Breaking D&D 2: Electric Bugaloo

The response to my last article D&D: Breaking (is) Bad was astonishing in both volume and depth of thought. I received more emails than ever before from people wanting to talk to me directly about my thoughts. And I appreciate everyone who added constructively to the continuing conversation online. Since a topic of such complexity contains many different views and ancillary topics, I wanted to take the time to evaluate some of those tangential points in the scope of my original thoughts.

What’s Your Point?

The risk inherent in mentioning optimization, rules complexity, and story vs. rules in a discussion is great. People may fall back into entrenched positions on all sides. So I want to quickly clarify some points that will also frame my discussion going forward.

I do not think optimization is badwrongfun. I personally enjoy figuring out how to make highly effective characters. As a DM, I love using the rules to create encounters that are ridiculous. I just (usually) never write them into a published adventure. When I say that “breaking the rules” of a game (as in finding combinations that are way overpowered) is bad for the game, I am not doing so to excuse game developers for making poorly constructed rules. Rules should be clear and precise and developed with an eye toward compatibility with other rules. However, there are issues with this that warrant a completely separate article.

I do not hate complex rules, or simple rules, or balanced rules, or unbalanced rules. I do not think there is a strict dichotomy between roleplaying and combat, or between story and rules. I do not think “powergamers” are by default bad “roleplayers.”

The point I was trying to make in my previous article was that D&D is a social game, played by people who often bring different sets of expectations to the table. Often the game is played with a group of friends, and those expectations are explicit before the first die is cast, even as they may also be unspoken. If expectations are not met, discussion generally happens quickly (and loudly) to get play back on track.

Sometimes, however, the game is played in a public setting, and maybe with a table of strangers. In those cases, those expectations may diverge wildly. In order for the game as a whole to succeed in those instances, players need to be aware of how their actions interact with the expectations of others. The DM is certainly on the hook for most of that responsibility, but some rests firmly in the laps of individual players.

Growing the Game

I do not have market research data on what RPG players prefer. I wouldn’t know what to do with it or how to read it even if I did. What I do have scads of experience putting my butt in the DM seat at conventions and game stores and game days around the United States, running games for literally hundreds of total strangers over the past 15 years. By helping administer several Organized Play campaigns, I have received direct feedback from players and DMs, hearing their concerns and problems and dislikes (and every so often, their joys and triumphs).

When these diverse people have told me their preferences, or when I have seen their preferences directly at the table, it is overwhelmingly this: they want to interact with the story like they cannot in any other medium. They want to be part of the story. They want roleplaying, and they want combat, and they want to contribute in all aspects of the game. When they leave the table having contributed in a meaningful way to all parts of the game, they leave happy and wanting to play more—wanting to share their stories, and more importantly the game as a whole, with others.

When they lose 20 minutes of the game to the DM and a player sorting through a convoluted rules exploit, they might take an interest. But generally, that 20 minutes is time they would rather spend kicking down doors, joining factions, killing orcs, and stealing pies. When some player breaks the game and presses the auto-win button, most people do not look on in admiration. They do not wish they could do that. They fervently hope not to sit down with that player again. Or they just never come back.

Please Use as Directed

When I was a kid, my brothers and I received a dartboard for Christmas. By New Year’s Day, simply throwing darts at a board was boring. So we invented a new game. It had no name, but it could have been called “Hit Your Brother With the Darts Because BLOOD!” We were potential future Darwin Award winners.

Now if a stranger had never played darts before, and came up to us and asked us what we were playing, and we said, “Darts!” that person would probably swear off darts forever. And so it goes with D&D, minus the several scars from puncture wounds.

D&D is in a strange position, even in the RPG world, because the designers have to recognize that different elements of the game attract different people, and sometimes those play styles and play expectations are seemingly at odds. They wouldn’t always have to be at odds if players acknowledged and accommodated those with play styles different from their own.

The DM Cures All, Until the DM Can’t

What makes RPGs so unique in relation to other game types and activities is the GM. The DM in D&D has the flexibility (and quite literally, the mandate) to make the sure the game runs smoothly. If something is going awry at a table, the DM is responsible for smoothing things over. Sometimes this takes the form of a compromise between two conflicting desires or interpretations. Other times it takes the form of blue bolts of lightning or rocks falling from the sky. Either way, that is the DMs prerogative.

However, the DM cannot always solve such problems with brute force. A player who is ruining the fun of others by using a combination of a spell, magic item, and class feature as an auto-win button in every situation might decide on his or her own to self-censor. If that doesn’t happen, the DM can simply ban one or all of the offensive game elements, therefore returning the fun to everyone, right? Unfortunately not.

This is one of the joys and shames of Organized Play (OP). I could (and probably have) written a dozen articles about the challenges of OP. But I do know that without OP, I (and countless professional RPG designers) would not have been able to break into the RPG industry at all, and my mother would be the only one reading this article. (Hi Mom. Sorry about the whole dart thing. Shane started it.)

