Min-Maxing Ruins RPGs For Me, But I Just Can't Stop

It's almost become a ritual at this stage. Double-click the name of the game on Steam. Watch the intro animation. Click "New Game" on the menu. Go into the character screen -- and then fire up a web-browser so I can see the most optimised character creation guide.

It's happening every time I try and fire up a traditional computer RPG. It's ruining my experience. So why can't I just play without risking the bad choices, or the suboptimal builds?

I've had Pillars of Eternity sitting on my hard drive since the day it launched. It was one of the few games I was looking forward to this year, having eagerly watched its steady progression from a Kickstarter campaign to a backers-only beta and then the full, critically acclaimed public release.

I have a bit of a soft spot for those kinds of RPGs. I missed out on Baldur's Gate when it was big in Australia; at that time my PC was barely capable of playing Heroes of Might and Magic 2, so I was more interested in abandonware and things that ran smoothly on a 486.

But as time progressed, I built up my RPG credentials. Knights of the Old Republic remains one of the finest games I've ever played. It's rather good on tablets as well -- and, as a fun trick, you can pull your save from the PC or iOS/Android version and copy it over to the other platforms so you can continue your playthrough everywhere.

The original Dragon Age scratched the same itch that I fulfilled with Neverwinter Nights years prior. (I'd considered going back to Baldur's Gate, something that probably would have served me well now, but I figured the more modern interface of the original NWN had me covered.)

I've reconsidered playing all of those in the last week, simply because I've had a hankering for fireballs while going through pages of text and searching around for traps. But given that I hadn't actually gotten around to it yet, I fired up PoE (the same acronym as Path of Exile, another game where min-maxing is a concern of mine) and headed to the character screen.

After two hours, I'd already created five characters. Every single one of them was a Moon Godlike, each with the same portrait, gender and base class. I was going to be a Wizard, dammit, but I had zero certainty about what my starting spells should be, my character alignment, what stat -- if any -- I should dump, my starting feats, hell, even the choice of colour for my garb.

I changed my primary and secondary colours three times before settling on one.

But the problem really comes down to those starting feats, skills and stats. I always feel like if I'm not optimising things from the start, I'm going to have such a sub-par experience. I know I'll be denied dialogue options and solutions for encounters if I don't have the right numbers.

And it doesn't help when I read things like this: "When it comes to the attributes, Pillars of Eternity is a min-maxing game – to make a real difference, you really need to max the stats out." That's a line from one of the more popular PoE guides on Steam.

"Min-maxing is especially important for the main character as the maxed out stats not only make him combat-viable, they also allow him to solve dialogue situations. Without min-maxing, you'll have only two stats at the level of 17-18 (and that's what required to solve the really tough challenges). With it, you'll have three or four such stats – much more solutions available."

In other words, if you're not min-maxing, you're minimising the amount of fun you can have -- because a large part of these games is the emergent gameplay that comes from having multiple choices, choices that only emerge if you've built your character properly from the outset.

It's a bit of a paradox -- by limiting your diversity from the outset, you maximise the diversity of gameplay going forward.

But let's go back to the definition of min-maxing, or at least something that's widely accepted so we have a base reference. The best I've seen is where min-maxing is the art, or skill, of optimising the creation of a character so they become as mechanically powerful as the game will allow, without resorting to any third-party trainers, glitches, tools or in-game exploits.

In a technical sense, every game that uses an RPG system as a mechanic has some degree of min-maxing. And anything that allows player agency over the creation of a character's skills will also result in some form of min-maxing -- it's what players do.

My problem is that thanks to an exposure to plenty of games where proper builds are key (my Divinity: Original Sin playthrough has been , I'm no longer able to simply play through an RPG without feeling like I'm missing out.

I'm torn between whether I should continue my playthrough of Pillars of Eternity, gritting my teeth and just accepting all the failed choices; starting a new playthrough of Neverwinter Nights, because I remember enjoying it so thoroughly; or simply waiting for the Enhanced Edition of Divinity: Original Sin and giving that a whirl, hoping the transition to consoles, the change of environment (my room to my couch) and the inability to easily ALT-TAB for guidance quells my reluctance to proceed unaided.

I want to put points into the stupid abilities again. I want to roll through Divinity: Original Sin teleporting barrels on top of everyone's heads. I want to not be concerned about the impracticality of having a mage get into melee combat just so I can unleash my jazz hands.

