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Context

I'm posting this on behalf of a friend. She wants more than just our group's opinion. I don't know the other guy at all, but I was given screenshots of their conversations in order to get this as factual as possible. I know my friend will take all advice under consideration as she tries dealing with her group.

She is a fellow player in my D&D group, and recently approached the rest of our group for advice on a number of issues she was having with the home game she was DMing. We pinned down and worked out the major underlying issues just fine, but a side issue caught my curiosity.

The problem

The setting she was running is a lightly-homebrewed Forgotten Realms setting, and one where necromancy was viewed very negatively, to the point of being considered outright evil. One player was dead set on playing a necromantic sorcerer. This character had a lot of fit issues with the setting, and my friend informed him many times that his choice, lore-wise, would mean his character would face a lot of hatred and hardship from the world, as necromancy was considered evil. His response was thus:

Also, as you said, it's your campaign. You run how the world works, any obstacles that come about are the ones you want. I didn't make an evil character so if you wanted you can easily make it so obstacles don't come about.

(The arguments are also tied up in a couple other issues that are only related in that they are red flags for a problem player; I can add more context upon request.)

The conflict

Our group is very RP-centric, with a high ratio of "actor" players (or a tendency toward Watsonian perspectives, if you're familiar with the Wastonian vs. Doylist paradigm). Our immediate reaction was that this was terrible entitlement, the sign of an amazingly self-centered player, and she should never game with this guy again--which she's a bit nervous about, as he was a friend before he was her player.

Ultimately, the most central issue--which is something different--is being worked on first, so this problem isn't likely to be immediately addressed.

What are the pros and cons of a DM bending a setting's lore to accommodate a player's character concept, at the request of the player?

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The DM should not unilaterally alter core setting details for a single player without consulting the group.

Significant changes to core lore, if made at all, should be made in good faith with the buy-in of the group.

Handle the problem honestly but directly:

"I understand that your character is not evil, but this character concept is not a good fit for our particular game."

If this is a personal issue for the DM (e.g. she finds she just isn't comfortable with undead of any sort) then she should say so:

"I'm not comfortable with necromancy in general, so I don't include it in my settings. It's a personal boundary for me, I hope you can accept that."

The 5E DMG specifically grants the DM the role of world-building

The DM is expected to set restrictions in order to develop the world.

The first part of the 5E DMG is Master of Worlds. The Introduction states:

Every DM is the creator of his or her own campaign world.

CH1:

It is up to you [the DM] to decide where on the spectrum you want your world to fall [from the baseline assumptions when running an existing setting].

On Page 26, the DMG suggests that the DM compile a handout for the campaign that includes:

  • Any restrictions or new options for character creation... [emphasis mine]
  • Any information in the backstory of your campaign that your characters would know about.

DND 5e explicitly grants the DM the ability to define the world. The first 70 pages of the DMG are dedicated to this task. It is expected, as part of the game, that the DM has the authority and ability to define character creation restrictions as well as the world and how it operates.

This is part of the trade-off taken when agreeing to DM: The DM has the responsibility to develop and manage the game, but the freedom to shape the world.

The Setting is the the DM's Character

When a player asks the DM to change core lore, they are impeding on a role explicitly given to the DM. Nothing in the DMG suggests that players can demand changes to the setting, just like a DM cannot force a player's character to take any particular action.

Group consensus is more important than a single player's character concept

An RPG is a social project where players and the DM work together to develop a world, story, and setting. When a DM pitches a game, it usually involves a particular understanding of how the setting works.

This setting requires buy-in.

For a group to be successful, everyone needs to be on the same page with their game. Fear the Boot's Group Template is example of constructing a common consensus around the game in a structured way.

When the DM presents a world, and players agree to participate, the DM has organized a group around a common goal, vision of the world, and mindset.

When a single player asks for substantial modification to the game world after the setting is established, this affects the entire group, not just the DM.

If the players have already agreed that this is not a setting where walking skeletons are an everyday occurrence, this player's request is a challenge to the game as a whole. If the DM wants to consider this player's proposal, she should discuss the idea with the group before making the change.

This situation has already escalated.

