The Difficulties Of Running Low Magic Campaigns
  • The Difficulties Of Running Low Magic Campaigns


    I recently talked with a gamer who's often full of unusual, and sometimes impractical, ideas. He asked me about the difficulties of running a medieval-style low-magic D&D campaign. Lord of the Rings had to come up in the conversation, because it's the most well-known low magic fantasy setting in existence. If you take a functional rather than emotional view of the characters, in First Edition D&D terms Aragorn amounts to a seventh level ranger and Gandalf the Grey to an eighth level cleric with a Ring of Fire, and other characters are similarly low level. (I'll discuss in detail this another time.) Magic and "super-power" is immensely rare in this setting.


    It should be easier to run a low magic rather than a high magic campaign because the powers of both characters and opponents are unlikely to get out of hand. But as for recruiting players for such a campaign…that could be difficult in 2018. (Keep in mind, he's a college student and is likely to have players who are college students, not older players.)

    The fundamental problem with a low magic campaign is that people have been "trained" to expect high magic by video RPGs and MMOs, and by video games in general, that are often designed to reward rather than challenge players. In other words, the low magic campaign will feel much too "tame", too dull, too slow, too "lame". Yes, it can be just as dangerous as any other campaign, but I suspect most players are not looking for danger any more when they play RPGs, again as encouraged by video games (where you can never lose).

    Will players go for a game where there isn't a "loot drop" with every monster, without magic items by the bucket load?

    In CRPG/MMOs leveling is what it's all about, the destination (which is maximum level) not the journey. Yet in order to run a low magic campaign you probably have to have low level characters, and that means they can't level up every other session or sooner. How will this sit with people who are accustomed to computer RPGs?

    Perhaps it can work if you tell the players before the campaign starts that it's a military style campaign, that the party is like an elite combat unit (Navy SEALs, SAS, and such) trying to accomplish a series of dangerous but vital missions. Or perhaps they're like elite mercenaries doing the same thing. In other words, you can try to train the expectations of the players, but you're up against their experience, which will often include lots of computer RPGs.

    My advice to my friend was to make small differences in capability from one level to the next, to let the players level up with some frequency, but to make magic items very rare, as in LOTR. If the players think of themselves as special service troops/elite mercenaries, perhaps that will work.

    Improvement of characters is a pillar of RPGs. If they can only rarely improve via magic item collection, they're left with money collection or improved inherent capabilities (stronger, sneakier, better defenders, etc.). An alternative way to run a low-magic campaign might be to let the players begin as extraordinarily capable characters (compared with ordinary people) who don't really change much. They would be like James Bond and other long-running movie and comic book characters (Indiana Jones, Black Widow), and heroes of many novels. If players aren't focused on leveling up, they could actually have adventurous fun!

    Another way is to emphasize collection of wealth, where players become merchant magnates or buy into the nobility or become leaders of mercenary armies. The ultimate goal might be to run their own small country.

    I should think some readers have tried low-magic medieval-style campaigns. How well did they work out?

    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 90 Comments
    1. Ath-kethin's Avatar
      Ath-kethin -
      I ran what most would consider a very low-magic 5e Primeval Thule campaign. I banned all caster classes except the warlock, and not a single magic weapon appeared over the course of the campaign. I compromised a bit on magic items in general and allowed keoghtom's ointment as a non-magical healing salve that the PCs learned to make.

      The campaign ended up being extremely character-focused (which was my goal and intent from the start). We spent a good deal of time developing relationships with various NPCs, both newly-met and from the characters' history, and threats were actually, you know, threatening. There was a real sense of dread when a wicked priest opened a portal and a bunch of gibbering mouthers swarmed out.

      Be upfront with the expectations and make sure everybody is on board, that's all. All three of the players in that campaign remarked that it was their favorite they'd ever played in. Sadly, the campaign came to an end after about 14 months (we tried to play weekly but it ended up being about 3 times a month, and the characters were 5th level at the end) when one of the players got a job in another state and had to move away.

      Possibly important footnote: I am in my late 30s, and the three PCs in that group were 42, 23, and 20 years old.
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      Sure, when you're running anything other than "Kitchen Sink" games you need player buy-in, I think that's a given. I don't think it's the fault of video games that trains people to expect magic in their TTRPGs, every edition of D&D has some with some form of Wizard and some form of Cleric. Players expect magic in their TTRPG because the TTRPG says there's magic in here! So it's hardly on the player to look at, read through a book, and come to the conclusion that some elements of the advertised game may not be available.

