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I'm not really sure how to word this so I'll detail the situation and hopefully I can not only get an answer but a name for this situation.

I was in a game with a regular group doing a one shot as some of our group wasn't going to be around today. We all had level three characters and I believe one was a Barbarian with the Path of the Totem Warrior which I believe they chose the bear.

So during a moment of combat the person fiddled with a bear amulet they had as they said they're entering a rage. The player described that as they did so a ethereal visage of a bear enshrouded their character.

The GM had immediately said Rage doesn't do that and the player became flustered. After the session, the kettle was still boiling. To the player, the GM was outing them and stopping them from being creative. To the GM, they were confused to what the player was doing and then tried to stop them. Apparently there had been a past with the player flavoring spells and abilities in ways unusual to how they are described as written or to how they can be applied.

Part of me thinks this falls into the "rule of cool" category but it also falls into confusion with mechanics, whether superficial or actually mechanical in nature. That and we had a new player with us, so I'm not sure if it was in attempt to stop potential misleading information.

Can a player choose to add such a description to their ability (and spells)?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil May 5 at 15:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ I suppose it could. I know someone added a color change to their eldritch blast during the game but it still retained the identity of eldritch blast so I suppose thats why I left it in regards to anything whether abilities or spells. It could be narrowed to Rage and probably apply to everything anyhow. \$\endgroup\$ – Semi-New Player May 5 at 15:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Does the answer to this question depend in any way on it being about Rage? \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells May 5 at 16:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the question is perfectly in scope as is, and doesn't need to be narrowed down. There's no reason to make it specifically about Rage. That said, are the sorts of descriptions you're asking about intended to have no mechanical impact (since you describe them as "flavor")? You do say there's "confusion with mechanics, whether superficial or actually mechanical in nature", but you don't explicitly say they're intended to have no mechanical impact. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast May 5 at 16:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ It had confused the GM in regards to what they were doing until they mentioned Rage I suspect. So while the intent wasn't to mechanically change the spell, the GM might have taken it that way and so they stopped it by saying 'it doesn't work that way' \$\endgroup\$ – Semi-New Player May 5 at 16:12
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This is a matter for your Social Contract

There is no 'Core Rule' which allows the Barbarian to do this.1 As a general principle Spells and Abilities do only what their description says. Therefore the GM is entirely within their right to say no.

That said they would be entirely within their right to say yes and ideally which answer is given should have been made clear before you started playing. But you shouldn't blame your GM, nor any of the players for not clarifying it. There are countless different ways to play and being aware of all those variations it basically impossible. Whichever of these options you use comprise your Style-of-Play and which SoP you use part of your Social Contract. It's also important to remember that all SoP's are valid and fit different people.

For this specific variant there are a couple of things to keep in mind.

  • It adds flavour and customization. This lets a character own the specific spell or ability much more than the vanilla version. This will to many player let their character be more than just a combination of a race and class and can be an important part of the roleplay.

  • It's a creative outlet. And for some players that is great. For others it isn't and while it would be optional (i.e. you can choose to not add anything) a player who can't come up with anything to add to their spells and abilities can feel overshadowed. Both in coolness as another player gets have their thing be more extra, but also in play time as a player who adds stuff will spend more time focusing on their abilities/spells/actions. This will make the game less fun for them and having fun at the expense of others is not gonna make things fun in the long run. (This applies to more than just RPGs.)

  • It takes time. Depending on how much description (and how quickly it is given) it can eat up a lot of table-time. Especially combat which can already be a bit slow and will often have the heaviest ability usage slows down even more as the colour of fireballs thrown and the mane of horses summoned have to be described. This can be solved be only allowing short descriptor or outlawing them/limiting them in combat.

  • You may want to make a distinction between Mundane abilities and magical ones (which includes spells) have a different limits on what kind of flair can be added to each. For some players might find magic-like effects added to otherwise non-magical abilities to break their immersion (or breaking the believability of the world). How and where to put these limits is something your group needs to decide or more likely learn through trial and error.

Long story short, this is a valid way to play but you (as a group) need to agree on it first. Your other player either comes from, or is influenced by,2 a different Style-of-Play and probably wasn't aware of the difference. This is OK. What you (as a group) needs to talk about is which style you want to be using (i.e. whether to allow such 'fluff descriptions' or not) and then get back to having fun. Also, it's OK to try something like this out and if you find it doesn't work drop it.


1: For the specific example the closest is the description of the Path of the Totem Warrior (PHB p. 50) which includes

In battle, your totem spirit fills you with supernatural might, adding magical fuel to your barbarian rage.

and for Bear specifically

The spirit of the bear makes you tough enough to stand up to any punishment.

