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Background Information

I have been DM'ing for several years. My players and I have always loved 3.5e. We love the number crunching. We love the optimization. We love the options. But it seems every time I propose an idea for a campaign, I have ideas in my head... you know?

Examples

  1. Everyone plays an orc - captured in an internment camp - ready to escape.
  2. Everyone plays a rogue - betrayed by the guild on a recent heist.
  3. Everyone plays barbarians - arriving on a boat - in a foreign shore.

Common Results

The orc idea - gone. Someone ALWAYS says:

  • "Well I could be a human that was a guard and is now sympathetic to their cause."
  • "I am sure there are other races in the same internment camp."
  • "I thought the idea of being an orc was cool, but now I want to be a goliath."

The rogue idea - gone. Someone ALWAYS says:

  • "Could I try sneak attack fighter instead?"
  • "Could I be a bard? I will play it like a rogue."
  • "I would rather be a cleric of a rogue deity."

The barbarian idea - gone. Someone ALWAYS says:

  • "I would rather be a cleric of a barbaric deity."
  • "Why can't we play other classes but just act like a barbarian?"
  • "I could be a Wizard that is like a witch doctor or something."

Personal Notes

I get these ideas where no one has a real advantage over each other - except for their own creativity. I would like them, sometimes, to let their role-playing and problem solving set their characters apart.

I just want to pull my hair out sometimes. I think to myself, "Why do I even bother with this?"

Main Question

What are some tested and true ways that can get players to play "My Kind" of D&D, and to commit to a campaign with a premise that restricts their character choices in some way?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Hell, I don't know. I guess it is an opinion only question. I just can't even really get the campaigns I would like to DM off the ground. Sitting around the table everyone thinks they are good ideas. When it is character creation time - everyone flipping through the books - here comes the feedback and contrary desires. I always end up saying, "F--- it, play whatever you want." I am just tired of saying/feeling that. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruut Dec 3 '15 at 4:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not clear what the problem is, really. Why does having orc allies instead of purely orcs make the "escape capture by orc enemies" scenario invalid? Why does having rogue-behaving classes in the guild invalidate that scenario? "Why can't we play other classes but just act like a barbarian?" is exactly what I'd ask--I don't see how mechanical variance that still works with the same themes will make your ideas fail, so I can't answer your question because I don't see the problem. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Dec 3 '15 at 4:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ruut If you'd like to stop by Role-playing Games Chat sometime, there's some ideas floating around about how you could make this kind of campaign work. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Dec 3 '15 at 5:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ This question is only opinion-based for those who can't resist not answering the question and instead offering their opinions on this kind of campaign. Don't do that. The concept of a "fighter only," etc. campaign is an old one in the D&D community, how do you get a group to buy into it is the only question on the table here. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Dec 3 '15 at 13:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you shared the "Personal Notes" part of this with your players? It sounds like the reasons you want to restrict character choices might be different from what your players think they are. \$\endgroup\$ – MartianInvader Dec 3 '15 at 22:26

10 Answers 10

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How to get players to play “Team [Class]” campaigns

  1. Get buy-in from the players.
  2. There is no step 2. Return to step 1 and make sure you've completed it if you think you need a step 2.

If someone is always going back on the concept and trying to wedge something in, then they didn't actually buy into the idea enough to follow through. There was a lack of wanting to play the campaign you proposed, so naturally they asked if they could modify it.

If you want to play any kind of campaign, whether “Team [Class]” or otherwise, the players have to want to do it too. And they have to believe that when you're selling it, what you're selling is exactly what you're offering. That means that you have to not renege on the pitch yourself by letting its core premise be modified by that one player who “always” says they actually don't want to do it. You can always play a different campaign that won't disappoint you, right?

