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

5ekyu

Hero
To answer the original question, in the campaign I am currently running I heavily restricted the number of races that players could, initially, choose from. This was by design as the campaign was going to start in a fairly isolated region and gradually move out to the wider world where more races would be encountered and "unlocked" (so to speak). The choice to limit was thematic and the "starting races" were partly chosen by my players so that they wouldn't feel as if their 'favoured' race choice wouldn't immediately be available. With the concept of the game setting agreed upon and sufficient buy-in from the players that I would add more options as we went along my decision to initially restrict official race choices was, in my mind, justified.

I find the ongoing discussion of "good" DMs and "bad" DMs somewhat odd - I have encountered bad DMs who included all official material and good DMs who have restricted official material. Their DMing ability was not a direct function of the material they allowed though.

Lastly, as with Panda-s1, my account is 10 years old as well and I post very rarely - I don't see why that should make my opinion on this any more or less valid but you're free to come to that conclusion if you wish :)
" The choice to limit was thematic and the "starting races" were partly chosen by my players so that they wouldn't feel as if their 'favoured' race choice wouldn't immediately be available"

This is to me a significant point and a good one. It shows collaboration to get both restriction suitable for setting but also making sure to not restrict away player interests.

Recently i was polite enoughto indulge a potential GMs 30m long pitch on his "personal built for almost 40 years dnd rpg homebrew" and among the many red-flags he somehow managed to pack the pitch with was this...

"The players will be restricted to humans because any other race would have too much knowledge of the world and setting".

Of course, that was also the only mention of players, player characters, what they will be like or be doing etc during his pitch so it stood out in several ways.
 

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Grognerd

Explorer
Lastly, as with Panda-s1, my account is 10 years old as well and I post very rarely - I don't see why that should make my opinion on this any more or less valid but you're free to come to that conclusion if you wish :)

It doesn't make your opinion any less valid. But if you had come in here after a 10 year hiatus just to insult, act deliberately obtuse and aggrieved when called on your insults, and basically troll the board, then that is where the issue is. You didn't do that; not everyone can necessarily say the same.
 

Sadras

Legend
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.

You're missing the point completely.
Homebrew settings are not official (like Mystara) and yet you imply DMs who do not use all official content in their setting, WHATEVER SETTING THAT MAY BE, are cowardly in your opinion.
 

Panda-s1

Scruffy and Determined
To answer the original question, in the campaign I am currently running I heavily restricted the number of races that players could, initially, choose from. This was by design as the campaign was going to start in a fairly isolated region and gradually move out to the wider world where more races would be encountered and "unlocked" (so to speak). The choice to limit was thematic and the "starting races" were partly chosen by my players so that they wouldn't feel as if their 'favoured' race choice wouldn't immediately be available. With the concept of the game setting agreed upon and sufficient buy-in from the players that I would add more options as we went along my decision to initially restrict official race choices was, in my mind, justified.

I find the ongoing discussion of "good" DMs and "bad" DMs somewhat odd - I have encountered bad DMs who included all official material and good DMs who have restricted official material. Their DMing ability was not a direct function of the material they allowed though.

Lastly, as with Panda-s1, my account is 10 years old as well and I post very rarely - I don't see why that should make my opinion on this any more or less valid but you're free to come to that conclusion if you wish :)

That sounds kinda cool, and has an actual narrative purpose. Also in terms of arguments in this thread I like how player input decided what races were allowed instead of just handing out a list of specific races. I've definitely done worse stuff to players in the past.

And yeah, you're not wrong about good DMs restricting official material, but those good DMs probably have a very clear reason why they restrict material that's communicated with their players and still work with them to make a game everyone can enjoy. The bad ones probably still make specific character guidelines and make character choices meaningless.

Also I'm not sure why I made my account 10 years ago, but again I really don't want to make a new one just 'cause I decided to start using it. I guess it's too bad I've been posting here more than anywhere else, but that's how it goes.

You're missing the point completely.
Homebrew settings are not official (like Mystara) and yet you imply DMs who do not use all official content in their setting, WHATEVER SETTING THAT MAY BE, are cowardly in your opinion.
In 4e Eladrin are a core race whereas Mystara is not an official setting, but okay, sure, oh no you got me I think you're a stinky coward, if you won't let me have my vampire aarakocra wizard with a wand of orcus at 1st level I'm gonna tell Mike Mearls on you :.-(
 

jasper

Rotten DM
It wasn't that he didn't want to put "all", it was he didn't want to put any official supplements. But fine I called one poster a coward, but he fit the bill of what I described in my first post. He also described a scenario that's incredibly suspect; there is no book with the title he described, and in the book that he probably meant there is no such ability to get a Holy Avenger at first level. Also given his statements in his other posts I find it hard to take him at all seriously.