Neither of these are a description of an effect such as your player described, but are a reasonable base of inspiration for such a feature.

2: Influenced either from either things they have read online, or perhaps more likely from watching/listening to D&D (or other RPG) podcasts. As a general note, if your players do consume such media (particularly if several consume the same), it might be worth familiarizing yourself with the play-style of that podcast as it can influence their expectations.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Oh, sure, but there's a big field between 'you can do whatever the rules don't say you can't' and 'you can't do anything the rules don't say you can'. I agree with KRyan's answer in the link that is now provided; what abilities do beyond exactly what they explicitly say they do is a matter for your GM. This case, I think, is pretty clearly not something that the Rage feature lets you do, but that is, ultimately, a judgement call: 'looking really angry' is totally something I would consider implicit in the Rage ability. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer May 5 at 18:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan helpfully (as quoted in the answer) the Totem Warrior path description says it "adds magical fuel to your barbarian rage", so clearly the Totem Warrior abilites are magical. mumble mumble magic of ki mumble... \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer May 5 at 19:18
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Not Without GM Approval...

...And possibly on a case-by-case basis at that.

As a GM I tend to allow things like this and as a player I tend to seek these opportunities, but always within limits. The reason is that I, as a GM, often rationalize how things work and what they look like for reasons of my own which I do not (and often cannot) share with the players because their characters would have no reason to know... at least not right now.

As a completely made-up example, in this situation the GM may have in mind that rage abilities manifest (visually) slowly and over time and levels so that a full appearance of a rage spirit marks the character out as much tougher than he actually is. Or may have some special cadre or subclass of barbarians that the PCs haven't met which manifest like that. Or.... or... etc.

Even something as seemingly trivial as a color might get afoul of this: I remember one Tolkien-pastiche trilogy where, if memory serves, you could tell something about a character by what color magical fire he was throwing at you.

I've occasionally run into situations where as a GM, I've just had to say, "No, it doesn't work what way. There's a reason, and I can't tell you, so you're just to have to accept it." As a player I have had GMs say much the same. It tends to get less frequent as the game goes on and players and GMs adapt to each other.

Finally, on the most trivial level, the GM has a certain responsibility for setting and maintaining the "look and feel" or micro-genre of his own game. If the GM wants a low-magic look-and-feel for his barbarians, he's going to get it one way or the other.

So while my advice to GMs is to allow this as much as possible, my actual answer to the question is in bold above.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a good point about worldbuilding. However I potentially take issue with "I do not (and often cannot) share [reasons] with the players because their characters would have no reason to know". Just because a character doesn't know something, doesn't mean a player cannot know something. Players already need to keep the two separate, and IMO sharing facts about your world with them helps them play their characters accordingly. \$\endgroup\$ – Andrzej Doyle May 7 at 12:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is how it works in my Games. Two examples: As a DM I allowed a cleric to shape his "toll the dead" spells to be a ghostly form of whatever they wanted. It's just colour and shapes, no real in-game effect otherwise. As a player I make every oppurtunity to ensure that my Spirtual Weapon is a cool looking as I can think of (although this is largely in the spell description) \$\endgroup\$ – GPPK May 7 at 15:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AndrzejDoyle note that your quote does not capture an earlier "often" which makes my statement less absolute. In any event, I reveal some details at my sole discretion (as GM) based on my judgment of whether they constitute damaging spoiler information or not. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak May 7 at 16:06
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This is entirely within the discretion of GMs how they want to run their campaigns. This is not something that lies within the rules or outside of it.

It is simply an agreement between players and GM how such things should be done in their group.

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If this would happen in my own games, I would allow it as far as it does not affect any game mechanical outcome and does not run contrary to the spirit of the gaming world we play in.

But:

  • DM/GM approval needed
  • Sensible player needed
  • DM/GM holds the right to veto any and all effects without rewriting the story.
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Within limits, I would allow it. There are similar things to this in the official books. For example, the section on the sorcerer in Xanathar's Guide to Everything suggests that some sorcerers have a sign of sorcery, "a telltale sign that makes it clear where [a spell's] magical energy came from" (p. 49). One example given is:

Illusory blue flames wreathe your head as you begin your casting, then abruptly disappear.

Other options including float 6 inches off the ground for a moment when casting a spell, and other cool things.

This seems to be close to having a shroud of a bear around a character, if you limit it. It should be see-through and maybe it should disappear at the end of his turn.

Of course, the Dungeon Master gets to decide, and if I chose this sign of magic for my sorcerer, I would first tell him. But I can't say that I would see a reason to refuse it.

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