You do use Level Limits for Race but don't use Alignment? Backstories are bad but there's tons of World Building?Why? What is the purpose of fictional world history, cultures, and politics if the PCs aren't part of said elements? This isn't a criticism. I'm honestly curious how it all works.
There are short, terse (probably insulting) answers to these questions, but I think that the underlying thing here is a disconnect between how I am (currently) playing D&D and the misconceptions about the game that are all over the internet these days. I know I've been trying to communicate my own position for...oh, months now, I suppose. But I've been somewhat less than "clear" and "succinct."
So let's break it down.
#1 Why play D&D at all?
D&D allows us to experience a world of fantasy adventure. That's the best summation I can come up with. There are nuances and elaborations I can make...additions that expand and justify the choice of a tabletop RPG over, say, a networked game like World of Warcraft. But the bottom line is what I wrote. If you aren't interested in experiencing a world of fantasy adventure, then D&D probably isn't the game for you.
Of course, to "experience a world of fantasy adventure" requires a world, right?
#2 Of what importance are rules?
This is the million dollar question, of course. And there are lots of potential answers. However, for this effort, I'm going to go down a particular, specific route, building on my answer to question #1.
Rules are recognizable limitations. We live in a world governed by rules; rules are familiar to us. And I'm not just talking about paying the tax man on April 15th or wearing a mask inside the grocery store during a pandemic (still a thing in my town). We have rules like physics. Like gravity: you drop a crystal wine glass on a tile floor and it explodes all over the place, regardless of whether or not that would make "a good story." We live in a world regulated by uncountable rules of nature, rules of law, rules of etiquette, rules of economy. To better experience a world of fantasy adventure, we need rules.
Why use racial level limits and not alignment? Because one provides a particular rule regulation I desire, and the other does not. I do not want 15th level dwarf fighters. But I do want players to be able to adventure together despite "alignment restrictions" for particular classes.
I do not measure comeliness (a new ability score, found in the 1E Unearthed Arcana). Neither do I have attributes like "sense of humor," "will power," or "thrifty-ness." The ability scores present...and the given rules...are designed to apply to experiencing adventure. Some rules are better at promoting this than others. I mentioned in an earlier post that I allow magic-users a couple extra spells to start, but I do not allow them to have a giant "recipe book" to pick and choose spells from. These adjustments are waaaay out-of-bounds for AD&D ("bad grognard! bad! shame!") but I've found they promote the adventure experience I wish to foster at my table.
Disregarding rules, ignoring dice rolls, cutting systems...these actions are generally taken in aid of helping create some sort of "story," or is taken as removing "clutter" that gets in the way of "meaningfulness" (yes! that's a word!). But that's not the reason I play D&D...it's not about telling a story or finding meaning. Instead, it's about experiencing adventure. Rules aid that experience.
[and I've found "clutter" generally only occurs in games that lack attention, focus, and preparation]
#3 Why build a world?
There is a particular school of thought that runs along these lines: the game world isn't important. All one needs to enjoy [insert RPG] is:
A) a great adventure (hopefully run by a competent GM), and
B) players that have an emotional investment in the adventure.
The wizard-duke of Arth has been oppressing his people for generations from his Mountain of Power. Rikki the Rogue saw his parents tortured to death by the ducal guard for daring to start a revolution. Ferdinand the Fighter's one true love was kidnapped to be one of the tyrants concubines. However, Sal the Cleric has has discovered a secret entrance into the castle through the sewers...can they brave the dangers of the wizard's cellars and bring justice to the evil overlord?
The appeal of playing out such a scenario is understandable...hey, we're heroes just like in Star Wars (or whatever)...but it brings a variety of problems with it...and not just the problem of "the tired trope."
However, I'm not going to dwell on (or berate) that "stuff." Instead, I'm going to fall back (again) on my answer to question #1...just why the hell are we playing this game instead of watching a movie, reading (or writing) a book, or just going for a walk in the sunshine? We are playing to experience a fantasy world of adventure.
Not "to experience a scenario." A world. And a world is a big place with lots of possibilities, not just a single mad wizard in his fortress.
We humans live in a world. Worlds, like rules, are...or should be...recognizable. Not in the "hey, this NPCs is my high school gym teacher" way, but in the "hey, sometimes it rains a lot and there's the possibility of flooding" kind of way. Because when the world is recognizable, we can use our real world experience to determine our actions (and reactions) to what is going on in the fantasy world.
Which makes for a deeper, richer, experience. An immersive one.
The more world-building you do...by which I mean "putting thought and care into the creation of the imaginary game environment"...the more engaged the players can be with that environment. If they know that "Jimmy the Town Orc" has a family/clan/tribe living nearby, perhaps the PCs will deal differently with the small band of orcs they encounter in the woods outside of town.
Or perhaps not...and maybe their eagerness to whet their blades will lead to serious and/or tragic repercussions.
In reviewing Adam's questions...especially his final one...I'd say world building is necessary precisely because it is vitally important for PCs to become a part of the "history, cultures, and politics" of the game world. Because becoming a part of that will result in a deeper level of emotional engagement in the players. Which will make them care more about the game...perhaps as much as the Creator DM who is building this imaginary playground for them.
BUT...they don't start with attachments. They start with a character in the world. It's not about writing a story...it's about experiencing. And they can only experience through play. Which is the whole reason why we're playing this D&D game: to experience a world of fantasy adventure.
Hopefully that all makes sense.