Numbiz iz Numbiz

Once again, it’s time to create a new 4E character, and once again, I’m paralyzed by indecision. Believe it or not, this isn’t because I’m overwhelmed with options. I’m okay with having bunches and piles and oodles of options. Pathetically, I’m currently frozen by the crushing terror that I’m going to make the wrong choice and wind up with a lousy, useless, despised character, which reflects badly on me as a player, a man, and an American. And possibly a human being.

Here I am, looking at thousands of classes and races and powers and feats and skills and alignments, and I’m trying not to get hung up in the webwork of mathematics and optimization, and I’m mostly failing, because if I’m going to be this class, I should probably be this race, which means I’ll definitely need this feat, which synchronizes nicely with this power, so I should definitely make sure… that… I… Pardon me, my brain just cracked. Let me go get some glue.

Numbiz Iz Daunting

I’ve had this problem for as long as I can remember. In those “Make Your Own” restaurants, most people confidently march up to the counter, already knowing that they going to get roast beef and provolone on a ciabatta roll, with horseradish, mustard, and lots of pickles. There’s no question and no hesitation. Meanwhile, there I am, standing against the back wall, staring hopelessly at the menu board, having an anxiety attack over my combination of bread and meat and topping, positive that no matter what I pick, it won’t be something I absolutely love.

This has happened in my computer games too. Way back when, I had a brief and sweaty fling with Diablo II, playing it every waking minute for two straight weeks, placing my marriage and health and sanity at serious risk. Finally, I just had to stop, throw up my hands and announce, “That’s it, I’m done,” once I realized that I was actually losing sleep over things like selecting the right shield and gem combination. “Okay, this one reduces fire damage, but this one resists magical attacks, and yet this one does damage to my attacker,” and so on and on and on, forever and ever, brain crack.

When it comes to tabletop RPGs, it’s not simply a matter of being happy with my own choices. We’re talking about cooperative games here, with other people actively (sometimes aggressively) relying on me, and peer pressure is absolutely my kryptonite. I worry that the fractured character I bring to the game will earn me the wedgie of a lifetime from the other players, all of whom are competing with the Olympic D&D team next summer. If you ever want to hear the soft tinkle of my shattering confidence, just glance over at my character sheet and ask, “Really? Why did you pick that?”

So yeah, I have issues, but the good news is that I’m finally starting to sort through them, that I’m finally starting to get better, that I’m finally starting to realize the secret to a happier life that most adults (and, to be fair, most kids) have known for most of their lives. I’m writing about a truth, a commitment, a belief system that was vividly proclaimed in that powerful 1979 movie, Meatballs, where Bill Murray’s character Tripper cried out: “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!”

Numbiz Iz Important

For the sake of this article, I’m going to wrap roleplaying up inside an Army blanket, stuff it inside a footlocker, and store it in the attic. Roleplaying is important, no question, and I love me some roleplaying. People even say that’s what the RP in RPG stands for, if you can imagine. But even with roleplaying being the source of all goodness and purity and chocolate-covered bacon in the universe, dice and numbers and math still account for a large part of the game. Unless, of course, you’re a dirty, free-love, hippie commie anarchist who plays without dice, in which case I’ll say, “Sorry, I don’t have any spare change.”

So allow me to propose that numbers do matter in the game, which means my decisions on things like powers and feats and skills also matter. If I want to play a core rogue, I’ll have to take a halfling, given the ability bonuses and the race/class synchronization. For At Will powers, I’m really only choosing one, since Sly Flourish is both a must-take and no-brainer. And finally, I’ll have to take Backstabber for my feat, though Slaying Action is an acceptable alternative.

If you want to strike often and hard, you need to build a character with lots of plusses, because success in this game is based on high modifiers. Dice rolls are all about luck and fancy and random chance, but I’ve always found I can guide luck’s fickle hand with a well-placed +25, and anything that stands in the way of luck modification is so much fluff and nonsense.

Numbiz Iz Numbiz

Naturally, all that I’ve written above should take its proper place on the ground behind an irritable bull, and not just because of that roleplaying I tucked away in the attic. My Tripper-based epiphany is not rooted in making the most powerful, dangerous, or mathematically unbeatable character, but in making an interesting one. Yes, it might be fun to run against type, rolling up those gnome barbarians and eladrin clerics, but I’m not even suggesting that.

What I am saying is, I am all done staring slack-jawed at a list of 25 powers and worrying which power would be “useful,” because useful is a useless designation. Does it hit your opponents? Does it do damage? Does it have some effect? Then it will be useful in some way. Now, because I’m not blessed with an eidetic memory, I’m going to steer clear of those multi-paragraph or intensely situational powers and feats (“If you critical with a two-handed wooden weapon on a Tuesday during a rainfall…”), as the weakest power in the entire game will be the one I use incorrectly or the one I forget to use entirely.

