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When running a campaign, especially one with newer players mixed with optimizers, is it a fair call to limit the variety of books available for play? For feats, classes, prestige classes, magic items and spells? (or whatever other variants exist in whatever other system and it's expanded rulebooks)

It seems that this would be quite unfair to the optimizer, but not doing so comes across as unfair to the beginner. Barring the idea to just separate these two breeds into different play sessions, is limiting the variety of books a sign of fair DMing, bad DMing or neither?

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I find the wording of this question interesting, since it seems to imply that the primary mode of playing the game is to optimize, and that the only barrier to optimization is the system mastery of the players. Those are important considerations, but not the only considerations that could apply to any given game. Some of the answers below have already picked up on this and mentioned other reasons for and against, but I thought it was worth mentioning up here where readers of the question are more likely to see it. –  GMJoe Oct 29 '12 at 2:57
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@GMJoe thank you for addressing that - it was intentional :) I used to believe it was to optimize, see rpg.stackexchange.com/q/16065/4089 as this seems to be the next link in that chain of questioning. Actually, teaching someone new to the game how to run it is what renewed my creativity in the matter. Hence this question is one where I'm trying to find an even middle ground –  LitheOhm Oct 29 '12 at 4:37
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I find the decision to switch from system-agnostic to dnd-3.5e after so many answers have been given to be problenatic. Many answers initially felt neutral about in a system agnostic way became wrong in my opinion when talking specifically about 3.5e. This doesn't seem fair to those who answered. –  KRyan Jan 7 '13 at 14:02
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14 Answers

up vote 38 down vote accepted

Alright, as the only one to agree on banning books;

The core rules of most games are the ones that get playtested the most. No matter how well or badly the stuff that follows it is, the core rules have the most eyes on them. When you leave the core rules you head into material that hasn't been playtested nearly as extensively. Additionally with each book you add there are more possible combinations of material. So while book X may work fine with itself and the core rules, when you combined book X and Y you get combinations that are strictly more powerful then the core rules. This raises the average power level of the game (quite noticeably over time) and in some cases will make characters made purely from the core books (such as a new player is almost certain to make) unplayable. I don't think anyone is going to say it is unreasonable to limit the game to only 1st party books (There are some very badly written things in the 3rd party world), and once you make that distinction I can't see an argument that you have to allow every first party book.

The second point is that as a DM you have to understand every character at the table, as well as every monster. It is entirely fine to ban books simply because you don't have the time to make yourself familiar with every single rule in all the 30 books for that system.

There is also a legitimate financial reason. There will be an advantage given to those players that can afford to buy the books and spend hours pouring over them, as opposed to players that don't have those type of resources. Additionally the DM then needs the time and access to the books to understand what the players are doing.

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+1 for considering not just the playtesting involved but also DM planning and financial obligation. I'm quite against pirated books myself and was wondering if this would be addressed as I saw it pertinent –  LitheOhm Oct 29 '12 at 4:47
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Discussion deleted - argue in chat please, or put your points in your own answers and let the votes decide. –  mxyzplk Oct 30 '12 at 1:06
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Let's suppose you're playing D&D 3.x

The optimizer can optimize the character with just the core rules. There's enough stuff down theere to create two characters with a power difference of one or two orders of magnitude. The druid's animal companion alone is as good as a warrior and in 3.5 the druid also becomes stronger faster than the warrior as he levels up.

The only good thing of using no or few splatbooks is that the new player has to wade through less pages to create his first PC, and the search for material during play is shorter (e.g.: all the spells are in the same manual).

Anyways, a player could whine if he wants to play a concept that needs some feat or item from a splatbook. It's just whining. Tell them you're keeping things simple because of (explain your reasons) and as long as that's the reason he should be ok with you.

(by the way, my answer is neither)

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+1 A good fisherman never chooses his own lure, as they say. I see it as neither as well –  LitheOhm Oct 28 '12 at 23:20
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Especially in a question that is system agnostic, there’s almost no way to fully address this. Having fewer books available is not automatically going to improve balance: in some systems it might, in others it may not. It depends on the system and the book(s) in question.

