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The Only Good Drow is a Dead Drow

Posted By Matthew J. Neagley On June 30, 2010 @ 1:23 am In GMing Advice,Hot Buttons | 17 Comments

Recently, Jared von Hindman wrote an article for the Wizards website on why playing evil races is perfectly legitimate, and how to properly integrate yourself into a party if you are playing one. I’m a long-time fan of Mr. Hindman’s work at his website Head Injury Theater. In fact, one of my first major “Wooo! Someone on teh Intarwebz noticed me!” moments was getting my name in his article on the movie The Manitou for sending him an article on foetus in foeto. O.K. Fan gushing time over. On to an actual article.

Mr. Hindman astutely notes in his article that “…I’ll be pissing off some opinionated D&D folks along the way…” and he’s absolutely right. I enjoyed his article and it’s a good guide for players who want to play monster races, but it doesn’t address two very major issues with that phenomenon. Namely, why everyone in a group with a player of a monster race wants to hurl bricks through that player’s car windows during smoke breaks, and what you, the GM can do to help curb the perfectly natural hatred that you and everyone else at the table feel for a PC with a monster race.

It’s important to remember that the problems I discuss below are common enough problems that we’ve likely all seen them from time to time, but not universal ones. Hopefully if you play a monster PC, or someone in your game does, none of the below apply to you.

Honest! My +8 to damage helps me role-play! One of the many reasons players and GMs alike hate monster races is that monster races are custom designed for munchkins. They’ll talk a good game about how their charisma penalty cancels out the bonuses they got to their strength, or how their role-playing restrictions balance their ungodly dexterity, but  it’s all smoke and mirrors to let them get an unbalanced PC under your nose, saddled to the brim with restrictions that will never see the light of day. As a GM, it’s important that you take a careful look at any nonstandard race requests, consider role-playing and social penalties or whatever their “downside” is with the appropriate weight for your group’s play style, and don’t be afraid to either say “No” or suggest alternative options.

Monster characters are also often spotlight hogs. Because of their special background, monster characters provide a jumping off point for social encounters that would otherwise be hand-waved and they come with prominent back-story, kickers, and hooks that almost force the GM to weave story arcs or even the entire campaign around them. You may be able to tell from what you know of the player in question if this will be an issue. If not, the first few sessions will be a dead giveaway. Fortunately, as the GM, you control the spotlight. This means that you have easy control over this problem. A steady hand on the rudder will ensure that all players get equal spotlight time, and if the offending player pushes the issue, you can always re-direct the scene to another player. For example, the monster player starts an argument with a shopkeeper. The shopkeeper turns to another PC and says, “Aren’t you embarrassed to be associated with trash that would act like this?” thus dumping the spotlight on that PC for their reaction.

Just because I have no combat abilities and take extra damage from fire doesn't mean my wacky antics and wandering off alone aren't fun, right guys?

Often, monster characters are one-legged cheetah men, created primarily to disrupt the game, ruin other players’ fun and drag down the rest of the group. Monster PCs are no different than any other party member. They need to have a minimum level of functionality and they need to play well with others. “I’m a monster” is no more of an excuse for disruptive behavior than “It’s my Alignment” or “I’m just playing my character.” This is especially a problem with monster characters because their inhuman heritage is a legitimate excuse to be played like jerks. Faced with this sort of PC, monster or not, a GM needs to evaluate the source of the behavior and help re-design the character if the problem is inadvertent, or put a stop to it if intentional.

Let’s take another look at Mr. Hindman’s opening claim: “Let’s get something straight: Evil is cool.” Sure. Most of the time, evil characters, monster characters included, are very cool. But the important thing to ask is “When are they not cool?” The answer is that evil characters and monster characters aren’t cool when they’re tired re-hashed overdone, trite pieces of boring crap. Which is why despite the fact that , as Jared points out a few paragraphs later, Drizzt Do’Urden is the man, there has never been a Drizzt rip-off character who has ever been cool, despite the fact that you can’t pee in the street after a drunken bender without hitting one with splash damage. This means that when a player brings you a monster character, with the hope of re-creating his favorite hero in his dewy little eyes, it’s your sad duty to help guide him in a direction that makes his creation distinct. If nothing else, it prevents your game from copyright infringement lawsuits.

