RPG character optimization—that is, the process of squeezing every possible bit of advantage out of the character creation and advancement systems—is an interesting phenomenon. The impulse to optimize, while not universal, is common. I feel it myself. But in a tabletop RPG like Exalted, what does it accomplish?
1: Beating the opposition. This is the most obvious and tempting reason to optimize. The more badass your character, the more NPC ass you can kick! But aside from generic NPC types like soldiers—where I’d say changing the default stat block takes you into house rules territory—the Storyteller builds individual NPCs based on the needs of the game. If you optimize your PC, then the Storyteller optimizes her NPCs accordingly. What have you gained?
2: Beating the other PCs. In a game where the PCs are actively hostile toward one another (such as many Vampire games), this is genuinely relevant. But that’s not typically the case in Exalted. More often, it’s a matter of wanting to one-up the other players. If everyone’s on board with this, XP variance from optimization is actually a feature, because it’s another way of showing you’re a better player. (I would hate such a game, but that’s OK; it’s not for me.) If not everyone is on board, optimization exacerbates the problem but is not its source; you’re going to need to work things out anyway.
3: Accessing gated content faster. If there’s something you want your character to be able to do that you can’t do at chargen (such as WST or Solar Circle Sorcery), then it’s incumbent upon you to finagle the system to do it as fast as possible. Mind you, this can turn out to be more expensive than buying such things in play, which means that in terms of your character’s absolute XP value, you may be less optimized than other PCs!
4: Immanentizing the eschaton. While some chronicles do go on indefinitely, often the Storyteller (and/or the group as a whole) decides at some point to wrap things up. This can be tied to the resolution of an overall chronicle arc, but often it’s simply the result of the action getting so big that, as far as the group is concerned, the PC circle has Fixed All The Things and further play would be anticlimactic. Optimizing your characters at chargen pushes you to that power level faster, resulting in a shorter chronicle.
5: Big numbers. There’s just something satisfying in knowing that you have five dots in Smission, or that you can use Gostak Distimms the Doshes if the need arises. But an Exalted PC already starts with a fuckton of abilities and powers. Once play starts, you’re unlikely to be kicking yourself about the XP you could have had but didn’t. (Unless someone else optimized more than you did, in which case we’re back to #2.)
Exalted’s previous editions certainly leave room for improvement when it comes to optimization. But it’s worth looking at why we optimize before we discuss what we do to counter it.