With the recent release of the fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook 2 (reviewed here), it appears to be the appropriate time to discuss what happens to the game system when certain player character options, such as races and classes, are removed.
It is important to note that, as dungeon master, you have the authority to choose what elements of the game you employ. That authority is, of course, tempered by the desires of your players; if you decree that the only available character races are leprechauns and were-penguins, you may find yourself alone at the gaming table.
While most dungeon masters recognize that material presented as supplemental can be added or ignored piecemeal, few have taken their authority with regard to what is presented as “core” material. Some regard the practice of ignoring core options as role-playing sacrilege; when discussing this topic on a gaming forum years ago, I was angrily told that I was “no longer playing D&D” because I ran a campaign that didn’t include a popular character race.
When presenting this concept to my players at the time, I opened by suggesting that many D&D players equate Medieval fantasy with the works of Tolkein. I submitted that, while Tolkein’s work is certainly among the finest in the genre, it isn’t the only work in the genre. My proposal was that, since we were between campaigns, we try a different “flavor” by restricting certain races and classes for a single adventure, not to exceed three sessions in length. They agreed.
We enjoyed it so much that the game continued for two years.
Our experiment in deconstruction later came to be called, “The No Dandelion Eaters Campaign,” as it didn’t include elves (gasp!), dryads, pixies, leprechauns, nymphs, druids, halflings, centaurs, gnomes, unicorns or any other peaceful, nature-loving entities. The setting, which drew heavily from Howard’s Conan stories and Icelandic sagas, was a gritty world of blood and fire, where savage humanoids waged ceaseless war against humans and dwarves over small tracts of arable land and access to scarce resources.
It was a second-edition Advanced D&D game, and we made use of the various Complete Guidebooks released for each class. The character who always played an elven archer played a grim, heavily-muscled warrior, who leapt into battle from the party’s longship, wearing his family’s ancestral chain hauberk and wielding a broadsword inscribed with runes of power that, once drawn, could only be sheathed again if it had tasted orcish blood. He didn’t carry a round, viking shield, instead opting to carry a drum for his war chants – because he was the party’s bard.
There were no priests babbling supplication to immortals who didn’t care, no dandelion-eaters, and if there was a wizard, he was one of the people responsible for the world becoming so dangerous, and therefore existed to have his neck snapped. The only people you could trust were fighters, barbarians, skalds (bards) and, strangely enough and to a limited extent, theives. The heroes overcame obstacles through physical strength and common sense, without tampering with magical forces better left alone. Indeed, the heroes often faced monstrous foes unleashed on the world as a result of someone else tampering in such a way.
I am not proposing that the D&D game is better or worse by omitting different races or classes or by restricting access to magic, nor am I saying that such omssions need to represent permanent changes in the way a group plays the game. I will submit that it can produce a refreshing change of pace, especially for jaded groups.
So as you review the Player’s Handbook 2, or the first Player’s Handbook for that matter, remember that you are the creator of the setting, and you are not forced to include anything, even if the publisher says its “core” to the game.
And yes, you would still be playing D&D.