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I'm currently running a campaign with 5 players at level 3, one of which is a Wizard Dragonborn who's entire character is devoted to becoming a real dragon by the end of the campaign through some kind of magic or holy gift or something.

As part of this, the player has decided that he absolutely MUST have a Pseudodragon and has decided that next session, as the players have finally returned to town after leaving at level 1, he is going to spend a few days resting before setting off alone to explore the forests of the nearby area to find a Pseudodragon.

I explained to him that on foot, sweeping the whole forest systematically (in a frontier part of the world where the majority of the land is forested) will take literally weeks for his character to do, as he has no spells that can assist him except find familiar (which he could use to sweep the air with a hawk).

When I explained that, this would involve him as a player turning up to the session (online) and contributing essentially nothing for extended periods of time over the course of several sessions (my players have decided they will be leaving town soon and our sessions have very little time between them in the world) he decided that he was fine with that.

I really don't think that he will be and I'd hate to lose one of my players because in two session's time he decides that he is really bored and doesn't want to keep playing but on the other hand I really don't feel like it's fair for the other players just to give him what he wants immediately because I'm scared to lose a player.

I know he has said that he is fine with it and I've explained the downsides to doing what he is planning to do.

As the DM, is there a better way that I can damage control this? I don't know if I'm making the right choices by not giving the player what they want but I just cannot see a reasonable way that a player could quickly find a rare animal in hundreds of square miles of forest.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm unclear what the player is actually proposing to do. Is he interested in playing out the process of getting the pseudodragon (in which case you could use that as a story hook), or is he just demanding it and threatening to derail the campaign until he gets it? \$\endgroup\$ – Mark Wells Jun 30 at 16:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ He's saying that he wants his character to go off alone and search the woods for the next few weeks to look for one. But the rest of the party don't want to wait for him, they want to carry on with the quests that they have. Meaning that I'd be splitting the party in two for what could potentially be 10+ sessions. Essentially making it a solo campaign and a group campaign running concurrently. \$\endgroup\$ – Ethan Field Jun 30 at 18:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi HNQ visitors! I would just like to remind you that comments are not for answering the question. If you have advice to solve the problem, please put it in an answer below along with the support to back it up. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Jul 1 at 10:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Does the character have any skills that would allow him to "make friends" with an alien creature? Does the character have the survival and observation skills needed to deal with the deep woods for lengthy periods of time? \$\endgroup\$ – NomadMaker Jul 2 at 4:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but the player should understand that his success is likely to be very low. \$\endgroup\$ – NomadMaker Jul 2 at 11:21

10 Answers 10

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Ultimately, you as DM decide what you believe is plausible

If you decide that it's unreasonable for a PC to "quickly find a rare animal in hundreds of square miles of forest", then you are well within your rights to not let that happen. Explaining this to the player up front was the right thing to do, since it sets his expectations immediately rather than potentially drawing it out.

Furthermore, although players can ask for things they want, you are under no obligation to do that. If I was a player in your game and I demanded a certain magic item, I should not expect you to oblige me, nor if I wanted to recruit allies for free to accompany the party (since that makes the party stronger and more likely to survive, which affects the balance and therefore your preparation as DM; it's different if they buy hirelings or something, since at least that's using a game resource, money, but just expecting to "find a pseudodragon because I want one" isn't good enough).

Unless the rest of the party are all really genuinely on board with the plan of getting this one player a pseudodragon, then it would be unreasonable to expect them to have to go along with this player's plan. It would also be unreasonable to have to split the party, since, ultimately, D&D is a game about team work, with multiple players collaboratively playing together, and the players are expected to generally stick together, not go off on their own for weeks at a time whilst the rest of the party continue with the actual story.

Potential balance issues with having a pseudodragon

This pseudodragon, if you were to give him one, would effectively be an ally, and given that I imagine you'd have to use the Variant Familiar version from the Monster Manual (p. 254), would also give him a significant buff (specifically that the pseudodragon can share its Magic Resistance trait with him, so he would now have advantage on saving throws against spells, effectively "for free") that presumably the other players would then be missing out on, which may make them all feel left out.

