As a player of Dungeons and Dragons, I prefer to roleplay. I like the idea of coming up with a novel character concept and sticking to a personality I’ve devised to fit that concept, no matter what. What can make me frustrating for other GMs, though, is my propensity for focusing on excelling at one or two particular things. Given my understanding of the game, I’ve found it relatively easy to maximize my potential for a couple specific things that fit my character concept, such as the 3.5 edition Scout who could move 210 feet as a move action (that’s 120 miles an hour in 3.5 rules) or the fifth edition rogue who couldn’t fail a search, perception, or trap disabling check thanks to high modifiers and the skill that lets you get no lower than a ten on your check for a certain set of skills.
While this falls short of outright min-maxing–the act of using the game’s rules in such a way to sacrificing things of minimal importance in order to maximize your character’s more important abilities, also known as “optimization”–it can still be a little jarring for people to deal with. Sure, I don’t do something crazy like sacrifice my character’s ability to spell their name right or make friends on purpose in order to increase their total skill, but I’ve clearly found some loophole or another I can exploit in order to game a rather ridiculous benefit. Fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons did a good job of cutting down the potential for loopholes, but 3.5 is the best edition for it since there are so many wonderful ways to break the game if you really want to.
For my part, I don’t really mind it when my players do a little bit of minmaxing so long as they can justify their reasons for doing it or how their character got it. The paladin wants to take a special feat that lets him add his Charisma bonus to his damage in exchange for his ability to use Turn Undead? Sure, we’ve already established he’s got a close relationship with his god since he’s one of a select group of Paladins who serve that minor deity directly so it makes sense that the god would direct him toward being able to better slay evil. The rogue wants a sword made of a material I’ve never heard of, that can only be found and forged on one of the deep layers of the lower plains which technically doesn’t exist in my world thanks to the customization of the planes. Sorry, no can do since the very material itself would be counted as evil and the current laws of Heaven and Hell prohibit the export of materials to the mortal plane. If he wanted to make a trip to one of the layers of Hell in order to get that material, then we could talk. But there’s no way some random shopkeeper in the capital city of a federation pretty much run by a lawful good religion is going to stock a material literally made out of compressed evil. The black market might have it, but then how can you trust it is what you want? And it’s likely they’re not just carrying it around, so you’d need to go on a minor quest to get it and then you have to deal with the Paladin who is already one his last straw thanks to the Hellhound you bought on the black market and trained to be your hunting dog.
Hell, my party’s Scout has the highest Armor Class in the party because his main attribute is Dexterity, the rules allow scale mail to be made into light armor if you’re a particular prestige class (some dragon champion thing that I’m forgetting the name of because I tweaked it to fit my world), and he got reincarnated as a Bugbear the last time he died. He got really lucky and a bunch of stuff came together to put his AC through the roof. If he’d down it on purpose, I’d have taken him aside and told him no since no ninth level character should have an AC of thirty-one (or thirty-five if he’s moving), but it was just the culmination of chance and some custom stuff he and I’d put in the game.
In this case, role-playing and minmaxing work out since the whole theme of this game is to make the players feel like they’re ridiculously over-powered. They’re supposed to be able to reshape the world by tenth level because I want them to eventually fight gods or demons and Ancient Dragons. They’ve encountered plenty of powerful NPCs as well, which helps them feel like their extreme power is more in line with the rest of the world. My big rule is we can work out pretty much whatever they want so long as they can justify it in-game. Which means the Paladin is basically an honor guard of a god, the Scout is the chosen champion of an Ancient Dragon, and the Rogue/Assassin has a dagger that can cut through anything and potentially drain souls, in addition to becoming a business magnate between dungeons. To be entirely fair to the rogue, he’s probably stuck the most to role-playing since he’s not sure how he can make his character as powerful as the Paladin and the Scout, but they all do it really well. The Paladin has been on his current course of serving this god since before first level and the Scout has setting himself up to be a slayer of evil dragons since his conception. The Rogue has had the most change in his character’s journey throughout the two and a half years we’ve been playing, so it makes sense that he isn’t as hyper-focused as the other two are.
As long as your intentions are good and you’re not doing it to break the game or mess with the GM, I don’t really have a problem with character optimization or minmaxing. There’s a fine line between breaking the game and minmaxing, but it’s there and I’ve known plenty of people who have managed to walk right up to it without crossing it. The best ones have always been people who were in it for the roleplaying. I wonder if that’s a coincidence or a startling insight. Let me know if you’ve had cases of good roleplaying going hand-in-hand with character optimization or if your experiences have differed! I’ve love to hear your stories!