This is not the first article to be written on this subject, nor will it be the last.
In my experience, there are two kinds of DM’s.
One is concerned with “balance,” one with “fun.”
For the record, this is not me complaining that I was never allowed to try my crazy idea for a half-orc fighter/barbarian with a spiked chain and massively exploit the attack of opportunity rules. (Author’s note: I never actually saw the appeal in anything that full of cheese, though I gather it was popular with a certain brand of player. Please be careful who you mention “Spiked Chain” to in RPG circles, as this can trigger long speeches about how mechanically broken D&D 3.5 was, and very few people truly have the patience necessary for that conversation).
This is, however, the result of being long exhausted with being told ‘no’ by several DMs for no better reason than, “it isn’t in the book,” or, “Company X didn’t update that one, so it’s not allowed at my table.”
Let me illustrate my point with a story.
I’ve been invited to play in a game of Pathfinder or two. The system isn’t my favorite, but I have some small nostalgia for 3.5 edition as it was what started me off in D&D, so I went for a couple of one-shots and tried to like it. I wrestled with the character creation process for far too long, developing two concepts that I felt like I could live with.
The problem was, by this point, I’d been exposed to a lengthy conversation in which one of the other players tried to explain to me why he prefers Pathfinder to 4th Edition in a failed attempt to “convert” me, and vice-versa. The more he said what he liked about the one over the other, the less likable it seemed. Building the character wasn’t even fun. The concept was full of cheese: powerful, sure, but it felt wrong. I wasn’t looking forward to the game anymore.
Finally, I threw up my hands. In an effort to salvage my chance to have fun for the evening, I went to the DM for the session and explained my position very politely; that there was really only one class that I wanted to play, and it was from a 3.5 book. I was perfectly happy to convert it myself using the official guidelines for doing so, and it would take about 2 minutes to make the necessary changes.
Were I the DM for the game, I hope I would have answered with what I believe is the correct response to something like this. “I’ll let you try it, and if it creates a problem for anyone at the table we’ll talk about it afterward and see what we can change to make it work.”
Instead I was given a sneer, a half laugh, and told that there was “a reason” that Paizo hadn’t updated that particular class. A flat no.
It was at this point that I gave up, and decided that I’d rather not play at his table. Maybe that was the wrong answer; I don’t know. But I wasn’t having fun anymore. I came to play a game; to have fun. Nothing about this experience was enjoyable. I was momentarily tempted to give up D&D entirely, to say nothing of Pathfinder. What is a game if it isn’t fun?
I’ll answer for you, gentle readers; it’s work. And unpaid work, on top of that.
For the record, I’ve recovered my love of the game now, though it will take a lot of placating and outright bribery to convince me to sit down at a Pathfinder table again – and never with that DM!
Now, let me tell a second story, just to make it clear what I’m not trying to say.
I was DMing a game of 3.5 edition D&D a few years ago, and one of the players showed up and informed me that his character was a 3rd Level Blood Elf Fighter who Dual Wielded Katanas.
At this point in my life I had no idea what a “Blood Elf” was, but considering how much material for the game I’d fairly devoured, I was reasonably sure it wasn’t D&D (I learned much later that the race comes from World of Warcraft; at the time I thought it was a fancy name for an Elven half-vampire or some other horror).
I also knew enough to know that dual wielding katanas was a really, REALLY bad idea in terms of game mechanics – he had taken no feats to support his fighting style, and this resulted in roughly a -10 penalty to every attack roll. I tried, gently, to dissuade him.
He insisted; I relented (against my better judgement). He got himself into a fight – a very angry one – with our 1st level dwarven wizard, who, after winning initiative, ended things with one spell. Knocked him out, tied him up, and sat on his head.
The game fell apart after that, and I suspect that it might have lasted longer if I’d been smart enough to put my foot down and say no in the first place.
As a DM, there is a time for yes, and a time for no. Knowing which is which can be all important. Everyone has guidelines. These are mine.
1. If a player asks to play a character of a class that I’m not familiar with – and it’s because he thought the concept sounded cool, not a mechanical reason – and there’s no philosophical reason why it can’t be made to work in a diverse and accepting group of adventurers …
I’ll say, “let’s try it out. If it turns out to be too powerful and it’s spoiling the fun for the rest of the group, we’ll talk about it afterward and see if we can fix it. But whatever I say during that discussion is the final word.”
This also applies if a player asks to convert something from a mechanically similar game system.
2. If a player asks me if he can play a half-orc spiked chain wielder or a greatsword guy with sneak attack or a Barbarian/Rogue or any number of other cheesy ideas and cites purely mechanical reasons for wanting to do so, I will say, “no. Come up with something that has a backstory and a little more character, and stop reading the Character Optimization threads online.”
3. If a player likes the fluff of one class and the mechanics of another and can’t choose, I’ll offer to let her combine them, adjusting key abilities as necessary. And I’ll probably go so far as to tell her how cool that is for thinking outside the book.
4. If I EVER hear the phrase, “dual katana’s” again, I will say, “NO. At least have the decency to get a wakizashi, and learn about samurai before you mention the word “katana” in my presence again.”
One final word: you needn’t give your players everything they ask for. But try to know when they’re already struggling to have fun, and work with them. Please. They’ll thank you for it.