Monday, September 17, 2018

DMs, Please Stop Arbitrarily Limiting Race Choice in Your Games

There is a particular refrain that I keep hearing on the forums from dungeon masters. While the specifics vary from person to person, and game to game, they all sound something like this:

"Why do my players want to play all the weird, unusual, or exotic races in my game? Why does no one want to just play the races in the core book?"

What's wrong with humans and half-orcs, huh?
Since this seems to be such a common complaint, I'm going to do my best to address it. But before we get going, I'm going to assume that you're playing in a setting where the races your players want actually exist, and if they don't exist in the setting that you made it clear they aren't available in your pitch/Session 0.

Okay? Okay, let's get started.

The Shiny Blue Ball

Have you ever noticed that when a new game or supplement comes out that it's all people want to play for a while? Like how everyone lost their mind over the hybrid classes when Paizo released the Advanced Class Guide? A lot of the time you see the same thing with weird, unusual, or rare race options. Part of the appeal for them is they're new, they're different, or they've been restricted at other tables, or in other games. So players want to take them for a test drive, and see how they handle.

Androids are a base race now? Score!
Sometimes the shiny blue ball is just how new the race is, but sometimes there are other factors at play. Maybe it has racial advantages (the strix's flight, a dragonborn's breath weapon, etc.) that a player wants to build their character around. It's also possible that the race fits an archetype or idea the player has for the specific story they want to tell with their character.

And sure, sometimes it's just because a player wants to be different. Don't shame them for that, it's what they think is fun, and nine times out of ten it isn't hurting anyone.

It's also important to remember that the core races of your game (the humans, dwarves, halflings, etc.) may be less appealing to players for a list of other reasons. One is that they're common, so it's likely they've played several characters of these races before. Maybe they lack the mechanical advantages of the unusual race choice. And, speaking from experience, the core races are old standbys. Nothing wrong with them, just as there was nothing wrong with the base class list when all those hybrid classes came out. But sometimes you want to slip into something new, rather than just putting on the same hoodie you've worn for years now.

But It's My Game!

The most common reason I've seen DMs defend their decisions to limit races is the age-old, "My game, my rules." While that's technically true, it's important to remember that you're not a put-upon parent managing a bunch of kids. Everyone at the table is here to have fun, and to contribute to the story.

With that said, you are perfectly within your rights as the DM not to allow certain races, classes, or whatever you want in your game. But if you're going to say no, you should be able to provide a reason beyond, "Because I don't like the way you're having fun at my table." And if you're going to do it, as stated above, you need to make that clear and up-front in your pitch for the game, or in your Session 0 discussion. Because if a player agrees to those terms, then they've agreed to the game as you laid it out.

"I don't want to deal with that," is also not great, as far as reasons go.
Why do you have to explain yourself? Well, because we're all taking part in this story together, and if you're disagreeing with a player over a thematic or flavor thing, then you should really explain where you're coming from so you can both reach a mutual understanding. Because if the player's character doesn't actually break any rules, there's not much reason to deny them based purely on their race choice, class choice, or any of those other basic building blocks. Especially if their concept doesn't violate any of the terms you set forth as conditions for joining the game.

For example, there are some perfectly valid reasons to say no to a race choice. Some of those are:

- That race doesn't exist in this setting (particularly important for DMs making their own worlds to explain in Session 0, or when pitching their game).
- That race is not part of the core setting we're using (this comes up when players want to make their own races, or use third-party stats as a way to bring in stuff that doesn't already exist in your game).
- That race cannot survive in this location (this is a very rare example, but works if you have, say, a merfolk race that has to spend several hours a day immersed in water trying to join a game set in the middle of a desert. It should be noted, however, that if the player has a workaround for the limitation then you should consider allowing it).

The problem is that most of the time a conflict like this is not between a player's desire and the setting's limitations. It's between the game the player wants to be part of, and the DM's vision for the game they want to run. In this case, you need to take a breath, and see if you can meet in the middle somehow.