From now on, I’m going to approach my character creation the same way I approach a meal at a restaurant, which is like this: I’m always going to try something different, something I haven’t had before, something that intrigues me. During character creation, this means picking a class or a race or a power or a feat or a skill that I’ve never used before, just to see if it would be fun. I’m going to build to the fuzzy concept in my head, or maybe I’m going to choose stuff at random and examine the result for evidence of funnitude. I’m going to untangle myself from the process and instead invest in the game.


  1. I love optimizing. I really enjoy making highly effective and interesting characters. However, it is that intersection of highly effective AND interesting that is the real determining factor. I don’t bother making an overly powerful character if he’s not interesting; I leave such things to the D&D Character Optimization boards, who would do a better job of it than me anyhow.

    I like making characters in my spare time, knowing that I will never play 95% of them in a real game. But as I said I don’t usually waste my time with a powerful but boring character. The reverse is also true; I may toy with an unoptimized but interesting idea, but usually won’t fully build the character. Instead I start with an interesting mechanical idea and then expand the character from there, filling in both story and stats.

    The 5% of characters I actually intend to play, I actually make backwards: I start with an interesting and strong character concept (preferably with a cool background story) then build the character’s stats from there. I do my best to optimize the character using all the tricks I’ve learned from both my experience and reading the CO boards, but I generally don’t go overboard. In 4E there really aren’t a lot of “bad” choices; I will often take a power or feat that fits my character theme instead of a slightly more powerful option that doesn’t fit the theme.

    TL;DR: Optimizing is certainly useful, but a solid character concept is more important. If your concept is solid mechanically as well as role-playing wise, optimization should really come naturally.

  2. Optimization is a game inside of the game. Building a working character is a lot of the fun in playing RPGs. Why would you want to have a game with dozens of options, if character creation wouldn’t be fun in the first place?


    If we play games and find out about the BEST strategy – the dominant strategy – we may have taken a road of no return. Bear with me… there will be a dominant strategy in most games; but then again most games offer a lot of different areas of play.

    I sometimes have the feeling that 4E reduced the depth of gameplay somewhat. I’m not saying that 4E is incapable of doing it… I just think that is not intended for that sort of deep storytelling other RPGs are more intent on emphasising.


    If the dominant strategy ever becomes the only VIABLE strategy… something has gone wrong with the game design. Playing something with little synergy is punished in 4E – at least if the group is interested in getting everything out of their options.

    You know… I considered to play a Gnome Bard Multiclass-Druid … just because I really loved the idea of a shapeshifting wanderer roaming the streets and telling stories of outrageous fantasy. Nevertheless, this just is not a viable choice in the adventure game genre. Also I cannot understand why picking UTILITY spells does not allow me to go for what is cool. I need to get what is best usable.

    Of course this is all open for debate. But it really depends on group style and interpretation of what 4E is supposed to be. If it’s all about raiding dungeons … they might as well remove all those redundant powers that are just there to be erroneously picked by newbies.

    Just my two cents
    Georg ( @zydake )

  3. It’s funny that you selected the sandwich shop as your opening analogy, because the attitude that lets me produce characters with a minimum of stress and frustration is the same one that fills my gut with delicious concoctions any time I’m out paying people to make my food. I never accord options the primacy necessary to let them daunt or confuse me; they’re just there to get me to my sandwich.

    Game-wise, this means that I usually start with a visual concept of my character, including some ideas of the effects she evokes or the weapon he wields. From there, I think about the role I’d like to fulfill, and maybe come up with a few choices…and by the time I’m down to picking powers and feats I’ve had enough time firming the image of the character in my mind that the choices are either easy or (as you seem to ultimately conclude) don’t matter all that much. Ultimately my goal is to be able to play a character who does something interesting, unusual, and satisfying…whether I’m +1 to hit with Thunder or unflankable is less critical than that overall goal.

    Hope your untangling is successful!

  4. @zydake, I have spent lots of time optimizing characters over the years, and enjoyed every minute of it. But I’m also known for doing things like making Dwarf wizards. Delicious precisely because it makes no sense. I want to see if I can make it make sense.

    I get the same feeling about 4e, but I wish I could pin down the mechanics that make it feel that way. Is it really because I can’t put skill ranks in Profession: Gardener? Nevertheless, I’m running a long-run campaign in 4e, though I’ve made a few mods.

  5. @Toldain, interesting remark. and you absolutely should go with the gardener idea lol.

    Well: I don’t think it’s really a Skill-mechanic problem. I just don’t have the feeling the presented powers are equally useful – where useful means doing exactly what your role is supposed to do. In groups that don’t care much about roles; I think everything is possible.

