Shaping Your World Through Limitations  

Posted by Spenser Isdahl in , ,

Most of the time, world building is accomplished in large part by adding character options. To create the 'arcanepunk' feel of Eberron, the warforged race and the artificer and magewright classes were added, and it's unusual for a published campaign setting not to include a slew of new feats, items, prestige classes, and often spells as well. While this is a totally legitimate way of expanding on a campaign setting and drawing player interest in the lore of the setting, it's important to realize that it's not the only way to build your world.

Published settings are at somewhat of a disadvantage in that there is great pressure to preserve all the core rules to maintain a common base of character option. However, in your homebrew campaign setting, no such pressure exists. Therefore, you may find that removing certain options provides a more effective means of conveying the look and feel of your setting than adding new elements alone.

For example, I've made the following exclusions from my Ralsenna setting:

  • Bards: I'm not a fan of the bard class. In my many years of playing D&D I have yet to be able to imagine a bard in a way that isn't silly. There are still bards in Ralsenna, but they merely rogues or experts with ranks in various Knowledge and Perform skills.
  • Clerics: Unlike bards, I've got nothing against clerics, but they don't fit nicely with the setting as I've established it. After all, the gods are distant entities (if they still exist at all) which are not terribly interested in diverting power away from their struggle and into the hands of petty mortals. Instead, the oracle class is available, representing those randomly imbued with divine power.
  • Wizards: Magic, especially arcane magic, is nigh impossible for mortals to control. Druids channel the latent magic inherent in Ralsenna, oracles suffer grievous curses for their trouble, and sorcerers manage only by the graces of their powerful ancestors. Instead of wizards, the alchemist class is available, representing the height of learned arcane magic.
But those are just examples. Have a setting whose defining feature is its inhospitability? Remove the druid and ranger classes to represent the disconnect between the races and the land. Want a noirish setting where gray areas abound? Remove paladins. And so on.

Has any of you tried this in your campaigns? Tell us about it in the comments.

This entry was posted on May 31, 2010 at Monday, May 31, 2010 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

6 comments

Great Article. I usually homebrew my world with boundaries as well. In fact I don't usually let my players have non-human characters. I start them off by saying "You are a poor young swineherder from the town of Hamfest. Your poor elderly parents, though still hard working, depend on you and your siblings labors very much." And that serves as the intro. The PCs inevitably (and quickly) tend to leave the farm on sundry adventures, of course. The limitations are simply in the setup, not in what they can do from there. Since elves, dwarves and monsters such as goblins are all rare and mysterious in my world, I don't like to allow players to play these races. It keeps the mood of the world more down to earth and so when they do run into other races it's not a case of "Oh look another Elve/Dwarve/Goblin/Yawn", but rather a special event. A lot of what goes on in my world has to do with local mysteries (such as the mysterious death/disappearance of Pamela McFearson - an ongoing mystery in the campaign for four years now). Not to say that all such other races are not lurking around in shadows... oh they are! But I prefer to keep them there until they have good reason to spring out. Too many worlds, imo, lurch directly into the fantasy setting and so loose the sense of mystery that is really part and parcel of the mysterious races mentioned by our ancestors in their myths and legends. Anyway, thanks for the article. I will pass it along to my friends in the Literary RPG Society. :)

May 31, 2010 at 2:31 PM

I too have used limitations as one of my tools to lend a unique character to my setting. I omitted Dragons, Giants, Elves, Horses, Halflings, Psionics, snow (a warm climate) and several other aspects that most fantasy settings cling to.

I then extrapolated what effect these omissions would have on the world. This allowed me to then build in different expansions on the standard setting features that had a markedly different feel than many other settings.

My players bemoaned the absence of the old standbys at first, but after a few sessions they really got into the different feel of my world and now, after running three different campaigns in this setting over the years, I'm pleased to be a player as another in my gaming group GMs in MY setting! (Yes, that is a cool feeling!) :-)

Limiting certain things is an excellent technique, but only so long as they are done as part of a cohesive whole in fostering a specific feeling for your setting. Removing things just because you don't like "x", or for random or arbitary reasons is more likely to result in a setting that feels like it's riddled with holes than being unique.

May 31, 2010 at 3:11 PM

Fantastic article, it made me realize a fundamental design difference in Savage Worlds and D&D. In D&D you almost always have to change the rules, in Savage Worlds you don't necessarily have to. You even inspired an article out of it that I'll be running tomorrow.

Thanks for the good read.

May 31, 2010 at 3:48 PM

I've done that in some settings, but what I like even more is reinventing certain core races/classes. For instance, in one setting I wanted to make elves feel more like a mystical fae race, and gave them enough supernatural powers (and ability modifiers) to require a level adjustment. I then gave half-elves the stats of vanilla D&D elves and went from there. In a 'fallen technology' setting, I reinvented Clerics as Tech Priests who serve (and maintain) the ancient god-computers of the former age. What spells I let them keep from the original setting were all explained as ancient technology (nanites for healing, orbital laser strikes for Flame Strike, etc.) We had a lot of fun with that one.

June 6, 2010 at 12:41 AM

I've always thought this. If all the D&D source books are a toolkit... well, no idiot uses every tool in the box on every job. You just use the tools that you need.

I think this same principle goes even more so for monsters. Any campaign world I design, I choose carefully which monsters exist in it. Which ones I exclude can say a lot about the world (no savage humanoids? No demons? No undead?).

I oppose kitchen-sink fantasy worlds, I must say.

July 21, 2010 at 7:07 AM

I tend to omit the Bard and Paladin in my games.

Bard: I think you all know why I don't like the bard. It just doesn't fit; the Bard lacks a real role that isn't covered by something else. I am a bit of a minimalist. If someone wants to be a Bard, I consider it a profession. Anyone can be a Bard - learn to sing, play an instrument, etc., and there you are.

Paladin: I'm not fond of Paladins. They tend to be the death of parties - their strict adherence to Law and Order and Honor makes it very difficult on players who don't quite want to play that way. If someone REALLY wants to play a Paladin, then I require that everyone else be on board with the idea.

I also tend to disallow the various Prestige classes unless there's a good role-playing reason. I know, heresy abounds here.

For me, they don't seem to add much to the game and in many cases seem like a substitute for role playing. Want to be an Assassin? Then play a rogue that kills people for money. Want to be an Arcane Warrior? Multi-class with Fighter and Wizard. Etc.

Some people don't like that I "dumb down" the game a bit, but others appreciate it.

@Trinyan: "I reinvented Clerics as Tech Priests who serve (and maintain) the ancient god-computers of the former age."

I have been trying to think of a good "alternative religion" in my next campaign and this is a fantastic idea with so many possibilities. I absolutely LOVE it. I would hug you if I could. It already fits into what I am planning, which is a post-cataclysmic-war world.

July 30, 2010 at 1:24 PM

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