Friday Favourite: 5 Reasons to Say No

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 22, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From July 19, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: 5 Reasons to Say No.

I believe that players should play the characters they want to play. I’m a total 4e, say yes convert. It took me awhile to come around but when I’m the DM I encourage creativity and I say yes… a lot. However, I’ve realized that as much as I want to always say yes, there are times when I probably should not. In a few of these cases it’s actually caused me more grief in the long run.

Players make choices during character creation and between levels during character improvement. Normally I’m very hands off as a DM and let the players do whatever they want as long as it’s legal. But it’s this absolute freedom of choice that often ends up causing the most problems. If I’d only stepped in earlier and said no, a lot of the problems I’ve experienced wouldn’t have been problems at all.

It’s taken me a while but I’ve learned the hard way that just because a choice is legal in character builder doesn’t mean that the DM has to automatically say yes to every choice that the players make. In fact the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized that sometimes the DM should step in and say no; especially during character creation. Here are five examples.

1) Your character is too specialized

When I create a character I like to start with a concept including where I see this character getting to in the long-term. I don’t always stick to the original plan, but it helps me focus those early choices. As the character advances he gets to choose more feats and powers that let him move closer to the picture I have in my mind. Add unique magic items into the mix and it all starts coming together. By the time the PC reaches paragon tier he’s in a good position to really distinguish himself from other similar characters of the same class or race.

This is when the DM has to be particularly observant of the player’s choices and if necessary step in and say no. Some choices will indeed make a character extremely specialized, and in those specific circumstances that PC will be awesome. However, in all other circumstances he’ll be a lot less powerful than his more generalized counterpart. The specialist often overlooks more versatile options that apply broadly to many situations in favour of being that much better in his area of expertise.

A player that wants to play a dragon slayer, demon hunter or giant killer should talk to the DM about this desire before just going ahead and choosing an extremely specialized build. If the DM knows where the player wants his character to go then perhaps it can be worked into the campaign. Otherwise the DM should step in and say no if he see a player making a character that’s too specialized.

2) Why are you even with this party?

When the players create their characters in a vacuum, without any discussion with the rest of the group, there are going to be times when one or two of the PCs they bring to the table just don’t work. But if you’re following the 4e mantra you say yes and try to make it work. The results can be a campaign that gets derailed because of in-game fighting.

One of our very first Eberron campaigns featured three of six PCs with Dragonmarks. Two PCs possessed true Dragonmarks, one PC possessed an Aberrant Dragonmark. In the world of Eberron this is a recipe for disaster. The player running the PC with the Aberrant Dragonmark agreed to keep it concealed from the party. Eventually they found out and suddenly the PCs were plotting each other’s deaths.

The party eventually split and half of the players created new characters for the next leg of the adventure. If the DM had just said no to such conflicting PCs things might have worked out very differently. Sometimes it makes sense to ask the players why these characters are working together and if they can’t come up with a good explanation that includes everybody, say no to one or more characters until the party has a good reason to be together.

3) Enough with the power gaming!

I’ve seen more characters than I care to admit that have starting scores of 20, 16, 10, 10, 10, 9. This is similar to the “You’re too specialized” problem mentioned above. The PC is exceptionally good at one thing and terrible at everything else. Usually the high scores are assigned to the top three abilities while the bottom three abilities get what’s left. The result is a character with below average skills, among other things.

I’ve seen players who slot their character’s ability scores like this refuse to participate in skill challenges because they know that they’ll incur a failure. This is when I know that I’ve waited too long to step in and say no to this distribution of points. A character that’s poor at combat doesn’t sit back while the rest of the PCs fight the monster. Yet some players believe it’s ok to take this approach during skill challenges because they have a weakness (which came about entirely because of choices they made!). DMs must say no to players who aren’t willing to live with the consequences of their bad choices.

Another problem that I’m seeing more and more often with power gamers is making Constitution their PC’s dump stat. The results are low hit points and very few healing surges. One bad fight and that PC is out of surges. Now the player is screaming for an extended rest. Again, this is a problem that’s easily avoidable if the player had made better choices. DMs that are more watchful during character creation can step in and say no when they see below average Con scores. Unless of course the player has done this deliberately and knows the challenge they face.

4) Not another one

With all of the choices available you’d think it nearly impossible for two out of six players to show up with nearly identical characters. Think again. I’ve seen it happen a lot – especially during LFR. Some builds are just really appealing (especially a lot of striker builds). In a public-play situation you can’t really say no to similar or identical characters, but at your home game it’s an entirely different situation.

We recently had two Elven archer Rangers in our party of six. One used a long bow and the other used two hand-crossbows. They chose almost all of the identical powers but they played these characters differently. At first there didn’t seem to be any need to say no. And then they both chose the same paragon path.

Until they reached level 11 I’d never asked ether of them what paragon path they were thinking about choosing. Nor did I look at their character sheets and see that they’d both taken all the necessary prerequisites to qualify for this paragon path. By the time they’d made their selections (neither realizing that the other had made the identical choice) it was too late. Lesson learned, when two players want to play the same characters, say no. Ask them to make different choices along the way or better yet see if one is willing to come up with a different character all together.

