Maintaining tone is one of the hardest things to maintain in an RPG - Sometimes creating limits to PC gen options can help enforce and maintain this through the campaign.
Regarding the lead-up to the main topic, when talking about flow charts in adventures, I know Storm King’s Thunder had a flow chart included in it. What I wish flow charts would include is a note on that line between to parts of the adventure anything the PCs may be missing if they cut directly between those elements.
I think the first step of being really creative with your character is not referring to them as a toon. (I kid to a limited extent)
The main thing that occurs to me is that whenever I hear this discussion, it leans heavily to the GM saying “here are my limits,” rather than making this a pre-game discussion that goes “are there any options that anyone thinks will cause problems at the table.” The GM definitely should note what they want to see in the game, but the players should have some say as well.
You touched on this a bit in the discussion, but I also think it’s important to discuss why the option will break tone. Like Brett mentioned, sometimes it might be for a bonus or for an ability, but sometimes, the player may have a really different idea of what they want to do with a character.
For example, I know a lot of people mention animal-based species, but I also think that the backstory for Catfolk in the Midgard setting, as the chosen children of Bast in the Southlands, is a little different than Tabaxi in D&D, so that player may be running this character in a much more serious manner than you are expecting.
One thing I really dislike in games is when someone is very over the top with their objection to something. I was running a Star Wars game once, and one of the potential players said “if anyone plays a Gungan, I’m going to kill them.”
Now, I may or may not want people to have Gungan as an option, but as an adult, working collaboratively with others, you don’t say you’ll kill another player’s character to get your way, when you could say “Gungans bother me, could we avoid using them?”
I think it’s totally cool for the GM to say “I want to run a game with no divine character classes, because of a plot point I want to explore,” but it’s also cool if a majority of the players say “I really wanted to play a paladin/cleric/druid/ranger,” and ultimately, it’s cool for a GM to say “this is really the only campaign I have ideas for, so I may step away from running this time because the well is kind of dry otherwise.”
One of the things that is pretty handy about PBTA games is that it is super easy to just only bring the playbooks you want available to a face-to-face game, and even for convention games, I usually tailor what playbooks I’m bringing. If I want to run a one shot of Monster of the Week, if I want the game to feel like BPRD I’m going to include The Monstrous, The Summoned, and The Weird. If I want it to feel more like Supernatural, I’m going to leave The Monstrous and The Summoned at home, and have The Wronged and The Expert available.
While I love some open-ended, more narrative-driven games, the more open a game is, the trickier this tone management can be. One of the first Fate games I ran was a monster hunting game (surprise) and we had people that were based on Velma from Scooby-Doo and Constantine from DC Comics . . . and then we had someone that shot magic powder out of a bagpipe. I can handle Velma and Constantine in the same game, but I don’t really know what to do with Magic Powder Bagpipe Man.
A few quick notes.
Brett, regarding limits. I know we have some engineers here, they can call me out and tell me I’m wrong. In my experience, knowing engineers, if you give them NO limits, they will struggle somewhat, not knowing what do to, what they ought to do, how far to take things. Now if you take that same engineer and give them bounds, a maximum resource, a budget, high-and-length limits, that engineer will SHINE with clever ideas of how to maximize everything in those bounds.
Brett also complained about how a flowsheet can’t do everything it needs to do in a TTRPG. Isn’t this, essentially, the same issue with videogames? There is only so much you can predict and plan for, which I think we all feel is a feature of TTRPGs, not a bug.
Lastly, @Fafhrd , I’ve been meaning to mention this for a while. You’ve mentioned how much you don’t like Stratego. Rewind a couple decades when we didn’t have all the amazing gaming options we have now. A room mate and I made Stratego more interesting by:
Each side takes their pieces and randomizes them. Don’t look. Keep them face down. Then put them in spaces. Now, during a players turn they can either stand a piece up, or move a standing piece per normal rules. If a face down piece is attacked, it remains standing. YMMV
This was an interesting topic that probably most GMs have had a run-in with over their career.
This morning I saw a thread about this on Twitter. I didn’t get involved because…well…Twitter… but there were a lot of GMs who were seriously “anything goes, gotta make my players experience what they want” so they were cool with dropping Kung Fu Panda down in [insert whatever setting you are running].
I think Brett hit on this during the show – the GM is also a player and needs to have fun. But also, in many cases, the GM has spent time and energy creating a setting with a tone. So if you are going to run gritty cyberpunk and someone insists on playing, hell, whatever, Super Chicken, its kind of like they just want to be a spectacle and douche up the game, and they really don’t want to play in the setting you’ve created. I’ve had instance of this in my life – my traditional 4-color comics Champions game where one player insisted on murdering every villain with his coat full of daggers. Yeah - I think a solid session Zero can help.
Slight edit to prove I’m not just a grump old middle aged man. If the GM were running a game where the PCs were all enchanted stuffed animals and their leader was Winnie the Pooh the Barbarian, and I showed up and said “I wanna be Elric”, I’d say the same thing. Works both ways. I’d be out of line.
Yes, but… Is good in many instances. But, “NO,” and, “HELL NO! Are great in others. I don’t want to step on people character concepts, but watch me do a jig on that one in the corner. As a side note I watched a teacher drop someone’s project on the floor (art school) and proceeded to walk on it throughout his lecture. Dick move by the teacher, and a honorary dick more to me for letting that go without saying a word.
Anyway, Champions, taught me to say no, becau\se of the monsters and oddities that were built and slid in front of me. One player’s concepts was to be able to do anything! Anything! Even with our not fully developed high school brains, how was that a good idea? Man-Squirrel might be a funny idea for a session or two, but try maintaining a serious tone with that guy around.
Those are just a sampling of things that I allowed and tried to work around. I wish the session zero concept was around then. That said, there are still more subtle Man-Squirrels to be found in modern gaming. One of my group likes to play young impetuous rogues. Which sounds fine, but the constant stealing from the group and running on ahead is irritating and monopolizes the game. He has not tired that in my games, but he was the “anything” player from above. Yikes, if there is going to be a difficult character I know who it will be.
I do not want to sound bitter, because I have and had a great gaming experience over the years, but saying no was a hard lesson for me to learn. It still is, as much as I talk tough I will alway be that guy who said yes to anything.
Not knowing that I could and should say no to a blind-deaf-paraplegic with a flying wheelchair that had a 36d6 psionic AOE lead me to quit running and playing Champions forever.
The GM is a player, and for Trad TTRPGs, the most important player. There are oh, so many reasons to say “no.”
My D&D games have been No Evil PCs for decades now. Even players I like and trust sometimes ask “Can I play a LE character with great motivations?”. I reply: “Nope - not at my table; I don’t know how to run that, and have no particular interest in learning how. We are cooperative heroes first and foremost, individual characters second.”
YMMV, but I know what I like.
OldSchoolDM I feel your pain. I have unequivocally said I’d never run Champions again, and yet they still ask whenever I mention running a superhero game. Also, I agree running an evil group just does not sound like fun. That said, a morally ambiguous group can be. I am running a Blades game that’s been a blast. They do some sketchy things, but they are also trying to save the city from awakening as a sentient undead city that will consume all life if it does.