Bespoke or Kitchen Sink? Character Ancestry in TTRPGs
One of the big challenges around world building is the GM choice between restricting player choices by design or running a kitchen sink type world where anything and everything is available. So let’s dive into the complexities of this situation from the perspectives of both GMs and players.
Like clockwork, every few months on social media we see the same question flash up, “Can I say no to a player’s choice of player race/ancestry?” This is inevitably followed by a a broad polarization between GMs who say “Yes” and ones who say “I like to do my best to make sure that every player gets to play what they want even if it doesn’t fit the setting”, then there’s the smaller middle ground where I and a few others are who say “Maybe, what kind of game is it?” Why? Because to me, part of the issue comes from players who are conditioned to create in kitchen sink type conditions who suddenly find themselves in a more bespoke and structured game, and the other from iffy communication from the GM.
World Design & Game Type
As a world builder, it’s ultimately up to the GM creating it to decide what ancestries are or aren’t present, normal, rare, unheardof and so on. You’re not obligated to create a world where everything from every book is available. Want to make a world of all Elves? All Genasi? All Beastfolk? Go for it! The big thing here is that you need to set expectations in Session Zero and Communicate your world’s reality to your players. These steps alone will head off a lot of potential issues and conflicts during the character creation process and further along in play.
On the Game Type front, it’s really a question of how the combination of sandbox to storyline, combat to role-play, and kitchen sink to bespoke design spectrums are happening, combined with what the actual game offers. Understanding what kind of game you’re looking for is a big part of both avoiding and resolving this issue. For players, this is the key area to pay attention to before making a character. If you have questions, comments, or concerns, voice them in Session Zero or at least prior to the first game night. Work on your concept and keep the GM in the loop, and try to stay within the arcs that were agreed on in Session Zero.
Bespoke vs Kitchen Sink Approaches for the GM
The first thing that I’m going to make clear here is that both of these approaches are entirely valid to use. They just produce wildly different worlds and gaming experiences.
Kitchen Sink campaign settings are ones like Rifts or Pathfinder’s Golarion. And the thing they have in common is that they’re both worlds adapted to their respective realities. New peoples and new things are constantly being found and appearing so the worlds just roll with it. Some peoples are lone examples, others are a village or a city sized population, and others are dominant populations globally, and there’s everything in between. If you’re going to make this kind of world, cool! But buckle up because there’s a lot of world building around it and getting your players involved to describe their hometowns, villages, and so on is probably a really good idea.
Bespoke campaign settings are more focused and “restricted” in that they don’t have everything in them as a default. It might just be the core book’s selection, or something completely different. These worlds tend to be tighter and have more intricacy in the interactions between the existing peoples because the time spent fitting stuff in with a framework for a Kitchen Sink setting can be spent developing the deeper details and lore of the world. If you’re going to create this kind of world, Session Zero and communication to your players is going to be absolutely essential, even if it’s a sandbox game. Why? Because you need to make sure the players are okay with everything and that you’re all more or less at least in the same chapter if not on the same page for what’s going on.
Realities for Players with Unusual Character Ancestries
I’ve been there. Sometimes you just have an idea in your head that’s so strong you need to play it, even though they don’t match the world. It’s cool, but you need to work with your GM. As a GM, I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that being surprised with a unique character that’s way outside the arcs of what was talked about in Session Zero is not fun. It’s a wrench in the gears that’s on par with a player who demands to be the center of attention the entire time. So don’t be That Player.
For games that are trending more strongly towards the Bespoke and role-play heavy, depending on your GM, a player character that’s not of this world is going to have a different set of challenges than the player characters that are native to the world. Even with caveats like “found as an infant and raised on the world by [insert group, kindly farmers etc…], the character is still going to be seen as something of an outsider and the role-play may reflect that.
For games that are deeper into the combat focus, this is less of an issue, even in Bespoke worlds. Why? Because the focus of the game is off the social interactions. With the bulk of the game happening in battle, the explanations and background of the unusual character can be more skeletal and “soft”.
Saying No is Okay
Sometimes, some player requests are too much, too wild, or too much additional work for you as a GM. Yes, it’s the social media expressed position right now that “everyone should be having fun”, but that includes the GM as well. Being presented with a character concept that’s way out of arcs isn’t always fun. So if you as a GM aren’t comfortable with the character or their concept, let the player know. If the idea can be massaged into shape? Sweet! But if not? Saying “No” is okay. Could it bring conflict? Yes, but that’s a small price to pay versus an unknown amount of time spent trying to make it work and getting more miserable session by session. Tabletop RPGs are a group activity, and some people forget that the GM is part of the group.
Unfortunately, there’s no one answer to this situation that leaves everyone happy. The best situation, to me, is the one that everyone is most okay with. And I’m torn on the subject too, because on one hand I want my players to feel creative freedom, but on the other hand I also know how much of a wrench some characters can be in the works, and I’m a pretty easy going GM for stuff. So I think that this needs to be a two way operation, there needs to be good communication and expectations on both sides of the equation to make it work. Because the reality of the situation is that it’s not a binary yes or no in the bulk of instances. But it’s definitely a question of fun for the whole group and mutual respect between players and GMs.