D&D: Breaking (is) Bad

For an article I first posted almost exactly two-and-a-half years ago, just a few days after I had learned a new edition of D&D was in the works, I sat myself down and did an honest assessment of my experiences with previous editions. Then I thought about what I would like to see in a new edition. Go ahead and read that article. The link is right there. I’ll wait…

Obviously, the new edition of the game (or at least the Basic version of the rules), is now in the hands of the public. People are devouring the rules, giving their thoughts, and will hopefully find the game fun and interesting. I’m going to let people smarter and more invested than I talk about the new rules in detail. I playtested them along with everyone else, and I even got the chance to contribute to some Wizards of the Coast products that used the various incarnations of the D&D Next Playtest rules: most notably War of Everlasting Darkness, Against the Cult of Chaos, Confrontation at Candlekeep, and Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle. Defiance in Phlan runs at GenCon in a couple of weeks as well.

Rather than focus on the new rules themselves, I wanted to harken back to that previous article, and compare it to an article recently published by one of the 5e D&D developers, Robert J. Schwalb. I know Robert well enough that I get to call him Robert J. Schwalb. We’re so close his name appears on products in my stead. (OK, I know him a little and have shared a beer or two with him. That’s about it.)

Rage Against, Well, Whatever is There

Rob’s recent blog post (go ahead, read it, good stuff) caused a bit of a kerfuffle on forums hither and yon. In this age of information superhighway road rage and an Internet anonymity that causes the equivalent of cyber beer muscles, it has to be rough to be in a position of any sort of authority or celebrity. (I doubt that there really is any such things in the RPG world as compared to reality, but some people go after such figures like it is something important.) As soon as anyone even considered tangentially in the loop expresses an opinion about something—or heaven forbid get nostalgic—too many people brand them a monster for, you know, being human.

Rob talks about his earliest experiences with RPGs. He talks about how, back in the day, the away-from-the-table stuff (reading rules, creating the characters, etc.) was the tax you paid to get to the fun stuff at the table. He talks about how, as the rules have become more complex and the concept of building a character rather than playing a character has come to the forefront of D&D, more of the game has moved away from the table. Most importantly, he asks important questions about whether anyone is served when the emphasis on away-from-the-table mechanics trumps the game at the table.

What struck me most about Rob’s post was how, at its root, it paralleled what I said over two years ago. Fortunately I am a tiny kid in a huge sandbox, and no one went after me the way they did Rob. He had the misfortune of admitting that he was the face of 4e on the new edition’s design team but came to see how 4e’s mechanics, as great as they are as mechanics, do not always lead to the best experiences at the table for certain types of players. As I said in my aforementioned article, many of us gamers “clamor for errata and clarification and justification and perfection. We have a tool for sharing stories like no other [the Internet], and we use it to nitpick and gripe and limit our imaginations rather than free them. I am as guilty as anyone in this, perhaps moreso. I have striven to make campaigns that embrace the ugly perfection of rules over the beautiful chaos of a story shared. And in my foolishness, I would probably make the same mistakes again.”

I recognize that D&D attracts different types of players who can participate in different types of games under the same large tent. As a long-time administrator of and contributor to many Organized Play campaigns, I worked at event after event, from the smallest of game days to the largest conventions—and each and every one showed me that unlike any other game, D&D can provide the widest range of fun to the most diverse crowds. I saw the cheesiest character optimizers, trying to exploit every broken combination. I saw the hammiest roleplayers, sparing no effort in their quest for the spotlight. I consider some of each type of gamer among my closest roleplaying friends.

A Completely Reasonable Proposal

I know it is popular to say that there is no wrong way to play as long as you are having fun. I am going to be as unpopular as I have ever been in public right now. The game has to be about the story if the hobby as a whole is going to flourish. This means that the ultra-optimizing, breaking the game with its own rules because they are there, intentionally ignoring the spirit of the rules to mangle the game into something it isn’t, has to stop.

Here’s a newsflash: Breaking the game breaks the game.

I know that I will get “how dare you tell us how to have fun?” I dare because I care about the future of the game as whole. I dare because I understand that sometimes my own behavior, while fun or good for me personally, is not good for everyone. I dare because of the hundreds of hours spent doing playtesting and reviewing and consulting for no compensation other than knowing the game will still be there in another 10 or 50 or 100 years.

I know I will get “but I like to optimize, so why are you picking on me?” I am not talking about enjoying using the rules to make cool things happen. I am not talking about voraciously reading books of feats and magic items. I am talking about recognizing that the game, at its core, craves to be about shared storytelling in a creatively charged atmosphere.

I am talking about sitting down and playing with a groups of people, be they strangers or close friends, and seeing if you are contributing to their enjoyment or detracting from it. Nothing can turn away a prospective long-term RPG gamer faster than having an early game in their experience go from a cooperative game of shared heroics to a lesson in fine-print rules lawyering. An over-the-top roleplayer who hogs the spotlight can be annoying, it is true. But even they can sometimes be entertaining and add to the story. The player who kills all the monsters in the first round of combat with some whacked-out rules combination is not entertaining anyone or adding to anyone’s story but his own.

When I am reviewing playtest material, and I find myself typing page after page after page of “this is how the cheesy players are going to exploit this piece of crunch” rather than just absorbing the coolness that is the game and the story, a small piece of me dies. I’m not a big person, and I don’t have a lot of pieces left. And the danger has never been higher, as the potential for breakage with the new edition of D&D is high as people used to the balance of mechanics from 3e and 4e move into the more imagination-driven 5e.

