Burning Questions: Why Do DMs Limit Official WOTC Material?

In today’s Burning Question we discuss: In D&D, why do DMs limit spells, feats, races, books, etc. when they have been play-tested by Wizards of the Coast?

Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash


The Short Answer

A DM (Dungeon Master) is well within their right to decide which options are available at their table, regardless of the source of that material. After all the DM is responsible for the integrity of the game experience and may deem some material inappropriate or unbalanced.

Digging Deeper

This may seem a bit unfair to those who have paid for a product and expect to be able to use that product anywhere they go. However, the idea of limiting the material available to players is not without precedent. Currently the D&D Adventurers’ League has a PHB +1 rule, meaning a player can use the Player’s Handbook and one other source for their character. I believe this may be increasing soon. Previous incarnations of D&D organized play would use certs and introduce content a little at a time. There is a logic to setting limits. A DM can only know so many things and it is easy to get overwhelmed with a system like D&D or Pathfinder, where the amount of add-on content is enormous and occasionally deeply themed.

Appropriate Thematics

When creating a world to play D&D in, or more specifically to run D&D (or other games) in, a DM/GM will often choose a theme for the world. It may only apply to that specific campaign or it may apply to the entire world, but the theme sets expectations for the kinds of play experiences players may run into. Many DM’s, including myself, try and create a zeitgeist, a lived in feel to the world and this may well exclude certain types of character options.

Let’s just take a few examples from the PHB itself and show how they might not be appropriate for every campaign.

  • The Gnome. In general played as a cutesy and clever race, akin to dwarves but more gem obsessed. They work fine on Faerun, but if you were porting gnomes to say historical renaissance Holy Roman Empire, would they work? Maybe not. .
  • Eldritch Knight. In a world where knights do not exist or magic is inherently evil, warriors may not even think of learning sorcery.
  • Oath of the Ancients. Works great in a world where Fey and ancient forests are prominent. Works somewhat less well in desert or ice settings and campaigns.
Of course any of these could be made more thematic with a little work, but as mentioned the DM already has a lot of work to do. An overabundance of options mean keeping track of more abilities and their potential impact on both the setting and other party members. Even having the players keep track of the information themselves does not necessarily ease that burden. A more limited scope can work better for one shots and short campaigns. Where as wildly varying characters and character abilities may upset the verisimilitude of that style of game or possibly be game breaking.

Out of Balance

Of course just because WoTC tested a product does not make it right for every campaign. Balancing mechanics across an entire game can be a daunting task. Some might say an impossible one. And typically as a design team (who might have new members added) tinkers with mechanics and new options, a degree of power creep inevitably sneaks in.

Even a balanced rule can cause issues. Take for instance Healing Spirit from Xanathar’s Guide. There is a great deal of debate over whether Healing Spirit should be allowed in a game or not. Many players do not like its downsides. Certainly more than a few players enjoy the potential upside as well, but Healing Spirit is not a slam dunk or no-brainer for a DM.

In general, a DM has a high degree of latitude when creating a setting or planning a campaign. Ideally they will discuss their motives with players and come to the best compromise.

This article was contributed by Sean Hillman (SMHWorlds) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
 

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Sean Hillman

Sean Hillman

Koloth

First Post
DMs can't always afford to own copies of every supplement that is available.
Even if they can afford to own every supplement, they may not have the time to actually read everything.
As more supplements appear, the play testing requirements go up with each one as you not only have to test the supplement as a stand alone product, you have to test the interaction will all combinations of previous supplements. This increases the chances that something will slip through that messes up play.
 

Stef McCarter

First Post
I run a homebrew in a world i originally created back in 1989 my senior year for my friends. This was 1st edition rules, i have since added and updated my world for 2nd, 3rd, 3.5 and 5th ediiton. Starting in 3rd l really started limiting what classes, feats ect l allowed. I always tend to find the core rule books always had the best play testing as later books tend to have over powered feats, classes, spells ect (more so in 3rd party books but still in some offical WoTC books also).

Not only that just because they allow an offical race doesn't mean the race is in my world. With so many race and class opitions it makes it harder to shoehorn everything into my world.

Also don't forget even in offical adventure eague it's still PHG +1 and they have said they only balance the new material to the PHG not other books so even offical WOTC 5th edition books might not be balanced with each other.