But as far as balance goes, blanket bans strike me as a bad idea in general. Banning books is too simple an answer to far too complicated a question. I’m very dubious about there being any one book in any system where every single option is overpowered. Even in the worst books, there should be some stuff worth salvaging.

I would say that blanket bans strike me as a “red flag” that might indicate bad DMing, but not necessarily. It depends a lot on the reasons for the ban and the willingness of the DM to work with players to achieve the desired results. If the DM doesn’t have, or is not familiar with, the content from a book, then that’s perfectly understandable. If the book is really specific to a type of character/campaign that is not relevant or applicable, I might be able to buy that (but it would have to be very inappropriate, and even then I would say a better DMing practice is to adapt any material that players desire so that it is appropriate). But if it’s just “oh, I heard that book’s really imbalanced, I’m going to ban it” or “I don’t like these classes, so you can’t play them,” then I’m looking for a new DM.

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+1 for addressing the fact that the reason of the DM ban would be the deciding factor. –  LitheOhm Oct 28 '12 at 23:20
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I find the notion that allowing a lot of splat books is unfair on a beginner a little strange. I've run many games with a range of source materials, and there are plenty of ways of smoothing the learning curve for players new to a particular setting or system.

Equally, suggesting to new players that they might think about limiting their source books whilst giving your optimisers free rein doesn't seem like it should be a problem. I tend to go down the route of starting with the character background before zeroing in on the mechanics of a character, particularly for players new to a system. If you use this approach then you are basically holding their hand through the whole process anyway, so you can draw from as many splat books as you want.

There are certainly reasons why you might want to limit the number of books available, but I tend to find these are generally centred on making your life easier as a GM rather than for the players.

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+1 for suggesting ease for beginners instead of limiting access across the board. That really sounds win-win in most cases –  LitheOhm Oct 28 '12 at 23:21
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A GM has the final word in which rules applies to the game and how they are applied. So restricting rules/options you are not comfortable to seems natural to me.

So my answer is: neither.

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The rules that are available help convey the theme and tone of the game. If I'm using D&D to run a pirate game, I'm probably not going to allow Oriental Adventures. That's a pretty simple thematic decision and I would hope the players understand why I don't want a ninja on the pirate ship.

Theme aside, the rules can also inform the players about what they'll be doing in a game. In a political game with intrigue and skulduggery, I might import the influence rules from Game of Thrones d20. The presence of these rules should communicate to the players that their influence over NPCs is going to be a major portion of the game and that the mechanics representing it should be more interesting than a single skill check.

Another example is I'd remove the Book of Erotic Fantasy, not because it's in questionable taste, but because it's clearly part of an R or X rated game. If I'm running a PG-13 game, that book just isn't necessary.

Anyway, my opinion is that selecting an appropriate set of rules is part of the GM's responsibility. If setting the right tone for the game means restricting the books available, that's fine.

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+1 for theme. Also for listing rule selection as GM responsibility and them being malleable to the theme –  LitheOhm Oct 29 '12 at 1:00
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I'd comment that there are plenty of Oriental pirates, and that those who travel on the seas are far more likely to wind up in exotic places or with exotic companions or items. Even without that, it's usually possible to adapt setting-specific material to another setting pretty easily. Also, while BoEF is a pretty meh book for a lot of reasons (including those of taste), there's actually a lot of material that a DM may find useful for world-building even in a PG-rated game, since it discusses how different races treat sex, marriage, reproduction, et al. –  KRyan Oct 29 '12 at 1:15
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Yes, it is absolutely fair. In the games I play in, GMs are always welcome to allow or disallow rules options in whole or in part, at their exclusive discretion. Naturally that's part of the general buy-in of campaign framing - "Do you want to play a pirate campaign? Using Pathfinder? Core/APG only with other stuff by explicit GM permission only?"

This is useful to:

  1. Control tone/content - "no ninjas in this pirate campaign" or "this Eclipse Phase game just isn't going to have a place for deep space action," "Assamites would be an inappropriate choice for this game..."
  2. Control munchkinism - splatbook heavy games usually have powers that are, by themselves or by unintended interaction with other books, cause an option that the GM/rest of group consider to be overpowered

Frankly, I would have misgivings about playing in a (splat-heavy - you know which games I mean) game where the GM declares "anything goes," unless it is specifically a humor/gonzo campaign. It shows a lack of discretion rules wise that I would be concerned would translate into being similarly undiscerning about other aspects of the game.

