Optimize for Lifestyle or Financial Success? How Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me to Do Both

Zdrasha appeared to be in a place of worship. A large statue of red stone sat in the middle of the circular room, an altar before it. Pedestals stood on either side, atop which sat two matching and bejeweled chests.

Zdrasha paced around the statue and pedestals, using her keen rogue’s eye to inspect for traps. She bent over and surveyed the undersides of each surface on the statue, its base, the pillars. Nothing. It appeared to be safe.

Satisfied but still wary, Zdrasha took a swinging kick at one of the pillars — intending to knock the jeweled chest to the floor. As soon as she did, the grating of stone against stone sounded overhead. She barely had time to react, leaping out of the way of a giant scythe that dropped from the ceiling and sliced through the air.

My husband, the dungeonmaster (DM) of this solo tabletop adventure, was laughing and as he described these events. “Why would you just kick the pedestal??” he asked in amused bewilderment. “You’re in a spooky temple — of course there are traps!” 

It was definitely ill-advised to kick the chest off the pedestal. But it also felt like something that my character, a hot-headed and talented spy-for-hire, would do. 

Should you maximize your numbers — or optimize your story?

And that’s sort of the whole point of tabletop role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (DnD): to role play. To cooperatively tell an interesting, cohesive, and exciting story.

There’s an added layer to this storytelling, the game mechanics of tabletop RPGs that keep the world randomized and dynamic. (Especially the system I prefer, Pathfinder, which is mockingly called “Mathfinder” because it involves so many numbers.)

What makes these games fun, in my opinion, is the balance of roleplaying elements with game mechanics. Trying to balance the numbers system of the game with the story I want to tell feels similar to the balance I’m seeking with my finances: to optimize my money while creating a lifestyle I want.

Both money and DnD run on a numbers-based system that has its limits, after all. And maximizing my finances is key to making sure I’m well-equipped to meet challenges and survive whatever life throws at me.

At the same time, it’s not just about the numbers. It’s also about enjoying the journey, and living a life story worth telling. That’s sort of the point of playing and living in the first place, right?

Min-maxing your money can make the adventure fall flat

But over-optimization of finances or gameplay stats can make the whole experience feel, well, kind of flat. This even has a nickname in tabletop RPGs, min-maxing, which is minimizing undesirable or unimportant traits while maximizing others to make the most powerful character possible.

That sounds a lot like the head-down, breakneck approach to financial freedom that a lot of experts advise. And of course, just like some players really enjoy playing a min-maxed character, plenty of people will get a thrill from maximizing their finances in a similar way.

But for most people, I think this unbalanced approach makes things a lot less fun — even miserable.

Sure, maybe my barbarian can flatten any enemy in seconds. But eventually, the rest of the party starts to get bored with this and annoyed that they never get in a hit.

It’s a little like cutting your budget to the bone to maximize how much you’re saving. Only, you realize this doesn’t allow you to go out with friends or a significant other. Suddenly you’re feeling a lot more lonely or isolated, and might even be doing damage to those relationships.

Or I might design an elf bard with charisma high enough to charm the pants off of anyone (or thing) she meets, but she’s only got 7 health points and can’t pass any save checks — and dies three sessions in.

This could be similar to calculating out an aggressive path to paying off debt faster, complete with a snowball and a side hustle. Only to find that it all falls apart the second you take a financial hit, whether that’s an unexpected expense or hours cut back at your side job.

The feeling of defeat, of having to start from scratch, can be really similar to what players feel when a character dies. 

Ignoring money and stats can keep you stuck

Then there’s the approach to money and RPGs that focuses on the experience — to the exclusion of anything else. 

In one campaign I DM’d, the player characters were conscripted to work on a pirate ship (and eventually became pirates themselves). My husband Chris chose a half-orc barbarian. He got very into his character’s tragic backstory.

The barbarian had lost his orcish mother to the sea, and thus had a deep fear of water. In fact, he didn’t have a swimming ability at all. Yep — Chris was planning to play this half-orc that couldn’t swim in a campaign that took place completely at sea.

I eventually talked Chris out of it. Though his character was still afraid of the ocean admittedly still not a strong swimmer, he could swim well enough to not drown.

It is important to think about the kind of life we want to live, and what’s fun and enjoyable about it. But in-game and in life, we inevitably find ourselves being asked to swim — or sink. We come up against situations and challenges that ask more of us.

So many of us make it to adulthood without learning how to manage money. Maybe we let our past financial story define what we’re capable of now. Or we ignore chances to improve our financial skills in favor of distracting sidequests that don’t actually move our lives or our story, toward anything meaningful.

Striking a balance between managing money and living life

Of course, veteran RPGers know that the real fun lies in the middle, somewhere between min-maxing and role playing. 

And for money, it’s the same.

The real power and enjoyment here is found in the balance between maximizing money and optimizing for the life I want.

So think about who you are, who you want to be, and what kind of adventures you want to take on in real life. What’s the story you want to tell this year? In the next five years? What’s something you’ve always dreamed of doing? Is there a “Big Bad” you want to take on — fostering kittens or ending hunger in your community? What kind of legacy do you want to leave?

It’s so important to get to know yourself and your motivations, and your backstory. It can help you design a future and an adventure path that can give you a fulfilling life.

Of course, you also need to make sure you’re well-equipped for the paths and challenges ahead. And learning to more effectively manage money is at the center of that. You can develop self-management skills that make it easier to overcome financial obstacles. You can build financial resources needed to achieve what you want to.

When I set out to design a DnD or RPG character, I want a defined persona with a rich backstory — who also has the skills to back up the actions I’m trying to take. And with my money, I’m doing the same. I have a clear vision of who I want to be and what’s important, and I make the choices that are in line with that.

That includes managing my money so that I can afford to author my own story and choose my own adventures.

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Photos by Linus Sandvide and Anthony Tran via Unsplash

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Lyle
    February 23, 2020 at 2:37 am

    This is great! Finding a balance between living now and saving (living later) is a struggle for me at times. My “character” is too often more interested in planning for the future than living today… Way to present this message in a fun way.

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