Saturday, July 20, 2019

Dynamism and the Generic Optimum

Gotta admit: I love squeezing out new jargon.

The Generic Optimum

The generic optimum is the best plan that's printed on your character sheets.

If your party was dropped into a blank 20' x 20' room and forced to fight a level-appropriate assortment of boring enemies, you would adopt a specific strategy.

You'll put the fighter up front, open up with your best moves, set up your combos, while saving your daily abilities for when you really need them, and saving your single-use items for when you really need them.

This is your generic optimum.

Some optimums are more generic than others.  4e had a very dry generic optimum, while I can imagine a 5e party of wild magic sorcerers having a more dynamic fight, since there's so much chaos baked into them.


Dynamism is the opposite; it's how much you have to change your plans each round.

On the first round of combat, this is how far you have to deviate from your generic optimum.

Encountering a nilbog, realizing that it is healed by damage and harmed by healing, is a very simple example of extreme dynamism.  It forces you to invert your usual strategy.

It isn't necessarily complex, since it's not hard to figure out.  And it's not challenging, since the cleric has no problem dropping a heal on the little bugger.  But it is dynamic--out of the ordinary.

Changing tactics as you deplete spells over the course of a day isn't really dynamic.  You knew that would happen the moment you rolled a wizard.

by Line Beinkamp

Chaos and Law

Players tend to love dynamism.  It's literally why we roll dice--to inject a known quantity of unpredictability into our games.

When people say that they don't like a system/class because it's boring, they're usually talking about a lack of dynamism, and a lack of ways to respond to dynamism.

A chaos sorcerer (all spells chosen at random each day) is dynamic since she wakes up surprised every morning, and can respond well to dynamism, since wizards (as a group) have a very wide array of abilities open to them.

The humble fighter is often lamented as the most boring class because they are not very dynamic (they don't have to roll on a d20 table of mutations as part of their class).  In fact, they are usually the opposite.  They are a reliable extension of a character's mundane abilities: fighting, leaping, surviving.

Depending on the system and DM, though, fighters can respond to dynamism quite well.  They have a better attack bonus, more survivability, and often better physical prowess than their peers.  This means that they can attempt, succeed, and survive more shenanigans than the other classes.

People who are bored by fighters are often bored by either (a) the lack of respondable dynamism in the dungeon, or (b) the lack of their creativity in responding to it.  (By respondable dynamism I basically mean how much weird shit the fighter can interact with.  A fighter has many ways to interact with an alcoholic door.  A fighter doesn't have many ways to interact with force field that can only be dispelled by magic--but this is just poor dungeon design, and I won't consider it any further.)

Having fun with a fighter in an OSR game requires you to be creative with it.  You are in a uniquely stable position--use it to attempt destabilizing things.  Players who don't realize this are apt to be frustrated by the apparent lack of options.  Fighters don't get new buttons to press, they just get better at pressing the old buttons, and its easy to undervalue that.

Sources of Dynamism

Nearly all games would benefit from more dynamism.  Let's talk about where it comes from.

The OSR love difficult enemies, because difficult enemies are inherently dynamic.  They're too tough to be overcome with the generic optimum.  A creative solution has to be found, or a precious single-use item must be used.  An enemy that can't be solved by the generic optimum is a puzzle.

Wizards are not inherently dynamic.  If the DM keeps putting dispel magic doors in the dungeon so that the wizard will "feel special" by casting dispel magic to help his party through, then both of them will only succeed in boring each other.  Never write a dungeon that expects a certain spell.  Keep your puzzles open-ended.

A series of unlucky rolls can cause the combat to unfold in ways that you weren't expecting.  This causes people to change their plans, which is more interesting than just trading attack rolls.  We want combat to be a little uncertain.  Consider putting more randomness in your environments, e.g. in the windy room, there is a 1-in-6 chance that everyone's torches are blown out.

Like the nilbog example, another way to insert more dynamism into your game is to attack all parts of the character sheet.  Destroy equipment, steal money, switch stats, switch character sheets, teleport them into an unexplored part of the dungeon.

