Friday, July 9, 2010

Open Friday: Non-Standard PCs

Volume 1 of OD&D includes the following note:
Other Character Types: There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon wold have to begin as let us say, a "young" one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.
This is echoed in Holmes's rulebook, where he says:
At the Dungeon Master's discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak and build on their experience. Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halfling), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese samurai fighting man.
Meanwhile, the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, at the end of a long discussion of the game's humanocentric focus states:
The considered opinion of this writer is that such characters are not beneficial to the game and should be excluded. Note that exclusion is best handled by restriction and not by refusal. Enumeration of the limits and drawbacks which are attendant upon the monster character will always be sufficient to steer the intelligent player away from the monster approach, for in most cases it was only thought of as a likely manner of game domination.
Quite the difference, isn't it?

So, who among us allowed non-standard -- monster -- PCs in their old school D&D games? I recall two in my campaigns. One was a leprechaun (unfortunately named Leo), whom we treated more or less as a small elf. The other was a young bronze dragon who spent a good portion of his time polymorphed into human form and thus unable to use most of his draconic abilities. Other than these, I don't recall anyone's ever wanting to play a monster character, but my attitude back then was to allow them more or less according to the advice given in Volume 1 of OD&D. Anyone else do this?

I'm off for the day till tomorrow. Have fun while I'm offline.


  1. I have to say that both views are correct, but Gygax is more correct.

    There are some who just think it would be fascinating to run, for example, a werebear and relish all the unique roleplaying possibilities thereof.

    A lot more monster PC enthusiasts are just after what they see as some extra power. "As a werebear, I'll have killer attacks and be immune to normal weapons!"

    Both often fail to anticipate the impact a monster PC might have on the ease with which its companions can interact with the rest of campaign society. It's no fun always making provisions to hide or disguise the monster PC, satisfactorily explain its presence to NPCs, evade or fight off angry mobs, etc.

    All-in-all, it's usually ill-motivated and/or disruptive to the game and simply not worth it, IMHO. Standard PC options provide more than enough opportunities for a lifetime's worth of interesting characters.

  2. I might have nonstandard PCs, but not by player fiat. For me they have to be a very small number of well-crafted types (1-3 at most) added by the DM to a particular campaign to highlight the milieu. In my game, players at 1st level should pick from a list of enumerated campaign options, not create features from whole cloth.

    The first part of the DMG might make sense coming from a DM who got burned out playing by the OD&D sensibility. The latter part is pretty ridiculous -- I'd rather just say "no" than spend a day making limits & drawbacks to which the player will then say "no".

  3. That's AD&D in a nutshell from my experience. It paid lip serve to being a game of boundless imagination, but the AD&D iteration of D&D was really all about control - The DM's control of the players and TSR's attempted control of the game and the RPG hobby.

  4. I have allowed monster/non-standard PC races into my campaign. One player played a mushroom man creature of his own invention and another wanted to play a sentient slime. There were no ridiculous special abilities bestowed upon either. The slime could fit through cracks (which often lead to it getting into trouble) and the Fightin'-Shroom was immune to spore-based attacks and was a fungi-empath (IE it could calm shriekers). That it's. Not game-breaking in anyway and provided us with some new situations, so why not?

  5. As a player, I ran for a while as an ogre mage that spent his time hidden, polymorphed into a gnomish wizard form. I'd worked it out with the DM beforehand and none of the other players knew about it...until that one day we walked across an unseen anti-magic square...

    The chaos was great.

    Nowadays, I personally favor human/dwarf characters, but I'd still consider allowing players to play as most humanoid monster types (I do draw the line at overpowered things like dragons, titans or stone giants and the like).

    It's important to remember and enforce the fact that non-standard PC's would have to deal with the assorted prejudices and such that comes with it. Think it's tough being an elf or dwarf in a human city? Try being the only gnoll walking into the tavern at night. That tends to put a halt to too many players opting for it, and most of my gaming circle did not, but good players can pull it off and it can make for interesting gaming.

  6. That AD&D quote really bugs me. It's typical of EGG too - he says how things "should" be, but the rules he actually published don't support that. There is NO benefit to playing a human in the standard AD&D campaign, according to the rules (and by "standard campaign" I mean one that usually peters out by level 12, which most do). By the time I came to the hobby in the 2E days playing a straight human was considered bizarre.

    Plus, what Capt. Jack said.

    As for what I allow, I discourage "weird" choices but don't forbid them. I've never had to explicitly cap the number of non-humans in my campaign as Jim has, but I might do it if it ever became an issue.

