I’ve recently gotten into tabletop RPGs, and as such I’ve been reading more GMing blogs. One thing I noticed is that a lot of GMing blogs are very eager to suggest that various tropes and character types have no place at the table.
Evil PCs. Chaotic neutral PCs. Mixed-alignment parties. Gnomes. Kender. Bards. Comic relief characters in general. Characters who are blatantly a ripoff of the player’s favorite book series. Player vs. player combat. Intraparty conflict in general. Sex and romance. Total party kills. Tomb of Horrors. Even, in some cases, homophobia, racism, and oppression.
Of course, when you list out all of the tropes that someone somewhere thinks should be banned from tabletop, you realize that that sharply limits the stories you can tell. Star Wars: Han’s chaotic neutral at the beginning, Han and Leia fall in love, the Empire is suspiciously fascist, and isn’t this all a little reminiscent of Kurosawa? Lord of the Rings: Boromir literally stabs another party member and Gollum is evil. You can’t even draw on your favorite D&D comics for inspiration: Order of the Stick has an evil party member, a bard, and themes of anti-goblin oppression.
And I think “all of this is banned” is actually extreme overkill for the problem that it’s trying to solve.
There are basically two issues that come up with these sort of problem tropes.
First, there are characters run by problem players. The comic relief character whose player is… just… not funny. The chaotic neutral character who’s as likely to jump off a bridge as cross it. The mentally ill character who randomly slaps people in the face with fish. The evil character played by someone who thinks “evil” means “Mason Verger without the subtlety.” The player whose oppressed minority character is played like an after-school special.
And, unfortunately, there are more serious problem players. The sexual harasser, for example. The player who brings out-of-character conflict into the game. The racist or homophobe who uses “I’m just playing my character” as an excuse for vile bigotry.
But I am concerned that a one-size-fits-all “ban the evil PCs and everything will be fine” approach is inappropriate. It unfairly punishes the non-problem players for what the problem players are doing. If I have an interesting idea for a thoughtful portrayal of a neurodivergent character, it is not fair to not let me play it just because that guy keeps slapping people in the face with fish. I have no control over whether he slaps people in the face with fish, if I could I would get him to stop, but whether some random other person can handle a neurodivergent character responsibly has no bearing on whether I can.
Of course, in some situations like pick-up play with strangers, you’re not going to have a better option for dealing with problem players than the blunt instrument of banning tropes and characters that tend to create problems. But when you’re playing with friends, often you can have an open conversation with the player. Think about their track record with similar characters in the past. Ask them questions about how they intend to play the character. Listen to their description. Bring up your concerns. It’s usually pretty easy to tell apart someone who has thought through why their Lawful Evil character would go on heroic adventures from someone who thinks “evil” means “steals things from party members for no reason.” If you still have concerns, you can approve the character provisionally (making it clear to the player that you will replace the character if there are problems) or play through a one shot with the character.
I am also concerned that “ban the things problem players misuse” often winds up a Band-Aid solution for deeper problems. Sometimes players act out to express boredom or dissatisfaction with the game: for example, a lolrandom chaotic neutral character who shoots the king in the head might be the player’s way of expressing frustration that they are being carried from plot hook to plot hook and they don’t feel like they get to make meaningful choices within the game. If you simply ban chaotic neutral characters, you’re going to miss that the player isn’t having a good time.
More seriously, some problem players can’t be fixed by banning the things they use to make trouble. Think about the serious problem players I listed above: do you really think the homophobe is going to stop being homophobic if you declare that your game world treats gay and straight couples the same? That the sexual harasser is going to stop sexually harassing people if you ban romance? That the person who brings out-of-character conflict into the game is going to magically stop doing that if you say you can’t attack other party members?
Look, I’ve been there too. It’s easy to think that your serious problem player will be fine if you create enough rules about their behavior– especially if they’re a talented writer or a close friend or otherwise someone you really want in your game. But it doesn’t work. If someone is a serious problem player, they do not belong in your game. This is a matter of basic emotional safety and comfort for everyone at the table.
I’ve been mostly writing about this from the GM side, but I think problem GMs are actually a more serious concern. Banning sex/romance, oppression, and total party kills (for example) are often all attempts to control the behavior of a problem GM: one who sexually harasses their players, has an offensively inaccurate understanding of how racism works, or views tabletop as a competitive game they win by making their players suffer.
