Building by Subtraction

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."

— Michelangelo

Michelangelo would have made a fantastic Games Master. With his ability to see beauty locked inside even the most shapeless hunk of stone this was one guy who could even run F.A.T.A.L. and make it good. Well ok, maybe not.

The thing is that old Mike has a point. To shape anything, it is far better to take away what’s not needed than it is to add. That’s especially true when it comes to campaign building. A world populated with all the D&D Core Races as well as Genasi, Githyanki and Sentient Broken Glass is far less interesting that one which is populated by Humans and their Evil Halfling Overlords.

Not that I have anything against Genasi, Githyanki and Sentient Broken Glass, but to try and fit every single race into every single gameworld then add a few more into the mix for good measure is a mistake which Wizards of the Coast do time and again. I swear that if they try to add all of the multitude of races into Dark Sun I will hurt someone.

The point is that they do it (and I wish they wouldn’t) but you don’t have to. Cherry-pick those races, classes, monsters, feats, etc. which fit your world concept, and omit the rest.

Pick out the Races you need, and made the others the mere stuff of legends and folklore. An all-human campaign (for example) is a wonderful thing, especially when they get to meet the legendary Last Elf. Or how about an all-Dwarf campaign where your heroes battle to reclaim their dwarfholme from an incursion of ravening Netherbeasts. Give me Dwarves vs. Kruthiks, and I’ll  give you a campaign worthy of Ridley Scott’s Alien. No other races required.

It’s the same with the Classes. Imagine a world where the only available Arcane Class is the Sorcerer. Magic is chaotic & dangerous. Its wielders are rightly feared and probably persecuted because of the power they can barely contain. Now replace “Sorcerer” with “Warlock”, and you’ve got a realm where magical power isn’t so much gained as borrowed for a while, where its practitioners are puppets under the willing (or unwilling) control of their pact masters, pawns in a game that has endured eternity.

Leave out the Divine Classes and the world becomes a much more dangerous place. Potions of Healing are brewed by Alchemy and the gods have deserted or at least are more distant that in a “pure” D&D setting. This is a world without the comfort of healing and miracles where the people have to rely on their inner strength to survive. Drop the Cleric and bring the Shaman to the forefront (perhaps with the Barbarian as the prime Martial Class) and you’re into Stone Age Conan territory.

It’s more challenging to drop one or all of the Martial Classes – but if you picture a world where magic is so commonplace and intrinsic to the culture that all heroes possess at least a spark of the Arcane (or Divine) then even they can go. This would be a realm where the Swordmage has replaced the Fighter, where Rogue would be a multi-class option but unavailable as a full Class, and where every Ranger was a Hybrid Cleric in the service of The Hunt. Add pointy ears, and welcome to the Feywyld.

D&D (especially late Third Edition and Fourth Edition) draws classes, races and concepts from many ages, eras and cultures and throws them into a nonsensical hotch-potch. Untangle them, cut out the chaff and re-sort them into your worldview, and you’ll have a far stronger campaign setting, my friend.


The Three Layers of No

There are three ways to say “No" to a player when he asks if he can play something you’ve omitted from the game world:

1) No. It doesn’t exist in this world.

This is the easiest, but the least satisfying all round. If the player really wants to play a Shardmind (for example) but there’s no place for them in the world then sometimes you do just have to say no. It’s usually better though to make them unique, the only one of their kind on this planet. Players like to feel special, after all. Perhaps their Shardmind is a broken magic mirror containing the personality of the last reflected viewer, or a shattered living statue cursed to find its original sculptor. There’s always a way. Always.

2) No. It exists in this world, but it’s NPC only

Or, as I like to call it “The Necromancer Clause”. Some players like to push the boundaries. Heck, most of them do at some time or other and it’s a poor GM who always unconditionally says yes to their demands. Explain to them that Necromancy doesn’t fit your concept of Good Guy. Offer them a half-way solution (“How about a reformed Necromancer who is now a Cleric dedicated to stopping the Rise of Undead? No?”). If that doesn’t work, say yes but make it clear that their chances of survival are slim. A mob with pitchforks can be a powerful motivator :D

3) No….. not yet.

The players (especially at the start of a campaign) will have a far looser grasp of it than you do. Hold back some options until they are more familiar with the setting, tropes and what the Classes mean in the gameworld.

A part of the problem, of course, is that too often players just don’t listen.

You might say

“This is set in the Reign of King Bordon of Coburn and the heroes are outlaws struggling under the tyranny of the local Warlock Lord. There are rumours of a Gold Dragon sleeping under Weymouth Hill but it’s said only a group of twice-slain heroes can wake the beast.”

They will hear

“Blah blah blah blah blah blah OUTLAWS blah blah blah WARLOCK blah blah blah blah DRAGON blah blah blah blah BEAST.”


