Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Loving the Minimax

There has been so much rabid discussion elsewhere in the past few days that I have been ignoring my poor little old blog here. In light of the somewhat controversial stuff that's been going on elsewhere, I'm going to present what I think might be the least contentious of my three upcoming essays.

Or, to clarify, I think this will be the most contentious to ordinary gamers, but the least contentious to theorists, by which I mean not people educated in any particular school of thought, but rather simply those that have thought for any great length of time about the play of a role-playing game.

Loving the Minimax

Game theory is the mathematical theory of the actions of wholly self-interested people, which it is superbly good at predicting. Another branch of game theory, altruistic game theory, looks at the actions of actual real people, but it perhaps less superbly good at predicting those, because mushy things like emotions, style, and other people's feelings are harder to gauge on a value scale.

However, give a person a problem which can be expressed in terms of hard numbers, and proper information about what is valuable, and they will behave pretty much in the way that game theory predicts that they would. All humans do this, a process that game theory calls the minimax. The minimax is so named because a person will try to expend them minimum amount of effort to get the maximum benefit out of the situation.

Minimax, and its vulgar versions minmax or minmaxer, has a meaning in role-playing circles, too. The 2nd edition AD&D Player's Handbook discusses this in terms that we will all find familiar, although it does not explicitly use the term.

(My quest to find a good reference for the term in a commonly used RPG book failed. I know it is out there. Feel free to quote in the comments.)

Too often players become obsessed with "good" stats. These players immediately give up on a character if he doesn't have a majority of above-average scores. There are even those who feel a character is hopeless if he does not have at least one ability of 17 or higher! Needless to say, these players would never consider playing a character with an ability score of 6 or 7.

In truth, Rath's survivability has a lot less to do with his ability scores than with your desire to role-play him.

From this we see that someone who, confronted with an RPG character creation system (or, by implication, any RPG system or subsystem), attempts to manipulate the system to their best advantage is, by implication, a bad player. Good players, by contrast, make characters without regard to their abilities, power levels, or systematic effects at all.

Can we all agree that the afformentioned “bad player” is pretty much what is being talked about when most RPG players talk about “minmaxers?” If not, say so, but you won't like the rest of this essay if you disagree with that.

Aside: I'd like to, for the purposes of this essay and maybe the future as well, to segregate minimaxer, powergamer, and munchkin into seperate terms. When I talk about a minimaxer, I am talking about a player who is maximizing their power as a player. When I am talking about a powergamer, I am talking about someone who likes playing powerful characters and power fantasies (such a player might be drawn into Amber, Nobilis, World of Darkness, or other games where you play powerful figures.) When I am talking about a munchkin, I am talking about someone who causes disfunction at the table.

That said, let's examine some things about the AD&D statement, and the general cultural attitude of gaming when it comes to the minimax.

First, we need to understand what I consider the fundamental building block of all RPG theory – the players sitting around the table (yes, I include the GM when I say “players”) are humans, playing a game inside a normal human social context.

Secondly, as I said above, humans will tend to maximize there benefit, given a sufficiently simple system.

Thirdly, in terms of most RPGs, player enjoyment of the game, in terms of effectiveness in contributing to play and admiration of their peers, is directly related to character power. (One can imagine a game, such as Universalis or many others, where this is not the case, but I'm not talking about those games.)

Combine these three things, and what do you get?

A mess.

Any sane human being, in the absence of serious social conditioning, confronted with a recreational activity, will attempt to enjoy it. If the main route to participation and enjoyment is through a reasonably simple mathematical system, they will use the minimax. This is just sensible human behavior.

And yet RPG players, when confronted with the same situation, often do not, or are ashamed of their engagement and try to cover it up. Why is this?

Let's work on the basic assumption that RPG players, at least the ones we are discussing, are sane. If they are not following their natural course of minimax behavior, it is because they have strong social pressures. Like, say, those in the above paragraph.

The message here, basically, is “if you want to participate in the game to its fullest extent, you are cheating and deserve to be socially ostracized for it.” Such a message is certainly strong enough to account for the fear, hatred, and disgust reactions that many gamers reserve for “minmaxers.”

Except, of course, that a taboo does not exist in absence of the activity it prevents, it merely drives it underground. Fear of social punishment for minimaxing simply rewards those who can come up with paper-thin justifications for their player-power, from “it's in-character” to “I got the GM's permission” to “I rolled it! Really guys!”

(Alternatively, it encourages people to ignore the rules entirely and draw their player-power strictly from the social bonds between themselves and the GM.)

So what we have left is a culture of gamers who really want to participate fully in their games, but feel that they cannot participate for fear of being ostracized for it, so mask and cover up that participation in various methods.

