Gaming at the Office: I Built My Character Wrong

This is the story of how someone on the Magic: The Gathering team told me I built my character wrong.

It was around 2001 or 2002. I was a designer on the Forgotten Realms team at Wizards of the Coast. Chris Perkins was one of the senior staff at Dungeon Adventures Magazine. Chris ran a weekly 3E D&D game at the office using one of the awesome meeting rooms with the two-sided markerboard (the kind where you’d press a button and the hidden reverse side would scroll into view, and Chris would always pre-draw an awesome map so he could reveal it mid-session). Other players in this group included editor Jeff Quick, editor of Dragon Magazine Dave Gross, periodicals circulation manager Pierce Watters, periodicals editor-in-chief Johnny Wilson, designer Monte Cook (for a little while), periodicals editor Matt Sernett, and editor David Noonan (as a special guest star).

In short, the campaign was a blast, with fun players and a great GM. (Chris is a great GM, and if you ever get a chance to sit in on one of his games, you should do so.)

My character was Droo Darkforge, a grumpus dwarf fighter-rogue. Built like a tank, he wasn’t fast (this is back in 3.0 when dwarves didn’t yet have their “always move at speed 20” racial ability, so he clomped along at speed 15 in full plate), but he was durable as all hell (due to a high Con and lucky rolls, Droo had 75 hp points at 6th level). This came in handy when Jeff’s elf barbarian and Dave’s human monk ran ahead to start a fight, Droo wouldn’t arrive until round 4 when those two were close to dying because of their low AC, and Droo would clean up with some Cleave and sneak attack.

Because the game was at the Wizards of the Coast office, and because many people there tended to work late hours, that meant we sometimes had people stop in the doorway and watch our game for a while. In one case, a member of the Magic: The Gathering team stopped by, watched a bit, then stepped into the room. Because I was closest to the door, and because I had an illustration of my character, he started looking over at my character sheet.

And out of nowhere…

Him: Your character is wrong.

Me: What? [I had been paying attention to the game, not him, so I had no context for his comment.]

Him: Your character is wrong.

Me: What are you talking about?

Him: You didn’t build it right. You should put your best score into Strength. Strength is best because it lets you do the most damage.

[For reference, Droo’s stats at level 12 were; Str 16, Dex 12, Con 20, Int 11, Wis 15, Cha 7.]

Me: But this is how I want him to be. I wanted him to have a really high Con.

Him: But Strength is better.

Me: But this is how I wanted him to be.

Him: But Strength is better!

At that point, I turned around to focus on what was going on in the game, at a loss for words. On one hand, I was thinking, “This character is exactly how I wanted him to be.” On the other hand, I was thinking, “Who the hell are you to tell me my character is wrong because I’m not trying to maximize damage?”

That conversation has influenced a lot of my thinking over the past decade.

Just remember: Just because your character isn’t optimized doesn’t mean you’re “doing it wrong.” The objective of an RPG is to get together with other people and have a good time. If that means you’re the damage-dealing barbarian, the healer, the enchanter, or the pacifist, if you’re having fun and you’re not ruining anyone else’s fun, you’re doing it right.

greet fighter drawing

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28 thoughts on “Gaming at the Office: I Built My Character Wrong

  1. There is a certain entertainment value in playing a high quality character, or one that’s better able to contribute to a variety of challenges. Obviously in this case, a Fighter/Rogue isn’t necessarily that optimized, nor were the party’s tactics (2 PC’s run ahead & get KO’d), so “optimization” likely wasn’t a concern among the group, and the guys complaints were very minor in the end. Since as we know, if SKR really wanted to be “optimized”, he would’ve simply played a wizard with color spray, sleep, etc.

    Better characters would indicate higher ability to do more things, do the things you want better, and thus quite likely it would make things more “fun”. So I think I can understand the notion there, as well that in the RPG world of options, there’s going to be inferior choices (unfortunately). Especially to older games that have dreaded “Trap Options” (shudders), it does create a “playing it wrong” as defined what need to be capable of to complete level appropriate challenges in the game. So for example, if a party’s composition ends up underperforming, that will reflect in the gameplay, and the DM will likely have to accommodate for the underperforming to the games standards.

