Spherical Goblins: Conceptual Problems

In past columns, I’ve spoken about the issue of Dungeon Masters nerfing player characters on the fly because they can’t make sense of what the game allows the PC to do. The flipside of the DM nerfing a PC “because it doesn’t make sense” is a player thinking it’s only fair that they be allowed to do something with their character “because it makes sense”.

Now, generally, if we’re talking about something that comes up in play and isn’t covered by the rules, I’ll side with the player who reasons that they should maybe be able to at least try this cool thing they thought of. Back in 4th Edition, I would let players cash in an encounter power or daily power use to do something that did not meet the strict mechanical definition of what that power did, but which was clearly related. Example? The ranger power “Hunter’s Bear Trap” lets you pin someone with an arrow to the leg. If someone saw an ally or civilian topple off a wall and wanted to save them, I’d let them make an attack roll and use that power to try to save them by pinning their cloak.

That kind of improvisation was necessitated by the rigid powers structure of 4E, but it comes up in every edition. The rules can’t cover everything. If you feel like your Acrobatics proficiency should let you do something that’s not explicitly covered by it and which isn’t covered by another skill, I’m game. If you’ve got a slightly tweaked use for a spell that doesn’t replicate another spell, I’ll listen.

Where this gets to be a problem, though, is when we’re talking about adding base level capabilities to a character that exceed what is otherwise available. Often these capabilities are explained as being logical outgrowths or even requirements of the character’s backstory or nature, which both can make the player feel like they’re not being unreasonable (they don’t want it to be more powerful, they want it because it makes sense) and like the DM who says no is being unreasonable (they’re ruining your character!)

As an example, imagine a player whose character concept is this: blessed by a goddess of nature, this character has a profound connection with the natural world and an almost empathic ability to relate to animals.

If I hear a concept like that in D&D, I’ll think, great! That one’s easy. Be a ranger, druid, nature cleric, or totem warrior barbarian, or just take a background that gives you animal handling.

But a player who comes up with a concept like that might have a dot dot dot rather than a period at the end of that, and the next part is “so my character should have double proficiency bonus on Animal Handling and Survival, and be able to cast speak with animals at-will.”

Because of the connection with nature and the empathic ability to relate to animals.

The first time I ran up against this kind of thinking, I wasn’t playing D&D. I was trying to put together a superhero themed campaign in GURPS, and I had one player who kept arguing about the point buy system on principle. She wanted her character to have the ability to step out of phase with reality, becoming not just intangible but also invisible every time she did so.

That was fine. GURPS can handle that kind of thing really well. Basically, you pay the cost for both abilities and give yourself a discount for invisibility only working while you are intangible.

Her issue was, “But the invisibility is a natural side effect of her phasing, so it should be automatic. Why do I have to pay for something that happens naturally?”

The answer I gave her is the same one I give to players who feel that the mechanical options in D&D should be supplemented by benefits from their backstory: game balance doesn’t care where your capabilities come from, only what they are.

Being able to turn invisible and intangible at the same time is just as valuable a pair of abilities no matter what explanation you give for them, so it costs the same amount of points.

Dungeons & Dragons does not use such an intricate and comprehensive point system for anything, though it does offer point buy as an option for setting your ability scores (i.e., basic attributes), so let’s take this as an example. For simplicity, I’m going to be dealing with scores before racial modifiers throughout this next bit, just so I don’t have to keep clarifying that the 15 I’m referring to might be a 16 or 17.

Say there’s a player whose character, as a lad, would eat four dozen eggs every day to help him get large. Now that he’s grown, he eats five dozen eggs, so he’s roughly the size of a barge.

Now, the player has done the point buy and put 15 points into Strength, the maximum the system will allow him to buy. But he comes to his DM and says, “I think my Strength should be 18. My character has performed an exhaustive strength-gaining regimen ever since he was a child, and that should be reflected in his stats. It’s just not realistic that I have the same strength score as anyone else would have, given how completely my character’s life has been dedicated to gaining muscle.”

A lot of DMs, in this situation, will be bothered by this argument but not be able to put their finger on what’s wrong with it, so if they wind up saying no out of principle they feel like they shot down part of the character’s concept, or they’ll not be able to defend the rules or their decision any better than by shrugging and saying, “Well, the game doesn’t always make sense.”

But this is really the same situation as in that GURPS game. Having a “mere” Strength of 15 doesn’t require you to ignore your character’s backstory where they have distant giant blood, or had a massive protein intake and bodybuilding regimen, or were blessed with phenomenal strength by a god, or whatever. Rather, it reflects it. Even though as a player you are absolutely entitled to take your attribute points and spend them in order to get a 15 on whatever attribute you see fit, the character you create was shaped and molded by the circumstances of their life in order to wind up with such an extraordinary (and it really is extraordinary!) capability that a 15 represents.

