# What can I do to prevent a player from breaking the game?

Several of my friends are starting a game pretty soon, and one of the players is a great guy, and fun to play with EXCEPT, he plays with the objective of optimization, while everyone else plays much more casually. He knows his stuff, and is always cross referencing books, and sometimes that can be a good thing, but he tries to make his character as overpowered as possible. I haven't played with him in about 4 years, but back then, I was typically the DM, and even when I tried to tell him he couldn't do something, he typically was able to defend it by proving it was within the rules of the game. Of course, being the DM, I could have just told him I wouldn't allow it, or killed off his character or something, but he was usually right. To be fair, if I could find that it broke a rule, or if I really put my foot down, he'd comply, and was good natured, but I always felt that I was treating him unfairly since I never told anyone else that they had to change their character. I'm not DMing this first game, but we usually rotate, so I suspect I will soon (especially since I was the default DM in the past). Not sure if this is relevant, but we are playing online (for geographical reasons), and starting at level 5. He tends towards druids and clerics.

Although I understand that playing the optimization game is perfectly valid, it isn't a good fit for our gaming group, as he tends to overshadow the more casual players and is not driven by the same goal.

That said, what can I do, both as a player and Dungeon Master to keep him from over-optimizing (i.e. overpowered character builds), derailing the plot, and other general mischief?

To be more specific, his goal in the game is typically to see how much he can get away with. His MO is:1) to find ways to make characters that do tons of damage, and are difficult to damage back, and 2) to try to find his way around plot points, which puts the DM in the uncomfortable position of improvising major plot points.

Examples:

1. He was playing a cleric, and everyone else was expecting him to be support, healing, etc. Instead he built a tank that was doing more damage than the Warblade, or the barbarian, and was using his healing on himself, so he never dropped more than 75% HP.
2. While the rest of the party was still in combat, he entered a room which I had intended for the entire party to enter at once. The person in this room had valuable information about the quest, but after learning that information, he promptly killed the NPC, leaving him as the only one with this knowledge.

What is a good motivator for a player like this to work well with the party and actually try to achieve the goal of the campaign?

• So you don't want to just tell him no, because it's in the books and that might seem unfair for you to shoot him down like that? I want to imagine that answers to this would likely tell you to do exactly that. Mar 6, 2015 at 7:38
• This sounds like the premise to every issue of Knights of the Dinner Table. Mar 6, 2015 at 16:12
• Can you explain why this is breaking the game? Are the other players unhappy, or is it just you? Your second example sounds like high-quality play of an evil character, not game-breaking at all. Mar 6, 2015 at 22:23
• @Nagora The issue seems to be the intention of the player. If he is playing with the intention of making his character as overpowered as possible (which is a type of behavior I would shoot down instantly), he's clearly going to clash with the intention of the campaign, the goals of the party as a whole, and most importantly the roleplaying. An evil character is certainly likely to do someting like the second example, but unless that cleric he plays is an evil deity's cleric (which would make him being part of a non-evil party very questionable) he's breaking character with such actions. Mar 31, 2015 at 6:59

Here're the basics:

1. Have the player sandbag. Explain to the player that his optimized PC makes DMing too difficult. The problem isn't that the player's winning—the DM, after all, has infinite monsters—but that the player's character is overshadowing the other players' characters. Strongly urge the player to pick a character class 1 to 2 tiers lower than the class of the highest or lowest tier PC.
2. Have the player optimize other PCs. The player may be expecting other players to design characters of similar stature. However, other players may have different strengths and priorities beyond character optimization. But if he and the other players agree, it's reasonable to have the optimizer make other players' characters for them, putting them all on the same metaphorical level. The DM'll have to adjust challenges appropriately, however.
3. Avoid conflict and suffer. Steel yourself to spending an inordinate amount of time customizing encounters for a single self-absorbed murder-machine and his party of lickspittles. During play, fudge die rolls to keep alive the lickspittles while still challenging the murder-machine. I advise against this, but it is an option. Good luck.

Now that those're out of the way.

### Encourage the player to optimize his character for tasks other than monster-killing

Although this isn't an obvious path for a character to take in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, such a character can be a interesting experiment when played by an experienced, squeeze-every-ounce-from-the-system player.

