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¢