If you haven’t noticed, I’m being a tad hyperbolic here. There is no big single bogeyman of rules-lawyering asshattery hiding under the bed, waiting to jump out and scare all the nice players away. I don’t consider people who like to get their fingers dirty in the mechanics of a game a threat. I don’t consider tactical players unfit.

But I will say this. Remember TSR’s old slogan? It was “Products of Your Imagination.” It wasn’t “Products of Your Obsession with Rules.” If D&D is going to grow again, establish a large base of younger players, it is not going to be on the back of convoluted and intricate rules. It will be on the wings of imagination. All our imaginations.


  1. alphastream says:

    We are already seeing players broadly pronounce one race-class combination or another as “the obvious choice”, and I agree that this is a fallacy and generally detrimental for the game. Super-cheesy builds are problematic as a single instance at a single table, but the overall culture of focusing on rules exploits is a bigger issue (even when it doesn’t rise to the level of ridiculous cheese).

    I’m not sure that the genie can be put back in the bottle. It may have begun with kits, and certainly germinated with Skills & Powers in 2E. 3E set the course: that the game was also in character generation. Like players making decks for a CCG, satisfaction was derived not just from play but from mastery of rules before you ever sat at the table. There is a lot of good fun in that, but I agree that it occludes the imaginative play at the table. Is the solution social? Do we have to agree to not play that way? Is the solution in rules – does WotC need to prevent the exploits? I’m not sure if either can be effective.

    And, of course, cheese monkeys are usually great people. It isn’t far off to say that I create some darn effective characters in previous editions, and I do delight in showing off how well I put together a combination others didn’t foresee. What then? Are we addicts who should know better but can’t stop? Is there a happy medium?

    • Steve Rose says:

      Interesting, but I’d disagree that mastering the rules, or building something ‘effective’ occludes imaginative play at the table. If you know what your character can do, then you can pull of imaginative combinations of abilities.
      In a 3.5 game we got ambushed by a rust monster. Since I was playing a druid I spent a round dropping my metal scimitar and a ring, and then grappled it. (Whilst human I should add, so no IMMA BEAR shenanigans going on…) I then suggested strongly to the rogue that he beat it to death with a chair whilst I had it grappled.
      To do this I needed to understand that I /could/ grapple – I’ve had players in games who didn’t know it was possible, and GMs who argued that there weren’t rules for it – how grappling actually works, and that the rogue would now be effective because the rust monster would be denied its Dex against him; and finally that rust monsters (as the name suggests) are not good targets for stabbing with metal weapons. If I hadn’t know about these rules aspects, then I might not have done a ‘fun’, co-operative thing, and we might have lost valuable equipment.

    • Casey Brown (former LG BK Triad) says:

      Good points, Teos.

      I too enjoy designing a well-built character but I prefer when that character’s build and physics make in-game sense. Much of the problem with munchkins, imo, is simply that the designers don’t seem to understand design balance beyond the core rules and there will always be players willing to exploit broken combos (a new designer at Paizo for PF was the Boston area’s smartest power gamer, and this worries me). Unfortunately, power creep happens because splat books sell. Honestly, I think the solution is to remove splat content from whatever edition you choose to play, to wean power gamers away from broken combos; that’s a harder task for organized play environments than for a homebrew DM.

      • Bearfoot says:

        While I disagree that splatbooks are bad. however, there is nothing saying you can’t forbid them from your own game.

  2. Shawn Merwin says:

    Part of my answer to those questions is in a future article. Just to be clear, I am not talking about min-maxing or choosing the optimal selection for a character. What I am referring to is very clear: when a person insists on doing something at the table that makes the game less fun for everyone else there. There are other ways a player could do that (swearing, smoking, etc.), but most of the time when that has happened in my experiences, it has been when a player uses game-breaking elements to eliminate the chance for others at the table to contribute. This does not help a game grow. It is ultimately antisocial behavior in a social game because it shows no regard for what others want. That is what I am talking about. That does not mean that people who enjoy such playing should not get together (assuming they can find a DM who will put up with it) and play the way they want. I am looking on the health of the game and the hobby as a whole, and how to grow its popularity.

    • Steve Rose says:

      The thing that has spoiled most of my games isn’t the guy who over optimises his character so that he can dominate combat. It’s more or less split between two types of person.

      1) The GM who has decided that the combat is going to last as long as he wants it, so that someone who pulls off a lucky (or carefully built for) strike feels that they’re being ignored. For example, someone builds a high strength, carefully focussed scythe based paladin in 3.5 and pulls off a crit with Smite. He’s expending resources (the smite attack – declared /before/ the attack in 3.5, not afterwards as in 5th), relies on good dice (you have to actually crit), and has opportunity costs to his build – he’s focussed on a weapon that is actually suboptimal unless you crit; and yet the GM doesn’t reward this, or allow for this build to be effective by essentially ignoring what he/she had pulled off.

      2) Alternatively, it’s the ‘roleplayer’ who doesn’t let anyone else share the spotlight unless forced to (combat – when he can’t just talk over the rest of the party and their attempts to roleplay as well, or other people making skill checks), and actively ends up preventing other players from roleplaying their interactions with people. I’ve had players like this take up 15 minutes whilst they have their super secret meetings away from the table with the GM, and then when they come back and the rest of the party try to sort out what they were doing whilst he was away doing whatever he was doing, they then try to butt in to other people’s in character conversations that are happening (at least in theory) whilst his character is away doing his thing.