    {The objective of an RPG is to get together with other people and have a good time.}
    I agree entirely, I’d hope any social event as such would be entertaining. Though the way one has “fun” can be quite subjective, and easily not even be because of the game itself (which is why if anyone ever played a bad game, still had fun). I feel people should get the fullest experience of the game they’re playing, and if want to change it up after such, more power to them. In the End, however the group wants to have fun sounds good to me, so long as they’re well informed in the process.

  2. I hear you. My characters are ALWAYS wrong to those guys. Glad to know it’s not just us mortals outside of the game design corridors who have to deal with that kind of color commentary. No, scratch that: I’m not glad. It’s kind of depressing that the problem penetrates so far.

    • People lending their opinion to what is/isn’t optimized will go everywhere. Optimization itself, isn’t a bad thing, the true horror lies in games that more or less force it, less the gameplay punish us for it. Optimization is a tool to allow ye to play what ye want to the best ye can. It sometimes allows some fun ideas into the fold, albeit can also sometimes reveal ones that aren’t so doable.

      I’m not so sure we should shame Optimization, more we should shame the people themselves.

  3. The glory of tabletop RPGs over MMOs. There is no optimal build for tabletop characters because a good DM will tailor games for whatever group he plays with unlike the static quest lines of computer games. I love tabletop RPGs because the rogue doesn’t have to be DPS, the fighter doesn’t have to be a tank, and the wizard can fight in melee. Even the cleric can adopt other roles than “healer”. Good gaming groups come from teamwork, synergy, and a handbasket of good ideas and quick decision. Did I already mention you need a good DM? Suggesting character changes or directions to take is fine but no one should try to dictate who “your” character is. Game on people.

  4. So the stories of WotC gaming police have been greatly exaggerated, it seems. No crack swad of trained operatives fast-roping in from the ceiling. No flashbang grenades. Just one guy appears over your shoulder chastising your character build. In their own headquarters, no less. Tsk, tsk. I’m disappointed.

    Apparently the author and I both build our dwarves wrong. I love having my 20 Con score and something great to go with it, like regeneration or damage reduction.

    So, by the criticizer, is it supposed to be Strength first to do the most damage, Dexterity to have an initiative mod to use that damage dealing before the enemies can attack, Intelligence for the skill points, and everything else is a dump stat?

  5. A character *cannot* be wrong. Not that they’re always right – but that’s another story…
    Recently (Way of the Wicked) I came across a focus and foible system for rolling a character. basically, pick one strength, one weakness, and roll the rest in default order – no swappies. This ensures you can still do with your character what you intended (you can still have your high-dex rogue) but he WILL have some unexpected results. If done right, this helps generate a background for your character; we had a flame oracle who used his low constitution to tell a story: he suffered bad burns in youth, weakened as a result, but obsessed with fire ever since.
    This system has made some of the most interesting characters I’ve ever seen – because of their evident weakness.

  6. Those kind of people annoy me for different reasons. My absolute favorite class is the magus. I love the idea of a mage as a melee combatant weaving spells and swordplay together into a unique style of fighting. Because the class centers around channeling spells through weapons, you can have many potential flavors of characters based on the combination of spells and weapon of choice. There’s also many ways to flavor them, such as playing samurai or a Thor-type character. I personally played magus like a rogue that turned invisible, sneak up on someone, and whacked them with his Large bastard sword.

    However, most people play the magus the exact same way — Dervish Dance with a scimitar that spams shocking grasp — because it’s “optimal.” For many, any other way to build/play the class is garbage. They’d laugh at the idea of using two-handed weapons or enhancing ranged weapons using arcane pool. I had one guy who so adamantly believed in the optimal way to play the class that he staged a pointless argument that arcane pool doesn’t work on ranged weapons.