It's extremely easy to make a 3.5 character who can kill anything. It's much harder, for example, to make a character who can steal anything or heal anything. Explain to the player that everybody knows he can already play a character who can murder the campaign world and that playing that again wastes his talents. Have him turn his eye to little used subsystems, oft-ignored fringe mechanics, and seemingly-hard-to-optimize game elements.

Bear in mind, though, that he will use whatever he specializes in to try to solve every problem. Currently, this isn't that big of a deal—killing monsters solves a lot of problems—, but, if the specialty is extremely obscure, group cohesion and, subsequently, the campaign may suffer.

### Mandate group cohesion

If the character is forced through mechanics or story to care about his fellow PCs, he should stop charging into rooms alone and murdering information-spouting NPCs.

Have him designate another PC as his brother, sister, childhood friend, lover, confessor, ward, or something, and tell him his character cares about that person deeply. If this a party of random murderhobos who met in a bar and decided to go camping forever, maybe the gods, fate, or prophecy binds them, and breaking that bond means Certain Doom.TM

The player needs a reason for his character to keep associating with these characters who are so obviously beneath him, and the player won't give his character this reason unless there's a mechanic that makes his character better because his character has that reason.1

Developing that reason, then, becomes the DM's job. The player probably won't like this mandate as it makes his character vulnerable in a way that mechanics can't usually minimize, but once the player starts engendering some goodwill from the other players by optimizing his character's ability to keep his friends alive and get along with the group in addition to his character's ability to kill faster (although, admittedly, that, too, can keep his friends alive), the player may have a more enjoyable experience playing that character than playing his typical brooding, uncaring lone wolf who only looks out for himself.

### Note

I GMed for the win-at-any-cost player for a decade. It's trying but does improve one's GMing skills. I've GMed the player—the same player—who thought the game would be better as a solo campaign and saw him come around to the idea of group cohesion after mandating it before the campaign began. Since I put forth that mandate in that campaign, I've done the same, to lesser and greater extents, in every campaign after. There's power to be had in saying A character who can't get along with the party isn't in the party and ending the conversation. Does saying…

• that the three months spent in a life raft created between the characters unbreakable bonds that will last the rest of the characters' lives, or
• that the characters' shared affection for their homeland despite their differing alignments unites them against common enemies, or
• that the royal family plucked the characters from obscurity to employ them as troubleshooters therefore the characters owe the royal family their unwavering service

…remove some agency? Sure. But, afterward, you can play the game. Role-playing games are (usually) cooperative affairs, and a player thinking his deliberately obstructionist, shenanigans-pulling character is acceptable makes the game a drag.

1 For this same reason, I strongly suspect all his characters but those needing to be otherwise are that least vulnerable of all the alignments, True Neutral.

• +1 for Sgt Ladybug alone... insanely relevant. Should be tied to the "same page tool" (or similar) in some way. bankuei.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/the-same-page-tool Mar 6, 2015 at 17:44
• +1 for suggesting the player play a weaker class. He sounds good-natured, but just enjoys tweaking builds, so he might respond well to "Betcha can't play a Monk." Mar 7, 2015 at 0:07
• @MartianInvader Wizard is easy mode. Real optimizers use samurai. Mar 7, 2015 at 1:45

You need your friend to agree to play the same game that you want to run.

It sounds like this player is working hard at character optimization and rules mastery. That's a legitimate style of play, but it often creates problems if only one or some of the players are doing it, such that people are engaging the system in vastly uneven ways. It's even tougher when the GM isn't optimizing, because the challenges and story can fall apart in the face of an optimized character.

You have two real options:

1. Agree to play the optimization game. You as GM will need to compete directly with this player's attempts to "break" the game by gaining advantages within the rules. The other players will also be playing this game, whether they want to or not, because their characters will be overshadowed if they don't. You'll want to let them know this, so that they can prepare for the game appropriately and go in with reasonable expectations.
2. Talk to this player, and the rest of the group if needed, and explain that you aren't interesting in running hardcore gamist/optimization game. Be respectful of his standard approach to D&D, but make it clear that you would like all of the players to make their characters to work together cooperatively (without overshadowing each other), and to back off on the optimization. To further this end, state outright that you will levy veto power on anything that feels game breaking. Enlist his help, as a system expert, in identifying potential balance issues among your PCs' party.
• Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Mar 6, 2015 at 22:12

There are already some good advices here, but whatever you ultimately do, first check this simple solution: offer the player to choose a lower starting point and cite all the reasons. If he wants to play an optimization game, as opposed to going to win an optimization game, he will most likely agree. A lower starting point might be a tier 3 or tier 4 class and/or some more limitations. The reasons cited could include the following:

1. This way, the player can continue to play the game he likes, while, at the same time, everyone else will continue to play the game they like.
2. There are different forms of achievement. One is winning by most. Another is winning barely (i.e. being roughly on par) having given a maximal handicap.

