A drum I’ve beaten over and over again with my game group – I want the choices my characters make to mean something other than “I get through the adventure, I gain XP”.

It’s one reason that, if I’m running a game, I’m running ACKs, though I’m looking forward to some Traveller (book) play at some point as well. It’s why, as I alluded to earlier, I also prefer modules to “adventures” and “adventure paths”.

So, someone going by “Raging Owlbear” posted that, after the game expectations were set, as they were rolling up characters, one of his players suddenly wanted a different set of bonuses for his elf, and why the hell not?

Jeffro had posted it to G+ and there was some discussion, Owlbear even joined in. I’d written the following:

IMO there are several ways to handle this.

One – make a game wide ruling that elves will have these different abilities. Preferable before people are rolling up characters

Two – not sure how this applies to 5e but ACKs has a point trade system built in. If you really really want that int up, you can trade something else at 2-1

Three – define a new class/race of elves. ACKs allows you to do this via the player companion in a way to ensure relative ability changes balance out.  This one should also be done in advance.

For one and three , especially three, okay, what makes them different from existing game-world elves? What other quirks or issues will the character have to deal with?

Four. “You want gnome abilities, play a gnome. Want to play an elf? Adapt, improvise, overcome. Breathe life into your character.”

You may not think it’s a core mechanic, but the classes as defined represent trade offs. The GM should “say yes” to anything the characters try in game, but ultimately he arbitrates how the world works, and should not be changing how it works and the expectations people have of elves, whatever after the fact to placate a player.  Changes in what makes an elf different from humans, gnomes, etc change he natures of the society they create, and how they’d react. If one can choose their abilities and bonuses on a whim by whining at the gm those choices have no meaning.

Then someone posted a Youtube Vid by the complex games apologist.

OK – I thought, “let’s write this up” and took another look at the article, and realized there was a lot more to unpack. There are a couple philosophies about gaming and rules that I fundamentally disagree with.


First of all, the tone is very… enthusiastic… with profanity tossed in a few times. Not a lot, and hey, cursing like a sailor comes with being one so I’m hardly one to complain, but I really due try to avoid it. Takes away from the emphasis if over used.

We’ve already gone over the setup – I want my elf to have +2 INT, +1 DEX instead of vice versa.

Here’s the thing. In 5th Edition, a Forest Gnome can get a +2 INT / +1 DEX (and also has Darkvision, etc), so we know that this minor change doesn’t break the game mechanics at all. All non-human races get some combination of +2/+1, and Elves already get a boost to INT and DEX… so it isn’t a stretch at all to just swap their bonuses.

Let’s pry that apart. OK, so a forest gnome has the adjustment the player wants. So? Is it an elf? Why not? What makes the players desired elf different from a forest gnome beyond some body paint, and choice of equipment? If they have access to different powers, then that may be balanced in. If not, sure, the combination may not cause a severe imbalance, but there’s already something that has those swapped bonuses. The Gnome.

The racial bonuses are completely arbitrary anyway (and even differ significantly from one edition of D&D to the other). Why does an Elf get +2 DEX? Because Mearls and Thompson decided that’s what they thought an Elf was at this one moment of time. Why does the Gnome get the bigger INT bonus? Who the f@ck knows. It’s just a game of “Let’s Pretend”. The Player’s Handbook is not some religious scripture handed down by the gods.

No, it’s not scripture, but it is the agreed-upon set of rules for how the game works. One edition of elf may be different from another, but those abilities were – hopefully – put in place relative to all the other factors and available classes and races in the game in a given edition. Those differenced are reflected in how elves behave, how they organize themselves, and what players expect when they see or interact with an elf. As much as I dislike how Pathfinder’s skill bloat, “adventure” writing with necessary skill checks to succeed vice role-playing, and the society play “play strictly by the rules” requirements interact, one reason that last bit is in there is to ensure a player can sit down at a random convention table and reasonably expect how the adventure will work.

“Say Yes”

There is an improv comedy/acting exercise where you “say yes.” – whatever you’re handed to work with by the person you’re acting with, you roll with it. No matter how ridiculous. You turn it around and work with it by saying “yes, but”, or “yes, and”.