    I always DM adventures that are heavy on mystery elements. Instead of dungeon-crawling I am more interested in creating NPCs with hidden agendas and intriguing relationships. Well, I guess I’m just more at home with horror & mystery storytelling games … but that doesn’t mean you can mix that in with D&D.

    4E seems to be targeted at a dungeon-crawler / PvE-tactics player-group. This is of course totally valid. They can do whatever they want to do. It just is sad to have feelings of incompetence when you are not able to pull your own weight in combat. But to defend 4E: the Dark Eye also had me feel this way lately. I really always end up with incompetent characters ^^

    The question is thus: are you happy with only having LITTLE CHOICE with player characters? If the only valid druid looks like ‹this› … and I don’t want to play it … well, I might have a problem. But I applaud your stance 😉 … I also tend to do stuff like that. Play something I really want to play … sadly I often have the feeling that it just doesn’t work the way I want haha… maybe I should be DM again.

  6. I’m a min/maxer at heart. I try not to do it much, but I absolutely love just trying to see what kind of sick and twisted combination I can create that will turn me into some sort of combat monstrosity. I tend to lean towards some more ‘broken’ classes in 3.5 and the like: Favored Soul, Artificer, heck, even with just a stock fighter I’ll do crazy things like specialize with a scythe and go towards maximizing my critical damage.

    But with all of that said and done, numbers mean jack. My best and most favorite characters were far from optimized. My Artificer in question was a Shifter, who get *negatives* to the Charisma modifier. I thought it made a more interesting story (and it did). She was still incredibly amazing, and to this day we still talk about that game, and all the awesomely amazing things she made possible. I also played a character modeled after a ninja who had, for lack of better terms, sup-bar stats. And he was mute. Yet, despite being mostly ineffective in combat, he was still a joy to play. Why? Because his crappiness gave him a motivation to really strive to perform all the underhanded things you expect out of a crappy rogue. Someone who sneaks around and will be prepared to slit someone’s throat if they so much as look at him the wrong way.

    In fact, the most legendary character I have was an AD&D bard. You should know how useless they were – no real abilities to speak of, crappy spellcasting. To make matters worse, he multiclassed into ranger after his wife was killed. But despite all of these shortcomings, he was still the central figure of the party, without whom nothing was ever accomplished.

    If there’s one thing I dislike about 4E above all other things, it is that they liken everything to ‘choices’ that ‘must be made’, as though it were, in fact, some sort of MMO. But personally, I prefer finding other ways to shore up a character’s shortcomings. My bard for example, couldn’t deal any damage, so he began to rely on wands. When the DM informed me I could use two wands at once? I was taking out entire swathes of drow by myself, singlehanded genociding more than the rest of the party combined (and this was a group of twelve mind you).

    Numbers mean jack crap in the end. It’s how you play the character, and how you can build them to find good ways around everything else. Even with a subpar stat array and a less-than-optimal set of equipment, if you play your character right, and most importantly, put yourself in just the right places at just the right time, why you too can be the single most important figure in the room, despite having the durability of a wet paper bag.

    So in short: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Because in the end, working with what you have is a far more rewarding prospect, and one that has served me very well in the past.

  7. I love your restaurant meal analogy! Personally, like Erik commented, I like that fine combination of a kick-butt character that’s also cool to play. I want my character concept, role play personality and combat abilities to all be engaging, imaginative and impressive! So while I’m not 100% optimizer, I’m certainly not 100% “just do whatever” either. I look for that exhilirating balance!

  8. I’m definitely with Seth on this one. I think of an idea for a character that would be fun to play first, and then select abilities that fit with the concept and don’t completely suck (yes every edition of D&D has choices that are sub-optimal – I’m looking at you 2e illusionist). Mind you, completely suck is a long way off from sub-optimal, which I am OK with.
    I think the only different approach I take in 4e is a philosophy I developed for 3e sorcerers – I ask myself, is this a power I want to use almost every encounter? Again, that’s not to say it has to be the most powerful, it usually comes down to what is the most interesting. Since I’m going to be using these powers over and over again, high damage but boring just doesn’t cut it for me – I’d rather take low damage and fun any day of the week (which is why I like fey and star warlocks over infernal ones and avengers over rangers even though every optimization board on the internet tells me those choices suck).

  9. I always start with the race and class concept, then within that seek to build an effective PC for the class role; eg for my human Thief I want to hit a lot for lots of damage; I’m a ranged striker so I don’t need to worry much about defense IME; I serve the party best by killing things quickest. I couldn’t stand playing a race I didn’t want to play just for the mechanical mods.