That could then snowball if you feel the need to give them all something to make up for it, since now everyone's power level increases, and that unbalances the game (in the sense that you, as DM, now have to take that into consideration when balancing combat encounters, etc).

There is a RAW-based solution that doesn't require you to go back on yourself

Furthermore, there is a way that the player can just "have" a pseudodragon without making you give him something "for free", and that's taking 3 levels in warlock and going Pact of the Chain, which allows his find familiar spell to summon a pseudodragon. If his plan was to eventually learn true polymorph and turn into a dragon, that would still be possible by level 20 (and no sooner, since he'd need to be Wizard 17/Warlock 3 to have both true polymorph and the warlock familiars). This is all assuming you allow multiclassing, of course...

What about potentially losing a player?

If the player cannot handle not having something that they have no right to expect in the first place, then it speaks poorly of this player's maturity. If he leaves because of that, then I don't think anyone can blame that on you. As for how this may affect the other players, it might be best to discuss that with them at the time to see where they see the game going after that, if this player's loss would bother them.

However, let's not be too pessimistic. Although you suspect that this player may not be able to handle it, this may just be guilt or a lack of confidence in your DMing speaking for you. This player may handle it better than you expect. It's possible that this player will accept that he didn't get what he wanted and move on, and that there will be no further effects of your ruling. If you have confidence in your rulings as DM and believe you are doing the right thing, taking into account balancing the players' fun (as a whole group, which includes you as well) with what's plausible, then it may be that no problem occurs at all.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like your answer. I think I'd say almost everything I'd say as a DM. However, there is small trick that the OP can use to give the "it" to the player without giving anything at the same time. An egg. It first give the players something without balance issue (at least for quite a while). Second, I remember those little nightmares being extremely fragile. If he manages to hatch it, with a big IF, he'd have a hatchling that can be roleplayed as too weak to give bonus, but enough to train it. As a DM, If he manages to keep alive the little thing for so long, he earned it. \$\endgroup\$ – Chepelink Jun 30 at 20:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Chepelink: I have seen that done with a dragon (back in 3.5) that the multiplier had to raise from its egg for a lot of levels until it was sufficiently big to serve as mount. The party helped safeguard the egg, of course, and then the young dragon, so it was more or like a party pet with a special relationship with the future rider. Pretty cool to play through. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jul 1 at 16:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Given that it's a third level Warlock ability to get the pseudodragon, and the party is third level, would it be reasonable to offer the player the option to trade his levels in one for the other? Burn the spellbook as part of swearing the pact, then summon the pseudodragon. He could start taking Wizard levels again from there, but he'd have the pseudodragon now. \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Jul 3 at 15:06
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The usual way to handle it when a player character doesn't want to adventure, is to invite the player to make a new character who does want to adventure.

"Okay, so your wizard is going to go off looking for a pseudodragon. In the meantime, the rest of the adventuring group has this other thing they want to do. It sounds like your wizard isn't going to be there. Would you like to build a different character who wants to go adventuring with the party?"

Another way to solve the problem is to take this character hook -- one of your characters wants a pseudodragon -- and attach it to the plot. Maybe some NPC has a spare pseudodragon egg, and will give it to this character as a reward for completing the quest that your group is on -- and eventually the egg would hatch into a pseudodragon.

