Friday, May 3, 2013

Some Things Can't Be Unseen

     There comes a point in roleplaying games beyond which there is no return. Much like the shadows in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the arrow in the FedEx logo, and how 3.14 is just PIE backwards, character optimization once understood cannot be forgotten. Furthermore, the path towards optimization is a slippery slope. You want to come up with a cool character concept. And you want that character to shine. But it’s hard to feel like your concept aristocrat/wizard/monk is shining when the RageLancePounce Barbarian next to you completely mauls the Elder Kraken in a single round. Once you see that, once you witness that there are builds that DO things and builds that DON’T, it changes your outlook on roleplaying games and you can never go back.

     I come from a background of competitive Magic: the Gathering. So I’m quite familiar with the concept of builds that work and builds that don’t. If your goal is qualifying for the Pro Tour, your card selection criteria isn’t going to be based on what cards look the prettiest. But when I joined Ricky & Jeremy’s 3.5 game in the mid-2000’s it never occurred to me to apply that sort of logic to roleplaying games. I was told to bring a 14th level character. So I rolled up a Rogue 6 / Cleric 8 who could throw a bunch of knives. I put about 15 minutes into the character sheet and about 12 hours into writing up his background. My first full attack dealt against a CR appropriate threat dealt a whopping 7 points of damage. Next up was the Transmuter Wizard who ended up Disintegrating  an Adult Red Dragon. It was a high level game, and that session I felt more useless than trail rations.
     After that experience I began to see things differently. I found out that there were class features that were complimented by feats and that synergized with abilities from different classes. I discovered what Damage Per Round meant and what Party Roles were for. It was more than just learning to play the game, it was learning to game the system. In hindsight it’s easy to see why the road to optimization was so seductive. Better numbers meant a higher chance of success. More successes led to more moments when my character shone. The more my character shone the more validation I felt.
     Soon after I couldn’t peruse a book of character options without mentally comparing its contents with pre-established  standards. How does that feat stack up against Power Attack? Why would I ever use [this weapon] when [that weapon’s] stats are clearly better? Why play a Rogue when Ninjas can do everything they can do and more? These were the sorts of questions coming to the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t think about roleplaying games in a way that didn’t involve making my numbers as high as I possibly could. Hmm… That sentence pretty much sums up my experience with D&D 4th Edition. But that’s a different story.

     I'm not advocating one style of play over another. You'll have to find the right style for yourself, your group, and your game. But personally, I’ve learned to tone things down. I’ve learned to enjoy the crafting of backgrounds again, the allure of storytelling. I’m backing away from the arms race that saw my fellow players punished by impossibly tough encounters because my GM needed to challenge my broken build.  I've found the middle path between fluff and crunch. And you know what? I’m having more fun. I still cringe internally when I hear someone in my group say that he’s rolling up a Rogue. But I let him do it. Because it’s not about the numbers. It’s about the story.

     But I can't go back to looking at roleplaying games from a purely story-based perspective. Whenever I make a choice for my character I'll forever be haunted by the specter of optimized mechanics. I’ve opened Pandora’s Box, eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. I know the state of Schrödinger’s Cat. And I can never un-know.

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