      If you're trying to attract computer gamers to a low-magic TTRPG setting, you're probably going about things the wrong way. It's like trying to attract a pipeline welder into fixing your garbage disposal. These things are related but the skills and expectations are completely at odds. If you're trying to attract video/computer gamers it's probably a better approach to hook them with high-magic or "Kitchen Sink" games and once they're interested in the system they are more likely to be willing to explore more restrictive variants of it.

      But I'll posit a bigger concern: video gamers have been trained on a strict DM (the computer). The rules are the rules. They are immutable, enforced upon everyone equally. You're more likely to find objection from video gamers when a system is very "rules light" or "rulings heavy" where a rule may not be equally enforced at all times, where the exceptions are unknowable except to the DM.

      --------

      I've run short low-magic games. There's little leveling. There's perhaps the occasional evil wizard or witch but never one in the party. And there's little magical loot. There's probably one dragon and he's the last thing you'll fight before the game is over. So, more or less "The Hobbit" but with different flavor.

      I think the important element is to keep them short. (6 months is my sweet spot). Not leveling. Not getting loot. Nearly dying every other session, while some people find this fun, most people find it irritating after a while. Sure, people also have fun, but low-magic campaigns represent high opportunity cost. Everything you can find in a low-magic game can be found in a high-magic game (except for the low-magic vibe). The low magic vibe is not usually enough of an offset IME.

      With the right sort of people you can certainly go further, but you've got to have a sort of people who primarily want the low-magic vibe over everything else. You're not gonna find that in video gamers.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      Low magic and low level are not the same thing. Sure, if you have high level casters they aren't within-themselves low magic, but that assumes the PCs aren't exceptions. Also high level but non-casters only (or reduced casters allowed, etc.) can be part of a low magic feel while still dealing with epic threats.

      Trying to model Gandalf in D&D is problematic because D&D has no mechanism to discourage proliferate use of magic besides a daily full refill, and that's not how magic is represented in the setting of LotR, any more than LotR used Vancian magic. On the other hand, Gandalf was able to defeat the Balrog one on one, and is a Maiar.
    1. Dave Goff's Avatar
      Dave Goff -
      I ran a 0-level and fairly low-magic campaign where the players rolled 3d6 with a minimum of 7 and then the choices they made as 0-level characters had opportunities to give them skills, stat bumps or story info. It actually went really well. It's great to see characters get excited about learning cantrip-level spells and being totally freaked out by magic creatures that are old hat in normal games.
      When they leveled up to 1 they were really stoked, especially since they had built their own special backgrounds rather than just choosing them from a list in the PHB.
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      The problem of Christmas tree characters and Monty Haul campaigns date back to the origin of DnD. You can't blame the proliferation of magic on video games. Many other rpgs, after all, manage fine with little or no magic.

      DnD is usually about getting stuff, and that stuff is magic because it's more interesting. It doesn't have to be this way. Fewer magic wielding characters, less story lines revolving around killing monsters and taking their stuff, less piles of gold, and more story oriented rewards would allow the game to work just fine as a low magic setting. And I'm pretty sure the video gamers would be happy too.
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Quote Originally Posted by Blue View Post
      On the other hand, Gandalf was able to defeat the Balrog one on one, and is a Maiar.
      Yeah, and Maia isn't a D&D playable race

      I'd like to point out that some video games do include low-magic fantasy. In Skyrim, each hold has just one court mage, none of whom do any significant spell casting. Then there's Kingdom Come Deliverance, admittedly new, which is a medieval-like game that has zero magic, as far as I can tell.

      If you want to run a low-magic campaign, you're better off recruiting Lord of the Rings movie (or book) fans than trying to convert World of Warcraft players. @shidaku 's comparison of welder versus plumber sums it up pretty well.
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      Quote Originally Posted by DMMike View Post
      Yeah, and Maia isn't a D&D playable race

      I'd like to point out that some video games do include low-magic fantasy. In Skyrim, each hold has just one court mage, none of whom do any significant spell casting. Then there's Kingdom Come Deliverance, admittedly new, which is a medieval-like game that has zero magic, as far as I can tell.

      If you want to run a low-magic campaign, you're better off recruiting Lord of the Rings movie (or book) fans than trying to convert World of Warcraft players. @shidaku 's comparison of welder versus plumber sums it up pretty well.
      And even though games like Skyrim have "Mage Universities" and the player can also be a spellcaster, they are by-and-large the exception.

