players. My bard and druid were upset that they were so weak in combat compared to the orc barbarian who optimized his character to be good in combat. I had to explain to them: 1) Your classes are different so your battle strategies have to be different. 2) The orc barbarian optimized himself to be good in combat. 3) You two have both expressed that your characters will focus less on combat anyway. 4) In the long run, your druid and bard have more potential for optimization than the barbarian. –  called2voyage Mar 11 at 17:53
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Needs links to the Tiers and Why Each Class Is In Its Tier –  KRyan Mar 12 at 1:08

Optimisation is a game of requirements generation, and quantifying measures of those requirements to test success or failure. The more accurate your requirements, the more accurate the end character.

As I write in, Constrained Optimization in Dungeons and Dragons: A Theory of Requirements Generation for Effective Character Creation:

The articulation of effective character requirements during the process of character creation in a RPG can provide for more interesting, functional, and rewarding characters for all players at the table. ...

The character-mechanical interaction model describes the relationship between expressive role-playing requirements and mechanical fulfillment requirements over a stacked set of levels of character structure. The model relates a game’s fundamental mechanics to a player’s story design, and allows players to articulate goals within that relationship. The fundamental level, the mechanical- theoretical level, presents a character’s relationship with the abstract mechanics of the game. These mechanics define intersecting axes of possible choices and their consequences that are instantiated as specific choices in the mechanical-functional level. Those choices, and their narrative consequences for the player, are informed by the story-expression level.

By articulating requirements on these three models, and using the quantified measures of your particular system, and by studying requirements generation as a discipline, you can become an effective optimiser.

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Whee, shameless self promotion :) –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 12 at 8:14

I agree with most everything that Lord_Gareth has said above, only my approach to how I handle my optimization is a little different.

[1] Figure out what type of character play style you are aiming for. (i.e. Do you want to be in the thick of it? Nuke from a distance? Control NPCs? Or my favourite, mess up the DMs general game plan?)

[2] Once you determine the type of play style you're looking for, you are going to need to find a class that fits it.

[3] Now that you have a play style and a class, you have the foundation from which to build on. The next step is to research everything you can.

[4] Once you have a chance to read over what your class(es) can do, you are going to have to select feats, paragon paths, encounters, dailies, etc.

At this stage, I would try and have a fairly specific objective in mind.

When I create a character I try to have 1-3 strengths that make them forces on the battlefield. For example, I might want a high damage, hard to drop character. I will first look at what feats and paragon paths I can take that will achieve these two prerequisites. I will then look at my character from the perspective of "what will prevent my character from achieving this".

How will my character be affected by save effects? Immobilization? Insubstantial? High AC? Et cetera. If I know what is going to impede my character, I can try to select powers that will mitigate as much as possible these exploitable flaws.

Generally speaking I will next aim for efficiency and account for attrition. What I mean by this is that I will first aim to maximize the powers I'll be using the most. For instance, you'll likely use your at-will powers more so than your encounters. My dailies will likely be used even less (maybe one or two an encounter tops). So when I determine my powers and feats, I'll try to base my options on what I'll use most. How many feats can I stack onto my at-will? Can I choose decent encounter utilities that have a high chance of being used each encounter? For dailies, can I choose any that have lasting effects until end of encounter?

Related, my feat selection generally tries to build on the strengths of earlier feats. For instance, if I am taking a feat that improves my second wind, why not take a second feat that gives me two of them per encounter?

A final consideration is learning both the play style of your particular GM and the composition of the team you'll be playing with. Is it melee heavy or balanced with range? Knowing what your teammates can do can help mould the powers you might want to consider taking.

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Classes with a narrow enough concept to optimize the class itself are the rare exception, not the norm. This answer would be stronger if it minimised its focus on the four-step process at the top and instead expanded on the bottom part, which rather usefully talks about having multiple options on hand to deal with shifting situations. –  Lord_Gareth Mar 12 at 7:12

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