Optimized, unoptimized, counteroptimized

When one designs a player character, it's common to try to "optimize" him for a particular set of tasks. For example, someone with Good Teacher will often be given good Communication too; magi tend to have high Intelligence and Stamina, and to have a magical Focus (and/or spells) strongly overlapping with their best Arts; a shield grog gets Tough or similar Virtues far more often than Free Expression, and Puissant Weapon far more often than Careful with Carouse or Learn Carouse from Mistakes. In our sagas, I'd say over 90% of our magi and companions are optimized this way, and perhaps as many as 50% of the grogs: it's fun during character creation, and it's fun to play because "excellence" is often fun.

But life can also have a sense of humour, and it's occasionally fun to play "counteroptimized" characters: the cowardly Flambeau, the Holy character who's always struggling with his weakness for wine and pretty faces, the guide/scout with No Sense of Direction, the Quaesitor with Intelligence -4 (what a blast did I have playing such an "Inspector Gadget" inspired character), and the artist with Ability Block for art. In fact, a small fraction of our magi and companions are created like that, and as many as 30% of all the grogs.

The most realistic scenario would be, of course, traits that are more or less randomly put together. Someone who has Light Touch, Good Teacher, and an Affinity for Folk Ken; and who's Obese, a Deep Sleeper, and Ambitious. Simply unoptimized without being counteroptimized. In our troupe nobody ever designs a companion or a magus PC like that. Though we have created maybe some 20% of our grogs that way. And indeed, a significant fraction of all NPCs, perhaps the majority, are created like that.

What about you? How many of your PC magi, companions and grogs are optimized, counteroptimized, or simply unoptimized? How many of your NPCs?

I would like to extend your taxonomy before I answer ...

Firstly, you have the super-optimised. A narrow focus, like the grog with +20 attack and no social skills, survival skills, surveillance skill or anything else which could be useful. Or the magus with a lab total of 120 for longevity potions, and no other interests whatsoever. We all know these characters from our juvenile games I think, but they tend to get boring and most of us grow out of them.

Then you have the complete optimised characters with a broad enough skill set to fill a role. the shield grog who also has the awareness to serve as a guard, or the social skills to book a room at the inn for the magus. These characters are optimised for a role, which is sometimes complex, rather than for a single task. IMO these characters also tend to be boring, especially as hot-played grogs.

What you describe as counteroptimised is at least two different things. You have the antioptimised, like your Inspector Gadget, or maybe Ford Fairlane, possibly with a delusion flaw to make him pursue a role at which s/he is bad. These characters are designed for failure, and I do not think they are ever going to be fun unless the SG designs stories accordingly, at least not beyond the first complete failure.

The other variant you seem to suggest is optimised with a twitch. Your Holy character with weakness, may well be optimised, or even super-optimised. The weakness is something to roleplay for greater fun, but it is unlikely to affect the character at a moment of critical skill tests. The soft-hearted shield grog that I made for Fight and Flight never was very popular I think ... Furthermore, characters may be optimised with a bonus, say the tough guy who excells at storytelling as a side skill. Something which only rarely has a mechanical impact, but which adds flavour. Whether there is a negative twitch or a positive bonus, these characters allow more axes of roleplay, and are therefore more fun.

Your unoptimised character in its extreme means that the character is not designed for its role in the story. It would break all good principles of storytelling. I would prefer to call that randomised, but there is also suboptimised, a character tailored to its role, but deliberately not to perfection. Some traits may well be randomised, as long as enough are selected for its role.

Of course we know the super-optimised characters, but I don't see them much in Ars Magica, probably because players either do not have enough experience to fully exploit such a complex system, or they have enough experience to be bored of them. More complete, optimised characters are more common, but I think mainly for template grogs which are best forgotten after the game.

