Robert Schwalb had a very interesting post over at his D&D blog. I linked to it through my Facebook and Twitter, but I think it deserves some discussion.
At some point, perceptions about Dungeons & Dragons have morphed. The game is now winnable. Mechanical selection enables players to create characters that operate well-beyond the expected boundaries and have the means to trivialize the opposition, thus forcing DMs to eliminate options and look further afield for challenges to test the player characters. For example, the first battlerage vigor rules in Martial Power turned minions into temporary hit point batteries to fuel what were, in effect, unkillable characters. Optimal character construction has almost become the equivalent to the Ur-decks of Magic, and such combinations make the game no longer fun to play or run.
I like to call this the FF7 effect because that was the first console game that most gamers of my “generation” beat the crap out of. While it ushered in a new era for video gaming, I think the effect it has had on pen-and-paper gaming has been unfortunate. Schwalb is wrong in one respect: old-school gamers believed that they could “win” D&D. Even then, the victory condition was to become so powerful that you could do anything you wanted, even to other player characters. It was just that the game was so random and unfair that people didn’t expect to survive long enough to win.
I look back at FF7’s materia system with a certain amount of nostalgia because it was a simple, intuitive system that greatly empowered the player to play the game the way they wanted to. A side effect of this was that gamers started to learn systems mastery. Systems mastery takes two forms: effectiveness and degeneracy (I choose not to use the word “optimization” because people fight too much over what it means and whether it applies to them). Effectiveness simply means trying to find something that works. Degeneracy tries to break the system.
Aside from just walking away and finding a new group, the solution, as I see it, comes from both sides of the DM’s screen. The players need to understand that even though an optimized character can be an asset to the party, it can also make impotent the challenges the DM creates. After a dozen toothless encounters, the game grows stale and eventually dies. Rule 0, when it comes to character creation (and I’ve said this before), if it smells like poop, it probably is poop. If you find some mechanical nugget that eliminates a rather sizeable chunk of game play (such as death) or wipes out a category of monsters (solos, minions), think carefully before choosing that option. As well, reverse rolls with the DM (who is also a player). As a player, you wouldn’t enjoy a game where every session, you have to spend one encounter dazed and weakened from start to finish, right? Why would the DM?
As a player, I try to walk back things that start to cross the line. In Josh’s Thursday campaign, my Battlemind became a problem because Conductive Defense is too strong against solos and elites when combined with the high-damage mark of our charasmadin. The moment both defenders were able to get on the boss guy, all his choices turned to crap. I replaced it with Demon Dance, which is far more situational and definitely less optimal. Do I feel bad about having to do this? Not at all. As players, we demand that the GM place the good of the game above their personal enjoyment. We shouldn’t expect anything less from the players.
 Schwalb is correct in stating that much of the gaming community’s understanding of degeneracy comes from Magic: the Gathering. I tend to look to Final Fantasy because it’s a roleplaying game.