Therefore I do consider limiting rules content when appropriate to be a sign of good GMing. Not ever doing it shows questionable judgment.

Certainly, one could blanket ban sources, ban parts of sources, allow specific pieces on request at GM discretion, disallow specific pieces. However, in a complex game this involves a lot of work and your GM is already doing a raft of work to run a complex game for you - a player feeling entitled to use any rules they want is IMO unjustified and disrespectful to GMs.

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+1 for tying GM responsibility in with keeping it fun for other characters. "Rest of the group to be overpowered." Certainly we're more than the narrator or the barkeep, we're the mediator as well –  LitheOhm Oct 29 '12 at 4:44
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The decision to limit the books used in a campaign will have a fair few effects that may or may not be desirable depending on the campaign. So, instead of trying to give a definitive yes/no answer, I'm going to list some of the impacts and hope that it's enough for GMs to make their own decisions.

Generally, having more rules content available means that players (and the GM) have more options for what they can do in the game, meaning that players, and the GM, can realise a wider variety of potential character concepts. Well, sort of. It actually depends: In some cases, by explicitly defining how something might be done mechanically, a splatbook can 'nail down' a mechanical meaning for something that would otherwise be taken care of entirely within the fiction. In addition, the presence of specialised rules for one thing implies that things with a similar scope must also have rules before they can be detailed in the game fiction. For example, in a hypothetical campaign without splatbooks, a player declares that her character is particularly good at magic related to manipulating time. Another player character is a skilled magical healer, and a third is a specialised magical blacksmith. There are no rules for this kind of magical specialisation in the core rulebooks, so there are no particular mechanical effect of this declaration beyond what the GM permits. Later, the group decides to pick up some splatbooks. One such book includes character options that reflect being exceptionally good at magical time manipulation and healing, but there are no similar rules for being an exceptionally talented magical blacksmith. The group is left in a somewhat awkward situation.

Splatbooks also increase the amount of information players and the GM have to keep track of and take into account when optimising. (Co-incidentally, this is the potential source of unfairness alluded to in the question: Banning or not banning splatbooks simultaneously rewards and punishes system mastery by altering the content of the system, allowing players with system mastery of the books present in the chosen scope the advantage of greater familiarity.) For example, suppose a particular supplement for 3.5rd edition D&D introduced a new damage type, or brought into prominence a damage type only rarely used in the core game. Suddenly, the same old defensive strategies have a major hole in them - a hole that might require a lot of gp or extensive character rebuilds to fix.

Because splatbooks can expand (or reduce) the scope of what's possible in a game, splatbooks tend to redefine what's possible in a setting - which can alter (or perhaps 'water down') the flavour of that setting. If you added ninja to a pirate-focused game, the differences between different types of pirate might suddenly seem less - or more - meaningful, and the setting might be more - or less - coherent, depending on how the implementation was handled.

Expanding what's possible in a setting can also increase the amount of information players (and the GM) need to make intelligent in-fiction decisions. For example, in a 3.5rd edition D&D game using only the three core rulebooks, if an NPC casts a Fireball spell without using a magic item, PCs can safely assume that the NPC is a Wizard or Sorcerer, and hatch plans that take the weaknesses of those classes into account. If the Warmage class is added to the game, that assumption goes out the window.

Splatbooks can change not only what is possible in the game, but what the game is about thematically, and what players spend most of their time doing. As noted in another answer, a 3.x campaign that includes the Book of Erotic Fantasy in its corpus will probably have a very different focus to one that only includes the various Complete books.

My bias has probably shown through in this answer, but hopefully there's enough useful information here for people to use.