I want to relax and have fun. The urge for efficiency is preventing that -- and I don't know how I can escape it. I have a min-max addiction, and I need help.


    I fall into this trap now and again. But now i have told myself to not min max unless its an mmorpg(only because you want to be at your best when facing another a player). If it is just me against the computer world, i will usually just grit my teeth now and bear with it (hello pillars of eternity!).

    It sure beats the good old days of constantly clicking "reroll" in Baldur's Gate when creating my character.

    I have a friend who constantly watches youtube and reads up on everything about the game before playing it. In the end he never even completes the game, but knows everything about it. This annoys me to no end. Enough to make me do the opposite. So in all honesty if it wasn't for him, I'd probably be doing the exact same things. haha.

    Last edited 06/10/15 12:49 pm

      I enjoyed rolling stats in Baldur's Gate, but that could just be an ADnD thing which I did before ever picking it up. Looking up guides and min-maxing too much (a little bit is certainly okay, I think that's where rolling creates a good balance) takes a lot away from the actual role-playing element, which should be a big part of role-playing games to my mind.

      I used to be a power gamer (aka min-maxer) in D&D but then started to mix that with actually role-playing the character a lot more. Now I enjoy playing flawed characters, because it leads to situations where a character's inability to deal with a problem through conventional (i.e. stat-based) means actually generates opportunities for innovative and hilarious gaming experiences. E.g. an oracle who is a professional musician (but with no bard class levels) and who when under stress can only speak Celestial (e.g. in combat), which no other characters in the party can speak.

      I call it, sub-optimal character development.

      Min-maxing against AI (i.e. in single-player video games) leads to fairly boring gameplay because your character can effortlessly solve most challenges.

      Min-maxing against human opponents (or IRL dungeon masters!) leads to an arms race, in which the game participants optimise more and more until the game experience (such as the story) becomes secondary to the game mechanics. This is perfectly fine but I find it lessens the enjoyment of the non-mechanical aspects of a game (and certainly a heightening of the social tension!)

        That was the great thing about paper based RPG's. The DM usually was accommodating to situations and you could literally roll a character with terrible stats. Therefore your character would not break the game, or the game wouldn't break you. In the end it was usually these imperfect characters that were the most enjoyable to play. Why? Because they weren't the same as the usual run off the mill pally with high strength and wisdom blah blah. I still remember having a magic user that was of average intelligence always bumbling his spells and blowing stuff up. Sure he wasn't dragon slaying worthy, but the group sure as hell had fun dealing with the troubling situations he would cause.

          We had a GM that would perversely penalise the poorly rolled character, to the point it was a dungeon feature more than once. We'd need someone to die to progress, and it was always the same guy, a crappy rolled warrior that we really only used to soak up damage. He was played mostly for the lols, and to see how we'd go with a bumbling tank leading the way.

          But the GM was accommodating as you say, and there would be some sort of rez option available almost immediately.

    This is why every RPG should come with a respec option.

      You can't re-spec life, bro.

        You can in some situations :-) I used to be a professor of French at the University of Wuhan in China before deciding to come back to Australia to be a lawyer. I guess you could say I had multi-classed but I look at it as re-training as I leveled up :-P

      Speaking of which, Pillars of Eternity has this feature. In-game, go to an Inn, pay a smallish sum, and re-train any character from Level 1 back up again.

      Mind you, there's enough buffs that give you +3 in various stats that I didn't feel like I missed out by not min-maxing and just role-playing instead.

    I find myself doing this a bit. RPGs can be such an investment in time, and with a large backlog of games (that only ever gets bigger), I can't really afford to invest 20 hours in a game only to decide I've made bad character decisions and need to start again.

      Classic fear of missing out. Worried that people who invested in the 'right' character build will be having more 'fun'.

        No, that's not it at all, I'm worried I'll hit a point in the game where it becomes too hard, or I've invested in multiple skills/abilities that end up being useless, and I can't be bothered playing through 20 hours of a game I've already played through.

        It's happened to me multiple times and I move onto the next game telling myself I'll restart the game at a later date, but with new games arriving all the time I rarely do.

