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

A dm concerned with balance issue can solve most of it with few exceptions.
Ban the -5/+10 mechanic, ban MC for pal, warlock and sorcerer. Outside of that the rest is balanced enough.

Xanathar is clean except for one spell.
Volo’s races are ok.
But both are not mandatory to have fun.

Setting material is for playing that setting.
Why a dm should consider sword coast material for his home brew campaign?
Because booming blade? That is a kind childish.
 

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epithet

Explorer
Because you is in the outer ring. The Point of the Thread is "What official material do DM ban and why?". When the dms say what they ban, you come in with the ridiculous post of a DM must build a consensus to be a good dm. You MAY have a good Point if this thread was about BEING A GOOD DM. So you off point, off topic, and that makes your posts RIDICULOUS. And we will go along with the gag and reply with RIDICULOUS POSTS.
Now. As a DM what would you ban?

It really isn't off point, or off topic, or ridiculous. What you limit, what you add via homebrew, and what the role of the DM is (or should be) in the typical game group or the ideal game group--these are all related issues, and should absolutely be discussed together. This is especially true because the question of the thread isn't "what would you ban?" The question is, "Why?"

There's only one answer, and it applies to almost all DMs. The answer to why some DMs limit 'official' material is the same as the answer to why some add 'homebrew' material. Simply put, they think it makes the game better.

The problem is that one simple answer opens up a dozen more. Better in what way? Better in the sense of more fun for this session, or better in terms of more sustainable over the life of a long campaign? Better in terms of being easier to run or play, or better in terms of having greater verisimilitude, making people more intuitively attached to the characters and world? The wide array of possible answers is the reason that different campaigns include different rules and different options, because they're all played by different people. Of course, that leads us to the biggest question of the better campaign: for whom is the campaign being made better?

The past several pages of this thread set out two pretty clear philosophies. The first argues that the DM should make the campaign better for himself. After all, he's the one that puts the most work into it, he's the one that ultimately has to make sense of it all, and he's the one that is the final arbiter of both rules and lore at the table. DMs are in demand, players are lucky to have someone to run a game for them, so the DM is absolutely entitled to make the game the way he wants it. If one or more of the players don't like it, there's a line of people waiting for their seat at the table.

The second philosophy argues that the game group is the most important social dynamic, and that the players are as essential an element to that group as the DM is. The primary objective is to have a good time and play a game together, and a DM's role is to run a game that the group will enjoy. Like anyone making something for a group of friends to enjoy, the DM will be most successful if his campaign gives the players what they want.

Both of those philosophies are built upon a kernel of truth, but both can be taken to extremes that will lead to the failure of the campaign. The first can lead to alienating players who want to try things that the DM doesn't much like, while the second can result in the boring and often generic Monty Haul campaign. I think I've made it pretty clear that I find the second philosophy to be the better one in general, but there is no doubt that the DM engagement (and avoiding DM burnout) requires indulging the first philosophy a bit, too.

So, to answer the question posed by the thread title: the first philosophy motivates a DM to limit material that the DM finds annoying, or stupid, or pointlessly complicated. When the DM has a concept for the campaign setting, he limits material that challenges or undermines that concept. The second philosophy motivates a DM to limit material in order to run a game or make a campaign setting that the players will better enjoy. The DM tries to make sure the game is accessible and the pacing is right for the group, the setting is thematically consistent and has a flavor and style that is engaging and interesting, and prunes away content that either gets in the way, or offers more in its absence than it could be its inclusion. A campaign setting without humans, for example, is automatically interesting on some level, just because it's so different. Removing the option for playing on a grid can help reinforce the uncertainty of a campaign in the lightless underdark, or the mists of a haunted forest. Limitations establish boundaries, and boundaries define shapes, and a campaign with a shape to it is generally better for all involved than an amorphous blob in which Drizzit rides a dinosaur unless you're going for zany, campy humor.

I believe the issue of what you limit as a DM, and why, ultimately relates to the question of why you're DMing in the first place. Obviously different people will have different answers to the question, but for myself it goes back to the campfire. I went camping a lot as a kid, and one of the biggest highlights of it for me was sitting around a fire after dark, telling stories. I really liked making my friends laugh, or scaring them with ghost stories, and I still do. I like worldbuilding, and I like tinkering with rule systems, but what I really enjoy as a DM is entertaining my friends. When I limit material in my D&D campaigns, it is because I believe the campaign will be more entertaining without it.
 