No doubt it is the many variations over optimised characters with extra flavour that we remember, and obviously all sound storytelling principles tell us why. (1) The character has to fill its role to move the story forward. (2) It has to have enpough flavour to add some surprise elements. (3) It has to avoid more traits and quirks than can be remembered by the player and displayed in the story, so that the behaviour be recognisable.

It is of course possible to make a character super-optimised with a quirk, essentially deciding to play the character actively towards multiple tasks or roles, where the character is super-optimised for some and anti-optimised for others. This, is not uncommon. Some players are really good at bringing such characters alive.

Even anti-optimised characters should have a quirk to be remembered by. Maybe a side-skill with which s/he excels. No, I have not seen such a character played, certainly not in Ars Magica.

NPCs should normally be suboptimised, especially antagonists. I'd rather make them older than the PCs and less optimised, so that they appear as a threat but still can be overcome. This is logical in that the PCs should be the exceptional characters in the world, those who become heroes.

In my experience, I'd say that PCs, designed to be actually played actively in stories, tend to split 50-50 between variations optimised with twists and straight-forward optimised, usually complete. But there is no doubt which work best in the story.


That's an interesting taxonomy.

I was once invited to an online Ars magica game where two of the players had over optimised their companions and magi to such an extent that I pulled out. (one companion was feral for extra xp, but somehow had Latin 3 because monks had rescued her and taught her specifically Latin or something like that the other was supposed to be a knight but that is not optimal enough so his actual social status was the outlaw leader flaw instead, all virtues were mechanical but all the flaws were story or not really applicable).

When I design grogs I try to m all e them interesting and not just one trick ponies, which is something I tried to apply when I made all the grogs in November as well as the PCs for the grog adventure I ran recently.

Yeah, I ran an outlaw leader once. Messed about with group combat as well.
He was an unholy terror.

What I am getting in my current saga is characters optimised around their concept. However the concept is not necassarily the most optimum concept. I prefer this to characters who are not good at what they aim to do, if someone has spent 20-30 years learning to be a Ignem using flambeau mage I would expect him to be good at it, and if he wasn't cut out for that to have changed to doing something else a long time ago.

Super optimised characters, that often means stacking all things giving bonus to one thing, and sacrificing everything else. Eg a combat magus who may be inept in the lab, have no social skills, have no political sense or knowledge, have no knowledge of local matters. Must of time these lacks may be covered by grogs and sodales but it’s bound to give challenges. It would be wrong to both never have these lacks play a part or to overdo them, because that shafts the characters
But what really annoys me is when super optimised characters stock up on irrelevant flaws that never play a part.

While a character with a twist, quirk or challenge is fun, they should never be nerfed to the point of incompetence. If the guide can’t find his way and always gets lost, why is he still a guide? Why did he not already get lost and die, or was fired?
But maybe he started out wanting to work as a guide, and it turned out he had something valuable to offer. Maybe he also has Magic Sensitivity and will find vis by dumb luck, or Second Sight to find entry into regiones. So the covenant keeps this individual but he is not relied on to lead the way.
This may border on Story Flaw territory which a grog should not have, but still...

While I do agree with you, I am still sceptic. As a matter of fact, many people love stories about anti-heroes like Inspector Gadget, Donald Duck, and their likes. Why do such characters work in many stories, but not in Ars Magica?

On hypothesis is of course that we want to think about Ars Magica as a mythic-realistic game, and this characters are ridiculous and far from realistic (mythic or otherwise). But if that is all, this is a matter of style only. I think the ridiculous game is playable in Ars Magica if that's what the troupe wants. It is a very different style though.

The only game I have tried to play in such a ridiculous style is Tales of the Floating Vagabond, which is obviously designed for the purpose. It was fun, and very different,style but I cannot imagine a long-term saga in that style. And maybe that's the point. Ars Magica is designed for the long game and the the ridiculous style would waste its strengths.

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One thing to consider is the dumb and dumberer factor- I didn't actually see the movie but my impression was that it appealed to a sense of superiority in the viewer. The same applies to Donald Duck and inspector gadget- you have a hero which may be superior in some way (inspector gadget's implants) but in a more natural way makes the viewer feel superior.
Which does not apply when you are being the character.