      You say that ‘The player who kills all the monsters in the first round of combat with some whacked-out rules combination is not entertaining anyone or adding to anyone’s story but his own.’

      I agree here, but only partially. The game is about roleplaying, and over the various editions since I’ve joined I’ve watched the balance swing back and forth from roleplaying being the dominant part of the game, to combat and skill checks being dominant (the few games of 4th I played being particularly guilty of this, with my attempts to roleplay out of a situation being essentially answered with ‘That’s very nice, now do the skill challenge’), and what 5th I’ve played feeling like there’s more room to roleplay, but some of it still feeling quite forced. Focussing on someone’s ability to kill monsters to the exclusion of other aspects feels somehow like it is missing the point of the problems, and risks tarring the ‘competent, well built’ character with the same brush as the ‘cheesy munchkin’, simply because the competent character is being played by someone who knows how combat works, has built a solid and reliable combat build, or has chosen wisely what resources to expend (spells, X per day/per rest powers, magic items (whether charged or one shot), or even mundane items). Bringing that attitude into things results in GMs complaining unless players deliberately build sub-optimal characters as otherwise they’re ‘breaking the game’, ‘cheesy, cheating munchkins’, or, as I got accused of in a debate ‘deliberately destroying the game’. I’ve even had GMs refuse characters because they were ‘too good at combat’ simply for having chosen well synergised combat feats on a fighter, or just outright refuse to allow rogues to gain any useful benefit from sneak attack because ‘it’s too powerful’.

      As I’ve said above, I’m not especially ‘entertained’ by the ‘roleplayer’ who takes up all the table time, and is in fact just demanding all the attention be focussed his way, and he certainly doesn’t add to anyone else’s story. In fact, I’d say he’s more damaging to the hobby because he prevents other people from getting involved at all in the social part of the game by just continually cutting in, trying to speak for the group (or worse, other characters/players – ‘Well, it’s true that the Duke doesn’t like me, so Rob’s rogue will say …’ , and yes, I’ve had those at the table. I’ve even had situations where I’ve said I’m not willing to go with an NPC’s suggestion, gone to get a glass of water whilst I think of a reply, and then come back to find the other players have had my character reconsider, and plot has happened and it’s really too late to take it back (the demon infiltrating the town has revealed itself, we’ve been given a vital clue or something of that kind), all at the instigation of the supposed ‘roleplayer’.

    • Bearfoot says:

      I got a LOT Of flack on Reddit for saying I’d ban someone from my game who does this. To the point where I was told I was “ruining the future of RPGs”

      (effin hyperbole much?)

      In the end I will not let the min

  3. I had the most fun building a 5e character rolling randomly for everything: class, race, gender, background, ideals and flaws. It challenged me to construct a cohesive complex character who feels more real than most of the others I have built. It was freeing and reflected that we do not get to choose who we are in real life, so why be able to pick everything to the smallest modifier. I hope many players adopt this attitude and bring unique characters with a wide variety of abilities than finely refined one swing one skill ponies.

    • Steve Rose says:

      Or alternatively you end up with an incoherent mess.
      If a GM forced me to roll everything like that I don’t think I’d want to play since there are some races and classes I just don’t want to play, and I certainly don’t want to be in the situation of playing a strength 5 barbarian sailor…

      The reason why you get to pick your build details? So that you’re comfortable playing it, and it’s not crippled from the start by a bad combination of backgrounds, stats, class and race. I also find it disturbing that you think that people who choose their character’s details are just going to build highly refined one swing one skill ponies, rather than being capable of, and willing to build a character with some character.

  4. Ezekiel says:

    Seems to me a good way to remedy “breaking the game” is to remove as many places as you can where it can be horrendously broken. Don’t give people the option to be a CoDzilla, or Batman Wizard. Eliminate (or errata) ridiculous shenanigans that give potentially-uncapped damage (Blade Cascade) or at-will powers that affect every enemy in a preposterous radius (some Sword Burst thing I don’t remember).

    You’re never going to get people to stop making optimized characters by admonishing them, any more than you’ll get people to stop cheating on their taxes by reminding them how bad it is for society. Either the cost of optimization must be prohibitive, or opportunities to optimize must be removed where they are found. Either way, you won’t have to pass judgment or tell people to stop having fun or whatever, the solution will happen on its own. Telling people that their preferences are badwrongfun that endangers the hobby will just make them defensive and entrenched.

    Unfortunately, I very much fear that 5e has taken a big step toward re-enabling massive power differences by returning to the 3.5e model for numerous mechanics. Saves are again going to widely vary in value–slightly wider than they did in 3.5e, in fact–and there are six of them instead of only three (though admittedly the Basic document effectively maps to Fort/Ref/Will, since there are no spells with Str, Int, or Cha saves.) Spellcasters have fewer spells than before, but the new memorization mechanic means you don’t have to forgo Fly to cast Fireball as long as you’ve still got the slots.

    Time, of course, will tell. I suspect 5e will be just as weak to optimization as any version of D&D–all the way back to the munchkins of 1e that inspired the card game, if not even farther back.

    • I think your comments sort of miss the point. Everything can be broken in some way. Just like the South Park episode where the boys become uberpowerful in WoW by killing boars in the forest, so you can find combinations that “break” the game. While I agree in theory that “obviously” bad combinations should be addressed, reasonable minds can differ in determining what is “obviously” bad.