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Oh I've seen the "new mechanichs change the whole system" thing. Once you get your hands on a Shadow Cloak (teleports you away before you get hit 3/day) and some way to kill your opponent in one turn, everybody's looking for ways to improve initiative or silence you so you can't use the cloak. The shift in tone is dramatic. from bold warriors fighting dragons to agile assassins backstabbing people. –  Zachiel Oct 29 '12 at 17:34
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+1 for analyzing the banes and boons of allowing/banning splatbooks –  LitheOhm Oct 30 '12 at 4:57
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One of the many categories that RPGs can be divided into are those that represent rules for playing characters in specific settings for example Dresden Files RPG, Supernatural RPG, various versions of Marvel Superheroes, etc. Then there are RPGs (this includes the genric/universal systems) that are about playing a particular genre, theme, etc. These games are not designed to play a specific setting.

The various editions of D&D were all designed to allow wildly varying fantasy settings. Some, like D&D 4th edition, had a default setting in the core rule that they used for their published adventure but were quickly adapted to other settings.

And this process of adaptation is what the referee is does when setting a new campaign using D&D. Nearly all editions of D&D had a product line with multiple sourcebooks presenting additional rules and options. The part of the referee's job in preparing for his campaign is picking and choosing the options that best reflect the setting he has created.

Yes, it is well within the referee's authority to limit which books and options that can be used. The referee's obligation is to clearly communicate his choices to the players before they put major time into preparing their characters. This is just simply good manners and essential to maintaining the social atmosphere of the group. If players object, it can then be then discussed along with possible alternatives.

The major issue of limiting books isn't in mechanical considerations but in the expectations of the players. If a group expect to use any and all supplements for a particular edition and the referee fails to communicates this then there are going to be issues.

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+1 for "communicate limitations before they spend energies on character creation" –  Zachiel Oct 29 '12 at 17:36
    
+1 for the same reason as @Zachiel, this is important –  LitheOhm Oct 30 '12 at 4:55
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Not only is it fair, it's about the only sane way to set things up for many games.

Why to pick a set of books

  • System Mastery
    • Time
    • Expense
    • Overlap
  • Thematic fit
  • Overwhelming the Players
  • Physical Considerations
    • Mass for travel
    • space at table

It's not a matter of trust, it's a matter of rules mastery by the GM. You, as a GM, have only so much time to prep, and that prep time includes coping with system mastery issues as well as creating your adventures. There is expense, as well - you need to have the materials to be able to master them. The potential for different mechanical solutions for overlapping classes also is a problem for rules mastery.

It's also a matter of theme. Not every book works well with every other book thematically; when one starts allowing 3rd party materials, this can result in serious theme clash. Classes for Mystic China have no place in a game set in Viking Europe, for example, let alone in a Doom of Odin game. Further, many classes restrictions are thematically tailored - some are balanced only within their own setting, such as using Doom of Odin characters (Norse demi-gods) in a normal D&D 3e game, or Council of Worms PC's in a normal AD&D 2E game; sure, the mechanics work, but the balance is based in the setting not the class.

It is quite possible that an "any book" game can overwhelm players. Players in "any book" games have a tendency to go for the imbalanced and/or overpowered options, and to not create cohesive parties. Further, in such a game, the sheer number of choices can be simply too many to pick from. (This "too many classes" factor was the major drawback to Rolemaster, for example.)

Rules also have considerable mass. If the game is not held at the GM's home, the GM has to lug the books with. Given that the mass of the books adds up rather quickly in proportion to the pages used when the GM sets no limits beyond "What's in my collection," narrowing this down is a back-saver as much as a brain saver. Further, having a largish pile of books is a space issue at the table.

So, How To Pick The Set

That said, the best way to handle things is to work with your players in figuring out which books to use. For example, if half your players want basic D&D, and half want Doom of Odin, you've got an issue - most of the Doom of Odin crowd are likely to be willing to play vanilla 3E. If someone wants to play one class from an odd book, and you are willing to learn its rules and limits, fine, let them, but get the group's input.

Likewise, if no one in the group is interested in a particular book, drop it from the list - one less thing to worry about. You can make exceptions later, if need be.

And, in the long run, Balance is an illusion in RPG's. A strong player playing a sub-par class can often dominate a group of weaker players with übermensch characters. So, if it's just a matter of a weaker player and a strong class, it might not be an issue... but if your hyper-alpha takes a mondo-over-the-top class, no one else might feel that they contribute.