    The thing that bothers me the most is that these individuals have tainted opinions of my favorite class. I’ve talked to many PFS GMs that hated the class because every magus was the same. I encountered a couple of them that banned the class from their home table. Not because they thought it was overpowered, but because they’re so sick of the usual cheese with the class. It’s bad when someone insults the way you build your character, but I believe it’s even worse when players that fetishize optimal builds ruin opinions of an entire class.

    On another note, I’ve seen streams of Chris Perkins DM an annual celebrity D&D game with the folks at Penny Arcade (Poor Wil Weaton split the party and got eaten by a gelatinous cube). He is a great DM. One of my favorite moments involved one of the players making a big heroic speech talking down at the bad guys. While the player continued his speech, Perkins calmly reached into his bag and planted a mini onto the battle map without saying a word. This provoked one of the players to interrupt the speech with “OH SH** They got a devil!”

  7. I’ve been in your position many times Sean. I still haven’t come up with a good response in that situation so i tend to do what you did and focus back on the game.

  8. I’ve had this happen before. Like Sean, I typically start by appealing to the person’s ability to realize that “the most optimal build” is not always “the most optimal character for me.” That different people play for different reasons and have different desires for what their character represents.

    But when they insist I’m wrong, I usually look at them and say, Ok, so I’m wrong. Deal with it.

    • I can concur with that, sometimes if ye want to play a more peculiar character, that might not be THE optimized model. Though you can still optimize to best allow to make said peculiar character. I don’t think people telling some they’re “doing it wrong” is good way to go about it, though getting defensive about isn’t either. Since it’s not a personal attack, but a criticizing of those ideas, not the person itself.

      • True enough. Just cutting them short so there is no more discussion usually is the best way to go. But then you do have those guys who want to constantly discuss it, so much so, that they follow you into the bathroom telling you about how you should build your character. Ugh!

        I do believe, though, that there is a wrong way to build your character. This largely comes from my PFS experience. If you build an uber-optimized, multi-level-dipped monstrosity, and don’t have the ability to NOT ruin other people’s fun or NOT steal other’s spotlight. Then you ARE doing it wrong. And in many cases, simply building a character like that in an environment where you don’t know what kind of player you are going to sit next to, is doing it wrong. Because you should be building a character that could sit next to any style and be ok. But perhaps that’s just my bias after being burned by too many asshats.

      • very true. That attitude often leads to some really obnoxiously powerful builds that makes it difficult to have fun as a GM.

  9. And the players fail to realize that if their characters can have some really obnoxiously powerful builds, so can the monsters and NPCs.

    Oh, your character is a badass monk from the Far Off Temple where he learned to master Tiger Monkey Phoenix Dragon style. That’s fine.

    Is that a copy of my character sheet?

    This? Oh, it’s one of many other monks from your temple who all are just as skilled in TMPD style. In fact, (*plops down a stack of that same sheet*) it’s time for a class reunion.

    • That’s unfair to monks, they have it rough as it is, without their Tiger amulet artifact buff, they’re nothin. Weaker classes encourage optimization as they underperform, and even have a due date which they start to fall under (sadly to say as that is, not all classess are equal).

      • It’s not a slight against monks. In fact, he may not be talking about D&D at all. He’s saying there’s no point in optimizing for its own sake because the GM can simply ramp up the difficulty or use the same build against them.

  10. {That conversation has influenced a lot of my thinking over the past decade.}

    I have to ask a couple questions, because the post leaves some room for interpretation.

    Was your takeaway from this to hate officious jerks, or to hate optimization? While they can of course exist in the same person, that doesn’t mean all optimizers are jerks or that optimizing itself is bad. But you’ve said you don’t especially like balance, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch if you also don’t like optimization.

    Isn’t there such a thing as legitimately “doing it wrong” with a build? Obviously a jerk is doing it wrong regardless of build, but it has nothing to do with builds. And deliberately trying to break the game is not cool, whether you’re a player or a GM. But deliberately trying to be as weak and useless as possible is equally uncool, even if it’s for the sake of roleplay. Is it not? (Not that Droo was any of those things.) Isn’t there a “sweet spot” of making a non-jerk build?

