August 19, 2008

Your Game World is (NOT) teh SuXXorz

Got your attention? I just finished reading an essay on world building from The KOBOLD Guide to Game Design, Vol 1 (which is worth the money, btw). Then I pop open my browser and, viola, Uncle Buck just posted about Vanilla Game Worlds, and how they all must include all 31 flavors of Dungeons & Dragons... or it isn't D&D. And people want D&D, that's why they are playing D&D. To quote his (funny) D&D is Vanilla Ice Cream analogy:
What you end up with is vanilla. No chocolate. No other flavors. Like ice cream, you can customize it with toppings, and like ice cream, toppings can make it unique and yummy. But underneath, it’s always gonna be vanilla.
I disagree. Much like statblocks are just numbers on a page that can be remolded into anything a DM wants (see my previous post about this), so too are all the campaign elements of D&D. You do not need elves, clerics, magic wands, portals in your game if you create a well conceived internally consistent game world.

By example, I'll make my point: you have a player who wants to be an elf but your campaign is set in the New World of the 16th century? Easy - let them make "an elf" but have the character be a Mayan hunter who escaped from a Spanish prison or something. Another player in the same campaign wants to be a "wizard" ? No problem: he's an English scholar who happened upon a rare set of Middle Eastern texts that he's been studying for a number of years. Now that he's in the New World, he feels liberated to try his "witchcraft" without the prying eyes of his colleagues.

Now of course, not all recasting of game mechanics and campaign elements will be successful for all settings. But - with some creativity and a well designed back story, the internal consistency can be maintained in most settings and, IMHO, you can still have your vanilla ice cream from the PHB. Only, in your new setting - it will be chocolate, or strawberry, or double caramel mint swirl.

Just my 2¢


  1. Good concept! I have always liked the more "extreme" flavors of ice cream.

    Dark sun and spelljammer were two of my favorites. The world of Avadnu (the Violet Dawn setting) or Termana (scarred lands) are others that would seem to defy the vanilla label.

    Broad generalizations are handy and all, but they are limited by the fact that they are just generalizations.

    Besides, isn't "breaking the mold" in anymore? I thought everyone was getting fed up with stereotypical fantasy crap?

    Oh well, back to my cave...

  2. Thank you!

    I've been reading comments and concerns about 4E since launch, and about half of them I can file in the category of "not enough imagination." It seems that a lot of otherwise incredibly creative RPGers, both DM and players, can't get around the fact that you can use your imagination to make almost anything in 4E 'fit' using the core rules.

    WotC is even trying to shift gamers into thinking in 4E terms: instead of the 'vanilla' Fighter, you have a 'martial defender' that you can call anything you like - they happen to call it a Fighter. 4E seems to be, more than ever before, about knowing your Role. Your race and your class are flavour - backstory. The meat of your character is their Role.

  3. @Donny : Yeah - for some reason i feel like people in boards and on the blogosphere are going through this "D&D IS DEAD, LONG LIVE D&D" phase. I just want to throw them in the drink. Isn't D&D about being creative and role playing? Actually... screw the "rules as written"... RPG gaming is about being creative, find a group, telling a story, and killing (make-believe) shit. The rules, whatever you system du jour is, are just a crutch - a guide - a manual - a recipe - a protocol. They are meant to be bent, expanded, and recast (as I call it). Recast the contents of the PHB and the MM and you have whatever campaign setting you want.

    @ Anonymous : Welcome. See above! Glad you liked the post!

  4. Well, I actually had a different take on the article per se and do agree with the poster... on these terms.

    D&D, for most people that play it, is not *only* a rules system but is also the manifestation of that rules system withing a specific setting that contains certain iconic elements. So in that way, yes you can be misleading if you tell someone you'll be playing D&D without adhering to those unvoiced assumptions.

    However, that does not mean (at all) that you *need* to go vanilla... at all. What you have in your hand is a book, filled with words that talks about a game. Grab the freaking book and do whatever is it that you want with it. The fact that there are a lot of elements of the setting (of a more generic kind) are pretty much coded into the system and into the minds of players world wide does not mean that you can create whatever you want with it and make it playable.

    Is it still D&D? Probably not, but really... who cares?

    And as a side note...

    "(...) 4E seems to be, more than ever before, about knowing your Role. Your race and your class are flavor - backstory. The meat of your character is their Role."

    And that's one of the main problems that I have with 4E. I want the meat of my character not to be a metagame tool.

  5. @the_blunderbuss : WELCOME to The Core Mechanic and thanks for the comment! Just picked up your blog on my GOogle Reader the other day - looking forward to keeping up with it.

    About your comment: I agree that a problem with 4E is that, at least for anyone NEW to the game, the term "role" could easily be confused to solely mean "tactical role" - thus changing the meaning of "role playing game". Now, we are all on the same page becuase "Role" to me means character role, like in a play, or story. ROle playing game is about playing a characters role in a story that you create with the DM - so called "shared creation" style of RPGs. WotC has been moving in the direction of pushing players into a fixed role, one in a scripted story that the DM is more like a director, rather than a co-author. I think this may be an effort to make the game more digestible to NEW players - the person who picks up the book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble and wonders "What's this 'D&D' game about? I've never heard of it" Maybe I'm wrong - but this just seems where they have been headed for yearszzzz, long before 4E was ever released.

    Now, the GOOD thing about 4E and its presentation of "role" is that it is purely from a combat point of view and for NEW players it helps define what the main differences are between, say a Fighter and a Ranger. "Fighters, like Paladins, usually serve to defend the party - take the brunt of damage, etc". For new gamers - this is not a bad thing - its just that the rest of us old hats kind of scratch our heads: "Couldn't they think of some better term other than 'role'? It just casts the whole game as a mini's game."

    thanks again for adding to the discussion.


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