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D&D 5E How does “optimization” change the game?

I am genuinely curious what folks find in their games.

I want to say from the outset that I don’t find any play style “wrong” so long as it promotes fun for the table.

but to my question….

If we avoid hard optimization and follow a more casual approach, how does the game change? In other words, if I take some feats for flavor (perhaps not all top tier “effective” or push my prime score mostly without “dumping” everything to an 8?) how does this change things?

1. How much more likely is the party to die?

2. How much more challenging is the game?

3. How much if any is balance improved?

I ask with genuine curiosity from the standpoint of someone who does not greatly care about balance and is happy to be challenged and to retreat from encounters when necessary.

I look forward to learning what others find! I have essentially one primary group of friends and really am most familiar with what we have done and found over the years…

After writing this it occurs to me that folks will say the DM can always adapt. So let’s say with typical published WOTC adventures!
 
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overgeeked

B/X Known World
If we avoid hard optimization and follow a more casual approach, how does the game change?
I think that's backwards. The default is a more casual approach, optimization is something people opt into. Not-optimizing is the steady state of the game. Optimizing changes how the game works.
In other words, if I take some feats for flavor (perhaps not all top tier “effective” or push my prime score mostly without “dumping” everything to an 8?) how does this change things?
It balances things out more. Your character won't be stupid-good at one niche thing but will have fewer glaring weaknesses in other areas, i.e. they won't be a glass cannon.
1. How much more likely is the party to die?
Much less likely, actually. With hardcore optimizers in the party it forces an arms race with the DM. Encounters cannot be balanced and must instead focus on the areas where the characters are weakest simply to provide anything resembling a challenge. So optimizing results in more swinginess and more deaths, not fewer. Not optimizing results in less swinginess and fewer deaths, not more.
2. How much more challenging is the game?
5E is basically easy mode already, and optimizing makes it LOL-mode, so if you default to optimization and pull back from that the game becomes "more challenging" by comparison but it's not really a game that's designed to be challenging.
3. How much if any is balance improved?
Quite a lot. You don't have to worry about the DM accidentally inflicting a TPK with one good hit because they had to tune the monsters so drastically high just to have any chance of effecting the party. It de-escalates the arms race, lets everyone calm down, and just enjoy the game instead of it being some kind of surreal "play to win an unwinnable game" scenario.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
If we avoid hard optimization and follow a more casual approach, how does the game change? In other words, if I take some feats for flavor (perhaps not all top tier “effective” or push my prime score mostly without “dumping” everything to an 8?) how does this change things?

Or if you avoid feats which are, you know, only an option ? ;)

1. How much more likely is the party to die?

It has absolutely no bearing on how likely the party is to die. This is determined solely by how the DM sets up the encounters.

it actually makes it easier for the DM, as the encounter builder is made for standard character without feats and multiclassing which are options, the justification being that people playing in optimised groups always brag about encounters being too easy and the encounter builder being broken. ;)

2. How much more challenging is the game?

IF you read the introduction to the PH with an open mind, the intent of the game is not to be challenging, it's to have fun telling stories with friends, and not optimising, IMHO, brings you closer to this intent.

It does not mean that it's not challenging to characters, but it's very different from making it a challenge to players.

3. How much if any is balance improved?

The power gap between really optimised characters using the best builds and other characters diminishes, so as long as some people don't create silly characters, it makes it easier for the DM to re-balance the game in the end, assuming that he wants a balanced game, which is not mandatory in story mode.
 



[quote cut down to salient parts for size]
1. How much more likely is the party to die?
2. How much more challenging is the game?
3. How much if any is balance improved?
...
After writing this it occurs to me that folks will say the DM can always adapt. So let’s say with typical published WOTC adventures!
Okay, against a constant benchmark of challenge it is. I would say that.. assuming both an optimized and unoptimized party both are relatively similar in having basic roles filled (front-liner, someone with heals, someone with an answer to swarms), the relative 'power' of the party improves about 20-25% when you optimize. Optimization doesn't double or triple your effectiveness, it just enhances it some.

As for likelihood of 'the party to die'... even with a fixed challenge I think the likelihood of TPK still goes up when you optimize. When you have more power, you take on larger threats (and are less likely to run away when the nest of owlbears is 5 instead of 3 like you thought, etc.). There's a tendency in games (not just D&D or even TTRPGs) where as both sides increase in power, the likelihood of victory on one side occurring as a catastrophic route for the loser increases. That seems to play out in 5e -- at low OP failure is more likely to be a 'run away!' or 'they killed Kenny!' moment, but in high-OP the point of failure is often a TPK or one-survivor situation.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
Okay, against a constant benchmark of challenge it is. I would say that.. assuming both an optimized and unoptimized party both are relatively similar in having basic roles filled (front-liner, someone with heals, someone with an answer to swarms), the relative 'power' of the party improves about 20-25% when you optimize. Optimization doesn't double or triple your effectiveness, it just enhances it some.

