What is Character Optimization in D&D 5e?

Last week I wrote an article about min-maxing and how it’s not nearly as damning of a playstyle as many make it out to be. A big issue I have with the anti-min-maxing sentiments is that this bleeds over into character optimization in general, which in my opinion is dangerous.

An optimized character is a character that has picked out a role and has been built with this role in mind. Their highest ability score is their most important one, they have taken equipment, spells, and features that help them carry out their role, and they regularly make solid mechanical decisions when performing their role.

Today we’re going to talk about the first two parts of that definition. For the record, having an optimized character doesn’t mean that you can’t have an interesting character to role-play.

Role-playing and optimization are two separate facets of the game and having one doesn’t mean that you cannot have the other.

What Does an Optimized Character Look Like?

First thing’s first, we need to define what an optimized character is exactly. Simply put, it’s a character that determines what their role is and ensures that they have the basic ability to fulfill that role.

For example, your rogue is going to be a stealthy, trap-disabler that uses finesse weapons. Your rogue’s primary ability score is, therefore, going to be Dexterity, and you have made sure to allocate most of your Ability Score Increases (ASI) and initial ability points into Dexterity.

That’s all it is. The bare minimum optimization you could possibly do is to put emphasis on your primary attribute. Everything after that should be considered to be additional optimizations that serve to help you fulfill your role, but in D&D 5e your attributes are the bread-and-butter of your character.

character optimization DnD 5e
You have a role to fulfill, now create a character that can do it. Art by Bryan Syme.

Egregiously Unoptimized Characters Are Problematic

An unoptimized character would be this same rogue, with the same aspirations and role choice, but instead, the player opts to make their Dexterity low on purpose. I have a lot of beef with these types of builds because, in general, they’re only fun for the person playing them.

I say this because think of it this way if your character has a +0 modifier in their main stat they’re clearly not going to be great at the job. If you came to the table and said you want to play X character, but come with some character that doesn’t really fulfill X character’s role you’ve basically wasted a slot in the party.

That being said, this is a particularly egregious character build and not just a suboptimal character. This is an example of someone going out of their way to make a bad character build. You can play a suboptimal character and still be an asset to your team and successful in your role.

You could argue that a character with all +2 modifiers in their attributes is a suboptimal character. Instead of being a well-rounded character they could’ve had a +4 or +5 in their primary attribute. However, they’re probably still perfectly able to provide value to the party and complete their role’s responsibilities.

Character Creation

Character optimization in most RPGs begins at character creation. D&D 5e is no exception to this. A well-optimized character needs to have a solid foundation to stand on. They need a solid spread of attributes that synergize with their role. They need the proper equipment and proficiencies to play into their role as well.

Both of these needs can be met further down the road for your character, but that takes away some of the precious-few ASIs that we’re awarded. It’s possible to “make up” for an unoptimized character later on, but of course, this comes with other sacrifices that you’ll have to make.

Set yourself up for success and you can focus on flavor later. Choose flavor now and you’ll have to be careful with your choices further on in the game. Either way you slice it you’ll have to make some character optimization decisions.

character optimization DnD 5e
Optimized characters come in all different shapes and sizes. Art by Ester Zejn.

Ability Scores

At character creation, we get a chance to choose how to allocate our ability score points. You’ll get more or less control of your ability scores depending on if you roll for stats or use point buy. Regardless of how your group does their character creation, you’ll still have some decisions to make.

First and foremost, each class has a primary and secondary attribute that they use. For rogues, for example, this is without a doubt Dexterity. If you’re creating a rouge, you’ll want to make sure that you put your best roll into Dexterity, or you come out of point-buy with at least a 15 (or 16 with racial bonuses) in Dexterity.

Some classes have multiple potential secondary attributes. For example, a rogue’s could be Constitution, or it could be Intelligence if they are playing an Arcane Trickster. Figure out which attributes are important to you and then put your second-highest roll into that attribute. For point buy, you’ll want to raise it to at least 14.

Voila, you have just partaken in character optimization. You even have 4 more rolls to play with or plenty of points to allocate to add flavor to the character if you so choose.