EDIT: Since there seems to be continuing confusion, I felt I needed to spell this out here. Arbitrary limitations are ones that have no basis in the setting, the story, or the rules. We are talking expressly about player races that exist in your setting, and which are open and available, but which a DM has chosen to deny anyway. We aren't talking about races that aren't in your world, or races that don't have stats in your world, or races who aren't allowed by the strictures and requirements of your story. Hopefully that clears things up.

The "Yes, But" Approach

Lots of DMs have likely heard that it's better to say, "yes, but," than to give their players a flat-out, "no." Why? Because it shows you're willing to work with them, and it tests their resolve regarding how badly they want/need a part of their character in order for it to work/interest them.

"Where does it say you can play a sentient bear?"
It's a perfectly valid thing for you to feel thrown off by unexpected or weird player requests. However, you should sit down with your players, and use the mystical phrase, "I have some concerns," in order to put the two of you on the same page.

For example, say you have a player who really wants to play a tiefling. Tieflings exist in your setting, but because they're seen as untrustworthy and dangerous in the area this game takes place, they're often met with a lot of hostility. Maybe they were the foot soldiers in a recent war, and so there's a lot of negative feelings and wounds that haven't healed yet. Whatever, point is that they're a big, weird character who may have a target painted between their horns. So you bring this issue up to the player, and ask how they plan to deal with those repercussions.

Maybe the player suggests giving this character more angelic features, allowing them to pretend to be an aasimar, or using magic to "pass" for another race to avoid suspicion. Maybe they take a background that makes them a folk hero (possibly for actions they took during said war), or you make the character a local so that there's more of a, "if you raise 'em right, they turn out just fine," sort of attitude (also useful for playing any traditionally "evil" race in a way that isn't really all that evil). Perhaps they're good friends with a local character, and that character vouches for them, deflecting a lot of (but perhaps not all) of the hostility directed their way.

Or maybe the player just nods, thanks you for the warning, but says that they are more than willing to deal with that as a consequence of playing their character the way they want to.

This is the part where, hard as it can sometimes be, you should take your foot off the brake and let your players do their thing. As long as their character does not violate any rules of the setting or the game (including the requirements you set forth in Session 0), and they aren't using this character's unique features to be disruptive, what's the harm in letting them have it?

Because I will say this much; giving someone a shiny toy is a sure-fire way to make them invested in your game right from the first session. Saying no, I don't want those in my game, however, is a great way to toss a bucket of sand onto your player's enthusiasm. And it may be a pain to deal with a goblin berserker or an aasimar wizard, but I guarantee it is nowhere near as difficult as trying to build that player's enthusiasm for your game back up.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Do you have a story about truly bizarre player requests, or unreasonable DM restrictions? Then put them in the comments below!

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  1. Maybe players could say "I don't want to play X, Y or Z, what other options will fit in the world that we're playing in?"

  2. As long as they have a good reason for playing the race they're playing. Then I'm fine with it.
    Though I do make my dislike of humans well known.

  3. This is some presumptuous, entitled nonsense. Demanding that DMs do whatever you want them to because it's "your fun" is the height of arrogance. It's the DM's story. They can limit or expand it in ajy way they choose. Don't like it? Find another game. Or, better yet, run one yourself and let all the random nonsense you like into the setting.

    1. I also agree 100%. This post is a load of entitled horse manure.
      If you don't like what the DM is offering, go somewhere else.

      The DM has a large set of roles and responsibilities, and accommodating your fancy at the expense of his other roles and responsibilities, is not among them.

      "Yes, but" is catch-phrase used by bad players to try to demand entitlement.

  4. Yeah, no.

    "I don't like that so its not allowed in my campaign" isn't an arbitrary reason. "I think what you're proposing is stupid" isn't an arbitrary reason. An arbitrary reason would be "No, because I said no."

    How about the player take responsibility for fitting into the GM's campaign instead of blaming the GM for the player not having the sense to follow the rules the GM set up ahead of time?

  5. “Players, stop acting like my game is your only
    option and find another you like if you don’t agree with my choices when I spend 4-8 hours prepping for my game”

  6. They hypocrisy in this article is palpable.

    "I don't want to deal with this" is not acceptable.
    "I want to play raceX because it looks fun" is acceptable.

    According to this post, "player fun" is clearly more important than "DM drudgery", even though the player should be fully capable of having fun within the limits established by the DM.

