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Yaarel

Adventurer
@xoth.publishing

Thinking on it more.

For the gritty low magic setting, maybe the following.

Eliminate Wizard, Sorcerer, and Cleric completely.

Reserve the Druid exclusively for the prehuman races, maybe especially the giants. Giants associate with elements (frost, fire, cliffs, storms), and according to reallife ‘wastelands of the north’, many giants shapechange into an animal − normal animals as well as monstrous giant animals. If a DM gives a player permission to play a Druid, it means there has been contact with and training from a giant, and the DM and the player need to figure out how this happened.

The above effectively removes four full casters from the game. This already helps ensure a lower magic feel. Removal of the Cleric can help reduce dependence on healing magic.



Two full casters remain: Bard and Warlock. Each can be on opposite sides of the cultural spectrum.

The Bard with its more shamanic magic, takes on some of the ‘noble savage’ tropes among the Savage and Nomad cultures.

Oppositely, the Warlock with its more foul magic, takes on some of the ‘corrupt civilization’ tropes among the Decadent and Degenerate cultures.

In both cases, full spellcaster − powerful magic − mainly happens at the periphery of civilization.



The Cultist is super important for the Sword & Sorcery genre. When I think of the stories, the cultist is magical, but not really cast spells every round magical. Actually, they tend to be competent at melee combat, sometimes surprisingly so, despite appearances.

Make the Cultist the Paladin class. Oath of the Cult. The oath bonds with an idol, enables the Blood Ritual for sacrificial healing magic, and uses necrotic damage instead of radiant for smite magic. That the Cultist should have high Charisma (intimidation and leadership) is central to the genre.

Tweak the Paladin class as seems fit. But it is a loathsome kind of Paladin zealot. Since it has fewer spells than the Cleric class, it helps reduce dependence on spells for healing, which helps keep the setting gritty, except for possible dependence on the Blood Ritual, which is also gritty.



For the courtier magician, I would instead use the Trickster Rogue for the concept. Maybe use its skills and tools to allow the player to craft potions and poisons, as long as the correct ‘ingredients’ are available.

I like the Courtier as a semimagical social class, sorta the way the Monk is semimagical. The Spymaster and Seducer work well as subclasses. Even these subclasses could be Rogue archetypes, but Charisma would be their key ability, so they can merit their own Courtier class. Make sure the class is powerful and on par mechanically to balance with other D&D classes. The lack of spells is significant, and the class needs compensation.
 
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CapnZapp

Legend
I think we will have to realize any S&S game still based on D&D, and this game certainly only lightly skins 5E, cannot come close to the true tropes of S&S magic.

First off, sorcery is not just a tool you can rely on and use uncontroversially. It's a fearsome dark power you never use lightly. (If you use it willy-nilly you have invariably "gone too far", and you have become a despicable wicked monster).

So you always need swords for protection. You would never plan to just use magic.

This is in direct opposition to D&D, where spellcasters are made to be equal to fighters in combat (just using different tools, that are equally controversial - which is to say, often not controversial at all).

This is the first hurdle a true S&S conversion need to address.

Second: S&S magic is in direct opposition to might. That is, sorcery corrupts and degenerates the man. If you are a foul sorcerer, you are seldom if ever equal to a real man. (At this point, I'm not going to dance around the fact men are the default warriors of S&S. I will just note that female sorceresses have it easier since they're not losing anything precious to them)

And truly heroic might always beats magic. This is distinctly quite the opposite of most D&D.

---

What you want of a S&S system is warlocks sacrificing their mental and physical health for untold powers and wickedness.

You want spellcasters not relying on direct magical destruction for protection. They can hire sellswords, or they can conjure up physically powerful demons. Conan seldom has to face magical death rays. The odd fireball, yes, but that's something you can shrug off. I'm talking things he's defenseless against.

With one big exception: enchantment spells. Things that mess with your mind is your big weakness. Which becomes an even bigger problem when those cultists that use them are high-Charisma females...

---

Everything bleeds, and therefore you can kill it if you're just heroic strong enough. A spell like "Wall of Force" has no business existing in S&S unless you give it a "bend bars, lift gates" DC to smash.

