Why Doing the Best Thing is The Worst Thing You Can Do – Part One

Anytime someone talks about “the right way to play” a roleplaying game there is inevitably someone else who cries foul, and says things like: “there is no such thing as wrong fun!” Which is stupid, because there absolutely is such a thing as wrong fun, it’s just that different people have different opinions on what wrong fun is, and these are my opinions on what wrong fun is. So if you are reading this and you disagree with me then all that means is that we have a different opinion. I’m not saying you can’t have fun playing however you like to play, I’m just saying that I probably won’t have fun playing that way with you, and that’s fine. That’s not your problem, it’s my problem.

So, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, what do I mean when I say “doing the best thing is the worst thing you can do?” Well, I’m actually talking about a few different aspects of gameplay when I say this, but in this article I’m going to focus on what I mean within the context of character creation (in Part Two I’ll talk about other things, obviously).

And in this context, when I say “doing the best thing” I’m talking about doing the most mechanically advantageous thing, often referred to as Min/Maxing (minimizing disadvantages/maximizing advantages). When I create characters mechanical considerations are only a minor part of the process, and certainly not the first thing I think about. All too often though I see characters where mechanical advantage is the sole consideration. The initial character concept is something like: “I want to do as much damage as possible,” and the rest of the creation process is just selecting options that help realize this goal. Race, class, and weapon options are just window dressing, while skills and feats are just a means to an end. The resulting character is typically devoid of character, with a personality that is just the embodiment of whatever racial stereotypes happen to be associated with the chosen race. Sure there are exceptions to every rule and maybe the right player can cajole some personality out of a character created this way, but it will be a much more challenging task than roleplaying a character that was created more organically. Think of it like navigating a vehicle obstacle course in a monster truck versus a sports car – it can be done, just not very well, because the monster truck was designed with a different, singular purpose in mind: crushing monsters (Get it? A monster truck! Take that, you mixed metaphor naysayers!).

“But wait!” you cry, isn’t doing as much damage as possible the whole point? To some people it certainly is, but I don’t play with those people because to me it isn’t the whole point. To me, the whole point is creating an interesting character, and I’ve already discussed how that rarely happens with the “mechanics first” approach. This doesn’t mean I want a character that is incompetent – I like doing damage to monsters almost as much as the next guy – I just get there in a different way. When I create a character, my character concept is character driven, not mechanics driven. What the hell does that mean? It means that the character concept isn’t defined in game terms, but rather in terms that a person living in the game world might use to describe himself or his goals. Instead of saying “I want to do as much damage as possible,” I might say something like: “I want to become the best swordsman in the world.” The difference may seem subtle, but it’s actually quite significant. Becoming a great swordsman is a character’s goal, where as creating a character that deals a lot of damage is a player’s goal.

Another important difference between my concept and the mechanics driven one is the word “become,” which also ties in to why doing the “best thing” is the worst thing you can do. Another thing I see a lot of that irks me are beginning characters that are made and played like they are already big damn heroes and the absolute best at doing whatever they do – right out of the box. How boring! It’s been said of journeys that getting there is half the fun, but in a roleplaying game getting there isn’t just half the fun – it is literally all of the fun. When you create a character without any obstacles to overcome or challenging, character driven goals (sorry, getting the next feat in your feat chain doesn’t count) you severely limit your roleplaying potential and do your character and your game a disservice. What are the long term goals of the guy who just wants his character to do as much damage as possible? Kill enough monsters to get to the next level and do even more damage?

Yawn.

While that may be enough motivation for some people to play the game it just isn’t enough for me. Now let’s take a look at the other concept. We know what the character’s goal is: to become the best swordsman. Already we know, obviously, that this person isn’t the best swordsman, and maybe he or she isn’t even a swordsman at all. But why is this the goal? There are dozens of answers to this question, and each one gives us a very different direction we can go with our character. Maybe the character or those she loves have been bullied and she wants to be a great swordsman so she can stand up for herself and others. Maybe she grew up hearing legends about mighty heroes, and wants to be just like one of her idols. Maybe this character is seeking revenge on the six-fingered man who killed his father. Or perhaps the character comes from a culture where might makes right, and skill at arms is the surest path to honor and glory.