    I'd go a step further. I'd say that, "because I want to" is not a sufficient reason to play a race at all. To date, I've never seen anyone actually role play a Tiefling as anything more than a human with a tail. The same is true for most of these truly off-nominal races.
    That alone is reason enough for a DM to say, "No".

    Player: "I want to play a Firbolg"
    DM: "Why?"
    Player: "They look like fun! They have all sorts of powers"
    DM: "You want to play a giant reclusive creature of the fey world that does not trust humans, does not like being in groups, and is shunned by most humanoid societies as aloof monsters and oddities. Is that correct?"
    Player: "Yeah".
    DM: "No. You can't. You won't play it as a firbolg. You'll play it as a big human with extra abilities. You'll take all the mechanical benefits, not play the role, and bitch and moan when the role play works against you".
    Player: "Waah. You can't say no. You have to say yes but! Entitlement! Waah waah!"
    DM: "OK fine"

    Player plays firbolg like giant human and bitches that the local village ran him out and now his clansmen have exiled him now that he's running around doing adventures with foreigners.

    1. This is a primary driver of my limiting of player races. I don't even like Elves, Dwarves, and other demi-human races for the reasons Sin listed above. Most players don't play an elf. They play a human with pointy ears and a bunch of cool abilities. They don't play dwarves, they play short, stumpy humans with a bunch of cool abilities. I wouldn't mind nearly so much if people actually played the races semi-reasonably.

      My other primary reason is that of simple demographics. If the world is 80% - 90% human, then the party composition ought to at least pay lip service to that. A party of 6 character with 3 humans and 3 non-humans is pretty much pushing the limit. A party of 6 with 1 or 2 humans and the rest non-human is a bunch of freaks. Non-humans are rare. How did they all get in one small group?

      Having said that, if there's a good reason, I'm game. We're playing a party of all elves who joined together to combat the other races who are encroaching on the forest and find lost elven magics to help restore our declining society. That sounds cool. Let's do that. We're playing a party of all dwarves who are on a quest to reclaim our ancient homeland from the dragon who drove us out. I'm down with that. A bit derivative but it makes sense.

      Granted these objections are rooted in the fact that we're playing in the world that is primarily my creation. If the game takes place in a more gonzo setting where non-human races are very common, then I don't mind nearly as much.

    2. most of the nonhuman races are based around having very specific human derived cultural traits; don't tell me i'm not playing a dwarf correctly because i rolled a dwarven druid, with a pet jaguar, who survived a shipwreck after a press ganging. and ended up on a remote jungle island for the last 7 years, living off pineapples, coconuts, fish, and bananas. doesn't have a whiny scottish accent and doesn't understand recent dwarven society because he spent 7 years on a remote island with only the local wildlife to keep him company.

      said dwarf would not culturally be a proper dwarf and would be a freak as far as other dwarves are concerned. but yes, standard races or even humans can be freaks. why can't we have non-human freaks in a campaign if player characters are freaks by virtue of being adventurers? a human who impressed an orcish god of war is barely any different from a half orc barbarian.

  7. The only Race I've ever barred in a game is Kinder, mostly because people use it as an excuse to troll the other players.

  8. each of the humanoid races are called humanoids for a good reason. they are a stand in for various human cultures and based upon those cultures. for example, Orcs are dark skinned hunter gatherers who live off the land and capture slaves from neighboring settlements, which are traits of a lot of human cultures that live south of the equator.

  9. If the race fits both the setting the GM uses then I see no problem. Otherwise the player should find something that fits into that setting and works with what the GM has presented.

    In my games I ban the "monster" races like orcs, goblins and drow, because they would be met by a horde of townsfolk with pitchforks and torches when walking into a village or town.

    1. i'd probably not recommend banning half drow or half orcs. because those races are born of the shame that occurs when monstrous races violently and aggressively raid a human civilization. they have just as much, if not more in character reason to work against orcs or drow.

  10. It's easy enough to accommodate one outlier character, but when you have two players with bizarre races that don't fit into the setting or theme, and also two players running some unusual and specific class archetypes then you just end up with a gang of weirdos who really don't fit in with each other, much less any specific campaign setting.