So next time you pitch a “Team [Class]” campaign, pitch it as normal. When someone inevitably asks if they can be the exception to the theme of the campaign, say no, you really do want to run the campaign they've all agreed to; and then say it's OK if they didn't actually want to play it, you can all play something else instead. Save that campaign idea for when they truly agree, instead of frustratingly kinda-but-not running the campaign you'd set up for.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 No point running something that people don't want to play or be; if you want any kind of engagement or enthusiasm. \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Dec 3 '15 at 8:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ It may also be possible that the OP is sending mixed signals by letting "everyone fli[p] through the books". Maybe the intent could be made clearer by giving them pre-rolled character sheets that they just fill in the fluff. Of course, you should keep in mind KRyan's answer in this case. \$\endgroup\$ – called2voyage Dec 4 '15 at 20:46
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This answer is in two parts. “Option” 1 is explicitly not what you are looking for – but I suspect it is what your players are looking for, and I offer it as insight into what I suspect they are thinking, as well as introduction to where I’m going with option 2.

“Option” 1: Refluff freely.

A trivial option is to keep character-building options available to your players. Let them use a goliath—’s stats. Let them have powerful build, take Mountain Rage, whatever. Orcs are usually big; he’s playing an extra-big orc.

Or let him use the bard’s stats. Thieves and rogues are often known as silver-tongued devils; having a party face is not a bad thing, nor is it inappropriate for a thieves’ guild. A bit of magic fits too; there’s a reason the assassin class gets some.

And, I suspect, this is what your players have in mind when you pitch these kinds of games. They seem to interpret them as a pitch for a particular concept or campaign idea, not literally a restriction on their character-creation options. That’s why they’re “thinking outside the box” – in their minds, they’re not. Their suggestions and reactions are quite reasonable and realistic, after all; you don’t even really have to refluff a bard in the first place to let him be a thief. And barbarian tribes are definitely not literally populated only by people with levels in the barbarian class. So I suspect such a campaign would work quite well for them, and they’d find it quite enjoyable.

But this doesn’t seem to match your desire to “let their role-playing and problem solving set their characters apart.”

For that you need...

Option 2: A different system.

You have a group who, as described, really enjoy the character-building of the game. One of the most exciting aspects of the system for many people, including, apparently, your players, is crafting your own character from all the tools and resources available. Not getting to do that is, to many, tantamount to not getting to play at all.

3.5 is also system that posits some roll, or sequence of rolls, as a solution to every problem, and the “player skill” aspect of the game comes from crafting a character. It is a system that indicates that success is about the character’s abilities, not the player’s. In effect, “their role-playing and problem solving” is not what the system itself is telling them “sets their characters apart.”

So when you start a game of 3.5, you are implying a number of assumptions to many people, including your players, that crafting their character is a major part of “playing,” and they are likely to take any pitch that is first predicated on that system as more of a conceptual idea, not a literal limitation on options – because that would be taking away the actual play, and why would you do that? You are basically asking “how do I tell my friends to stop having their fun and instead make my fun happen?” and that’s simply never going to happen.

You can try to pitch the game harder, you can try to get buy-in, you can try refusing to run anything else, or shelving a campaign idea until people stipulate to your rules – but my guess is you’re either going to die holding your breath, or, at best, you’re going to get a game that people are not terribly interested in, and that won’t be fun for you or them.

So maybe try a system that doesn’t have these sorts of expectations ingrained. A more narrative system seems best – it’s something of a cliche on this site, but Fate seems like an excellent choice for this. Because in 3.5, playing a goliath means you get to try different things, do different things mechanically, than being an orc. The races have different options. If the things the goliath can do interest you, but those that an orc can don’t, then you’re going to want to play a goliath. Refluffing, above, is one solution. But if you, as DM, don’t want those to be the things that set the characters apart, you need a different one. Fate, and other narrative systems, don’t have nearly the same problem – the player can describe their orc as they want.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Your point 2 is part of why I stopped playing 3.5, I've just never been able to articulate that bit of it as well as you just did. +1 For pointing to the assumptions within the system in question. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 3 '15 at 18:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for option 2. I've run the kind of game the question describes, but I ran it in Pathfinder. Class archetypes and alternate racial traits made it a lot easier for the players to find something that made their character distinctive. Non class based systems would work even better. \$\endgroup\$ – ssav Dec 4 '15 at 12:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ssav It seems to me that Pathfinder would have the same problems, because he doesn't want mechanical customization. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 4 '15 at 13:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ssav - I'm usually all for suggesting Pathfinder as an answer to issues with 3.5, but this is one that it doesn't solve. All it does is change point 1's "play a bard and call it a rogue" to "play a rogue with bard mechanics". \$\endgroup\$ – Bobson Dec 4 '15 at 17:59
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If you want to try ideas like this try selling them as one shots instead of as a long term commitment to a campaign. "Sunday, we're gonna play a game. You all generate orcs with X Y and Z, you're starting off as prisoners in an encampment."