There pretty much needs to be a Strength-based way to dispel any magic you can physically interact with, leaving illusions and enchantment tricks the spell category to really fear (as a muscle mountain of a hero).

---

In short, you want magic to work more like how desperate people turn to Nurgle-worship in Warhammer. From a player's minmaxer's viewpoint, it makes zero sense to allow your character to be inflicted with pustules and rotting diseases, just to be able to cast the odd disgusting spell.

In S&S no wholesome hero barbarian will ever want anything at all to do with magic.

And the point is: history gives them right. That is, the game system itself should ensure might beats magic.

From a PC charbuilding perspective, Magic should never be the minmaxed choice. Magic should not even be a regular alternative or be presented as equal to might. Magic should, at most, be presented as the "edgy" controversial choice you choose just to be different.

You turn to magic because you're bitter about not being strong enough, manly enough. Not because it offers a cool alternative way to build a ass-kicking character.

A real S&S game forces you to make real choices. It's like a game where you don't assign scores from an array but instead you roll up stats randomly. The higher you roll, the more of a hulking brute you want to create, since you can - you're the epitome of creation for a man.

If you roll low, the game system offers sorcery as a double-edged compensation. You need it to be able to compete, but you will always be tainted, compromised by trucking with dark forces (which magic invariably is).

---

A good start is to limit hero PCs to half caster magics. I don't care if your 6th level character is an Eldritch Knight or a Fighter 3/Wizard 3, just as long as you aren't a Sorcerer 6.

This is a very simple efficient and balanced way to ensure the above remains true: that no man can rely on magic alone.

Then make sure any NPC warlock doesn't have direct damage spells, and you come much closer to S&S magic. Summoning and enchantment spells are fair, and I see no reason why buffing or debuffing spells need to be prohibited (since those place the focus on the impending contest of might where it should be).

Damage spells that bring more atmosphere than outright overshadow melee are okay: burning hands or witch bolt or what have you. Visceral spells that require the caster to dare come close and get dirty.

The spells most removed from S&S are the "intellectual" spells - the spells that a psionicist could use. A telekinetic spell that simply lifts Conan into the air to hang defenseless, for instance. Or Forcecage. Such spells either don't exist at all, or just serve to make Hulk angry.

---

Saying this as a reaction the recent discussion about spellcasting classes. From my vantage point, that discussion fusses over minor variations in a still fundamentally D&D-centric game. What needs to be done, if you're serious about discussing how to emulate S&S, is to shuck out the very core of D&D, and replace it with a core true to S&S.

If you're not prepared to do that (and believe me, I do understand the appeal to simply use D&D for your S&S), I really don't care about the small details. Bard or Druid, who cares? Both classes are inherently D&D, so both will do well for a lightly-skinned S&Sian game of D&D.

Don't get me wrong, 5E already is a good candidate for S&S reskinning (certainly more than d20).

You just need to do a bit more than argue whether Druid or Bard fits best... ;)
 
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reelo

Explorer
I think we will have to realize any S&S game still based on D&D (...) cannot come close to the true tropes of S&S magic.

First off, sorcery is not just a tool you can rely on and use uncontroversially. It's a fearsome dark power you never use lightly.
(...)
S&S sorcery corrupts and degenerates...
(...)
What you want of a S&S system is warlocks sacrificing their mental and physical health for untold powers and wickedness.
Crypts & Things (which is based on Swords & Wizardry, which in turn is based on D&D) does this VERY well though!
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Crypts & Things (which is based on Swords & Wizardry, which in turn is based on D&D) does this VERY well though!
Not familiar with C&T, but absolutely - of course you can bend D&D into a S&S shape.

You just have to be ready to sacrifice lots of convenient things you get used to in D&D.

In this case, discussing which is best, Druid or Bard, strikes me as odd - since the answer is clearly "neither". My point is not to call out anyone's game as badwrongfun. Just to say if you can accept one, why not simply accept the other too, since at this point, you're playing a lightly-skinned game of D&D more than a game that truly represents S&S magic...
 

ZeroSum

Canadian Barbarian
I'd recommend looking at the Heroic Fantasy Handbook for ACKS (Adventurer Conqueror King System). Eldritch, ceremonial magic that takes time to use and blackens the soul in the process, among other tweaks to the standard D&D experience.

