Friday, February 13, 2009

The Build Mentality

I never heard the word "build" used in gaming slang until I started checking out the online 3rd edition community. (Which, by the way, I consider to be a waste of my life and I wish I could have the time and brain cells back.) I'm not sure if the "build" mentality in D&D existed before 3rd edition because I was still in high school when I played 2nd edition and most websites I visited consisted mainly of people's homebrew material for the game (including an excellent character generator that has long since vanished into the gaping maw of the internet)and no bickering discussion boards. (Yeah, I know there was usenet, but I never got into that.)

Anyway, "build" culture came upon us (my group) even in the early days of 3.0. Everyone was constantly dicking around with feats and prestige classes, buying anything that had new crunchy material. Favorite prestige classes were picked and characters were mapped out like the Soviet Five Year Plan. In fact, one of the first DMs I played 3.0 under encouraged us to find a prestige class we liked and map our character development to qualify for it at the earliest possible level. It seems like the build of your character became the objective of the game, and many of the lovely tribes of the internet would say "Yes, it is the objective." The whole point of the game became how to have an effective build. You didn't take something because it was cool or because it fit your character concept, you did it because it was mechanically more effective. We ended up with ludicrous rapid fire chain trippers, guys dual wielding two handed swords, a character who could add every single ability bonus aside from Strength to his Armor Class... and this was, admittedly, shit that people did just because they *could.* The Elven thinblade replaced the longsword because there was no reason for it not to. Character classes became totally divorced of any meaning and just became buckets of abilities that one could "dip" into. You took a level of ranger for the two weapon fighting (until they moved it to level 2 in 3.5 so you had to...I don't know, dip deeper?), you took a level or two of barbarian (but no more) to get rage and fast movement. When I voiced my opinion that I still viewed character classes as a representation of character profession and not as a special ability buffet I was called a retard. (Among other, less nice things)
It wasn't long before I abandoned the forums and the build-crazed and tried to run a game where you didn't necessarily have to have the most efficient selection of feats, skills, and other mechanical stuff to have fun. Of course, some of my players were still build-happy, and I'm not the type of DM to tell you that you can't do something just because I personally don't like it... so we had builders mulching through combat encounters and non-builders who often felt frustrated because, in comparison, their characters were useless. (Or so they thought) Meanwhile, the WotC machine churned out book after book, always with more feats, more prestige classes, the precursor to 4E's powers with Tome of Battle, etc, etc, ad nauseam etc. Finally I just put the books down and declared myself done with 3.X. I suppose you could say I was fatigued. I understood that I didn't have to use anything beyond the core books if I didn't fancy it, but my perception of the game had been changed; it seemed like just playing the game wasn't enough anymore, it was about obtaining some kind of mechanical benefit to one's character, which was often just a stepstone to another mechanical benefit, and so on. I'm not trying to get all OTW on everyone, but this just wasn't doing it for me, and I can't see myself returning to this incarnation of the game any time soon.


  1. Yep, the "build" is not a new concept (just take a look at GURPS), but it is relatively new to D&D. It started with weapon proficiencies and gradually proliferated until it has become a "sub game" of its own, most commonly pursued on "character optimisation" forums.

    I despise it. Total waste of my time. The game is basically asking me to invest time in mechanically defining the character in my imagination. No thanks, I would rather just roll up some attributes and choose a class. That is about as much "building" as I want to do when playing D&D. Even proficiencies and specialisation is too much extra crap for me these days. What the bollocks do I care which weapons my fighter spent his time learning? Get on with the game!

  2. You know, I first became familiar with GURPS (3rd edition) in high school, but never really thought of it in terms of build, or at least build as I address it above. I think the reason is that GURPS encouraged you to have an optimized character right out of the gate, since experience came in such small amounts... it was difficult to buy large things after character creation if I remember correctly. D&D, on the other hand, gives you usually several bonuses at each level, and it is possible to forecast your advancement level by level. I suppose you could do the same with GURPS, but it just never came off at me that way. I will also admit that my experience with GURPS has been fairly limited compared to D&D and other games.

  3. I guess the only game I have ever GM'd for long periods that could be considered as having a lot of "build" was Champions.

    As an old schooler, I have always preferred things that went with the players vision of the character, as opposed to making them stronger or more versatile in the way of skills. Even in the Playstation rpg's I have played, I often went for an item I liked the look of over a similar item that would make me much stronger.

    Of course, in the case of D&D, a lot of the point of the game is to get more powerful, and having a lot of stuff filling up your character sheet goes towards realizing that power.

    In my current D&D campaign, the player who created an MU decided to have a throat problem that required him drinking a special tea regularly. A PC that needs to use it's voice to function, and he handicapped him just for the sake of characterization. In these days of powergaming, that is damn sure old school.

  4. Just to throw my two cents worth in,

    I first encountered this build concept with Rolemaster and the Empire of the Petal Throne, along with the Middle Earth roleplaying game back in 1981. In those days I ran as in high school twice a week with a 35 year old fellow who had a bunch of us over to his house...I was somewhat cowed by the experience, but I could see early on all the problems you've described.

    When I heard that 3rd edition was going that way, I just shook my head slowly.

  5. Alexis,

    I've never had the opportunity to play any of those games. I've come to find out that the build mentality is much older than I thought; I was just "sheltered" since my formative gaming years were spent playing things that had largely random character generation and no Feats, Advantages, Merits, etc etc.