Fandom Heresies: The Difference Between Meme, Role-Playing, Min-Maxed and Cheese Builds

Hello all you happy people! It is I, Josh Stoodley, here with more Fandom Heresies.

This week, we’re going to talk a bit about something I’ve seen online recently: the difference between Role-playing and Min Maxed character builds, usually in the context of Dungeons and Dragons but sometimes in regards to other role-playing games as well.

I’m going to start by saying right off the bat that I feel this is a false dichotomy. There are, in my opinion, four distinct types of character builds (and a lot of overlap between them; we’re going to focus on the main four today). They are, in no particular order:

  1. Meme builds: these builds have no unifying concept, pay no attention to class archetypes and are generally nonsensical. These include things like wizards dumping Intelligence for Strength, warriors using magic staffs or weapons they otherwise aren’t built for, etc. They usually require some metagaming to make work and are a headache for everybody at the table.
  2. Role-playing builds: These builds start with a character concept first, then build a class and stats around it. Sometimes this means a less-optimized build than the min-maxers (see below) but not necessarily.
  3. Min-Maxing builds: These are sort of the opposite of role-playing builds. They start from the stats and classes, then build a character around that. These can, but don’t always, result in a bland character that is good at one thing and one thing only.
  4. Cheese builds: these are builds that, like meme builds, have no rhyme or reason to them. Unlike meme builds, which are usually made to be funny, these are meant to abuse the mechanics as much as possible. These include, but are not limited to, multi-class dips that make no sense, stacking tons of irrelevant flaws to stack build points, etc. The key point here is that these builds are purely mechanical and make no sense from a character perspective.

We’ll now go into these character build types into further detail below. The key point I want to make here is, yes, there are bad ways to build your character. There are many, many ways to build a character that will piss off your DM, your fellow players and subsequently get you banned from the table.

The reverse is also true, however. There are many, many ways to build characters that are fun, that make sense from both a mechanical and RP perspective and will make you a valued member of your table.

Join me under the cut!

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Meme Builds: What They Are, And Why They Suck

Following our list above, we’re going to start with Meme builds. In this section we’re going to answer two questions:

  1. What is a meme build?
  2. Why is it guaranteed to piss off your fellow players?

The answer to the first question is simple: a meme build makes no mechanical sense. It’s a 5e Barbarian who dumped Strength, Constitution and Dexterity for maxing out intelligence for example. Or a Wizard who maxes out Strength and dumps Intelligence, that sort of thing.

It’s the kind of build that makes everybody at your table go ‘what the hell?’ It’s a deliberately bad build for the fun of it.

And it also guarantees only you will have any fun.

Why? Because every. single. one of your fellow players will have to carry your dead weight. Unless you abuse the metagame, and because those kind of abuses tend to come later in the game, you are completely useless for large stretches of the game.

Tabletop RPGing is, fundamentally, about cooperation and coordination. A game where one character is utterly useless for the funnies is a player who pisses off everybody else at the table.

Don’t meme, kids. It’s bad for your tables health.

Role-playing Builds

All right. We have discussed one of the worst ways to build a character. Now let’s look at one of the best ways to build one.

Fundamentally, a role-playing build works on the following principle:

I choose my stats to fit my pre-concieved character, even if that means I must accept a less than perfectly optimal build.

A good example from D&D 5e is a Fighter who dumps Dexterity for Intelligence to make a fighty-nerd type character. It’s not a perfectly optimal build, you lose a lot of combat utility when you dump Dexterity (which is a sore point but whatever), but you haven’t betrayed the core class concept (assuming you want to play a melee Fighter, of course) and you’ve added some out of combat utility. And, if you play as Eldritch Knight, you’ve added some good, though not totally necessary, combat utility.

The examples here are endless. A Wizard who dumps Wisdom (but not Intelligence!) for better Constitution, for example. The point is, you’re still matching your stats to your class.