As for likelihood of 'the party to die'... even with a fixed challenge I think the likelihood of TPK still goes up when you optimize. When you have more power, you take on larger threats (and are less likely to run away when the nest of owlbears is 5 instead of 3 like you thought, etc.). There's a tendency in games (not just D&D or even TTRPGs) where as both sides increase in power, the likelihood of victory on one side occurring as a catastrophic route for the loser increases. That seems to play out in 5e -- at low OP failure is more likely to be a 'run away!' or 'they killed Kenny!' moment, but in high-OP the point of failure is often a TPK or one-survivor situation.
Good answer.

In my experience too, being more optimized while doing an official adventure, makes the party less likely to think of running away as a good option, thus more likely to TPK.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I am genuinely curious what folks find in their games.

I want to say from the outset that I don’t find any play style “wrong” so long as it promotes fun for the table.

but to my question….

If we avoid hard optimization and follow a more casual approach, how does the game change? In other words, if I take some feats for flavor (perhaps not all top tier “effective” or push my prime score mostly without “dumping” everything to an 8?) how does this change things?

1. How much more likely is the party to die?

No difference. Even with a completely optimized group, a DM always has infinite dragons.
2. How much more challenging is the game?

I've run multiple groups, using exactly the same options. One group could handle greater threats so as DM I had to adjust to match group expectations. The optimized group did make it a bit more of a challenge to build encounters. But again, infinite dragons.

3. How much if any is balance improved?

There can be a bit of an issue if you have some optimizers and some that are not.
I ask with genuine curiosity from the standpoint of someone who does not greatly care about balance and is happy to be challenged and to retreat from encounters when necessary.

I look forward to learning what others find! I have essentially one primary group of friends and really am most familiar with what we have done and found over the years…

After writing this it occurs to me that folks will say the DM can always adapt. So let’s say with typical published WOTC adventures!

I don't use published adventures often, but I assume that I'd have to adjust for every group. After all, they seem to be targeted at a 4 person non-optimized party. More players, feats, more magic and so on will affect things.
 

Steampunkette

Shaper of Worlds
Optimization changes the game by... making people focus on the gameplay aspects.

That's it. That's the whole of it. People who are focused in on making sure their character hits the most often possible, hurts the enemy as deeply as possible, gets hit as little as possible, and so forth is going to be focused on that specific aspect of their character. Because that's what their character "Is" or "Does".

Making less optimized characters, or characters designed to do many things, doesn't really -change- that, much. You're still going to focus on what your character can do because you know you'll be good at it. Whether that's covering a lot of gameplay pillars or being -exceptional- at seducing barmaids.

But earnest and deep optimization play is much more likely to narrow your game down than just throwing together characters for fun.
 

How does “optimization” change the game?
It lessens the game. Instead of emphasizing characters, roleplay, and interaction, it pushes the game towards character sheets and numerical bonuses. That being said, it's the nature of the beast, and the game mandates it. I expect players to optimize (within reason) because it's written into the rules. A fighter who can't fight things is not a good fighter.
 


Yaarel

Mind Mage
Optimization changes the game by... making people focus on the gameplay aspects.

That's it. That's the whole of it. People who are focused in on making sure their character hits the most often possible, hurts the enemy as deeply as possible, gets hit as little as possible, and so forth is going to be focused on that specific aspect of their character. Because that's what their character "Is" or "Does".

Making less optimized characters, or characters designed to do many things, doesn't really -change- that, much. You're still going to focus on what your character can do because you know you'll be good at it. Whether that's covering a lot of gameplay pillars or being -exceptional- at seducing barmaids.

But earnest and deep optimization play is much more likely to narrow your game down than just throwing together characters for fun.
Yeah.

The optimized character I had in mind, is one that was difficult to hit. The character had various ways to evade damage, from ac, speed, flight, various reactions, and attacking from a distance. The character was rarely hit. The character kited from a distance while troubleshooting to help teammates in danger.

The slipperiness of the character was super-flavorful and fun to play, and the players liked the kind of support he offered. In this case, the optimization enhanced roleplaying, actualizing the character concept in a vivid way.

The downside was, around level 10, the character was especially vulnerable in a combat encounter with an unusual monster, where all attacks were ranged area attacks with ongoing damage. I dont think the monster was especially powerful, but nature of the attacks werent obvious, we were unsure how to do deal with it tactically, and it seemed resistant to most of our attacks. Heh, we all went down together in the same round. We should have ran away, but fleeing didnt occur to us! Technically, my character might still be alive, because we ended the game after the character teleported away but before resolving the ongoing damage versus defenses, and the character would have been unconscious and vulnerable in an unfamilar place anyway.

