This is a variant of the “rules lawyer” we’ll get to in another post — the min-maxer is a particular problem in that the player really isn’t doing anything wrong, per se. They’re trying to tailor their character to their role, and this is admirable…but it can lead to narrative issues down the line.

One of the standard min-max techniques in Dungeons & Dragons is to pump a character up on their physical stats, but slight charisma, so that they are a survival monster, but something of a duffer in social environments. This is understandable when one considers that the stereotype of the gamer is a maladjusted type that can’t get a girlfriend. But that’s a stereotype…most of the gamers I’ve met are fully functioning human beings (but when the stereotype is in effect, whoo boy!) By slighting charisma, the players are doing a cost-benefit analysis, and erring on the side of being able to kick the crap out of the monsters and live…shmoozing at the tavern is not a priority.

This sort of cost-benefit design shows up in other settings, as well, and has the main side effect of making the character annoyingly good at some particular set of skills, often to the detriment of creating surprise, suspense, or a sense that failure is possible. A few examples:

One of my former group commonly would design their characters in our Victorian science game to be social and charisma masters. This made sense because 1) this was her fantasy, to be attractive, engaging, and sexy, and 2) it was the equivalent of maxing for social “combat” — the primary venue for a female character of the upper class in the setting. However, it meant that she would often run roughshod over NPCs of power and created connections that quickly put the character and her companions in a very rarified strata where they were essentially untouchable from a legal and political sense. To balance her out left other characters so outgunned that they were simply props in these social scenes. However, they would often flub rolls due to the higher difficulty this primary character created, and hence her friends would cause her trouble she would have to smooth over.

Another would be the detective who is uncannily good at sussing out the truth. The character was built with incredible analytical skills, intuition benefits that allowed them to make deductive leaps that made it very difficult — if they asked the right question — to disguise intent or guilt of NPCs they were investigating. This in itself isn’t too bad; you can find ways to adapt a good mystery by creating more layers of intrigue or guilt. However, he was also built with sixth sense skills, enhanced reflexes, all the sorts of things that make him the combat monster of the traditional sense. To challenge this character, I’ve had to either throw serious number of bad guys or very tough ones at him, or I have to come at the problem sideways such as giving him a problem he couldn’t dodge his way out of…and that’s the trick with a min-max character:

When you need to challenge them, one thing you can do is give them something outside their specialty to do. If you can split the party, give the bad ass with the low intelligence the riddle to solve. Give the thief a situation where they have to talk their way into a place to steal the object in question. (Shoulda put more than a 2 in charisma…shouldn’t ya, sport?)

Another is to play to their weaknesses. Most newer RPGs have some kind of weakness or trait system that either compels a response (usually for a reward) or or has a mechanic to adversely affect the character. So that tough guy is afraid of snakes, huh..? Shame to get to the McGuffin they need, he has to go through that room of dangerous asps. That thief is great in a building, working on locks and such, but never really got used to heights…and the way out, it’s through that 6th story window. Maybe that alcoholic pilot shouldn’t be drinking so much before an important dogfight.

The main thing I think a GM can do is to work with the players during character creation to decide exactly how far they want to push a certain trope. Sometimes, even in a campaign like a pulp game — where the characters are supposed to be over the top — you can go too far and have a character that “breaks” the game because they are just too much. (I actually designed a character like this for a player that seemed great on paper, but once in play just trashed the reality of the setting.)