    At various times we've had some weird ones though, if not concurrently. I remember one bird-man in particular. It was one of those things though where the player played the "weird" choice for a bit but eventually got tired of always having to make allowances for non-comforming physiology or social awkwardness and eventually came back to playing humans.

    I was happy to allow them to learn that lesson by experience though, rather than bring down the ban-hammer.

  7. I agree that Gary's assessment in the DMG is one based on hindsight. By that time munchkinism as a tendency must have become annoyingly apparent.

    Back in the day, one of my player's, who, both rules-wise and in terms of manipulative prowess, ran rings around me as his DM, played a Drow Fighter/Magic-User who ambidextrously wielded twin magic longswords. Steep learning curve there for me as a DM. I've been wary of supplementary races ever since...

    I kind of disagree with the idea that humans are broken through being under-powered, however. While it is true that most games peter-out before the humans improved level capacity kicks in, the most continual griping I've heard from demi-human players in AD&D is regarding the level limitation on their beloved PC. It always seemed to fit to me that only the most mercenary figures of those races would continue to pursue power endlessly. I felt intuitively that it was a reasonable assessment of humanity and a balm to the resentments of the more 'ordinary' human party members, that they might someday attain truly awesome levels of prowess. No elven archmages, you know...

  8. I've always though Lycanthropes and, to a much lesser extent, certain intelligent undead, threw a wrench into trying to stop non-standard PCs. Beyond the general philosophy behind "monsters are NPCs", what was to hypothetically stop a player from going out and being bitten by the nearest wererat, assuming that's how the disease works in your campaign? And if that's the case, why not let them play as one to begin with? Little logical holes like that are the things pages of later edition rules are made of.

  9. I have a lot of respect for Gygax; he was a truly imaginative (both creative and artistic) individual, and he did a lot of things right. We all owe him a debt of gratitude. But as the game grew, it grew more and more codified - a trend which continues to this day. Some of that was (and is) good; some of it wasn't (and isn't). That last quote you cite is representative of the latter trend - though, admittedly, I've never used what you call "non-standard" PCs. Like many gamers, I started out winging it, gravitated toward trying very hard to do everything BtB, then (now) learned to love the bomb, so to speak. The people I play with now, I trust; so if one of them said (they haven't, but if they did), "I want to play a goblin," I'd write something up and go from there. FWIW.

  10. I have run a few games in wich the PCs were monsters, but in every one of these games all of the group were monsters (goblins and orcs mostly, if I remember correctly).

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. I have never run a non-standard character, nor even one not present in a "core book." But as a DM I have allowed two into campaigns. The first was a fairly standard dark elf...except that the player wanted to have pyrokinetic abilities (kind of an alternate form of psionics). As this seemed like a "cool idea" (there were already one or two psionic characters in the campaign) and not just an attempt at "power grabbing" we worked together to define the limits of his power. The character didn't last long anyway (the level limits of demihumans generally leading to discontent).

    The other character was even less standard: a half-elf that was actually half-storm-giant (there was some shapeshifting that occurred) granting her a large measure of air elemental type powers...wind walking, weather control, lightning blasts. However, the character's control of the powers were all tied to percentile chances based on level and were very un-controllable at low levels. What's more her powers often went off at "inappropriate times" due to that lack of control, often with dire consequences. Part of this character's whole "story" over the course of the campaign was learning to come to grips with the powers inherited from her strange parentage. Quite memorable.

    No one ever wanted to play an owlbear.

  13. I don't think anyone in my D&D campaigns ever really started out as a "monster" (well, except for the orcs which had become an established "player race" quite early on), but quite a few became monsters (in the D&D, rather than moral terms) in the course of play.

    I have run standalone games where everyone is a monster (in a fractured fairy tale rather than reverse dungeon manner). Quite fun, but it avoids the sticky problem of working out a progression table for them.

    Although it does remind me of one thing that was popular in the times of original D&D, and that was the campaigns with no standard player races, especially men. Usually they had their own menagerie of alien races, rather than drawing on any established mythology, even D&D. It's something you tend not to see nowadays.

    [Even in Runequest, a game system famed for treating "monsters" exactly like "people" nobody really played non-humans. Generally the different human cultures were alien enough, without layering other complications on top.]

  14. I have never been a fan of limiting the playable chooses to what is in the PHB. If someone wanted to play a Dragon or something, I would say "why not!"

    I once played a Gold Dragon that took human form. I had a pet familiar co-character - I think it was a fairy or something. Satyrs are fun to play, as they are horny bastards - more so as a naughty in/succubus! Demons (and the like) are just fun to play!