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+1 for travel mass. Having to lug a dozens of books to every session nearly killed my 3.5 campaign. Thank Vecna for bags of holding... –  GMJoe Oct 30 '12 at 3:34
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+1 for addressing that not only are GMs not rule-guru all-knowing gods but also lack an extradimensional space with which to place their library. Also very agreed on the last paragraph, as an experienced player I led the party of people using way cooler chars than I was at the time –  LitheOhm Oct 30 '12 at 4:54
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Speaking as a GM...

Of course it's fair. If everyone is playing by the same set of rules, an optimizer can find a way to optimize within what's allowed and will still be far more powerful then a beginner or someone more interested in making a thematically sound character (instead of one that's simply a collection of stats). It's only "unfair" if you limit one player to less material then the others. If anything it's probably more fair to limit material, since beginners can't possibly understand 27 books when they've barely played the game.

Frankly, as a GM I find that the main people who are affected by book restrictions aren't optimizers. They're people who read about builds online and don't actually know how to make a character on their own. Since the online builds tend to use everything under the sun, without knowing how to adapt you're dead in the water once material gets restricted and some part of the build suddenly doesn't work (Particularly true in D&D 3.5 with people who think that Dragon Magazine is a valid source.).

I've also found that anybody that would complain about this as being unfair and a beginner player aren't likely to fit that well into the same campaign. The game tends to work best either when everybody is similarly powerful, or the optimizer does something like make a broken support build that makes all the beginners stronger. In those cases, everyone's having fun. When you have a beginner playing a Paladin (because hey, Paladins are cool!) and somebody else playing some incredibly broken build and thus being five times more effective, the game doesn't work. You've got a player doing everything and another player doing nothing, and no easy way for the GM to actually challenge one in combat without making it impossible for the other.

Really, the answer as to if you should restrict material or not depends on the type of game you're playing and the types of players you have. But in terms of it's fair? Absolutely.

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+1 optimization doesn't require a wide span of books, optimization means making the best of what's available –  LitheOhm Oct 30 '12 at 16:36
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I think that there is far more that needs to be ascertained before coming to a decision on this and most likely the answer is, 'depends on the circumstances.' Optimally, the GM and players would get together and work this out amongst themselves. Is the game predominantly newer players or older players. If the games is to familiarize newer players with the game you would probably want to restrict books so as not to overwhelm the newbies.

Another issues is that people new to roleplaying, as opposed to new to playing D&D, still tend to have the attitude that, as a game, D&D is just like other games in the sense that it is a competition against the other players to 'win.' If they hold this belief they will most assuredly feel slighted by what they perceive the older, more familiar, players are permitted to play 'better' things. Playing 'ye olde thiefe' may seem somewhat mundane if there are people in that party playing ninja's or spellthieves.

On the other hand, if the party is three long term players and one newbie, it could be a great disservice toward the majority of the player base to tell them that they can only play characters using the core books. If you have played D&D long enough the base classes and races can get a little boring after awhile. At that point I would just explain this to the new player. Tell the new player that they should start of with and easy to learn base class and inform them that if a different class catches their eye they can maybe pick it up in game. Maybe the character playing the ninja will see potential in the new player and school him in the arts of invisibility.

I don't think there is a clear-cut answer to this question, it will be different for different circumstances.

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Tend to be in favor of limiting things.

It's a matter of signal to noise ratio. As a gm, I might simply not want to have to comb through all possible combinations of material to see if its appropriate. Yes, it's possible there could be something that would end up working or being appropriate ... But is it worth the effort to determine that, when the are a near infinite amount of options available even if you limited yourself to core books only. The fact that a book exists doesn't mean it should always be used, or needs to be. A gm making a large campaign often only has so much time to dedicate to it, and sometimes you just don't want to spend that time studying options you generally don't like anyway.

