Thursday, September 28, 2006

Is Min-Maxing Bad?


For a while now, there’s been talk goin’ round that Min-Maxing isn’t a bad thing; that players are just choosing the optimal strategy and finding a niche for their characters. Those that say this do have a point. You can’t hardly blame a person for wanting their character to rock! They’re just doing what the rules allow. However, the full-on supporters of Min-Maxing might have a narrow point of view. In truth, I see three legitimate PoV’s on this: Min-Maxing isn’t bad, Min-Maxing might be bad, and Min-Maxing is bad. I’ll explain.

Let’s take “it isn’t bad” first. Min-Maxing is a strategy. Period. In fact, I’d say it’s a very obvious and natural strategy. Minimizing resources allocated to character components (skills, stats, advantages, whatever) that will seldom see use and/or character components that have drawbacks or flaws of some kind is sensible. Likewise, maximizing resources allocated to components that will see a great deal of use and/or components that provide advantages and bonuses is very logical. It’s almost a kind of “Duh!” moment, if you will. Whether it is during character creation (Chargen) or advancement, Min-Maxing is indeed a legitimate and probably beneficial strategy. Thankfully, those that decry it as a bad way to play are dwindling, however they are not gone completely. Which brings me to why Min-Maxing might be bad.

There are people and play groups that feel that Min-Maxing is bad play or that it’s not very sporting. They feel that the strategy undermines both the spirit of the game and the spirit of the group. It is in this circumstance that Min-Maxing might be bad. More important than good strategy is the Social Contract a group has set up (consciously or unconsciously). If Min-Maxing violates that contract, then if becomes bad play.

So what does one do in this situation? As I see it, there are three options. First, is to open a dialogue and work out a mutual compromise everyone can agree to. Come up with a solution that makes the entire group comfortable, so play and enjoyment can resume. Second, is to conform to the group’s Social Contract. Sometimes one has to sacrifice one’s own preferred style of play for the good of the group and the opportunity for having fun. Finally, one can simply leave the group. If a compromise cannot be found and there is no willingness to conform to each other’s style in either party, then perhaps it is a good time to bid farewell and find a group that better matches that style. Staying in a contentious situation ruins everyone’s fun. Each person will have to decide on their own.

Now for an instance where Min-Maxing is bad (IMHO). I submit that any game where Min-Maxing is the dominant strategy either during Chargen or Character Advancement, that game needs revision. Min-Maxing is one legitimate strategy in play, not the only legitimate strategy. If a design funnels characters into tight Min-Maxed boxes, then I believe the designer has come up short. He has left open a lot of room where he can design far more interesting strategies in his game. Especially if a game focuses on strategic use of character components, Min-Maxing as the dominate strategy is horrible. That’s not really strategic at all. It’s just following the only real path presented by the rules. Others may disagree, that’s fine. But I honestly don’t believe those kinds of game have the potential to produce as much fun as games with multiple and varied strategies. There’s a lot more out there than Min-Maxing.

So to sum up, Min-Maxing is a legitimate strategy. However, players should be mindful of the Social Contract of their group and designers should be mindful of incorporating other strategies in their games. Just because it is legitimate, doesn’t automatically make it good.




Frank said...

Some thoughts here...

Most of the conflict between min-maxing I believe is creative agenda conflict, particularly between simulationism and gamism.

Back in college, when I was really struggling with growing out of "power gaming" I started to play and run Cold Iron (a fellow student's home brew system). As I understand things better now, I realize that this system grew out of a desire for simulationism with a reality of players who wanted hard core gamism (this is at a top tier engineering school).

The result is a system that embraces the min-maxing. It creates a variety of (reasonably) balanced paths, with enough depth that it's hard to come up with a single best answer.

The result of that constant tweaking and responding to min-maxing "breaking" things was a very solid hard core gamist supporting system.

On the other hand, I agree, min-maxing has to be part of the social contract, and it is innapropriate in many games. I gave up on my most recent Dogs in the Vinyard game because I realized as a group, we were min-maxing and gaming the system, and we had lost the narativist address of premise.

In the end, I believe a system (in the Lumpley Principle sense, both rules text and actual procedures of play) needs to reward desired behaviors and character design/advancement choices, etc.

If you want characters to be more than combat machines, make sure your system as a whole supports and encourages those types of characters.

I have long derided the anti-min-maxing attitude some people take where they claim playing a 10 Int 18 Str Wizard in D&D is "good" roleplaying. There may be circumstances where that's appropriate, but that's so bucking the rules text that the only way it works is by ignoring the text. If you really want a game about 90 pound weakling sword slingers and intellectually challenged wizards, look for a rules text that supports that.

As a closing thought, I would suggest that "min-maxing" and "power gaming" are terms bandied about when players feel like someone is optimizing against the spirit of the game. When they are optimizing in the spirit of the game, the optimization isn't even recognized, or is celebrated as kick-ass role play.

As an example, I have yet to see anyone rail against Dogs in the Vinyard players maximizing the number of dice they take the blow with against "just talking." Bring on the d4 fallout... But boy, when you actually analyze that, it's a blatant min-max. Or the player who gives on a conflict on their raise, because they realize they can't win the conflict (or don't want to), and they happen to have a high die sitting on the table, and a good followup conflict.


Troy_Costisick said...

Wow Frank,

That was a very constructive response. Thank you for posting that! I think your experiences and conclusions exhibet my thoughts on Min-Maxing perfectly. Thanks for sharing them! :)



buzz said...

If you want characters to be more than combat machines, make sure your system as a whole supports and encourages those types of characters.
Awesome, Frank.

I'm constantly amazed at the dumbfounded looks I get from people when I say stuff like this, though.

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john.ashluthers said...


it's all about optimal options, isn't it? I don't think that the Min-Maxing could be bad, but you know something, isn't obvious the fact either.

Tom said...

So out of curiosity what do you do when your dm doesn't like you minmaxing for combat or roleplaying?

my last campaign my character ended up with enormous stats because I'm a moderately good minmaxer. my dm was angry and just cut the game.

this campaign he's trying to run as a roleplay thing with very little combat. I built a healer. now he's complaining because I have a diplomacy check of 17 at level 5.

what do you do when your dm doesn't like the fact you can build your character for roleplay or combat? (yes when I use diplomacy i give in character speeches, I interact with npcs, I even have an npc fiancee at this point)

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