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Howling Tower: Saying No

Howling Tower: Saying No

A Connecticut yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Daniel Carter BeardIn recent years, the philosophy of “yes, but” has become a hot ticket for GMs. Let me assure you, this was not always the case. I’m reminded a bit of the way philosophies come into and out of fashion in business management (are you a one-minute manager in search of excellence?).

If that sounds dismissive, it’s not meant to be. There’s a lot to be said in favor of “yes, but.” As GM philosophies go, it’s better than most.

It can, however, become a trap for the unwary or overly generous GM who’s trying to build a world with a strong theme.

In my experience, players fall into three categories when it comes to creating characters. Group 1 tends to make the same character over and over. Even when they try to make another type of character, it winds up talking and acting just like all its predecessors. Group 2 likes to experiment but sticks with the classics. This player might roll up a human fighter in one game and an elf wizard in the next, but you won’t often see them playing bladelings or gunslingers. Group 3 never plays the same character twice, and never plays a character that could be considered typical of anything. In a group filled with human fighters, elf wizards, and halfling rogues, this is the player behind the minotaur artificer who rides a mechanical elephant and suffers from crippling claustrophobia. That idea might have just popped into his or her head as characters were being created, or it might be something that rattled around in there for years before finally percolating to the surface in time for the latest game.

One of the GM’s many responsibilities is to create a convincing fantasy world for the characters to move around in. If that world is meant to evoke the feeling of Middle Earth, then a minotaur artificer riding a mechanical elephant is going to clash.

The argument gets made–validly, but only within limits–that player characters are ipso facto exceptional. If someone wants to play the only minotaur artificer in Gondor, why not allow it?

If the GM is comfortable with or even intrigued by an odd choice, then by all means, he or she should allow it. But there are two good reasons not to automatically say “yes, but” when a player requests something that breaks the mold of a setting, especially one that’s just getting underway.

First, allowing exceptions complicates the GM’s job, which is taxing enough without assumption-breaking character tropes. Is the just-beginning Middle Earth campaign really the best place to try that concept for a minotaur artificer or a mechanical elephant? There will be other campaigns; perhaps you could keep that idea in your pocket for the next one.

Second, at the start of a campaign, the GM has a clearer vision of the world than any of the players have. He or she may have been imagining this place for months, if not years, before ever bringing it to the group. That vision is a big part of what’s driving his or her excitement for the upcoming game sessions. It’s what keeps the GM at the computer late into the night plotting adventures, describing the local inns and thieves guilds, and sketching out the nearby troglodyte warrens that connect to the hollow core of the planet. The early stages of a new campaign are when the setting is most purely the GM’s own. Just as it’s best to play a new board game by the standard rules a few times before adding your own, it’s best to spend some time exploring a new campaign setting before asking for changes. Try to understand why it is the way it is before reimagining it.

If you’re the GM and you have a strong vision for a setting without some class, race, or monster that’s included in the rulebook, no matter how iconic it might be, you’re well within your authority to say no and stick to it. Perhaps there’s a way to say “no, but,” as in “no, you can’t play an elf, because their extinction is a core feature of this setting, but you can play a revenant who is the reanimated spirit of one of those long-dead elves, or a half-elf, since that race is all that remains of the elves’ watered-down bloodlines.”

It boils down to this: I value a setting’s unique atmosphere much more highly than unlimited race and class options. If excising a few races and classes makes the world a more interesting place, then cut away.

Have you excluded races or classes from a setting, or played in such a campaign? What was your reaction? Did anyone really lament the loss?

15 thoughts on “Howling Tower: Saying No”

  1. Good points. I usually try to start each of my campaigns with a primer I generate to invoke the themes and moods of the campaign. This usually helps to guide players in their choices but as you say a GM has to know when to say no.

  2. As a type 3 player who GM’s sometimes, I see both sides of this. As a GM, I try and figure out a couple of explanations that can accomodate unusual characters. A region of strange twisted magic or legends of a portal from another world. I still don’t say yes to everything, but this usually gives me some room to work with the player to find something that fits their need for a unique character but doesn’t break the world.

    As a player, I try to run ideas past the GM as early as possible. That way if there’s a problem I can start thinking of other options before I’ve gone too far. Of course it can be hard when my muse is keeping me up at night with thoughts of my first character. But I’ll try and find something unique about the world to explore.

  3. John The Philosopher

    In my experience, characters are usually generated alongside the gaming world for a more organic feel.
    I definitely agree with the principle of exclusion in generating a game world. Most often, I limit the spellcasting classes to those which reflect the magic system of the game world.

  4. My primary setting is a homebrewed world that has limited arcane magic and almost no divine spell casters not connected to the Temple. I do not allow players to play elves, Wizards or gunslingers. They used to complain about it all the time, and I’ll admit my first approach was to strict. I had to lighten up and allow more magic items at higher levels (mostly defense items), but I still don’t allow those races or classes because they don’t make sense with the setting.

  5. Yes, I’ve restricted certain classes and races, especially recently during my Castles & Crusades-based campaigns. Most notably, I really, REALLY don’t like gnomes. I’ve allowed someone in my current game to play a *ack* gnome illusionist. Everytime I say it I throw up a little in my mouth. Castles & Crusades is a good game system, but some of the class abilities are the definition of unbalanced. The knight class in the game is pretty useless unless you’re mounted all the time.

    I’ve had no issues with my particular set of players so far when I’ve restricted classes or races, but then again I’ve only restricted the knight class and, until recently, gnomes.

