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My friends and I have recently become interested in playing D&D and one of my friends has chosen to play the DM for us because he has the most knowledge of the game. He's been helping each of us with making our characters and I've chosen to play a barbarian, but when I said I wanted to use a glaive as my martial weapon choice he tells me I can't because it's "not a barbarian like weapon". When I tried to make pick another polearm he says no to that as well, and when I tell him the use of polearms is in my tribal background he then declares "I'm the DM and I say no".

Is this within his power to do? Can he veto my character's weapon choice just because he doesn't like it?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Answer in answers please, comments are only for clarifying the question. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Sep 7 '15 at 14:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ [Related] Is there a limit to Rule 0? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Sep 7 '15 at 17:17
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So a DM is given the tool of “Rule 0,” the authority to change things in the game, for a very particular purpose: to facilitate and improve the game. Thus, banning a weapon can be justified for a variety of reasons, for example:

  • It is justified if the game is intended to model a certain setting that wouldn’t have had that weapon; the DM is using his authority to change the game to match that setting.

  • It is justified if the weapon is somehow mechanically problematic; the DM is using his authority to remove a problematic element from the game.

  • It is justified if it comes up in play, no one knows for sure, and it’s causing an argument; the DM is using his authority to keep the game moving and prevent it from getting bogged down in an argument.

But can a DM ban a weapon because “he doesn’t like it”? I would say no. Officially, of course, the rules just give the DM the authority, and don’t put any explicit limits on it. But there are limits: specifically, what you as players are willing to accept. So I would say no, the DM cannot do this: I was react to “I’m the DM and I say no,” with “Well, have fun with your power trip, I have better things to do with my time,” and I would literally collect my things then-and-there and leave.

Because ultimately your character is the only thing in the game world that you have control over. There are definitely limits that a DM should enforce in character creation, but a DM should work with you to make your character fit within them as well as possible. A DM who wants to dictate your character is a bad DM: they have the entire world to play with, the players’ characters should be as hands-off as possible.

Moreover, “I’m the DM and I say so” might fly in the middle of the game where we want to keep things moving and get back to the game; putting down a ruling like that and giving no reasoning makes it impossible to respond with a counterargument, and can get the game moving again. But this was explicitly a character-generation session with new or inexperienced players: the entire point here is to explain things. If something is not allowed, the DM ought to be able to articulate exactly why, and players should be able to respond with counterarguments. The DM, of course, should be actively looking for ways to make a character work, and so should invite these. The fact that the DM fell back so quickly to “because I said so” indicates that the DM does not understand his role or the use of Rule 0: he is being authoritarian rather than authoritative, to use some jargon. Rule 0 is a tool he is given to fulfill his responsibility; not his personal right and privilege.

So how this should have gone is that your DM should have expressed concern about polearms as barbarian weapons, and you should have responded with either historical fact, like Ruut does, since of course polearms are just about the most popular class of weapons in all history and every culture ever used them, or else you should have responded with a backstory justifying why your barbarian has a “city-slicker’s weapon” or whatever it was your DM thought it was. Maybe your barbarian was abandoned with only his father’s glaive; maybe the tribe killed his father but has a rule about taking in orphans. Maybe he went on a quest as a young man, and was bested by a polearm-user, and so took it upon himself to learn this strange and powerful weapon. Whatever. The DM should have been trying to think of suggestions like these, rather than trying to shut you down, but then it appears that he’s not that great a DM.

Ultimately, it does seem like your DM doesn’t have that much experience DMing. While I have called out several of his actions as “bad” here, it seems pretty likely to be misconceptions about what DMing is and how it works, than it seems to be real “abuse of power.” This answer is pretty harsh on him; I do set pretty high expectations for DMs, because it is so critical for a good game, but no one gets there automatically. It does sound like he’s likely to respond poorly from criticism from you, but ultimately it would be best if you could find a way to critique his DMing constructively and healthily, and he could take that feedback and improve. Without knowing him personally, however, I cannot give recommendations for achieving that.

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Yes, your DM can veto it. No, your DM shouldn't veto it.