You can also continue to further optimize your characters by ranking what attributes are most important to you mechanically speaking. Then increase each one proportionally to how much your character will value them. I do this for most of my 5e Character Builds if you want an example of this.

Race/Class Combination

The second most important character optimization that you can do is to choose a race that works well with your class. That’s right, a person who wants to make an optimized character generally selects their class before their race. Their character’s race should compliment the role they’re taking.

For the most part, this is an easy concept to grasp. Ideally, you want to pick a race with a +2 bonus to your class’ primary attribute. For example, a Tiefling Sorcerer is an optimal race/class combination.

While it’s less optimal, you could choose a race that is more interesting to you but only gives a +1 bonus to your primary attribute. In some cases, the features and traits that come with this race could prove to be more valuable than other races with a +2 as well.

That being said, there’s nothing stopping you from making a sound, optimal character without choosing an ideal race/class combination. You’ll just have to allocate more ability points and eventually ASIs to raise your primary attribute.

Fair warning though, you will notice that you’re a bit weaker in the early game if you don’t have an optimal race/class combination compared to a character who does.

I’m definitely someone who appreciates a bit of crunch in my RPGs so I love having a lot of mechanical choices. However, I’ve talked before about how this emphasis on race/class combo feels unfun for the player.

I’ve suggested changing the initial ability score increase to come from the character class instead of their race. This change would mean that the player can choose a race that interests them instead of one that has a +2 bonus to their primary attribute.

D&D 5e Genasi
Even your subrace can be an optimization decision. Art by Wizards of the Coast. 

Background

Your character’s background is something that could be optimized as well. Backgrounds give your character proficiencies (skills, tools, languages, etc.) and unique features that they can utilize in niche situations.

Generally, when we consider background optimizations we’re going to focus more on the proficiencies than any other element. They’re more quantifiable since they have a more regular value than most backgrounds’ features. Features are typically viewed as a cool, flavorful perk that may come up once in a blue moon, but they won’t be anything game-breaking.

For example, a rogue may opt to take the Urchin background. It gives proficiency to the Stealth and Sleight of Hand which are both rogue skills. Since their background gives them proficiency in these skills anyways, the rogue is free to choose two other rogue skills.

On the other hand, backgrounds also give characters access to skills they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get proficiency in. You may opt for this option depending on what you’re trying to optimize for your character.

Using your character’s background to further optimize your character is a viable strategy. Mechanically speaking, you’ll take a look at what backgrounds offer proficiencies that will work well with your character’s role. That’s all there is to it.

Honestly, while you can optimize your character through their background, I’d recommend choosing a background that is interesting to you. Backgrounds are one of the easiest parts of the game to homebrew too so working with your DM to make something mechanically and thematically fitting for your character.

Level Up

You’ll get a number of ASIs depending on what class(es) you’re leveling as. You can use these to increase your ability scores, or you can purchase a feat, some of which also give you +1 to an attribute.

There are a few ways to further optimize your character. For starters, you could use your ASIs to improve your ability to fulfill your role or further carve-out a niche within your role.

Another option is to improve your flaws. Low Wisdom or Constitution can be detrimental flaws for a character to have. Improving some of your more lacking attributes could prove to be more beneficial than further increasing your primary attribute.

Outside of ASIs, your character has the option of multiclassing each time they level-up. Sometimes a small dip into a class can prove to be both a great mechanical and flavorful decision.

ASI Allocation

As I’ve mentioned a few times in this post, your primary attribute should be one of, if not the highest attribute your character has. This is their baseline, their bread-and-butter, and is constantly used. It should at least be a solid 15 or 16 after character creation.

An optimized character can have a 16 in their main ability for quite some time and be perfectly fine depending on what other optimization choices you make. This is assuming, of course, that other, less-necessary abilities aren’t higher than your primary ability.

In my opinion, though, you should have at least a +4 modifier in your main ability after your second ability score increase. Depending on the class this is around level 8. Using one of your two ASIs to raise your main ability to 18 (+4) isn’t that much to ask.

character optimization DnD 5e
Optimization doesn’t end at character creation. Art by WotC.

