No Air (Exploring Vacuum Builds)


Isolation from the rest of the group is a danger to any player character braving the depths of a dungeon. “Don’t split the party,” is a mantra for most groups. But being apart from a party isn’t something only a rogue doubling back for some pickpocketing is guilty of. In the past we have discussed the a few reasons why “vacuum builds” can be difficult for parties and GMs to deal with, but what exactly do we mean by the term?

Vacuum Builds – Basics

When looking at a “vacuum build”, we first have to consider the term “build”. With the advent of the OGL and even the acceptance of the ancestral system’s “3.0” over a simple “Third” the affiliation of game systems with software development became overt. Character’s were discussed in forums increasingly commonly in a modular and systemic view with an eye toward optimization. Just like software. The optimal configuration of levels, feats and other abilities became increasingly commonly referred to as a “build”.

Most of these ideas were genre or setting neutral and focused on “legal” or “core” mechanics, often with an eye toward organized play. Following general internet usage trends this of course soon proliferated to include guides to increase viability for fringe concepts and support role-playing choices with some degree of mechanical strength or efficiency. But the one thing that no build guide can account for is an actual realities of a singular GM’s table.

This fact is the principle crux over a large portion of what we refer to as vacuum builds. That is a mechanical character architecture that exists outside the context of a specific game or campaign. From pouncing “cavabarians” to class-specific guides, these concepts exist with optimal configurations that will consider nothing that happens in-game to the character as they progress. Essentially, planning a character from 1st to 20th level in a total vacuum without regard to what has or will happen to the character through the progress of their story.

Optimization guides are NOT the only way to vacuum build. Sometimes, when we are bored we dream up characters we would like to play and the intoxicant of freeform development can be a powerful drive to manifest a character, even in campaigns where they don’t exactly fit. Beyond even this, the supposition of extended backstory can easily move beyond a player’s assumed role in worldbuilding or campaign architecture. Some GMs are great with this, and some are going to be blindsided by your planned story at every turn.

Potential Issues with Vacuum Builds

Vacuum builds are not bad things but working with them can be challenging for both GMs and their players. Consider the following when planning to run or experiencing a player with a vacuum build:

  • Setting Incongruity – If a GM is running a specific homebrew or established regional game in a shared setting, it is entirely plausible that no one has even seen a naginata  or falcata let alone have one to sell you. Showing up to a game with a character dependent on a weapon or setting-inappropriate ability can instantly set a character at odds with immersion and verisimilitude. Organized play often mitigates this by releasing approved mechanics guide and moderately permissive settings.
  • Mechanical Incongruity – A vacuum build that relies on sources the GM doesn’t have or allow is going to speed a player into a double collision that will often leave them upset and unprepared to play. Casual GMs are probably best encourgaged to create cosmopolitan settings or use a world like the core  Pathfinder Roleplaying Game campaign setting to allow for broad character ranges. But not every GM will be okay adjusting an entire world or setting to allow an exotic character.
  • Mechanical Support Issues – Even permissive games don’t always help out a vacuum build character–particularly if a GM uses premade modules. Your orc skull ram specialist probably isn’t going to have a ton of luck finding a magical weapon in a standard module or adventure path and the likelihood of a GM retconning such weapons into all of their planned adventures is not going to be high.
  • Party Support Issues – Collaborative games tend to courage… oddly enough… collaboration between players. Vacuum builds frequently account for most if not all of a character’s feat selections making possible usages of teamwork feat mechanics difficult to impossible or breeding redundancy when other party members provide benefits called out in your progression.
  • Story Isolation – Characters scripted out or designed in isolation will often maintain a distance from the party, either in story elements or group synergy–sometimes both. The also have significant backstory elements at odds with or ignored in the greater body of story and can even begin distracting or detracting from overall plot momentum as a GM tries to integrate them. Equally frustrating can be a GMs decision to ignore your story elements entirely.

Reconciling the Vacuum Build

Strong mechanics and swift character planning decisions are NOT bad things to have in a gaming group. Even with the above in mind we might still allow and even encourage vacuum builds from time to time–particularly for new or struggling players. Here are a few tips to integrate the vacuum build into a breathable whole:

  • Planning – As GMs and players discuss upcoming games, bring up “build” concepts that are exciting. Request space in a future game for exotic concepts and societal inclusion for rare mechanics. If you want to be a special snowflake, make this clear too so your negative energy master doesn’t show up and get handed a team “Death Channel” uniform.
  • Transparency – Explain elements of build mechanics or desired backstory to a GM. Don’t be afraid to share build guides and articles you are interested in. A surprised GM is a more likely enemy and an informed GM a more likely co-conspirator. Secret histories can make characters seem disjointed and distant, adding a since of wrongness and not-belonging to other party members.
  • Strangers in Strangeness – Vacuum builds CAN BE REQUIRED by a game. While organized play tends to lean on commonality provided by a shared setting, sometimes GMs want to provide mystery and a sense of the unknown that can go up to include the player characters Strangers waking up in a dungeon or planar locale make much more sense for vacuum builds than hometown heroes. Look for these sorts of games or events if you want to try out more vacuum builds.

Vacuum builds can be enormous time savers for new or casual players without doing much damage to the overall flow and flavor of a game. With a little extra communication, they can be integrated into existing or new campaigns for a great experience. Players who insist on using them without consideration to setting or mechanical environments might want to make sure their groups are cosmopolitan enough to accept any interjection.

For mechanics focused on synergies and collaborative interactions check out our products at these fine vendors:, drivethruRPG, Paizo and RPGNow.


This entry was posted in 3rd Party Options, Game Mastering, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, Player Advice and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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