          This is the challenge for developers I think - allow for a certain degree of flexibility in character development whilst still maintaining the challenge for those who do min-max. A cheeky solution would be to detect what stats a player character has and then tailor the enemies based on those stats. That would be a great and effective solution... until people found out about it and got pissed off that all their min-maxing was for nothing :-P

    The issue here isn't min maxing - as you've mentioned, that's a staple of almost any RPG and is something that should be enjoyed. The real issue is the fact that these are 50+ hour games and you're given one opportunity, right at the start, to choose stats/perks/whatever correctly without having experienced any of the requirements that must be met for certain choices or opportunities to be available to you in the following 50+ hours.

    Some would argue that's part of the fun. Then again, those are likely the same people who have the time to conduct multiple play-through's and work these things out. I'd argue that's the minority. These games really need an option to re-spec or reallocate stats during the adventure so that you can correct what you realise 20 hours in were mistaken stat choices or priorities. 10 years ago this was the norm of game design, but it shouldn't be any longer.

    I love a good CRPG, and I love the stats and maths that goes along with it. But I refuse to believe there isn't a better way of doing things now whilst remaining true to what made Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights etc so great in the first place.

      Your comments are spot on. I am still trying to start Pillars of Eternity. I spent two nights playing around with stats and classes. I am actually growing to resent the game now and I haven't even played it! Time to throw caution to the wind and just play a class I think is interesting. If I end up running in to troubles 10 or 20 hours in I will just go play a different game. At least I get some enjoyment out of POE instead of none at all!

        Mind you, you only figure out the value of some of the character classes once you've played a bit of the game.

        Choose a cipher. They're pretty darn cool.

    I fall into the trap all the time. I play games to be entertained, and a hard game isnt entertaining when, by design, you can be crippled at the same point over and over again. So I dont mind going down the path of minmaxing.

    Not always the first run through, I'll often just toss points here or there as I see fit, but as soon as I get stuck in a rut, its off to Mr Google, to see the optimum minmax solution.

    With MMO's its a little different. Often you'll need to minmax just to be effective in the endgame. Some, its a game long decision, others you're focusing on a single stat or two to the detriment of all else.

    I remember Asherons Call back in the day. First one, not the debacle of a followup. Fun little game, but you could seriously minmax the hell out of it with a fairly simple archer build. To the point you were smashing mobs 50 levels above you. Or more. THATS ridiculous, and a broken game mechanic, but its was people did.

    I'm not so concerned by min-max'ing, what gets me though is when a 50 hour game has missable achievements. I'll often check a quick guide, if nothing is missable - thats fantastic, I'll put the guide aside and enjoy the game, look back on how to get any achievements after I'm done. That makes me happy. Can't stand it when a developer throws in achievements to force you to play a game in a certain way.

    I find myself unable to stop min max in any type of RPG. I managed to skip that with skyrim using mods and I just respec anytime I like but many games does not have the feature and if it does, it cost quite some amount of money that is not easily achievable early game.

    Like in Dragon Age Inquisition, after starting the game as a dagger rogue and choose the best options, I find myself lacking in damage and weak compare to other class. Can't even kill the dragon at level 25 compare to a knight enchanter or bow rogue.

    Literally gave up the game after 20+ hours and feel like restarting as a knight enchanter. Didn't get to start over the game again so awaiting in backlog until I finish the new games.

      That sounds like a game design fault to a certain extent. Balancing is really important if you want to encourage people to play the game the way that they want rather than conforming to or being drawn to an 'optimal' path.

        It is sort of balanced in a way that as a Rogue I can do certain things like sneak stealth while Knight Enchanter is sort of a tank with magical ability. As DPS class tend to aggro the boss due to their nature, it can be really hard when you are squishy and tanking stuff while the tank cannot hold the aggro.

        Not to mention the backstab/side positioning that is required as a dagger rogue to be effective, it is almost not possible to be optimal at all times so playing omni directional DPS is slightly more fun without much worry.

    I personally couldn't stand Pillars of Eternity. It's not just the min-maxing element, They've layered a lot of systems into it that serve no purpose but to punish you for not playing it in the exactly optimal way that they want you to play it (but they won't tell you about). There's no room for exploration (fatigue system will kick in and suck your money dry) and there's no room for experimentation, you have to play it 'right' or you're screwed. Found it to be a massive disappointment.

      So going back to Neverwinter Nights a better option then -- or maybe even looking into the re-releases of Baldur's Gate?

        Just find a good GM and have a game of Pathfinder IRL. Nothing stops min-maxing like a GM that can specifically target character weaknesses. You then realise that having an arms race of character optimisation is futile (although an interesting academic exercise nonetheless).