The problem is that GMs have a lot of power over the game world, and it’s difficult to create a set of rules that will prevent a bad GM from abusing it. A GM who takes gleeful delight in slaughtering an entire party will continue to be a bad GM even if you ban total party kills. A GM who sexually harasses their players can simply ignore your limits about romance. And even a GM who incorrectly thinks they’re funny can fill their world with puns to a degree Piers Anthony would find excessive. The ultimate solution is not to ban certain content but to avoid games with shitty GMs.
Second, there is disagreement about expectations and what players want out of the game. Everything I listed above– antisocial PCs, intraparty conflict, comic relief, sex/romance, total party kills, oppression– is a totally reasonable thing to ban from some games. The key word there is some.
As a player and as a GM, combat bores me. I am willing to tolerate up to three or four dice rolls of it to advance the story, but much beyond that and I’ll be playing solitaire and waiting for it to be over. I typically don’t play systems which allow for much combat. When I do, I set expectations that this will be a combat-light game; I would strongly consider banning character builds designed primarily for fighting.
That isn’t because combat is inherently bad or because people who like combat are problem players. It is just that I personally do not like combat.
If you don’t like romance in your games, or want to feel like a team with your fellow party members, or don’t want your PC to die without your say-so, that is a completely okay way to play tabletop. No game is for everyone. People like different things in their games. But by the same token people who like romance or intraparty conflict or kill-em-all games are also okay. They are not trying to play the games you want to play and then mysteriously failing because they’re just terrible at RPGs. That’s like reading Pride and Prejudice and going “this book is a terrible sequel to the Hunger Games! We should just ban the Regency setting from novels. It makes problem authors write entire books where no poor people get murdered in a reality show to appease the jaded and decadent elite.”
I see people say “you shouldn’t put homophobia or sexism or racism in your tabletop games because they’re supposed to be fun escapism.” If that’s what you want out of games, that’s perfectly okay. But for some people (including people oppressed on various axes!) settings with homophobia and sexism and racism are how they have fun escapism. It can be validating of the suffering you face; it can feel empowering to have your characters overcome oppression in a way that you can’t; it can be a way to process and work through the shit that happens to you over the course of a day; it can be comforting to experience bad things in a safe environment where you can always call red and the bad things get put away at the end of the session; and there’s always that immortal and popular reason I Don’t Know Why I Like It I Just Do.
Some people, when they’ve had a bad day, relax with a Disney movie or a romance novel; some people relax with a Stephen King book or true crime; some people like both. It’s a natural axis of human variation.
I think the big problems happen when people don’t communicate their desires and expectations ahead of time and wind up in a game that isn’t suited for them. Much of the time, the solution is for the GM to be firm: while there’s no need to ban comic relief characters from every table, it’s going to be tonally wrong for your horror game, and the GM should make that clear to the player who has this great idea for a Malkavian.
But often it is hard to articulate what the problem is before it shows up. I myself was a problem player in a couple of games before I realized that I hated combat. Most people don’t think to themselves “it’s important to me in an RPG to feel like my character is part of a team all working together for a common cause without a lot of conflict” or “I really like arguing with other players about hard moral dilemmas” before the paladin and the rogue start arguing about whether to give the treasure away or keep it for themselves. It can take a couple of failed games before you learn what your preferences are.
As a GM, I think it makes sense to keep an extra eye on the much-banned content. Things people think don’t belong in RPGs are on the list for a reason: they’re preferences people very often have, but might have trouble articulating to themselves. If you’re starting a new game, you might want to treat it as a checklist: make sure all your players are on the same page about romance/sex, party morality, party unity, oppression and other content potentially upsetting to many people, character death, and the tone of the game. If you’re running a game and some of that content comes up unexpectedly, pause and make sure everyone at the table (not just the direct participants) is okay with it before proceeding. Through making intentional choices about the genre and tone of your game, you can have a fun experience whatever your preferences are about gnomes.
(One final note: if your players want to play someone who is Obviously Just Tyrion Lannister or Obviously Just Han Solo or whatever, who cares. Let them. Originality is overrated and it’s often easier for people to play a character they already understand than to make up a character from scratch. Chill.)