      Mr. Merwin is pretty clearly not against optimization, either.

      My takeaway from this article is that a game like D&D is an inherently social activity that is based on the use of imagination and creativity. Be respectful of your partners at the table for the sake of the game.

      • It’s an interesting example you chose there, because Blizzard actually does go to quite a few lengths to keep the classes on an even keel, both for PVP and PVE adventuring. Granted they have the advantage of being able to implement weekly patches, but that’s the thing- they’ve had time for a lot of fine tuning. (What happens in the SP episode isn’t actually possible- monsters that are too weak to pose a threat to you don’t give XP- but it worked better for the story.)

    • Steve Rose says:

      It’s interesting that you conflate ‘optimisation’ with ‘breaking the game’. They’re very different, and risks actually making the mistake you mention should be avoided of giving a message that building a competent character for your role in the party is ‘badwrongfun’.

      Remove the chances for optimisation, and everyone might as well not have any choices in their character builds, and we might as well go back to 2e, but with no weapon or non-weapon proficiencies (heaven forbid we should allow someone to optimise by taking a specialisation in a good weapon), and fix the damage by class (Wizards all use daggers for a d4, rogues use short swords for a d6, clerics use a mace for a d6, and fighters use a longsword for a d8 – you can use a different weapon, but you’ll still do the same damage because we don’t want you optimising your build…).

      Saves don’t vary massively from my experience with encounters. At the levels we’d reached stats were having more effect than the adjustment for levels was, and the real killer for saves was if you could impose advantage or disadvantage on a given save.

      • I think you misread the article if you think he’s conflating optimization and breaking the game of if you think he’s asserting that “building a competent character for your role in the party is ‘badwrongfun’”. He makes it pretty clear he’s not. Unless you consider his description of “the cheesiest character optimizers, trying to exploit every broken combination” to be synonymous with optimization or competent. I consider optimization or competent character building to be making an effort to build a character who is competent at certain tasks. Whereas the article makes it clear that is not what he’s referring to. He can’t get much more clear than by saying “I am not talking about enjoying using the rules to make cool things happen.” On the contrary he says he has concerns for those players who are “intentionally ignoring the spirit of the rules to mangle the game into something it isn’t”. So I think we’re all in agreement. Optimization isn’t the problem on it’s own, but becomes a problem when the goal is to break the game, or even if the the goal of optimization is made a priority even at the risk of breaking the game. Basically, he’s implying it’s a matter of degrees. Optimization is fine….until it’s not. The trick is figuring out what the point is and whether a ruleset should actively combat it and how.

  5. Having spent some largish amount of (both amateur and professional) time on it, I believe that this is the defining problem of most multi-player games, certainly multi-player games where players control a varied character or faction. It’s not limited to tabletop RPGs (or to card games, or RTS, FPS, or MOBA games, etc). In truth, most people don’t want an entirely balanced game (a careful look at the longstanding complaints about 4e D&D or Star*Craft will provide evidence of that).

    I call it the “defining problem” because it creates both tension and fun – toil and trouble – at the heart of the game. Various game-keepers (TSR, WotC, Riot, etc) have different approaches to the problem, but it usually boils down to some mixture of “social contract” and “adjusting the game”. Games that try to rely exclusively on one or the other inevitably run into problems. Some people love errata, updates, patches, editions; other people hate them. Some people quite reasonably believe that if your social group can’t come to some sort of mutual understanding, then your social activity is bollixed anyway. Personally, I’ve played in a D&D campaign that lasted 17 years, and I’ve helped run a multi-year OP campaign where I DM’d for a group of people from another continent with whom I shared a mutual love of D&D and a mutual hatred for Rary the Traitor – and not much else. Both games were great, but anyone who thinks that only one axis of “social contract” or “adjust the game” can adequately handle both situations *alone* is fooling themselves.

    New editions are cool; old editions are cool, too. As we look out over the dawn of a new edition of D&D, let’s try to give the stewards of the new edition a chance to make something great. It might not be your cup of tea (right now, it’s certainly not mine), but I assure your that it’s fun for a bunch of people, and if we give it a chance to grow, it might just become something amazing.

  6. Yeah, that’s why even though I could have, at every table of LG, turned into a black pudding, had my cohort split me 50 times, then turn all 50 into shambling mounds which I would then grow to enormous girth with call lightning, that nonsense only ever came up in one battle interactive and then only with the egging on of the people at my table. Funny to do sure, but not really “story driven decision making”.

    It doesn’t help when story matches broken though… this weekend my monk barbarian met and wrestled a cleric of kord and was asked to join, and was then handed a ring of 1d6 radiant damage to undead for all attacks… can you really not take the broken combo when its literally put right in front of you?

  7. I think p. 35 of the Basic rules will help.
    One could drop the rest of the game, keep that one page, and have a role-playing game (or theatrical long-form improvisation).

    The difference is subtle. The difference is that p. 35 is part of the rules and there are prominently displayed fields for those rules on the front of the character sheet, right up there with the rest of the critical character information.

    It goes farther, though. Since getting yourself in trouble (playing a character’s flaws, negative traits, bonds, ideals, etc.), grants a mechanical advantage (Inspiration), optimizers make character choices in order to optimize. It’s also important to note that Inspiration can be passed from one player to another. For tactical players that need their companions to succeed, this is awesome.

    When players make character choices–especially those that get the characters into trouble–story happens. We all win.

    Anyway, because of page 35 and its prominence on the character sheet, I’m optimistic about the future. Enthusiastic!