Panda-s1

Scruffy and Determined
Who in this thread has given you the impression that their disagreement with you on this topic is because they are "incapable of dealing with not everything going the way [they] want it?" Name one person.

No one, except everyone seems to think I was talking about them for some reason.

Edit: I'll also say being asked loaded questions about the nature of DM'ing, despite saying numerous times that a DM gets the final say in their game, isn't conducive to this discussion either. Hell in one case I was given a scenario where a clear minority of the player group objected to the DM's want to play a gritty realistic game and asked if the DM should bend over backward to this minority's whims. I'm not exactly amused at being handed a question as if I don't understand how consensus and majority work.
 
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Panda-s1

Scruffy and Determined
If it's irrelevant when other people use your example to show you the holes in your argument but a valid example when you're using it, you aren't arguing in good faith. Do you not see the problem here?

Me said:
I also recall when 4e came out some people lost their [lol] over Eladrin getting Fey Step as a racial encounter action[...]
I talked about Eladrin in a specific edition of D&D. Mystara was never an official 4e setting. Mentioning that the Eladrin don't have Fey Step in Mystara is irrelevant.
 


Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
No one, except everyone seems to think I was talking about them for some reason.

Exactly. So, it was in fact a strawman. Nobody was presenting that position.

You're in a thread asking why some DMs limit some rules, many people explained why they limit rules, and you replied its about cowardice and being unable to cope. Not with some explanation that you meant a small subset of people which wasn't representative of the majority of people who limit rules - no you made a broad claim about why people limit rules. To people, in this thread, who were saying why they limit rules.

And then you acted shocked people didn't take too kindly to it. And you're still feigning confusion about it. As if you couldn't possibly fathom in a million years why people might react negatively to your strawman.
 
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oreofox

Explorer
Man that's a lot to unpack. First of all are you expecting me to side with the 2 players and say that the DM needs to cater to their whims? Secondly, this runs counter to everything everyone has said about consensus and coming to an agreement with the players.

Let's pretend two of those people who don't care actually do care and suddenly we have 4 players who don't want to play in a gritty setting. Should the DM force their gritty setting game on all the players, even though he's outnumbered? Does he actually hate running a kitchen-sink setting to the point that him running it would actually be terrible? Or does he compromise and runs the game people would better enjoy and have a good time with his friends (uh, they're all friends, right??)? I get the want of playing a certain type of game, and there are all sorts of ideas I never got to run due to lack of interest, but that's just how it is sometimes, even as a DM.

Why is it the DM has to compromise? Why is it always the DM that has to compromise? Why is it the players' preferences that take precedence over the DM's, even just 1 player's? If you force anyone to do something they don't like, it will be terrible. Force the DM to allow whatever a player's whim is for their character, and the DM doesn't like it, NO ONE has fun. The DM says he's done after 1 or more sessions, and everything is over. Make a player create a character within a set of restrictions, he says he's done after 1 or more sessions, and only that player's game is over.

Personally, I find having restrictions and boundaries on character creation can inspire some great characters. I have had this idea for a character for a few years now. I will never be able to play it because there is no official gnoll race, yet I have created a number of characters since 5e came out that were enjoyable despite them not being my ideal character. I have never tried to force a DM to allow me to create that character, so I expect the same courtesy from players when I DM.
 

Panda-s1

Scruffy and Determined
Exactly. So, it was in fact a strawman. Nobody was presenting that position.

You're in a thread asking why some DMs limit some rules, many people explained why they limit rules, and you replied its about cowardice and being unable to cope. Not with some explanation that you meant a small subset of people which wasn't representative of the majority of people who limit rules - no you made a broad claim about why people limit rules. To people, in this thread, who were saying why they limit rules.

And then you acted shocked people didn't take too kindly to it. And you're still feigning confusion about it. As if you couldn't possibly fathom in a million years why people might react negatively to your strawman.

Just because nobody was presenting that position doesn't mean I can't bring it up. The OP posited a question, I gave an answer. In my experience there are DMs who are like that. It wasn't directed at anyone here per-sé, but because I said a mean word people decided I was talking about them.

If you don't like that it's not a strawman, that's fine, I don't have to keep arguing this.
 



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