Creating Sub-Optimal Characters Is Not A Bad Thing
Well… well… well… Chris is gone for the week, taking what he described as a ‘well-deserved’ vacation to San Francisco! Which means you are left here… with me… Stephen. For those unaware, I write The GM Is Always Right articles and am the annoying voice on our fantastic podcast, No INT Here - The Podcast. You should check out both of those!
But, we aren’t here to talk about how great I am, or how the Kobold is the greatest monster to ever come out of DnD. But I totally could talk about the Kobold if you wa-… Huh… you don’t? Fine… Let’s talk about how your choices to create a character that some may call ‘sub-optimal’ is not a bad thing.
Disclaimer: Sometimes it isn’t appropriate to make a sub-optimal character. Some games are set up with the idea that it is for ‘hardcore gaming’ where death is likely around every corner unless you plan smartly. Make sure you discuss with your GM about your character before creating them… and the same goes for GMs, before you put the final touches on your Deathbowl Slaughterfest campaign, make sure you’ve talked to your players about it first.
Before I get carried away into a rant, let's talk about what I mean when I say Sub-Optimal. There are three rough categories for how well designed your character is. There is Optimized, Optimal and Sub-Optimal.
Our Optimized characters are the ones that focus really hard on specific things and they do those things overwhelmingly well. Some players may even get upset by those characters because the Optimized can do things and roll more dice than the other characters thought possible… this leads us to situations when people might get upset and call other classes/races/abilities/etc overpowered and start getting resentful. Though other people may think it is amazing what those optimized characters can do within the restraints of the rules.
Optimal characters are the ones that the designers of any rules system assumed would be playing. These are characters who don’t dive too deep into the nitty-gritty of the rules, looking for ways to make themselves better. When they get chances to improve their main skill, they may not even take it in favor of getting a useful feat. These characters are the general idea of what a player will be playing with in a game.
Sub-Optimal… well, these are the black sheep of any group. These characters are given a list of things they should be able to do moderately well, and then they take that list and start drawing pretty doodles all over it while the rest of the party is calling for their cleric. These characters aren’t built to do one thing well, they are built for the enjoyment of their flaws by the player. They excel in not exceling, and can cause other players to become annoyed by their antics… even if its relatively harmless.
You’re Not In Trouble, I’m Just… Disappointed
Now that we have an idea as to what I mean by Sub-Optimal, we can talk a bit more about why it’s perfectly fine to create a Sub-Optimal character.
The basics to play are: play what you find fun and play what the group will find fun. See most of these TTRPGs we play are all built around playing as a team. Too many players create this badass lone wolf character, and then start bitching about having to play with the party. Other players create overly powerful characters that steal the limelight from other players. In either of those cases, the only person having fun is who we call an asshole. Don’t be an asshole.
Now, it’s very easy to look at those two examples and then look at your kobold barbarian with a negative modifier in his strength and say, “Look! Meepo loves being in a party! And he never steals the limelight in combat cause he can barely swing his sword! I’m not an asshole according to that one dude on the internet! … Why is everyone dead?”
Without me explaining why that guy is actually an asshole, let’s talk about party based games. These games, like DnD, Pathfinder, Stars Without Numbers, Edge of the Empire, and so many others, all focus on creating a joint play experience between a handful of players and the Game Master. This join play experience has an unspoken rule that everyone should respect, even if few people realize it. That rule is: Don’t be an asshole and everyone should have fun.
Technically that’s two rules, but I’m not counting. These party based games should be about creating a mutual fun environment for all at the table and there should be open discussion about that fun at any table. Some players may have the most fun creating a sub-optimal character that can barely speak, let alone cast those 9th level spells. But if that character is ruining the fun of the table, then there should be a conversation and that could potentially mean that that player comes back with a more optimal character.
Getting To The Point
Now, I’ve gone on and on about how everyone at the table should have fun, but I haven’t spelled out why building a Sub-Optimal character isn’t a bad thing. Here it goes: When you build a character that increases the fun for not only you, but the whole table, no choice is a bad choice. By creating a character the increases the fun for all, you are creating the right character.
See, it doesn’t matter how optimal your character is if all it does is mess up the fun for the table. Open discussion and the fun of the table should dictate what kind of characters the players should be making. There is no room for a Sub-Optimal character in a party of Optimized characters if everyone assumes they are all supposed to have Optimized characters. This will only create tensions at the table and decrease the fun for all.
The role that everyone takes on when they sit down at a table to play a party based game is that they are going to place the fun of the table over the fun for themselves, and this doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to have fun. You are part of the table, and your fun is part of the table. But don’t bring an intentionally broken character to the table before talking about it with the rest of the table. Its important that everyone has fun, or else no one is going to have fun.