While the DM has last say over anything the rules don't cover, or even house rules he wants in the game, he doesn't play D&D alone. DM and players should co-operate so that everyone has fun doing what they want with the characters, system and setting.

In that spirit, you should talk to him and try to find common ground.

You mentioned he is new to the game and that certainly is obvious, if he's banning weapons being used because they are not "barbarian-like". ( Assuming it's just his view of barbarians and not a conscious campaign setting / theme decision ).

Here's the thing. What's more important than getting to use a polearm as a weapon is to find out why your friend doesn't want you to. That can answer questions that could later arise, such as setting flavour/theme, or technology levels of the world.

Does he have a different vision of barbarians in his setting? Does he want them to not have access to weapons like that? If so, why? Or is the problem that he thinks polearms are too advanced? As Ruut pointed out, they aren't that advanced.

Talk it through with him and remember that while he gets the last say, you should be allowed to play something you enjoy ( especially if you're not breaking any rules ) , as you are part of the game too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for asking what is and isn't barbarian-like in this DM's setting. Having a shared understanding the world makes the game more fun for everybody. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Sep 8 '15 at 0:19
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DM's have authority over their games - Yes he can do that.

However... conjecture aside...

Vikings are regarded as some of the most successful barbarians - hence the Viking Age. Vikings utilized polearms. Yes... it's true. But they weren't called polearms of course.

Our friends from Hurstwic can provide some useful information.

The Atgeir: The atgeirr was Gunnar Hámundarson's preferred weapon in Brennu-Njáls saga and is usually translated as "halberd" (although sometimes as "bill" or "javelin").

Atgeir

The Flein: Usually translated as "pike". The weapon is also called a heftisax, a word not otherwise known in the saga literature. The saga says that the weapon had a wooden shaft and was equally suited for striking or stabbing.

Fleinn

Another good resource would be Wikipedia. Of course everyone uses wikipedia. The important thing for your DM to consider is different cultures. A halberd doesn't have to be called a halberd. Different cultures called the same weapon different things. Also, barbarians are simply any culture that isn't "civilized."

The Roman Empire typically referred to anyone not Roman as barbarians. Not all barbarians are created equal. The Mongols were barbarians, but fought on horseback with bows and arrows. Most Germanic tribes fought with longspears. The Old Germanic word for Spear was Ger and many historians attribute Ger + Man = Spearman. Germania = Land of the Spearmen.

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Can he veto my character's weapon choice just because he doesn't like it?

Your DM is not vetoing your character's weapon choice just because he doesn't like it and I don't think it's productive to approach this with that in mind as "the problem I'm up against". You've reported why he vetoed it, and it's because he has a vision of barbarians as a culture of people that (for unstated reasons) don't use polearms. It's not just a whim applied to his preferences for what your character does, it's how he wants barbarians in general to be in this game. There are all sorts of things he likes that aren't in this game, and perhaps even things he doesn't like that are in this game, because a particular game is not just "everything I like thrown together".

For example, he may imagine barbarians as low-technology savages who aren't familiar with polearms, or as having a horse-based culture to which such unwieldy weapons are alien (Dothraki?). But barbarians aren't presented in the book that specifically, it allows for a variety of barbarian characters including users of polearms. So what's he changing, and how, and why?

I think there are still several issues to deal with:

  • Is it OK for a DM to run a game in which barbarians are unlike the barbarians presented in the book?

Yes, it is OK. I could go into detail as to why this is, and what it is about roleplaying that gives the DM flexibility to design a setting and adjust the rules to match that setting, but the plain fact is that it's extremely common. Unlike a boardgame, the published rules aren't intended to define the game for everyone and indeed in many (not all) role-playing styles it is not necessary even to define all the rules in advance, let alone use the published rules unchanged.

  • Is your DM going about that in a good way?

It seems not, probably due to inexperience. If your DM wants a non-standard version of barbarians, then he should get clear in his own mind what "his" barbarians are like, consider what effect that has on the rules for barbarians, and present the resulting description and rules modifications to the players. Since D&D is a system in which game balance matters somewhat, he should keep that in mind too, since for example if he makes barbarians too primitive and takes all the best weapons and equipment away, giving them nothing in return, then he's nerfed them. If he has a strong vision of barbarians, and communicates that to you (either verbally or in writing), then you wouldn't be trying to play a polearm-wielding barbarian, you'd either play something in line with his ideas about barbarians, or you'd play something else (or, in extremis, you'd decide you don't like the game he's proposing to run and ask him to change it).