Lastly during the 4th edition era of D&D everyone l know played Pathfinder. I tried it out but found it to not be to my liking. But l really noticed this trend of it's in an offical book so i should be allowed to play X class or race and it really turned me off from playing with these people.
 

Inchoroi

Adventurer
I've banned a few things from my games, mostly for mechanical reasons (Alert, GWM, SS, Healing Spirit). The only thing that I can think of that got banned for thematic reasons was Dragonborn, simply because they just don't exist in the setting. Or, at least I haven't figured out a way to work them in somehow. It hasn't been a big deal, because all anyone wants to play is a human, elf, or half elf, at least in my groups. I'd love to have a dwarf or tiefling or aasimar...
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Very good post and I think it laid out the reasons quite clearly.

The main reason I put limits on is "Appropriate Thematics".

In general, I have a campaign world built a certain way, which means excluding some options. Often re-fluffing can do the job to take something that doesn't fit in a more thematically reasonable direction, but not always. For instance---this is a big change---at the moment divine casting is very rare because the gods have been banished from the world. I'd be OK with a PC who was a divine caster but it would be weird and chances are good I'd rather have that character be one of the half caster classes like a Paladin, Ranger, or else a Favored Soul, representing the fact that most of the religions have been broken by this event and true clerics are nowhere to be found. If I was trying to run a more S&S type campaign, I'd probably ban or limit most casting classes entirely.
 

Greybird

Explorer
Appropriate Thematics is at the heart of all those decisions for me. I generally disallow many non-core races and monks. Monks are great - in an OA campaign. I'm also usually fine with Aasimar. But most of the others just don't fit for me. "What business do an elf, a man, and a dwarf have in the Riddermak?" vs "What business do an elf, a goblin, a bird guy, and a talking bug have in the Riddermark?"

The way I usually do it is hand out an 'available content' list. It's a sheet with every official race, archetype, background, and class listed and divided into three categories: Allowed, limited, and not allowed. Limited means that there can be a maximum of one item per category off of that list in the entire party, and "requires a good pitch that shows a story/RP plan for how that character fits into theworld." This is where you'll find your Svirfneblin, Genasi, Oath of Conquest paladin, monks, underdark-themed backgrounds, and do forth. If you want to play one, you'll need to convince me it will be an interesting character that won't end up hamstringing the campaign ("Well, we can never go into any civilized town with our drow and orc characters. What do we want to do?")
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Appropriate Thematics is at the heart of all those decisions for me. "What business do an elf, a man, and a dwarf have in the Riddermak?" vs "What business do an elf, a goblin, a bird guy, and a talking bug have in the Riddermark?"

I wish I could give you both XP and a Laugh for that! It perfectly summarizes the issue.
 

Panda-s1

Scruffy and Determined
In my experience some DMs are just cowards. I mean okay some stuff might not make sense thematically, or sometimes things will gain a reputation for being problematic. But I've known DMs who take a look at some official material and their knee-jerk reaction is that it needs to be banned from their game. Like damn, you're the DM, if something turns out to be OP you can ban it, or you can make things tougher for the players, but preemptively banning something because you're afraid of it ruining your carefully laid out plans seems like you're incapable of dealing with not everything going the way you want it.

Sidenote, I never really got the need to justify the existence of any race in a setting. Base level D&D covers such a broad range of subjects, like unless something is drastically different (i.e. no fey in your world) I don't get why you gotta go out of your way to justify the existence of a race in a setting.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
This seems like half the question, and only asking half will twist some of the answers and miss other answers.

"Why do DM's customize the material available in their worlds" might be a decent way to phrase it. Because while there are definitely answers that only have to do with taking away (DM not owning supplements, lower barrier to entry (like PHB+! in AL), the ones about the rules supporting the setting can involve both adding and taking away. Look at all of the M:tG options Wizards has put out - they add races and sometimes more to make the rules support the setting.
 

paintphob

First Post
Another answer might be simplicity. If I am running for new players, i might only offer them the pre-built characters from LMoP. This will allow them to review only a few characters, then they can jump right into the game. I have limited a game to just the races/classes found in the free basic rules on-line. This was done for three reasons. 1) No one had to buy a book to start playing, or thinking about their character. 2) They could review the choices at their leisure, before sitting down at the table. 3) A smaller set of combinations to consider between race/class/subclass combos.
Basically, I wanted to avoid the paralysis by analysis that can sometimes affect new players when confronted with all the options available to create their characters.
 

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