A big deal here is to acknowledge that the handicap is being given, and that the reason for that is the superb system mastery exercised by the player. He should have no doubt it is acknowledged that he's going for more challenge points because he's so good at what he's doing.

Meanwhile, you might try to challenge him to win more style points.

• I think other answers have offered this advice, but I really like the way it is framed and presented here. Mar 6, 2015 at 14:46
• I like your forms of achievement. I may use that example for him, because it compliments his ability to come up with super powerful characters, while keeping him from overshadowing everyone else. Thank you! Mar 7, 2015 at 20:54

First of all, if everyone is having fun with this player always playing a powerhouse character, including yourself, then there's no problem and you can continue to play the game as normal. I assume by the fact that you're asking this question that it's not the case, but it should be said that if power-gaming from this player is expected and wanted, then that's a perfectly valid playstyle, and the best way to resolve it is to help other players do the same and ask him to help you come up with even tougher challenges.

Assuming that is not the case, and that you or other members of the RP group are dissatisfied with this, what you have is a Power Gamer, which while a valid playstyle, is not always desireable. You may want to get him and the other players to use the oft-cited same-page tool, because it sounds like he's playing a drastically different game than you are.

Playing-to-win is a viable game model, but if you and your other players want to play for the story arc, or allow other roles to have a chance in the universe, or simply to have a world that does not have the seams busting from the sheer awesome power of the players, you'll need to change playstyles, and largely it will be him that needs to change.

Some options have already been suggested in other questions, but to go over them briefly:

• Have him play a non-combatant role explicitly, agreed upon before the campaign starts.
• Discourage him from trying to tear apart your carefully-crafted story. Explain that this is part of the game that you and the other players want to enjoy, and that what he is doing Is destructive to the campaign, which you and the other players don't want. Be proactive about this, and let him know ahead of time when this happens.
• Get him involved with the other party members. Either encourage him to relate to and care about them through RP, or encourage him to form battle plans around the abilities of the other players, so that the entire party can enjoy combat.

So, it seems like you have two issues; that the player can generally out-damage the others, and that he also likes throwing a monkey wrench into your plot.

I'll talk about the second first; specifically that if you expect your players to follow a "Script" you're in for a world of trouble. Improvising is part and parcel of DMing and you will never be able to plan for everything a player may try ahead of time. What if the party rogue had snuck into the room rather than the cleric? What if the party comes up with a tactic, collectively, that bypasses a big battle you had planned? Are you simply going to tell them that they can't do that?

Learn to improvise. As soon as you start saying things like "I had planned for..." you've got a problem.

The first issue is that you're basically looking at every battle the same. I'm guessing that you're using singular opponents that the entire party beats on until it goes down and victory is achieved, right? Well, stop that.

There are a lot of ways to reign in a character whose power lever is higher than that of the rest of the party. My favorite is to find out where the character is weakest and exploit that, because no character is invulnerable. For example, you say he's a tank. That tells me that his defense/AC is high and he has a lot of hit points and, being a cleric, can heal any damage he takes. So why are you trying to defeat him by damaging him, when that's his strongest defense?

Are his saving throws also amazing? Have you tried entangling him, poisoning him, using magic, petrifying him, level draining him, or otherwise using effects that don't simply rely on reducing his hit points to zero?

Also, group encounters are your friend in two ways. One, if you scale the enemies such that the amount of damage the cleric does is irrelevant compared to the rest of the party, his capability is scaled back. For example, you're fighting goblins. The Warblade can only do 5 damage a round and the Cleric can do 55. Does it matter when a goblin only has 4 hit points? No. No, it doesn't. You don't get extra XP for overkill. Two, mix in some enemies that will give a challenge to the tank but combine that with enemies that the other players will have an easy time dealing with. Like, a horde of goblins led by an ogre. Unless the party is dumb, they'll let the super character handle the ogre while everyone else works on the goblins, because the other way 'round everyone'll die. Figuring out who should do what in combat is an element of tactics that a lot of groups tend to overlook, especially if every combat can be won the same way.