    Is it not possible to optimize for something other than damage? Your Droo seems pretty well built in terms of defense–AC, HP, saves. So this is a secondary fault of the Officious Jerk, for failing to know that a damage build is not the only way you can optimize. You can just as easily build an overpowered defensive or control character.

    Lastly, what if the choice to build for widely varying damage output is not a good choice to offer people? (Especially considering there are only two ways to make those choices–math or flavor–which can often create frustrating catch-22s.) Some posters have pointed out that optimization can be a necessity when dealing with weak classes or underpowered feat trees. This suggests two things to me. 1) That optimization is a useful tool, and 2) The fault lies with the game itself. Optimization only exists because there are poor choices, weak classes, weak feats, creating a high level of granularity in character power (regardless of role). Optimization exists to navigate that granularity. If someone were to apply a similar design philosophy of your critical strike rules (remove the outliers) to the rules of the game in general (tone down the wide power range), that alone would have a significant impact on the amount of optimization that is possible, and might also as a side effect tamp down jerky behavior. If people know before even sitting down to play that someone’s build is most likely viable, they’ll be less likely to say anything.

    • {or to hate optimization?}
      It’s funny you bring this up, and I’m glad to see another in this regard, I’ve actually discussed this w/SKR before:
      https://fivemoonsrpg.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/five-moons-rpg-its-a-team-game/comment-page-1/#comment-2483
      Little bit here as well: https://fivemoonsrpg.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/five-moons-rpg-its-a-team-game/comment-page-1/#comment-2484

      {Is it not possible to optimize for something other than damage?}
      I always find it weird how often this is brought up, considering there are far more optimal methods in terms of character power in 3E (SoD’s, though I guess even CoDzillas are optimizing their damage..to no detriment of everything else because: spellcasters). So I think I agree with you here, there are better things to care about.

      {Optimization exists to navigate that granularity.}
      (salutes) I hear that.

      {Isn’t there a “sweet spot” of making a non-jerk build?}
      Unfortunately, the classes that seem to achieve that are spellcasters. Where with good spell choices you can play them as is quite adequately, and not need to optimize further (especially if currrent game conditions are limiting you). Whereas the noncasters more or less required to optimize to stay relevant throughout the game as you mentioned (without DM pity).

      I thank you for posting this hudax, I think this is good thing to indicate to others, beneficial help move things forward.

    • {Was your takeaway from this to hate officious jerks, or to hate optimization?}

      The take-away is that I don’t like other people telling me how I should build or play my character.

      {But you’ve said you don’t especially like balance}

      Actually, I never said that. I said that “balance” is a concept that you can’t measure when comparing different types of characters. It’s one thing to say that damage build A is balanced against damage build B because they deal comparable damage. But you can’t compare A or B to healing build C or D, or enchanter build E, or buffing-bard F, or combat-maneuver monk G and so on, and decide whether or not they are appropriately “balanced” against each other.

      {Isn’t there such a thing as legitimately “doing it wrong” with a build? Obviously a jerk is doing it wrong regardless of build, but it has nothing to do with builds. And deliberately trying to break the game is not cool, whether you’re a player or a GM. But deliberately trying to be as weak and useless as possible is equally uncool, even if it’s for the sake of roleplay. Is it not? (Not that Droo was any of those things.) Isn’t there a “sweet spot” of making a non-jerk build?}

      Is playing a character who is a pacifist “doing it wrong”? Is playing a cowardly character who doesn’t want to fight “doing it wrong”? As I said at the end of the original blog post, “if you’re having fun *and you’re not ruining anyone else’s fun,* you’re doing it right.” And if your party has a damage-dealing barbarian, and your pacifism means the barbarian looks even better by comparison, isn’t that fun for both of you? And if the healer isn’t having to work extra hard to keep everyone alive, and keeps everyone alive despite the fact that you’re not contributing to the damage, isn’t that fun for both of you?

