Sunday, April 18, 2010

Min-maxing Versus Building For "Good Enough"

One of the quirks to Dungeons and Dragons is that the player's choices - many of which are very hard to fix through in-game means - actually make a big difference in their characters' effectiveness. Many numbers, like HP, damage, armor class, etc aren't actually all that large, so a small discrepancy can make a comparatively larger difference. The interesting philosophical question is where to draw the line and declare your character "good enough".

Case in point, the very first decision I had to make in creating my new bard was what stats to start with. It is very common for two-weapon fighters to start with 16 Dexterity, even though the two-weapon fighting styles will require a base score (not counting gear and other relatively easy-to-obtain in-game boosts) of 17 Dex. The way to get away with this tactic is to obtain a "tome" that permanently enhances the character's Dex by one or more points before the character reaches the level where not having the missing point delays their development. This way, the character never needs to take an increase that could be directed to their strength (which determines both hit and damage rates) and apply it instead to their comparatively less valuable dexterity.

The catch is that the tomes in question - in particular the Dex tome because of precisely this tactic - are relatively expensive (especially by the standards of what a newbie like myself can afford). After pondering it for a bit, I opted to take a few points out of my Charisma stat (which determines Bard spell points) to start with the 17 Dex so I would not need to worry about it. Of course, the serious builders would tell me that I shouldn't be putting that many points in Charisma to begin with, since higher level content is balanced around hit point totals that are possible if the player min-maxes properly.

In the end, my judgment was that I'd rather build for low stress and settle for running content that's a bit below my level if that's the content that I'm able to beat. I've also spent spell slots on learning feather fall and expeditious retreat (a runspeed buff), even though both effects can be obtained by other means, because having those abilities innately seems appropriate on a character who might secretly be a Fae refugee from Norrath. I might come to regret this approach, but that, I suppose, is what alts are for.


Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

It's actually really interesting to see how a character in DDO feels compared to the pen and paper variation I'm more familiar with. On the positive side, it's interesting to see how encumbrance rules are not terribly important overall. It was common for our groups to do a bit of handwaving, but I've heard others say their DMs required detailed recordkeeping.

On the other side, it's interesting to see how a much of a push there is to min-max a character as you describe. One mistake can hold you back if you didn't plan things out beforehand. You can "fix" some issues later (the equivalent of respecs), but they tend to be really pricey.

When I first heard about DDO, I thought it was a terrible idea for an MMO. Even though I'm playing it now and having some fun, I'm not sure I'm entirely wrong. A lot of people see D&D as a fairly flawed system that only becomes tolerable once you add in some house rules to smooth out the ugly bits. MMOs are usually inflexible, so that eliminates of one of the big advantages of the system from a pen and paper perspective.

Definitely interesting to hear your side of it, though.

Green Armadillo said...

The fact that a new player has to make so many decisions that will have lasting consequences at a time when they have the least knowledge of the rules is probably the biggest flaw I've found in the game so far. I've got something like 8-10 characters in the level 1-3 range that I'm never going to touch again due to how their builds worked out.

Though I'm sure this is something they never talk about, I'd be very curious how much of their mid-high level churn results from poorly built characters. Maybe it isn't an issue, but I can definitely imagine someone quitting a game because their character can't perform and they don't feel like starting over.

Tanek said...

The following statement will not win me any favor with people who understand all the D&D (or, specifically, DDO) stats and know how to build a proper, effective character:

I use the in-game class paths for my builds rather than customizing.

The last time I put that in writing on a forum, half the replies just bashed the path choices and the other half pointed me to "proper" builds and warned I'd ruin my character if I did not follow them. I understand where those replies are coming from, but I am playing the game to have fun and relax in my free time, not to worry about coming up with the optimal character. Plus, I have to believe that somewhere down in the depths of development someone who does know the stats put the path builds together to be "good enough".

You hit it right on the head with "I'd rather build for low stress". For me, I would rather play than build/delete/build/delete/build. That isn't to say I'm not learning as I go. There have been a few times when I've thought swapping a few stats or feats around would have helped in a situation, so I make a note of it and come closer to understanding how I would customize a new character. I have a slot or two saved for when I'm ready to give it a proper try and in the meantime I'm having a blast with my non-optimized, path-following characters. :)

hound said...

This game intrigues and horrifies me all at once.

In my pen-paper days, we never really followed the rules at all. We would at charts and stuff for guidelines, but we never really knew how the games were supposed to be played. The endless stat lists and choices were simply too mind-boggling.

I remember many times when we finally finished a group of characters for the players that there was no time left to actually play, and even when there was, we were no longer in the proper mood. Our heads were mush after all the number crunching.

The Black Isle Forgotten Realms games were awesome with their prefab characters.

What can the online version do for me? It sounds like it is a throw-back to more number crunching. Make a mistake and you are gimped for the entire game.

I have a buddy who tried to play Diablo II once. Towards the mid-game he was having survival problems. Someone told him he had chosen the wrong stats/points during character creation and that he would have to start the game over. He hasn't played it since.

Hellgate: London had a similar system where more and more options opened up but those options were based on your initial character design.

The key to playing and enjoying these games lies in the developers allowing some sort of in-game respecs. You should not be penalized for not knowing the game inside and out from the beginning. I know that hardcore sometimes hate the concept of respecs, but most people just want to play the game.

Tesh said...

I'll just second hound on this. Respecs are a must for a game where choices matter.

Yeebo said...

To be fair, you can always choose a template and not have to dig into the mechanics of the character generation system at all. But where is the fun in that?

I recently restarted on the Khyber so I can hang with all the cool kids, and I have to say your criticism is pretty dead on. Even having a fair bit of experience with the game on my old server, the sheer number of options when I start a new character is a bit daunting. I won't really know if I'm raising a gimp for weeks.

Stuart said...

I think you have to allow for different approaches to the game, both from a dev and player perspective. There is nothing wrong with the paths if all you want is maximum play with minimum hassle. Of course if you spend time to learn the system you can customize a more powerful toon, but thats AS IT SHOULD BE, i.e. you are rewarded for your additional efforts. Neither approach should exclude the other, they are just different strokes for different folks.

FWIW keep in mind that the forums represent a small subset of players who tend towards a specific approach (min-maxing, end-game content, etc), so they tend to look at builds from a limited perspective.

I actually find the term 'end-game' content misleading and somewhat irritating, as if raiding and the like was the only thing worth pursuing.