My favorite out of these examples is the second one; Immediately I imagined a character who at an early age saw a great knight in person. I imagined that this knight was passing through a community, and told the children – one of whom happened to be our character – tales of his adventures. Perhaps this knight even defeated an owlbear that was plaguing the local farmers while he was in town. Furthermore, let’s say that this hero was a paladin of Lathander, and a knight of The Order of the Dawn. So, why did he inspire our character to want to become the best swordsman he could be? Because he inspired our character to want to be just like his new hero, and one day join The Order of the Dawn. And since there aren’t any halflings in The Order of the Dawn our character will need to be a truly exceptional swordsman if he hopes to someday join their ranks. Already I know so much about this character and what motivates him. I know that he’s gallant, and that he believes showing bravery – especially when you are scared – is the definition of courage. I also know that he often bumbles things a bit despite his heart always being in the right place, and I know that he is a bit of a local laughing stock because of his ambition, but he tries hard not to let others see how much this bothers him. I have no idea how much damage he deals or what his armor class is and I don’t even care; I already love this character and want to play him. I’ve also given the game master ideas for an NPC and an organization he can incorporate into the game world.

But now let’s take a different tack. Let’s expound a bit upon the last example. I imagine the son of a chief, a character who has to be strong to earn the respect of his tribe and, more importantly, his father. Yet despite significant martial prowess, this character is still looked down upon by his peers, and nothing he does is good enough for his father. This is because he is only a half-orc, and his human blood is a badge of shame and a sign of weakness among his father’s kind. When this character is challenged by a rival and loses he is exiled, either because as a half-breed he does not deserve the honor of death by combat or because of his family’s station. So our character sets out from the only home he has ever know, intent on becoming a master swordsman for the sake of revenge, respect, and a father’s love.

I fleshed out this second example to make a point, because at first level this character probably looks exactly like the character who just wants to deal as much damage as possible: he’s a half-orc barbarian with a high strength and in all likelihood a big ole sword. But the way we got here was entirely different and – just as importantly – the way we go from here could be much different.

Which brings me to the aspect of character advancement. When your goals are mechanical your advancement choices are essentially math based, and your choices are limited to a handful of options that are “the best.” So people sit down at the table with a “character build” in mind, and they have already made all of the advancement decisions that character will make before they ever roll the dice. I knew a guy once who made a first level human fighter, and told me all about how at this level he was going to dual-class into being a thief and then at another predetermined level he was going to switch to being a wizard. The levels he was going to make the switches at were based on certain level-dependent benefits he wanted to obtain before jumping classes. He had it all worked out prior to the first game and the fact that this character would have been terrible – and mechanically inferior to a single classed character – is beside the point. The point is that he had absolutely no idea why the character would want to do any of this in-game. He’d spent hours pouring over THAC0 charts and spell tables and backstab multipliers and never once given any thought to what sort of person would do these things and why.

Let’s contrast this with our half-orc barbarian, recently exiled from his clan and intent on becoming the best swordsman in the world so that he may exact revenge on his rival and win his father’s affections. This character has two primary – and very different – motivations: revenge and acceptance. How these goals manifest during character advancement will depend a lot on this character’s alignment, as well as his interactions with other characters and the game world. Maybe he decides that being the best swordsman means being the most lethal swordsman and to this end he multi-classes and becomes a rogue, taking the path of the assassin. Or maybe he finds acceptance among his new companions and decides that being the best swordsman means being able to protect those you care for from harm. And of course I’m not totally opposed to planning out some aspects of character advancement, in fact I typically have a decent idea of where I see a character going after working through his motivations and backgrounds. Maybe while thinking about this character and his advancement options during character creation I liked the sound of that “protecting your friends” business and decided to be fighter instead of a barbarian so I could take the protection fighting style, and I just took the outlander background to represent my roots as an outsider.

The point is that when I make a character all of my initial and later options come from thinking about the character as a living person, and what goals that person has, rather than how much damage I want to be able to do at tenth level. In fact, a big part of why I prefer fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons over third edition and Pathfinder is that there isn’t a feat tree to consider, and less of your later options are dependent upon your earlier choices. I also love the incorporation of ideals,bonds, and flaws into character creation, and the fact that you can combine background and class together in interesting ways that make your character unique. Conversely,  I hate it when I see people just perfunctorily grabbing a background, barely considering, and then later ignoring their ideals, bonds, and flaws.

I could keep going on this topic but I’ve already went on much longer than I intended and even decided to split this topic up in to two separate posts. So let me just end by disqualifying most of what I’ve said in the last two thousand or so words. I’m not really against a person starting out with a mechanical or rules-oriented character concept as long as the end result isn’t exclusively mechanics driven. It’s fine that “I want to use a two-handed sword” is your starting point as long as you put in the effort to inject some personality and depth along the way, and manage to give that character a raison d’être beyond being a guy that uses a two-handed sword.

In Part Two of this topic I’ll talk about how, similarly, doing the best (most mechanically advantageous) thing during the course of the game is often neither the most interesting or character appropriate thing you can do, and why you should probably do something else instead a lot of the time.

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