Character Optimisation vs. Story-Driven Builds: Striking the Right Balance

Character Optimisation vs. Story-Driven Builds: Striking the Right Balance

When making character and levelling decisions, players are often faced with a dilemma: should they focus on optimising their character's abilities and mechanics, or should they prioritise story-driven build choices that align with their character's narrative and development? In this blog post, we'll explore the benefits and considerations of both approaches and discuss how to strike the right balance between both.

What’s The Dilemma?

Character optimisation involves crafting a character build to maximise their effectiveness in combat, skill checks, or other mechanical aspects of the game. It often involves ‘min-maxing’, selecting optimal abilities, and synergising mechanics to create a powerful character. This approach can be appealing to players who enjoy strategic gameplay and want their character to shine in challenging encounters.

On the other hand, story-driven build choices prioritise character development, immersion, and narrative consistency. Players focus on selecting abilities, traits, and skills that align with their character's backstory, personality, and motivations. This approach allows for more nuanced and emotionally engaging role-playing experiences, as characters' actions and choices are driven by their unique stories and motivations.

A Need For Balance

The key to a fulfilling tabletop experience lies in finding the right balance between character optimisation and story-driven choices. A player who made character appropriate decisions may find themselves frustrated in combat when their attacks keep missing. And a combat min-maxer may become annoyed when trying to think up some important lore only to be met with nothing. By striking this balance, players can create characters that are both mechanically competent and narratively compelling. 

Do: Prioritise Your Main Stats

In games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, every class tends to have one stat that is most important. For casters this tends to be their spellcasting stat, such as Charisma, Intelligence, or Wisdom. And for martial characters these are usually weapon attack stats such as Strength or Dexterity. These popular rules systems are mathematically balanced for players to have certain stats at certain levels. And a game will quickly turn frustrating if you find yourself missing attacks and your enemies shrugging off your spells, or if each of your attempts to persuade fail only for another player to step in and succeed every time. If you’re truly passionate about a certain build, discuss with your DM about changing the effects of certain stats. For example, with DM permission, you could play a Warlock who uses intelligence, or a Sorcerer that uses Constitution.

Do: Embrace Flavour

Do you like the idea of a smart Warlock who specialises in magic but is terribly shy? Or a fighter who commands a powerful protective spirit that aids them in battle? Consider reskinning existing classes and subclasses with a different theme. A wizard’s spellbook can be a gift from a warlock’s patron. A ranger’s swarm can become a fighter’s protective guardian. The same goes for spells. A fireball can easily become a burst of dark energy, and a magic ‘web’ can become the grasping hands of the undead. Every class/subclass, spell, and ability can be re-flavoured to become something that better suits your character concept. Each class is a set of mechanics that has been tied to a flavour, but it is not restricted by it. Not every musician has to be a bard, and not every ‘bard’ needs to be a performer.

Do: Experiment with Homebrew

With the design and balance of the game in mind, sometimes the best solution to allow you to play a character with both thematic and affective traits is to introduce new things entirely. This may be a specific homebrew class that best embodies your fantasy, or perhaps custom spells or rules systems that everyone can make use of. You don’t always have to sacrifice effectiveness when it comes to your levelling or progression choices, work with your DM to find solutions that will keep you engaged in the game while reflecting the growth of your character.

Do: Find What’s Fun For You (and Your Party)

It's important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Some players may lean more towards character optimisation, while others may prioritise story-driven choices. The dynamics of the gaming group also play a role, as finding a consensus that respects everyone's preferences can lead to a more harmonious and enjoyable game. If you have a natural inclination toward one or the other, there is nothing wrong with embracing what you love. However, it's essential to communicate with the DM and fellow players to ensure that the game's mechanics align with the intended storytelling experience. If the DM has envisioned a gruelling and deadly dungeon run where the slightest misstep might lead to a TPK, then choosing not to optimise may hurt everyone in the party. Similarly, if your DM is after a laid back experience with very little combat and mostly role play and exploration, then it will matter little if your eldritch blasts don’t hit as hard.

Character optimisation and story-driven build choices offer distinct benefits and experiences. While character optimisation enhances mechanical prowess, story-driven choices deepen immersion and character development. Striking a balance between the two is crucial, as it allows for both strategic gameplay and engaging narratives. Ultimately, TRPGs are about collaborative storytelling, and the most memorable characters are often those who combine mechanical efficiency with a rich and compelling story. So, embrace the challenge of finding that balance and enjoy the multifaceted experience that TRPGs have to offer. Happy gaming!

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