Classless systems work a little differently, obviously, but the core idea is the same: if I want to play a wizard-esque vampire in Vampire: The Requiem, then I should pick the Clans, Covenants and skills that fit that idea. And not, say, pick a physically oriented character and pretend that’s a wizard.

Min-Maxed Builds

And now we move onto the other valid way of building a character, that of the Min-Maxer. As we said before, the Min-Maxer is kind of the opposite of the RP Build, but I will argue they have more in common with each other than not.

So, the guiding principle behind Min-Max builds is:

I create my character around my stats, even if that means I have to accept some bad role-playing.

This is the home of the Honest Rolls character. In an roll-for-stats system, obviously you roll your stats first and then make a character around that. It’s my least favourite way of generating stats by a long shot, but it’s a totally valid way to play. Especially if you’re in a lethal campaign and are going to be going through a lot of characters anyway. Random stats don’t matter that much then.

And of course you can build a character like this in a point buy system too. In fact, this was how I used to build all my characters back in the day: I’d get the stats I wanted and then make up a character based on that. As I’ve grown older, I’ve moved more to an RP-based mindset, but I still min-max to some extent.

And, honestly, that’s (probably) true of most gamers. The difference between a properly done RP build (“I’m roleplaying a professional infantry soldier in D&D. The best class for that is Fighter and the best stats are Strength and Constitution”) and a properly done Min-Max build is pretty damned thin on the ground (“I want to play a melee Fighter with high Strength and Constitution. Hmm, a professional infantry soldier makes the most sense RP-wise for that kind of character”). It’s just a question of where you start when thinking about your character.

Do you start with your character concept and work towards your stats? Or do you start with your stats and work backwards to the character concept? Most players will do a bit of both, honestly, and both are the valid ways to play your character.

Different systems have different emphases, of course. Star Wars: Roleplaying Game by Edge Studios tells you out right to start with a character archetype and build from there. Dungeons and Dragons, being a much more math heavy game (and the originator of the Honest Rolls character) generally favours more of a min-max style.

A good player should be flexible enough to handle both styles.

Cheese Builds

And now we move on to the last, invalid way of building your characters: that of the cheese master.

A cheese build is one that takes the min-maxing way too far, to the point where none of the character makes sense. This is the character, that when you look at their sheet, is just a collection of stats and bonuses with absolutely no unifying theme whatsoever. This is Cartman in that one South Park episode where he claims that his one power is to have any power he wants, or Dexter in that episode of Dexter’s Laboratory where he’s the Game Master and routinely abuses his players.

This is a character that makes sense mechanically and only mechanically. And it is a character that will royally piss off other players and the GM.

Why? For the exact opposite reason the meme build did: instead of everybody carrying you, you are know taking over everybody’s role.

The GM, on the other hand, will hate you because you’re not really playing the game. You’re abusing the mechanics to make yourself invincible, which defeats the point of playing an RPG.

Again, this is different from a well-rounded character or a min-maxed one. A well-rounded character doesn’t take over the whole table, but can offer support to a lot of different roles. A good example is the 5e Bard: they’re a capable spell-caster, decent front-liner and good utility support. Dedicated classes will surpass the Bard in each role, but a Bard can easily team up with, say, a Fighter and make that Fighter much better while still scoring some hits in.

Conversely, a min-maxed character is built around specialization and limitations. A min-maxed Fighter is aware that social dynamics aren’t really their thing, so they’ll hand that off to their Warlock buddy (for example) and focus what the Fighter is good at: fighting.

A cheese build, on the other hand, recognizes no limits. They’re designed to be the best at everything, every time, and usually get that way through excessive metagaming.

Frankly, these guys aren’t fun to play with and I don’t find them much fun to build, either. You can’t even say that these guys are built around the assumption that they’re playing a single-player game because:

  1. They’re not
  2. They rely on cheating and abusing game mechanics to play. A good single-player game does not.

That’s my take on the four character build archetypes! I’ll see you guys soon.