One of the huge debates I’ve seen on gaming boards for role playing games of all stripes is the role and value of “optimizing” characters.
In general that battle boils down to two polarized camps, the “role players” on one side and the “optimizers” on the other side. The first camp believes that conceptualizing a character around a personality, background and set of motivations should drive the player’s character creation process, while the second camp believes that characters should be mechanically optimized to fulfill their adventuring group role, such as striker, tank, healer, etc…
My own approach to the game is definitely more in the first camp than the second. However, when the “concept” of the character I am playing is specifically to be very good at a role that fits with the adventuring group roles, then there’s not a whole lot of difference in the end result of the mechanical aspects of the character, although I hope that the end result is still a very rounded and believable role playable character as well.
I am currently playing three active RPG characters in three separate games. One is in the old D&D 3.5 rules (although we are just now in the process of converting to Pathfinder), one is in Pathfinder and one is in D&D 4e rules.
The first characater is a 3.5 druid. In this case I went whole-hog down the character conceptualization process and ended up with a unique race (half elf / half dryad) and followed a concept path that was specifically directed towards a dryad heritage instead of a typical druid approach. So the result is a bow-wielding druid who has taken all the “Point Blank” feat tree choices and who spends as much time in combat using her bow as she does casting spells or wildshaping. In that sense she is far from an optimized druid. However, she is very effective at the role she has chosen. In the end she is sort of a cross between a ranger and a druid, except that she has all the full spell-casting abilities of a druid. Although she could certainly be more powerful, she is still more than adequate to fill the role she fills in the party.
The second character is a Pathfinder witch, and again I went whole-hog down the character conceptualization process and ended up with a male human witch who has taken charisma as his secondary attribute and operates as the party “face.” Charisma is typically a “dump stat” for a witch and this choice has again, seriously “gimped” the witch in comparision with a “standard witch” build. In this case the lack of optimizing the build has potentially hurt the party, in that campaign we are currently on the verge of a near party-wipe and will likely only survive by abandoning at least one party member to a horrible fate. Still the witch is a very compelling concept character, he is a drug addict who focuses on potion brewing and poisons, neither of which contribute a great deal to combat. But he’s still fun.
The last character is my 4e ranger which I have mentioned on this blog before. When I started playing in this campaign I was asked to build an effective melee ranger, and since this was my first 4e campaign, I did focus mostly on optimizing him for the “striker” role. This is the first character I’ve built that I did really focus on optimizing for a specific party role. Even then I deliberately chose a couple of non-optimized choices because I liked the flavor, but those are fairly minor things (like choosing a spiked chain weapon even though that choice cuts off the opportunity to multi-class the character due to the game designer’s bizarre decision to make this single weapon use up the character’s multi-class option, even though there is nothing remotely class-like about choosing a spiked chain as a weapon.
However, even with the spiked chain and choosing certain options to improve stealth and thievery skills, Kataar is optimized well enough that I would put him up against just about any 19th level optimized 4e striker build out there. It is not uncommon for his attacks to fail only in the case of rolling a 1 on a d20, which is an auto-fail by rule anyway. His damage output is off the scale and he really only has two significant weaknesses, one of which is an unavoidable consequence of choosing to optimize for damage, and the other I am looking at mitigating now. The first unavoidable consequence is that by focusing on damage output, Kataar has something of a glass chin and can’t take much damage. Since we have an awesome healer, that hasn’t been a critical failing so far in the campaign, but I have to admit that his build depends on an awesome healer, so that’s a significant weakness for a truly well-rounded character. His other weakness is related to his lack of good defenses against mental attacks (attacks vs. the “will” defense, to be specific). Because of this he is particularly susceptable to being dominated, and since he does so much damage on an attack, being dominated provides the GM with a powerful tool to attack the rest of the party. This has been a significant issue in at least three encounters over the course of his career so far, and after this weekend when he was dominated again, I’ve decided that I’ve got to do something about this weakness.
Still, even though Kataar is inarguably optimized to fulfill the striker role, I did still do my best to build a concept that makes him a compelling role-playing character as well. And I think I did OK with that since I do get lots of opportunities to role play him as a very unique and, I hope, interesting character even outside of his awesome damage dealing abilities. In a sense he is a sort of sword & sorcery version of The Batman, and I think the rest of the gaming group enjoys that aspect of his concept almost as much as they appreciate his mowing down of opponents in melee encounters.
The point of all of this is that I don’t see optimizing a character for a particular role and optimizing a character for role playing to be mutually exclusive exercises. I do admit that when you’ve mechanically optimized a character for a particular party role, your role playing options are severely diminished, which makes the role playing aspect more difficult to pull off, you can do both. And for those who do focus on optimizing for a role, I would suggest that you can still come up with a great role playing angle as well if you try hard enough.