In Magic the Gathering the concept of netdecking is a common and accepted practice. You pick the right cards, you copy the exact patterns of a designer or champion and you win more. Also, your deck’s vulnerabilities are known as are pairings that are easier and harder for it to handle. Sometimes you know exactly who is likely to win before a person sits down.
Yay for strategy right?
When you focus on a game as a game this approach follows for RPGs as well. “Build Guides” exist for every system under the sun, for most classes and concepts. Want to run an A-list synthesist summoner? You can get your half-elf racial option in bright color coded perfection. Your feats are tiered and your selections prioritized. The optimal progression and point buys are there spelled out.
Not for me.
I am a self-identified optimizer. Yet I don’t generally like “builds.” Why?
Building – The Downside
So I like my characters to be extremely effective. If I giggle with glee when I drop the baddies or outwit an NPC, why don’t I just solely use the guides out there? Some of them are the result of brilliant mathematical consideration. No really, like hours of statistical analysis.
* Core vs. 3pp – Most build guides account only for a game’s basic abilities and mechanics. They are focused on organized play and restricted options. Like a tournament allowing only the newest set of cards for a CCG, this means other tailored options are not accounted for. Compatible rulesets and supplemental product aren’t even considered. In reverse, they might account for open sources your GM doesn’t allow.
* The Known Factor – Ever been in an MMO in the ” newbie zone” and run across someone of your same class? Have similar features? Nothing weirds me out more than sitting down at a Con game and hearing: “What’s your guy?” “Dwarf zen archer.” Awkward silence. “Me too.” “Oh…” “Your friend?” “Zen archer baby… But he is a MOUNTAIN dwarf!” Awkward silence. This HAS happened. Combat in these games can sound like people reading for the same role at an audition. Good roleplaying can fix it but why start off stumbling.
* Retaliation – If a good GM gets a whiff of build-use they probably will find your build and look it over. Particularly if you are an Alpha. If the GM has a mind to curb your behavior you might be in a world of hurt with your weak points often summarized in a paragraph in your build doc. If mediation fails and you become a problem child he will learn your build and the world will arm itself appropriately.
* The ISO effect – When you use a build guide you are committing to hours, days even weeks of game time with a character you intend to completely develop in a vacuum. Keep getting jumped by sneak-attacking rogues but improved initiative isn’t in your build guide? Meet the mysterious leader of the Blue Lotus cult and be offered initiation but your character says no when he realizes it would be a special campaign option he would have to select instead of his recommended one? This behavior WILL result in a character that is less involved with campaign and less believable in the world.
But wait… I said I was an optimizer right? So how do I approach it then?
Shaping vs. Building
For ease of conversation I would like to introduce you to the term shaping. Shaping resembles building with one major difference:
Building – System-driven optimization.
Shaping – Story-driven optimization.
Advancing a character in response to the story can be an amazing experience. It requires an open mind and a willingness to deviate from plans. Sometimes new doors open and the end results are far more powerful than the formula driven ones. Consider:
* What does the party need? – I recently mentioned a bit about party metabalance and this viewpoint is key to shaping. If you realize what your friends are missing you have a roadmap to being awesome. In a recent pickup game it was evident our ranks did not have remotely enough healing. I was playing a ranged attack (ethermancer) focused character and was REALLY good at it. But I decided to dip into another class for renewable healing (warlord). It was a move that looked like optimization suicide but exploded with potency when it actually ran. Don’t forget, metabalance changes sometimes to what wasn’t needed being suddenly necessary.
* What does the story demand? – Ever been in a group where the DM introduced a magic item… Say the “Sword of Animus”… Only to find out that the fighter is a racial weapon specialist with Hook-hammers? Maybe your character could take a level or feat to take on the Fist of McGuffin. Your GM should have known better but will likely be very grateful if you are taking on his or her story.
* Be the River – Shaping relies on the concept and contours of where your character is heading-Not the level by level rigidity of the build guide. Nothing is more frustrating than a build generated need that a campaign doesn’t meet. Your dueling blade master hasn’t found a magic dueling blade? Maybe your DM is an ass… Or maybe you keep finding dwarven hammers because you are exploring dwarven ruins. Consider mechanical options that yield the same net result. Learn to recognize mechanical families and realize that no lonely mountain really only has one door.
* What does your GM need – I am amazed at how often this gets ignored, particularly with build-based characters. Pay attention to the campaign, talk to GM, and engage the metagame. Knowing the story will inform your rules choices.
Shaping results in characters that are generally effective, necessary, and impart more energy into the story instead of belligerently isolating themselves from and struggling against it. These characters bend and rarely break and almost always add to a game.
Am I condemning build guides? No. In fact as a GM they are a huge time saver (more on this another day) and knowing builds helps you forecast where your “River” might head. But for a better experience I would recommend lighter usage of these isolated towers of power, lest you end up alone in your lofty heights.
And next… When shaping collides…