In short, you've got one less real problem than you think you do, and you're trying to solve that one by brute force when you should try to be clever. If all of your battles are just damage vs. hit points then yes, the cleric is going to overshadow everyone. Throwing in different goals and different kinds of opponents, or simply mixing things up to challenge everyone, is the way to go.

• This may work for this particular cleric, but the cleric class is unfortunately powerful enough that he can be pretty much “best” for all but the most contrived scenarios when grouped with low-power characters. If the situations become too contrived, and the players notice, that can lead to a rather dissatisfying game for everyone. Cf. Looks Like a Job for Aquaman (warning: TV Tropes link, not-safe-for-productivity) Mar 6, 2015 at 19:51
• True. It's not always easy, but it can be done. I used to GM a Star Wars d20 game with a fairly dedicated munchkin who was, of course, playing a Jedi Guardian. Now that was a challenge. Mar 6, 2015 at 23:06
• I agree that I do need to work on improvisational skills. In my example, the NPC who he killed was a specific person of interest who had been captured by the baddies, and was supposed to help save the day. I ended up revealing a secret door later when the party searched the cell, leading to another cell where another prisoner who just happened to have all the same info was. It just wasn't very good story telling. As for encounters, I almost never have a singular enemy, unless it's the Big Bad, and even then, usually there is some twist to the combat. I'll keep the saving throws in mind though. Mar 7, 2015 at 20:37

(So many awesome answers here! I love you all, people!)

I just want to add two things:
1) regarding the issue, I think you got to the point when you wrote,

[...] everyone else was expecting him to be support, healing, etc. Instead he built a tank [...]

Classes can vary, but the choice of roles should be on many degrees cooperative, don't you agree? Characters are meant to interact; in a perfect game world, every character has a role that makes him/her unique and important to the gameplay, whatever that role is (and a special thanks to everybody who take on themselves the role of comic relief, "You the real MVP" guys). Of course a player can decide to play a cleric tank, why not! And then who'd like to play a healer? As long as there's agreement among the players, all's fine. And if there's no agreement, then you just don't have a group, you don't want to sit in front of a bunch of people who will argue with each other mid-game.

2) Regarding the solution, I'm a big fan of the notion that a good RPG setting can heal itself of most unbalances. Is the character overpowered? Let the word spread and let him become somehow famous. Then see how the story unfolds... the world is your playground. You can have the gossip get so over the top that he's seen as a fraud when he's seen in person not acting as legendary as the story goes, undermining his feeling of power; or you can have the group sent to defeat a foe too big for them, and let the "living legend" die a legendary death that will be told for centuries, and be gone with it; or you can trick the group into defeating a controversial foe (someone who's liked by certain people), and the "famous guy" will take the blame for having slain it... the possibilities are many, and the important thing is just for the group to have fun :)

D&D is usually a game of optimization for mission completion with a special emphasis on combat. Within typical D&D games, then, his behavior would be termed 'playing well' rather than powergaming, the difference being that he actually understands the rules sufficiently to make optimum use of them (instead of just pretending to do so) and he respects your authority as GM. 'Getting around' plot points in order to solve the major issues of a campaign in a super-optimal manner from the perspective of the GM is almost a textbook definition of a good (i.e. skilled) D&D player. Indeed, many old-school D&D games maintained not even a pretense of party balance, with 6th or 7th level epic heroes frequently adventuring alongside 3rd or 4th level compatriots. Nonetheless, you appear to disapprove of this and desire his characters not be so far beyond the power level of the rest of the party. My answer addresses accommodating your player's playstyle within the playstyle of the group while making a minimum of changes to one of them (and none to the other), as I generally find this the best way to handle these kinds of problems.