Despite the concentric circles on my breastplate, I'm more than just XP. So your campaign has been rolling along smoothly, or maybe you’re starting a game in a setting where monsters are savage foes of the normal PC races and usually killed on sight. You know, like almost every game setting ever? Yet suddenly, a player has the urge to play a monster race, and for some reason, despite the fact that every other orc in the world is public enemy number one, and anyone who associates with them is treated with suspicion and distrust at best, this fails to apply to the PCs. Sure, the innkeeper may give the orc PC the hairy eyeball, and make some racist remarks, but he doesn’t do what he’d do if any other orc were to wander into his establishment: call the guard and have the lowlife scum drug off to be fitted for a hemp necktie. When a monster PC is treated just like any other PC in a world whose lore doesn’t support this, not only does it ruin immersion, but it’s contradictory to the point of playing a monster PC in the first place. If you’re early enough in the campaign, and it doesn’t create too much trouble, simply house-ruling the monster race as normal accepted members of society solves the immersion issue, but still takes away part of what makes a monster race special. Another alternative is to give the monster PC a special status that marks them as not a threat. Maybe they’re branded with the symbol of a reformed criminal or heretic. Maybe they’re owned by another PC, and thus are assumed to be that PCs responsibility. This is something that needs buy-in from the player in question, but a monster PC needs something that makes them readily identifiable as something other than target practice.

What about you? Why do you hate monster PCs? (You know you do.) More importantly, how have you dealt with the unique challenges they bring to your game?

About  Matthew J. Neagley

First introduced to RPGs through the DnD Red Box Set in 1990, Matt fights on ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems. Luckily, his wife is also a GM, providing him with time on both sides of the screen.




17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "The Only Good Drow is a Dead Drow"

#1 Comment By Rechan On June 30, 2010 @ 5:19 am

I love playing monsters. What I really want to play are the strange, the weird, and the “furthest from a human” races I can get, and the standard demi-human races just don’t cut it. Thus the monster races are the first stop on that train, until at least the Revenant and the PHB3 came out with its fairly weird PC races.

I’ve never used “I’m a monster” as an excuse. Usually those playing monstrous PCs have to be on their best behavior or they’re the first ones against the wall. The DM has went out on a line to facilitate you, so he’s keeping a sharp eye on you.

And I disagree that monsters are made for munchkins. At least in 4e, this is not the case. If you want to play a kobold, hobgoblin or anything of the sort, you are SOL because unless you play an Official Published Race, you have no feats to support your race, which also means no feats to support your race/class combo. Also if you look at the monster races, most really aren’t that great; the only difference is that some fill the stat bonus grid (Githezari and their con/int, kobolds with their Dex/Con before the Revenant, Hobgoblins as the only other Con/Cha race). The only “potentially” too strong is the kobold with it’s minor action shift, but that’s arguable.

#2 Comment By kalimar On June 30, 2010 @ 5:47 am

From the GM perspective, the solution is “easy”. If the class/race combo resembles the “hey, that’s a monster, let’s kill it” stereotype, the answer is no. Example: orc fighter? no. Orc Paladin of Bahamut? sure! Yeah, the tavernkeeper may still call the guard because you’re an orc, but after the initial WTF moment, you’re no longer public enemy number one. No one is actually going to trust you, after all you’re an orc. But you’re a member of an esteemed and trusted order, so you get the benefit of the doubt. Just no discounts at the store.

From the player perspective, as was said, you have to make it unique. Hobgoblin warlord? Boring. Hobgoblin wizard raised by the crazy (but nice) hermit just outside of town? Sure…no one (in that town) will blink an eye, but other towns may have different ideas.

On the other hand, it may be interesting to make the campaign from the monster race perspective ala Stan Nichols’s “Orcs” series. Make PC races the “evil” ones.

