“You’re a queer duck, Jimmy,” I would say to myself (if my name were Jimmy, and I were high on the reefer), because – when it comes to player customization – I tend to keep one foot on each side of the fence, perhaps foolishly.
You see, I want my players to have fun when they sit down at the table. I want them to feel like they can do anything. It is D&D, after all, where anything is supposed to be possible. And, as Matt Colville would say on his “Running the Game” YouTube series, you can not be a dragonborn gunslinger/inventor defecting from the Empire in any game.
So, with that spirit, why do I shudder whenever my players want to stray away from the information provided to them in the 5E Player’s Handbook? Why do I cringe when they tell me they’re using spells from another supplement? When they tell me they want to create a Demonkin, or a Shardmind character? I mean…these are cool characters! Why would I hesitate?
Don’t get me wrong, I did say yes. Like, almost right away. I wanted to do the research first, of course, and make sure it was all legitimate. Like, it wasn’t a Reddit-made custom race that was completely unbalanced (not that the good people of Reddit don’t do their due diligence). Plus, on top of all this, I was offering these players a chance to have their characters come from my homebrew world – in which these races did not previously exist. So now I have to work these custom races into the lore of my homebrew world. The Shardmind one presents a unique difficulty…because they are intrinsically connected to the goddess Ioun…who was never a deity in my world. So I had to finagle things a little bit.
I’m basically trying to keep things as “sandbox” as possible. Again, as Matt Colville describes in his brilliant “The Sandbox vs. The Railroad” video, it’s more fun for the players when they interact with the world I’ve presented them, and let them tell their own story. Sure, there’s greater things at work in this world, and I’ve set those things in place – and those pieces will be moving on the board – but it’s up to the players to decide if they’re going to interact with it or do their own thing (if and whenever we’re actually playing in my homebrew world).
That means I allow the players’ ideas to come forward and be a part of that world. So, when a player wants to be a Shardmind, and I don’t have the history in place for Ioun, the war with the primordials, and the Living Gate breaking over the Astral Sea, it presents a challenge for me as a DM to fit this being into the world.
Maybe that’s why I cringe. Maybe my first, knee-jerk reaction is due to knowing about the extra work I have to put in to something in which I’ve already invested a lot of time and effort. I can’t say. Perhaps – and this is a horrifying admittance – it’s because there’s a part of me that’s shouting, “No! Mine!” when players try to alter my world.
I’m doing my best to make sure that does not happen. Because that’s really super lame, and I don’t like it. Those are the kinds of DMs I don’t like, and I don’t want to be one.
The materials are all online, so why not just do the work and let your players be what they want? They can not be a Shardmind, or a Demonkin, in any other game, and even in real life. So I don’t want to deprive them of the opportunity yet again by saying, “Sorry, you can’t be one of those in this game too.”
I did my research – the www.dandwiki.com website is amazing for this kind of stuff – and found the information I needed. Then I reworked the races into my own homebrew version that fit within my world, and presented that to the players for review. I gave them the opportunity to deliberate with me on them, and tell me if they had questions or any issues with it. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t changing or removing a feature or element that they really liked/wanted.
One of my players then started choosing wizard spells out of the Elemental Evil campaign book for 5E, and used them in-game. I had no idea, to be honest, why I couldn’t find the spell in the PHB when he cast it. I ended up allowing it to happen, and since downloaded a copy of the campaign supplement from the DM’s Guild.
Also available on the DM’s Guild are various custom classes to choose from – including Matt Mercer’s famous Gunslinger Fighter variant – which is how they brought Percy over to D&D 5E from Pathfinder in Critical Role. I got a copy of that, of course, and so one of my players would like to do that for his next character – if that opportunity should arise.
A while back, I had toyed with the idea of adding firearms to my homebrew campaign – or at least making them a new thing, since that would add some power and fearsome might to the Dragul Empire – and this gave me a reason to actually do it. So, while I did cringe initially, I soon jumped at the chance of helping this player rough-out his backstory as the main inventor of the firearm in this world, and has since defected from the Empire.
That’s really cool! It gives him a really nice, solid backstory that we can use again and again in the campaign! Again…if that ever happens.
As you see, I’ve had some great successes with my players’ customizations. In-game, it’s worked out really well too. When the Demonkin character arrived, I described him as looking like a Tiefling, but with very different horns, and no tail. This perplexed my other players, to my delight (I never tell them details that their characters wouldn’t know – like by saying, “You see before you a Demonkin.”). This character was mysterious to them, and he started doing things that were really cool – like ‘porting his weapon to his hand (he’s an Eldritch Knight with weapon bond). And then…when the Demonkin character was on his own, he sprouted shadow-wings and flew. This really boggled my other players! It was a great moment.
So, with things like that possible, why would I act like I smelled something bad when a player asks to customize their experience? I mean, I always end up saying yes, so why do I still have this knee-jerk reaction at first? What can I do to make myself the better kind of DM that doesn’t do that…that simply goes straight to, “Sure!” Will it take time? Training? A level of letting-go that I’ve not reached yet?
It’s frustrating to me, feeling like I come off this way toward my players. I don’t want them to fear asking for this, or to feel like I’m too haughty or self-righteous to let them tweak my game. It’s their game too, after all…more so than it is mine.
Now I just have to work on whether or not to allow my wife to play as a dragon.
A full-blown dragon. Yikes.
Until next time – Well Met!