Your best option is to give him something else to optimise. Before he makes his character let him know that he must comply with some inane restriction the rest of the group thinks will be fun and limits the power of his character in other areas. For example, require him to take no levels in primary spellcasting base classes, or require him to play an old-school D&D multi-classed character; elven Magic-User/Fighter/Thief or dwarven Cleric/Fighter or Half-Elven Cleric/Magic User or some such, but with all classes at near-equal (max difference 1) levels. Work with the group and him to come up with what the funnest restriction would be. In a worst case scenario, just make him start at half the level of everyone else (rounded up). The first part of this is what my primary gaming group does to me when I play rather than GM. A older gaming group used the second part of this frequently, in addition to other restrictions. The half-level thing also works well when playing modules: a party half the recommended size of characters half the recommended level will generally struggle with a 3.5 adventure module but have a good chance of completing it successfully.

In my experience players who optimize competently are both capable of and entertained by optimizing for non-combat statistics. The fun is being derived from the process of optimisation, the fine tuning during play, and the visible success of the optimization in play. Most optimizers sort of default to some nebulous concept of 'power', but they will enjoy optimizing for other things about as much, as long as the system supports it. As a note, asking him to optimize for story progression will not work (because you don't actually want the story to move as-fast-as-possible).

• It is a very valid play style, but the problem is that he's the only one who plays that way. The rest of the gaming group is fairly casual, and are just there to hear a story, maybe solve a mystery, and kill some monsters along the way. His objective is to see how powerful he can make his character, while everyone else's is simply to progress the story. Mar 7, 2015 at 20:45
• @Neato This would be great info to add to the question's context.
– BESW
Mar 8, 2015 at 9:00

I think that the way to stop him is to basically do things to prevent him from breaking the story, for example

While the rest of the party was still in combat, he entered a room which I had intended for the entire party to enter at once. The person in this room had valuable information about the quest, but after learning that information, he promptly killed the NPC, leaving him as the only one with this knowledge.

Place a number of bodyguards around this important character (or if this is not possible, make the NPC be able to open a can of whoop ass on the cleric) If You make him think twice about breaking the story with a situation that could actually kill his character, he'll be less likely to murder the information giving PC. Another idea is to make him lose something for killing the NPC. With the clerics, make his Alignment Shift to evil and have him lose his cleric spells and energy channeling until he not only atones for his crimes against the gods but for ruining the story for the DM

He was playing a cleric, and everyone else was expecting him to be support, healing, etc. Instead he built a tank that was doing more damage than the Warblade, or the barbarian, and was using his healing on himself, so he never dropped more than 75% HP.

Sadly, this is a putting the foot down moment, you either have to stop him from being so disregarding to the other players, or make it as hard as possible for him so he has to stay and help others instead of rolling by and overshadowing. If you end up making him co-operate in the end, he'll co-operate.

I don't want to say Rule 0, but if all else absolutely fails then you may have to bring down the hammer on him and put him in his place.

Another option is to just talk to him, say "Look, I get you power game and that's fun for you, but you can't be doing these things. You're ruining it for everyone else when you're overshadowing them. So please be a team player this time..." It may not work but sometimes being honest is the right way.

• Thanks KRyan for making my thing a bit better. I don't know how to do... whatever that thing you did is called Mar 10, 2015 at 4:15
• I added formatting: Starting a paragraph with > causes it to be treated as a quote box. Multiple paragraphs that each start with > will all be part of a single quote box. Mar 10, 2015 at 12:54

I think you're misunderstanding the purpose of the game. The most important, absolutely critical, core number-one rule in D&D is: Have. fun.

The purpose of the game you are playing is not to solve a mystery or advance the plot or defeat the bad guy - those are just steps on the path. The real purpose, is for you and all the players to enjoy playing it.

If powergaming is what he njoys doing, then you have two options: 1) he can leave, and find a group more suited to his playstyle, or 2) you can figure out a way to adapt the game to him.

Being a DM is the hardest job not because you have to think up clever scenarios or design challenging opponents, but because you need to be able to set up situations in which all of the players, who may have very different goals, are able to do what they enjoy.

You may even need to consider changing the goal of the campaign, or even giving different players different goals. Remember: What the players wants, and what the character wants, are not necessarily identical. D&D is partially a storytelling game, so you could ask him (as a player) to figure out what it would take to motivate his character to do X.

