The Optimization Problem

This is a post I’ve meant to write for awhile, but in writing the foundation of Lost Worlds, it just didn’t seem like it was quite time.  The following comment on my post about classes got me thinking a little bit more about the topic:

I think I would prefer the idea of build points being used to create classes.So as not to overwhelm players that don’t have the time/energy to go pick from massive lists of options a set of ready to go classes can be available. Essentially just build points allocated to recreate any one of the above mentioned classes.

To start, I want to give players lots of options, in fact, it’s my number 1 design goal.  The question is, what’s the best way to accomplish it.  The obvious, if somewhat dull answer, is to add more classes, more races, more feats, etc.  Clearly that would provide more options.  I could also move in the direction of what the reader above suggests, which is to break all the mechanics up into pieces and assign them a value – then allow the players to reassemble them into any permutation.  As he pointed out, you could certainly leave class structures in place for ready-made themes, but allow players who really want to customize the ability to mix and match to their heart’s content.  The third method, and this is the method that I’m really championing, is to provide a clear structure for adding an unlimited amount of custom content.

Before I go on, I want to clarify the post’s title a little bit.  The Optimization Problem, as it relates to roleplaying games, is when the game presents the player with an obvious puzzle: to optimize all of its character creation and advancement options in the most effective way.  The puzzle is complex, because there are a lot of potential pieces, which makes working the puzzle rewarding.  Success is easily measured and activates the players reward centers because it accomplishes the same thing as level advancement does – it brings more power and control in the game to that player.  Essentially, by spending time out of game on moving the pieces around, finding unexpected synergies, and even liberally interpreting unclear rules, you’re advancing the power of your character as measurably as you would be adventuring and leveling up.  The puzzle is so obviously present that it’s difficult to ignore!   To some players (not all), it begins to feel like an obligation to solve this puzzle – and so they begin optimizing their characters.

Why is this bad?  For one, since not all of the players at the table are optimizing their characters, the power between two characters becomes significantly out-of-balance.  Second, the challenges that are, in theory, balanced for standard characters, become boring in play.  Optimizing your character when the other players aren’t ends up being selfish, your reward centers are going off because you’ve done a much better job than they have at solving the optimization problem, but you’re spoiling their collective fun at the table.

So what if everyone starts optimizing – does everyone win?  There’s really only two options: The game becomes extremely easy so that there’s little-to-no drama left, or the game escalates to match your powers.  The problem with the former result is obvious – I don’t think any mature person would enjoy playing the game (for very long) when the challenges they face aren’t at all challenging.  The problem with the later result is a little more subtle.  First of all, if the power of your challenges are just going to ramp up to match your party of optimized characters (hopefully nobody’s left un-optimized at this point or they might as well be a spectator), then what really was the point of optimizing at all?  Presumably, if you’ve selected every optimized synergistic power you could find, you’ve probably sacrificed something in terms of theme for your character.  When you level up, your challenges are going to ramp up anyway, so what was the point of the optimization?  And now, if everyone is forced to optimize, the game becomes unplayable for anyone who wants to play it with their theme in mind, or with a standard class, or who simply doesn’t want to solve the problem because they enjoy the depth and challenge of imperfect characters.

So, let’s go back and look at the three methods of customization:

MORE! Options

This method isn’t all bad.  In fact, in my post on classes, I’ve considered whether I want to simply add some extra core classes to provide more ready-made themes for players to experiment with and enjoy.  The main problem with More! options is that at some point the more you add, the harder it is to balance them, and the more likely you are to create obviously superior choices.  This actually has the opposite effect and tends to limit choices. In other wrods, if every level, the game presented you with two choices, and one was always clearly inferior, do you really have much of a choice?  If you had 8 balanced choices, but then you add 1 more MUCH BETTER choice, all that work you’ve done to provide variety becomes wasted.  If the game balance assumes one of the 8 original balanced choices, the new superior choice also starts degrading the game-balance.  If the game assumes you’ll make the mechanically superior choices, then you barely have a choice at all!  The “math feats” in 3.5 and Pathfinder (weapon focus, etc) fall squarely in this category.

In addition, let’s say you’ve somehow managed to create 100 perfectly balanced and thematic choices for your players to choose from.  Your players may or may not have the time and energy to sift through all of them anyway!  If you’ve created 10,000 perfectly balanced and thematic choices, then you’ve made a deal with the devil, and you’ve also wasted a lot of time, because even if there is a perfect thematic choice for a character, how will they find it?  4E D&D suffered terribly from this, since they had the brilliant idea to include race-feats and class-feats, they suddenly needed race/class combination feats.  Now, every splat book that came out had to include feats for the new races in combination with all the new classes and all the old classes too.  You’ve got an exponentially growing requirement for feats, and they’re served up with different levels of strength/weakness, unknown and untested synergies between them, and they’re difficult to find and use by players.  And I’m just talking about race/class feats!  Not only that, if you put all of the onus on the game to provide everything, then you miss out on all the interesting content you could encourage from those playing the game.

Some of you are wagging your fingers saying that players would innovate in a game that didn’t overtly encourage it, and that’s entirely true!  And why is it true?  Because player (and GM) innovation is the most significant advantage of table-top games to computer games in this genre. Why not encourage this by formally building a foundation for it in the rules instead of throwing More! options at everyone?