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You might want to try answering the question before putting in your justification for your answer. Note that you don't bother to say "Yes" or "No" you just talk. I'm not the downvote you got but that's probably why. –  mxyzplk Nov 20 '12 at 21:30
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OK, since the tags have changed from to , the answer to this question has changed. I’m going to state right upfront that this answer is fairly elitist: unfortunately, that is what Wizards deemed best for its game system. Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 was designed to be an “ivory tower,” where those who know the tricks have all the power. It was designed this way from Day 1, and no amount of book banning will fix it. You have to know the system, including a huge array of supplements, and where the traps and problems are, in order to use it well.

So if this answer is elitist (and it is), it’s not because I think this is a good thing: it’s because that’s how Wizards designed the game. I actually detest this fact of 3.5, and therefore try to help systems that attempt to fix it.

You can play it without doing so, of course. But I argue that there are many better systems if that is what you wish to do. Because of the way 3.5 was designed, it has many, serious flaws, which are only worth accepting if you want to deal with the huge amount of material available.

Note that none of this answer makes sense in any system other than 3.5. It is only because of the exact nature of 3.5’s specific flaws that this answer makes any sense.

To begin,

Of course, DMs should not allow books they do not have access to

Or are unfamiliar with. This should go without saying. My answer is explicitly ignoring this reason for banning a book. I’m talking about DMing a book you have and have read, for any other reason.

Other than that, banning books wholesale in D&D 3.5 is a bad idea

There is no book in Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 that is entirely bad. Even Serpent Kingdoms and Book of Exalted Deeds have some few things worth using that aren’t going to break the game. Savage Species is the best argument available, but there are things in that book that I consider good for the game, and moreover Savage Species isn’t really a 3.5 book to begin with (it was going to be a spin-off product, that got cancelled and turned into a “3.25” book just before the release of 3.5).

A multitude of option is 3.5’s only real strong point

Moreover, Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 really does not have a lot going for it, and I say this as someone who plays it more than any other system. If you are not taking advantage of its singular shining strength, it’s incredible array of available options, the system has very little to offer. There are better systems, whose only real drawback compared to 3.5 is the relative lack of material.

Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of 3.5 material is extremely generic. It is a system that welcomes adaptation and reuse of material in novel ways. Sure, that book might specifically be in Eberron, a word that does not even exist in your setting: that doesn’t mean that the Educated feat ought to be unavailable (a lack of academia in your setting might, but then other options in the book may be appropriate and we’re now talking about specifics, which is fine). Feeling hog-tied by the default fluff of various options is unnecessarily limiting on DMs and players: refluffing is an excellent way to make unique characters.

And DMs should not be alone in adapting material. DMs should have the final say on whether or not a given adaptation is valid, but player’s should be encouraged to get involved in the world, flesh out its various nooks and crannies to find a place for their character.

Banning supplements for balance makes no sense:

The worst balance is in Core

Without a doubt, the most wildly imbalanced book ever published by Wizards of the Coast for 3.5 is the Player’s Handbook. The Cleric, Druid, and Wizard were far-and-away the most powerful classes published originally, and after all the dozens and dozens of supplements, they still are. They’ve been joined by the Archivist (Heroes of Horror) and Artificer (Eberron Campaign Setting), they’ve been somewhat improved by supplements (Divine Metamagic, Planar Shepherd, celerity), but ultimately 60% of the most powerful, broken classes in the game are found in the PHB alone, and they derive nearly all of their power from the spells and abilities in that book.

Meanwhile, the Fighter, Monk, and Paladin struggle mightily in Core, and while they have, as Core classes, received tons and tons of supplemental support, they remain among the weakest classes in the game. The only ones generally weaker are the classes based on these three (Complete Warrior’s Samurai is a Fighter with pre-selected feats, Complete Adventurer’s Ninja is a Monk with some stealthy features and a super-nerfed version of Sneak Attack).

So in one book, you have eleven classes: 3 are super-powerful, and can literally dominate entire campaigns alone, and 3 are pitifully weak, struggling to survive even when working together. The remaining 5 tend to be close to one extreme or the other (Sorcerer is almost as powerful as Cleric, Druid, and Wizard; Barbarian, Ranger, and Rogue are nearly as weak as Fighter, etc.)

Balance improved as time went on

The later a book is, the more likely things are to be tightly balanced.