  • Should your DM be doing that at all in this game?

Possibly not, since you've all read the D&D books as written and are enthusiastic about what you've read. Tweaking the setting to take out things that your players are excited about in their (and perhaps the DM's) first ever game is liable to create more problems than it does opportunities. The details of a particular game necessarily are a kind of negotiation between the DM and the players, since the players have the ability to veto the game by not playing it. However, D&D tradition is that the DM maintains the setting and the players explore it, therefore players should allow scope for the DM to personalize it. In return, the DM should allow as much scope as possible for the players to engage with whatever excites them about the game. Not every barbarian has to be a "typical barbarian", and therefore if you want to play a peculiar barbarian then generally speaking (and especially since the standard rules allow it in this case) the DM should try to accommodate you.

Of course, if the DM was running "stone-age D&D" then any metal weapons would be out of the question, glaives included, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. He's tweaking the rules presented in the books to reduce the options for barbarian PCs, and experience says that's usually a net loss to the game. But if everyone wants to play "normal D&D", then offering to run "stone age D&D" has an obvious drawback -- it's not the setting the players are already sold on. It would need to be sold. The same goes for "D&D but with a bunch of limits on the classes to make them a bit more like what I feel should be typical" except that it's a harder sell ;-)

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, This is very well considered, respecting the DM's role while still laying out how it can cause conflict. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Sep 14 '15 at 18:36
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Direct Answer to Your Question (With an Explanation)

TL;DR: yes he can.

More detailed answer

You have three (maybe four) choices:

In a more detailed discussion than during character creation, try to find out the in-world reason for this restriction against polearms for a beginning Barbarian, or for Barbarians at all.

After that discussion you can:

  1. Choose to play a Barbarian with that restriction

  2. Choose to play a different class

  3. Choose not to play

  4. Choose to play a Barbarian with a temporary restriction in hopes that once your character has increased in level and been exposed to polearms, you can justify his learning how to use one.

    • I added this last option due to a possible reason1 behind this DM's ruling. As you all play more together, you may be able to work a deal with your DM that, with some experience in the wider world, your Barbarian can learn how to use a polearm. (p. 187 PHB Training. p. 31 DMG Training. Learning a new weapon proficiency is well within the scope of a learned feat or a skill proficiency).

... one of my friends has chosen to play the DM for us because he has the most knowledge of the game.

From this we infer that he has played D&D before. What editions has he played before? DM restrictions on Barbarian starting weapons came with the introduction of the Barbarian class1 in 1985. If your DM's experience is with older editions of the game (1st ed. AD&D?) that might explain the DM ruling.

He's been helping each of us with making our characters and I've chosen to play a barbarian, but when I said I wanted to use a glaive as my martial weapon choice he tells me I can't because it's "not a barbarian like weapon".

The DM can do this, though it usually helps to explain why.
- He may have a deeper reason, and your discussion hasn't gone far enough to make sense to you.
- It could be arbitrary.
- It could be due to him not liking the Polearm Mastery Feat.
- It could be other reasons .... try to find out why by having a friendly discussion.

When I tried to make pick another polearm he says no to that as well, and when I tell him the use of polearms is in my tribal background he then declares "I'm the DM and I say no."

Consider this: your DM was helping more than one person set up a character. It might be that your DM gave you the short answer first since you aren't the only character he was helping. If character creation was happening with all of you at the same time, the "not a Barbarian weapon" with little elaboration makes some sense.

If character creation was one-on-one, the lack of further explanation makes less sense(to me).

Is this within his power to do?
Can he veto my character's weapon choice just because he doesn't like it?

Yes and Yes. Hopefully he has a better reason than "he doesn't like it" ... but if that's his reason, yes he can do that. You now go back to the choices I outlined at the beginning of this answer, with number 4 likely gone.