      {Lastly, what if the choice to build for widely varying damage output is not a good choice to offer people?}
      {Optimization only exists because there are poor choices, weak classes, weak feats, creating a high level of granularity in character power (regardless of role). Optimization exists to navigate that granularity.}

      Except when the paradigm of the game doesn’t require you to be optimized to succeed or have fun. Then, optimization is just for bragging rights, or to make you feel more powerful than the other PCs (you’re competing against your *allies*), or to show that you can break the game. None of which are the point of playing: getting together with friends to have a shared good time.

      • {Is playing a character who is a pacifist “doing it wrong”? Is playing a cowardly character who doesn’t want to fight “doing it wrong”?}

        If the game doesn’t support those concepts? then in a way, yes. For cowardly, if it means most of the game is about combat, and his character is about avoiding such majority of the game… then kinda yeah. Similar in how a game all about social/politics, and someone playing a character about avoiding it, or a Star trek game where doesn’t want to be part on the ship w/the party to explore new worlds. Can’t force them to participate, but shouldn’t trick themselves into playing PC’s that don’t interact w/majority of the game, or its content isn’t (properly) supported in the game in question.

        {I said that “balance” is a concept that you can’t measure when comparing different types of characters.}

        I imagine thats fair, since ye mostly want to compare the various types of characters to the challenges and encounters they will face in the game. For something like the Fighter, they have few type of characters they play, so could be roughly placed the type of things one would suggest ye should do based on that character.

        {Except when the paradigm of the game doesn’t require you to be optimized to succeed or have fun.}

        I wouldn’t say it’s for those allotted reasons below. It can be done to allow one to play the type of character they want to the fullest. To get the full experience of the game they’re playing, and possibly even be the best damn teammate they can be (especially thecase of a support-type character, optimizing to give best results for his team).

        I’ll be grateful to have a game that produces viable PC’s on average, ecstatic even. Though optimization also serves to show what other possibilities are in the game that others may not have considered (or if they did, maybe unsure how best go about it). Which can expand the games playspace and show how much more there is to it than initially realized, and those make for worthwhile discoveries.

      • {If the game doesn’t support those concepts? then in a way, yes. For cowardly, if it means most of the game is about combat, and his character is about avoiding such majority of the game… then kinda yeah.}

        I’d file that under failing to understand that the premise of the game is “get together and have fun with your friends.” If you get together to play Monopoly and on your turn all you do is pass, you’re not really there to play the game that everyone else is playing.

        And I hope it’s been clear from all of my blog posts that Five Moons is not a game where “most of the game is about combat.” :p

      • {And I hope it’s been clear from all of my blog posts that Five Moons is not a game where “most of the game is about combat.” :p }

        (laughs) Fairly clear I’d say (its one of the games goals after all), least in your intent. though off-hand, don’t recall seeing too much that talked about how intended those other parts of the game to be represented. Your Social Combat for instance, seemingly a reflavored combat we’ve yet to see, or still in an unfinished state (last we were informed anyway). I’m not entirely sure how your game intends to: “Reward roleplaying, adventuring, and social interaction instead of focusing on damage output in combat.”

        {you’re not really there to play the game that everyone else is playing.}
        Lastly, I think all what you said there kinda encapsulated my point. If a game doesn’t support that, then ye may be forcing something the game isn’t meant to replicate in the stories its seeking to tell.

      • {The take-away is that I don’t like other people telling me how I should build or play my character.}
        {Actually, I never said that.}

        Fair enough, thanks for the correction.

        {Is playing a character who is a pacifist “doing it wrong”?}

        Honestly, it depends on a lot of things because I don’t know the context. Are we just goofing around, or is it a serious campaign? Are they doing it to be contrary, or as comic relief? Are they disrespecting the game, or roleplaying? Are they compensating for their pacifism in some way, like filling an essential non-combat role?

        So… maybe, maybe not, depending on the situation.

        {None of which are the point of playing: getting together with friends to have a shared good time.}

        No argument here.

        {Except when the paradigm of the game doesn’t require you to be optimized to succeed or have fun. Then, optimization is just for bragging rights, or to make you feel more powerful than the other PCs (you’re competing against your *allies*), or to show that you can break the game.}

        I respectfully disagree.