Your DM looks like she's handled this challenge to the game in a firm way. Your fellow player is apparently harboring a grudge and refusing to change their concept.

A fundamental table rule is (DMG 234):

  • Respect: Don't bring personal conflicts to the table or let disagreements escalate into bad feelings

The player's reaction is to let the bad feelings linger. The player, instead of discussing the disagreement further, both accepts and rejects the DM's decision. I read their particular response as:

"I accept that my character concept will cause problems, but you could remove those problems, therefore you are to blame for them."

This particular player is couching long-term resentment in conciliatory terms. This behavior is a red flag. It is a misleading response and does not show consideration for the game as a whole.

Unless the group decides this matter collectively, the game will have a built-in interpersonal conflict before the first session begins.

It is important for the DM to resolve this tension before the first session

Like above, respect is the key starting point:

"I know we had some disagreements about your character concept. I generally don't think necromancy could work in this setting. Do you have any ideas for how we could make it work, or what else the character could be like?"

The player may propose a more subtle approach (only raising dead in the dungeon, not bringing them to town). Or the player might stay adamant and demand that they have undead servants in town.

The outcome of this conversation is either:

  • The DM finds a compromise that fits her expectations, and does not alter the setting too much while finding room for this character concept.

  • The player understands the game world better and designs a more appropriate concept

  • The player refuses to cooperate at all, and then a more difficult discussion has to be had about whether they are a match for the game.

I actually had a player do this in my game! He wanted to play a necromancer, but I didn't want undead roaming our city. He suggested that I give him a bag of holding as his starting magic item. He takes some time to unpack a skeleton he animated when needed, and I don't have to RP people terrified of skeletons all day. This fit my game (it's a bit outlandish) but was a win-win for both of us.

In my case, though, my player was immediately willing to work with me and compromise. I could have told him "no." He would have made a different character without hard feelings.

Games are always a compromise. These compromises need to be made in good faith, with respect for each others' boundaries.

Sources:

  • 5e DMG
  • 17 years of GM experience
  • 18 years of RPG experience
  • Fear the Boot RPG podcast
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the response! I do want to point out that the group she and I both play in is separate from the group she is running where this player is. \$\endgroup\$ – MissMisinformation Mar 3 at 13:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MissMisinformation Thanks for the clarification. The answers here are written to be general answers to the question so that they're useful results for people searching for the problem in the future. I'll edit it a bit to match. \$\endgroup\$ – Master_Yogurt Mar 3 at 13:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MissMisinformation As Master_Yogurt pointed, the player place the burden of his choice on your friend shoulder, cause "she could handwave it, so she should accomodate him". It's a fallacy and shouldn't be accepted. Placing the fault on the GM for personnal choice is a toxic behaviour and should be dealt firmly, as it is already disrecpectful towards her work, especially when it is supposed to come from a friend. \$\endgroup\$ – Nyakouai Mar 4 at 14:11
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The DM has both authority over the campaign world and responsibility to keep players happy.

It's entirely the DM's call whether to compromise their setting lore in order to meet player requests. In my opinion, they should.

I once banned elves and other demi-humans from my human-centric homebrew campaign setting. This upset a player who always picked rogues and enjoyed powergaming, since they wanted to play an elf for the Dexterity bonus. The player was ultimately unhappy, and quit the game soon after.

I suspect the core conflict is that while the DM has authority over the campaign world in a D&D game, the players traditionally have control of their characters, and that control can extend to a sense of authority over character creation. In D&D 5th edition, for example, nothing in the Player's Handbook says you need to ask your DM's permission to play a given race or class from that book.

However, the DM has ultimate authority, and can restrict character creation options. For example, this is explicitly stated in the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide, p.26:

For easy distribution, compile essential information into a campaign handout. Such a handout typically includes the following material:

  • Any restrictions on new options for character creation, such as new or prohibited races.

Both the 5e DMG and my personal experience suggest that if the DM does choose to prohibit or restrict character options, these should be stated up front before the players make their choices.