1 Where might this restriction be coming from?

When the Barbarian was introduced in the First Edition of AD&D, in the 1985 supplement Unearthed Arcana, the weapons allowed for a Barbarian were "any" (p.13, 1e UA) but there were limitations for a Barbarian's starting weapon choices based on the DM's ruling ... and where in the game world the Barbarian came from. (see below, extracted from 1st edition UA)

Allowing further weapons as experience levels were earned reflected the Barbarian getting out of his native area and learning new stuff ... like new weapons different from those used in his homeland. Some examples:

(citations are from Unearthed Arcana, 1e AD&D, TSR, 1985, pages 18 and 20).
p. 18 *The initial number of weapons the barbarian uses must include the hand axe, knife, and spear. Additional weapons based upon the barbarian’s native area may be chosen by the DM.* (the p. 26 proficiency table allowed 6 total proficient starting weapons, with an addition per two levels ... more complicated than 5e's proficiencies).
p. 20.
Native territory: Many of a Barbarian’s abilities depend on the native territory of the character. It is mandatory that Barbarian characters come from some out-of-the-way barbaric state or area within the campaign. Typically they are cavemen, dervishes, nomads, or tribesmen. Only such uncivilized backgrounds can generate the necessary surroundings to produce individuals of the stock from which Barbarian fighters would be drawn.

Within the WORLD OF GREYHAWK” Fantasy Game Setting, for example, there are several areas that could spawn the Barbarian subclass. The lands of the Frost, Ice, and Snow Barbarians, as well as the Hold of Stonefist, would be the homeland of Barbarians of the Scandinavian/Slavic mold. These characters would employ broad swords and short bows in addition to the required initial weapons. (snip)

Barbarians from the Rovers of the Barrens, Tiger, and Wolf Nomads would be excellent horsemen. (snip) Their {Rovers} main weapons would be the club, javelin, and lasso or short bow.

Other Nomads from this group would be most efficient at long distance signaling, and skilled in the use of the lance, scimitar, and composite short bow.

Savages of the Amedio Jungle or Hepmonaland (snip) In the Amedio Jungle, the preferred weapons would be club, blowgun or shortbow, and dart or javelin. In Hepmonaland, the typical weapons would be atlatl and javelin, club, and short sword.

Using the above as examples, the DM can tailor his barbarians to fit his campaign. Not only does the native area determine initial weapons known, but it also serves as a base of judgment for the use of secondary abilities. These abilities are severely limited outside the native territory of the barbarian, until the character becomes more effective with his or her abilities by gaining familiarity with the new area.

In Second Edition AD&D, the Barbarian Kit in the Complete Fighter book had different restrictions on starting armor and weapons, but could, once embarked upon an adventuring career, use any weapon and any armor when new proficiencies became available as levels increased.

If the above is related to why your DM is voting no to polearms, then you have an opening for introducing the polearm later as your Barbarian becomes more worldly and more experienced at later levels.

It's worth a try. Talk to your DM.

If it's nothing like that, then you have to decide how, and if, you'll play in his game world.

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He certainly can. His concept of barbarians for his game says "no polearms", so that's how it goes. I expect (as others will no doubt have mentioned) that he's probably picturing Conan. In some kind of cover-art. Standing on a hill of dead things, with a great whacking sword in one hand, a scantily clad female in the other, wearing leather underpants. (Incidentally, the early cover art on "Weird Tales" that features Conan stories sometimes has images of what is presumably Conan ... and he doesn't look at all like we're used to now. Well, he's often still underclad, but to me he looks more like a very fit accountant or something. Or maybe Basil Rathbone about to go for a swim)

On the other hand, while he surely can, your DM is probably making a mistake to ban you from doing so, for all manner of reasons.

My own fantasy concept of them would probably allow at least a good subset of polearms (including glaives), but I can imagine a situation where for some reason I would want to more-closely-emulate a "modern Conan-cover-painting" style of barbarians hefting whacking great swords.

In that case I would still try to accommodate you.

The question for me-as-a DM is not whether my concept of barbarians in general should change, it's what made your character different from that concept?