Unfortunately in this instance it seems like getting a pseudodragon is pretty unbalancing (because it comes with magic resistance), so you probably don't want to give it to him.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Notably a pseudodragon familiar is a class feature of the Pact of the Chain Warlock. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Jun 30 at 15:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ A pet/found pseudodragon has a big unbalancing feature in that it can share its magic resistance with its owner. At such low levels that can be huge. \$\endgroup\$ – MivaScott Jun 30 at 16:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov Check the MM on pseudodragons, I think you may find the familiar variant there that isn't pact of the chain. we have a couple of Q&A on that \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 30 at 18:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I believe Thomas Markov's point is still relevant in considering the balance of giving a player a pseudodragon familiar. A real pseudodragon familiar is more helpful than a Warlock's 3rd level feature so the value is pretty high and, if granted thoughtlessly, it can step on the Warlock's toes. \$\endgroup\$ – Odo Jun 30 at 19:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ With regards to granting magic resistance it is worth noting that the pseudodragon doesn't necessarily have to form a telepathic bond and serve as a familiar. It is an intelligent being and it could just be regular chums with the Wizard until it chooses to leave. \$\endgroup\$ – Odo Jun 30 at 19:31
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I am assuming you have already agreed on the Pseudodragon thing as a whole, and are not concerned about the balance issues and RAW limitations proposed in NathanS' answer and others. If it concerns you, I had a pseudo-dragon as a Wizard and it did not break the game at all (admittedly we did not have a Warlock to complain about that being their thing, though).

The way I see it, there are three equally viable options that would make it fun for the party as a whole. Unfortunately, your approach is not one of them - I agree that it will result in the player feeling frustrated. Your player seem to have an interesting character with nice, approachable goals and that is nice. I would also not want to lose him as a player.

So, my three viable solutions are

Make it downtime (off-game time)

I understand that the party does not want to help the player with their quest, for some reason. Maybe that reason is that they thought it would be lots of sessions about searching for a pseudo dragon in the forest, which is certainly not the adventure most would expect. But you can simply make it downtime off-game activity. "Your characters enter the Name Your Forest and search for weeks on end for a Pseudodragon. Finally, they find one, and, after feeding it for a few more weeks, PC gains the trust of that companion!"

Takes 10 minutes of real life time and everyone can now proceed with the actual adventure together.

Alternatively, the other players can also engage other Downtime activities (see DMG p. 127), and they gather again before parting in a new adventure.

Downtime activities are actually common, but most groups forget about them because they are not played within the game. But remember that the adventurers do not adventure non-stop.

Make the search for a pseudo dragon interesting for the whole party

So, the problem with the way you approached it is: you made this quest insanely boring. Just walking in circles in a random forest. Obviously the rest of the party does not want to participate on that, especially if it is actual in-game time.

But you can make it an actual quest. Maybe a powerful Wizard seeks help of the party, and will reward each character accordingly, and the reward for this wizard would be the pseudo dragon. Either way, you know your players better than us, and you know your campaign better than us. But surely there is a way to make an actual quest out of his search for a pseudo dragon, one that is also relevant and interesting for the other players.

Have the player create an alternate character to adventure together with the party for this time

While his other character is seeking for the pseudodragon in the woods, have the player play a new character. When the quest for the pseudodragon ends, he can re-join the party with the Wizard, or keep the new character. At least he will keep having fun in the meantime.

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Let the character be lucky (but not as lucky as they would like)

Pseudodragon's are intelligent creatures so they shouldn't be treated like a magic item or pet. If your Wizard befriends one it should act like an NPC. It will follow its own interests rather than the wizard's interests.

Start the next session focused on the wizard searching the forest for a pseudodragon. Chuck a deadly encounter in their way to make clear that wandering the woods is a dangerous activity but make sure the encounter doesn't take too long (out of respect for the other players). I recommend a trio of needle blights who flee if the battle is taking too long. The encounter should be one where the wizard takes a fair bit of damage but then either has to quickly escape or quickly wins.

If the wizard doesn't turn back have them find a pseudodragon without too much hassle. Have them roll a survival check until they beat a DC 20. Each roll will count as a third of a day (about the time between rests). Ideally use a computer roller to generate a long string of d20 rolls and count how many before an appropriate number appears. They will eventually find a pseudodragon without wasting much game time.

The pseudodragon, however, is not particularly thrilled with the idea of leaving its home to go with some random person. It might, however, be tempted to accompany the wizard for a time if the wizard brings it some specific magical item. This item, it just so happens, is in a similar area to where the rest of the party is going. Now the wizard is going to need to catch up. How much depends on how they rolled when finding the dragon.