      Low magic can also be about the approach to magic as opposed to sheer numbers. The Dragon Age series is primarily low-magic, even though casters come in high natural numbers, they are fairly quick to die and most of them will never be more than low-level casters. Likewise the non-magical members of society have a decidedly negative opinion of magic users, since there's a 50/50 chance any one of them is going to be possessed by a demon at any given moment of the day.
    1. Unpossible E's Avatar
      Unpossible E -
      The type of magic is also a factor. In a RuneQuest campaign every character can wield it, but the effects are more granular than in D&D, and there are several flavors of magic to keep things interesting.
    1. Jon Bradley's Avatar
      Jon Bradley -
      I have run a 2nd D&D game in college that was low magic. I had to slow down the level progression by a XP multiplier.

      If I were to run/play it again, I would use FantasyCraft by Crafty Games instead of D&D to accomplish it. I could easily emulate GoT more to make it work.

      With FantasyCraft, I can have either arcane or divine magic by itself or have neither if need be. Unlike D&D where magic is baked into the batter, FantasyCraft with magic is like an extra layer of frosting on a multi-tiered cake.
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
      The thing is, Lord of the Rings isn't a low-magic campaign. As a setting conceit, magic items are supposedly super-rare, but the protagonists pick them up at a hefty rate. Gandalf and Aragorn come pre-stocked with magic swords, the hobbits get magic weapons out of the first dungeon they raid, Frodo gets magic armour in Rivendell, and magic items are handed out like candy in Lothlorien. That's just in the first book, and I didn't even mention the Rings.

      The issues with low-magic campaigns in D&D are largely logistical, a matter of not having the expected tools to deal with certain resistances and immunities. If you have that covered through careful monster choice or adjustment, you should be fine.
    1. Tranquilis's Avatar
      Tranquilis -
      Low magic AND low levels both combine to make my favorite combination. A natural “governor”, though, is low level. A level cap of 6 (like in the old d20 E6 game variant) or 10 will naturally curtail some of the magic shenanigans.

      I like the resource management aspects, hirelings... and the actual threat and fear of death.

      I know we are taking fantasy here, but for me magic can really stress my suspension of disbelief. Example: clerical healing and commoner death. If every low-level NPC cleric could cast Cure Light Wounds, peasants would be beating the temple doors down -much less for Raise Dead and Resurrection.

      I’m about to the point I don’t like clerical magic at all, and would rather convert what few spells I like from divine to arcane.
    1. AmerginLiath's Avatar
      AmerginLiath -
      I think that the problem is that video games and modern action movies, sources from which many fantasy fans draw character inspiration nowadays, focus by necessity on confrontation. That requires the protagonist to have enough power (and that power to be retain or regenerate, not just be one-off). By comparison, classic sword & sorcery fiction, Tolkien, older films, and even games like 1st Edition AD&D look to avoid confrontation by limiting powers and resources and relying on how/when to use those resources.

      Running a low-magic D&D game means looking more to heist films than action blockbusters (how the Hobbit “trilogy” recast Tolkein’s own heist as an action romp makes for odd lesson). Consider the party as the sort of experts of an Ocean’s Eleven cast, working together to better the sum of their parts. In this case, a wizard’s magic returns to being a toolkit instead of being artillery — but the story also doesn’t call for him to be artillery. High magic games are just the fantasy version of big weapon games, and those exist when the story calls for the heroes playing Schwarzenegger or Stallone strolling through the dungeon making quips as they blow orcs away.
    1. CubicsRube's Avatar
      CubicsRube -
      Are you aware theres a 5e ogl product out there that addresses most of these concerns?

      Adventures in middle earth, by the guys who have the licence to the official lord of the rings rpg
    1. Dannyalcatraz's Avatar
      Dannyalcatraz -
      I should think some readers have tried low-magic medieval-style campaigns. How well did they work out?
      I’ve done it in a few systems, and IMHO, system matters. The more you have to do to “gimp” a game’s system, the more trouble you’ll have. Since most incarnations of D&D default to medium/high magic... In contrast, campaigns in RPGs like GURPS or HERO can be set at a wide variety of magic levels.

      Going “low magic” in a D&D type system, I’ve done things like eliminate full casting classes in favor of half casters (sometimes with expanded spell lists) OR houseruled that no PC could take more than half of their levels earned after 3rd in full casting classes.

      Also, you need to be careful about how you define “low-magic” and sell it to players. Some hear “low magic” and think that just means magic is generally rare, but can still be powerful. There might be only 6 true Artifacts in the world, but they may still harness world-shaking power.

      Others, OTOH, might think that “low magic” means magic is relatively commonplace but not very powerful. A fireball might be the pinnacle of war magic. “Spellcasters” would need to round out their skill sets to be effective adventurers.

