Are Optional Rules Killing Your Game

My first experience with D&D 3.5 was a let down.

Before you blow a gasket thinking this is another 3rd addition bashing, I assure you its not. It’s only an observation of the impact the inclusion of feats and multiclassing had on character design, and players approach to character creation.

I had been on about a five year D&D hiatus. Most of my experience was with AD&D. I had played enough 2nd edition to be comfortable with it.

I joined an established group and created my first 3rd editon character, a rogue. He was not a collection of statistics with a feat/level formula planned out. The rest of the players were playing Designed classes (I was ignorant of this concept at the time). By 4th or 5th level there were other characters better at classic roguish activities than my own. In that short time I had learned about the “min/max character design” model. My character design not being one that sought to maximize outcomes meant he was quickly out performed in skills that were normally reserved for his class.

I sacrificed that first character. My next several characters were custom builds. They were much more successful, but I was far less attached to them as characters. They were more numbers on paper than fantasy creations. My group exercised a healthy degree of roleplay and backstory, but the the character narrative always felt overshadowed by a predetermined plan for leveling. The character was less a personality and more a tool .

In 2015 I started tinkering with 5th edition. Shortly thereafter I had a new group of players, most of which were new to the game. I assumed the role of dungeon master and until recently, had very little opportunity to sit in the players chair. This time I came into a new addition of the game well aware of maximum build designs. I had paid attention through the years of playtesting prior to 5th editions release known as “DnD Next”. I knew a lot of attention had been paid to what did and didn’t work in 3rd edition. But by early 2016 the internet was full of crunchy character builds for players to exploit. It didn’t take long for some of our players to pick up on this. I rolled with it, not really knowing what impact it may have on the game. What I learned is that 5th edition has it owns set of inherent problems. Power creep, action economy, bounded accuracy…etc. all contributing to game balance issues.

Almost a year ago one of our group members took up the mantle of DM, giving me a chance at playing a character for more than one session. This allowed me to spend more time studying what other players were doing with their characters. Prior to making my own character I went to the internet looking for optimal builds. My original intent for this character included dipping into a level of “X” class at “Y” level to gain “Z” abilities. But by the time I got to that all important 3rd level I was having second thoughts. I was asking myself “Why would this character do this? I created this amazing backstory and nowhere can I justify him taking a dip into another class.”

Time in the players chair has also provided me with some clarity on the options I have as player. Combining this knowledge with my experience as a DM, I gained greater clarity on just how much multiclassing can skew the game awkwardly into the players favor. Be assured that I am all for players being successful. I want my players to win the day, but I also know they want to earn it – I know they do to. Time on this side of the table has helped shed light on the things that make it difficult for a DM to challenge a party of 4~5 players beginning around 5th level.

When the pc’s in our current game hit 7th level I started dialogue with my fellow players about the pros and cons of multiclassing. Collectively we agreed to ditch the optional rules for “Multiclassing”. I think a lot of today’s D&D players forget (or never knew) Feats and Multiclassing are optional rules). The jury is still out on this decision. There are a couple of players who enjoy build optimization and getting the most out of the mechanics.

I think this decision is forcing us to work together more as a group. Pulling back options that would allow PC’s to react to a wider variety obstacles forces them to look to their party members for help. This allows a player character class to be exploited to its maximum potential.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Are Optional Rules Killing Your Game

  1. I haven’t played much 5th ed so this is coming from a viewpoint of 3.5 and Pathfinder only – I like the ability to customize my character with feats but it does get somewhat annoying that there’s literally thousands of them. Multiclassing I’m more ambivalent towards but it is nice to have a scoundrely fighter/rogue or a righteous cleric/fighter while also being annoying when there’s conversations like “okay what you need to do is, take one level of this class, two of this class, take this weird optional bullshit, then you can take a level of this class and etc.etc. to be a full caster with all skills maxed out and full BAB”

    But as you point out that’s what some people like about game. I’m fond of saying that there’s no wrong way to play D&D, different people like different things, so for me I like options but I also like a light touch. Super crunchy character optimization isn’t for me but I like to go beyond the basics as well.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. You are right, there is no wrong to play D&D, but that is a popular sentence needs to be expanded on. “There is no wrong way to play D&D, as long as it is fun for you AND for the people at your table.” I am reminded of the DM who intentionally removed all player agency from his game, or the countless stories we have all heard or been a part of where “that player” was at our table.

I welcome all courteous replies!