Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Restrictions on PC Races

This came up as part of a Facebook conversation. I have expanded my response a little bit for this blog post:

Let me say this: Part of the joy of role-playing games, for me at least, is in exploration of the fictional world. The character I play acts, at least in part, as an avatar allowing me to do this. The more the GM has envisioned the world, the better the game will be for me as a player.

The world might include orcs or goblins as opponents, but not as playable races. This is fine with me. For one thing, those races might have hidden secrets within the fiction that can be discovered, making them easier to deal with....or horrific. Imagine a game where, in the end, you realize that the orcs are the good guys and the humans are not. If you get to start by playing orcs, the concept loses much of its power, because the assumptions that play could otherwise begin with change, and the idea of a "slow reveal" is lost.

If the GM is required to justify saying "No" to a character concept, then this idea is either also lost, or the GM has to come up with a bullshit reason which conceals the truth. I don't want either of those things to occur. The GM can say "No" and does not need to justify that decision. If you can't live with the decision, find another GM. Or better yet, run your own game.

If a world's primary population is human, and all Joe wants to play are drow, pretty soon the idea that drow are rare in this world becomes a joke. Or Joe's character never dies. Because if he does, there is always yet another convenient drow waiting in the wings.

You can absolutely set up a "kitchen sink" fantasy world and make it work. But, IMHO and IME, the "kitchen sink" world is harder to make great than the world which has restrictions based on the vision of that world's creator. And that world's creator should always have more information about the world than you do, or there is nothing to explore. A kitchen sink world, if anything, needs more, not less, justification to make it coherent.

Neal Litherland says "the short version is that if you give players a cookie, they get a LOT more invested in your game." My response is: "Give the players a game world worth investing in, and you won't need to give them cookies as well."

A bit more on this in another post, where I will look at the problem with Session 0 and the idea that the game is the GM's story.

My advice for GMs: Run the world you want to run, the way you want to run it. If you can even get a single player, it is better than running a world you'd rather not run, or in a way that makes the game un-fun for you. Yes, absolutely look for advice/ideas to improve both your world and how you run it. No, never assume that the advice-giver has authority over your game. Even if I am that advice-giver.


  1. Thank you for this! Very timely advice that, all too often, I forget...

  2. In my last D&D game, I had to put a hard "NO" on any PC races that weren't in the main book (and some that were (drow)). Some players grumbled, but most learned to deal with it.

    I fiddled with the idea of "unlocking" new races for my players, once they had completed enough adventures or story-beats involving the new race. ("Okay, you guys saved the village of Firbolgs from the Knight of Fevers and participated in their victory fete. Firbolgs are now available as PCs.") However, I never got a chance to try it in practice.

    I am a big fan of Session 0, and I am eager to see what your stance is. :)

    1. Well, I am looking forward to your thoughts. The post is up.

      As far as "unlocking" goes, I have written a number of DCC products that are designed to unlock new races...goblins, Saturnian ape-men, Martian skeleton men, faerie animals, etc.

    2. There is a long-running campaign I am in where we unlocked the faerie animal presented in CBOTW, and the backstory makes her a pretty awesome character. I cannot recommend enough including this sort of thing in any campaign.

  3. "Kitchen sink" fantasies seem very prone to monotony - if you can do/be anything, conflict must be contrived.

  4. Consider also how these two ideas come into conflict:

    (1) If it exists in the world, I should be able to play it as a PC.


    (2) "This is a world where more is learned from the lips of man than the ink of pen, and accurate knowledge is a rare and valuable thing. Thus, both judge and players know the creatures of their town and surrounding valleys, but what monsters lurk in the next mountain pass remains a thing of mystery." - DCC core rulebook, page 376.

    Or, on page 378:

    A key element of player experience in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is a sense of wonderment. Your job as judge is to convey “the sense of the unknown” that was so easy to achieve when we were children who did not know all the rules. One way to achieve this is to make monsters mysterious. The less the players are able to predict about the specifics of an encounter, and the more they depend on role-played hearsay, legends, and lore, the more exciting their encounters will be—regardless of monster statistics.

    There is a historical basis for this sense of the unknown. The availability of information in a medieval feudal society was severely restricted. In your game world, there is no internet. Pens and paper are expensive, there are no printing presses, and it takes a scribe almost a year to manufacture a single book. Most people are illiterate; there is no mechanized transportation, no long-range communication, and no photography.

    The flow of information in a medieval fiefdom is no faster or more accurate than what can be communicated verbally, without illustration, over many slightly-varied repetitions, at the speed of a man walking, or at most on horseback. In other words: information is rare and usually inaccurate. Remember playing the telephone game when you were a
    child? Except for what your player character has personally experienced, every single scrap of information available to him is communicated in that manner.

    This thought experiment defines the boundaries of a serf’s knowledge of monsters. Common people—including player characters—know almost nothing about most monsters. When a monster is encountered, the peasants *flee* rather than fight, so they do not know what combat capabilities a monster possesses.

    If you want your fantasy adventure game to be fantastic, you must remember this: monsters must be mysterious.


    I would consider these two positions to be irreconcilable.

    Moreover, I would consider expecting the GM to justify not allowing every option to be known and/or playable makes these positions less, not more, reconcilable.