Organized Play, in my opinion, is an essential tool in growing the game. It introduces new people to a game, providing DMs where there might not be any otherwise, providing other players where there might not be any otherwise. Essentially, providing the game. In some OP environments, the DMs are restricted in what they can do. They cannot simply ban items. Rocks cannot fall from the sky.

And the games, whether home games or Organized Play games, run on the backs of the DMs. We need new DMs or there will no more games. As my good friend Teos Abadia points out sagely, getting gamers to make the jump from player to DM can be difficult. DMing is both an art and a craft, and even people who would be great at it are often hesitant to try. Throwing these new DMs into a maelstrom of broken combinations is a quick way to dry up the DM pool quickly.

RPG Bingo: Balanced, Unbalanced, Simple, Complex

Much can be said about the world of RPGs and the differences between balanced and unbalanced systems, between simple and complex rules systems. Getting into this tends to retread the same edition-war nonsense that 99.9% of sapient creatures on Earth are sick of hearing.

Honestly, in the discussion of how breaking the game breaks a game, those differences are largely irrelevant. D&D is going to be a game—regardless of balance or simplicity or scope—where some people will find a way to break something. It might be easier to break a game with a more complex, unbalanced system, sure. But it will be done with any version of D&D because D&D, even at its simplest and most balanced, is going to contain options and elements that allow for breakage. It might be winning every combat in a single turn. It might be getting a Diplomacy check so high that you could convince the giant god Thyrm to join you for a steam. (Look it up.)

The truth is, anyone with opposable thumbs and an Internet connection can break a game. In AD&D and 2e you had to do it yourself, and with 3e and 4e all you needed was the right URL. If I had a nickel for each time this one player in my home game arrived with a character co-opted directly from some CharOp (Character Optimization) forums, I would at least have the GDP of a small central European nation. I am hoping that with 5e he at least learns how the different parts of the optimized character actually work.

Wrapping It Up

D&D is a social game with complex rules (relative to other activities a person could pursue). You can absolutely play the game, enjoy the game, and find others who enjoy the game focusing almost entirely on the rules. There can even be a lot of story involved in such a game. I’ve run and enjoyed many such games.

Even as we play characters that straddle the line between merely highly optimized and totally broken, we should never lose track of who else is at the table. We don’t want the DM to hate playing. We should always make sure the other players were having fun, even when we are players ourselves.

Because even those who totally break the game in their own ways love the game. We should all want everyone to love the game as well, longing to come back to the table. And to do that, we need to make sure that everyone feels like their characters are the heroes that the game wants them to be.


  1. I mainly DM, because I love creating the world, planning the plot twists, and designing the encounters. But it really turns me off to the game when a player comes to me with a crazy character just because of an exploit. I don’t ask that my players write novels for their backstories, in fact I rather they have vague backstories so that it can be unified with the plot more easily, but when their character’s personality boils down to a clever combination of rules…it’s missing the point of the game.

  2. alphastream says:

    I ran the Legacy of the Crystal Shard launch weekend adventure at a gaming store. I had a great table, except for one player. This player was only there to obliterate enemies placed before him, with no concern for anyone else at the table. Where other players were considering options, he could only see charging into combat… and would not listen to any other idea from the other players. Where other players would speak to NPCs and each other and actively form the narrative, he only would speak of mechanics and how broken his PC was. He actively talked over the others, pushing his style and preferences over the other players.

    I’ve DMed for a while, so I was able to handle the situation such that he could have a good time without ruining the fun for the table. But, it was a challenge. Where I normally could have spent my mental capacity (or what fills in for it) on vivid descriptions, improvisation, and helping new players, a large part of that was diverted to handling the trouble player. Don’t be that person.

    In contrast, a number of my best friends and favorite RPG players are amazing optimizers. They can build insane things. And yet, when they show up at the table they know how to respect others and they understand the game isn’t theirs to own. They see the social side of the game and respect others. As a result, a casual player at the table would never know their mastery or their domination of the game. When the chips are down and the game calls for excellent tactics, when all is almost lost, when we are playing Lair Assault… that’s when they turn on their skill and valiantly rescue the party. Even then, they often do it in a way that causes other party members to shine. Those are the most impressive and skilled players I know. They have truly won at D&D. Another winner: the player that is able to reject that call to optimize outright, because they don’t need to excel mechanically to win at the game. My hat comes off to both of these types of players.

    Shawn, I’m curious whether we will see more in this series. Do you plan to offer tips for handling situations where one or more players are ruining the fun? What can DMs and players do? What should happen in a home campaign versus organized play? What should the community be doing about the issue? Can we work together to lessen the problem?