  8. Fun. Fun. It’s all about fun. I work in a high stress job in the Mental Health field. I slog my way through the week and do what I have to do. I’m 39. I’m happily married. I have a two year old. And dammit I get together between 2-3 days a month to have fun with my friends (and sometimes their kids) to play some D&D. We laugh, we groan, and we have a damn good time. It’s not about the rules. It’s about the game. It’s about having some Big Damn Fun with Friends. So make the rules clunky, crunchy, or whatever. We’re going to use what we like and make the rest up as we go.

  9. You do realize that the DM still holds a ridiculous amount of power over the players right? Lair Assaults and (after WotC stopped releasing new ones) custom-made one-shots made like Lair Assaults have been the most fun experience I, as a novice CharOp, have ever participated in. If the power level of the players is that much higher than the power level of your monsters, you recognize that and tweak your encounter to continue to provide that difficulty level. You remind your players that as the DM, you are still in control of the flow of the story and the encounter, no matter how powerful their characters may be. You put the fear of the gods into them so they hope that each roll of that d20 isn’t their last.

    I’m really tired of hearing people whine about how min/maxing characters in D&D breaks the game. If you know you have that player at your table (and just like you know who the roleplayers are, you definitely know who the min/maxers are), you plan accordingly. Or don’t plan and just wing it. Because as a DM you have that ability and that right.

    • And if the offending player continues to offend, breaking the experience at the table for the others, kill his (or her?) character and remove said player from the table. This goes for anyone really, not just min/maxers.

      • A problem with your approach is that if one player is the min-maxer, then they are requiring me to plan as a DM to deal with them. If the other players aren’t similarly min/maxed, they will be subject to a potential rout because of that one player’s choice.

        In theory, this will not happen with players in a group the meets regularly to play because, I assume, players will associate with those who share their gaming style.. But in conventions this scenario becomes more problematic.

        What do you think is the solution?

      • Hey Mike, thanks for taking the time to reply. Actually my usual gaming group only consists of two min/maxers; the rest just play pretty normally. There are seven of us total, and the two min/maxers actually switch being DMs.

        As a player, my goal is to make sure the party advances and has fun doing so. I definitely don’t want to destroy the experience for all of the other players. Hence I usually “break” my character in terms of helping out the party, usually by playing a Leader or Defender (in 4e terms). Also, communicating with fellow players and the DM helps streamline the experience a lot.

        As a DM, my priority is usually still the same. Unless I explicitly state that the encounter is meant to be high difficulty, a party wipe is usually not the goal. With a group that may not know each other, like in the convention scenario you mention, I like to start out by asking each player to describe his/her character. If the characters are not pregens, I also like to take a look at the character sheets themselves. By being a min/maxer at heart, I feel that this actually helps me in reading characters, since I can tell almost at a glance whether a player is optimizing the character, and I can usually tell what the character has been made to do.

        Then as gameplay starts and the encounter gets rolling, I take into account what the players themselves are doing. If roleplayers are slowing the story down too much and bogging the party down trying to get at story elements that aren’t interesting/useful, I let them know that. If the players are not roleplaying enough, I’ll ask them for extra rolls to help them fill in the details. If combat progresses too quickly, I can add an extra wave of enemies or mentally make stronger minions (in my FLGS, two or even three-hit minions are not uncommon). If combat bogs down and the party is too combat-oriented, I try to coax them into exploring other options or, in the case of bosses, I may remove certain defenses, cut down HP, or reward players with a damage bonus for especially good roleplay. I encourage my players to talk out their plans so the rest of the group can understand what they want to do and so I can reward out-of-the-box thinking.

        These are just a few tricks I employ as a DM. The encounter isn’t over until the DM says it’s over. In convention scenarios, this means that we are also controlling the time if time is limited. Instead of playing everything strictly by-the-book, I want to reward players so they walk away from the table feeling accomplished, whether that is through roleplay or combat. Everyone shines somewhere; as a DM, it falls to me to make sure they find their potential.

  10. Players should always be responsible for acting with respect towards each other. If someone intentionally attempts to break the game then they are sabotaging the social contract that rests at the foundations of the game

    With that said, there is still a responsibility for the game designer to make a game the survives the accidents, impulses, and careful intent of human behavior. More often than not the player who is dissatisfied with the system is one that made decisions based solely on dramatic or personal aesthetics.

    Sometimes that dissatisfaction has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the character but the nature of the game mechanics. I remember becoming extremely bored with my 3e Barbarian, despite him being a very theatrical and effective character. I eventually retired him and created a bard just so that I would have more interesting situational options.

    I take some issue with the idea that careful balance is in the interest of the optimizers and rules lawyers. Design balance is not about thwarting the player who intentionally seeks to sabotage the game, nor challenging the optimizer who evaluates all options. No, sound mathematical balance is for the Robs and Shawns who want to make choices for dramatic and personal reasons regardless of the mechanical consequences.

  11. Balance enables imagination by removing trap options. If you want to encourage imagination, the answer is not to retreat from a mostly-balanced design to one where balance takes a backseat to tradition.

    Robert’s article made the assumption that what 4e fans liked about the system was all the fiddliness, while a lot of us liked the fact that it just worked better than most editions before had. Apparently that understanding left Wizards with Rob Heinsoo.

    • You know, discipline and restraint help to avoid “trap options” as well. Just because you can build an uber-powerful character doesn’t mean you have to.

