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One of my players loves building characters that are, for lack of a better term, broken. I don't mean he min/maxes them, I mean he builds characters that are way more powerful than they should be without compromising other stats too much. Think along the lines of a less extreme Pun-Pun.

I am having trouble GMing for the group with his characters. In order for it to be a challenge for him, I generally need to make things well into the "deadly" range of CR for the group. However, this means that everyone else is more or less ineffective against the challenge and is in danger of getting one-shotted.

The things I have tried are as follows:

  1. Keep the encounters lower level: This results in very fast combat as he annihilates everything and I have trouble producing enough content to fill a session.
    • Problem: Players mostly have fun but feel under challenged. I as GM do not have fun as I watch everything I labored over get shredded in seconds and then panic when we run out of content for the session.
  2. Use enemies with a ton of damage reduction but low attacks: This makes the combat take longer, but the other players get frustrated by feeling useless. Also the whole session just feels like a grind and no one has fun.
    • Problem: Absolutely no one has fun.
  3. Have high CR fights: This doesn't feel like DnD anymore because I end up having to intentionally flub a bunch of rolls so I don't one-shot everyone but him.
    • Problem: I don't like having to lie to keep the party alive. If I do it too often, the players get upset because they know they aren't earning the win.

To be clear, this issue is entirely a problem for me as a GM, not for the other players. The player in question is a great guy who never tries to soak up the spotlight. He always steps back and lets the other characters have a chance to shine at the things they were built for, even if he can do them better. He honestly just likes optimizing builds and basically play testing them for a few months each with our group. He is a great player and a great person, but I can't figure out how to give him the challenge he wants without killing my other players.

Note: I don't want to have the "solution" involve optimizing enemies against him. 1) He builds characters well enough and cycles them often enough it would take too much of my time to do that and more importantly 2) Building these really awesome characters is how he enjoys the game and I don't want to take that away from him by nerfing all his hard work.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Jun 6 '18 at 14:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm really curious as to what option or combination thereof you/this player ended up going for! \$\endgroup\$ – Isaac Reefman Aug 10 '18 at 3:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @IsaacReefman Mostly I ended up going for a "big bad" and minions type combat set up. That way when he plays something that does a bunch of AOE damage, he can blast away at the minions while the group teams up on the big bad and when he builds a single target beast he can rip into the big bad while the group one on ones the minions. When I have time, I try to make combats where the enemies aren't actually hard, but have some environmental advantage so the combat becomes more about being clever to get rid of the advantage than the actual attack and damage rolls. Sometime works, sometimes not. \$\endgroup\$ – Barker Aug 10 '18 at 17:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @IsaacReefman Also when I build the combat described above I use the following rule of thumb. I figure out what the "normal CR" I would be shooting for should be. I then subtract 1 and make both the big bad and the minions at that level. That way it effectively becomes 2 smaller combats, one for my power-gamer and one for the rest of the party. \$\endgroup\$ – Barker Aug 10 '18 at 17:26
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In particular for your first bullet

This was originally the last section of my answer. I actually like it more than everything else I've suggested so now it's the first thing.

This is sometimes a hard solution for 3.5e, but honestly not as hard as it is for 4e for what I'm aware, so... You mention

Problem: Players mostly have fun but feel under challenged. I as GM do not have fun as I watch everything I labored over get shredded in seconds and then panic when we run out of content for the session.

This one has a way easier solution than changing your players mindset and designing complex encounters.

Challenge them in other ways than combat. I'm assuming your powergamer is optimized for combat, otherwise... Challenge them in other ways than the one the powergamer is making easy.

There are numerous other ways of challenging the players other than combat. Social interactions are an obvious one - make "encounters" that are unwinnable if they choose to strike instead of talk. Puzzles with complex traps are another - we have a tag. You can either challenge the players with puzzles or the characters, your choice. If you decide to challenge the players, you won't ever have a problem with powergaming that aspect of the play.

This also means you won't run out of content so easily. Essentially, make a different kind of content, one that doesn't get drained easily by optimized characters. If that is not your style, keep reading.


I will revive my experience from 3.5e for that question, adding some insight from 5e (because that's what I have been playing for the last ~4 years).

First things first:

Your players seem to want to play different games

While one player wants to powergame and optimize his character, the others want to... I don't know because you didn't specify, but it seems they either don't want to optimize or don't know how to.