For example recently I grabbed my RPG group and said

"Sunday I'm running a one-shot game, level 2 characters no spell-casters, you all start with no EQ and your background can be anything you like so long as it has you travelling on a boat for some reason when the session starts".

Three people went for it and fun was had :)

Getting people to buy in on something for a once off game is much easier since something can be fun for a few hours even if you are not sure about long term. If everyone has fun then at the end you can say, "So would anyone like to play another one shot with these characters again?". If the answer is yes then do another one, then if that one is also a success offer them a campaign, if the answer is no at either stage then try something different.

Don't sell yourself too much on the idea that this is the opener for a campaign though. Make it a genuine and fun one shot with a start, middle, and an end. If they have fun then that is the best way to convince them to try it for longer and the best way to do that is to make the session as good as you can. If you spend ages planning out a campaign though but discover they are not interested then you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Aha - OP, this is it. I always run my weird little ideas as a finite one-shot before continuing further. \$\endgroup\$ – galois Dec 4 '15 at 5:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ It might also be worth making pre-generated characters for the one-shot. As an altoholic, I can't get through trying to make a character without getting a dozen different ideas; might be worth skipping that whole problem. I'd be annoyed at that for a campaign, but for a one shot? Why not. \$\endgroup\$ – Trevel Dec 4 '15 at 21:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is the best answer, by far, \$\endgroup\$ – GreySage Dec 10 '15 at 17:58
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Creatively sell the campaign

You have an idea that you want to run with, then do so. I have both run and played in games like you are talking about, and the first thing is to ensure that your players understand the campaign concept and are on-board for it. They are certainly going to ask about stretching the boundaries. This is normal, and isn't them saying they do not want to play, but typically it is them trying to come up with a creative character in a limited setting, which can be hard at times.

That said:

Ensure customization is allowed

No one wants a cookie-cutter character, and they will want to customize. Ensure they know what directions they can do this in.

You may decide only Orcs or Orcs and Goblinoids can be played, but ensure that choice goes in to character creation and that basic ideas and limitations are expressed plainly. One thing I have found works with this is having sample templates to help spur ideas. If you want everyone to be part of the thieve's guild, then that is fine, but ensure that they have enough understanding of the guild to know the limitations and options that are had there. Describe the factions within the thieve's guild that cover espionage, or breaking and entering. Give some sample characters that are diverse. Most of all, expect at least one person to say, "Can I play a warlock that trains in rogue skills?" or, "Can I play a multi-class cleric-rogue of Loki?", but decide what you are willing to give in to, and remember that if you have rules that seem strange to them:

Have justification for it.

"I'm sorry, but this order of rogues hunts down and exterminates spell-casters, so you cannot play a cleric."

"No, this wizard school only trains full-fledged wizards and would expel you as a bard."

Giving an in-game, in-character reason why certain exceptions aren't allowed is a major factor for the character/lore-centric players. Appeal to this and it will be easier to get players to buy in to the idea.

Granted, that justification could simply be, "I want to run with everyone running the same class/race." Just remember that they are likely going to enjoy the idea more if there is an in game reason for the more specific restrictions.