      Regarding Mr. Schwalb’s commentary, it seems to me he was looking for an answer to what makes him excited about playing the game. Your snarky comment really doesn’t serve to further the conversation.

      I am also unclear as to how exactly balance enables imagination. Can you explain?

      • I’m not sure you understand what you’re responding to. Your first sentence seems nonsensical if you know what a trap option actually is. Evan’s comment doesn’t come across as snarky so much as pointing out a clear problem with the original arguments.

      • Basically, if the rules are balanced, I can make just about any character I want and not end up with someone who does everything worse than everybody else, or for that matter accidentally coming up with a character who will be able to take on all the monsters by themselves and leaving little room for anyone else to take the spotlight. This is the thing- in 3e it got so that you didn’t have to be CharOping or building Pun-Pun to accidentally steal the spotlight, it’s just that an 8th level Druid can be a bear with a bear Companion who can (thanks to Natural Spell) keep summoning more bears. Which would be really cool except the guy next to you can maybe make two attacks in a round. Whee.

        Also, generally, the sounder a system’s math the more transparent it can be, which helps with tinkering. By 4e’s third Monster Manual they’d gotten the basics of monster design to a point where somebody put them on a business card.

      • Benjamin, I understand a trap option to be picking an option then feeling that you are trapped into picking subsequent options you may not really want in order to keep your character “optimized”. My intended point was that you can make role playing choices with your feat/kit/skill selections with a disciplined approach to create the character you want to role play rather than to making the “best” mathematical construct you can. Sorry if I was unclear.

        Evan, I agree that balance in a rule set is important, as is transparency And 4th edition is a system many would consider a very well balanced system. But since we have seen only the basic rule set, I believe it is too early to say the new edition throws out balance in favor of tradition.

      • Ah, see, that is not at all what a trap-option is. The definition of a trap-option is one that is inferior to almost all other options despite being presented as an equal. Toughness from D&D 3e is the classic example. Beyond second level the feat was a trap because the same opportunity cost could net almost any character dramatically more utility.

        Often trap options are created without any malice and actually intended to be interesting choices, but poor design balance prevents them from living up to their purpose. Dragon Disciple was, for the most part, a trap-option because it enticed players of sorcerers with the opportunity to transform into a half-dragon but granted very little improvement to their magical abilities for 10 levels.

        This reinforces our point: The people calling for balance aren’t groaning about how awesome Pun-Pun is or that Wizards are moderately better than Sorcerers. They’re trying to point out gross problems like how a single-classed 3e Druid was more powerful than all the martial classes in the PHB combined. Or they’re remembering the time their friend had this cool idea for a multiclass Wizard/Monk but he didn’t plan out his build and it turned out to be barely playable.

        I’m not sure 5e is going to quite as bad as 3e was in this regard, but so far it’s not looking like it’s taking the issue very seriously.

    • Steve Rose says:

      And to me, coming from 3.5, 4th didn’t work better than previous editions, and didn’t feel like D&D anymore.

      You had almost no resource management since most of your abilities were either ‘at will’ or ‘per encounter’, and thus would be back next fight, unlike 3.5 where using your low level spells would mean they weren’t available for the next encounter, or the one after that.
      The skill challenge system (at least for the group I briefly played with) took the place of roleplaying out non-combat challenges.

      And consider this – my entire 3.5 group basically quit buying D&D products when 4e came out because there was nothing for us. It looked like a step backwards towards making the game a boardgame with a list of powers you can use in each fight rather than a roleplay with characters that have a purpose.

      If everything is balanced then everything is the same.
      Everyone attacks at the same bonus.
      Everyone does the same damage.
      Everyone has the same defense.
      Everyone has the same amount of health.
      The only possible differences become cosmetic – I hit you with skulls of blue ‘fire’, you hit me with bolts of red ‘lightning’.

      Anything that adjusts these creates a potential imbalance, as you end up with exploitable differences. If I can take a penalty of X to hit, to get a bonus of Y to damage this is more or less valuable depending on the opponent’s defense rating. If we’re facing low defense creatures Y becomes more valuable than X, and so the feat is more useful, and I’m more optimised against these.

      Now, I’m not by any means saying 3.5 was perfect, it clearly wasn’t. But 4e wasn’t a step forwards. If it had been, Wizards wouldn’t be pulling back from the A/E/D pattern of 4 to go back to the 3.5 spell based pattern.

      And Evan – the guy next to you who can make 2 attacks a round? He can entirely prevent a spellcaster casting anything defensively, meaning he /will/ get to do damage and probably disrupt the spell, thus preventing it from being cast. So, not so useless now?

      • Uh, characters in 4e DON’T all have the same HP, DON’T all do the same amount of damage, their powers have different tactical effects, etc. It’s just that they really worked on the numbers to make sure it balanced out over a typical encounter. They did the math.

        And sure, the guy next to me can prevent an enemy spellcaster from getting off a spell. So can one or two members of my Swarm of Bears. But a fighter who can manipulate enemies on the battlefield, punish them for going after soft targets, push them around, etc. is doing things that a bear cannot. And if I’m limited to just being a bear myself, that’s still sufficiently ursine to fit most character concepts. People get to be what they want and not step on each other’s toes!

  12. George Krashos says:

    But isn’t the game – when you break it right down – kill the bad guy and take his stuff? If you ‘exploit’ the rules to do that more quickly or easily what does it matter? You’re achieving your gaming goal and more importantly, enjoying yourself in doing so. As long as the exploiting the rules gamers aren’t detracting from the participation of the other players and the DM, it has to be just fine that they do what they do. The game is about imagination. But it’s about enjoyment first.

