Monday, December 21, 2015

Why Character Optimization Isn't Bad (The Stormwind Fallacy)

So, there is a term I came up with a while ago to describe certain types of RPG players. That term is the Fluffkin. A Fluffkin is a player who is concerned solely with non-mechanical aspects of a character (appearance, history, etc.), and who believes that the "fluffier" aspects of their characters should excuse them from following certain rules in a game. For example, someone has brought a dashing swordsman to the table. He's charming, quick-witted, and fast on his feet. During combat the player declares he wants to grab an enemy, spin him around, and shove him out of a window. The character doesn't possess the feats to do this, and gets frustrated when informed that that action would take a minimum of two turns (one to reposition, one to bull rush), and it would also draw two attacks of opportunity.

In short, Fluffkins are players who want to treat this game like a novel, with them taking the pen away from the DM whenever it's their turn.

Plot Twist!
Don't get me wrong, I completely advocate players being unique, creative, and putting a lot of work in to create characters with depth, complexity, and soul. However, I am also the sort of fellow who gets irritated when the character that exists in the player's imagination is not the character who exists on the sheet. There needs to be a marriage of rules and imagination, because you are sharing this space with several other people, and everyone needs to be on the same page regarding what they're looking at. However, I have found there are lots of players out there who recoil from discussions of mechanics like Bela Lugosi from a crucifix.

"What do I look like, some sort of rollplayer?" they ask, explaining that anyone who reads through a game's manuals to find the most mechanically optimized method of creating a character is stripping the soul out of the roleplay.

I found out there's a name for this kind of attitude. Apparently, it's called The Stormwind Fallacy.

What is The Stormwind Fallacy?

Well, the full description of this logical fallacy can be found right here. However, here's the short version:

"If you are a player who mechanically optimizes your characters, you therefore cannot be a good roleplayer."

That's not how this works... that's not how any of this works!
Now, let's break that down. Mechanical optimization and roleplaying are two completely separate skills. Some players can do one, some can do the other, and some can do both. More often than not, players can do both, but are simply better in one arena than the other. Like how Mary can churn out heavy-hitting fighters with no sweat, but struggles to play more than the one personality, or the one backstory. Or how Mike is great at coming up with a huge variety of backstories, cultural quirks, and clever motivations for his characters, but anything past level 3 or 4 just makes him seize up as far as his mechanical plans go.

There are two generalizations we can draw from realizing this is a fallacy. The first is, obviously, that someone is not inherently a worse roleplayer if he or she can mechanically optimize characters. The reverse is also true; being unable (or unwilling) to optimize characters does not make someone an inherently better roleplayer.

Always Bring Your "A" Game

Every player should bring a character he or she is comfortable with, and which is something they want to play. However, the rules are how we interact with the game world. That's why it's important to have a character concept, and then to use the rules that allow that concept to do what you want it to within the game world. For other articles you may find helpful, check out How To Build An Effective RPG Character Every Single Time, and The Reason Rules Matter in Roleplaying Games.

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  1. I would argue that mechanical understanding/optimisation is vital to the ability to roleplay your character. If you do not have a good understanding of exactly what your character is capable of, without the use of meta-knowledge, then you have an inherent limit on your ability to play the role that is your character.

  2. For me there's always a marriage of role and roll, if you will. A character is generally going to have an interaction with combat (and the world) that suits their personality.

  3. The way I've always done it is if the flashy Monk wants to push someone out a window a simple CMB vs CMD is all that is need in pathfinder. If I grab someone and reposition them to the window even provoking attacks of opportunity its not unfeasible that they can't correct themselves and tip out the window.

  4. I can do both, actually, and I can explain how. Know how in some (online, pc, console) games you have a tutorial where you play a beefed up version of your character with full armor, the best spells available etcetera? When I come up with a character idea, in this case a dashing swordsman, I create that concept, make it as awesome as possible, and make it the goal of my current character. That's what he's going to be at high level, and the campaign is his journey in which he may or may not be able to attain his goal. In terms of imagination that means he'll stumble more than once, fail his glamorous actions and won't be able to charm the pants off that particular guard who is more interested in arresting him than bedding him.

    In pure mechanics, he simply doesn't have the feats and skills yet to be able to do what he wants to do, or I botched my rolls. Would that stop me from enjoying my character? Not in the least, as long as I succeed sometimes and my character will be allowed to continue on his path to awesome swashbucklership.

    This means I discuss the best (future!) options for my character with my GM and which feats/skills I will be attaining at which levels. Perhaps my GM is even kind enough to award me with items fitting my character's goal, like that beautifully large hat with a huge feather that improves my charisma.

    1. Yes. This. Some of my gaming group rag me for planning my characters out well in advance, level by level. My (usual) GM is a rules-lite, roleplay heavy storyteller type & the group tells me I don't leave enough room for roleplay (they've never complained about my actual character roleplaying; they just complain that my planning "doesn't leave room" for it). Planning ahead means my character can accomplish amazing things, things that leave the other players wondering how. It's not lack of roleplay, it's ambition married to planning and rules-knowledge. I AM a rules lawyer. Not the kind who argues every little thing, but who understands the way things work so that they work the same way, fairly, every time, for everyone. When my GM doesn't know a rule, they make one up, often much different from the previous ruling. Drives me nuts!

  5. Looking back at old posts.

    Definitely good to point out the fallacious thought. I try to keep my crunch and fluff married when I make a character, and have some idea where I want to go as he advances, if only for the reason that the character knows what sort of self-improvement he wants.

    I don't do it because I want power, but because I want my character's stats to reflect what he is in my imagination, whether it's his strengths or his weaknesses.