Don't be afraid of allowing an exception or two

Stick to your concept, but remember that the exceptions help to make the story exciting, and the characters don't understand the concept of "class".

Maybe you allow the one character that is not a wizard, but a sorcerer. They have to spend all of their hours focusing on ways to ensure that they are not discovered as a non-wizard because they would be expelled or killed for it.

Perhaps that Rogue is actually a Barbarian that has focused on being a brute. He is likely to be taken advantage regularly by the more crafty rogues because he is pure muscle.

If you and the player can come to an agreement on how to make the character fit, and stay interesting and relevant to the campaign. If you cannot, then say it doesn't fit with your concept, and you are trying to push a specific story.

Remember that Role-Playing is Co-Operative storytelling

This is a story you are trying to create with the players. Ensure you are trying to do this, and not trying to simply tell your story with them in it. There is a fine line and it is sometimes hard to see, but it can separate a DM such that all their games look like a pre-written adventure, and a DM that will be remembered.

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Your players are proposing ideas that aren't within the letter of what you said, but which they could reasonably believe (well, except probably the goliath) are within the spirit. They're interpreting your proposals as setting/scenario/campaign concepts, but what you have said you want is a play style change. Naturally, they aren't thinking of that.

Start top-down, and propose the play style change itself.

In your case, this might go "We've always been playing with develop-at-start characters. I'd like to try a develop-in-play campaign."

I should note that D&D3e/3.5e/Pathfinder and D&D4e are both geared to DaS and their communities seem so be built on this premise. I won't say your proposal is impossible in-system, but it would be better supported by a game assuming DiP, such as OD&D or a retroclone.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I really like how this re-frames the constraint as an opportunity for newfound freedom. That sort of thing is so often the key to getting people to see things your way, but I personally have trouble being that positive and diplomatic. No idea if it'll work, but I like it! \$\endgroup\$ – Blue Footed Booby Dec 10 '15 at 17:48
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I can't imagine you haven't tried to explain what you're going for with these adventure concepts. If you haven't...uh, do that. :V

Assuming not, and also assuming that someone didn't wildly misunderstand, the fact that you list no objections besides "I'd rather play a ______" suggests the odd man out probably knows darn well they're giving a lame pseudo-reason that totally defeats the purpose.

You also don't mention any other players saying to this odd man out "I think it sounds like a neat idea, why don't you give it a try for a session." I assume you'd have mentioned if every other player was always gungho.

Basically, I get the feeling there's more than just one player keeping these adventures from happening, and only some of them are speaking up. The question, again, is: what is the real problem? You're probably gonna have to just ask directly. Consider also explaining how frustrated you feel, because they might not realize their obvious non-reason isn't doing you favors — that is, they may think they're being tactful.

Anyway, some speculation on the real root problem and how to address it:

It's possible some of your players are "unique snowflakes" who strongly dislike the idea of blending into the crowd by all playing the same race/class. They might feel a little bad, like this is a selfish reason to not play the adventure, and so are giving you weird pseudo answers. If you can get them to voice this concern, the solution is to illustrate the way they can be a unique snowflake within the confines proposed. Like, actually show them — with examples — why it's not as constraining as it seems. They may be suffering a failure of imagination.

It's possible there's some running theme to your plothooks (possibly unintentional) they dislike, but they feel like it'd be mean to say "I don't like your plot ideas." If this is your problem, the solution is simple: ask what they don't like, and if you can't easily fix it, solicit alternatives. For example, I notice all the characters in your examples live on the margins of society. The orcs are either criminals or a persecuted minority. The thieves are...thieves, and outside the bounds of (respectable) society by definition. The barbarians are strangers in a strange land, facing the prospect of building a life for themselves from nothing. Not everybody likes "man vs society" stories. Instead, you might consider suitors of a female NPC like the end of The Odyssey, or respectable joe-average villagers from a one-industry town faced by a terrible threat.

