The Tao of Optimization.
The practitioners of the Way go by many names. God-modders, mix-maxers, munchkins, twinks…I, personally, choose to embrace them all. (Albeit with a little caution for the last one, since it has alternate connotations and I wouldn’t want to disappoint anyone.)
I am all of these things. I am an optimizer. Not just in games, mind you, but games provide some of the clearest examples of the way to optimize, so I’ll be talking mostly about them. Games, bared down to their essentials, are a series of interesting choices.
If you have no choices (as in a game of Snakes and Ladders), then you can’t optimize. If you can’t use any information to meaningfully influence your choices (such as in rock-paper-scissors played against a truly random player), then your choices aren’t meaningful, and you can’t optimize.
But in most games and life situations, you can make choices, and those choices matter, and you can know in advance how those choices are going to matter. So, how to make the right ones?
Step 1: Decide What You Are Optimizing For
This is the crucial first step. Most people assume that the only kind of optimization there is is character-building, for Moar Power. This is wrong. There are dozens of ways to optimize. Some times, for theoretical builds, the decision is made to optimize for a very particular number. You can, in 3.5 D&D, build a horrifying character optimized for damaging charges, who can literally break walls and slay giants in a single rush. It’s a great and interesting challenge for some people to push the limits of the system, to get that number higher.
But pushing for that as your only criteria gets you a character you will never see in play. A 20th-level character that can kill anything on a charge eight times over, but which never gets a chance to execute that charge because they have no defensive or surprise capacity whatsoever, is optimized only for that number on their sheet.
Actual optimization is about trade-offs. You will have multiple competing criteria, and it is up to you to prioritize those criteria. Do you really want to be able to theoretically kill everything eight times over? What if you could only kill things four times over, but now be able to fly, and thus charge a huge variety of things? How about two times over, but able to tank 95% of the alpha strikes you’re likely to encounter, to ensure that you’ll live long enough to get off at least one charge in every fight?
You need to consider the entire ecosystem here. “Will the GM let me play this character?” and “Will I enjoy playing this character?” are questions which are rarely part of the formal optimization process, but need to be considered. Ultimately, gaming is about optimizing Fun first and foremost. And for most people, players and GMs alike, having one invincible combat monster in a party of regular adventuring Joes isn’t fun. (Now, a party of invincible combat monsters set in a ludicrously lethal world, on the other hand…)
Step 2: Understand Your Choices
This is the part of optimization where most people stop and give up. Building a character in the 3.5 flavors of D&D requires navigating a combinatoric explosion of choices. You need to choose from dozens of classes. Your choice of class grants you class abilities that you select as you level up, which you need to select from a list dozens long. (Unless you’re a spellcaster. Then the list is hundreds to thousands long, depending on how high-level you are.) Then you need to decide from the list of thousands of Feats to customize your character. And every choice you make impacts your other choices.
Even in simpler games, this gets incredibly complex incredibly quickly, and it’s often not possible to simply list out all of the choices at once and hold them in your head. This is why the first set of goals are crucial. Building that Ubercharger means sorting out every build choice which can affect your charge damage and just looking at them. Then you do the cost-benefit calculations, stack multipliers as best you can, and let the numbers explode.
For more complex characters, you need heuristics, or an exhaustive set of mental references. For the simple math questions, like “How can I get my saving throws high?”, you can just build and rebuild until you notice patterns. But for the bigger questions you should be optimizing for, like “How can I survive the threats I’m likely to run into?” and “At what level of stacked defenses will my GM say ‘No, that’s ridiculous, build another character.’?” you now need to make your best guess.
Step 3: Make The Choices
This sounds like a vacuous step, but it ends up being a failure point surprisingly often. This is why Step 1 is so important; if you haven’t firmly defined what you’re optimizing for, when it comes time to actually make your choices, you’re likely to wander off. And when you have a huge number of choices to make, it’s usually tempting to calculate up to a given point, stop, and call it done. But once you’ve done the math, you need to actually make the choices. And then…
Step 4: Do It All Over Again, And Again, And Again.
A game is a series of interesting choices, and those choices continue until the game is done. In D&D, you build your character at level 1, and then need to make a load of different choices when you level up.
But as you play, you’re gaining new information. You’re learning which of your optimization goals are more and less important. You’re seeing how different scenarios that you’ve calculated out come out in actual play. You’re learning the quirks of your GM and group. And, in the micro-level, you’re deciding what action you’re going to take with your optimized character, session by session and moment by moment.
In simple, closed games like Tic-Tac-Toe, you can calculate out the optimal path for play to maximize wins and minimize losses. You can’t do that in D&D. Every game and every game world is different, and with the GM at the helm, the world itself will change and adapt in response to your choices.
This, right here, is the real tao, the true way. Optimization is the ongoing process, where you observe “Hmm, campaigns seem to regularly end at about level 7.” and avoid builds which peak at levels 8+, where you observe “Hmm, close-quarters fights consistently shut down my caster.” and build your next character to be able to cast defensively, or often be invisible, or not be a caster at all, where you observe “The choices I made previously were fun, but I could have more fun with different choices, chosen along these metrics.” and then you make the choices.
You don’t have to know everything to follow the Way of Optimizing. You don’t have to calculate it all out in advance. All you need to to is believe that your choices matter, learn as much as you can to inform those choices, and then go out and make them.