#3 Comment By shadowacid On June 30, 2010 @ 7:54 am

I once had a player want to play a warforged juggernaut in my eberon game because he wanted to play a character “that no one had ever played before” which just smacked of munchkin to me. I did manage to get him to play a psionic pirate instead.

I think his reasoning, and indeed the reasoning of many who want to play monsters, because “regular races are boring”, is that they are using the race as their role-playing hook and not an actual character or story. It seems like a good idea at the time, but is really just one dimensional. The best characters I’ve ever seen have been the old standbys of “dwarf fighter” or “halfling rogue”. Once you find the right hook for that “vanilla” character then they’re so much more effective that playing an elemental that “can’t relate” to anything in the plot.

#4 Comment By dizman On June 30, 2010 @ 8:11 am

I have no problems with most monster races, animal type monsters i see probematic(dragons-i had a player wanting to play full size adult dragon). Draw, goblins, orcs, warforged, half-golem, kobold… just let player explain how come he is not a memeber of the “monster race” i meen why would monster leave his own. Drizzt is bes example and most duplicated character. But think about it paladin human long sword shield = Ser Lancelot. Now think about it GM sets the mood and story line, monster race character might begin as boring copy of famous char but it just might turnout unique. I always have at leas 1 monster char in group and he is usualy penalized until he gets a positive rep its for campaigns useful plot maker. Attacks by monster hater guild… be creative it can never go wrong. So im one saying welcome monster races and if monster races are rare in your chosen setting make it so that player can make moster on next campaign, as people here most say “HAVE FUN” so people doing what they want is FUN and Monster races are FUN :)

#5 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On June 30, 2010 @ 8:58 am

I dislike the sort of character you describe, but only for two reasons: the disruption factor, and the apparent confusion of “category” and “character”.

You want to play an outcast? Great, but why a Drow? Have you never heard of a human outcast?

All those monstrous races are designed by the humans at WotC, and as a result they are much more human than otherwise. For every monstrous trait (treachery, cruelty, avarice, etc.) there have been billions of humans with those exact same traits. For every monstrous handicap (shunned by society, hunted by the authorities, etc.) there have been and are today many humans who have the same exact problems.

I’m not saying everyone should play humans, or any other more conventional race. But playing a monstrous or exotic race because that’s the only way you can imagine a certain type of character seems lazy.

Obviously, this has no bearing on those who choose a monstrous race because of the mechanics.

Likewise, it does not apply to someone who actually goes deep into the role, and spends time thinking about things like “How would it feel to spend one’s whole life underground in a society of treachery and intrigue, and then leave it to dwell in the sunlight among those who know nothing of your ways and deal with each other with surprising directness and compassion?”

Still, if you have fun doing it, more power to you. Just don’t be surprised if I get irritated when your little drama hog gets my own character killed.

#6 Comment By Razjah On June 30, 2010 @ 10:20 am

I am conflicted with this because I like to play monster races but I hate to GM them.

I like playing monsters because I like forcing the NPCs to interact with us. I played a goblin barbarian in a 3.5 war campaign. The goblin was rude, angry, and he challenged anyone to a duel. He also worshiped Kord and tried to be as brave as possible so that an avatar of Kord would show up to congratulate him. But I made sure that the other two players were always with my character and helping him to be a good member of society. The cleric sergeant “took him under his wing” to help get him civilized. As a result the goblin referred to him as boss and our superior officer as boss boss.

My monster characters do not hog spotlight, I try to help pass it off and I know when to say, “my barbarian goes off to the training grounds to fight anyone who moves” to let the others get their moments.

As a GM I hate monster races. I find that players want to play them to cause issues, hog spotlight, or optimize. I do not like any of those as a GM. One player asked if he could play a dragon, his reasoning was because he wanted to be a dragon. I shot that down fast. I also have issues justifying monster races for players. I will help a player, but that player needs to give me something to work with. Too often it is because- I want to! Or I want massive strength mod! Also I find that players hate it when the town reacts in a normal fashion to a monster race- attack, arrest, etc. This makes no sense to me, I expect it as a player but others want to be allowed free roam in cities and shops. The orcs burned this town to the ground two years ago, why the hell would they let you (the orc PC) walk freely in?

