Behind the Screens – Reflections of an Unrepentant Optimizer

Today’s blog post is less a piece of advice and more an RPG-related experience that I wanted to share. It happened over the weekend. And it reminded me of why I love this game so much.

This story begins, as these things often do, with a journey. The journey in this case was a hour-and-change drive south for a Warhammer 40k tournament. Yeah. I know, not the right game for this network. But bear with me. Besides, there’s a lot of crossover between wargames and RPGs, not in the least is that they both have a tendency to attract unrepentant optimizers. You know the time. The kind of person who’s developed such a complete system mastery that they understand and can exploit the fundamental math of the game to their advantage. While pure number-crunching optimization is frowned upon in most RPG groups, this behavior is somewhat more tolerated and – to a certain extent – expected in the competitive wargaming scene.

It was this streak of unrepentant min/maxing that brought be to a local gaming store far out of my usual stomping grounds. I had come with a crazy-powerful optimized army of magic spewing daemons and was prepared to go against similarly ridiculous cheese lists. I had come prepared for and expecting the worst. I would give no quarter and would get none. And it was in this atmosphere of friendly, albeit cutthroat, wargaming that I remembered what it was to love RPGs.

The store we were in was fairly large as most places go. Several thousand feet’s worth of retail and gaming space. The gaming area itself was open and inviting and on the left, row upon row of 6×4′ tables were laid out with terrain for the tournament and it was around these that I and my fellow optimizers clustered. But opposite us, in the corner, sat two tables innocuously pushed together to form a square with a hand-written sign on it that read, “Reserved for Birthday”.

A birthday at a game store. That was an unusual idea. When I was a kid birthdays were – when not actually at someone’s house – usually the domain of a movie theater, or a Chuck E. Cheese, or in the case of one rather artistic friend, an aptly named place called Plaster Fun Time. But a gaming store birthday party? Not in my experience.

The party’s celebrants trickled in just shy of noon. The tournament had been going on for a little under an hour at this point so I didn’t pay much attention initially. My magic spewing daemons were embattled on two sides by imbecilic yet dangerous greenskins and I was busy trying to puzzle out a way for any sort of outcome more favorable than my daemons being stomped into dirt.

Fifteen minutes and a few crucial spells later, I held a field strewn with fallen greenskins, what passes for brains oozing out of their ears. My opponent offered his hand in concession and we shook. Sitting back, I took  a deep breath and let out some of the stress that I had been holding onto during the game. It was only then that I began to pick up on what was coming from the birthday party.


“Wow! That’s a lot of damage! The monster stumbles back and roars. Who’s next?”

“Me! I cast… magic missile!”


Looking over, I see a store employee behind a GM screen, face animated and wildly gesticulating in front of a group of kids between nine and thirteen. There are plenty of chairs. But everyone is on their feet. Some of the boys are actually jumping back and forth from foot to foot. And one girl gleefully mimes swinging a sword as she rolls her d20.

These aren’t unrepentant optimizers. They might one day become unrepentant optimizers. But right now they’re a bunch of kids, playing a game for the sake of the game. Telling a story within the framework of the rules instead of using the rules to bludgeon out a story. This is why I love RPGs. This is the type of moment that I’m looking for. When magic missiles were special and when 14 or so was considered a lot of damage.

I mean, not literally. In all likelihood, 14 was well within the statistical average of what a full BAB class of her level should be capable of outputting. But that’s what I mean. When those kids, when I, didn’t have a sense of what was possible within a rules set – when they didn’t even care what was possible – it allowed them to enjoy their game with pure unadulterated joy. In the thirty-or-so minutes between when I finished my game and it was time to start the next round, I watched these pint-sized adventurers conquer an invading band of ogres and then move immediately onto cake.

This is what I miss about my games these days. The raw innocence one is forced to lose on the road towards total system mastery. And I wish there was some way back from that. Not that I could, or would want to, forget a system. Not that I want my friends or fellow group members to do the same. But it’s the heart of why I love the game. When no one can sit. When adrenaline is high and everyone is caught up in the heat of the moment. When someone rolls a fist full of dice and shouts, “Boom!” It’s the best part of the collaborative story. And it’s the reason I keep playing.


Why do you play RPGs? What are your favorite parts of the game? What brings you back to the table week in and week out? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or on our forums.

Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.


  1. Benjamin

    For me, it brings me back to a simpler more innocent time. Back before my friends and I where bogged down with so many doldrums of “grown-up” life. For those few hours, it’s not about the bills, errands you need to run, or any of that. For a while, everyone gets to embrace the joy of gaming and just cut loose. I get to see the gleam in someone’s eye when they roll that crit, hear the laughs and groans when someone lets loose with a really bad pun, or even the somberness when someone loses a beloved character. It’s one of those joyous times that we get to few of, and we strive to enjoy every minute of it we can.

  2. I look forward to this again, both my GM and I have children of similar ages, and we hope that as time progresses there will be a chance to set up the next generation of gamers, get to watch that first critical hit or that first dragon fight, can’t wait!

  3. Quo

    Myself and another friend have young adult children that have joined our gaming sessions. They bring a refreshing enthusiasm for the small things in RPGs that us more mature gamers have taken for granted.