Monday, August 16, 2010

Setting And Enforcing Campaign Limitations

Good morning! First, if you haven't voted in the poll to the right of the page there, please take a minute to do so. As I said, think of it as helping me either win or lose a drinking bet.

Today I want to discuss a bit about limiting campaigns. One of the topics that came up in our GM's Jam this year at Gen Con was a group playing in Dark Sun had a character who wanted to play a character who was all Lawful Good giggles and sunshine. If you know anything about Dark Sun--well, let's put it in pictorial terms for those unfamiliar with the setting--

Do you see why that might not work? And I think we've all known that person who wants to play a ninja every time, be the setting Midnight, Greyhawk, or Robotech.

In any case, if a player is wanting to play something that flat-out doesn't exist in a campaign world, it can cause a number of issues, including throwing off the feel the GM is trying to set for the campaign, making the player in question feel useless or undervalued, and potentially be a distraction from the main offerings a specific campaign setting offers.

When you see this pop up, there are a few potential reasons it's likely happened:

1) The Game Master did not adequately express the boundaries of character creation in relation to the features and limitations of the world,

2) The player in question was given the expected limitations, but disregarded or did not understand them,


3) The Game Master allowed an exception for a character concept that turned out to be problematic.

I myself have been guilty of #3 in the past, as one of my most shamefaced moment as a Game Master came when I absentmindedly assented to a player's request to be a half-elf in a world that quite firmly had no half-elves. Add in the general distrust and revulsion elves were privy to from humans in that world, and you have an incident I am still teased about to this day.

If your player insists on wanting to play a pixie fairy in Dark Sun, or a satanic biker in the Forgotten Realms (actually, that might work), it's probably a given they either don't know much about the setting or expect the setting to bend to accommodate said characters. If you aren't dearly attached to the setting at hand, you might consider choosing another setting that will let them play something they want and have it fit a bit better. Or, you might just tell them it won't work, and they need to come up with something more in line with whatever it is you're running. Most issues like this can be resolved during a group character generation, when peer review and brainstorming can help decide and define the tone for the campaign to come.

Really, as a Game Master, here's what you need to do in this situation:

1) Look to yourself first; make sure you explained what the setting's all about before character generation. If you didn't, do so next time, and before you go any further, explain it to the group now. If you allowed the problematic exception, you need to own up to it, before anything.

2) Examine your campaign setting. Are you stuck on Greyhawk, or were you just running it because it was handy? Is there really no room for this character in the setting? Would it ruin what you and the other players are trying to do, be it dark fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, or light pulp? Is there room to tweak things? If not, you need to go to the individual in question and help sort it out.

3) Take positive control. Don't waste their time having them roll and run a character that won't fit the game. I think we all know it'll be a bad end sooner or later, in that case. Explain why the character idea with the setting won't work, and suggest alternatives.

4) Be The GM: If they still aren't willing to work with you and the campaign, then you need to be the Game Master you signed on to be. Talk it over with the group, if that's your style, but handle the situation. Maybe they need to sit this one out, or maybe the group will find something else. One thing's for sure: ignoring it will just make the gaming unsatisfying all around in the long run.

Like so many things, this issue can be resolved 9 times out of 10 with proper communication before the game, but whether it pops up then or later, it's up to you as the Game Master to see things put right.


A.L. said...

I can't believe I'm doing this, but the early Drizzt books do give a way to handle this in a lot of situations.

Before Drizzt, most people didn't really play a "dark elf hero" type character. He was an odd ball character, which was partially why he became so popular. However, if you look in the early works, this is not an easy thing for Drizzt. The world rages against him, people don't give him a chance. He is met with suspicion and anger everywhere he goes.

You can do the same thing to the player trying to be the odd one out. Just explain it to them. "Sure, you can be a lawful good elven paladin in this Ravenloft game. However, you need to understand that this means the world, the actual ground beneath your feet, is going to be hunting you down. Once you reveal any of those three things, everyone and their mom's bridge club is going to be coming for you. You are essentially dialing Ninja Gaiden up into Master Ninja mode when you do this, are you sure you want to?"

If they say yes, you're covered. You warned them, and you can show the flow of the world. They still have their character, but they need to be careful because the world isn't exactly kind to them.

It may not work in every situation, but it is an option of how to handle it. You can shove a square peg into a round hole. It just means the peg is going to get trimmed and damaged in the process.

N. Wright said...

I'm a big fan of "Always Say Yes". Also a big fan of "Don't Punish Your Players."

I actually have a good example of that. I'd told my brother, before introducing a new player to the game, that I didn't feel that theives were necessary and that everybody could do theif-y stuff. I told this to my new buddy, who was like, "Ok, cool. Hey, I want to play a theif."

And so he did. And he had a hell of a time.

On the other hand, if I write a setting where the entire world is awash in xenophobia, where an arriving elf would be roasted alive and eaten (for example), and somebody wanted to play an elf, I'd tell them what would happen and let them decide. But if you get killed because all the peasants hate you, don't say I didn't warn you. We're all grown adults here, right?

r4gn4r said...

I know too many people who expect to be able to do whatever they want just because they can find it in some rulebook. And then they get mad because they can't play a half-dragon drow ninja. -.-

ChicagoWiz said...

I, on the other hand, am a big fan of doing what's best for the "campaign" (all players and people involved) and saying "no" to the player who wants to play something that is out of bounds.

No doesn't mean I've stompled on the poor player, insulted them and told them that their idea was lower than pond scum. It's a simple phrase "no" and pretty much everyone that I've said that to has zero problem with it.

The biggest request I've had as a class that I've said "no" to - assassin. I'm clear about that and about the only races available.

My campaign's going on 20 months and 30+ players who've played at one point or another (I'm a drop-in, drop-out sandbox style) so I'm guessing it works.

(word verify - brolly, probably the name of that damn Dark Suns pixie... LOL)

Yong Kyosunim said...

I'm not a fan of banning stuff in the games I run. I avoid being the DM that doesn't allow magic items, limits level advancement, etc so I'm pretty open to let players create whatever they want within reason.

I do however let my players know up front what isn't allowed whenever I start up a campaign. I always issue a primer that details the character creation rules, my own house rules, and any issues that need to be considered. For example, I am using a published system that has no Asian-themed countries so as part of the rules, I stipulated that the Asian-themed classes were not allowed as it didn't fit in with the flavor of the campaign. I could have changed this if I wanted to, but really wanted to capture the feel of the campaign and every detail was important.

For the next campaign that I'll run, I'll ban the nobility background stories as I had two campaigns in which players chose that route and I made them important themes in the campaigns, but I want to get away from that for the next campaign.

Zachary The First said...

Good comments, all. I think whatever side of this we're coming from, pre-game communication and cooperation is key.

@chgowiz: I thought it was something like Freedomtree Sunblossom, or River Silvershoes. Then again, those might be hippies (also a bad fit for Dark Sun, but funnier).

Gestalt Gamer said...

I think it is important to enforce campaign limitations but I have always been willing to let players play what they want as long as they are willing to deal with the consequences. For example in one of my games which was very Human centric, one player wanted to play an Eladrin. In this setting 95 percent of the story took place in human lands in a very human struggle. The point of this was to make all of the other fantasy races seem to be really exotic and otherworldly, which is something I felt has gotten lost in alot of games. Long story short I let that character play an Eladrin but he had to be an outcaste from his own people and he had to deal with people gawking at him everywhere he went and even a witch hunt when a town was certain that he had bewitched a bunch of missing children.