Does this strike anyone as healthy or fun?

The minimax is predictable human behavior. As game designers and as game players, I want to see us develop play-styles and rules-sets which take that into account as a good thing, which take the natural impulses of people and make them into whatever art we want to make together. Fortunately, there is already a great head-start on this (Dogs in the Vineyard, Riddle of Steel, and PrimeTime Adventures are three I can think of. Dead Inside looks good, but I haven't read it yet.)

The minimax is in all of us. Let's love it and use it rather than hating it and fearing it.

P.S. The last line of that AD&D 2nd ed quote is particularly wrong. Ever tried to get in a fight with an orc if your Con is 7?

Edit: Oops, I forgot to link to the post that inspired this: A Look at Powergaming by Jay Loomis.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff as usual, Ben. Allow me to digest for a while and then come back.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gut check reaction: damn right. I think I may tend to use terms like "niche protection" and "spotlight time" when I'm riffing in this same vicinity, but you've cut right to the heart of my nebulous feelings on the matter.

And like Judd, I'll be back. I'm very interested to see where this discussion goes, but it's too late for me to come up with much that's constructive right now.

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you got to the crux of the matter. It's all about player ability to influence the shared imaginary space. Minmaxing exists because of the imbalance in "rights" to affect that space.

Here's some extra kindling for the fire: A lot of traditional RPGs are about disempowering the players, but pretending you're not.

5:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben- right. The "minmaxer=bad" idea seems like a cheap coverup for poor design.

6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


can't do specific quotes from work, but any rulebook that says "you as players have freedom to do what you want" then proceeds to talk about how the GM is final arbitrator, should ignore the rules to make the story "better", and so on. Impossible thing before breakfast stuff.

Another thought: Minmaxing seems often to be players trying to regress that balance by having undeniable "facts" to assert their right to influence the game on a social level (as well as system level). "But surely I can do that, I've got X level in Y"

6:58 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Everyone -- boy, anyway want to say something contentious? We're just having a great big love-fest here.

Matt -- I think the "you can do anything!" statements in the same book with "the GM is always right" statements are an interesting thing. I'm inclined towards charitable readings, so I think it might be an IIEE thing -- "You can try to do anything, the GM says whether or not it works." Does that ring true for you?

I think one of the most interesting reponses is Pete Darby in the LiveJournal comments (for reference, I do try to respond to livejournal comments, but I prefer to get them here). His point that this isn't at all a GNS thing is an important clarification. In terms of the big-model boxes, players maximizing their credibility is a social contract thing, I think.

10:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, how about this for contentious. I am annoyed by the minmaxer in my games because his skills at crafting characters exceed those of the other players. His characters are better at influencing the shared imaginary space within the game because he is better at finding the ways that maximize his input, and the other players end up shut out. How can I play with this individual and still ensure that everyone else has a good time? Some people are just going to be good at doing this, others are not. My wife, for example, hates making characters, because she isn't interested in teasing the tricks from the rules that will make her character effective. The effort in relation to return is too great.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Brennan --

Since I don't know you, your wife, the other guy, or what game you are playing I find it a little hard to answer your question.

What system are you using?

Does you wife merely dislike "crunchy bits" of chargen or, in fact, any crunchy bit that she comes across?

Is the other guy a good teacher? Does he get joy out of helping other people, in character or out of character?

2:59 AM  
Blogger thickenergy said...

You know when you're playing with people who a) buy into that AD&D paragraph or b) aren't skilled at minmaxing themselves. Look at their faces after they realize that you've maximized your character effectiveness. The 'b' group will look bitter and jealous. The 'a' group.. well, you might as well have just eaten the face off of a baby.

It's definitely a social contract issue. It goes right to the heart of what each player believes the underlying goal of play to be. And it's not limited to games with a web of mathematical bonuses either. You can game hard and play a cut-throat game of SOAP, maximizing your effectiveness the whole way. The tools at your disposal may change, the basic idea is the same.

3:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The system in question was Burning Wheel, but several other repeats of basically the same situation in other systems have occurred (including d20). My wife is really just not interested in crunch at all until actual play occurs, and then she does care about being effective. She just isn't interested in the character creation process itself.

The other guy is happy to help, and I suppose it might be good to have him consult on other people's characters to boost effectivenes. He's not an ass about it, but the other players do get a bit frustrated since they end up less effective in the game than his characters are.

4:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the thesis of your post, Ben. However, I think that minmaxing can become dysfunction. This occurs when a player becomes more interested in the maximization than in contributing to the SIS. Though it sounds like that behavior might be classified as "powergaming" in your usage. (Have I mentioned how much I hate these terms?)

7:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Minimax is not min-maxing.

Minimax is searching among your options to find the option that minimizes the maximum potential risk. It's a strategy you do when you just plain don't know what the other person is doing.

This is not minimum effort to get maximum out of the situation.

I think I've read the term "min-maxing" in AD&D 2nd Ed., probably in the Player's Handbook.

I believe the quote was "A certain amount of min-maxing is inevitable, and even good -- it shows that you're interested in the game!"

Anyway, min-maxing is stigmatized, yes, but it's not because it's viewed as *cheating*. I'm not even sure it's discouraged for social reasons. Two things come to mind:

1) Nobody wants to be a rules lawyer. Nobody wants to piss other gamers off, so nobody wants to spend so much time that they blur the lines between themselves and rules lawyers.

2) It might just be that some people are aware that they're in the game for the sake of the game. I know that I don't try to maximize my characters' effectiveness because I don't see character effectiveness as a part of my gaming. I try to build around a conception.

However, some few specific gaming systems lend themselves entirely to things other than role-playing. If the point of the game is who clobbers the ogres faster, then we should not be surprised when people attempt to be awesome ogre-clobbers.

I don't think that's a problem with the players, I think it's a problem with the game.

And certainly, against your thesis, I think it's a problem.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Ben said...


Burning Wheel is a bit of a sticky wicket, since if you are using the Combat and Duel of Wits mechanics (are you?) there is a deep tactical level during play, not simply a strategic level during character creation. But you say your wife engages fine with tactics in play?

What I would do is turn over character generation to the minimaxer fellow entirely. Have the other players request what they want, then you work with him to make a set of good characters. Or at least ask him to kibbitz during chargen. If other players are interested in learning his techniques, he could teach them / assist. This is a lot like what happens when I play D&D, which I am not great at optimizing.

About Burning Wheel, though -- who in the group tends to get the most Artha, and for what?


10:41 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Hi, Anonymous guy!

Do you have a page number for that quote? I was sure that I first read the term in the same book, but I couldn't find it for the life of me.

How would you like me to deal with your response? Do you want a rebuttal? Do you want me to try to explain myself further, particularly where I think you misunderstood me? Or are you happy to just have said you peace and moved on?


P.S. Do you have a name I can call you? Prefer a real one, but even a handle is fine. "Anonymous guy" is a bit awkward.

10:44 AM  
Blogger WiredNavi said...

Sing it, brother. But then, you knew I'd say that.

1:11 PM  
Blogger jhkim said...

I've followed up to this in a post on my new RPG blog, On Minimaxing.

1:11 AM  
Blogger Joshua A.C. Newman said...

Ben, I couldn't agree more.

But Brennan, I totally dig the concern you have there.

I'm in a game - stuck in a game, you might say - of D&D where I've been systematically deprotagonized since the first adventure. This is not because of the GM (I don't think) but because solutions that seem creative but obvious to me aren't supported except by GM fiat, and if he doesn't get what I'm getting at, I don't get anywhere.

I can't help but think that a) I'd be a lot more effective in the game if I grokked the character generation better and b) But there for the grace of God go I.

What I really like about Dogs character creation (and to a lesser extend PTA's) is that the stuff you write down on your sheet is the stuff that's important to you, and you write down how important it is, and you're done. No pick lists (except the one, and it's only four or five items long), just a little bit of dividing up points (dice in this case), and everything else is writing down what you think is cool about the character.

So my recommendation is to try it with your wife. I own BW but haven't played, so I don't know how they'll compare, but I know Dogs confronts the issue you're talking about.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know you may dislike the whole anonymous part, but what I have to say is shot and hopefully sweet. I really got a kick out of this and I don't know if it is just because it is one in the morning or what, but I laughed my ass off. Why was it funny? Well, I've been a closet gamer for years and I've never really encountered anyone who discussed the ramifications and associated social connectedness of RPG's. Also, it is just so well thought out and concise. I feel like maybe an unanswered part ... a nagging part of me metaphysical gaming experience has been answered. I know that this doesn't contribute significantly to understanding the meta-game components, but this has been a great read and I hope you continue the search.

-Call me V

3:22 PM  
Anonymous stefoid said...

I just stumbled across this, because I was looking at like-minded stuff in the forge archives.

anyway, my take on min-maxing is that its just players searching for character design decisions that matter. The fun in playing these types of games is inventing a strategy (during character creation) and implementing that strategy successfully (during play) - part mad scientist and part armchair general.

For that to work, decisions you make during character creation have to have a significant impact during play. Games that encourage 'balanced' characters are misguided.

1:57 PM  

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