  6. I don’t completely ban “monster” characters, but I do strongly discourage them. I strive for a classic “fantasy medieval” setting; the sort of world that automatically feels familiar to fans of King Arthur, Middle Earth, or Lord Dunsany. I rarely achieve that goal, but I do try…

    “Now think about this for a moment. Do you really want to play something that is going to be chased out of town by a mob or hunted as a trophy?” If the player says yes, then I find a way to make it work.

  7. I’ve always favored the “you’ll be an outcast” approach, too, but balancing a mechanical advantage with a roleplaying disadvantage can be tough (assuming some advantage is being gained from the players’ race/class choice).

  8. This is a great take on this issue as well:

    I’m finishing up the materials for a human-only campaign world, though human is a bit broader category than in other rpgs.

    This is just all about consensus and some people will always be dicks. Some people only want to play their one game. Some people only want to be in the world that only they can see, where there are elves and elves are thus. There’s nothing to really be done about that than move on.

    When one player wants to have a monster character in a party of otherwise vanilla characters, it’s worth pointing out (when one or both of these things would actually be true -and are likely to be true in standard campaign settings):

    1. That you, as DM, will need to some significant retooling of the world so that the monster character isn’t KoS for most of the civilized world; or

    2. That _all_ the players are going to have to be comfortable maybe not spending much time in civilization, not playing at courtly intrigue or whatever else, or else happy with a split party whenever these sorts of scenarios come up (which will slow things down, make things harder on the DM, etc).

    Because I find that a lot of times when it’s no longer about DM v a player, but the entire table sitting down and talking about what they want and how one player’s decision affects all of them, is usually a good thing. Who knows, you may walk away from that discussion with a totally different campaign in mind and a party full of monster characters and outcasts. Which is cool too.

  9. I never cease to be amazed by how little some players and DMs talk about their games outside of in-character GM/player interaction. Perhaps I should have spelled it out more fully in the article, but I always assume (foolishly, it too often seems) that GMs and players will talk about what they want and expect out of the game before sitting down to the first session. Why don’t people do that?

  10. I think those that run great games using the “Yes, and…” philosophy recognize a couple of very important things that must be in place for it to work seamlessly.

    Most importantly, if you’re going to be building a world together, the theme/style of the world should be discussed and agreed to before pen is put to paper. In my view, the DM can come to the table with ideas, but those are just ideas until all the players agree that it sounds fun. This is the time to incorporate everyone’s ideas and build consensus so that everyone’s on the same page going forward and excited about the contributions they have made. (And thus will have more investment in seeing where their ideas go, more so than if all the world-building and such came only from the DM.) Buy-in is crucial.

    As well, this is the major thing that critics of this philosophy forget: It’s not simply about the DM saying “Yes, and…” to everything – it’s /everyone’s/ responsibility. This is a core element of improv theater. You can’t say no or block others’ ideas. A form of “blocking” can be contradicting established fiction such as going against the tone and theme of the game which should have been established earlier in the process (as above). In this approach, you must accept and add onto ideas, never take away or contradict. This is how you maintain consistency. If something seems to contradict or take away from a previous contribution, instead of having the DM say no, the DM or any other player can simply as a question such as, “How do you see mechanical elephants fitting in with what was previously established?” A typical response will be a retraction or alteration of their input to fit with existing fiction or, even better, a detailed and creative explanation of how, in fact, mechanical elephants /do/ fit in the world.

    With those two things in mind, you can run fantastic games while shifting the work of adventure prep and world-building off the DM and onto the group as a whole. This often increases player engagement and allows the DM to explore the world and watch the story unfold just like the players do.

  11. John The Philosopher

    I whole heartedly agree with iserith and PW_Shea.

    I should have elaborated in my earlier comment.

    In my experience, whenever the DM is building the game world, the players are simultaneously building their characters. In this process, the DM asks the players “What kind of game do you want to play? Where do you want it to take place? Who do you want to be?”

    By asking these questions, all parties end up with a game that everyone will be pleased with; not only catering to everyone’s tastes, but maintaining an organic and consistent tone as well.

  12. This is a good article. I really think this is essential for settings that aren’t “kitchen sink” style settings.

    Sometimes in order to do something different you have to do something different. Part of that is laying down strict rules on what’s allowed or not, and if your friends are ok playing that type of game, then it works.

    Some game systems work better with this approach. Anyone playing an old-school style game should expect there to be more DM fiat than later versions of the game.

  13. Very good article, with very valid points. As a D&D player who hasn’t played the pencil and paper version in ages, and is now DM’ing for the first time ever, I’m actually allowing my players full freedom of race choices as a way to help build my campaign setting. I have a general idea of what it will consist of, but saying “yes, and…” will add features to the world that I may not have considered. Of course, “no, but…” is the other rule that I already planned to employ. I’d rather that over a simple ‘no’ any day. As a small example, my most dedicated player decided that he would be a Shifter, and told me this the very day after I’d decided not to use Shifters in my world. I hadn’t told him that, and he liked what he’d read about the race enough that his heart was set on it. However, it didn’t take long for me to start imagining ways to use his character’s presence in my own favor. The group will, eventually, come across a settlement of orcs, gnolls, and a few other monster races who aren’t evil (due to game-world reasons), but are rejected by the civilized races for obvious reasons. I think his being similar to a monster will help the group a lot in that situation. Anyway, thanks for the great article!

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