d20 Failure Modes VII – Optimus Crime

Character Optimization sparks debate in every d20 game from 3.0 to Pathfinder. How much is too much? Too little? What can you do to make the other characters relevant when one player is an optimizer and the others aren’t? (Oddly enough, “what do you do to make poor investigators / speakers / roleplayers relevant when a game focuses on those things” doesn’t come up nearly as often – perhaps because it can’t readily be addressed mechanically, even when the fundamental problem is the same; the players don’t all want to play the same sort of game and are good at very different things).

Part of the problem is that the answers vary from table to table and from game master to game master – and not even consistently within individual games. One game master may not like notable magic, and will have a problem with even slightly-optimized bards while fully embracing optimized rangers. Another may reverse those positions. Some hate high-end social abilities while delighting in characters that can annihilate demigods in battle in a single round. Players with access to different books create wildly divergent characters based around completely different assumptions. Players who focus on creating characters with an assortment of minor powers they find interesting may find themselves left hopelessly far behind by players focusing on raw power – and either may find their characters quite useless depending on the current focus of the game. Players with access to more books and the time to dig through them or to consult optimization boards will find things that simply work well together – and many more things that were badly-written in the first place or were written by different authors and were never meant to work together. Races, templates, feats… the more that were written with no underlying system, the more potentially abusive combinations appeared – not that anyone could agree on exactly what they all were.

An awful lot of campaigns wind up relying on piecemeal house rules – disallowing various books and individual bits from other books, adding unofficial errata, and provoking arguments. A certain amount of that sort of thing is inevitable in any role-playing game of course, but d20 put in more exceptions to it’s general rules with every book, which exaggerated the problem.

To be blunt, this is an area where no one is entirely happy; the game master wants some fights to be easy, some to be hard, some nigh-impossible, and some impossible – and so do the players, but they all want to draw the lines in different places. The combat-as-war types see looking for loopholes in the rules as an entirely valid part of their attempts to ensure that their battles are all foregone conclusions (or at least HEAVILY stacked in their favor), just as most real-world military groups would prefer. The combat-as-sport types see that exact same notion – as well as NPC’s who make serious efforts to survive – as cheating and spoiling the game. The combat-as-a-last-resort crowd is a bit rarer in d20, but they tend to want combat to be fast, rare, deadly, and heavily in favor of the first strike. The “deep immersion” players may not care a bit; they have little to no interest in combat and haven’t actually looked at their character sheets in months anyway. EVERYONE wants their character to be effective and have a starring role at least once in awhile.

Eclipse doesn’t entirely solve optimization woes; participant expectation conflicts can’t really be fixed by rules. Once again, however, it does try to remove some of the mechanical roots of the problem.

The biggest fix is simply that Eclipse – rather like the Hero system – put all the abilities into a single book and looked at how they interacted. That eliminates the access-to-different-books problem, much of the time-to-hunt-through-them problem, and – as a side effect – the “bits-from-different-books-that-were-never-meant-to-go-together problem. (That’s also why Eclipse II consists of examples and ways to use the system, rather than of additional rules).

On the hyper-optimizing side it eliminates most of the stack-six-different-class-abilities-that-all-add-to-the-same-thing problem. While you can duplicate pretty much any character class and any fictional character in Eclipse, class abilities that do the same thing will all be using the same underlying mechanics and won’t stack.

On the badly-balanced-races-and-templates side Eclipse lets you calculate the price of racial abilities as readily as it calculates the value of class abilities – and you can’t take a template that gives you great powers in exchange for -10 Con and then go Undead and negate that problem; having no Con means losing the bonus for the -10 Con. You’d have to scrape up those points somewhere else or give up the powers. Just as importantly, in Eclipse, drawbacks are worth less than bonuses cost – making it harder to take a penalty in an area that your character doesn’t care about in exchange for bonuses in the areas that you are interested in.

On the “single winning trick” front, as was noted earlier in this series, Eclipse makes defense easier than attack – meaning that the rewards of classical optimization are reduced. Building a single uber-trick – the incredibly boosted charge, or spell, or other ability – is much less attractive when your target might laugh it off or reflect it in your face. Effective – and optimized – Eclipse characters tend to be built with a variety of powers that they can combine to solve various problems, good defenses, and a selection of constant boosts and enhancements. If someone finds a combination that suits the campaign especially well, other characters can simply buy it too – and so can NPC’s. After all, everyone is shopping from the same selection of abilities.

Like any point buy system (indeed, like any complex rules system) Eclipse can be abused. There are examples of most of the major methods of doing so on this site. Fortunately, Eclipse also includes a page on how to keep things under control – including the option of assigning an ECL adjustment to hyper-efficient or hyper-focused builds. It also comes with a campaign options checklist to keep all the necessary house rules together; if you think that the Path of the Dragon is too broken to allow in your game, just check “no” – and if you think that buying a Reputation is overpriced, just note that you’re reducing the price. You’ll still need cooperation from your players – but that’s pretty much inevitable anyway.

Now Eclipse WON’T help you deal with badly-written spells and equipment (although using The Practical Enchanter may), or with badly-written skills, social systems, monetary systems, and creatures; it doesn’t cover that – but that kind of background material varies according to the setting and the whims of the game master anyway.

Eclipse: The Codex Persona is available in a Freeware PDF Version, in Print, and in a Paid PDF Version that includes Eclipse II (245 pages of Eclipse races, character and power builds, items, relics, martial arts, and other material) and the web expansion.

The Practical Enchanter can be found in a Print Edition (Lulu), an Electronic Edition (RPGNow), and a Shareware Edition (RPGNow).  There’s an RPGNow Staff Review too.

One Response

  1. […] hundred point strikes will not. There’s a series of articles on that over here that you might want to look at, but Action Hero (Stunts Variant), Reflex Training (Extra Actions Variant), and Luck are […]

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