That's a very good point.

The dumb sidekick, like Dr Watson and Captain Hastings, is a very well-known story-telling principle, to bridge the gap between the hero and reader. The sidekick both allows the reader to feel smarter, and it forces the hero to explain things which would otherwise be superfluous. But as you say. They are designed to suit a role -the reader- which simply isn't there in RP.

As I said, in our sagas a small percentage (maybe 5%?) of all companions and magi, and a much larger percentage (maybe 25-30%) of all grogs are counteroptimized.
From my perspective, there are (at least) three reasons why one may want to play such characters.

  1. Particularly for grogs, the "laughter" factor. Having a good laugh now and then is part of most games, even predominantly serious -- or even tragic -- ones.

  2. Succeeding with odds stacked against you can be oddly satisfying. If find this is particularly true when these "against the odds" situations
    a) happen sporadically,
    b) do not rob you of other fun,
    which is one of the reasons why we have a much larger percentage of counteroptimized grogs: if we don't want to play against the odds, we just take another grog -- this would not be as easy with a companion or magus.

  3. It's "instructive" -- it helps to understand the mechanics of the game better (including ones such as "Difficult Underlings") and helps you understand how to work around certain weaknesses.

I find that playing a character that is optimized or super-optimized can be fun as long as you actually role-play, instead of just playing a set of stats.

I got invited to a 5e D&D game, and I was told right off the bat that the group was not really into role-playing but instead just wanted to solve tactical scenarios. I said, "All right," and built a super-optimized archer. After several nights of popping out from behind cover, shooting an incredibly devastating arrow, and then popping back, I was really bored. I think if we'd had enough chances to role-play, I could have actually enjoyed that character.

Fortunately, ArM discourages that kind of play, so I find that most people I've played with go for optimized but interesting.

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When the covenant has a lot of Grogs, they are hard to remember,
But Grogs with a quirk or grogs with an amusing, or even at times useful, secondary skill are easily remembered, and people will play them.
A grog who can cook, mend armour, patch up wounds, or tell stories is useful as wel as popular among the turb.

In my saga, a young recruit recently came up wit the idea of making small puppets of rabbit skin, so the ghosts of a ravaged village could animate them to tell their story, lacking any other form of communication. Completely improvised. Afterwards the player decided the grog had learned about making puppet shows.

At an earlier time, there was a story at the local village, which somehow ended as a grogs only story. It was about the goblin of the local mine, and how the tools he had gifted some village works had stopped functioning. But these grogs made sure the goblin was remembered. The grogs in play included the covenant's clothier and the furniture maker. Normally, these were just stats in the cvoenant record, but two players designed them as quick, non-combat grogs, and they been used several times since. They really worked well at a local Baron's wedding, because they could make gifts.
Optimized for fun, not for mechanics :wink:


..and of course, there was the unforgettable digger!

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I find that the bumbling and incompetent character works much better in stories than in games. In a book/film etc you are laughing at him and the plot contrives to move forward despite him. It can also work in one off's and games like Paranoia. However I find that a character who is totally useless in a campaign becomes a burden and starts to beg the question why the other charcters are putting up with this fool. Kind of how my colleagues think about me at work.

A character who is useless occasionaly is fine, and all characters must have character, Making a character intersting they will of course have flaws and weaknesses. In particular bit part characters like Grogs or one of characters really benefit from some sort of readily identifiable and fun Quirk or weakness as it makes them stand out.