It's not as if barbarians are physically incapable of it; the lack of polearms would have to be cultural. Cultural factors are not absolutes; we can be influenced by new ideas.*

That's an opportunity to write some backstory that contains some plot hooks. That's the best bit about character creation. I'd sit down with a player and chat for a few minutes about how they see their character. Are they from an unusual tribe that does use polearms? Why do they do that? Or is the character's individual story the thing that leads to them using a polearm? (Was he orphaned and learned polearms from his foster-family? Was he glaive-mercenary #237 in an army at some point?) How do other barbarians look upon that? Is that just a weird quirk (do they jokingly call him stick-boy and ruffle his hair?), or is he always ending up in bar fights because he walks in carrying a stick ... and ordering milk?

* Even xenophobes can absorb new ideas in time. But Conan himself is a barbarian-of-the-world. He's traveled -- his passport probably has all the funny stamps in it and everything. He's had lots of contact with other cultures and stabbed them somewhere unpleasant. Of course he knows how to use a glaive. So a Conan-like fellow may well have taken to the glaive, (and maybe the bowtie and the fez for all I know), even if everyone in from his home valley thinks he's a dork. (Glaives are cool!)

So you can try to convince your DM to consider reasons why your character (or some larger subset of barbarians) might have them, but ultimately, its his game; the rules, and tradition certainly indicate that if he says that's how it is, that's how it is. On the other hand, while his game works however he says it does, you also don't have to play in it.

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It's not a matter of rules, it's a matter of communication

The GM can choose to run a game with limitations applied; however, the GM should also tell you that BEFORE you make a character.

I'll often run games with setting requirements - maybe only some classes are available to some cultures, maybe certain spells, or weapons, or only certain types of armor. However, if I do that, I give that information to the players BEFORE they make characters, so they're not blindsided.

The problem is not a rules problem here, the problem is that your GM isn't giving you enough information to make good choices about how to make your character. If polearms don't fit barbarians, then what does? What groups/classes can use polearms? You should talk to your GM and ask for more information so you can build a character fitting to the setting - "It's in both of our interests so I don't waste our time."

This might just be the beginning...

However, this kind of behavior you're describing already strikes me as a red flag. A GM who doesn't give you enough information to make a good choice and then tells you you're wrong for not knowing what they didn't tell you sounds exactly like the kind of GM that runs frustrating games. If that does turn out to be the case after a session or two, you might as well leave.

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    \$\begingroup\$ To be... somewhat fair to the DM, this appears to have been a pre-game character building session for new players, so it does make sense to go through the rules as they come up rather than bombard the players with them. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 9 '15 at 12:07
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Ask your DM why he thinks Barbarians are exclusionary of Polearms.

He might be seeing Barbarians as nomad cultures like the Mongols, or with "roots in the earth using tribal tools" like the Native Americans (travel light, weapons tend to be developments on tools), or Aborigines (again travelling light, very native, simplistic weaponry based on nature around them).

Your DM may be bowing to the altar of the great god "Game Balance". Most polearms do more damage, and class bonus and limitations are frequently added or nerfed to stop people just picking the best.

If your DM sees the Barbarian as primatives or nomads, then that would exclude giving Scandinavian or Viking references as they were one of the great civilisations at their time of polearm use. Likewise the Zulu war spear, was at the peak of it's culture/civilisation. Another use of polearms ... Look up the rise to power of the Yellow Empire ! In his founding of the Empire of Chin (now known as China) from warring states/kingdoms was through the development of a superior polearm.

Often DM's think of polearms as a mass formation weapon. Used as a "munitions" (ie common soldier) weapon given to rank on rank of massed soldiers who walk and work in formations. ie the very anti-thesis of the "barbarian" ideal. Historically speaking the polearms used in those mass formations tended to be quite simplistic (otherwise they get tangled or expensive to produce).

Look up historic "Books of Defense" and things like bec de corbin to see that quite often in Europe they were taught as one on one weapons developed against armoured foes. When your opponent is unarmoured, thrusting and slashing weapons are very useful ...and thus the first things to be armoured against. Polearms give distance (for unarmoured opponents this can be achieved best by a slashing spear or a gae bolg) while employing axes, spikes, or hooks at distance as well as a big lever - thus increasing effectiveness against armour.

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