That being said, one of the most optimal things you can do for your character’s success is to cap-out their primary attribute at 20. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to rush to get a +5 modifier either.

You can have a character without any maxed stats and still be a well-optimized character. The key to creating a great well-optimized character is to just ensure that one of your highest attributes is the one central to your role.

Optimization isn’t just getting a 20 (+5) primary attribute. It’s more than that. It’s about having a goal for a character and improving your stat sheet to help you reach your goal.

It all depends on what your goals are. If you are regularly able to complete the duties of your role, you may opt to improve on some of your weaker attributes, or potentially take a feat to help carve out a niche for yourself. You could also improve your secondary attributes that are important for your class archetype.

Feats

Feats are an optional mechanic, but I find that most groups use them. Most of the time feats tend to be a suboptimal choice compared to adding +2 to your primary attribute. What they provide instead are ways to carve a specific niche out for your character. It’s a different form of optimization.

For example, if you want to be a long-range sniper you may opt to take the Sharpshooter feat instead of adding +2 to Dexterity. This feat gives you the ability to shoot from much farther away while ignoring cover. It carves out a sniper niche for the back-line character role.

Of course, for high-risk, high-reward type feats like Sharpshooter and Great Weapon Master, you’ll want to have a high Dexterity or Strength modifier to offset the -5 to hit. You need to be able to reliably hit regular attacks before you take anything that lessens your accuracy in favor of additional damage.

Combat isn’t the only part of D&D 5e that can be optimized through feats. Feats like Actor can help a face character with their role-playing opportunities and social interactions. Alert could help a scouting character look-out for potential ambushes.

Use feats as a way to specialize in an aspect of your role. Think of it as a micro-optimization. Increasing your attributes ensures you get an additional, stable bonus to certain parts of the game. A feat instead further increases your ability to perform in certain situations. They’re an opportunity cost, and a fun one at that.

Multiclassing

A lot of min-maxers and optimization junkies love to do what we call a “dip” into an additional class. One or two levels into a second class can be more powerful than simply staying the course and having a mono-class character.

The reason for this is that when you level 1 level into a new class your character can potentially gain quite a few new proficiencies. Case in point, you’ll get simple and martial weapon, light and medium armor, and shield proficiencies for taking a single level in fighter.

Speaking of taking a dip into fighter, a 2 level dip in fighter is an amazing dip for front-line or martial characters. You’ll get the previously mentioned proficiencies, a fighting style, Second Wind, and Action Surge for a very small investment.

D&D 5e multiclassing proficiencies table
Taking a single level in a secondary class will grant you these proficiencies.

Hexblade Warlock is another common class that a lot of min-maxers and optimization fiends like to take for how much value you get out of that class initially.

Take a look at what benefits a few levels in a different class can give you. It may be worthwhile to delay growth in your primary class for a short detour. There are many features and benefits that you can only receive through multiclassing. The trade-off is that it will take you relatively longer to gain the more lucrative features of your primary class.

Multiclassing can also be used solely to add more flavor to your character. It’s not just a tool for character optimization. In fact, I’d urge you to find a way to use the flavor and role-playing opportunities that multiclassing provides. You’re creating a unique character by multiclassing, play it up a bit!

Conclusions

There are plenty of different ways to make an optimized character in D&D 5e. There are just as many ways to further optimize a character after character creation as well.

Optimization isn’t the be-all, end-all of D&D 5e. There are plenty of other factors that come into play as to how useful a character is. The equipment you use, magical items you have, and most importantly, the decisions you make can impact the game much more than the numbers on your character sheet.

That being said, there’s a lot of value to be had in creating a character with some bare-minimum optimizations. Focus on your primary attribute and get at least a +4 modifier in it by level 8. Decide on a role for your character and select feats, classes, and ability scores to aid in that role.

“But my Half-Orc Rogue with 8 Dexterity is really funny, he thinks he’s sneaky but he just isn’t!” It’s funny for about 5 minutes, or until the rest of the party realizes they now have to pick up your slack because you’re not doing the job you said you would. Consider the impact your character has on the rest of the group.

Optimization and role-playing are two separate parts of the game. You should strive to create characters that are both decently optimized and fun to play as!

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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