This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
In running high level ROLEplaying games, I said:
Optimization isn’t necessarily bad in a roleplaying oriented campaign, as long as it isn’t metagaming optimization. Make sure that any optimization going on in your campaign is oriented toward character development rather than merely character invincibility development.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of in a little reasonable character optimization. Optimization is natural. Players try to optimize their characters, to some extent at least, and you shouldn’t discourage that. What you should discourage in a roleplaying oriented campaign, though, is pure combat power optimization with little or no acknowledgement of the importance of in-character justification for the kind of optimization that’s going on. If you’re starting a new campaign at first level and one of the players comes to you with a character concept that includes the motivation “become as powerful as possible”, you might want to consider asking for more depth to the concept.
What does power really mean to the character? It’s not going to be the same thing that it means to the player, who can sit outside the game flipping through splatbooks and adding up damage totals that occur as a result of combining corner-case quirks in the game mechanics. Whatever kind of “power” (if any) the character chooses to pursue, the PC should not only have a reason for pursuing that power that is grounded in a richly imagined background, but should also be something that makes sense in-game and perhaps provides a monomaniacal focus on a particular type of power that could leave the character vulnerable to other types of power. If the character must be obsessed, remember that obsession lacks strength outside of a very narrow range.
Motivations need not be to gain power, of course, but be wary of the character whose motivation is “to be as effective at defending the innocent as possible”, or some other variation on the “my motivation is just an excuse to min-max”. Where’s the depth in a concept like that? Motivations should give characters reasons to do things that other characters wouldn’t do, or even want to do; they should not give characters excuses to abuse the game mechanics.
In short, if character optimization means “maxing out combat effectiveness by playing stats against each other to best mathematical effect”, you don’t belong in a roleplaying oriented campaign. Instead, you belong in a tactical wargame, World of Warcraft, or a straight-up dungeon crawl campaign. Maybe the megadungeon is for you — which is fine, as long as you don’t bring that style of gaming to a more roleplaying oriented campaign where it can become disruptive.
That doesn’t mean you can’t do some limited amount of combat optimization, of course. It’s entirely possible that a character may be obsessed with achieving perfect skill with a longsword (for instance), but that obsession had to come from somewhere, some preëxisting motivation that drove him to such an obsession (maybe he got beat up a lot in school?), and that prior motivation should serve to monkeywrench the monomaniacal obsession with improving skill with the longsword from time to time (such as by causing him to take risks to protect someone from bullies — risks that might endanger his ability to continue improving his skill with the blade later, such as pitting him against his mentor). More iconveniently for the would-be min-maxer, a monomaniacal obsession with improving skill with a longword won’t help much against rust monsters, or in situations where the character doesn’t have a weapon at hand.
The very obvious key is that optimizations should be pursued for roleplaying reasons in a roleplaying oriented campaign. Campaign-breaking metagaming optimizations just don’t fit into a roleplaying oriented campaign at all, and if you think a player is straying too far in that direction, you should consider whether he or she is really cut out for this campaign in the first place.
That’s not to say that a player has to have a concept 100% fleshed out from day one, though. Sometimes, some nuances of character concept don’t become apparent even to the character’s player until after it has been played for a while. Maybe when a character reaches third level its player comes to you, as the GM, with the idea that maybe the character’s underlying motivation for everything is really a sociopathic need for power over others. Fine. Just remember to ask what kind of power it is, and how that sociopathic need for power over others fits into the concept, and so on. There needs to be a believable characterization beneath that statement, or you’ll end up with just another excuse for min-maxing, which won’t fit into a roleplaying oriented campaign at all.
In a worst-case scenario, you should be able to determine what kind of player you’re dealing with after half a dozen game sessions or so; best-case, the player will be perfectly honest both with you and with himself or herself before character creation even begins. If it takes you six game sessions to figure out that a particular player is a min-maxing combat optimizer who tries to make campaign-breaking characters, there are ways to deal with it. Many apparent blessings turn out to be curses; sometimes a reputation for prowess turns out to be notoriety as people spread rumors about your temper; if you’re too good, brand spanking new adventurer NPCs may seek you out to duel and, when they die in droves, you may find yourself unwelcome in basically every pocket of civilization, and perhaps even sought by the law as a murderer.
In my experience, the best way to deal with disruptive munchkin players in a roleplaying oriented campaign is often to cultivate a GMing style where achieving too much combat power too quickly, without attendant weaknesses, and out of pace with the rest of the group, ends up having increasingly intolerable roleplaying consequences. You don’t have to cater to everyone. Don’t try to please the players who don’t please you.
If you spend all your time bending over backward for disruptive munchkins as well as players who actually engage themselves in the spirit of a good roleplaying oriented campaign, you’ll probably eventually find yourself wearying of GMing that campaign pretty quickly. Would you rather burn out on GMing because of a disruptive munchkin, or just leave the munchkin thinking you’re not a very good GM so that he or she will avoid your games to play with some other GM?
. . . and if you’re very, very lucky, the experience might actually teach the munchkin something, and make a great roleplayer out of a formerly disruptive, min-maxing player. I’ve seen it happen.
Mostly, though, on the rare occasion I’ve ended up with a munchkin in the group, he (I’ve never had a female munchkin) would get sick of a campaign in which dump-statting and powergaming backfire a lot. The player would eventually get his character killed, or develop other interests, or otherwise get out of the campaign and leave us to enjoy the roleplaying experience that was left behind.
It should go without saying that the next time I started a roleplaying campaign he just wouldn’t be invited.