    • I think there can be much more to an RPG than “kill the bad guy and take his stuff”. Play to the style you enjoy, but D&D offers a fertile place to use your imagination to tell a collaborative story with others that can be more than loot and pillage.

    • If you consider simple looting as fun part, you can do that. I would not say that this is the most basic element of the game.

      This is pretty much the difference between D&D and the board game Descent – in the second case it is all you do. You don’t play a role. You kill monsters, get items, level up, power up, and try to win the dungeon against a game master that tries to do the same – using a restraining rules mechanic of what he can do.

      In D&D the GM can do whatever she or he wants. Reaction rolls and parlaying with dungeon denizens have a long history. And finally, you play a role. You’re not just a bundle of stats, but you roleplay. There were originally many aspects of the game not covered by rules, and people’s response was very diverse: Some used it to make free-form on-the-spot rulings of what is possible and what makes sense and others wrote 100 page house rule documents as an agreed covenant of how the game must be played.

      I personally would say that the rules just exist to enable the game and give an illusion of fairness. But I don’t look for the rules as what are fun activities or interesting things for the players to do. The rules just exits to arbitrate certain situations.

      Roleplaying games are naturally complex interactions, and while combat systems are usually fully ruled out, and comparatively designed for balance, the rest of the game doesn’t follow to the same degree. Since combat has so many rules, people tend to think the game was about combat. To me it’s just the most mechanic-driven part of the whole experience, but not necessarily the most interesting.

      If the game truly was only or mostly about kill monster and take stuff, then D&D would be the least attractive RPG to me. Many other fine RPG systems do not define themselves in this way and would be my preferred choice then. But my experience of D&D is that neither is this style of play the most fun one nor the only supported one.

  13. Ben Pierce says:

    Every game has a system mastery curve. Those who master the rules will have an advantage over those who don’t. However…and this is critical…the curve cannot be insurmountable. A neophyte needs to be able to sit down at the table with an expert and still be able to have fun and contribute. That is, after all, how new players learn, and it’s how we grow our hobby.

    AD&D had a system mastery curve, but it wasn’t insurmountable; a new player could choose a character and contribute, even if the experts were more efficient and powerful.

    By the time 2.5 (Spells and Powers) rolled around, the gap had broadened significantly; it was hard for a new player’s thief to keep up with the dual-classed fighter/artificer, or the custom-built fireball-flinging cleric.

    3.5, though, was where the problem reached a critical point. It committed the cardinal sin, as far as I’m concerned: it made rules mastery a necessity. It was entirely possible for a novice player to make choices that appealed to common sense, but resulted in a functionally useless character.

    In the meantime, the hardcore rules mavens were amusing themselves with Pun Pun, and trying to figure out how many rounds after character inception full omnipotence could be achieved. The system mastery gap had ceased to be wide and become (literally) infinite.

    This is a bad thing, because at that point, the novice and the expert are no longer playing the same game. Sure, they may be referencing the same rulebook, but their characters are so drastically different that they have no common ground and no common challenges.

    If there’s one thing 5e MUST do, in my opinion, it’s keep the system mastery gap from becoming insurmountable, and NOT make system mastery a basic necessity.

    • Steve Rose says:

      One of the first things I have to say here is that most of the Pun-pun build ideas simply didn’t work, or relied on the character having access to resources /way/ beyond their level before the game started.

      You also assume that this hypothetical group with the novice who’s made an interesting but unworkable character, and the guy who is trying to Pun-pun doesn’t have anyone who can (and is willing to) look at the novice’s character idea and tell them why the character is ‘functionally useless’, and help them build something broadly in line with what they want to do, but is more effective.

      Any system with choices in character gen is going to have optimisations that are possible, unless the choices are purely cosmetic (you can do d8 damage with a sword or an axe, but they’re otherwise identical, or your power can be yellow or green!), and thus some degree of actually learning the rules is necessary. One of my bug bears as far as roleplaying games is people who will put together a character that can’t do what it claims to do, and then starts complaining about a well put together (but not over-optimised) character outclassing them at everything. Here I’m thinking things like the halfling fighter with a strength of 6 who has decided to use two handed weapons, or the Cha 8 rogue with no social skills who keeps trying to charm people, and then sulks when the diplomacy based Cha 16 paladin gets better results.

      Then again, people have different concepts of what constitutes system mastery. In Skills and Powers, if you didn’t recognise that being an elf cleric was /vastly/ superior to most other choices you were a fool. Sure, much like your 3.5 example you could make choices which were superficially ones that made sense, but you’d still be functionally useless compared to other characters built with at least one of elf and cleric.
      In 4th I joined a game and quit after a couple of weeks when it became obvious that I’d picked the wrong powers and wasn’t going to get to redesign so my character was on a par with the rest of the group. Again, this was a case of not knowing the system as well as the other players. I will admit it was partially my fault – I’d picked something exotic and interesting looking, and it turned out not to work the way I thought it did, so the powers I’d selected weren’t as relevant.

      On the other hand, I’d rather have the choices and have to watch out for optimised builds than to go back to the days of the only real differential between characters of the same class being a preference for a given weapon or spell.

  14. Every system devised by humans has ways it can be exploited. The is due to the imprecision of language and it’s use as a communication medium.