Show, don’t tell. In one of my old campaigns all Paladins were Whitecloaks – supercilious, smug, holier-than-thou types who gave Lawful Good a bad name. The penalty for Thinking Evil in their presence was 150 lashes, and anything from wearing the wrong shoes on a weekday to opening your mouth without a Whitecloak’s permission was a punishable offense. I disallowed the players from taking Paladin as a PC class until they fully understood what there guys were about. As a consequence two players immediately wanted to play as Whitecloaks  – one opposed to their behaviour, the other fully in support of it – and we hit role-playing gold. If I’d allowed Paladins from the start, they wouldn’t have had anything like the impact on the campaign. Sometimes, it pays to hold back some of the magic.

I’m done, and now it’s your turn. What have you subtracted from D&D (or any other system) to customize your campaign? What hunks of rock did you turn into statues?

8 Comments on “Building by Subtraction”

  1. i’m generally of the mind that the players should be able to play whatever they want, within reason. except for psionic metal-eating cats. yeah, i drew that line. if i take stuff out of the campaign, its from whatever is left after PC creation. if nobody wants to play an elf, and i need an extinct precursor race, then elves are fair game. or they simply don’t exist, except in the creation myths of the half-elves. weird.

  2. I ran a primitive campaign in which all arcane classes were removed completely. All divine classes were reflavored to reflect a world so young that it didn’t even have gods yets. Druids, shamans, rangers, and barbarians were highly influential among the NPC tribes. My goal for that campaign was that the players would themselves become the first gods of that world. Too bad we never finished it : /

  3. I hate dragonborn. I didn’t want any in my game. They just didn’t fit with the other PHB1 races. Everything else is more or less humanoid, has hair and teeth and fingernails. Dragonborn are giant walking lizards. So I told my players flat-out that I hate dragonborn, and that in my setting, they’re reviled and slaughtered on sight – including (especially) as infants.

    Result? Two of my initial part of four played dragonborn. Of course.

    We got a lot of good roleplaying out of it. One dborn player was a cleric who hid within many layers of robes and cloaks, claiming his religion required it. No one, not even the party, knew he wasn’t human. The other one was the village outcast, struggling to prove his – and his race’s – worth.

  4. An interesting way to do this without pissing off the players might be to trim your world AFTER character creation. It has been a long time since I’ve run a game that wasn’t Superheros so that may be tainting my viewpoint but I’ve always been a big fan of players create the world sort of situations. So let your players create their characters and take that into account. Not a single player chose human? Humans are the legendary forebearer to all of the current sentients but don’t exist in the world. End up with a Druid, Ardent, Fighter, and Rogue? The gods have been killed by the aberrant incursion destroying divine magic while the last remaining arcanists have been perverted under the control of their tentacled masters. PCs must fight to reclaim their world.

    Fun stuff.

  5. I completely agree with your points. In my last campaign I subtracted the following: Elves, Halflings, Giants, Dragons, Horses, snow (and other such wintery weather), and psionics. The players had a blast. I also expanded upon what was left behind in such a way that the omissions weren’t ever missed by the players. Everyone who played in my game enjoyed the unique feel that it had and agreed that limiting races, monsters, classes, etc. allowed for much more character development of the setting itself.

  6. Generally, in my campaign, I’m holding back psionics. I love psionics, don’t get me wrong, but I’m holding them back. Why? I wanted psionics to be the mystery. In the Caithness Isles, psionic characters don’t exist. You have magic throwing classes, but psionics do not exist simply because when the players encounter one they would say — “WHAT IN THE ROYAL HELL IS THAT?”

    I also threw out drow (dark elves). Some monsters don’t work in my campaign, and dragonborn don’t exist either (Wizards is stupid to share but keep their toys, boy what a terrible irony?). The campaign hasn’t been tested and I’m still putting it together. It’s going to be neat, its going to be free for download, and you can copy it, create derivative works, or publish it yourself. And you may buy merchandise or donate, or do both. :)

  7. I’ve never played in a campaign where there’s been a good reason to throw out a race. When they have been thrown out, the reason has always been “They don’t exist in my world.” When I asked why, the answer pretty much always boiled down to “because I don’t like them.”

    It just seems really arrogant to say that someone else can’t play a race because you don’t like them. It’s all about fun and if people like playing races that you don’t like and find it fun, then let them do it. I find that freedom encourages fun more than restrictions do.

    I’ve never seen classes banned, but I suppose that might be good if there’s a good reason for it. In general though, I always say yes when at all possible.

    1. Eberron is a melting pot, though. Wizards of the Coast specifically billed it as a the campaign setting where you can lump everything in. Wierd things often come up, often inexplicably. Such as the Warlock, Samurai, or Shugenja. The last two inexplicably in a culture where they have no place. There is a lot about Eberron, since being billed that, that defies common sense. I think Greywulf is advocating subtraction because of this fact.

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