We recently introduced a new guy into our Sunday game. As he was new to the group and new to the system, he showed up with his character unfinished. This was a good thing, since I always get a better sense of the character’s stats and abilities if I can watch it being built. It’s easier for me to remember their capabilities that way (as opposed to looking at a finished character sheet and hoping I’ll suddenly manifest a photographic memory) and thus, easier and more fun to plan adventures. It also gives me a chance to get insight into a player’s thought processes (again, helping me customize things to appeal to the individual).
New Guy’s character concept was a magical sniper and he needed a few pointers on skills. He’d completely overlooked Stealth, for instance — which is crucial for sniping and naturally, everyone should have athletics. He readily accepted our suggested tweaks because, as he said repeatedly and unintentionally ironically that “I’m not a min-maxer.” If only that were true.
You see, he’d given his character the lowest possible Strength and the highest possible Intelligence (which is crucial for arcane casting). People this is the very definition of min-maxing. When you bottom out something you think you won’t need to afford maxing out something else which you think you’ll be using all the time, you ARE a min-maxer. There’s no point in denying it.
So… now that we’ve defined the terms, here’s where I explain why min-maxing is a bad thing, bad enough to be called a “game killer.”
A min-maxed character is imbalanced, by their very nature. Imbalanced things tend to fall. Sure they can wobble around for a while, perhaps even an extended period of time, but eventually the inherent instability causes them to stumble and fall — unless someone keeps tilting the table to keep them upright. That someone is usually the game master and a good one can keep things balanced almost indefinitely. Over time, they might even start to think that balancing unstable characters is their job. It’s not. It’s the job of everyone at the gaming table to help everyone have a good time — and if you’re only concerned with making your character the best at X, you’re not doing your job. Why? Because the min-maxed character completely sucks at everything except the few tasks they’re optimized for. That generates a lot of slack that the other players have to pick up. If they also happen to be min-maxers, this becomes increasingly difficult. Everyone has more to juggle.
Going back to our sniper-mage… the guy is made out of paper. He’s capable of dishing out truly prodigious amounts of damage but in the trial session we went through (designed to convince him of the importance of rounding our his guy), he got beaten up by a toothless old hobo in ill health. (No lessons were learned, by the way.) The character is unstable. He can wobble around for awhile but no matter how good a shot or how stealthy he is, eventually someone will engage him in melee combat and at that moment his character is dead.
So now, as the game master, I’m put in the position of having to either tilt the table (metaphorically) to ensure all combat only happens at range — or become a player killer. I don’t like killing players. (Wounding, maiming, and severely incapacitating, sure.) It takes time and effort to make up a character. Nobody likes to feel like their time has been wasted. Another reason not to kill player characters is, due to some quirk of min-maxer psychology, they never make the connection that they died due to over-specialization and their next character is even more lopsided, if possible. Therefore, killing them only makes things worse.
I’m trying to make a broader point than just whining about the New Guy, though. Assume that a typical gaming party consists of some combination of melee specialist (Fighter), ranged specialist (Mage), face (Bard), sneak/scout (Rogue), and medic (Cleric) and that they’re optimized for their role and only their role. What happens when they need to cross a river and there’s no bridge or boat they can hire? Since swimming comes up so seldom in most games, it’s the first skill dumped by the min-maxer. What happens when they need to engage in a car (or chariot) chase? The bad guy gets away. Always. (Until somebody makes a racing-optimized character). So the game master now has to juggle things to make sure that the party never encounters any rivers or chase scenes just to prevent a total party wipeout. Worse than that, though… players expect to face challenges they’re good at overcoming. Meaning that the above group needs to not only face melee antagonists, ranged antagonists, heated negotiation, hidden information, and the aftermath of melee and ranged antagonists at least once per session. Moreover they have to face those things without their characters being confronted by one of areas of incompetence. You’d need a difficulty 6 combat encounter for the melee and ranged specialist… but if the face becomes incapacitated then the difficulty 5 interrogation you had planned for afterward is shot all to hell because the other characters can only handle social skills with a difficulty of 1 or 2. (I’m making those numbers up so as not to reference any particular system).
Is this impossible? No. But it takes work. More work for the players and more work for the game master. Eventually, even the most enthusiastic game master gets tired and needs a break now and then. They have to spend at least an hour each week prepping for the game. Is it your fault they have to spend an hour and a half instead? (Maybe not, but it never hurts to ask these things from time to time). Is your GM having fun? Or are they visibly frazzled and fatigued?
Are you in a group of fairly reliable gamers who just can’t seem to keep a campaign going? Does everybody want to play but nobody wants to game master? Do your campaigns always peter out after 2 or 3 sessions? It could be due to lots of factors.
But it could also be due to min-maxing.