Being the DM for two different groups that want to play two different styles of game is usually hard and, as the link suggests, not usually recommended. It is not impossible though. But yeah, for 3.5e (and I assume PF) it is harder than usual, since there is a lot of unbalancing there. If you are willing enough to a point of changing the system, 5e suffers considerably less than 3.5e and PF from this problem - and I would recommend the linked answer even if you don't plan into changing the system.

In particular, if your other players simply don't know how to optimize, the powergamer can help them with that. Then you can proceed to make encounters that are challenging for everyone because now everyone has an almost broken character.

If they don't want to, that's a bigger problem. Here are some things that you can ask the player to do and do yourself. The first two are for changing the characters he plays, which might not help you.

Ask him to play Enabler/Control characters rather than huge DPS

Treantmonk's guide to God Wizard explains the concept better than I can think. I've linked the 5e guide, but the important thing there is the introduction, where he states his reasons for creating his 3.5e guide. The TL;DR of the guide is: He was asked to play a optimized character, but the other PCs weren't optimized. After trying out a character that overshadowed their party, he decided to make a God Wizard.

I had an idea how I could help the group without dominating the action, and I came back with a Wizard character. In the first combat, I was encouraged to use my fireball, and the group was quite confused when I told them that I didn’t have Fireball, lightning bolt or even magic missile. I still remember the DM asking me, “So what DO you do then?” When I explained I would be putting up walls, fogs, buffing, debuffing, etc. My character was declared “useless”

This means he won't be able to solo encounters on his own. Everyone in the party will still feel useful, your encounters can be "normal" and he will be challenged by having to support his teammates that aren't optimized. As someone who mainly played Wizard in 3.5e and 5e, this guide (and the whole mindset) is awesome for playing an optimized character while making everyone else - especially new players - feel useful by themselves.

Handicap him

This answer for another thread frames it too well. Instead of optimizing the most and being the most ahead, he can instead optimize from a lower starting point - playing either underpowered classes or starting with lower stats or any other kind of handicap you want to give him. He will then have to optimize a handicaped character to get to "as good as" the other characters. There are ways to impose these handicaps on him yourself, like giving him less magic items (which 3.5e depends heavily mainly for martial fighters from what I remember) and other things. Make sure he agrees with that, though. Punishing players for whatever reason is at least a reason to discuss it, as can be seen here and here.

Different fights

This one may seem awkward, but it has worked for me. It won't work for every encounter, but for some of them, instead of putting the party against 4 Goblins, you can put them against 1 Goblin Leader and 3 Goblins. Then, since you are the DM, you can proceed to split the party and make the optimized character focus their time and effort in the goblin leader while the others are focused in the 3 usual goblins.

Essentially, rather than having one ancient dragon or 10 goblins fight the party, try to diversify the enemies in a way that the optimized character gets a larger share of the CR for him. Obviously this needs a) the optimized character being able to "solo" fights b) the other party members being able to handle their mini-fight on their own as well.

The split can be done either forcefully by you - traps, walls and whatever else you can think - or as a "suggested tactics" for the party.

This can also be done in a less impactful manner by making the guy with huge attack focus only on him, while the other creatures/NPCs/enemies focus the others. Yeah, you'll have to find some excuse for the optimized character being targeted by the more powerful attacks, and that will depend on the characters, their backgrounds and their way of behaviour, which are informations we don't have. But it is certainly possible to do while making it immersive.

As I said, I've done it before, but I don't recommend it unless everyone can agree to it. It leads to the game being way less cooperative than most are used to.

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I've been this player.

It's not that I want to hog the limelight. It's just that the character customization minigame is one of my favorite parts of 3.5, and when I'm splatbook-diving for cool, obscure options and the other players aren't...you get the problem you're describing.

Here are a few strategies (some for the DM, some for the problem player, some for the group as a whole) that have helped me be less of a pain for my DMs to deal with:

Have him optimize sub-par character archetypes:

Not every character archetype in 3.5 is equally effective. Primary casters are really strong; in-combat healing is pretty crap. One of the ways I've found to get my optimization jollies without overshadowing my party members is to start with an inherently low-power character concept...and then optimize the crap out of it.

Sure, in-combat healing is bad...but what if you found a way to cast Cure X Wounds as an arcane spell so that you could cast it through War Weaver's Eldritch Tapestry class feature, then layer on rider effects from the Imbued Healing feat and the Combat Medic prestige class simultaneously...

If your problem player's motivation isn't that he wants to be exceptionally powerful per se, just that he loves char-op, this might be a way for him to have fun with char-op in a way that doesn't result in overpowered characters.