    Most monsters are really powerful, but I find how the world relates to a Monster PC has a way of off-setting their abilities. That is, an Ogre would have a hard time fitting-in - literally and figuratively - within human society. Intelligent animals can't use items normally, and folks would treat them like mindless creatures unless they have a mode of communication. All-and-all, it much like playing Gamma World - you just have to be more creative about things.

  15. I'm a bit disappointed that no-one seems to play Mutant Future / Labyrinth Lord crossovers.

  16. Captain Jack hit the nail on the head. In spite of the OSR's exuberant embrace of all things gonzo, old EGG was very rigid in his view of how the game was to be played. It seems a very cynical approach on Gygax's part - to immediately assume that the experiment will fail because of power-hungry players and a lacklustre DM.

    I'm all for allowing whatever is appropriate for the tone of the game and subscribe to the notion that there are about as many different ways to do things as there are groups.

    All this stuff brings up the spectre of EGG's "Roleplaying Mastery" which has not been much dealt with in the OSR probably because it is an embarrassing piece of garbage.

  17. Some of us have been thinking about it, anarchist...

  18. I made a dungeon generator for such crossovers if anyone's interested:

  19. In my campaigns, it's a case by case basis. For the most part though, I inform my players that the more non-humans they have in the party, the harder it's going to be for them to interact favorably with the dominant human populations. Especially with new players(even those who are coming from MMO backgrounds), limiting the choices also lessens the learning curve. If they play a human, they already know what a human can do! But with experienced players, it's sometimes more fun just to see what they create and see what happens(provided your players are mature enough not to constantly be asking to play dragons or deities).

  20. I allowed a gnoll shaman in a campaign, with the Rules Cyclopedia. No special hability, he was just like a standard cleric, but I allowd him the druid spell list and suppressed the turn undeads. He also had a good scent, but we didn't ruled anything about it. A lot of fun because of the gnoll point of view on life and death - he had the skull of his dead mentor in his bag.

    Another player once get his own ogre henchman as a PC, after his magic-user died. He was just a standard fighter with 18 in strenght. No problem.

    In an older campaign ,a charcater was polymorphed into a lion-man, and kept that shape. No special rule, he was just the same (from time to time, he used a bite attack, but that wasn't common). Good fun as well.

    In a strange serial of scenarios, we had a two-heade dcreature - one head was a PC and another a NPC, and I even went with a full session with a moving pumpkin. But I won't allow it for a campaign.

    In Marvel rpg, I allowed a mutant squirel superhero. He had allmost no powers, but was abbel to jump from one building to another, and had a paralysing cry when he was scared. He applied to be the Fantastic 5...

  21. I've always though Lycanthropes and, to a much lesser extent, certain intelligent undead, threw a wrench into trying to stop non-standard PCs.

    They were certainly used quite a bit in the "scenes" outside of Wisconsin and Minnesota in the early days, where were-creatures were one popular alternative to standard creatures. I should make a study of the references from Alarums & Excursions, there was definitely a trend back in its early days. I think lycanthropic PCs could work if the rules were done right.

  22. My son played a kobld once. I basically ran him like a halfling with more teeth.

    It worked out fine.

  23. I dislike nonstandard PC choices for power-gaming,ego or game wrecking reasons but like them just fine for people that just want to let their imaginations run wild.

    My very first D&D game (played with the Holmes basic set about 30 years ago) had my mother wanting to play a fairy instead of one of the choices given. It took me a young and first time DM only a minute or so to figure out how a fairy PC would work- she was a tiny elf who could fly, she could only carry a fraction what everyone else could and could only use small weapons that caused less damage then other characters could, otherwise she was an elf. It worked fine.

  24. I had a werewolf in my campaign which made everybody in the party nervous, as part of his class was the problem of his berserk nature when he shapeshifted, meaning he may turn on them!

  25. @Tom Fitzgerald:

    "All this stuff brings up the spectre of EGG's "Roleplaying Mastery" which has not been much dealt with in the OSR probably because it is an embarrassing piece of garbage. "

    It did, however, make for hilarious dramatic readings. :)

  26. One more thing - this reminds me that I will DMing my first ever session of Seven Leagues on sunday, a game system that actively encourages the players to make up whatever they want to play (the system is designed for this and will not break the way D&D might).

  27. It should have been Leppy the Leprechaun...just sayin'...

  28. We've generally shied away from monster PCs in my AD&D games. Lately — owing to my reading of OSR blogs — we've even begun avoiding demihumans, preferring to start with a humanocentric adventuring party where possible.

  29. My favorite character ever was a lizard man played in a campaign jointly run by Delta and Paul.

    As they were setting up the campaign, they added in a couple of new PC playable races to spice things up, lizard men and brownies.

