I was just sitting back and think about this the other day. This isn’t about doing a character build. No, I think it’s more about design then how it affects builds and play. There’s two concepts that I want to talk about. I call them height and breadth.
Height is best defined as specialized characters. As they gain levels, they better at basically one thing. They get insanely and unrealistically better. Sure Min-Maxing does this. But let’s face it, 3.x and Pathfinder’s design encouraged this. They’d have insane bonuses as a few things and then basically suck at anything else. Higher level encounters were designed with this in mind. And if making you’re character don’t deviate from the Feat Chains or you’ll be in trouble later on.
Breadth is more generalized characters. Sure the character may be trained as Fighter, Thief, Magic-User, or whatever. And those are things that they are best at. But as they advance in levels, they gain broader knowledge. They go out into the world and learn new stuff. They won’t be as good as their fully trained counter parts but they at least won’t trip over their own feet when they do something outside their wheelhouse.
There’s that interesting data going around that most campaigns only last until about 5th or 6th Level. It’s pretty clear from the DM’s point of view that it gets pretty difficult to design higher level encounters since the player characters have so many powerful options. I remember when we were playing 1st Ed Pathfinder. Higher level encounters were just a very elaborate game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. If the party had the right spells and magic items then they would waltz through the encounter. But if they didn’t then they were chewed up and spit out. This is a problem of height. Specialization and optimization to the point of failing if a character is hit with a “level appropriate” challenge that’s outside that exact scope.
These two concepts are broadly different play and design styles. I’m not saying that either one is right or wrong. It can ugly when both styles collide in a single game or group. My personal approach is more breadth than height both when I play or when I’m running a game. But like so many things, there needs to be a balance between the height and breadth.