Designing ttRPGs with Optimizers in Mind

There are people who like to explore the rules of ttRPGs to see if they can make a character that is optimized–that is, if there is a set of choices they can make which is as powerful as a character can possibly be.

Sometimes, they find ways to make characters so powerful they make the game less fun for any other player who is not similarly optimized, because they can do everything better and faster than other characters, and thus gain all the spotlight time.

(Sometimes this is done through questionable readings of the rules, or throwing logic out the door for a literal reading of rules. Sometimes it isn’t.)

Some games are more prone to optimizers than others, some groups are more prone to optimizers than others, and different designers have different levels of concern and attitudes about the impact optimizers have on the value of the game. There are a few different ways designers of ttRPGs try to foresee these problems and design games while keeping the existence of optimizers in mind. As with most game design choices, they each have their pros and cons, and work better in some game styles, and with some groups, than others.

Here are some different common tacks designers take when designing with optimizers kept firmly in mind.

Just Say No

One option is to tell gamers to not do this kind of optimization, and then state if people DO do this, the problem is with the player, not the game. This has the advantage of not removing or limiting options for players and GMs who don’t have optimizing problems, and being easy for the designer. It has the drawback of being useless to many gaming groups. It’s reasonable to feel such groups should just play with different people, or play a different game, but that’s still a limitation of this method.

Warning Signs

Another option is to highlight options the designer feels are particularly open to unbalanced optimization, so the GM can decide whether or not to allow them, or at least look at their use with a skeptical eye. One huge drawback of this is that GMs and players may consider everything else explicitly “balanced,” and if a designer misses an option (or combination of options) that cause imbalances they may feel blindsided by it. It otherwise has a lot of the pros and cons of Just Say No.

Hard Limits

Hard limits are an effort to circumvent optimizer efforts by stating that there are values or levels of efficiency a character cannot exceed, no matter what combination of options a character has. This is sometimes expressed as a a maximum numeric value for specific bonuses or game stats, and sometimes as an express limit on what percentage of spotlight time a character can receive. Hard limits can be a straightforward way for a game designer to communicate what power level the game expects characters to achieve. They can also feel stifling to many players, who feel there is a logic or realism disconnect that a character who has hit a hard limit can’t exceed it by taking an option that would make anyone else who took it more powerful. It’s also possible for a game designer to fail to place a hard limit on some aspect of game play optimizers can use to still create more effective characters than other players.

Soft Limits

Soft limits are in place when a game attempts to simply not make it possible to exceed the kinds of numerical values for powers and abilities the design expects characters to be at. There may be few or no options for raising the most important values of the game, or the game may not even have different values for different characters. in some cases soft limits games are extremely rules-light, and may depend on a GM to decide when abilities can be used and how effective they are. In other cases they are very much math- and option-driven games, but the designers have made an effort to ensure that no selection of choices can exceed the (often unstated) soft limit values.

Soft limit, rules-light games tend to be very dependent on a skilled GM, and may just end up giving players with the best ability to argue with the GM an edge in power. Some groups find they work extremely well for games with limited run times, from 1-shots to short campaigns, while others do well as long as they keep their heads in a more narrative frame of mind than game mechanical.

Soft limit, rules-heavy games take a lot of work on the part of designers to be flexible and interesting, and still not have combinations that exceed the soft limits. These kinds of games can also often frustrate players who find the soft limit keeps their characters less effective in areas that, narratively, they want to be able to improve, and may make players feel they never actually get better at anything. Also, if the soft limits are unstated and the game has extensive option supplements, later designers/developers/publishers may well introduce things that break the original design’s invisible guardrails.

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on June 23, 2021, in Game Design, Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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