I know, it’s hard to remember that an unmodified ability score of 15 is extraordinary when you’re traveling with 3 to 5 other people who pretty much all have one, too. But this is where it’s important to remember two things: one, you’re not the star of the show here, but two, you are one of the stars.

Back in the day, when we all rolled our stats in order (and then fudged the heck out of them), player characters were theoretically average individuals who might, if they lived long enough, become great heroes. From 3rd edition onward, the trend has been against that, with 3rd edition formally adopting as default weighted die rolls and a generous point buy system. 4th edition really solidified what I call the Lake Wobegon school of character design, “where the halflings are strong, the half-orcs are good looking, and all the adventurers are above average”. 5E more or less continues that trend, not strengthening it but not shying away from it.

But even if a 15 doesn’t make you anything special among the sort of heroic adventurers you find yourself banding together with, it is still special. A score like that really cries out for explanation, honestly, and a backstory that explains how you came to be so blessed is not just acceptable, it’s great.

But while your backstory can explain how you came to have the abilities you do, it can’t be used to justify a score that’s even higher.

That’s talking strictly about ability scores, which have a literal point buy scale associated with them. What about other capabilities, though, like our nature lover?

Even without an explicit “point cost”, the answer is the same. When you choose a background, class, race, skill proficiencies, feats, etc., you are essentially spending a single point to buy a thing or package of things. You can (and by all means, should, if you have the inclination) explain the results of that purchase in terms of your character’s backstory, but you don’t get more points to spend because of the backstory.

If your character is a druid or ranger, then your nature skills and natural magic represent your character’s profound spiritual connection to nature. If you’re making a human with the variant rules and take the magic initiate feat and use animal friendship or speak with animals as your one level one spell, that’s likewise a result of that connection.

“But that’s the feat I get just for being human!” the player might say. “This comes from something unique to my character.”

This is confusing choices you make as a player with things about your character. The ability to choose a feat just for being human (or rather, just for making a level 1 human adventurer who is intended to stand alongside humanoid dragons and quasi-immortal forest jerks) is a player resource; but the feat you choose is (or represents) something unique about your character. You can do as much or as little as you want to integrate that unique thing into your character’s concept and backstory (or ongoing story).

Now, there is a difference between wanting something extra and wanting something different. If a player wants to use a custom feat in place of any of the existing examples, or wishes to have a custom sub-class to take instead of one of the existing ones, that’s theoretically no different than spending their points differently in order to achieve a desired result.

For instance, it’s not uncommon to encounter a player who wants to play as a heroic werewolf or vampire. The Monster Manual already provides rules for converting a bitten character into monsters of those type, but they add an immense amount of power in the process and balance-wise, they really work better for “your character died and now there’s a new villain” than “your character was bitten by the fantasy equivalent of a radioactive spider and now you have all of the superpowers”.

This isn’t to say that you have to say no. The trick is to figure out what abilities a vampire or werewolf character class would have at level 1 that would be comparable to what any other character class gets at level 1, and give them that as an option for their next character level. If they want to keep developing their monstrous new abilities, then at level 2, you do the same thing, and so on.

Obviously this is a lot of work compared to the alternative, which is saying, “No, lycnathropy/vampirism is not a cool origin story but a horrible, horrible curse which basically means you have no control over your actions/you are dead and a twisted reflection of you is occupying your body,” and it may or may not be worth putting in that much effort to keep things balanced. And if it’s not worth it to you, then I urge you to just say no, because having one player who is disappointed is better than wrecking the game for everyone else.

Also? It’s not like there’s a shortage of cool character concepts that can be modeled with just what’s in the Player’s Handbook. Players who are that blasé about the possibilities embodied by high level characters of any class probably don’t understand the potential of them, and would benefit by spending more time looking at them.

But at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with coming up with alternatives for players whose character concepts are on the same general level as what’s available, but not otherwise mechanically represented. The trick is to make sure that whatever they get from the custom feat or sub-class or whatever is not any better than what they give up in not taking an existing feat or sub-class.

This can be trickier than it sounds, which is why I recommend that inexperienced players work with what’s already available and, even more so, that inexperienced DMs practice saying no to any custom options pitched by players. You have to know how the system works and why it works the way it does before you can understand if and how a new option is going to work with the system.