Dynamism usually comes from the monsters.  The players usually choose their fights, and so they choose things that they can win as long as nothing too unexpected happens.  Dynamism occurs through randomness ("another crit--fuck!"), discovery (the man is actually a magic-immune golem), and behavior (instead of fighting, the orc king jumps on his dactyl and flees).

And an obvious source of damage is a boss that changes form/tactics when its HP is depleted.  Adds can join the fight, etc.

Complexity vs Dynamism

A common mistake that DMs and game designers make is confusing complexity and dynamism.

Imagine a lich with a bunch of spells and abilities: fireball, finger of death, teleport, disintegrate, counterspell.  It has a bunch of legendary actions each turn, paralyzing people and using cantrips.  As a monster, the lich is fairly complex to run.

And yet, despite that complexity, the lich is not very dynamic.  A party facing a lich expects to take a lot of damage every turn.  Most of the lich's abilities do not disrupt the party's plans.

A fireball goes off.  They heal and carry on.

A PC takes heavy damage from disintegrate or finger of death.  They heal and carry on.

The cleric's spell is countered.  The party carries on.

A PC is frightened or paralyzed.  The party heals them, or they don't.  In any event, they usually don't have many options between "keep fighting" and "run away".  Their tactics don't change significantly.  (The paralyzed character has even fewer options.)

Even the lich teleporting can be a static tactic.  If the lich uses it to flee somewhere the party cannot locate or follow, it doesn't do anything except give the DM a chance to save the BBEG's life.

A lich is more dynamic than a bunch of orcs, yes, but it's not as dynamic as it's complexity warrants.

In this case, the DM has failed to provide the players with a dynamic challenge.  There was never a moment in the fight when the party realized "shit, our generic plan isn't going to be enough, we need to come up with something new", and those are the most fun parts of any combat.

In contrast to the lich, I present a couple of counterpoints.

A skeleton jelly is a low-level undead that is completely immune to damage.

A candy fairy can cast invisibility, swords to sugar, and charm.

These are examples of monsters that have a very high ratio of dynamism to complexity.

Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good

I'm not trying to argue "dynamism good, generic optimum bad".

Too much dynamism leads to gameplay that is very loose.  The stuff written on the character sheet tends to become more meaningless.  (If the PCs in the Dungeon of the Thief God die when all their possessions are stolen, and in no other way, HP is meaningless.)

And a simple fight can often be a palate cleanser after a particularly dynamic fight.  It gives the brain a chance to decompress.  Fights where the party realizes that it's not going to work, that they'll have to come up with something new--those fights are stressful and they require a lot of player attention.  Don't burn your players out with a long series of dynamic, high-stakes challenges.

Fights that follow the generic optimum also gives players a chance to use their abilities in a straightforward way, which is good for players who want to realize their character concept along the lines they originally envisioned.  (For example, the player who rolled up a barbarian probably wants at least a few straight-up fights where can wade into a bunch of skeletons and let loose with their rage.)

And of course, when a player chooses a class, they are (partially) choosing how dynamic they want their gameplay to be.


  1. Excellent. This is the sort of pragmatic theory that helps OSR games shine.

  2. Thanks for this, you nicely put into words a concept thats pretty fundamental for RPG, especially OSR design! I'll definitely bear this stuff in mind when designing dungeons and rule sets.

  3. Long time listener, great blog.
    This is gonna reflect my love of complexity but: Fighters are better at pressing the genetic buttons than wizards. Besides maybe higher hp, fighters aren't better at dealing with the alcoholic door or the skeletal jelly. (except maybe tricky... And impress)
    As always great post

    1. I think the point is, that most of the time, the wizard isn't better at dealing with the alcoholic door or skeletal jelly. *Nobody is*, only the players get to deal with problems like those. Maybe the wizard might have a spell, maybe not. But normally, it's the player that has to deal with fun problems like that, not the character.

  4. No accounting for taste, but "Generic Optimum" is actually my favorite Alcoholic Doors album.

  5. Very good! Fighters are actually my favorite class because of the reasons you listed.

  6. Oh, what a keen analysis! You've taken something that most of us sort of vaguely knew, and brought it out into the light of day. Well done!