#7 Comment By evil On June 30, 2010 @ 10:27 am

I always make my players convince me with a sound reason why they should be allowed to play a monster character before they’re allowed. Since most games (especially of the D&D persuasion) are built around regular humanoid characters, they have most of the advantages. I’ve never found the munchkining thing come up in my games, because monsterous races cannot use regular weapons (not having regular hands), cannot make economic transactions (would you sell a shield to a dog?), and tend to be magnets for attacks (including once when some well meaning villagers tried to save the party from the monster). Overall, I don’t mind monsters in my games, but I’m very keen on making sure they don’t overpower the setting.

#8 Comment By drow On June 30, 2010 @ 10:48 am

the title of your post is deliberately hateful towards members of the noble race of “faerie subterrans”, and you will be hearing from the DADL shortly.

;)

#9 Comment By drow On June 30, 2010 @ 10:53 am

@shadowacid – come on, dude. warforged are one of the iconic races of the eberron setting.

#10 Comment By Nojo On June 30, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

Matthew, everything you say about monster races goes for most classes as well. “I’m a barbarian, so I grab the innkeeper by the throat and yell for ale.” “I’m a wizard, so let my friend out of jail or I’ll fireball your silly little town.” Munchkins will use any excuse. It’s the player behind the PC that is the problem.

Three observations:

1. It’s up to the players to find a reason they work together. Each and every player has to buy into the party.

2. Setting can preclude certain intelligent races from play, unless the GM and group want to find a way to make it work.

An Orc won’t work in many D&D settings, but the GM could change that. An orc warlord could have just saved the local king from a common enemy, and a new day is dawning. Is it temporary or a permanent shift? Perhaps the actions of the PC will tip the balance one way or the other.

An Eldar as an acolyte in Dark Heresy would be unthinkable. And yet, if the entire group was behind it, that could be one heck of a great story. No, he can’t walk around a normal Imperium planet, so the adventures would have to be elsewhere. A radical Inquisitor could be using the group to investigate Xenos ruins and find the artifacts before they fall into other hands. They could rove beyond the Imperium, and perhaps have to negotiate on a Craftworld on behalf of their Inquisitor.

More work, but potentially great stories. You need buy in. And if you are using published adventures, the GM may have to skip some or tweak them mightily to get them to work. Not all GMs have the time, and the stories the GM wants to tell might not work with the monster race, and the player should understand that.

3. Some monsters never work. If the only way the monster race survives is by eliminating all other races (like Genestealers in 40k)you can’t play a long term campaign with a PC that *needs* to kill the other PCs. You can do short horror adventures where the players are turned evil one by one, but that’s not what Matthew is talking about.

#11 Comment By Nofka On July 1, 2010 @ 7:01 pm

This problem came up one of the only times I tried to run a D&D standard issue campaign. A player who I wasn’t very close friends with at the time, tried to create a character from a monster race. I allowed this at first, not knowing what to expect, but I learned from this mistake very quickly. Sadly, yet not surprisingly, that campaign did not last long.

Now a days whenever a player tries to make a character that rubs against the grain of the game, I just let the game give them splinters. If I can catch such characters early on, I’ll kill them off as a lesson to the players. The sooner you kill them, the easier it is for that player to roll up a different character and join back in. I’ve never had a player lose a character this way that didn’t want to make a totally different character soon after. And, by killing one or more of the characters early on, I set a stage for the players that has them shaking in their boots. The danger becomes much more real.

#12 Comment By scruffylad On July 4, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

A lot of it depends on setting. And there could be a difference between how the monster PC is treated in a big cosmopolitan city versus a little out of the way hamlet, where they’ve never seen an elf, let alone an orc.

