Spherical Goblins in a Vacuum

There is a known bug in the human psyche, called the “quantifiability fallacy” or sometimes the “metrical fallacy”: we overestimate the importance of things that can be measured. The easier they are to measure, the more important we assume they are. And because the easily-measured metrics are the easiest things to test for and to brag about, their perceived importance just reinforces itself over time.

This problem crops up in how we handle just about everything: health care, corporate finance, sports, governance, even our military strategies and priorities. Everywhere you go and everything you do, people want to see numbers, numbers, numbers. Hard numbers, big numbers. This kind of thinking pervades pretty much every important aspect of modern life, but perhaps none as important as the fine art of pretending to be an Elf Bard rifling through the pockets of dead kobolds for spare change.

Yes, friends. For today’s Thing of the Day, you get a blog post about the dungeons and the dragons. This will actually be the first installment in a semi-regular feature, an ad hoc column I am calling “Spherical Goblins”, short for “Spherical Goblins in a Vacuum”. Some people who stand at the right nerdy intersection might understand that title immediately, as will people who pay attention to my twitter ramblings.

For everyone else, this post will explain it.

There is a joke—a whole species of them—about physicists solving some problem like doubling a dairy farm’s milk production, but then revealing that their solution only works “for spherical cows in a vacuum”. This references the fact that physicists often simplify the problems they’re dealing with by making assumptions that eliminate complications.

This brings me to the nature of what is often called “theorycrafting” in D&D, as it currently exists, as it applies to min-maxing or character optimization.

The concept of min-maxing is not a new one. You make a character who is only deficient in ways you can ignore and work around or just don’t care about, and strongest where it will have the most impact, or where it’s most important to you.

Min-maxing works best in games that let you gain more power in one area by taking a weakness in another, which are mostly freeform point-based games. It’s a form of metagaming (playing the game of gaming the game system itself, essentially) and it’s not terrible, in moderation and in and of itself.

Even at its worst—especially at its worst—it relies on assumptions like “I can ignore this area and focus on that one because the first area won’t come up.”

If you mess with those assumptions, the whole thing falls apart. A good DM can work with min-maxing to keep its effectiveness to a reasonable level. Of course, a good DM will also let players who just want to be awesome be awesome, also at a reasonable level. You very rarely want to actually match the players meta for meta, though that’s a subject for another column.

So min-maxing, in and of itself, is fine.

The current breed of “theorycrafting” that often surrounds it, though, is another story.

I talked at the top about the metrical fallacy: if we can measure it, it matters. Characters in D&D, particularly in any 21st century edition, can do all kinds of fabulous and fascinating things: talk to animals, change their appearance, create illusions, communicate telepathically, and… of course… they can kill things like goblins.

So, if you have a Gnome Ranger who can talk to small animals, produce minor illusions, and has a variety of survival skills and nature spells, and who can kill goblins with a magic mark and bow attack and a Human Warlock who can communicate telepathically and bring people to their knees with a word and change their appearance at will and who can kill goblins with a curse and a blast of eldritch power, and you have to compare which one is better, how do you do it?

It’s hard to put a value on most of their respective abilities, much less compare them to each other. The one thing they can both do is kill goblins, and as luck would have it, their ability to do so is already reduced to raw numbers! We can figure out their damage output adjusted for hit rate to get their damage per round, and settle the question once and for all of who is better at killing goblins.

At that point, you might feel like we’re one step closer to being able to compare them, or that we know who is better at one thing in one situation… but for those who are invested in creating a character who is objectively the best, that’s the whole comparison. When you know who does the most damage, you have your answer.

I mean, you can get more complicated, and many do. You can drag in how much damage each character can themselves avoid, mitigate, or heal in order to figure out who will stay alive the longest while killing goblins, but that’s still just a facet of how good they are at goblin-killing.

So that’s the goblins. Why are they spherical and in a vacuum?

Our theoretical goblins are spherical in the sense that we assume everything about them is simple. None of them are using unusual tactics or equipment, or exhibiting unusual behavior. Every turn they behave in a straightforward fashion that conforms exactly to whatever our game theorists think they should do.

And they are in a vacuum in the sense that we assume there is nothing interesting about the environment or situation in which they are fought. There is no terrain or ambient condition or external event that has any impact on anything.

The reason we keep to these assumptions is that if we don’t, it becomes harder to make the comparison between characters. If the battlefield is hard to navigate, the Warlock’s ability to teleport might give them an advantage over characters who can’t. If the battle is happening at a long distance, the range of the bow vs. the blast matters. If the goblins are riding mounts and using hit and run tactics, the question might become who is better at controlling them and pinning them down.

Given a certain set of circumstances, we can decide which set of abilities is more valuable in that circumstances. But we can’t compare their overall objective value without knowing not only which one is more valuable in each and every possible circumstance, but how much more valuable, and how likely that scenario is.

It is impossible to do so, which means it is infinitely hard to measure the objective value of anything other than direct killing (or not-being-killed) power.

And, that stubborn, blinkered thinking fallaciously insist that things that are hard to measure don’t matter as much as things that are easy to measure.

So the only thing that really matters is how good a character is at killing spherical goblins in a vacuum.

It doesn’t matter how clever a character is, unless that cleverness comes with damage dice attached. It doesn’t matter how charming they are, or how much many fantastical magical things they can do… except for the ones that do damage. Anything about a character that isn’t the thing that kills the most goblins the fastest in ideal circumstances is just stuff, just fluff… nothing that counts, nothing to concern yourself with, nothing to worry about.

This is the kind of thinking that I abhor, and that I think is toxic and corrosive to the hobby when it’s treated not as fun thought experiments but is handed down to the new and unsure as the way the game is supposed to be played, the way it must be played. In this semi-recurring blog feature, I’m going to be directly countering this kind of thinking with advice to both DMs and players about other ways to approach character creation, the game rules, and running games.

Sometimes I’ll be taking on the fallacious credos and sacred cows that are promulgated by the spherical goblin theorists. Other times I’ll take a more positive approach, offering good advice without any particular point to refute. In either case I’ll be sharing the wisdom of someone who has been playing D&D since the 1980s across multiple editions and through multiple media.