Complete Champion (published 4 years after the PHB) finally provided easy ways to move and full-attack at the same time. Tome of Battle finally gave martial/mundane types options and versatility, and toned down on how hard not full-attacking would cripple martial characters. Between these two and some help from having a wealth of options, a well-made martial character can keep up with a spellcaster who doesn’t try too hard. It’s not great balance, but it’s a whole lot better.

On the flip-side Player’s Handbook II and Tome of Magic finally involved some reasonable spellcasters in the Beguiler and Binder, and even some outright weak magic types in the Dragon Shaman, Healer, and Shadowcaster, who could play nicely with the originally underpowered classes.

Banning books to stop the munchkin makes no sense

Because, again, the worst content is in Core. A competent optimizer dead-set on ruining your game needs nothing more than the Player’s Handbook. The solution isn’t to ban anything – except maybe that player, if he can’t be made to play nice. Don’t try to set rules to keep people you don’t trust in line: just don’t play with people you don’t trust. The game is going to fail anyway if there is no trust.

Banning books to help new players makes sense, but is not necessary

Newbies usually find their own comfort zone.

Some will simply stick with the easily-available Core on their own, and should be helped to avoid all of Core’s traps (seriously, Core is awful about those). This sort of player will probably need a lot of help, so you’ll be in for a fair bit of work. You may actually do very well in directing them to some later books – it is much, much harder to fall into a trap with Tome of Battle than it is with the Player’s Handbook. A Warlock or a Warblade are easy to make, and to a certain extent “self-optimize,” which allows the player to focus on that which he finds fun and interesting instead of agonizing over power levels (or, more realistically, making you agonize over them).

Others will seek help online, and put together something using a bunch of books – make sure they’ve actually read what all of those options do, and certainly read the thing online yourself to make sure you agree with the conclusions made about rules interactions and accept the level of power that the concoction creates. This involves, of course, some work also, but I’d argue it involves less: you have to read whatever guide was used, but those are put together for the sake of making it easy to follow. (do try to avoid dndwiki though, it’s astoundingly consistent in its awful-ness. There are diamonds in the rough there, I’m sure, but I have never seen one)

Do Ban Specific Content

There are lots of things in various books that are poorly thought out, just don’t fit, and so on. These should be banned. That does not mean banning everything else in the book along with it. For example, the Artificer is phenomenally powerful, and relies on (and creates!) Eberron’s magitech society. Definitely not appropriate for, say, a campaign in a savage prehistoric world. It makes sense to ban that. The Warforged, too, for the same reason, though they could easily be golems or elementals, and has much better balance than the Artificer.

There is no reason to allow the kobold ex-paladin to call on Pazuzu, or for Sarrukh to exist, in your custom setting. The shadowcraft mage should be limited. The fleshraker should not be available as an Animal Companion. Et cetera and so on. There are absolutely important limits a DM should place on the material available to his players. They just don’t come in convenient “Overpowered Book,” “Underpowered Book,” and “Just-Right Book.”

Yes, this means you, the DM, need a lot of system mastery

Ultimately, yes, DMing 3.5 successfully requires a fair amount of knowledge of the system. The system was designed to reward system mastery from the ground up. The books are littered with (apparently intentional) traps, and equally littered with (probably unintentional) routes to extreme heights of power. And not all of them involve hairbrained combinations of vaguely-written rules. Contingency and greater teleport and shapechange are very simple spells: they just dominate the game. You, as a DM, have to know about these things if you’re looking to have much success with 3.5.

In my opinion, all of the above highlights some very serious problems with 3.5. If you do not want to know about all of this material, the solution isn’t to limit yourself to Core – Core is the worst of them, literally – it’s to find a new system that suits your preferences better. There are many.

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I'm not really satisfied with this answer: I think there are some important things to say about 3.5 in this regard, but I also do not want to be bashing people's play styles and accusing people of badwrongfun. I kind of expect downvotes, because I don't really feel like I've achieved the right balance. So feel free to do so, but also please comment with suggestions on how to get at the core problem (3.5's myriad traps and other flaws) while being more polite, I suppose. –  KRyan Jan 7 '13 at 16:09
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