      Still others may define “low magic” as being both rare and low in power. As above, no adventurer worth his salt will be able to rely on magic as his main shtick. They’ll use it to reinforce strengths, compensate for weaknesses, or have an unexpected trick up their sleeve.
    1. Mercule's Avatar
      Mercule -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arilyn View Post
      The problem of Christmas tree characters and Monty Haul campaigns date back to the origin of DnD. You can't blame the proliferation of magic on video games. Many other rpgs, after all, manage fine with little or no magic.
      This is true, as far as it goes -- Monty Haul is as old as the game, itself. I do think, however, that video games have aggravated things, though.

      Maybe it's not video games, but there's something. I ran 1E and 2E games that were very low magic and very slow advancement (name level took a couple years) and no one complained. That's in addition to most of the AD&D levels being "dead" levels, so all you got were some hit points. Since 3E, it seems like there's an expectation that PCs will actually hit 20th level and they often seem to have their advancement all planned out, with multiclassing and feat selection.
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mercule View Post
      This is true, as far as it goes -- Monty Haul is as old as the game, itself. I do think, however, that video games have aggravated things, though.

      Maybe it's not video games, but there's something. I ran 1E and 2E games that were very low magic and very slow advancement (name level took a couple years) and no one complained. That's in addition to most of the AD&D levels being "dead" levels, so all you got were some hit points. Since 3E, it seems like there's an expectation that PCs will actually hit 20th level and they often seem to have their advancement all planned out, with multiclassing and feat selection.
      Could be a positive feedback loop. The old video games had slow level up too, but then as players wanted more from their rpgs, video games increased the goodies, causing rpg players wanting more, and so on.
    1. Mercule's Avatar
      Mercule -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arilyn View Post
      Could be a positive feedback loop. The old video games had slow level up too, but then as players wanted more from their rpgs, video games increased the goodies, causing rpg players wanting more, and so on.
      Not sure I find that feedback loop to be positive, but point taken.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Tranquilis View Post
      I’m about to the point I don’t like clerical magic at all, and would rather convert what few spells I like from divine to arcane.
      In my 2E with tons of house rules campaign I'm still running all these years on, the gods are dead. There is magical healing but no raising.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by MarkB View Post
      The thing is, Lord of the Rings isn't a low-magic campaign. As a setting conceit, magic items are supposedly super-rare, but the protagonists pick them up at a hefty rate. Gandalf and Aragorn come pre-stocked with magic swords, the hobbits get magic weapons out of the first dungeon they raid, Frodo gets magic armour in Rivendell, and magic items are handed out like candy in Lothlorien. That's just in the first book, and I didn't even mention the Rings.
      Backing you up, there's LOTS of magic in LotR. What there isn't are things like instantaneous travel, magical flight in control of the protagonists, area effect death/control, and other things like that. Magic is all around but it's slow and for the most part has been forgotten or is dying out.


      The issues with low-magic campaigns in D&D are largely logistical, a matter of not having the expected tools to deal with certain resistances and immunities. If you have that covered through careful monster choice or adjustment, you should be fine.
      Adventures in Middle Earth by Cubicle 7 is a 5E port of The One Ring, designed for Middle Earth. The fact that you can only Long Rest in a sanctuary and that things like area effect death/control are essentially non-existent change the feel a lot.
    1. Tranquilis's Avatar
      Tranquilis -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mercule View Post
      This is true, as far as it goes -- Monty Haul is as old as the game, itself. I do think, however, that video games have aggravated things, though.

      Maybe it's not video games, but there's something. I ran 1E and 2E games that were very low magic and very slow advancement (name level took a couple years) and no one complained. That's in addition to most of the AD&D levels being "dead" levels, so all you got were some hit points. Since 3E, it seems like there's an expectation that PCs will actually hit 20th level and they often seem to have their advancement all planned out, with multiclassing and feat selection.
      Bingo. It’s not hard to understand players pining for that next level or two, then the next, and the next, so they can unlock feat trees, class abilities, etc.

      It feeds into my nascent theory that 3e + games with their myriad character options actually are more restrictive. Example: Twenty plus years ago, we’d ask the DM if we could attack every mook surrounding us in a desperate situation. Now, you have to have three or so feats to do it “by the book”. Without the “false choices”, players are more comfortable with who their character is in their mind instead of on paper...

      ... Of course, that bit assumes at least a bit of Theater of the Mind, which, surprisingly (?), sadly (?) isn’t even given a second thought by Paizo’s Bonner in a recent thread regarding PF 2e. It goes to show you how times have changed (can be found here in one of the PF 2e news threads, or on Paizo.xom itself.
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