It's possible that this sort of adventure just plain isn't a good match for your group. Now, I'm not saying your idea is bad or don't play that campaign. That wouldn't be helpful. I apologize if I'm totally offbase here, but there are two parts of your question that stand out to me:

We love the number crunching. We love the optimization.

and then

I get these ideas where no one has a real advantage over each other - except for their own creativity. I would like them, sometimes, to let their role-playing and problem solving set their characters apart.

Now, I may be misinterpreting you, but it sounds like you're trying to get players who are interested in mechanical challenges (crunching, optimizing) to play adventures where the explicit purpose is to focus on differentiating characters via roleplaying. You may feel like this is just a bit of something different for variety, but it kinda sounds like the diametric opposite to me. I feel there's a big enough mismatch between your stated goals and what you say your players enjoy that you honestly might — might! — be better off playing these adventures with a different group. Even if you convince them to go along, if there isn't buy-in it won't be fun for anyone.

TL;DR:

  1. If you haven't discussed what you're going for with these adventure ideas, do so.

  2. If you have, there may well be an unspoken underlying problem.

  3. Try to get the players to actually engage you and discuss ways to make everybody happy, or failing that to just tell you they aren't interested.

  4. Be open to the possibility that there just isn't a way to convince them to play this way, or that it might not be worth it.

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Maybe it's just the post, or maybe you're not articulating why you want what you're asking for very well. You gave three (very short) examples:

1. Everyone plays an orc - captured in an internment camp - ready to escape. This one is the clearest. If they're prisoners in an internment camp, it's quite possible that only the orcs are being kept prisoner (or at least being kept prisoner there). Guards in prison camps being sympathetic enough to help prisoners escape is incredibly rare, and once it was clear that's what was happening (during the break out), he'd be the primary target of every other guard. On top of that, the other characters (orc prisoners, who may not even speak his language) would have absolutely no reason to trust a random guard. Explain that to the player(s) in question.

Really, it just sounds like being an orc just doesn't appeal to the player(s) in question, but you might get some more buy-in by expanding the race options to 'not the standard set of races'. Get orcs, hobgoblins, goliaths, goblins, kobolds, lizard-men, etc.; just no humans, dwarves, elves, half-elves, gnomes, halflings, etc. Does that alter the concept you're wanting to run so badly?

The other two, though, are significantly less clear.

2. Everyone plays a rogue - betrayed by the guild on a recent heist. Not all thieves and/or burglars by occupation are going to be Rogues by class, just as not all Rogues are thieves, burglars, or even illegally-inclined in any way. A group-heist is actually probably best served by having a mix of classes/capabilities that may not best be expressed as 'everyone is a Rogue'.

Think about all the great heist movies. You have a bunch of very distinct characters, all with very different skill sets and specializations. This one sounds like the players heard 'betrayed during a big heist', and came up with rogue-by-occupation concepts they really like, but don't work with Rogue-as-class builds.

3. Everyone plays barbarians - arriving on a boat - in a foreign shore. Likewise, 'barbarian' is both a cultural descriptor and a class name. You may have characters that are perfectly fine with the cultural aspect of being a barbarian, but aren't so much into playing the angry, hulking brute that the Barbarian class expresses. (And why would a ship only have people like that on board? Are they the crew, or did something happen that managed to kill everyone but the angry, hulking brute passengers?)

This sounds like another case of players liking the idea of 'barbarian culture', but not wanting to play something that is only well suited for smashing/killing stuff.


If you were playing Pathfinder, I'd have suggestions relating to alternate racial traits, background traits, and alternate archetypes. Unfortunately, 3.5 doesn't quite have all of those tools, and where it does have them they're not nearly as well developed.

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The same way you convince your poker-playing friends to play hearts (shamelessly stealing the analogy from here).

As Tim B said, a good idea is to present it as an additional game, not a substitute. You wouldn't go to a chess club and say "hey, let's play go instead" - but you might find that some people would be interested in trying go sometime.