5) You’ll never use it

Some players want to roll dice and kill monsters; others want to get immersed in the story and role-play for hours on end. It’s players that fall into the second group that I’ve found I need to say no to. They often choose powers and feats that add flavour to their character and absolutely make sense given that PC’s back-story. But often these choices will never have any in-game benefit.

For example, in an older campaign our party was a group of explorers who were good at finding lost artifacts (yes, they were tomb robbers). They often needed to travel across vast distances so they secured the services of an airship. The PCs would travel from place to place in the airship, and when they arrived at the location they would go into the tomb, dungeon or catacombs and find the hidden treasure. When a new player joined he brought a PC that was specialized in mounted combat. Not a flying mount (which we might have been able to work into the game) but a regular warhorse.

It was a cool concept but all of the feats, items and powers he’d chosen to reflect this part of his character were never going to come into play during this kind of campaign. The player decided to play this PC anyway and eventually retrained a lot of his feats and powers as he realized their ineffectiveness. He had a poor experience because I didn’t step in as the DM and say no to the character concept right off the bat.

What situations, specific to character choices, have you found that the DM should have stepped in and said no? Do you agree with all of the situations that I’ve described above? If not, tell us why?

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1 Svafa March 22, 2013 at 11:23 am

I commented on it last time, so why not this time as well? Number 2 sounds like our current game. As DM, I have an in-game answer though and the players are aware of it, and I think even some of their characters are beginning to figure it out. A god did it. I don’t think even the players have figured out which god or gods are responsible, but that might be a whole ‘nother story.

I’ve taken another means of fixing number 5 in our game though, and it’s worked out so far. I’ve tried to guide the players to not pick completely useless choices or to incorporate their choices, but sometimes I’ve just let them take an option that will never come up for free. In the off chance it comes up in one session, then they can show off and be cool, but don’t have to worry about gimping their character the rest of the time for it.

I’ve also gone the route of asking them to get creative and convince me to say ‘yes’ in some cases. We all enjoy a cinematic scene, and if you can convince me that your mounted combat training has some bearing on jumping from ship to ship, then ok. But it better be convincing and it becomes canon for your character afterwards (i.e. I will use it to complicate your character’s life).

2 Philo Pharynx March 22, 2013 at 1:47 pm

Part of the job of the DM is to make sure everybody has fun. Since you know more about the game than anybody else at the start, guiding people into good character choices is part of this.

1 and 5 are related. Characters don’t have to be Jacks of All Trades, but they do need to be able to support different conditions.

2 is major issue, but a lot of this is rooted in player and character compatibility. Yes, the houses are against aberrant dragonmarks, but if the characters have developed friendships, this becomes something that can enhance roleplaying when done right. I’d talk about it with the whole group at the beginning.

I don’t see 3 with as much of an issue. However I do warn people that there will be some times when their weaknesses will be tested. For the physical skills, often the whole party will need to find away to get up that cliff face or fight on the deck of a ship. For social situations, sometimes the king will point at the quiet guy and ask what his opinion is. I see it as a roleplaying challenge.

4 is usually a problem, but it’s as much of a problem as the players make it. Some people hate somebody stepping on their toes, but I’ve seen some groups where having two characters that are very close and act alike is cool. Perhaps they were related or childhood friends. There can be some friendly competition between two well-matched people. Or perhaps they each encourage each other, training together and teaching each other any tricks they pick up.

3 Marcus Aurelius March 22, 2013 at 2:55 pm

I’ve had similar experiences, and I wish I had said “no” sooner. Or better yet, not say the word “no” to my players but instead limit their available choices at the start of the campaign. The benefit with that approach is: 1) I’m not saying “no” to a player; and 2) the player buys into the limited selection because it makes the game world seem more real. I’m a big believer that in order for a campaign setting to have its own feel, a DM needs to [greatly] limit what races / classes / powers / feats are available to the players in order for it to have it’s own identity.

So I wish in my last campaign I had set aside the time to world build buy paring down the content and re-presenting it to the players in a PDF. 1st Edition D&D had seven races and about ten classes (depending on how you count)… and that seems to be more than enough for any setting. With all the content and broken math at a player’s disposal in 4e, I think our campaign would have been better served if I had limited the choices (which sculpts the world and mechanics to my liking at the same time).

Does that mean more work on my part? Definitely, but I think that would have helped to alleviate many of the problems you discussed here. I have a feeling that a lot of DMs encounter these problems in one form or another, especially later in the life-cycle of an edition, where more options are available to players. There only needs to be so much.

4 Sunyaku March 25, 2013 at 12:57 am

I can think of a time when I should have said “No” to a player. In my home campaign, players are allowed to have more than one character, and then they can choose to play either character for short/episodic adventures. Not every player does this, as it dilutes the treasure a character receives (everyone in the adventuring company levels together at the same time, regardless of which characters went off adventuring). Anyways, the pool of players is already defender strong, and one player wanted to create a new alternate character. He created ANOTHER DEFENDER. Now, we have a pool of players, and not everyone is able to attend a given game, so the party composition varies, but I believe 4 of the 10 characters in the adventuring company are defenders. When 3 are playing at the same time, it makes for dreadfully slow combats.

Also, recent blog is ironically related, though it covers different topics related to “Power Word: No”.

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