Fairies and Half-trolls and Liches, Oh My!

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Over on Nerdwerds, a point was raised about letting players with wild character concepts play those characters, and play them as conceived rather than hosed versions of them. And it reminded me of a few times this has come up in my own gaming history as a GM.

Around a decade ago, for an on-line game I was DMing, our group had put out a call for new players. One of the applicants had a character concept he insisted I should give a chance, that it was “a great character”: a high level multi-class (rogue-cleric-mage) half-troll. The character could regenerate and the Ability scores were insane. I think there were some other bits that resulted in quirked eyebrows, but those things are what I recall.

I turned the character down for being much too powergame-y and didn’t think much about it.

I’m still fairly certain I made the right call in that situation, though I also hope the kid had a chance to play his half-troll uber-character somewhere, in some game.

I contrast this with a relatively recent attempt (a few years ago) at introducing my kids to D&D, when my oldest daughter (16 at the time) wanted to play a fairy. I did all sorts of things wrong in trying to get them interested in playing — and one of the things I did wrong was to not say “yes” to her idea immediately. I was caught up in trying to figure out how I would stat it for her, how I didn’t have any rules for a fairy character, wondering how the heck a fairy would survive combat, etc. and so I turned the idea down because it would take too much work to set-up for just a quick/basic intro game.

But I should have said “Yes!” and just treated it like a halfling, plus flight. Boom. Done. Fairies are magic? Fair enough! Give her a choice of a first level spell like Light or Sleep.

Rules get in the way, sometimes.

Being raised on simulationist D&D thinking — the era of the AD&D splats, of new tables and charts for literally everything constructed according to what was most “realistic”, of arguments in Dragon magazine about whether dwarves were proportioned correctly — often leads to over-thinking them, when really it can be just that easy: Fairy? Sure, use halfling stats, and you can fly at a halfling’s walking speed.

Boom! Done!

Especially when we’re talking about new players who really don’t care about all those rules or “realism” or correctly simulating physics and biology and economy and *gamerbarf*. They just want to play a game.

But grognard D&D nerds? Give us Monopoly and we’ll complain the economic underpinnings of the game aren’t accurate, and want to adjust income and expenses with rules and charts; we’ll derive rules about how many dice the player with the car token gets to roll opposed to the player with the dog token (because cars go faster than dogs, duh). We’re stupid that way.

My 16-year old daughter, however, doesn’t care how fast the Monopoly car “should” go compared to the dog, or whether the economic underpinnings of the game are accurate, by metaphor. She just wants to pretend to be a fairy and do cool fairy shit. She wants to roll dice and move tokens and hang out, because that’s what playing a game is about.

I have also found myself other side of this situation, as a player. When I was a kid — 9, maybe 10 — I had a lot of my coolest character concepts rejected. For example, in one of the first campaigns I was a player in rather than a DM, I rolled up a half-elven mage. For background, I decided he had stolen his master’s most powerful spellbook and was on-the-run with it. But the book had burned the flesh off his hands and drained away his strength, so he had to wear protective magic gauntlets (essentially underpowered Gauntlets of Ogre Strength, IIRC), and he could only cast spells by reading them aloud from the book.

“NOPE,” I was told.

“Because wizards can’t wear armor; and how would you cast spells with gauntlets on? And you can’t have 9th level spells in your spellbook at first level.” That was the ruling of my friend’s teenage brother — I could play a mage, but he couldn’t wear gauntlets and he couldn’t have an uber spellbook.

I was bitterly disappointed.

Looking back, I’m cognizant that the above was all what we today call “Color”: I wasn’t trying to sneak anything past the DM, there were no rules being broken or bent in a game-hosing manner, or that would even give my character a step up from any other wizard character — I couldn’t read or cast 9th-level spells (or anything other than what my level granted). In fact, the concept I created even hosed me a bit because I couldn’t cast spells without the book, or learn any that weren’t in the book. It was colorful, it had great mood and style, and the DM could have played off it in any number of ways.

As a DM today, I’m hoping I would have said “Yes!” to the younger me, recalling how I had cool character concepts I wanted to explore and play with, how it felt for those ideas to be shut down entirely.

And yet, I told my daughter “no” when she wanted to play a fairy. All that gamer baggage of the early hobby had me jump right into the mode I learned through experience: “NOPE.”

Even though I haven’t gamed much at all in recent years, I’ve designed rules and classes and so on here and there as the whim strikes. And those designs have been heavily influenced by ideas about gaming that are entirely counter to what I grew up with in the hobby, but which are still fairly prevalent therein: ideas like game balance.

I get it, game balance is important. Game balance is important because fairness is important.

Yet I find that I don’t care about it so much any longer, or at least of making absolutely certain something is completely balanced. At least not as a means unto itself. Because games are about rolling dice and moving tokens and hanging out.

Should I care that the other guy’s half-troll has three classes and regenerates, if I’m happy with my wizard throwing around fireballs and phantasms? I’ve never actually seen weird power disparities cause a problem unless it results in another player not regularly getting their spotlight or being continually over-shadowed. In fact, rules and balance can be detrimental to someone’s spotlight.

Nor have I ever heard a player walk away from a game saying, “Man, that game was so balanced.” and “Everything was so perfectly stat-ed!” Or a DM look fondly back on a game session years later and declare, “It was incredible the way I didn’t let that wizard wear armor. The players really loved it!” or “I remember this one character who was exactly the same as all the other characters!”

Rules are only unfair and unbalanced if they mean someone is having less fun than someone else.

So let them play their fairies, uber half-trolls, gauntlet-wearing wizards, and headless liches.

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