    • Shawn Merwin says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Teos. I do plan to talk more about this, answering many of the questions you pose. The problem now is talking about all the things I want to talk about. 🙂

  3. I totally understand what you’re saying. And honestly, I don’t think this article was strictly necessary. I think the clarification you offer and mostly to answer to those people who took your meaning wrong in the last article. And I think in general, those people were spoiling for a disagreement because it thought your last article was very clear and totally not antagonistic to optimizers who do so in good faith. Having said that, I don’t much care about broken characters, because I don’t play organized play and as the DM I’ll “fix” their characters right quick. I like to give as good as I get and if the players don’t like that, they’re at the wrong table. In general it’s not a problem though. I think the social contract of private home play is a strong stabilizer. People are less likely to be douchebags to their friend than to perfect strangers.

  4. What I’ve seen far more than losing 20 minutes to a rules exploit is a player being unable to do anything meaningful in the game for 20 minutes or an hour, because he chose a PC that didn’t happen to have any ability to interact with the current situation, and the design of a lot of class-based games seems to perpetuate this. You talk about players wanting to be part of the story, and it’s completely true – but what prevents that, in my experience isn’t optimization (which usually accompanies hyper-specialization), but game design which is happy to give one class tools to interact with every aspect of the game in a serious way, but another is limited solely to a specific arena, usually purely for the sake of tradition or pleasing some perceived audience.

    • I think the author is mostly talking about D&D though. And thankfully, it’s not one of the games you describe. Players have never been limited to what the game gives them (although modern editions have often felt that way). Every class in D&D style games can interact with pretty much every area of the game (no class has a monopoly on exploration, investigation, or combat). The expansive general use of ability checks ensures that pretty much any class can attempt whatever they might be able to imagine to overcome any given scenario. The players you describe tend to suffer when they only look at a character sheet for what to do, for the enumerated abilities the game gave them. But this is a fault of the player in the case of games like D&D, not a fault of the system. D&D isn’t one of those types of games. It tried to become one more recently, but generally the market rejected that design turn and the game has returned to a philosophy that what you can do shouldn’t be limited to what’s on a character sheet.

  5. I love to hear your thoughts, Shawn! Thanks for the continued posts on Critical Hits. I’ve missed it.

  6. I think more than any specific degree of optimization being wrong, it comes down to how you are approaching the game.

    Are you playing D&D like it’s Magic: the Gathering? I play a lot of Magic. In Magic you spend days and weeks pouring over forums, ordering cards online, carefully building and rebuilding a deck. The actual game with another player isn’t really the game. The game is building the deck, the matches against other players are a test of how well you’ve played the real game.

    Playing D&D like that is wrong. Character building is a means to an end. When you come up against a situation that your character struggles to overcome, you should be thinking of what you could have done differently earlier in the session, not how you should have gone with a different “build.”

    Each 5th edition class offers a shake-n-bake set of options for players that want to put no effort into a “build.” The game will be a success if it is not possible to carefully build a character that completely overshadows one of these out-of-the-box characters. So far, I’m happy with what I see.

  7. Sometimes I think the whole MMO thing is what ruined RPGs.

    1. The continued insistence on refining an optimal build.
    2. The emphasis on maximizing time spent to in-game virtual rewards.

    When you’re someone who likes to take their time and look around – maybe for the first time in an MMO, or just because (w/o goofing off with too much role playing) really conspire to make for a bad experience. Some players just want to rush through the current raid in the hopes of getting a particular drop from the boss at the end. The whole thing becomes an exercise on mechanical repetition and optimization.

    And the first item – well we’ve all seen the contentious message board posts and extensive online guides for how to best “build” your avatar/toon etc. Basically a few optimal builds are suggested – and each person playing that class is pretty much a clone of the other with slight variation.

    These two things are laudable to a much larger degree in MMOs. They signal a certain one-dimensional approach when it comes to paper-and-pencil RPGs – and a ton of the flavor and a lot of the reason people play paper-n-pencil RPGs is lost. It’s not always about having the rogue who can score the highest damage with a sneak attack in absolute terms – it’s about getting that sneak attack in that does enough damage at the right time, and having fun with the other people you’re playing with while doing it.

    In most MMOs it’s important to optimize so strongly for the mechanical aspects of the game – because that’s _all_ they model. Sure they might have “crafting” – but really that just ends up being a mini resource gathering game you can play instead of, or alongside the quest trees and combat main game. In D&D and other paper-n-pencil RPGs it’s easy to have aspects of play that can’t be modeled easily in a CRPG. The rogue might climb up a pillar and drop down, death from above style to get his sneak attack off… The party might push over a statue to crush their foe. They might negotiate with the orcs to avoid combat.

    All of the sudden the variety of play available is so much _more_. Just because your fighter doesn’t have a 20 STR, and a specific weapon and armor set – doesn’t mean the game can’t be fun, and that your character doesn’t have something else going for him.

    Ultimately for paper-n-pencil the rules are no substitute to a DM’s remedy. OK – so they have the uber-version of whatever class they are playing; you can always present challenges that specifically short-circuit their exceptionalism…. Maybe their greatness attracts more enemies – maybe some demon lord wants to possess their body – no matter how you slice it their exceptionalism will draw attention – much of it unwanted.


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