Build Points

I’m cheating a little bit here.  Build points aren’t really any different from the More! options method I’ve listed above – it’s just an extreme version of it (giving everyone ALL of the options!).  But now the game designer has to do all the work to figure out a discrete mathematical value for every power.  I’m telling you, that really just isn’t feasible.  If you truly have lots of options, those options are going to synergize in very different ways.  They’re also likely to syngergize in ways the game designer never saw or never expected!  This method would certainly give you a nearly maximized level of customization, but it would also practically insist upon the optimization problem to the players.  It would also become a massive design effort for the game designer, who might even have to come up with multiple values for each power, depending on what other powers you already have.

It doesn’t even take a strange combination to break the system.  The designer might not have realized just how good a power might be in play, because who can play test the number of options we’re really shooting for here when we are aiming for this nearly maximized level of customization?

Custom Content

I said that build points for every mechanical feature in the game would be a nearly maximized level of customization, and I say that because it can’t account for all the creative ways a player might find to add something interesting to their theme with a new mechanical power.  Providing a clear framework for custom content, gives you a level of customization only limited by the combined imaginations of the players and the GM.

It also allows the game designer (ahem, the GM) to evaluate the balance of new powers only when they are needed.  You don’t have to come up with and balance out 10,000 options, you only have to balance the 4 new options.  Not only that, you don’t have to play test the 10,000 options.  You’ll play test the new powers simply by playing the game normally.  If you see that the power is damaging the integrity of the game, the GM simply alters it to be more in-line.  In a game that has all the powers clearly outlined in splat books, altering one mid-game is very likely going to cause the player to feel cheated – since it’s robbing them of their victory over the Optimization Problem.  After all, not only are the game designers allowing it, they’re prescribing it by selling you the content in the first place!  The player can feel completely innocent since they had no hand in the broken design, they’re just using the rules provided by the game.  The GM becomes the one ruining the (optimization) fun by denying the player access to content the game provides everyone else!

Since the optimization problem is significantly diminished in a game where custom content generation is normal and play-testing is understood to happen in-game, that feeling of being cheated should be greatly diminished as well.  Now the player has ownership and understands going in that a power might have to be reworked if it disrupts the game.

I’ve said a few times that I think a foundation for custom content is necessary for an RPG.  It’s true to the spark of what I think a tabletop role-playing game all about: freedom from the pick-list restrictions of computer role-playing games.  Not only that, it makes the game design easier, and it frees players from the seduction of the Optimization Problem.

9 thoughts on “The Optimization Problem

  1. Andy

    Really good post Brett. You’re right, solving the puzzle out of game IS fun and can be a little irresistable. In Pathfinder it is a near necessity. It IS fun too.

    I’m thinking we’re on the same page here. IMO – Less classes and less races to start. Especially since you’re not making this to sell it, you’re making it for us to play. We can only play one character at a time anyways. So we can start with one group of characters, in one region, and grow from there. Go to the region next door and see what their culture is like. Be introduced to new Gods and prestige classes, etc. Unlock various achievements there. Find a new weapon type or material. Go on to the next place. I’d bet that every character would have their own unique prestige class as we started out and grew the game. But the idea would be to give your guy powers which relate to his experiences and difficulties in the game, unlocking little additional boosts as we go. Requires a lot from those players who don’t do much out of game though. That’s the big downside I see.

    This is what I always like about going back and playing the 1E D&D clones – you’re liberated from optimization. You are an Elf. Or you are a fighter. Your race/class don’t define you. There are a billion other fighters. Your actions in the game do. Encourages roleplaying as there aren’t already a billion things that distinguish your characters from others. I DO think unlimited more options should open up as you progress and that’s where the combination of “unlocking” powers and prestige classes could really shine imo. I think it is far more rewarding that you gain powers/reputation/etc based on things that happen in the game. But again, that’s hard for the DM and harder for the players. Everyone has to be very invested. I think this makes more time otherwise you could end up with less options and boring characters that are all the same. That would be the worst case scenario.

  2. approximatedfray

    Another well thought through post. Your advocated solution works very well (and from Andy’s comment surmise that it works very well in your team). It is sort of the Scrum/agile method of creating an RPG, and prevents you from building a lot of stuff you do not need since your players won’t use it. With this approach to building you can focus on making great adventures instead. On the other hand sometimes it is fun to construct for one’s own enjoyment…

  3. futuresheep

    Yeah, this one is a slippery slope. Look at DND white box, 3.5 and 4th edition.
    I think all three are valid and separate RPGs due to focus on balance, versus customization.

    I think any solid game will need to do math to balance it at some level, which is essentially a point buy system to some degree. If they don’t it often shows. The only other option is repetitive play testing, which will probably delude the fun of the players after a while. For systems where the math is available it only helps with future customizations for DMs and players. That being the case, do a point buy if you can, try to balance it reasonably, or at least explain the relative weighting used to design the core classes. This can be time consuming but I see this as the bridge between Balance and customization.

    With that system in place you can easily let optimizers play all day creating new classes without breaking the system (and they may even role play more while doing it) and allow RPer’s to come to the DM and say here is what I am thinking, can I play a character like this and not suck, or create one themselves without gimping them too easily?

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      I agree, you’ve got to balance things with some well-designed math. The problem is that determining an exact point value for various powers that break rules in different ways is pretty difficult. I think it requires extensive play-testing unless the rule set is very simple.

      I’d rather, instead, eyeball new powers for the group and give them something that seems balanced to both me and the player. If it doesn’t turn out to be balanced, we’ll adjust on the fly. That way, they can really play whatever they want without having to design it using scores of powers with varying point costs. I don’t deny that design puzzle is fun (for some people), but it has a lot of drawbacks as well…

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