Another way would be reaching a compromise. Perhaps you could let someone play a half-orc instead of an orc. Decide what's the main purpose of the restriction: do you want to have certain theme (in which case you let someone play an orc with halfling stats) or mechanics (in which case you do the opposite). Or perhaps you can add some drawbacks if someone wants to play a different class (e.g. starts one level lower or has to have at least one level at rogue).

But in the end, you can't force it, the same way you can force your football teammates to play basketball instead.

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Understand that, at the heart of it, RPGs are social games. Both of those words are critically important: They are games, in the ludological sense, which means that they have to be fun. They are social, meaning you need more than one person, probably more than two people.

When you propose a game like this, you are setting yourself up for two related tasks:

First, convince everyone at the table that this concept will, in fact, be fun. For everyone, not just for you. If you can't do this, then you're either going to have players voting with their feet, or you're going to burn some accumulated social capital and eventually have to give up something in return.

How can you convince someone that something will be fun? Absent real world versions of charm person, there is no perfect way. But start by showing your own enthusiasm-- in detail-- for the concept you're outlining. What things do you think can be done in your game (and why are they good and fun things) that just cannot be done without those restrictions.

So when someone wants to play the Great Big Orc with the Goliath stats (KRyan's re-skinning suggestion) it would help to be able to explain why this hurts the game concept-- what kinds of fun can you not have if Fred is a re-skinned Goliath? Or more accurately, what kinds of fun can the players not have, since they're the ones you need to convince.

Second, convince everyone at the table that this concept, or key elements of it, are not going to be un-fun. Which sounds like the same thing, but isn't. By this, I mean engage the players who are objecting on a serious basis. Understand why they resist.

Some of these may be mechanical-- for instance, I looked at your suggested ideas and immediately thought to myself, "Good grief, healing is going to be a problem!" And behold, your most common hypothetical objection is... a call for clerics. Sometimes these can be worked through with promises on your part or mechanical workarounds.

Some of these will invariably be personal preference. I don't like playing, say, fighters in some editions because I don't find the mechanics interesting or engaging. I'm not sure how you can address that, really.

Understand, by the way, that I support the right of the GM to lay down the rules in his games and his campaigns. I've run high-concept games, too: My most recent one disallowed all races except Elves and Humans, and I really needed an amnesiac character to make it work. But:

  1. I allowed re-skinning for the races,
  2. I had to make certain promises about what I would not do in terms of amnesiac background, and
  3. I would really have preferred an all amnesiac band of characters, but that was just not going to happen; several players would not find that fun, period, although they were perfectly willing to have an amnesiac PC who was not them in the party.

But remember, when push comes to shove, you cannot define your players' sense of fun. And what you are doing with high-concept, restrictive games like this is also tantamount to restricting the kind of you're willing to allow in your game. If someone is not interested in the fun of playing a thief (or of playing a thief in a game of all thieves, which is even more restrictive) then... you're done.

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So I know there's an answer - but I wanted to run something else by you that wasn't quite fit to be a comment.

As I said in a comment on another answer, I always run my weird little ideas as a finite one-shot before continuing further. It gives the flavor of what that campaign would feel like, and the restrictions aren't true restrictions as you're not necessarily returning to those characters.

But, remember that D&D is, to many, the antithesis of restriction. Within the bounds of whatever rules by which the particular DM attempts to play, the players design their own fantasy characters to their liking. Some people just don't like orcs, for example (personally I would never like playing as a gnome).

Assuming they had fun in the one shot, however, you can open up the restrictions a bit. First, if "pitching", don't use any words you don't want associated with their idea of the setting. Restrictive, for example. Make it clear that while you need them to play as orcs for the story to go smoothly as you have it planned (maybe remind them that you have a specific story, and that it only works under the assumption they are all orcs). Also, don't focus on what they can't choose; draw their attention to the things they can control:

"So I need you all to roll orc characters for a new session I've been planning. Be whatever class you'd like to be, get a good equipment loadout, and make sure you have a funny orc name. I'm also looking forward to your orc voices. Either you have an orc voice, or you're mute and must communicate through clumsy sign language."

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