        Whenever there is a range of potential, people will optimize, regardless of whether it’s necessary. Some people, not just jerks, find optimizing a fun thing to do, in and of itself. Some people just want to see what is possible, or if something can be done better. This has nothing to do with bragging, competing, or game breaking. Leave that to the jerks. It’s information. It’s a method of learning about the game and design.

        Optimizing is also useful because if something undesireable turns out to be optimal, or vice versa, then it shows that a rule needs to be changed. Because sometimes what optimizers figure out DOES break the game, purposefully or otherwise. But then the game is forced to improve (ie: 10 minute work day and various fixes). It may feel like the game has an antagonistic relationship with optimizers, but I think it’s actually an evolutionary relationship.

        Take the MTG guy. Obviously his commentary was inappropriate and unwelcome, but it should spark questions. What is wrong with the game that another person who designs games thinks STR is the only way to play? What is weak about other roles that so many people think damage is the best and/or definitive role? Even if the answers are “nothing” then I posit you wouldn’t have wasted your time thinking about the questions. And clearly you have thought about them considering the features Five Moons will have regarding skills, social combat, and anything else that will beef up non-combat, non-STR characters.

        It might sound like I’m an optimizer myself. But I would never play a character “just because it’s the BEST build.” I need a much better reason than that. I’m also not particularly good at it. Many obscure rules-acrobatics I’ve seen on the paizo forums are things that would never occur to me no matter how long I were to study the game. However, I have found myself forced to optimize some things, some of the time. It isn’t fun for me to underperform (even if the “bar” is just my personal expectations that has nothing to do with other players). It isn’t fun for me to build a character for flavor and then discover I paid too high a price for that concept.

        I once played a 1e game with a GM who seemingly had no problem with my concept of a “boxing cleric.” It was fun until about level 5. Then combat tables kicked in and I couldn’t hit anything. Suddenly whole sessions went by without a single hit. (GM’s advice: you’re a caster now. Me: didn’t you understand my character concept? I have 18+ STR and nominal WIS. You said I could do this.) In retrospect, I blame myself for not knowing the 1e rules, and for assuming the GM would actually work with me. My character was exactly how I wanted him to be, but the game itself started disagreeing with his viability.

        My first 3e experience was building a DEX monk. My first mistake: I thought weapon finesse granted damage as well as hit. Sometimes I see what I want (and I’ve wanted that for 15 years). So my monk needed some corrections. Part of this process was the GM saying exactly what that MTG guy told you–You need STR. But I want DEX, my character is agile. If you want to do damage, you need STR. Grrr.

        My takeaway was I don’t like the *game* telling me how to build my character. In the face of that, the only option is optimization (or rewrite the rules–a deceptively massive undertaking). I’m an optimizer of necessity, in order for my goofy ideas to not end up being un-fun for me.

        I hope you can see why Five Moons is important to me. A system I don’t have to fight with tooth and nail to do whatever I want (or worst case: what I want is flat-out against the rules). That is pure excellence. :)

  11. I was just using a monk as an example, as, at least in flavor, they can have some of the widest ranging, most badass sounding titles out of the martial classes. Whether that flavor actually translates to actual rules in one game or another is another thing. 3.x had quite a few monk builds, some of which were seen as more optimized, ie better, than others. Insane speed buffs, insane numbers of attacks each of which could trigger additional effects, crazy high AC. And plenty of people to tell you that it’s the only way to play them.

  12. I remember that! As ultimately silly and irrelevant as that kind of comment was, it was a common sentiment from the “the other side of the building.”

    Memory lane tangent for people who weren’t there: Back in the day, WotC RPG R&D cubicles and what was called card R&D (mostly M:tG) cubicles were on the same floor of the same building, but separated by a mid-building block of utility space and walled-in offices. It provided a tangible separation between two very different mindsets. A lot of disdain got thrown both directions.

    Smash cut back to the present: As frustrating and narrow as that kind of thinking can be, I learned a lot from it when I worked at Wizards. “Wrong” was the incorrect word for what Sean did. But learning why someone would call it that explained a fruitful way to think about games and playing.

    JQ

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