Have him channel his overpoweredness through the party:

Buffing is extremely strong in 3.5. You can see this in cases of self-buffing (like, e.g., self-buffed Clerics being far better at fighting than Fighters will ever be), but it's equally true when you're buffing others.

If your problem player would enjoy playing a character specialized in buffing the party, it would allow you to crank the encounter difficulty dial up to 11, giving your problem player the challenge he craves, without murdering the rest of the party.

Realistically, the problem player would still be contributing disproportionately to the group's success, but the other players probably won't feel so much like they're being overshadowed when they're the ones delivering the killing blows, even if the real reason their attacks were so effective was the 14d6 sonic damage being added to their attacks by a Words of Creation/Dragonfire Inspiration Bard/Sublime Chord.

Tap your optimizer's skills to bring the rest of the party up to speed:

If there's one thing you can depend on with an char-op nerd, it's that they have way more ideas for character builds than characters they can realistically play. That means your problem player would probably welcome the opportunity to help optimize the other players' characters.

This comes with risks: Not everyone wants optimization help; some people are more invested in their character being theirs than being effective. And even in the cases where the help is welcome, you have to ensure that it's help, not "starting off as help but then actually just building their characters for them."

But those problems are tractable for a DM, and from the sounds of it your problem player is a reasonable guy, hopefully reasonable enough to know not to take over someone else's character so much it no longer feels like theirs. If you attempt this route, have a talk with the whole group beforehand (including the problem player), where you set expectations for how much help is too much, taking everyone's desires into account.

If it works, the best-case outcome is that you now have a whole party of overpowered PCs, at which point you can just start adding 5 to the EL of every encounter and everybody can have fun playing high-op 3.5.

Split encounters:

Not everything has to be about changing the makeup of the party. You can also change the makeup of encounters.

You mention that your problem player is good about letting the other PCs have their time to shine. Try taking this a bit farther - design encounters where there are multiple problems to solve, and the ones that play to the rest of the party's strengths are easier than the ones that don't.

Example: The Secret MacGuffin of Doom is in the bowels of the Cursed Temple - but the Demonic Hordes of Graz'Akh-Akha'Zakh-Thul are coming! If they so much as set foot within the Temple, the MacGuffin will be irrevocably corrupted! Someone must hold the threshold while the depths of the Cursed Temple are plumbed, or else all is lost!

At that point, you're free to make the Guardians of the Cursed Temple an appropriate challenge for your normal party members, and make the Demonic Hordes ludicrously over-CRed...your optimizer can take it.

You don't want to do this all the time, since splitting the party is typically a bunch of extra work for you as a DM, but if your problem player is mostly fine with playing nice with the rest of the party, this is a way to throw him a bone every now and then, and let him sink his teeth into a fight hard enough that he can't trivialize it.

Out of game solutions:

If none of that solves the problem, you might have to bite the bullet and restrict what this guy can play. Start off with a conversation about why you're doing it, and tell your player just what you told us: It makes it too hard for you to balance encounters for the party when the characters have such wildly different power levels.

If you go this route, I recommend just straight-up banning things, perhaps along the lines of "no full casters" or "no Tier 1/Tier 2 classes." If you can, avoid spot-nerfing the problem player's favorite tricks, especially after the fact.

The reason I recommend bans instead of nerfs is that my favorite thing about 3.5 char-op is the process of optimizing within a problem space. Being told ahead of time that I can't play certain classes isn't a huge deal; it just means I'm optimizing within a different, smaller problem space than I would be otherwise.

On the other hand, I hate having individual spells banned, being told that my tricks don't work even though they clearly should according to the rules, and having post-creation changes made to my character due to balance concerns. These things make me feel like I was lied to, led to believe that I was playing one game but now it turns out we're playing a different one.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've been this GM, and we have one of these players. Despite this, our group has happily and successfully gamed together with a mix of one old-school grognard 2nd ed player, two complete newbs who are into story coolness and acting the character respectively, and three pro players - one of which is our hyper-optimizer. I can say from personal experience of 20+ years gaming with said player, that the first three options presented in this answer do work when used in conjunction with proper two-way communication and friendly brainstorming. \$\endgroup\$ – nijineko Jun 5 '18 at 20:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimLymington Based on the response I wasn't sure if that came across, thanks for the comment clarifying it did. Also, minor note, but she, not he. If you don't know a person's gender many women prefer the use of they as a pronoun. \$\endgroup\$ – Barker Jun 5 '18 at 20:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TimLymington Yeah, that was typed out before Barker edited her question to add bullet points clarifying the specific problems. I've removed the final section, since as you say, it doesn't really apply. \$\endgroup\$ – A_S00 Jun 5 '18 at 21:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ The first recommendation is gold. I played a Daredevil in d20 modern who had maxed Disable Device and Drive. He could open car doors just by touching them by the end of the campaign. He was our all-purpose getaway driver, entrance-maker, and baddie squisher. \$\endgroup\$ – Graph Theory Jun 6 '18 at 0:33
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A_soo has great answers but I would add another couple options to them.