At this point switch back to the main party. Have them start the next phase of their adventure without the wizard and fight a battle or two. This gives the other players time to engage to make up for the time spent with the wizard. At some point, either at the end of the session or partway through the next, allow the wizard to catch up with them and rejoin the party. You might give the wizard options for how quickly to catch up. They can hire a horse to catch up faster but it will cost them gold. They can travel through the night but will be exhausted (and not regain spell slots) when they arrive. This way their attempt at going off in the woods has tangible costs without disrupting multiple sessions.

The macguffin the wizard is searching for should be accessible at some point during the adventure but it should be somewhat costly or risky to obtain. The wizard can choose to get it but it will mean facing the BBEG at lower health and with fewer spells.

If the wizard returns with the item have the Pseudodragon join them for a while, as an NPC. The duration will depend on the wizard's choices towards the dragon. If the wizard treats the dragon like a tool the dragon will be offended and leave earlier. If the wizard roleplays getting to know the dragon and befriending it the dragon will stay around longer. If you ever don't want the dragon to be around you can just have it leave for a while on its own business.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this approach, but I think you can distill a few principles to put up front before the detail application--things like "interesting choices require interesting costs." Ethan is on the right path already and it's good to draw out a DM's imagination before offering step-by-step instructions. \$\endgroup\$ – raithyn Jul 1 at 12:08
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Short proposed list of steps you can take (step 3 answers the title question):

  1. Say off-game that you will allow all players to change class or class feature selections at this point, including switching ability scores around (probably handle racial bonuses right), or to retire their current chatacter and make a new one.

  2. Say that you have a proposition for the Dragonborn player related to above and regarding their wish for the familiar.

  3. Say that you considered and you will not be running an extended solo adventure as a split party situation. If a player chooses to go off on a solo quest, then their character will become an NPC and they get to make a new PC.

  4. Ask the Dragonborn player to pick a Warlock patron they want to contact their character. Then have that patron make suitable kind of contact, offering either the usual pact once they reach level 4, or remaking the Dragonborn with their power, making them a level 3 Pact of the Chain Warlock immediately. The patron could also promise to True Polymorph them into a dragon in the future, if the chatacter becomes powerful enough (level 17 maybe) and does the patrons bidding, so they don't have to multiclass into a Wizard if they don't want to. Mention that other players might get similar guarantees or gifts.

Note that all the steps above strive to preserve player agency, and to give equal treatment to all players. Also note that it is quite important to stay within rules for fairness, so no re-specing to wild homebrew content. Or well, homebrew content can be fine, but there's always higher risk of issues and needless arguing. The steps above are meant to allow the pseudodragon within rules (via Pact of the Chain).

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It's an inter-player issue

As you wrote, the wizard has no useful skills to help search and will probably be killed. His only chance is to convince the other players to help. In fact, the few days the players are in town is enough time for the wizard to go out, blow lots of rolls using non-existent skills, nearly die, realize they need help, and ask the other players.

If the other players decide to go off and adventure, that's their decision, not yours. You have to run their adventures, while the wizard gets a few search rolls each session. If you have an adventure that takes place far out of town, and another nearby, it's also the players' decision to stay far out of town with no chance to help. Maybe the wizard can convince them to help for a few days. Maybe bargain to take reduced shares of the next treasure -- all inter-player issues. Or maybe the players will convince the wizard to adventure just a little bit more, then they might help with the mini-dragon thing.

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Interesting Choices Require Interesting Costs

You gave a clear indication that choices have costs and you tried to make the cost boring in an attempt to make the choice boring. This is logical, but in my experience, never works.

One option is to say "no, that doesn't work" and move on.

  • In-game approach: "The old hermit looks at you like you're insane, 'there ain't no such critter out there, stranger. I'd know too; I've lived in these woods on nigh 40 years.'"
  • Downtime approach: "After three weeks in the woods, you've not located any sign of the creature you seek."
  • Meta approach: Turn to the player and say "No. There are no pseudodragons in this area. I will remember that you want to find one."