Anyway, he was one my favorite characters.
 

tommybahama

Adventurer
An unoptimized party leads to DMs complaining about the five minute adventuring day where the party insists on resting after every encounter. The DM will also complain about whack-a-mole healing of downed characters.

An optimized party allows for the standard 6-8 encounters per adventuring day as they will have the resources (including HP) to meet those challenges without a TPK.

I don't think "optimization" is a useful term. I think "competency" should be the goal. The player should create a competent character that can meet the challenges of adventuring. So no low intelligence wizard that only casts acid spells or low constitution barbarians, both of which I've seen. There are a few traps in character design. A good DM will help the player avoid them or help them fix a broken character build.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
The part about "as long as nobody creates silly characters"?

What do you mean by 'silly'?

I think he meant the part about using a WotC published adventure as a reference, rather than "the GM can always adapt". Say the GM doesn't change the written adventure, what happens?

I think using a standard reference is important, because while it may be given that the GM can attempt to adapt, their ability to succeed at adapting is not a given. Adapting is a skill learned for each rule set, not an automatic success.
 

I think he meant the part about using a WotC published adventure as a reference, rather than "the GM can always adapt". Say the GM doesn't change the written adventure, what happens?

I think using a standard reference is important, because while it may be given that the GM can attempt to adapt, their ability to succeed at adapting is not a given. Adapting is a skill learned for each rule set, not an automatic success.

Oh, well then I don't have a good answer, because (in my opinion) without some DM improvisation the size/level of the party is already a vastly more influential variable than is optimization. Some of the DDAL stuff has guidance for how to adjust the party based on size/levels, but the hardcovers do not. (And in many ways the most powerful tool in the DM's toolbox isn't quantity of adversaries, it's how intelligently you play them.).

And then there's just optimal play, which I think is still a greater factor than optimal builds.

So if the DM isn't going to adapt to any of this there's already so much variability in challenge that I don't think whether or not players optimize their characters is relevant.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Oh, well then I don't have a good answer, because (in my opinion) without some DM improvisation the size/level of the party is already a vastly more influential variable than is optimization.

Fine, but then you can ask, "all other things being equal" - same size party, same level.

And then there's just optimal play, which I think is still a greater factor than optimal builds.

Assume that choices are as good as they can be, given the builds.
 

Oh, well then I don't have a good answer, because (in my opinion) without some DM improvisation the size/level of the party is already a vastly more influential variable than is optimization. Some of the DDAL stuff has guidance for how to adjust the party based on size/levels, but the hardcovers do not. (And in many ways the most powerful tool in the DM's toolbox isn't quantity of adversaries, it's how intelligently you play them.).

And then there's just optimal play, which I think is still a greater factor than optimal builds.

So if the DM isn't going to adapt to any of this there's already so much variability in challenge that I don't think whether or not players optimize their characters is relevant.
I honestly had no earthly idea what you were talking about with “silly characters.”

still don’t as I did not reference them.

the only caveat I had was about a common metric such as a published adventure.

“After writing this it occurs to me that folks will say the DM can always adapt. So let’s say with typical published WOTC adventures!”

that was my only caveat.
 

Nefermandias

Adventurer
I am genuinely curious what folks find in their games.

I want to say from the outset that I don’t find any play style “wrong” so long as it promotes fun for the table.

but to my question….

If we avoid hard optimization and follow a more casual approach, how does the game change? In other words, if I take some feats for flavor (perhaps not all top tier “effective” or push my prime score mostly without “dumping” everything to an 8?) how does this change things?

1. How much more likely is the party to die?

2. How much more challenging is the game?

3. How much if any is balance improved?

I ask with genuine curiosity from the standpoint of someone who does not greatly care about balance and is happy to be challenged and to retreat from encounters when necessary.

I look forward to learning what others find! I have essentially one primary group of friends and really am most familiar with what we have done and found over the years…

After writing this it occurs to me that folks will say the DM can always adapt. So let’s say with typical published WOTC adventures!
That's a pretty interesting question.
Back in the two previous editions, I was really into optimization and I always expected my players to be fully optimized.

But now in 5e? In most of my campaigns we dont even use feats or multiclassing. I believe it's partly because 5e don't come even close to 3e or 4e when it comes to character building, but it's also because now we have a different approach to adventuring, more akin to 2e than WotC era D&D.
Not sure if that makes sense to you though, it's kinda hard to explain.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Optimization changes the game by... making people focus on the gameplay aspects.

That's it. That's the whole of it. People who are focused in on making sure their character hits the most often possible, hurts the enemy as deeply as possible, gets hit as little as possible, and so forth is going to be focused on that specific aspect of their character. Because that's what their character "Is" or "Does".

Another way to think of it is that a character isn't just "optimized". They are optimized to do some particular thing. Optimization tends to lead to characters with a small number of very highly developed tools.

And, as they saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail. Approaches to problems can become pretty formulaic for an optimized character.
 


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