By default, D&D is high-magic fantasy.
Well. Sort of.
First of all, D&D is several fantasy subgenres in one. For example, 20th-level play is basically superhero fantasy whereas 1st level is substantially grittier. You can do dungeon punk (Eberron), dark fantasy (Ravenloft), epic fantasy (Dragonlance), or heroic fantasy (the default). But by default, D&D is not a low-magic game.
Think about a typical low-level party. Half the party can probably cast spells. Some of those spells are cantrips, so they can be cast an infinite number of times. These spellcasters can throw acid, shoot bolts of fire, light up the darkness. or magic up illusory objects all without breaking a sweat. After just a couple of sessions of play, these priests or wizards can use their magic to teleport short distances, turn invisible, or paralyse people. And by 5th level, they can hurl lightning bolts, fly, walk on water, and even reverse death. Low fantasy this ain’t.
What is low fantasy, then? First of all, low fantasy and low magic are not necessarily the same thing, in the same way that high fantasy and high magic are not necessarily the same thing – although both tend to go together. In a low fantasy setting (and I’m borrowing from TV Tropes here), magic is rare or even non-existent. It might be dangerous, corruptive, or difficult to control. The scope is more down to earth, focused on characters who are considerably more ordinary and maybe even less heroic. Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon are both pretty low fantasy, The Witcher even more so.
So: can we do low fantasy in D&D?
What follows is largely theory. Full disclaimer: I haven’t actually tried this out much. But I would like to. I find fantasy more interesting when characters are more grounded and vulnerable, and Marvel-style ‘anything goes’ fantasy starts to feel rather hollow after a while. So I would be very interested to try and make low fantasy work in D&D.
Of course, excellent systems already exist for this, and it would be remiss of me not to mention them. Forbidden Lands is a wonderful ‘survival fantasy’ game from Swedish publishers Free League (pictured above). The Cypher System can handle low fantasy well, and so can Fate. (In fact, I would argue that low magic works better in Fate Core than high magic.) If you want a specifically Tolkienesque world, The One Ring and its 5e predecessor, Adventures in Middle-Earth are both excellent.
What follows, then, is my take on how to do a low fantasy D&D game. If you try out my suggestions, let me know how you get on!
Let’s think about character creation first of all. If we want to do a truly low-magic campaign, are options need to be a bit more limited. The following subclasses would work fine in a low fantasy campaign, but anything beyond this list is going to change the feel of the setting significantly:
- Barbarian: berserker, totem warrior
- Fighter: banneret, battle master, cavalier, champion, samurai
- Rogue: assassin, inquisitive, mastermind, scout, swashbuckler, thief
That probably seems like a very short list. It is. But restriction breeds creativity, and this is already starting to feel like a very different kind of campaign to what we’re used to.
Back in 2015, Unearthed Arcana published a variant ranger with no spells. It’s a bit odd but might work. You could maybe combine this variant with the beast master, gloom stalker, monster slayer, and hunter subclasses. The others feel too magical to me.
What about the rest of character creation? Some suggestions:
- Roll 3d6 for your ability scores or use a lower point buy value (I would suggest 24 points). I would probably allow players to reroll their scores if they didn’t have a 12 or higher or if the sum of their modifiers was −3 or lower.
- Limit the number of races available. Forbidden Lands has eight: this strikes me as plenty. Humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings are a given – maybe goblins, orcs, half-elves, and lizardfolk?
- Consider whether you are going to allow magical feats like Magic Initiate or Ritual Caster. This is really the difference between low magic and no magic. Personally, I like the idea of magic being something that requires serious effort and investment, so I would allow both of these. Let’s make these low-level spells become extraordinary again!
One final consideration: how high a level are you prepared to go? Even without magic or magic items, a 20th-level champion fighter is still an extraordinary and superheroic character. I probably wouldn’t let this sort of campaign ascend into Tier 4, and even Tier 3 could feel a bit too unrealistic. Your mileage may vary. At that point, I would award an Ability Score Increase or a feat whenever a character would have gained a level.
Monsters and magic
That’s the players’ side of the game – what about the DM’s? Two things to think about here are monsters and magic. Monsters first:
- Be careful with monsters that are immune to non-magical weapons. The main candidates here are lycanthropes, golems, and high-level undead (eg, liches, mummy lords). If adamantine and silver weapons are not available, these foes become invincible. Creatures who are resistant to these weapons are also more of a challenge, such as gricks, wights, and fiends.
- Without spellcasting, conditions become much harder to deal with. Most are temporary anyway, like a ghoul’s paralysis or a mummy’s fear effect, but some (eg, petrification) could become irreversible.
- Without area of effect spells, mobs of enemies pose a much greater threat.
What about magic items? 5th edition D&D is (supposedly) designed in such a way that magic items are not required for high-level play. Which magic items you choose to allow is a very personal decision and an important dial for controlling how ‘low magic’ your game feels. One trick could be to bump up rarity by one category: thus, common items (potions of healing) become uncommon, rare items (+2 weapons) become very rare, and legendary items (robes of the archmagi) are essentially artifacts, never to be found at random. If you are going to do this, swap the tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide as follows:
|Instead of . . .||Use . . .|
|Table A||See below|
|Table B||Table A|
|Table C||Table B|
|Table D||Table C|
|Table E||Table D|
|Table F||Table A|
|Table G||Table F|
|Table H||Table G|
|Table I||Table H|
Three other points:
- Treat potions of healing as one category below: thus, superior becomes greater, greater becomes regular, regular becomes 50 gp.
- Treat spell scrolls as two spell levels lower.
- Instead of magical armour, I recommend the armour proofing rules in The Complete Armorer’s Handbook. (It’s worth noting that magical armour is actually quite high level on the magic item tables. A +2 chain shirt is Table H, for example, and +1 scale mail is Table I!)
Other variant rules
These are all from the Dungeon Master’s Guide with page numbers included:
- Success at a cost (242). I imagine lots of groups do this anyway, but it works well in a grittier campaign.
- Flanking? Facing? (251–2) Either or both, if you like. Personally, I’m not fond of either, but some groups swear by them.
- Healer’s kit dependency (266). Unless you think healing is difficult enough as it is.
- Gritty realism (267). One long rest per week, and a short rest takes eight hours.
- Lingering injuries (272). Crits and dying suddenly become much scarier.
- Massive damage (273). Even a barbarian with a d12 hit die is suddenly at risk of unconsciousness.
You might also want to use the variant encumbrance rules in the Player’s Handbook (p 176).
Low fantasy D&D is a bit of an experiment. It requires buy-in from the rest of the group, and you may need to tweak these rules as you go. Check in regularly to make sure your players are still having fun. If they are: great! If they aren’t: be prepared to lose something. Ultimately, the rules are there to serve your fun, and not the other way around.
Did I miss anything? Leave a suggestion in the comments!
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One thought on “How to run low fantasy D&D”
You can absolutely fit a square peg into a round hole if you hammer on it hard and long enough. But just using a round peg is obviously the better choice.
As a side note, attempting to apply the word “gritty” to 5e just doesn’t work. It’s basically an oxymoron. You start out as a superhero right from level one in 5e D&D. If you want gritty, again with the square peg…