Another is to make the search interesting so the other players are involved. That's covered in detail already.

The third option though, is to give the player the pseudodragon and make the relationship a sticking point. Dragons are not passive creatures, even false ones. It's not a domesticated dog, it's a sentient wildcat or fox.

Let us discuss another option though:

The Cost of "Owning" a Sentient Creature

If you have seen Jack Saint's video on the implications of talking dog movies, you can probably predict where this is going.

So you roll some dice for "downtime" and your wizard now has a new pet. That was easy, wasn't it. Too easy. Alarm bells should be going off in your player's head because, while they may not realize it, they just enslaved a sentient creature, one with (literally) human intelligence. PETA—er—S.P.E.W.—uh, that's not quite right—S.P.D.W.?—good enough—is just around the corner.

How is the wizard treated differently by civil society for his "pet?" How is he treated differently by the "bad guys" who wouldn't resort to something so evil (or who embrace him as one of them if they would)? Power often has social costs, not just mechanical ones, and a role playing game is the perfect space to explore that.

This approach may not fit your table, but my players will never forget that blink dog puppies are different from ordinary dogs, and not just because they can teleport.

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I'd split this into two problems:

  1. How to continue with the main party's adventures when one of the player-characters isn't there (but the player still wants to take part).
  2. How to handle one character's solo activity, when the rest of the party isn't there.

For part (1.), I would suggest to that player that he could roll up a new character to play in the meantime - one who will leave the party when the wizard comes back.

For part (2.), I'd say some skill challenges are in order - maybe some survival checks, stealth checks, perception checks and/or nature checks. There could be a random encounters table. Exploring frontier woods by yourself in a DnD setting isn't necessarily a "safe" activity, after all. Maybe the wizard runs into a pack of owlbears and has to flee, or risk getting killed. If he rolls well enough, he gets enough xp to keep up with the rest of the party, and a pseudodragon reward (while the other players are off getting money, magic items, etc.) It's up to you how difficult or dangerous you want to make this

If you and the player in question are both willing and able, you could try and schedule a one-on-one session to flesh out this quest, breaking it down day-by-day and perhaps handling some actual combats. If not, this could just be 5-6 rolls made at the start or end of a session, around the time when the wizard would be rejoining the party, to see if his efforts were fruitful (and if he survived).

You could also consider the costs involved, and potential complications - Xanathar's Guide has some examples on skill-based downtime activity and, with some random tables to roll on - nothing that exactly fits this scenario, but it you have access to it then it might be worth a read.

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This sounds like a problem with the rules, where it encourages behaviour that suggests potential deviation from what is necessary party cohesion.

I would consider the following proposal to the entire party: the deepest friendship you can make with a player character is achieved by helping them get their beloved pseudodragon. When that player character is asked why he bonded with the party, he can joyfully respond that they helped him on a personal level.

If you address this challenge positively, you may get a positive result.

So that one player is not a burden, I would consider making it a reasonable challenge (not weeks in a forest), and somehow weave it into the existing adventures that the party would do anyway. As a GM you have creative control.

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Tie the search for the pseudodragon into the main quest

One challenge faced by every RPG group when trying to create a plausible narrative for a roleplaying campaign is to find a motivation why each player-character would actually partake in that campaign. So if the sole motivation of this character is to befriend a pseudodragon, then try to turn that into a motivation for participating.

So try to come up with a lead to a potential pseudodragon familiar which is connected to the main quest, so the most logical course of action for the character is to partake in it and join the rest of the party.

You didn't write anything about the nature of your main quest, but perhaps:

  • The villain of the campaign is holding a pseudodragon captured?
  • The MacGuffin is a pseudodragon egg?
  • An NPC connected to the quest is also a renowned expert on pseudodragons, where to find and how to befriend them, but they can't or won't help before the main quest is resolved?
  • A plot-relevant NPC is a pseudodragon and there is good reason to believe they might agree to become the PCs familiar if the main quest is resolved.

etc.

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