  10. @Victor neat 🙂 … I still remember building a 3e sorcerer with lots of illusion powers instead of damage-wacking. it was a great time back then. of course a lot of my colleagues were like: why do you pick invisibility – it’s just cowardly! and that was exactly what I aimed for at that time 🙂

  11. Dixon Trimline says:

    For starters, let me just say that it was never my intent to malign optimizers or suggest that that are bad, evil, ugly kitten-kickers. Like everyone commenting here, I’m looking to design characters that are both interesting and effective. What I am resisting is that specific kind of sameness that can sneak into character creation (if you are a fighter, you have to take X; if you are a cleric, you have to take Y), and by writing this, I’m giving myself permission to consider non-standard powers, skill, and feats to see if they’d be fun.

    @Erik: There was a time I thought it seemed a useless endeavor to write up characters you’d never play, but I’ve since discovered the joy of such an activity. It’s almost like flexing your creative muscles, without the worry that you’d be saddled with a silly notion for hours or months or even years. “If I were to play a runepriest, what would he look like?” I agree that powers and skills do help me in finding a voice for the character, one that I might not have found if I hadn’t done some preliminary forays in the Character Builder.

    @zydake: You make a good point about the flexibility of optimization creating a potential threat to the raw storytelling, though it feels like we as participants can keep that under control, assuming that’s our goal. If the DM and players agree to a social contract that says, “We are looking for a good story and strong roleplaying, so try to steer clear of the following combinations…”

    @Seth: Yes, I can definitely appreciate that approach. It sounds like you do character design visually, picturing the spell effects or the weapon, and then proceeding from there. Given the nature of the character design, it should be possible to tell five players, “For next week’s game, everybody roll up a 5th level dwarf rogue,” and wind up with five very different characters. This one is snarky and clever, this one is a pure basher, this one sneaks and hides, this one is a library-based reader, and this one is mechanical.

    @Toldain: I’d love to play a dwarf wizard, just because I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be another one like me at the table. This is where abstraction meets simulation, where I can either define every possible skill and profession or simply define in my background that this character is a gardener.

    @E-l337: I love hearing stories like yours about the shifter artificer. It’s exactly the sort of character I’d want to play, and perhaps more importantly, play with in my party! I don’t think my first thought would be, “What a dope! Why did he pick such a lousy combination?” I feel like my reaction would be: “Man, I’ve never seen that before. That is so cool!” Oh, the AD&D bard! I played one of those too. Such fun, and it was all based on the background I created, a worthless street rat who aspired to nobility.

    @Kilsek: Yes, and in all things, moderation. There’s room for “outside of the box” and maybe even “less than effective,” provided we don’t do full-tilt, whole-hog useless. And my feeling is, it’s tough creating that truly useless character. Not impossible, but it’s tricky.

    @Victor Von Dave: Eeeewwww, the 2E illusionist. I played that exactly once, at the convention, and… didn’t love it. Your power selection (would I want to use this in every encounter?) is brilliant! It usually takes me a couple games with a new character to figure out, “I’m just not having fun with this power or skill.” It doesn’t matter the effectiveness, as you say, but more it’s a matter of, “Bleh. I’m bored.”

    @Simon: I agree with that. As the admiral would say, it’s a trap… to start designing a character who is all things to all situations. You wanted to just do long range damage, so you didn’t focus on defense. I think this is excellent! In order to do this very well, I’m going to have to lose a little here.

  12. “@Simon: I agree with that. As the admiral would say, it’s a trap… to start designing a character who is all things to all situations. You wanted to just do long range damage, so you didn’t focus on defense. I think this is excellent! In order to do this very well, I’m going to have to lose a little here.”

    I technically didn’t max damage either; I could have focused on using a shortbow + backup shortsword, which does the most damage of Essentials Thief weapons, but I liked the idea of throwing a dagger a lot better – better visuals (& my mini only has a dagger), plus if I get trapped in melee I don’t have to do the weapon-juggling routine: “Free action to drop bow, minor to draw sword, standard to attack…” – So once I found a magic dagger I called it Mr Pointy and focused on being the best dagger-thrower I could be. 🙂
    And using a dagger I only have to worry about 1 magic weapon, instead of getting bow + sword, and feats for both.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I must admit that many of us strive to be the best, if only to preserve the fruits of our creations. I do recall however, one memorable occasion when I was playing a friend’s campaign, and decided to go against the grain and make a truly novel character.

    He was Pell Grat, a Human expert who specialized in mining and digging. He may of not been the strongest, but he certainly was interesting, and his shovel definitely left a mark!

  14. Dixon Trimline says:

    @Anonymous: Man, how brilliant, a miner and digger, I love the idea of a character like that, and I really like the shovel leaving a mark. Sir, whether you know it or not, you challenge me to build in novelty to my next character, and I accept your challenge!