A good GM and ruleset – and one reason I like lighter, OSR/ACKs style games over the rules bloat of Pathfinder, is that it gives me more ways to say “yes, let’s try that” when the players want to try something. The game is more dependent on what they imagine and what they describe than on “roll 18+ for knowledge(local), wait, you don’t have a point in that skill, sorry, it’s only learned”

Look at the first three options I presented. As a GM you are free to house-rule what you want that varies from the rules, but there has to be a consequence. Option one requires you the explain why elves are different in this world, and the GM will now have to explain those differences to the other players, or at least keep them in mind for all elf interactions in the game. If you’re playing with “adventures” that have the original assumptions about elves, you’ll have to modify them.

Option three also makes major changes in the world. Wait, another race of elves? Where do they live? How do they get along with the other elves? And so forth.

Option two can be done on the fly without changing the world. It’s baked into ACKs, but unless one is doing the equivalent of Paizo/Pathfinder “society play” it’s a ruling the GM can make. Have the player answer “Why is *this *elf different?” – tell the player yes, he can bump up INT by one more but he has to sacrifice, and take something down two. It allows people to modify their characters without simply reshuffling their points. It also throws the decision back on the player.


Because we’re not playing a point-buy game, and even those, like GURPS or Hero system, have places where the GM makes the judgement call on what number of points, types of abilities, negatives, and swaps are allowed, based on what kind of game is being played. Even in PF society play with twenty points for stat buy, the cost is not linear. Getting to 18 on any one stat effectively sucks down all your available points.

Frankly, I’m amazed he hasn’t thought it through as to why “no” may be a valid answer, adn when.

If I’m playing a game, I’ll initially assume the designer had a clue, and stick with the rules on teh assumption there’s a purpose. Later I’ll mess with it, and, as mentioned earlier, if I make a change in the world, I now have to accept the consequences of that choice.

The most important job of a DM is help the players have fun. The players only have power over their characters. The rules on everything else in the world — setting, genre, NPCs, cities, populace, everything — is basically in the control of the DM.

This is where it wanders off the rails.

No, they are not. At least not in Basic D&D, AD&D, Traveller, GURPS, Teenagers From Outer Space, Paranoia, Vampire the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2013, ACKs, D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, or D20-based games.

Remember that thing called a rulebook? The GM may run the NPC’s, may decide if a rule applies, but if the GM is at all fair, there are tables, die rolls, and results that he should adhere to. Sometimes characters will die – like that crab spider that dropped onto your party and poisoned two of them – sometimes they’ll make that unlikely roll – and the GM gets to figure out and describe how gloriously you died, or how you narrowly escaped certain death, or why the kobolds are friendly.

Hell, in Paranoia, even letting on you know how the rules work may get your clone killed. You get less choice about how your stats are modified.

By saying “No” to this entirely minor and arbitrary change, you are telling the player “the trivial rules of my game world are more important than your character concept or enjoyment of the game.”

Let’s flip that around. By insisting the GM change the rules for them, the players are insisting that their desires are more important than the GM managing a consistent game, the kind of game he wants, or overcoming challenges and obstacles.

And if the rule is that trivial, why is it a big enough deal for the player to want to change it? Why is it a problem if the GM says no?

If he enjoys a tiny amount of PC optimization as part of character generation, why not let him have fun with that part of the game? Who cares if he gets to INT 20 at 8th level instead of 12th (assuming he picks no Feats)… It will make no difference to the game at the table.

If it makes no difference to the game at the table, then why is the change necessary? For that matter, why is the mechanic in the game?

To Wrap It Up

Part of this comes from a desire to escape rules that feel constricting. Especially in Pathfinder, I can see where you may want to escape the mech-pilot existence trapped within a rules bloat.

Part of this is wrapped up in “who’s game?”. I submit that yes, it’s also the player’s game – they have to buy into the world the GM is willing to create, and they certainly drive the story far more than the GM sometimes appreciates. That said, the GM is the arbitrator. He has every right to decide “no, that doesn’t suit the game we’re playing” – and if the players want to play that kind of game, they have a responsibility as well, to look ahead and say “hey, this is the kind of game we want to play, can you make it work?” Hell, FATE makes a point of the players and GM sitting down to decide the style, setting, scope, etc. of play.

But once the setting is set, once the game is running, the GM has to have the ability to make final choices every bit as much as the players. The players get to make choices, but without limits, without tradeoffs, even “trivial” ones, the choices have no meaning.

Why? Because someone has to make the final call. Either the game needs a GM, or it does not, and the rules are the final authority. And he is also playing.