    I started with a brownie, but he died a quick, kinda pathetic death, and then Zzapokk stepped onto the stage with a flourish.

    We were playing 3rd. ed., so the whole character level handicap thing for monsters came into play, but I was fine with that.

    He was a total hoot to play, as he brought a very alien POV with him. Somewhere between a noble savage and a bull crocodile.

    I loved talking in the voice I'd come up with for him (often continuing in the voice after play was over.)and calling my fellow PC's "Mammal." when I spoke to them in character. Glorious!

    Yeah, I likes me some nonstandard PC classes. There's a certain timeworn comfiness about good ol' elves n' dwarves, but they kinda get banal after a while.

  30. My players never even wanted to roll up a half-orc, much less attempt a non-typical character.

    One of my groups was all human because they wanted to roll play a world where demi-humans and non-humans were all pretty much distrusted or disliked.

    There were some opportunities in a couple games to have players temporarily roll play monsters... such as when a Doppelganger took someone out or when a character contracted lycanthropy. Those were mixed bags depending on the acting skills of the player.

  31. I just found your blog recently and got to say I've really been enjoying the read.

    Now to actually contribute: my first serious D&D character (2nd edition, I'm 'semi-young'), was a centaur. The GM also allowed Oriental Adventures classes and so she was a 'Sohei', and that turned out to be a pretty tricked out character overall. I really liked playing her though. So I definitely cannot speak out against monster characters, depending on the game! The game I am currently running however is PHB races only just to keep the tweaks sane for me. Maybe I'll allow more unusual races next time I start a campaign.

  32. This is the kind of thing I very much oppose in general , but would probably tolerate and even enjoy in the particular. ("He just not like other gray oozes.")

    Besides the power-gaming tendency, there is also the star-billing-role-player-tendance. The exoticism and humor of being a fish-headed druid requires being surrounded by compartiively "normal" types. As a player of one of those other characters, I might resent being constantly upstaged. And I may be speaking from my own guilty experience of playing a goblin in James's on-line dwimmermount game! I don't know if other players enjoyed his disgusting diet as much as I did.

  33. I love 1st ed. and it's what I still mostly DM. But those Gygax comments about how you should allow weird PC's but should also perform this song and dance for the player convincing them what a shitty time the player will have with his de-powered PC version of a monster - well, not a lot to respect in that attitude. What a truely shitty way to come at the problem: allow it, but make it sound sucky enough that they won't want to do it. Give me a damn break, GG.

    In the 80's in my game it seemed that most of my players wanted weirdo races and monsters for characters. And when I played I often wanted something unique. But since the 90's my players have seemed to be satisfied with playing the basic classes and races. Thank God.

  34. Brian: I got a kick out of the feeding habits, and also of the "spider in a sack on a stick" action.

    WV: "spleeff" - no doubt!

  35. @Brunomac

    Thanks! And pass my appreciation onto Thursty for taking his goblin companion *semi* seriously.

  36. Usually if somebody wants to play a nonstandard monster race, we just agree what class it would be and go from there. In the session I played as recently as yesterday, one of my players expressed a desire to be a minotaur. We decided that he was mechanically a Fighter, albeit a tall one with horns, and continued on our way.

    Verification: antle. Singular of "antlers".

  37. Well, about 15 years ago, a good friend and excellent DM descided to run a classic campaign (three little brown books + thieves, indeed), and told us 'anything tin the original rules is what we are playing. As kind of a joke/dare, I pointed out the text in my edition which indicated that one could play as a balrog (later made to read "dragon", BTW), as long as one started at level one, etc etc.

    Well to my surprise, he took me up on it, and developed the level progression and powers of a "baby balrog" -and the brilliant mechanism that I could only gain EP from eating magic items. Brilliant. Not only did nesbitt not wreck the game, it added a neat tension between him and the party about when he should level up, and what items could be sacrificed. Plus, playing a 1HD balrog isn't as munchkinny as it seems -one gang of goblins one knocked him out him, and were unbreakable therafter "we killed a balrog ? WE KILLED A BALROG ! WE RULE ! CHARGECHARGECHARGECHARGECHARGEKILLKILLKILLKILLKILL!!!!!!!!!! !"

  38. I played a centaur ranger in a friends gonzo 'mythic age' game once. It was fun.

    I also ran a one-shot 'underwater' game with 2e, where the choices were sea-elf, triton, and mer-man/maid. The 'dungeon' was a ship graveyard filled with treasure and drowned undead, sharks and giant crabs, y'know the usual.

  39. When I first started playing (BECMI) my DM told me to roll up 4 PC's since I would have to play multiple characters at times. I made an elf, 2 fighters, and a cleric. A couple weeks later I was in an old hobby shop looking at mini's and saw an orc with a polearm. I bought it, and told my DM I was dropping the clric and wanted to play an orc.

