Monday, July 14, 2014

The Cantina Effect

Art by Andy MacDonald
For the most part, I've always been a GM who likes to see his players happy. Generally, when one of my players approaches me with a character concept, I usually like to approve it and do whatever I can to help them bring it to life. However, occasionally a player will approach me with the desire to play a character belonging to a race outside the normal choices. Part of me is completely fine with that, but another part of me fears that allowing this weird race might open a can of worms that has everyone else asking to play a weird race, resulting in the Cantina Effect taking place.

I guess I should define my terms. I'll just assume most of you have seen Star Wars. Remember how the Mos Eisley Cantina was populated by so many different alien species? Well, the "Cantina Effect" refers to a fantasy or science fiction setting that has so many sentient races that a scene like the one at the Cantina would probably be extremely common throughout the world or galaxy.

Since I'm someone who enjoys having a lot of options available to me, I see the appeal of having a myriad of different races available to the players. Also, it gives the players a chance to shake up the status quo by playing something other than a dwarf or an elf. However, a part of me worries that allowing the more weird races to become much more common within the setting might actually devalue the race and rob them of some of its uniqueness.

When presented with this situation, I'd probably approach it with moderation. I'd allow the races to exist within the setting, but either make them rarities or drop them into regions that are distant to the campaign's current location. I'd also give the player a head's up that playing the race might earn them some weird reactions from locals and they might be treated a little differently (the player running a grippli swashbuckler in my Secrets of Magnimar campaign is experiencing this right now).

However, I think one could also use the Cantina Effect to help define the unusual nature of a certain location within the campaign setting. Planescape's city of Sigil is a perfect example of this. Sigil is an strange metropolis found on the otherworldly dimension known as the Outlands and is known by many throughout the multiverse as the "City of Doors" due to numerous portals found throughout it that lead to other worlds. Because of this, numerous strange and peculiar creatures call Sigil home.

A good GM can use this to his or her advantage, especially if their player's characters are new arrivals to the city. They can embrace the weird elements inherent to a city that exists as a hub for a myriad of different dimensions, fostering a sense of wonder and amazement within their players, leaving a lasting impression on them. This is what that scene in the Mos Eisley Cantina did for Star Wars, and you can do the same by properly utilizing the Cantina Effect.

How would you handle this situation? Would you give into the Cantina Effect, do everything to resist it, or fall somewhere in between like myself?