Asymmetric Encounters

Try making some encounters that have one or two really strong enemies that continually focus on your optimized player and have other weaker enemies that focus on your other players. Kind of like the two different battles idea, but in the same encounter. With some creativity you may even be able to come up with encounters where your weaker players may be instrumental in helping your optimized player deal with the powerful threat.

  • a dragon of appropriate level for the optimized player and a kobold army for the other players.
  • an enemy that needs to be affected by some status to weaken it that a non-optimized player has that the optimized doesn't, such as when the certain enemy is attacked with a frost attack it can't attack as many times a turn, or it is only vulnerable to attack when it is on fire

Asymmetric Levels

It sounds like your one player really just enjoys optimizing and not that he likes to be more powerful than the other players, so why don't you challenge him to make a character that can keep up with a party that is 1 or 2 levels higher than himself?

Edit: I noticed after posting Hellsaint says several of the same things, but I think some of my points may add some additional ideas to Hellsaint's (probably more knowledgeable) perspective.

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I am this player, as a person whenever I see numbers I want to get the best out of them and I'm really good at doing it. I enjoy the process so much that I build at least three or four other characters for every one that I ever play. This gives you an option that has been pointed out, get the player to min-max for the rest of the party too, this works but it only works well if the player is also a good teacher. If he can't explain how to get the most out of the characters he's building to the players he hands them off to it's a bit like handing an F1 car to a kid who just got their license, they can make it go but not to the limits of it's performance envelop.

There are two other options, I don't know if this first one works so well in 3.5 but it's a beauty in Pathfinder: use massed assaults, Pathfinder has rules, in Chapter 12 of the Core Rulebook under Designing Encounters Table 12-3 "CR Equivalencies", for using large numbers of lower CR creatures to build high CR encounters. These kinds of encounters avoid the "oops I one-shotted the rest of the party" and "but only he can kill these guys" problems as individually the monsters are not that powerful, while still allowing a lot of, especially high damage per round, min-max builds to shine as Min-Max the Unstoppable can kill a cart-load while the rest of the party still get to clean up a reasonable percentage of the encounter.

The second alternate is to get your master min-maxer to help you as the GM by building nemesis characters for you to use against them, if they like making characters get them to build and teach you boss-fight level characters for use at the pivotal points of the campaign. To ensure he can't metagame excessively you supply all the flavour he just builds a stat and ability tree that gets results. In this way while the rest of the party can battle the evil minions Min-Max the Monsterslayer has a foe worthy of his notice.

FYI the massed assault option also works really well any time you have single character(s) that have a single target damage output that can be described "drastically beyond their level". For example while GMing Gestalt Pathfinder games I found that Fighter/Cavalier and Fighter/Black Blade mixes can have triple digit critical damage outputs against single targets and surprisingly wide critical threat ranges. Against single monsters that should have destroyed the party wholesale, given time and room to work, it came down to initiative as to which player would take the kill and whether I'd get any attacks at all. Massed Goblins well below what had been the normal encounter CR nearly killed everyone because the party could do a lot of damage, they doubled total death damage on most of their targets, but couldn't spread it around enough.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the response. The swarms of minions can work when he builds a single target damage dealer but he also builds crowd control builds and AOE damage as well. Also, having lots of bad guys makes the combat very slow. As for having him build the BBEG, then he'll know how to beat it too, right? \$\endgroup\$ – Barker Jun 5 '18 at 21:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Barker Yeah there are some tools for speeding up mass combat from your side but it's not a catch-all solution by any means. You don't get him to build one BBEG you get him to build half a dozen for the campaign, full progression builds that you can pull out at any level you want to run them at and use, you control all the flavour of them, their appearance etc... so he doesn't know what he's up against until they start using their really unique abilities and maybe not even then if you're careful with the descriptions. \$\endgroup\$ – user40081 Jun 6 '18 at 10:21
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Set boundaries for each of their characters

As a fellow power gamer, I have a solution that I personally use for self-nerfing that still allows me to play the game of optimization: I simply prohibit myself from using certain options. I allow myself to optimize within a new ruleset that I have basically created now and it allows me to still have fun, but I am not stealing spotlight from other players.