One area that can be really tricky is the idea of using a custom “race” build to implement a character concept. There’s a certain school of thought that already views character class and race as nothing but abstract bags of mechanical pieces. If you have a character concept for an elf that would benefit more from a high Constitution and more hit points, they’ll tell you “Take dwarf and say you’re an elf. That’s just roleplay.” Why anyone would say something is “just roleplay” in reference to a roleplaying game is beyond me, but we’ll let that go. The point is that if you see the races in the PHB as nothing but means to achieving an end for your character, then the next step is to treat them as a sort of smorgasbord.

This might be a pet peeve of mine, but I’m always immediately suspicious of a player who wants to play mix-and-match with racial abilities. It might seem like this is a decent approach to keeping things balanced, but they rarely weigh what a given feature is worth in any real way. It’s more a sense of “Well, there are races in the book that have this, so it must be balanced if I have it.”

The most egregious example I saw was a player who wanted a character who was human who had been blessed by angels but who also gained power by drinking demon blood. He took pieces from the tiefling, aasimar, and variant human race, and added another feat (on top of the one you get “just for being human”) to represent demonic strength/power. Another, less egregious recent example was a player who wanted his character to have both the halfling luck trait and the Lucky feat at level 1, in order to make a character whose concept is the luckiest person in the world.

Neither player was at my table, but I would have given both of them the same answer: make your character normally and then use this backstory to explain what you’ve got.

If your demonic-angelic avenger character is a paladin with reasonably high Strength and Constitution scores, you’ve got your blessings (the paladin abilities) and you’ve got your demonic power (the physical attributes). Take the tiefling or aasimar race to mechanically represent more demonic or more angelic flavor, or just take variant human and use your feat to get a couple of cantrips that represent both.

If your character is supposed to have luck as an overwhelming defining trait, play them as lucky. Take the halfling or variant human race to get some mechanical luck, sure, but don’t stop there because those two abilities put together won’t come up often enough to really define you. Take high dexterity but describe your character as no more than usually graceful, just prone to getting off lucky shots and being missed due to happenstance.

A rogue with this kind of character concept might have their Sneak Attack damage defined not as a matter of skill but everything lining up perfectly. A monk might have their martial arts described as coincidental slapstick. And so on.

Now, the player with the angel/demon knight concept was already planning on being a paladin. He wanted more supernatural blessings than you get “just for being a paladin”, though. The real problem with the character was that he, as my boyfriend Jack puts it, “had a level 20 backstory for a level 1 character”.

I.e., he’d already met angelic beings who singled him out for special powers and a great destiny, already learned the secret of gaining power from drinking demon blood. D&D player characters are by definition potentially epic heroes, but you have to go on the epic quests to get there.

And that, more so than any point about game balance or creativity, is my final answer to any player who feels strongly that they should be allowed to have a bunch of extra powers not because they want them for any advantage but because they think it would be fun to play a vampire or a god in human form or an indestructible construct or a celestial half-fey half-dragon. The game you’re playing is designed to model certain things, and those things are mostly “the increasingly epic adventures of increasingly epic mortal heroes.”

You start out special, you start out larger-than-life, but there’s a ceiling on those things, and if you can’t work within those limits, you need to dial your vision back in one way or another, if not by throwing it out than by deciding to grow into it.

4th Edition had epic destinies (endgame prestige classes, basically) that represented a character who gradually realized over the course of their career that they were the living embodiments of a god or primordial, or for characters who become royalty in hell, or powerful members of a fey court. In each case, though, you got no mechanical in-character benefit from these things before level 21, and then you spent 10 levels growing into it.

5th Edition does not have anything like that, but by the time you reach level 20, you are metaphorically or in some cases literally a force of nature. If you can’t raise the dead or reshape reality with a word, you can stand shoulder-to-shoulder or toe-to-toe with gods and titans.

But you’ve got to get there.

Going strictly by encounter XP budget, by the time you’re ready to tangle with a vampire one-on-one you’re going to be level 19. This is not a perfect measurement, but it’s close enough to make the point that a single vampire is comparable in awesomeness to a very high level character. You can’t expect to get that at level 1.

As a final note: DMs who wish to head off a certain amount of more reasonable “concept fishing” and allow more customization at level 1 might consider a house rule that allows each player character to choose a single feat at level 1. You might also consider taking the feat-based human variant off the table if you do this, though in my experience, the appeal of that option falls off sharply when it’s not the only path to getting a feat at level 1.

Alexandra Erin has been playing roleplaying games since 1989, and has been experimenting with game design since about one week after that. She is the author of the character option manuals Clerics of Lesser DomainsWarlocks of Other Patrons, and Feats of Heroism: 36 New Feats for 5th Edition, currently in the top 5 titles on the DMs Guild.