There are a number of ways you could restructure things to fit him in. I would suggest you start by asking him, how you could make the game more fun. See what he says. Here are some examples you might try:

• He's a famously powerful warrior. So famous, that other opponents are coming out of the woodwork to hunt him down. Sometimes when you encounter a group of enemies, there is one particularly powerful warrior among them who insists on duelling him in single combat. He gets a challenge, and the rest of the party can finish off the other bad guys or solve the riddle while he is fighting.

• He gets shot by a poisoned arrow that slowly saps his strength. Now the party must quest to find a cure, with him getting steadily weaker every day.

• He is secretly an agent for an order of evil assassins, travelling with the group to provide cover while he stalks his foe. He must conceal his true strength, for if the other players become suspicious, he fails his mission.

• His obsession with power has driven him mad. MAD! Mwahaha.. Ahem. An otherworldly abomination visits him in his dreams, offering him unlimited power if he will just do one teeny tiny little task... Unfortunately, such power comes with a terrible price.

Personally, as a DM, I like it when a party has slightly conflicting goals, as long as they align enough to keep the team pointed in the same direction. It gives some zest to the inter-part relations - although I do have to keep reminding them that diplomacy checks don't work on other players :p. My last campaign ended in a TPK when the sorcerer/diabolist tried to assassinate the paladin, which as you can imagine COMPLETELY derailed the plot. Nevertheless, we all had a great time playing it out, and isn't that what it's all about?

It sounds like you have a player that is all about the combat aspect. While D&D is focused around how to fight with what, the fact is, what is making this character worth being around for the party or the NPCs at large? Yes mechanically his characters are all kinds of powerful in given situations but what is happening that he's ignoring?

• What does this character do when he's not fighting?

• How does the character make a living?

• Despite skill levels, are there really enough hours in the day to maintain it all?

• How does his character handle day-to-day tasks?

• What happens when his mechanics-only mindset doesn't include the NPC backup plans?

• Does every challenge always cater to his niche skills?

• To the downvote, could you at least explain why? Mar 6, 2015 at 9:39
• I didn't personally downvote you, but I assume it is because optimization in DnD3.5 doesn't have to involve being only good at combat. You can literally make characters that can do anything better than any specialized class, purely by browsing the prestige class shop. Mar 6, 2015 at 10:35
• @Theik Eh, prestige classes typically are specialists. It’s really certain base classes (e.g. cleric, druid, sorcerer, wizard) versus others (e.g. fighter, monk, paladin, ranger). Mar 6, 2015 at 15:11
• -1: This is D&D. The entire system is mostly built around the premise that, yes, violence does solve everything. Your specific questions: 1) Eats, sleeps, looks for fights. 2) kills stuff, takes their stuff 3) How long does this take? RAW says zero. 4) If the problem can't be solved by bashing it, he buys a solution with money gotten by bashing things 5) the OP explicitly specifies a competent optimizer. he's not that if this happens. mechanics can solve backup plans too. 6) This is D&D. If a challenge doesn't cater to killing stuff, let the Face handle it, and get on with the killing. Mar 6, 2015 at 15:57
• @RBarryYoung The problem with that is that it is the setup half, and the important half (where I actually answer the question) is already done by both Eugene Ryabtsev and Hey I Can Chan. With nothing to add to the actually-answering half that they haven't already covered, creating another answer just to include this setup in it would just dilute the good answers. I would welcome either of them to include what I wrote as an edit to their answers, but doing so would be too big of a change to their meaning to be appropriate for me to add myself as a third-party edit. Mar 6, 2015 at 16:50

A suggestion to help combat rules lawyering and power gaming, is that you are allowed to restrict the game-material that you allow in your games. But in case you don't want to 'hard limit' which sources are legal and which ones are not, you might want to consider the following rule:

Source material is only allowed if you own the physical copy of that source material and bring it with you.

This motivates people to respect copyright but also inherently limits the available options to allow for power gaming. There is a fiscal burden to having those options available but also a physical burden of having to bring over the actual source material each gaming day.

• Setting aside the pitfalls of directly associating real-life wealth with in-game power and agency, this suggestion isn't very effective because so much of high-powered 3.5 optimisation relies mostly on options found in the core books.
– BESW
Mar 7, 2015 at 12:41
• We would sometimes do that when we used to play in person, (real-life wealth wasn't much of a factor, because books would get passed around our group quite often), but now we're going to be playing online, because we don't all live in the same state anymore. Mar 7, 2015 at 20:24