Optimisation and Role-playing are not incompatible, my current campaign before we move to Ars Magica is Pathfinder and the pc's are highly optimised high level characters but the game is dominated by roleplaying not just the collection of numbers , in Ars Magica things like story and personality flaws serve to give a direction to that personalisation of the character without really upsetting the optimiser with a serious flaw. It is also fun sometimes for a mage or companion to be caught in a situation they are completely unsuited for particularly if it leads to a fun outcome or a chance for another character to really shine

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I like ezzelino and loke's taxonomy, though I don't agree with them completely. I've always hated hyper-optimized or super-optimized characters; Either characters with a broad level of extreme power, or a narrow focus of extreme power and ways to always use that power. I think the worst sin of character building in my mind is useless flaws - flaws taken that either never come up, or never come up when they matter. I know the mantra of 'a flaw that isn't a flaw isn't worth anything', but I've also seen people select flaws that only hinder them when it doesn't matter - MOST cases of No Sense of Direction or Motion Sickness seem to fall in that. Or Poor Characteristic, or many personality flaws. Flaws that are easily fixed by someone else being around or flaws that come up only in off-screen situations. I don't think this is a problem for the flaws, but instead how they're brandished in the stories.
My troupe is very interested in the story building, almost moreso than the mechanics. While we don't really have counter-optimized or anti-optimized characters (I think nobody wants to play someone who's bad at their job) our troupe tends to build characters who have flaws and compensate for them... awkwardly. My longevity ritual specialist has Difficult Longevity Ritual. Our Flambeaux has very few social skills and terrible Presence, and the grog he brings with him to handle social situations is a Faerie Raised Satyr-blood who treats everything as a chance to make a better story instead of trying to solve problems. Our intelligent, creative Tytalus who loves adventuring and solving problems is also Covenant-raised and has a terrible track record of thinking about how mundanes will react to.. anything. Our stories are a beautiful tableau of 'how we fixed things inefficiently'. Rather than the Inspector Gadget, successful buffoon trope, we instead have people who tend to fix everything by the most convenient method rather than the most effective.
Our companions tend to be more efficiently designed than magi, but our players tend to focus on magi-stories much more often than companion stories.
As far as grogs, since magi can fix most problems, the grogs who get taken are the ones whose personalities work best rather than the ones whos numbers are the best - though to be honest in our previous saga, we always took our Master Swordsman on everything, because he was unreasonably dangerous. Magi and trained grogs can solve almost every problem, and the real story is in HOW they solve it, right?

so far the most popular grog in our games is the one who can translate...


What i learned so far about Ars magica,

The player is the one that must decide how to enjoy.

My beloved specialiced ExMisc

With Rego 30... Thats it nothing else

Had several flaws that made him "special"

Had faerie upbringing and was roleplayed as had to. IT IS A FLAW!

And also i wanted magic adiction, not as rules but interpreted. So i interpreted it without the "flaw"

Happened things as fun as rego-toiletpaper and lately rego-poort with corpus requisite

Eating with magic or raising tools from the thin air.

So i do love to ... Whatever category it is... Suboptimized?

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This is my take, too.
IMO, optimised characters are not the norm, but the exception. I thus tend to let them to the PCs, leaving to the NPCs to be more "realistic".

It usually changes nothing to the challenge (CrIg 30 is CrIg 30, whatever your age), but helps with the suspension of disbelief. Also, it helps in that it doesn't make optimisation mandatory, and gives the player that dit it the feeling of being great they were after, rather than just being yet another Com+5 good teacher.

I also tend not to uber-optimise characters, because it breaks my suspension of disbelief and I find it boring.

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I would add the word "generally" to that, because I wouldn't want the PC's to become too comfortable in their assumptions- having a hyper-capable youngster as an exception to the rule doesn't break the power level, and at the same time I have a philosophy that not every antagonist should be able to be overcome. Dealt with in some way, sure, but not necessarily defeated. In modern terms it isn't much a of a story if you are brought before the Don who is giving you a assignment and the hero thinks "I'll just wipe the room with him and his goons"

In a long-running campaign of that other game, the GM once threw at the party a group of attackers almost as optimized as the PCs, using the same tactics we'd been using to wipe the floor with his antagonists ... We survived, but it was not pretty.