        I dunno, I also thought NWN was a bit shit. Mainly that the environments feel very cookie-cutter and stale due to being done in a very rigid grid-based toolset. Bland campaign too. Expansions were better but it's no BG2 by any stretch.

          Agree 100%. I was so excited for NWN when it came out but then tired of it very quickly. BG2 was a masterpiece and I really should get around to grabbing those re-releases.

        Yeah, personally I find NWN's original campaign to be really lacklustre, and I don't think it's aged well at all. There are a couple of good quests - the snow globe one and the time-travel devil locked in the haunted house are the two best that come to mind, but for me it the story always felt like it was revolving around other characters and I was just a spectator/mcguffin to push the plot marker to the next bit of the plot.

        Hordes of the Underdark was the best of the bunch there, but even then you kinda need to go through Shadows of Undrentide first, which isn't great, but is better than the first campaign.

        To be perfectly honest if you're looking for something in that vein, I'd skip straight to NWN2's Mask of the Betrayer. I found that to be a genuinely excellent adventure.

    Re-releases of BG, BG2 and Icewind Dale on iPad... Can play anywhere.

      The interface was pretty bloody terrible for mobiles last time I checked in.

        There's been a few updates. Still has some issues, such as non-registering loot pickups but disengage try again usually works.

        Steam editions are just as good.

        Plus there's the import character through BG1 to BG2 which is cool.

    I agree with this sentiment, it's quite frustrating. I'm playing Fallout New Vegas right now and I spent literally 20 hours playing and replaying the first parts of the game because I wasn't happy with something I did while creating my character.

    Alex, my boy. As someone who counts DA Origins as one of their top 3 games of all time, stick with Pillars. It's so good, and so worth playing. One of my favourite games of the year.

    You can entirely respec characters later completely rebuild from the ground up. All it costs is cash, and money is never an issue in this game. Plus you can always hire an infinite number of followers that you can build however you want - you don't have to stick with the companions you have if you don't want to (although they are amazing as well, and can also be re-specced)

    Here's something also, as an aside - I've never once re-specced a character. In a massive RPG fan, but never go down that road. Why? It honestly makes the game more of a challenge. You might not have the exact specs to be perfect, but that's the point - you play the hand you have. Optimizing stats is almost like cheating in a way.

    Also, missing out on some conversation points is going to happen, and is part of the experience. It adds more variety and gives you a reason to play through again one day. In Pillars, certain paths and progressions in speech trees are even locked off for not having the right background in your story from the beginning, which makes sense.

    Seriously, it's a game worth sticking with. Don't worry about your specs - just pick something and go, don't look back. You'll enjoy the game a hell of a lot more thank you think.

      My weekend group is all busy so it looks like this is what I'll be doing!

    I'm a bit like that. It's inescapable, I think, as we age. Gone are the days where we had seemingly infinite time, when we could play literally dozens of hours of a game, failing over and over again until we ourselves came to figure the inner mechanics, the optimal builds, the best choices. Each playthrough was a bit better than the previous and the process of both exploration and ever-increasing efficiency was really fun. In the end, we raked hundreds of hours of gaming across countless playthroughs.

    Nowadays, responsibilities, duties, social requirements and let's admit it, other interests, greatly minimise our gaming time and there are SO many games to play! Playing a game other than optimally, is a waste of precious time we could use, as the author says, having as much fun and diversity of choice as the game allows, before we jump to the next game. Basically is a choice between:

    - Playing sub-optimally for a couple dozens of hours, then jumping to another game, never having experienced the top level of play in the previous game.
    - Checking guides and min-maxing to make sure that whatever time we're going to play the current game before jumping to the next is spent in the most entertaining way, getting to explore most of the game's content.
    - Going through the "proper" trial-and-error progression, spending hundreds of hours in the game at the expense of not playing two or three other games in the meantime.

    It seems to me as a very easy and obvious choice to make, sad as it could seem. Life after our teens is a series of mutually-exclusive choices and we have to make difficult decisions with our ever-dwindling time in Earth.

    Last edited 06/10/15 3:52 pm

      Exactly how I feel about it these days; games like these CRPGs are ripe for hundreds of hours of exploration and experimentation.... But I just don't have those hours to spare anymore.

    If it actively starts sabotaging your enjoyment of the experience, I recommend maxing ALL your stats via cheats. :)

    its easy, pretend the internet doesn't exist, and play.