A good example of such a "personal rule set" is to limit yourself to Player Classes one tier lower than allowed for the others. So, for example, if full spellcasters (T1 and T2) are banned for everyone, you can also avoid T3 classes and try to get maximum of T4. If full spell casters are actually allowed for the other guys, playing Bard in this party might be fun if you optimize 100% and the others don't.

Talk to the "problem" player, and suggest following such a rule, so everyone in the group can actually have fun. If this player is really a great person, they will likely agree to follow it.

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One thing I noticed from your description is that your play style seems to be quite combat centric. Now there is no problem with it, but it may send a certain message to the players (optimize). One option you as DM always have, is to shift emphasis on other aspects like:

  • You could shift your sessions to reward good role playing and creative solutions more, and put less focus on the fights. Create interesting and challenging tactical solutions instead of throwing foe after foe at them.

  • You could punish characters that are not well justified in-game. There are enough in-game reasons to take away crucial parts of an optimized build. Have the character suffer through an odyssey to try and get them back.

  • Just don´t allow every possible customization in your setting. Make the players earn their desired (multi)classes/ feats and boni in game. You could require them to find trainers etc and make it actually challenging to even get to the character-build they are after.

If all of you actually want to keep the current play style, you could also just let the optmizer have fun with his optimizations, but just let him lag behind on character level. This is partially an out-of-game solution, but when everyone agrees with it that it would be the most fun for everyone, this could balance things out. Why not have this exceptionally strong lvl 8 char run with the lvl 10 group?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can we affirm that RPG.SE embraces a plurality of playstyles? - While I can see your point, in particular your headline might sound aggressive, like "hack-and-slashing is bad RPG! Role playing is good RPG!" - be careful when making statements that seem like that. That might (usually will) lead to downvotes. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 6 '18 at 18:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ I mostly agree with HellSaint, but would point out that the last idea, having the optimized player be a few levels lower than the others so he can have fun optimizing while staying at the same level of effectiveness as the rest of the party, does not have this problem, and is a very good variation of the "have him optimize a weak class" idea that's been mentioned elsewhere. \$\endgroup\$ – Ray Jun 6 '18 at 20:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint: It´s not supposed to be judgmental - its just that a game mainly focused on fighting encounters sends a certain message to players - optimize for fights. If you want a different game it may help changing your DM-ing-style ... \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Jun 7 '18 at 7:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Daniel I know (actually - I assumed). The way you phrased it, though, sounded aggressive, and was poorly seen by the community, indicated by the downvotes. The first section of my own answer says the same thing: "stop focusing in combat, do other things" - but in a way that sounds less agressive (and a little more extensive, but that's how I write.) I'm just giving you the feedback to word statements like that more carefully in order to avoid being misinterpretated and downvoted for no reason. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 7 '18 at 7:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HellSaint Thank you for your feedback. I´ll try to make it clearer. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Jun 7 '18 at 7:49
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Help the rest of the group to optimize

Let's face this: your problem player plays a game that is a bit different from what the others play. Or more than a bit different.

You could try to influence the behaviour of this problem player, but you could also invite the others to play this optimization game, or provide some optimization advice for them. This way you will be able to safely increase the difficulty of your encounters because the power gap between your players will be much lower.

The most straight-forward way is making a build for your friend and letting them rock. Playing a barrel organ can make one feel like a musician. I've done it multiple times, I've seen it done multiple times.

A less direct way is to give your prepared spell casters a sample list of prepared spells for them to begin their experiments. They begin by just learning what each of the basic spells does, and they continue by studying the sourcebooks and finding other spells that suit their current needs.

But this doesn't work for everyone, some people want to make their builds themselves. Then you need to provide some core optimization tips. You know your players better than I do, so decide yourself if you send them full class handbooks or just give a few useful hints.

You can also give your players some classes like Pathfinder's Summoner (the chained one), which is known for being generally very powerful and containing no or almost no true "trap options".

Some players, however, will not be ready to optimize at all. This answer simply doesn't work for them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The concept of the answer is nice, but further detailing your experience with it and how to accomplish it would improve it. I would also note that while our stack doesn't have a meta-opinion (AFAIK) about multiple answers rather than an answer listing your possible solutions, doing the former seems to get downvoted more frequently than not. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 4 '18 at 23:55

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