This is a follow-up to my System Matters post–a caveat to it, if you will. There are places where the line of thinking in hardcore System Matters, much as I believe in such a thing, can lead you astray, and it’s useful to be mindful of the pitfalls.
The situation I’ll discuss in this post is familiar to many who’ve been involved in role-playing games for any length of time, and I’ll call it “hyperoptimization.” (You might have heard terms like “powergaming” or “munchkin” in reference to these situations. I’m avoiding those terms since they’re derogatory; “optimization” tends to be acceptable to all concerned, with the “hyper” prefix demonstrating that we’re talking about too much of a good thing.) A game presents various options, typically in the skills and equipment available to characters, to customize a player’s approach to the game. Some options, alone or in combination, are more effective at overcoming in-game challenges than others. The better a player understands the game, the better they can find and take advantage of synergies between options, a process called “character optimization” or simply “optimization.” In itself, this poses no problem and is often part and parcel of the game’s fun, but in some cases it becomes hyperoptimization: taking such thorough advantage of game mechanics and options that in-game challenges become trivial, and other players’ and characters’ contributions start to feel inconsequential by comparison.
Such lopsided play can lead to frustration at the table. Outclassed players feel left behind, and players in GM roles responsible for providing adversity and challenge find it difficult to do so in a way that works for both the hyperoptimized characters and the rest of the group. I’m going to leave that much as self-evident; what I’m concerned with is what happens next. If the frustrated players/GM approach a hyperoptimizing player with their frustration, and ask him/her to rein in the optimization, one common response bears all the resonance of a System Matters argument: “The game encourages this kind of play, I’m just doing what I’m supposed to. In fact, folks who don’t optimize could be said to be playing poorly!”
I reject this argument. It’s frequently mistaken, because games can mislead you as to what optimal play looks like, both in degree and in kind. Moreover, it’s a non sequitur rebuttal to what is at heart a social-contract complaint, which sits in a broader, overriding context to that of the game and the play it encourages.
1. Some games mislead you. At times, whether due to poor design or design that’s simply too subtle for its own good, a game looks like it purposefully encourages a particular behavior, but in fact it doesn’t work the way it appears on the surface. The first edition of Exalted was like this: it presented players with a shopping list of magic powers used by characters and their opponents, structured something like the cards in a collectible card game. It even used card-game terminology like “Combos.” This encouraged players toward tactical, winning-combination-seeking play… but the game disintegrates under such an approach. The rules are made for fast-and-loose telling of epic stories, lacking the consistency or rigor needed for tournament-caliber competition. 3:16: Carnage Amongst the Stars is an example of the “too subtle” category: it has lots of optimization-encouraging features, such as a score tally (kills) and Xbox LIVE-like achievements (medals). But the game becomes deadly boring if played to that angle. Instead it comes into its own when players dive into the narrative elements of character flashbacks, exploring how the experience of war shapes the characters. In these situations, hyperoptimization isn’t good play at all. It only pushes the game faster into territory it’s ill-equipped to cover.
2. Sometimes “optimal” does not equal “maximal.” Some games unambiguously and intentionally encourage players to plan and fine-tune their characters for tactical success, but discourage going too far with the practice. Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is a great example. There’s no question that it’s a very game-oriented RPG, and that the design deliberately pushes players to seek synergies between powers, feats, and class features. However, if you go to the utter limit available in the system, building characters who cannot suffer harm, deal enough damage to kill solo opponents in one round, and/or deny opponents any capacity to act, the game breaks down. You may get the surface-level rewards of loot and XP, but you lose out on the deeper rewards of engagement in play. You lose out on making tactical decisions (because your optimal moves become pre-scripted and independent of circumstance), employing teamwork (because allies are unnecessary), adapting to adverse circumstances (because they simply don’t affect you), etc.
In essence, the player who falls prey to issue #2 has mistaken the means by which a game pursues its goals for being the goals themselves. At heart, most of these games seek to provide fun/enjoyment/entertainment for a group of people, and character effectiveness is only one feature in service of that goal. Hyperoptimization undermines that goal, even if the game legitimately encourages you toward it. It’s like playing a first-person shooter video game on “god mode”: yes, you get the rewards of blood & gore, victory cutscenes, and so forth, but in so doing you’ve disengaged from most of the game’s features. Sometimes, attaining optimal satisfaction in gameplay requires that if you solve the game, you adopt some handicap so it becomes challenging again.
Now, note that I’m not saying this phenomenon indicates good design. Discouraging a behavior by causing it to opt you and your fellow players out of the game itself is pretty messed up. And in the specific example of 4e, the balance point can be hard to find, especially in the upper levels. I mean this only as a counterargument to the assertion that “suboptimal” play = poor play. Some players realize, to their benefit, that maximization can be its own losing strategy in the overall pursuit of fun–even when the game makes it a tempting option.
3. The social contract trumps all. In the same circles of RPG theory that most champion the “system matters” concept, there is a structure called simply the “Big Model” that maps out how different features of a game environment interact. At the broadest level of that Model, encompassing everything underneath it and adding more besides, is the “social contract.” This “contract” contains all the rules and expectations of behavior, often unspoken, for the group of people playing the game. These are things like “Jeff brings the pizza on Tuesdays” or “if we find we don’t like this game, we’ll discuss what’s going on and maybe ditch it.” As you can tell from those examples, the social contract by necessity exists outside the scope of the game itself, and its rules can in many cases supersede those of the game in question.
When a complaint comes up about optimization, it’s rarely a thing that can be addressed below the level of the social contract. The complaint arises because the optimization behavior, on one level or another, is harshing on somebody’s fun. The appeal is not “you’re playing the game wrong,” it’s “we’re here to help each other have a good time, and right now that’s not working out.” So while a response of “I’m only playing the way the game encourages me to” is absolutely legitimate in the sense that it demonstrates any fun-harshing was unintentional, it is not sufficient as an argument that the behavior should be allowed to continue. You have to settle it in terms of players’ attitudes toward the game and the expectations within the social setting. When it comes to social contract, it is totally legit to respond to the hyperoptimizer’s rebuttal with “Yes, the game encourages this. Fuck what the game says. I’m saying that this gets in the way of my fun, as a player and as a person, and I’m asking you, as a player and as a person, to cut back.”
We don’t have to range too far afield to get a good allegory for this. Suppose a young woman is teaching her little sister how to play basketball. The elder sister is an accomplished athlete, practiced and fit; the younger is a novice, still learning the basic techniques of the game. The younger sister asks the older, “Hey, could you go easy on me? I can’t learn how to shoot or even dribble if you snatch the ball away as soon as I get it.” The older sister agrees. If she then goes back to a curbstomp of a keepaway match, Little Sis’s objection won’t be that Big Sis broke the rules of basketball, and it certainly won’t be that Big Sis is bad at the game. It’s that she broke the sisterly agreement they had.
Social contract issues at an RPG table are seldom so clear-cut as that, of course. In order for a productive conversation to take place on the matter, both the optimizer and the player objecting to the optimization need to articulate some principle like “players should be willing to compromise in-game effectiveness to make a better play experience for others,” then discuss whether such a thing is reasonable. And it may well be that the difference is irreconcilable, that the level of compromise that would make for a fun game for the objector would utterly wreck what the optimizer enjoys in play. But let us put aside this notion that “optimization is good play, it’s non-optimization that’s playing wrong” is any kind of conclusive response to the problem, for the reasons here articulated!