The DM also has responsibility to ensure that all the players are happy, and that duty is more important than any one individual piece of setting lore. In this particular case, the DM must consider the following:

  • Will allowing one player to ignore the necromancy taboo impair the experience for the other players? Talk to the other players. Will a player character necromancer undermine or cheapen the players' past experiences of the world?
  • Is there a compromise that would allow the player to be happy without breaking established canon? Talk to the player and discover their motives for playing this forbidden character concept. Is there an alternative which they would be equally happy with?
  • Is there a compromise the other players would be happy with? Perhaps the character is able to hide their necromancy and this becomes an important plot point. Perhaps a plot point is that the the taboo on necromancy is revealed to be unjustified, and a revolution takes place. Perhaps society includes a rare few necromancers who are accepted for some reason, such as individuals of noble birth, of a certain race, or a unique category of necromancy-users who use their power to destroy undead and are feared but tolerated.
  • If none of these are an option, how to break it to the player? If nobody's willing to accept this player's character concept

My personally preferred solution would be to challenge the player to explain how their character can exist despite the widely-understood taboo. Character background is the player's responsibility, and I've seen some very unorthodox character concepts successfully justified by a creative player.

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How willing I am to bend setting lore depends entirely on how badly its going to change the World.

Recently I ran a story where there were things that went bump in the night, but not having knowledge or skill in magic gave you partial to complete immunity to them. The more powerful they became as mages, the more they learned how to stake vampires and banish demons, the more likely they were to attract the attention of such, and it was NEVER a fair match up. In D&D terms, you gain a level of wizard and Challenge Rating 5+ monsters start to notice you.

If I had a prospective player want to play a full mage, but didn't want to be a 10,000 watt beacon of monster attractant, my response would be a very simple, "No, that's not the story that I am telling. I am telling a story about X, you want to play in a story about Y. There is nothing wrong with Y, but that is not what this story is about."

Now, if I was running a story were elves lived 1000 years give or take a century, and a player wanted an elf who was 3000 years old. I'd take a look at my world, decide that changing the lifespan of elves from 1 millennia to 5 millennia really didn't affect anything important in my world and tell the player to go right ahead.

From my understanding of Forgotten Realms, its gods, its magic and how those interact with the common man, changing necromancy from Evil to meh would be a pretty massive change. Changing this mid-game is going to be a pretty heavy break in continuity unless you put in some serious time and effort to make that change happen, "In lore".

The second way to ignore setting lore is to just fudge the circumstances for a single character. People just magically don't care / don't notice the fact that hes a necromancer. This can be as unsubtle as putting eyeglasses and a fake mustache on the zombies, or perhaps the GM lets them find a crate of Hat of Disguises to magically make all the skeletons look like bland people that no one talks to. This goes back to story style. A light hearted slapstick game would be perfectly ok with this. A serious game, its going to undermine the entire feel of the game.

Ban unfeasible character concepts

(Ban necromancer characters)

Pros

  • World Continuity is preserved.
  • Uncompromising players will self select out of the game.

Cons

  • Some political fallout, usually short lived as there is no emotional investment in a character

Allow edge character concepts, but don't alter the world

(Allow Necromancer, don't hand wave problems they will face)

Pros

  • Player thinks they get what they want.
  • Less initial political issues

Cons

  • Player very likely to get frustrated causing long term resentment
  • Very high likely hood of long term political issues.

Allow Edge character, Change world to fit new reality

(Allow Necromancer, rewrite world so Necromancy isn't seen as evil)

Pros

  • Player is happy

Con

  • Rest of table may be unhappy with change to the world
  • Extensive work necessary to make change flow smoothly
  • Continuity change may be jarring regardless
  • Player very likely to continue to request world spanning changes to suit them

Allow edge character, Ignore character/world incongruity

(Allow Necromancy, Meta-game it so he doesn't have problems)

Pros

  • Player is happy

Cons

  • Story verisimilitude is horribly damaged
  • Rest of table probably unhappy.
  • Player very likely to continue to request world spanning changes to suit them

Given the player's unwillingness to compromise, ("You run how the world works, you can easily make it so obstacles don't come about.") I would personally just declare Necromancy as not available for PCs as they don't fit in this story.

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