Monday, April 19, 2021

GMs, Don't Make Players "Prove" Their Classes To You

I want you to take a moment and ask how many times you've had a really fun idea for a character that you were really excited to play. Maybe it was a swashbuckling bard, or a longbow wielding paladin, or a wizard astride a proud, white charger. If you are a fortunate player, your GM looked at the character, made sure it didn't break any agreed-upon rules, and said sure, sounds good!

However, there are a lot of GMs out there who will simply fold their arms and refuse unless your character looks and feels the way they think a member of this class should look and feel. This sort of behavior never improves a game, and it will always drive a player's interest right into the ground. So please, my fellow game masters, open your imagination and try to see things from your player's perspective.

Barbarian prince? No. You can't even read, much less run a country.

While we're on this topic, I'd urge readers to take a gander at my ever-expanding Unusual Character Concepts list to see some more examples of the sorts of characters that a lot of GMs will flat-out refuse even though they don't break any rules. Also, while we're at it, consider signing up for my weekly newsletter to make sure you don't miss anything that comes out in the future.

Lastly, for GMs who are looking for a new addition to their settings, "Silkgift: The City of Sails" is now out for my Sundara setting! Aether weapons, brigandines, net launchers, and a bunch of other nonsense is in this one, so check it out for either Pathfinder Classic or Dungeons and Dragons 5E!

Flavor To Taste (And Don't Keep The Gate)

Any time I suggest that GMs give players more freedom and options, the response is always something along the lines of, "Oh, so I should just let players bring a half-angel, half-demon dragon to my game? Uh-uh, not happening!"

So in the interest of crystal clear communication, I'm not saying that GMs should open up every book in the whole game and let players go wild. I'm saying they should stop gatekeeping the options the players actually have available to them (the ones in the character creation section, not the entirety of the Bestiary/Monster Manual) and demanding players somehow "prove" that their character should be allowed if the concept they're proposing doesn't violate the ground rules of the game.

Meaning they have chosen a class (or classes) you said were available and allowed, pairing them with a creature type that you also said was available and allowed. But, for one reason or another, you don't like the flavor of the character because it goes against what you think/feel/believe it should be, so you make the player jump through hoops, or outright deny them the ability to play that concept.

Should is open to interpretation. If the concept doesn't break the rules, let your players have their cookie.

Trust me... they will love you for it.

Like I said, dig through my archive and you'll find dozens of articles that have polarized GMs. Some of the more common include:

Some of the debates over these concepts have been interesting. Others have been incendiary. But the point at the heart of it, nine times out of ten, is that the DM who would ban characters like this (base classes played in an unexpected way) simply cannot conceive of these characters in any way outside of the box they've been placed in either by their experience as a gamer, or in popular fiction. In their minds druids are always tree-hugging hippies who live in the woods like bears. Wizards must be geniuses who study for years of their life, rather than someone who develops an intrinsic grasp of the math of magic via an accident or injury. Bards are singers and storytellers, not bellowing commanders slinging spells and steel on the front lines. Sorcerers are either born that way, or they're not, they don't just gain spell slots by exposure to a lab accident like in a comic book.

Of course, none of that is in the game as it's written. There are tropes and stereotypes, and examples of classic versions of these characters, but there's nothing actively preventing these concepts in the rules. A barbarian can be a prince or princess as surely as they can be born in a windswept crag somewhere in the northern reaches, and a paladin can be a scarred, sour enforcer in studded armor with a longbow as surely as a beautiful knight in shining armor.

By all means, ask for a backstory. If something doesn't add up, ask for an explanation. But don't waste your GM fiat on telling a player no because their elf isn't barbaric enough to fit your pre-conceived notion of what a barbarian "should" be.

The class is just a rules chassis; the character isn't part of a union that demands codes of conduct, and will show up to take their class card away if they don't act a certain way. All they have to do is obey the rules actually written into their class, and if the class doesn't say they must be or do X, Y, or Z, then it isn't mandatory.

The "Well in My Game" Defense

Again, in the interests of clarity, this advice is to be taken for games as they're written, and as they're portrayed in common world guides for those books (Golarion, Forgotten Realms, etc., etc.). If you have made your own, custom game setting with additional red tape that isn't in the common rules, then there is no possible way I could know about it when writing this piece. However, before leaving comments, consider the wording of what I said above.

If a player's concept does not violate the rules, don't make them jump through additional hoops. That includes any additional rules you have put in place for your setting, or as part of character creation at your table.

However many rules those are.

As an example, if the major religions of your world are at war with arcane magic, then sure, it wouldn't make sense to have a sorcerer as a holy warrior beneath a church's banner. Same way that if you have decided paladins can only be made by taking vows before a holy order and being anointed by them, then of course you can't have someone being chosen out in the boondocks by a divine force to act as their champion.

But if a player's concept follows all the rules (including the ones you have added for whatever custom world you've made), then you're not doing yourself any favors as their GM by making them write a dissertation about why they should be allowed to play their concept. Because just like how railroading characters onto plot leads to player disconnect and a drop in interest, railroading their creativity can suck out their enthusiasm before the game ever really starts.

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  1. And if you allow it, the other players might not even notice. My favorite character was a fey warlock I played as a flamboyant musician who was always chatting people up. The rest of the party thought he was a bard, and still thought that, even when I told them flat out that he was a warlock. It worked great, and the game absorbed it like it wasn't strange at all.

  2. In my setting, a homebrew I began 30 years ago, I'm a little restrictive on PC races but actually try to push my players to break the character class molds and create a memorable character rather than a cardboard cutout of what most players expect.