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

dwayne

Adventurer
I don't like to limit players creative process but i do hate munchkin players and those who do it just to do it. I limit power stacking that seems to have over taken much of D&D of late, i dip here i dip there, well not in my game. Now if a player has a character idea and concept i will work with them to find a path under a single class or make one.
 

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I am amused that so many here are not even answering the question as asked. It is asking WOTC-published stuff vs, non WOTC-published stuff, not what you do not like of the WOTC stuff.

Most of us, I presume, are ignoring the distinction between WOTC and non-WOTC because ultimately ALL designers (and I released my share of 3E 3rd party material) can create game inappropriate or game wrecking (in some GM's eyes) material. It isn't exclusive to the non-WOTC designers. (And don't forget WOTC hired 3rd parties to write some of their adventures.) Some people posting here are saying they ban PHB material for plot, theme, or balance reasons. Nothing is sacred. Rule 0 is still Rule 0. The DM decides what is D&D at their table, not some wizard from the coast. And if the players don't like it, they can ask the DM to change it, deal with it, or they can find another DM.
 

G

Guest 6801328

Guest
Count me in on the "Appropriate Thematics" bandwagon.

Sure, the other reasons might be factors, but appropriate thematics is the main one.
 

Shiroiken

Legend
I think some DMs use the ban-hammer too quickly, but part of it is due to DM expectations of how they think the game is supposed to go based on prior experience. The -5/+10 from SS and GWM are fine examples, and after a full campaign (levels 3-17) with a Polearm Great Weapon Master Paladin and a Sharpshooter Fighter, I can say they were not a problem at all. They were heavy damage dealers, but so was the Dragon Sorcerer Elemental Fire Adapt, the Totem Barbarian, and the Champion Fighter/Rogue. The only character that wasn't a massive damage dealer was the Lore Bard, who provided support and healing.

I wouldn't suggest using the ban-hammer anyway, since I prefer houseruling instead. I did adjust Sharpshooter to only reduce cover by 3 and double the short range, rather than ignoring them. Healing Spirit is the only thing I nerfed without trying out first, limiting it to twice per round (but the caster can prevent someone from using it, to keep an enemy from benefiting).

I think that limiting or changing options based on the setting is perfectly reasonable. It's the DM's setting (even if it's a published setting), and they should limit things to help it fit their vision.
 

Wheelercub Bear

First Post
I allow everything at my table and so do the alternate DMs. I personally feel that if I'm not able to adjust it tweak the existing rules, then I shouldn't be DMing in the first place. Of course this level of freedom came along with 30 years of experience. But one of our alternates has under 5 years and we'll often bounce ideas off each other to ensure balance. That said, we still make mistakes, but nothing that disruptive to the fun.

For example, when I started with 5th edition, I didn't realize how balanced everything already was. So when I introduced some legendary items that grew in power with the players, I quickly realized that monsters of the correct CR couldn't hit my players with AC22 and higher. So then I had to raise the HP, AC, and attack bonuses of the monsters. It eventually became a logistical nightmare to DM because everything in modules had to be upgraded. So next campaign, we just stuck to official magic items (and the attunement limitation) or created magic items using the DMs Guide as the templates.

But like I said, we use all the books, spells, creatures, and classes. We even use some pretty cool unofficial stuff like the Psionics Handbook which takes the Mystic to the next level, Matt Mercer's Blood Hunter and other classes, and more. As for Healing Spirit, we use the alternate suggestion of healing a number of times equal to twice the ability modifier and it's never been a problem.

We also have tweaked other spells to make them more useful such as increasing the level of Shield to be able to Target someone else up to 30 feet, or increase the level of Phantasmal Force to do extra 1d6 damage. Obviously situational, but occasionally comes in handy and gives players more options. We even made the most useless Cantrip in the game useful again. We turned True Strike into a bonus action, and it's become a "trap" in that most of our players feel compelled to take it, but then realize that it competes with their other bonus action abilities and spells. As a result, it gets a tremendous amount of use until 5th level, and then becomes a fallback spell for wizards when they're all out of tricks.
 


Arnwolf666

Adventurer
dragonborn dont fit in my campaign. but i let players reskin them into a human that has some dragonblood in his ancestry. the ability comes from recessive genes so it may have been 10 or more generations since there was a half dragon in the family. and they do pass for human. i do something similar for all the races to let the mechanics be in the game, but not let it ruin the flavor.
 

I am amused that so many here are not even answering the question as asked.

You know, you are right, I didn't specifically answer the question as asked. My answer would be "Because it is the DMs job to create his world from the material provided, and it is not incumbent upon the DM to include anything published that does not fit his world, in fact doing so may be detrimental."
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
I am amused that so many here are not even answering the question as asked. It is asking WOTC-published stuff vs, non WOTC-published stuff, not what you do not like of the WOTC stuff.

From what I can tell of the OP, non-WOTC published stuff is not the topic of the OP :)
 


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