I’ve generally allowed such things, as long as they were within reason, and with the understanding that NPCs might have negative reactions. Which can be hard to do sometimes, given that modern society generally frowns on the kind of bigotry that you need to really put the monster-PC at a true disadvantage. (Just getting your head into that mode can be hard.)

But I’ve also usually restricted what races are available. I generally go for those that could fit in with the party – vaguely humanoid, able to speak, etc. Some of the really weird stuff I’ve said no to, though. (No gelatinous cubes or whatever…)

If I ever had a group that wanted to do an all-monster party, that might be interesting. An entire party of drow, for example, raiding the surface, capturing slaves, dragging them back down below. Or an entire squad of orcs, heading out to burn the human villages, etc.

The problems described in the story seem to be less about the monster race per se, and more about the player: munchkin, spot-light hog, etc. But those can be problematic no matter what. I’ve had a couple players that loved to make bizarre characters, and then use them in ways that made my head hurt. (I had to institute draconian animal companion rules at one point, due to a player that *loved* to have a small zoo following him around. Keeping track of that many tokens just made me batty.)

#13 Comment By Hypnotoad On July 5, 2010 @ 8:22 am

2 words.

Sand.Giant.

This was a game that I wasn’t GMing (although I do it most of the time) The GM allowed allowed the player to play a Sand Giant Warblade (from Tome of Battle) and failed to correct the amount of racial hit die the thing had. The player I think was just using it to his advantage to have a munchkin character that wouldn’t bore him. It made the rest of the party (myself not included) feel crippled by comparison. As a GM I will warn players that a monstrous character will be massively targeted and possibly even killed if a mob is formed. For example, a Thri Keen (4 armed grasshopper man) psion/pyrokenineticist starting fires in town was harshly met by the town militia and was disemboweled. The player playing the character wasn’t happy and wondered why I as the GM accepted it and got angry at the paladin in the group for not jumping in and harming the villagers trying to protect their homes and families.

#14 Comment By Hypnotoad On July 5, 2010 @ 8:23 am

@Hypnotoad – just because I forgot to mention. The system was D&D 3.5.

#15 Comment By Roxysteve On July 5, 2010 @ 9:47 pm

Achthpft! You play a monster in one of my games, fair enough but every NPC *will* react accordingly. You take an orc into a human town, don’t expect to live very long. You don’t even *smell* right to them. Ditto dragons (treasure!, They have oodles of treasure!) Giants (treasure! etc) Ilithids (kill the abomination!) Undead (quick! Call the Bishop!) etc etc etc. And if you are humans/elves/dwarfs/whatever hanging around with monsters, expect ostracism at the very least. (You brought a WHAT into town????).

#16 Comment By Burn_Boy On September 12, 2010 @ 12:39 am

My group doesn’t generally do the whole “Monsters as PCs” thing but we had enough experience that we can handle it with some stability. We make the monster prove himself to the players and eventually the PCs gain enough prestige and fame that people will, at least tolerate, the monster. The danger here is that it can show favoritism to the monster, by giving him his own little quest.

#17 Comment By Volcarthe On December 18, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

After seeing the thousandth “Drizzizzizzizzizzdt O’Durden”, it became obvious that most people get confused as to what it means to be an “outcast”. In a general D&D setting, drow are supposed to be 99.9% baby-eating, puppy-kicking BAD GUYS. They’re perfect villains in that sense, but players like to follow their favorite hack writer and emo it all up. That sucks.

As far as playing other monsters, I’ve grown attached to the Eberron setting where not only is there an established kingdom of monsters, Orcs, Kobolds and Goblinoids (and more) are accepted races for PCs to use. With a quick twist of the history of many monsters, they removed the “I’m a monster, i get to be a jerk” ability from those races, and replaced them with the PC ability “Contributing Member of Society.”

@shadowacid
“I once had a player want to play a warforged juggernaut … which just smacked of munchkin to me. I did manage to get him to play a psionic pirate instead.”

dude, psionics are the core of munchkinism moreso than any WF Juggernaut could ever dream to be. In your fervor to avoid something you obviously didn’t understand, you steered him directly towards what you’re professing to dislike.


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