If you want to believe that I'm saying that a DM who doesn't cater to their player is bad, that's your prerogative.
....
Oh I forgot the splat book name at the time of the writing. It was Complete Paladin's Handbook. Published for 2nd edition around 1 May 1994
https://www.amazon.com/Complete-Paladins-Handbook-Advanced-Supplement/dp/1560768452
The Name of the player was Randall Stanton and yes he mention one order handing out holy avengers. Now he maybe , no, knowing Randall He was lying about it. And since this happen around 1996-1997 twenty years have pass, I may be getting some the facts wrong.
I will be blunt. When I homebrew and drop "Official WOTC" material, it is the my way or the highway. Why? Because way back twenty plus years ago, when I wanted to drop "Official TSR" material I talked with my players. Some were okay, others wanted the kitchen sink. Which played havoc with my games. I would set an encounter for the core books only for it to be a walk over. And many other problems with the kitchen sink.
Now days I don't want to spend half of Session 0, a third of Session 1, A quarter of Session 2 etc trying to reason with players on why I am limiting something. I have already had those gripe sessions and will not repeat them.
PS. I did get tired of Randall bs and kicked him from my table when I was dming. But he was welcome for Taco Tuesday and at table when I was just another player.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
But fine I called one poster a coward...


And that's probably one too many.

Please, don't call people names, or ascribe character flaws to them due to choices about how his group pretends to be elves.

And, if you do, and you seem to get away with it, don't continue to publicly belabor the point. :/
 

Keravath

Explorer
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.

Honestly, I can easily see reasons why a DM might ban specific races from a campaign. Most often due to cultural issues. Groups like goblins, kobolds, orcs, bugbears, yuan-ti or drow may exist in the world but they may be so widely feared or detested that trying to play a character from one of these groups might be almost impossible. Especially in a campaign with any content in a city or village where interaction with prejudiced NPCs might occur. In many cases, player characters from such groups can be very disruptive to a storyline (though of course in other campaigns they could become the focus of the storyline).

On the topic of banning material, I try to avoid it. However, I suspect there are many who don't allow certain things in the first place since they don't want to turn around later and take it away ... and then retcon the behaviour of a character over how ever many sessions to account for the now lost ability. Since the character and their abilities grow together, some particularly notable feats or abilities can become a defining element to a character then if the DM later finds that they seem too powerful, they will be conflicted about removing them. Some of the combat focused feats like Great Weapon Master and Sharpshooter could fall into this category especially when combined with polearm master and crossbow expert and with some way to often get advantage like darkness+devil's sight, shadows of moil/greater invisibility or barbarian reckless attack (for PAM+GWM).
 

Panda-s1

Scruffy and Determined

And that's probably one too many.

Please, don't call people names, or ascribe character flaws to them due to choices about how his group pretends to be elves.

And, if you do, and you seem to get away with it, don't continue to publicly belabor the point. :/

That's not who I was calling a coward, but okay. It's just a little frustrating to deal with; I wish I could be this openly indignant about some of the names I've been called before (not in this thread, before anyone tries to jump on me for exaggerating). I just honestly feel like even if I didn't say coward some people in this thread would still be blasting me with hyperbole because of saying someone could be a bad DM (I'm not the only one who's had to deal with this here either).

Oh I forgot the splat book name at the time of the writing. It was Complete Paladin's Handbook. Published for 2nd edition around 1 May 1994
https://www.amazon.com/Complete-Paladins-Handbook-Advanced-Supplement/dp/1560768452
The Name of the player was Randall Stanton and yes he mention one order handing out holy avengers. Now he maybe , no, knowing Randall He was lying about it. And since this happen around 1996-1997 twenty years have pass, I may be getting some the facts wrong.

Yeah I came to a similar conclusion a few days ago when I looked up the book myself. I know 2nd edition has a reputation for being not well playtested, but that seemed ridiculous.

Honestly, I can easily see reasons why a DM might ban specific races from a campaign. Most often due to cultural issues. Groups like goblins, kobolds, orcs, bugbears, yuan-ti or drow may exist in the world but they may be so widely feared or detested that trying to play a character from one of these groups might be almost impossible. Especially in a campaign with any content in a city or village where interaction with prejudiced NPCs might occur. In many cases, player characters from such groups can be very disruptive to a storyline (though of course in other campaigns they could become the focus of the storyline).

On the topic of banning material, I try to avoid it. However, I suspect there are many who don't allow certain things in the first place since they don't want to turn around later and take it away ... and then retcon the behaviour of a character over how ever many sessions to account for the now lost ability. Since the character and their abilities grow together, some particularly notable feats or abilities can become a defining element to a character then if the DM later finds that they seem too powerful, they will be conflicted about removing them. Some of the combat focused feats like Great Weapon Master and Sharpshooter could fall into this category especially when combined with polearm master and crossbow expert and with some way to often get advantage like darkness+devil's sight, shadows of moil/greater invisibility or barbarian reckless attack (for PAM+GWM).

No, I get banning "monster" races, that's fairly par for the course. Though honestly, most people who want to play a monster race are fully aware of the attention they might get, like even half-orcs and tieflings get attention. Personally I find the idea of certain races being "monsters" kinda silly, and I know I'm not the only one, but that's just a personal thing.

Also, the example you give is banning something because of an actual thought out complication. I can get that, though personally I'd talk with the player before hand and see what happens. If I discuss the possibility of having to retcon their character a bit that makes it a lot less uncomfortable if it turns out they made something broken.
 

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