    To take the 100,000 foot view – there’s little difference between the kind of rules exploitation discussed in this article and, say, the methods used by political donors to get around campaign finance restrictions, or the tax laws used by people and corporations to reduce or eliminate what they owe the government. The question, as Shawn very accurately posits – shouldn’t be “can I do it”, instead it should be “should I do it”. Taken to it’s logical extreme – if everyone acts like the guy who’s exploiting the system, then that mode of play becomes the “only” way to play, since every other mode is seen as inferior or “ineffective”.

    Mastery of the rules should be seen as a worthy goal, but exploitation of rules due to intentional misinterpretation as a result of the imprecision of language is not a worthy goal. We gamers as a whole need to exercise far more self-restraint when it comes to the game we play and how we play it.

  15. shakauvm says:

    Here are my thoughts on character optimization in general:

    In short, yes, breaking game balance is bad. It destroys tension and narrative. But at the same time, the 4th edition approach, which was to make every player feel unoptimized, underpowered, and terrible, was even worse. People like feeling powerful in roleplaying games, and gained more power as they level up. The “balanced” mechanics of 4th edition sabotaged it from the inside, and made it no fun to play.

    • alphastream says:

      Careful with edition bias. We all favor some edition over the other. To say that 4E was no fun to play is terribly impartial. (We can find tons of players that found [insert any edition here] to be the most fun.)

      The problem of ridiculous cheese is there regardless of edition.

      • This is my third attempt at a reply. The public / private game model you suggested is exactly the opposite of my approach to gaming. At home, power gaming serves no purpose. The DM can literally make up any result he wants, so dont bother wasting time. In a public event, the exact opposite is true. The DM is constrained by the RAW and attempting to create the same game experience for all players, so they cant arbitrarily add hit points to monsters for the power gamer or increase the DCs for his skill checks. You have ample incentive to power game at a public event: use less real time, impress your fellow nerds, get maximum loot and experience that go with you after you leave the table. Public events are literally the only time to make these kinds of characters. Just as at home, you play ridiculous MtG decks that would never win in a tourney, at home you can make the all fluff character. Public games are the exact opposite.

        And as a public event DM, I feel pressure to teach new players how to start to climb the power curve so they dont feel left out and they dont constantly lose fights.

        The hobby shops I leave and dont return to, and the gamers I dont sit a table with, are the ones where people encourage nonsense for 4 hours like arguing over whether they can pull a table lef off and use it to one hit a vampire cause its a stake and thats how the story is supposed to work, rules be damned. Or where they spend 2 hours hitting on the bartender. Waste of everyones time, not fun, and very much focused on the friendships of the players which leads to cliquey bullshit that I hate in real life.

        By contrast, if me and 5 strangers can get together and destroy Orcus in a bloody fast paced victory before a crowd of other nerds, earning praise and admiration, sign me up.

  16. alphastream says:

    I think there is a big distinction between ongoing home games and public games (whether Expeditions/Encounters ongoing formats or one-shot convention games). In a home game the DM and group can use a social contract to address issues, and the relationships can help mitigate what is seen at the table. I have friends in my home campaign who delight in constructing ridiculous builds… but in our home campaign they either don’t use that options or keep it for the time they are on the verge of defeat and a moment when even that cheese won’t guarantee success.

    In a public game, D&D and our hobby are being showcased, often to new or casual players. Most of us that frequent public play have seen someone say “Yeah, this is why I don’t like this game. I’m done with it.” at the end of a game that had high cheese (whether from a PC or the adventure). I think that’s what Shawn is really writing about. When we play we have a responsibility to play well with others, if not actually be stewards of the game. A DM and players can’t as easily counter ridiculous builds in a one-time public game. More of the responsibility falls on the individual player.

    Quick example: I was once asked to play at a convention game to make the table happen. I grab a pregen. At the table are two new players and a cheese master I know well. He loves the game, but he crushes the game and even taunts DMs. This was a pretty boring delve special, and in every room he pretty much destroys everything before any of us can do more than d8 damage. It was a terrible 4 hours. At the end, the two people swear to never play organized play again. That kind of behavior really hurts our hobby.

  17. Thank you sir! Great read all the way around.

  18. I think if the desired goal is to not have optimization be a problem, then one of the things that has to happen is that the game be designed in that context. Multi-attacking with no penalty to hit, double-rolling, large modifiers to hit/damage(in the playtest under Great Weapon Master, Belts of Giant Str), and expanded critical hit ranges are something to make extremely rare. So is the idea that every Wizard by definition turns into a super-wizard capable of casting any spell on the planet, especially those spells that overshadow non-casters at their own specialization.

    Instead, those are the defaults of 5e and if anything seems certain, I think 5e is going to have much bigger problems with optimization than 3e or 4e. Simply because casters are going to dominate if there are no magic items and Fighters are crazy broken if allowed to have large hit/damage modifiers. Breaking the system is built-in instead of something that needs to be sought out…

  19. Shawn Merwin says:

    Thanks to everyone who took the time to read the article and comment, either here or privately or elsewhere on the Internet. Rather than try to address individual comments, and many deserve further discussion, I am planning another article. Not sure when it will go up, but look for it. Thanks again!

  20. I think Shawn’s point is that min maxing is fine if it is an intended use of the rules. When someone discovers and overpowered exploit that ruins everyone’s fun at the table then min maxing has went too far. At home games, it is easy. I never allow an over powered option to stand as DM. At public games though this is more problematic.

    I hope Shawn I did not misrepresent you. I’ve enjoyed your perspectives.


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