A DM’s Guide to Optimization

Posted: September 4, 2014 in DM advice, Gaming, Pathfinder, Player options, RPG
Tags: , , , ,


I’ll get this bit out of the way first – if you’re here looking for the ‘best’ build of your favourite character class, or you’re looking for a way to ‘beat the game’, you’re in the wrong place.  Instead, I thought I’d take some time to look at the topic from the perspective of the little guy in the red robes.

If you spend any time on the forums of your favourite RPG, you’re sure to find cries for help from DM’s that just can’t handle that one guy.  We all know who they are.  The one playing the tank capable of dealing a million damage… on their first attack, of five.  The one who, at level one, makes a DC30 skill check… while rolling a 10.  The one who dominates the table, not by force of personality, but by the simple fact that no-one else at the table seems to matter.

Yes, okay, you’re the DM, the one with the ultimate cosmic power, but you obviously can’t just smite their butt down into the lower levels of hell.  Yes, it could appear to be a little unfair, but that’s not the point; the odds are they’d walk up to the nearest archdevil and depose him.  It would only encourage them.

So what can you do?  The advice on those forums varies widely.  Some people argue that the printed modules are created with an optimized party in mind, and that the problem doesn’t exist (it does).  Others will suggest doubling the creature count, to make the campaign more challenging (it also gives them more experience, good luck with that).  You’ll also sometimes see ‘advice’ offered, suggesting that you should just nerf the character by banning certain abilities or feats (a great way to make friends).

Personally, I suggest that you first need to identify the problem.  It’s not always obvious, especially to a novice DM.  Look out for the tank guy carrying 2 sets of armour, so that they can sleep in the lighter set.  This sort of character will inevitably be carrying 16 different weapons, and will always happen to be wielding the correct one before the combat starts.  You should listen for clues amongst the rest of the group, as resentment towards a player who is dominating the table will start appearing quickly, beginning with minor jabs at the way they play, and can swiftly escalate.  Especially be on guard for the guy who wants to bend the rules when creating a character, as this usually indicates that they feel they can get a statistical advantage if you just let them do whatever it is they are asking for (don’t be afraid to say no!).

If you find that there is a problem player/character, the next step is to speak with the player involved.  They won’t always be aware of the problem they’re causing, and it does sometimes happen by accident too.  I made this mistake not too long ago, and realised only when I was leaving the group exactly what the problem with my character was.  Most players will respond well to this approach, and you can work together to rein the character back in.

If it’s an issue with the character itself, the odds are something needs to change.  I recently read a story about a player who created a magus for the first time, and due to a strong build they killing everything in one hit.  In this case, it was the player who had asked for advice, and rebuilds were offered by the community, which led to the character killing things less often, and instead the magus now concentrated on debuffing and wounding the targets, meaning that the rest of the party could get in there too.  Don’t be afraid to ask a player to swap out feats and abilities, but try to find a compromise, as you don’t want a player to have a weak character or one they won’t enjoy playing.  Magic items can sometimes cause problems too, and can be similarly easy to fix.  Again, speak to the player, and let them know how you feel.  The item can always be stolen/broken, and another non-problematic item found.

Sometimes the problem can simply be caused by having a veteran player in an otherwise inexperienced party.  The role of that person should be to teach, not to carry the rest of the group, so encourage them to play a ‘fun’ character instead, as this will allow you to soften the difficulty of everything else to help the newer players get into the game.

Of course, sometimes you also have that kind of player who just won’t understand, or even try to.  This sort of player can be destructive to the rest of your group, and ultimately can break a group apart.  Generally, these players want to ‘win’ at roleplay, something that is ephemeral at best, and that is more suited to a wargame than a RPG.  Do what you can to help the player understand why they are causing problems, but don’t be afraid to ask the player to leave.  This is your ultimate recourse, and isn’t an action that should be taken lightly, but nonetheless it is something that can vastly improve the gaming experience for the rest of your group.

There are of course other ways to deal with these problems, but I’ve rambled on for long enough.  Please feel free to post your own suggestions; I’ve been RPing for a lot of years, but I’m never afraid to learn.


  1. ragingswan01 says:

    Wise words, Rick. I think we’ve all suffered players like this. In my mind, the “arms race” between players and the GM is a tad pointless. After all, if you’ve got a character with an AC of 28 at second level, the GM will just add monsters in capable of injuring you. Then, in retaliation you raise your AC 29 and the GM ups the monsters again. Really, it’s pretty pointless. Just play to have fun and don’t break the game.


    • nocebogames says:

      Thanks Creighton. I’ve been that GM in the past, and I’m certainly capable of targeting a player if I want to. I learned that is as pointless as you say though, because it reduces the enjoyment of the game, for you and the players you target. I don’t want to be that guy again, I just want to tell my story, and have players tell me that they like playing through it. Rule 0, all the way.


    • CrypticSplicer says:

      This is really the worst way to handle these kinds of players. Don’t make it an arms race! Ridiculous. The player only has his AC to play with. Let him have it. You have the entire universe at your fingers! Find other ways to challenge them. Force them to think tactically by introducing traps and other dangerous terrain so they can’t just tank and spank.

      Additionally, I always try to encourage my power gamers to play healers and tanks. Huge damage rolls will make the rest of the party feel inadequate, but every players appreciates that guy that manages to soak up all the damage for them, or the guy that can heal them to full health with a single spell.


      • nocebogames says:

        That’s an interesting way to handle the power gamers, and one that I honestly hadn’t considered. I would say that if you can encourage your players to take on roles like this then all power to you. It’s a great idea, and one that I will certainly try in the future.

        The only trouble I foresee is convincing the sort of players that play optimised characters tend not to like this role. They seem to greatly prefer being the damage dealer, or playing god. It’s not true of all players, of course, which makes me think that I perhaps power gamers and optimisers are not the same thing, something that seems obvious when I stop and consider it for a moment. Definitely something to keep in mind for the future, so thanks for the thought!


  2. Great insight and suggestions Rick. It really reaffirms some things I feel as a DM. The way I run things as we discussed once is far more free form which allows some more room in these situations. I absolutely hate ‘arms race’ confrontation with players, which is agreed as pointless. It gets awkward, the fun stops, the story stalls – we all have been there. As rules only apply to the situations and encounters we create – or are presented – as DM’s, I feel my prime responsibility is to ensure that fun, storytelling entertainment always outrules key mechanics when necessary to important plot elements. That can come from any angle we throw into the mix on top of written scenarios. No matter how extreme a characters tech in any chosen direction, there is always an imaginative solution that can be employed by DM’s to safeguard the game when required. If the players wish to heroically decimate bands of lvl X random encounter fodder when they seem out for a fight that night, let them have fun doing so. We can also beef up not just the quantity but variation of opponents, or introduce some form of distraction or creative side-plot to steer things if required. If Group Hulk Tank is utilising mini-maxed attack strategies and weapon specializations, let ’em rip at times. They obviously enjoy kicking off and 1-hit-killing bugbears so let them have some fun. When they just go psycho on an important NPC at really inappropriate moments, you can get creative in any way you need to to keep the plot alive before things get too crazy.


    • nocebogames says:

      I completely agree with your comment AbbeyRoadTemplar! Having fun is where it’s at, and every player at your table deserves the opportunity to let rip at some point, doing whatever it is they do best. I’ll happily throw a ton of mooks at a party if that’s what they seem to like, be it as fodder for your tank, or kindling for someone else’s wizard. It’s the reason I always ask for feedback from my group so often, particularly when we’re getting started.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s