    This reminds me of when i played Wasteland 2, new very little about the game (but had finished all the fallout's so that helped a little) and my first playthrough was rough, characters running low on HP, low funds, useless skills but honestly i still cleared the game and by the time i finished it my characters were unstoppable.

    My second playthrough for that reason was so so so much simpler and i'm glad that i chose the exotic and somewhat useless skills (who needs to repair or use a toaster oven anyway?) so that i could know for the next time and as a hardcore completionist this was totally worth it.

    I highly recommend BG 1,2 and IWD Enhanced, loved and played the originals to death =)

    Also Planescape Torment or Arcanum if you want a good CRPG which is a bit different to those.

    I've been through this. It has been a full cycle for me.

    When i was in my early teens when i fell in love with RPG games, i wouldn't use guides, i experienced everything first hand. We didn't have a PC.. or the internet back then, i felt as time went on, i grew up and became much more competitive in all games and i would want to be maxed out, the best i could be. Didn't want to miss anything, going through gamefaqs and following walkthroughs, finding out the best things. basically reading the game before i've played it.

    I ended up slowly finding myself falling out of love with RPGs, i would always excitedly get them when they came out, enjoy them for a good portion of the game, but eventually i would just lose interest with the walkthrough/guide and maxing.. felt like i was just doing a chore, following a script from A to B.. which isn't how RPG's are supposed to be played imo.

    But again, i've grown up even more! I've realised that to enjoy the game for what it is, i want to play it how it was meant to be. And if i have really enjoyed the game, i'll play it a second time with a guide to experience the things i may have missed.

    It's not the min-maxing itself that is the problem, it's the purpose of min-maxing that may pose a problem. For example, once you start talking about the builds with 3 in one of the attributes (I'm the author of the quoted guide, btw; saw this article mentioned on one forum I frequent), certain players start treating you as if you propose killing puppies and kittens. Because it apparently makes the game soulless and boring.

    But, at the same time, when it comes to the tough battles in PoE, the most common tactic I've seen discussed is kiting. Kiting and choke-point abusing. All against dumb AI who will never respond properly to that. Repeated ad nauseam through the 25-30 hours that the combat takes in this game. But, somehow, those boredom-haters don't criticize such attitude. Often, they will be angry when you point to this - duh, they'll say, but that's how tactics is supposed to work, do you hate tactics too? Well, spamming the same trick can hardly be called tactics...

    Same goes for the overpowered spells, btw. Unfortunately, there is a couple of spells in PoE that can make it incredibly boring - Mental Binding was that, for example, until it got fixed in 2.0. But, say, the priest's Repulsing Seal remained the same and it's an absolute game-breaker. Yet, once again, fun-defenders keep silent about spamming such spells.

    And while having minimized stats is supposedly bad from the role-playing point, in PoE, 3 Might is as useless for such purpose as 10 is. It's at least 16 or go home. And you're never punished (role-wise) for having low Might. Sure, that's more of a design flaw than anything else, but what can you do?

    On the other hand, without min-maxing, it's really hard to build a good talker. To do that, you need to have at least two of the three mental attributes high and most classes will perform horribly if they have just that. And, well, having more dialogue options seems to be more fun than having less of them.

    Same goes for the battle strategies - one sad truth of life that RPG players need to accept is that CRPGs will forever be limited in their role-playing scope. It's just too expensive to make and even the AAA games can't afford to honestly provide that. Neither the indies - Age of Decadence took 10 years to make and it's great, but it's still quite far from the full role-playing experience. The resources/manpower cost is just unimaginable. So you need enjoyable combat for the CRPG to work (or no combat at all, I guess).

    Since there are lots of combat hours in PoE, you need to squeeze something good from them (or else you're wasting your time - honestly, there's much mroe combat content in this game than dialogue one). And it just so happens that PoTD encounters are better designed than the usual ones. But you need min-maxed builds to survive there. Also, min-max just provides for a greater tactical flexibility (by the virtue of making more builds available) and greater fun. In this particular case, mind you - overall, "min-maxing ruining games" really depends on the game itself.

    It's been a long time since I've played Morrowind, but I recall there being no level cap, no level requirements for quests, & clothing was entirely aesthetic with attributes coming from you on leveling. I don't believe I min-maxed in that as there was no need to. I also remember Personality & Luck being not-so-useless in that game. Maybe these are some of the reasons I still prefer it over Oblivion & Skyrim that I hadn't really thought about until now.

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