The Optimization Problem in Exalted

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.

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9 comments

  1. #2 is the main problem, but not for the reasons you think, I think. With Exalted 1e and 2e, it was easy for #2 to happen _by accident_, and that’s a recipe for resentment between players. “Why is he so much stronger than me? We’re both straight out of chargen.”

    1. This is definitely an inconvenience! I’ve encountered it in play. But it’s also an easily surmountable issue. Just redo chargen for the unoptimized character, possibly with a little help from a more mechanically minded player. This will take a little while but it solves the problem outright. (Alternatively, you can redo chargen for an especially optimized character to bring him/her in line with the rest of the group, although this requires some maturity on the part of the optimizing player.)

  2. It’s not necessarily so easy. In 2e, certain character concepts were inherently weaker than others – e.g., if you have two fighters, and one is fast and whippy and the other hits hard and slow, the second one is just weaker than the first. It’s baked in to the mechanical options which reify each character archetype.

    This is the thing that people want to not see in 3e. Fortunately, thus far all the feedback from the playtesters that I’ve seen indicate that this is sufficiently solved.

    1. Yeah, archetype imbalance is traditionally an issue in Exalted. It’s technically an optimization issue, albeit not the sort of XP optimization issue that my post is focused on.

      In any event, niche protection really is valuable for minimizing the difficulties of archetype imbalance. In my first Exalted game, the Dawn hit fast and whippy while the rather fighty Zenith hit hard and slow, and the differences were clear to everyone. But the Zenith also did stuff that the Dawn couldn’t and focused on scenes that the Dawn wasn’t interested in, so it worked out fine. It would have been better if the Zenith’s fighting style was better supported, but their divergent niches reduced the impact of that weakness on play.

  3. I think you underrate some of the importance of #1. It’s not just about winning, it’s about your character matching up to your image of them. If in your head Thunder McKillstick is a fantastic fighter, you need to be able to reflect that in play or it won’t be satisfying. You make that happen by effectively allocating your bp/xp to do the things you want.

    Put another way, while there’s some seriously diminishing returns at the high end of optimization, there are shortfalls if you don’t engage in any.

    1. @Nicias: One of the many gradients along which RPGs can be measured is the degree to which their capabilities are expected to increase during play. Some games have no advancement rules at all; in such games, if your character doesn’t match up to the image in your head, it never will. At the other end of the spectrum you have games with sharp advancement curves, where if you come in with a specific image of your character’s capabilities, you’ll spend most of the game either below or above that capability level. (Admittedly, “above” is less likely to be problematic than “below.”) If you’re playing old-school D&D, for example, your character will start out at the “zero” end of the “zero to hero” range.

      In Exalted, starting out as exceptional in your chosen field — or, indeed, two or three chosen fields — is trivial, and doesn’t require much mechanical know-how. Thunder McKillstick will be a fantastic fighter even without optimizing to eke out every drop of potential XP.

      The main problem with Exalted 2e in this regard is the broken combat system. Once someone in your playgroup figures out lethality and paranoia combat, it’s necessary to keep up, lest an opponent capable of engaging with your optimized compatriots turn you to red mist with a single hit. This is not a universal RPG problem.

      1. Fair points. But I’d submit to you that players can measured along a gradient of how much they care about things like a gap in efficacy or effective XP total, even just in the abstract, and that a game such as Exalted with some maximalism and intricacy is going to attract a higher than average number of people who care more rather than less.

  4. I’m afraid I have a few issues with these arguments.

    1) is a very strange claim to make. Firstly, it assumes that the Storyteller is confident enough to change the statblocks given in the books in order to change the challenge represented by a given force. Secondly, it assumes the Storyteller is willing to do so – many groups, my own included, “play the game as it lies”, where picking a fight with a more powerful enemy puts you at a genuine disadvantage, with no backstage story tweaks. Where it is possible, in short, to lose.

    Even if you set aside those practicalities, this philosophy leads you into territory where the world changes to present a medium challenge – not too much, not too little – regardless of the player’s capability, which renders advancement of any kind little more than a cosmetic change. I’m reminded of Oblivion, where random bandits eventually ended up being kitted out with full daedric armour so that they’d present a challenge at high levels.

    2) would be a problem when it occurs. When it does, however, it’s going to be a problem regardless of optimization. The assumption is that player conflict (as opposed to character conflict, which is assumed to occur with player consent) is something to be managed and avoided by the group. Systems should try to avoid inadvertently encouraging it, but they can’t be held fully responsible.

    In this sense, optimization – or flawed systems that cause optimization to be especially attractive – is more often a cause rather than a symptom of player conflict, as envy sets in. Why has Sabrina’s character mastered three Martial Arts Styles and my character only just learned one, when we’ve both sunk equal in-game effort into being good at kung-fu?

    3) boils down to “if you don’t optimize properly, you may not be optimal”.

    4) is something I have never encountered, through a combination of volatile or easily-distracted gaming groups and (in the only genuinely long-term campaign I played) the sheer scale of potential adventures represented by Exalted. “Just” conquering the world is a challenge to span an incredibly long game, and there’s far more at stake in Creation and beyond than my own warmongering.

    5) is odd. Big numbers and an array of powers do have a certain basic satisfaction to them. It’s rather more satisfying to be able to use those capabilities in play, but I’ll happily concede the immediate appeal of having a +10 rather than a +2 on your sheet. Exalted is a game where you buy these satisfying and often visually-striking powers directly with xp, to the point where I’ve had players discuss xp in terms of Charm-fractions – this doesn’t seem likely to change, with 3e introducing the biggest set of Charms yet.

    That you start off with ten cool powers doesn’t change the fact that we want more. Hell, Exalted encourages you to want to more. It also doesn’t change the fact that it grates to see someone else start off with, or rapidly acquire, twice as many cool powers with the same in-game effort. That takes the immediate appeal of numbers and turns it on itself, and can even leave players frustrated in a practical sense, where their capabilities overlap with someone else in the group who is “unfairly” better.

    An ideal system surely works to reduce the impact of optimization, so that the actual effect of 2 and 5 (i.e. annoyance at non-intuitive discrepancies in input/output, in whatever area) is reduced? I shouldn’t think that this changes just because the effect can be mitigated by individual groups, through devotion to a particular social contract and/or sufficient mechanical savvy.

  5. No offence, Eric, but if this is how you think about optimization you should probably avoid speaking about the subject.

    It’s not always about accomplishing things. For me, and for many people who like to deconstruct mechanics, optimization is simply a math problem. The most optimal build is the Right Answer.

    When people like me actually play, we don’t always optimize heavily. But it’s annoying for us, to know the Right Answer and not use it. Sometimes the mere existence of a Right Answer is irritating.

    It’s about aesthetics, more than anything else. At least for me. A properly constructed system is beautiful, a flawed one is desperately ugly.

    And it’s a known fact that people will tend to move in the direction of more-optimal choices. I don’t know why exactly, but it probably has something to do with the reasons I talked about above. You’ve got to take that into account when designing a game.

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