The Min/Max Instinct
Just to make it clear, I’m not denigrating one style of play or another. As a personal preference, I tend to place more value on the role playing side. Yet, I still can’t help myself from min/maxing, at least a little bit.
What exactly is it that drives this urge? For me, at least, it’s partially an urge to optimize. I have the same drive when writing software.
It’s more than that, though. I like my characters, and I want them to do well. It’s also just fun to play characters that are good at something. Finally, in most RPGs, you’re playing exceptional characters, so it’s understandable that would lead to a drive to make your own, well, exceptional.
A Game of Extremes
I’ve long since made peace with my munchkin side. However, I’ve also seen what happens when it’s taken too far. At best, it distracts from the role playing, and breaks the verisimilitude of the game. At worst, it can drag the whole game into the competition for mechanical character perfection.
Of course, that only matters if the role playing and story are more important to you than the min/maxing. If not, more power to you. They are more important to me, however, so I do my best to ensure that it never gets that far.
Keeping the Balance
I’ve developed a couple tricks for making sure that the numbers don’t eclipse the story. The first, and easiest, is just a matter of order.
I almost always come up with a story concept before looking at mechanics. This works to provide a simple sanity check for the generation process. With each new available option, I ask whether it fits the character.
When I’ve worked from the other direction, coming up with a mechanical theme first, I’ve found that the character suffers. It’s like you’ve built a structural framework, and only try to figure out what the final product will look like while molding on the skin. It can certainly work, but, if you’re going for a coherent character, you’re starting out at a disadvantage.
The Road Less Traveled By
Even when my min/maxing is at it’s most extreme, a lot of people never notice. That’s largely due to the fact that, even in D&D, I don’t tend to aim at the usual goal: i.e. killing stuff. I’ve written before about my Fourth Edition Fighter character, Timur. Being the “Defender” was something I took to heart, and he was optimized for keeping the enemy from hurting his friends. From a character perspective, this fit his “leave no man behind” ethic, and his need for companions, having been severed from his people.
I’ve created characters for traveling. I’ve made wizards, focused on Abjuration, that weren’t so good in a fight, but were great at stopping one. I’ve even had characters that specialized in being generalists, able to do just about anything… once.
Having such an off-beat strategy lets me scratch that optimization itch without creating the stereotypical combat monkey. (Yeah, I just put those three words together, and it is the Intwischa band name of the day.) It also lets your character shine at the most unexpected of times, when you probably won’t have a lot of competition for the spotlight.
Speak Loudly, and Carry a Big Hook
Another recent character that I’ve mentioned has been Ailmar Ploughman. I can say, without equivocation, that I made Ailmar as a stereotypical combat monkey, because that’s what the party needed. He killed people. Mechanically speaking, that’s about all he was good at, but he was damn good at it.
However, he was also great fun to play. I played Ailmar with a swagger, and I used a loud, gravely southern accent for his constant boasting. He had equal exuberance for fighting, drinking, and visiting the local house of ill-repute.
In other words, his personality was big enough that his crazy skill at pummeling people with a really, really big flail (named Lucinda, incidentally) didn’t seem especially out of place. The character overshadowed the mechanics. If you’re willing to bite on the hook of the former farm boy living every second of his adventurous life, the rest can disappear behind the scenes.
With all my talk about optimizing him for combat, though, Ailmar wasn’t all specialization. For example, despite the fact that I hardly ever used it, I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of the “Improved Dirty Trick” feat. It fit his character perfectly, despite the fact that just smacking people really hard was almost always more effective.
Similarly, Timur was specialized for mounted combat, inasmuch as you can do so in Fourth Edition (see my previous rant on this subject). This fit his background as a former slave cavalry soldier. Thus, it remained part of him, though he only ever rode a horse into combat once or twice in the whole campaign.
In other words, stay faithful to the character, even when the numbers don’t necessarily work out. Note that I’m not saying to fight the game. Sometimes, characters just don’t work in a given system. Just don’t trade a feature that perfectly fits the character for a +1 to something or other.
Hopefully some of these will help you let the character outshine the numbers. If you’ve got other ideas, let us know in the comments!