    At first he didn't want that. There was no rules for it. Orcs were bad guys. In the end, I made Og the orc (used fighter rules for him).

    years later when playing a 2e game I wanted to make a lizardman PC. Wasn't allowed, so I quit the game. Came back a month later, but the funny thing was that as this campaign progressed all us players found ourselves playing multiple characters with many being non-playable races. I was given the most PC's to play (my DM liked my characters) including a pech, kech(sp), demi-god, and a half-orc.

    So it's safe to say I'm open to monsters as characters, though now I prefer a human-centric game and not the current multi-racial centric game the game has become.

    its funny that Gygax would write this rule consider how many monster characters his game seemed to have thanks to cohorts and reincarnation resurrection.

  40. I have to say that both views are correct, but Gygax is more correct.

    I agree that Gary has a point that some players wanting to create a monster PC are doing so out of a desire to have a more powerful than average starting character, but it seems to that the approach taken in OD&D -- let them be a dragon, but start them off weak -- is much more constructive and useful than that presented in the DMG. I prefer it, at any rate.

  41. That's AD&D in a nutshell from my experience. It paid lip serve to being a game of boundless imagination, but the AD&D iteration of D&D was really all about control - The DM's control of the players and TSR's attempted control of the game and the RPG hobby.

    Shhh! Be careful that you don't say that too loudly or you might upset the delicate sensibilities of some old schoolers. :P

  42. That AD&D quote really bugs me. It's typical of EGG too - he says how things "should" be, but the rules he actually published don't support that.

    I revere Gary's memory very highly and consider the DMG one of the greatest RPG books ever written, but, yeah, it's full of quotes like this and they really stick in my craw these days.

  43. All this stuff brings up the spectre of EGG's "Roleplaying Mastery" which has not been much dealt with in the OSR probably because it is an embarrassing piece of garbage.

    Funny you should mention that, because I have copies of several of Gygax's post-TSR books on roleplaying and was thinking of discussing them at some point.

  44. I think lycanthropic PCs could work if the rules were done right.

    I do too, but then I have a soft spot for berserkers and so forth.

  45. In the 2nd edition Viking Campaign Sourcebook there was an official berserker class, who eventually got the ability to turn into a bear or a wolf, although this wasn't lycanthropy.

  46. While most PC I've played or DMed for over the years have been human, there have been quite a few non-standard non-humans added to the group. One magic-user hired on some hobgoblins as his personal bodyguard. Another had an ogre as his chief flunky. There have been numerous others (after my PC died, I once played a lizard man who had joined the group).

  47. Some of the comments about EGG's views regarding non-standard PCs are nibbling at the edges of the larger problem with Gygax and AD&D:

    Much of the game was built not around consistency, internal logic, game balance, playability or even fun -it was built around what Gygax liked and didn't like. He didn't like non-human PCs (let alone other creatures) so the game shortchanged them. He loved swords, so they inflict wanked-out damage compared to all other weapons.

    For me, the AD&D game is like the English language: When you ignore or change some of the more retarded rules, you have something worthwhile.

  48. Much of the game was built not around consistency, internal logic, game balance, playability or even fun -it was built around what Gygax liked and didn't like.

    Speaking for myself, I like the eccentricity of early D&D, including the fact that many of its rules and assumptions stem from what Gary, Dave, and others liked/disliked or were interested in. I think the game is better for this, even when I disagree with the decisions made by designers. My big beef nowadays is that AD&D surrounded itself with an aura of "official-ness" that discouraged the kind of wild experimentation and disregard for the printed rules that we saw in the early hobby.

    He loved swords, so they inflict wanked-out damage compared to all other weapons.

    If Gary loved any weapons, it was polearms.

  49. "If Gary loved any weapons, it was polearms."

    I wonder if anyone has ever taken a "Bohemian Ear-spoon" as their character's weapon? :)

  50. I wonder if anyone has played a Bohemian Ear-Spoon PC?

  51. Gary loved pole arms like God loves beetles.

    I have just finished cringing my way through the Role Playing Mastery book for the second time, hoping to find something useful. I'd LOVE to see it talked about here.

  52. I have just finished cringing my way through the Role Playing Mastery book for the second time, hoping to find something useful. I'd LOVE to see it talked about here.

    Yeah, it's an absolutely awful book, but it's useful for research purposes if one is interested in the development of Gygax's thoughts on various matters. I've hesitated to post much about it, out of respect for the man's memory, but I may have to do so anyway, because there's some intriguing stuff in it.