Monday, December 2, 2019

DMs, Remember That "No" is Not The End of The Conversation... It's The Beginning!

One of the most common pieces of advice I've seen for newer dungeon masters is not to be afraid to tell your players no. Whether it's saying no to a race that doesn't fit your setting, or no to a third-party class you're not familiar with, it's important for you to have confidence in your ability to run the game effectively. Sometimes that means saying no to something your players want.

With that said, though, a lot of DMs make the mistake of assuming that their "No" is where the conversation ends, when it's actually the place it should be getting started.

An excellent question, Cindy. I'm gonna have to say no, though, and here's why...

Explain Why You Said "No"

To be clear, here, we're not talking about scenarios where players are asking about the rules as they're written, or checking the hard limits of a game. Those are simple yes/no questions that have a binary answer. However, when a player asks whether it's okay for them to take a certain feat at this level, play a creature of a certain race, or take levels in a particular class, these are usually options that are perfectly legal by the rules of the game.

Or, put another way, it's you as the dungeon master that stops a player from doing this, rather than the game as it's written.

Pay no attention to the man behind the screen!
When it's you, and not the rules, that's preventing a player from moving in a certain direction, it's your job to have a conversation with the player to explain your reasoning. While we all joke about how the dungeon master is god, it's important to remember that your players are just as much a part of the game as you are. They're equal participants, and if you're going to stop them from contributing to the game in a certain way, they at least deserve some kind of explanation as to why.

If, for no other reason, than to help them figure out what you found objectionable, and why so they don't just keep running into a wall.

For example, say that you had a player who wanted to play a tiefling ninja in your Pathfinder game. By the rules, that race is completely legal, and the class is part of the game's rules, so there should be no problem. But maybe you're running a homebrew game where tieflings aren't really a thing, and it didn't come up until just now because no one else asked for a native outsider. Alternatively, you might not feel that the ninja is a proper fit for your game due to its skill set, and that it won't have the chance to really shine taking on the challenges you have planned in the campaign. Maybe you're not comfortable with classes or races outside of the core book, or you've heard horror stories about that class and it makes you worry. Whatever it is, talk about it with your players.

Remember, the more specific you can be here, the better the results you'll generally get. You want your player to see your position, and to understand your reasoning so you can both find an amenable solution.

Hear Your Player's Point of View

The second part of this conversation is letting your player actually respond to your points. Because just like the characters in the game, you're not making these decisions in a vacuum. The game is a group endeavor, and sometimes it needs to be talked out.

All right, I see what you're saying, but hear me out on this...
In order to keep your player enthused with your game, you need to make sure they know they're being heard... so listen to them. If they make good points, discuss those points and see where it leads you. If they find inconsistencies in your rulings, don't hedge or dodge.

The goal here is not to be right, because as pointed out above, there is no right answer when it's not a specific rules question. The goal is to make sure you and your player can both see each other's point of view, and that you're both on the same page moving forward.

Work Together To Find A Solution

Let's return to the concept of the tiefling ninja, to continue our example. Perhaps the thing you're objecting to is not that tieflings don't exist in your setting, but that they are often marginalized and looked down on in the nation where your game is taking place. Having a tiefling PC is going to create a lot of unnecessary friction, and you're worried it could cause problems not just for the player, but for the rest of the party.

What's that? Roll initiative? Ah, well, if you insist...
That's a fair point, and one worth raising. However, the player counters, what if they took the tiefling variant that allowed them to pass for human, displaying very few traits one associates with a tiefling? In this instance they could still have the race they really want to play, and as long as they take a few basic precautions (not putting their feet in the fire and taking no damage, not using their spell-like abilities where it could cast suspicion on them, etc.) then they should be able to keep their true heritage a secret. This could create a fun cat-and-mouse dynamic, and even add another dimension to the game!

Alternatively, if your concern about the ninja is that you don't want your player to portray them in the way we typically see them in fiction (the age old, "No Eastern classes in my Western fantasy!" argument), then an alternative compromise might be to simply rename the class as the Agent, instead. I talked about this a ways back in Want To Play a Ninja, But Your DM Said No? Try Calling it "The Agent" Instead, but the point is that if the objection is to the class's imagined flavor instead of its actual class abilities, just change the flavor to fit your game. In much the same way a monk can be a half-orc prize fighter who's never once set foot in a monastery, a ninja could just as easily be an agent of the crown who fulfills the role of a fantasy James Bond or Black Widow (incidentally, it was the base class I used for my Pathfinder character conversion for Natasha Romanova).

On the other hand, if your primary objection was that you didn't like the class's main features, then a different compromise might be to allow the player to build a rogue, but to take the rogue talent that allows them to substitute ninja tricks, thereby giving them some of the things they wanted from the ninja class, but working it into a core class that you're more comfortable with instead.

Remember don't get so invested in your "No" that you cling to it even in the face of a workable solution.

However, if there is no way to find a compromise for your player's original proposal, then you need to throw them a life preserver instead of letting them flail around and hope to reach the shore. Ask your players why that wanted that class, that race, etc. What was the benefit they needed for their concept to work?

Because if it was just the aesthetic ("I thought being descended from demons would be cool flavor"), then you could propose alternative choices to give them that same look and/or feel without being a full tiefling, such as feats or traits that give them hints of an infernal bloodline, along with small powers to add to the mystique. If they needed a stat boost, maybe you could suggest a race that offered similar benefits they didn't think of ("Hey, catfolk get a boost to that stat, and you'd be considered weird in a positive way"). If they really wanted to combine monk and rogue, you could point out archetypes from either class that give them that kind of strange, dangerous infiltrator feeling, but which don't use the class you'd rather not have at your table.

Leap tall buildings at a single bound? Okay, I think I know a different way to make that work....
Incidentally, talking about tieflings so much reminded me that I came out with 5 Tips For Playing Better Tieflings and Aasimar a little while back. Figured I'd share that, for any folks who find this example I'm using hits a little too close to home.

You're All in This Together

In order to actually run a game, you need to keep your players interested. Even if your initial premise hooked them, you have a finite amount of goodwill from your table. Generally speaking, every time a player has to move to a secondary or tertiary concept, path, or idea, you're going to lose some of that goodwill. The best way to minimize that loss is by having open, frank conversations, and working with them to make sure they're as enthusiastic as possible when it comes time to roll the dice.

Because once a player has lost their enthusiasm for your game, it takes a whale of an effort to reel them back in... and most of the time, it's just not going to happen.

Like, Follow, and Stay in Touch!

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Hopefully you enjoyed, and if you've used run these kinds of games before, leave us a comment to let us know what worked for you!

For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. Or if you'd prefer to read some of my books, like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, then head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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