Roll an Intelligence Check: Optimization and The Magic Circle


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Twinking, munchkin gaming, power-gaming, Min/Maxing these are a few of the (negative) terms used to refer to the practice of character optimization. Judging by the fact that this practice has so many pejoratives with which to refer to it, it would seem as if this is a practice scorned by many members of the gaming community. My question is why?  Why take so much offense to character optimization? The only truly “valid” answer I could come up with is that optimization breaks the magic circle. To optimize a character requires a player to minimize the base traits that your particular character won’t need, while maximizing the ones that most benefit the role your character will. To do this a player must understand several things:

1)   How the game utilizes base player stats for roleplaying and combat

2)   The functions of each character class, their features and how these processes work

3)   The world/environment

4)   The relationship and interactions of items 1,2 and 3

When a player understands these things they are then capable of effectively optimizing a character.  The character will be highly specialized doing a very small number of things very well and being mostly useless for everything else.  It is the inherent ineptitudes of an optimized character that most people object to, often claiming that no “real” person is that [insert derogatory remark here].  Inevitably the optimizer is accused of some sort of banality, breaking the game or cheating or not being fun or some combination there in.  It all comes back to the perception that the optimizer has broken the magic circle.  As I explained earlier, optimization requires a player to (at the very least) have a good working knowledge of the rules and mechanics of the game being played and the world being played in to effectively optimize their character.

For example I once played in a Pathfinder campaign who’s setting was sometime in the early to mid 19th century on an alternate earth in which the catholic church became the world power and united all European nations under its rule.  There were guns in this world but they were for the most part single fire pistols, muskets and rifles.  Now traditionally Pathfinder does a poor job of dealing with firearm damage and this aggravated my DM he wanted the threat of being shot by the enemy to be a terrifying prospect. As a result he decided that we were going to role-play firearm damage, shots that would be lethal in real life were to be lethal in the game. To me this translated as headshot = kill shot.  Fortunately for me that’s exactly how it worked out.  With this knowledge I built my favorite D&D character to date Trik Farrunner a 7th level gunslinger/1st level Alchemist.

I wanted to abuse the fact that gunslingers in pathfinder get to utilize their dexterity modifier for both Hit and Damage that meant I was going to need a High dexterity score.  I hated the fact that the firearms in the world were essentially terrible and required piles of feats to make them work so instead I invested skill ranks in craft and knowledge skills and a feat to boost them so that I had a plausible reason to have more advanced firearms than were normal for the campaign. Because I was going to need skill ranks and crafting and knowledge checks are derived from intelligence scores I was going to need an above average score there as well. The gunslinger as a class utilizes his wisdom modifier to determine the number of “grit points” (utilized to power gunslinger specific abilities) they have so my wisdom modifier had to be at least two.  We were utilizing a 25 point buy system so that gave me perfect control over my stats and a lot of points to work with.

Immediately I binned charisma all the way to 7 knowing I wouldn’t be doing the talking for my group because one of them always plays a rogue, giving me 29 points to work with.  I then binned strength to 8 because I had no intention of getting up close and personal with any one for combat and could engineer other solutions to strength-based problems I now had 31 points to work with. This allowed me to but a dexterity score of 18 (costing me 17 points leaving me 14 more to spend) which would be my primary stat.  Next I bought an intelligence score of 16 (costing another 10 points leaving 4). I then realized to have the necessary wisdom score of 14 I needed 1 more point to spend so I dropped my constitution score to 9 figuring that I could dodge and or shoot any threats to my health. I then allocated my stat bonuses for being human and the two bonus points awarded at levels 4 and 8 to my dex score leaving me with the following stat block

Strength 8

Dexterity 22

Constitution 9

Intelligence 16

Wisdom 14

Charisma 7

Further as a result of my allocated skill ranks, my characters back story and several gunslinger class features I also started the game with a simple six shot revolver. This gave me a dramatic edge in the number of rounds I was able to fire compared to other gun wielding characters in the campaign (a ratio of something like 6:1.5-2).

All of this allowed me to deal with most combat situations as if I were a one-man army, it wasn’t uncommon for my party mates to each kill 1 enemy in the time I dropped 6-10.  As a result of good optimization I turned our DM’s boogieman of potential insta-deaths into our biggest asset in combat. I also dominated the knowledge and research based portions of game play as well. But interaction with other charters often boiled down to “tell me what I want to know or I’m going to shoot you” or “he didn’t tell me what I wanted to know, so I shot him” and ultimately led to many, many dead NPC’s and one dead party member.

The point I’m trying to make is that optimization does not so much break the magic circle as it validates it.   To optimize one must accept the rules laid down by the magic circle and then utilize those rules in such a fashion as to achieve a desired end. By accepting the rules and operating strictly within them it becomes possible to play the game so efficiently that achieving objectives is of little real difficulty.  Its not cheating is just a different style of play, one that validates and accepts the magic circle in a different way. By understanding the rules that govern the world, it becomes possible to make a bigger impact in the world.

We can extrapolate this beyond a story telling RPG and into an MMO. In most MMO’s the initial mode of play Is PVE, this is how one levels their character and acquire better gear so that they may then effectively engage in the next mode of play PVP (which for some players is the only real point of playing). So a player optimizes to minimize the amount of time spent grinding through the low levels and the PVE elements of the game so that they can then get to the PVP where it is almost always necessary to “re-spec” and optimize for dealing with real players and not AI NPC’s. In such environments supremacy is usually established through a combination of skill, optimization and skill at optimization.

With all of this in mind it becomes clear that Optimization is not breaking the magic circle but merely taking advantage of it.  Its not cheating just a different way of playing.  Although it gives the knowledgeable player an edge over the unknowledgeable player it is not unfair as the Optimizer has invested more time and effort into understanding the magic circle and the way it interacts with the objects contained there in. Anyone can learn the rules and take steps to understand the systems most just choose to learn enough to play effectively and not enough to play optimally.

  1 comment for “Roll an Intelligence Check: Optimization and The Magic Circle

  1. Haley
    April 18, 2013 at 4:04 am

    “With all of this in mind it becomes clear that Optimization is not breaking the magic circle but merely taking advantage of it.”

    While I would completely agree that optimization is in no way cheating since you are, quite clearly, operating within the rules of the game, I would argue that the concept of optimization can come close to Huizinga’s definition of a spoil-sport. Huizinga states that the spoil-sport “…robs play of its illusion … Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community.” I would venture that, for some players, an optimized character threatens the way that play “casts a spell over us,” as Huizinga puts it. You say yourself that when anti-optimization players come across an optimized character, the accusation of “no real character could be so adept at X” is frequently thrown around. For those players, the optimized character represents a break from the world of play, back to a place where the rules of play are no longer intrinsic and taken for granted, but are so blatant the functionality of the rules itself supersedes the “otherness” of play.

    The really fascinating thing about this discussion, to me at least, is that optimizing your character is what makes play itself worthwhile to you. The game becomes more immersive and its separateness from reality is emphasized when you’re playing a character over whom you feel you have precise control, which is what optimization ultimately affords you. So what does it mean if creating your magic circle breaks someone else’s?

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