Available in SRD form right here for the curious: atdyck/HFH_SRD
 

GlassJaw

Adventurer
I think we will have to realize any S&S game still based on D&D, and this game certainly only lightly skins 5E, cannot come close to the true tropes of S&S magic.
Great post Capn. I agree completely.

While I do believe 5E has the potential to handle S&S, it requires significant changes, and far beyond what Xoth does. I give credit for the attempt though since there is a lot I like (that's my biggest complaint about Thule - barely any mechanics at all).

My first order of business for S&S-ifying 5E is removing the casting system completely. Vancian magic doesn't make sense the for genre at all. Ritual casting is a good start but as Capn said, magic is S&S is always with a cost, either physical or sets the caster down a path of corruption/evil.
 

S'mon

Legend
There are lots of physically powerful, albeit villainous, casters in S&S, so I'm not sure about this Real Men Don't Use Magic trope.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
There are lots of physically powerful, albeit villainous, casters in S&S, so I'm not sure about this Real Men Don't Use Magic trope.
They’re not as iconic, though. It’s usually surprising when we see the spellcaster is also nearly as hale and hearty as the warriors coming to take him down.
 

ZeroSum

Canadian Barbarian
They’re not as iconic, though. It’s usually surprising when we see the spellcaster is also nearly as hale and hearty as the warriors coming to take him down.
And when we do he'll either be on the weaker side magic wise or else marked by the powers he wields in some other noticeable way. Classic example is Pelias in The Scarlet Citadel scaring away Satha the Ur-Serpent just by the latter getting a look at his sorcerer's soul. About the only "hale and hearty" magic user with some real power I can think of off hand is Khemsa the Rakhsha from People of the Black Circle. The exception that proves the rule I guess.
 

ZeroSum

Canadian Barbarian
Actually scratch that: I'm listening to Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword and the protagonist Skafloc is definitely a multiclass Fighter/Magic User. So that's two.
 

Yaarel

Adventurer
Not familiar with C&T, but absolutely - of course you can bend D&D into a S&S shape.

You just have to be ready to sacrifice lots of convenient things you get used to in D&D.

In this case, discussing which is best, Druid or Bard, strikes me as odd - since the answer is clearly "neither". My point is not to call out anyone's game as badwrongfun. Just to say if you can accept one, why not simply accept the other too, since at this point, you're playing a lightly-skinned game of D&D more than a game that truly represents S&S magic...
The things that a D&D Bard can do, happens to be mythologically accurate for many reallife shamanic cultures.
 

Yaarel

Adventurer
I feel D&D inherently balances between mage and warrior. If Intelligence and Charisma the highest scores, then Strength and Constitution cannot be the highest scores and viceversa.

D&D players can make whatever tradeoffs they want to build a gish, and still be true to the genre.
 

xoth.publishing

Swords against tentacles!
I think we will have to realize any S&S game still based on D&D, and this game certainly only lightly skins 5E, cannot come close to the true tropes of S&S magic.
Saying this as a reaction the recent discussion about spellcasting classes. From my vantage point, that discussion fusses over minor variations in a still fundamentally D&D-centric game. What needs to be done, if you're serious about discussing how to emulate S&S, is to shuck out the very core of D&D, and replace it with a core true to S&S.

If you're not prepared to do that (and believe me, I do understand the appeal to simply use D&D for your S&S), I really don't care about the small details. Bard or Druid, who cares? Both classes are inherently D&D, so both will do well for a lightly-skinned S&Sian game of D&D.

Don't get me wrong, 5E already is a good candidate for S&S reskinning (certainly more than d20).

You just need to do a bit more than argue whether Druid or Bard fits best... ;)
Exactly. As the title of this thread indicates, this book is about using the D&D fifth edition rules to play games inspired by swords and sorcery fiction.

If you don't think 5E is a good choice for S&S, then by all means use a different gaming system (by the way, the World of Xoth has been converted to a number of totally different gaming systems, including Legend (RuneQuest), Blade of the Iron Throne (Riddle of Steel), Barbarians of Lemuria, and Unbelievably Simple Roleplaying (USR) - see bottom of page at xoth.net publishing - sword and sorcery roleplaying adventures ). And of course there are the 3E and Pathfinder iterations of the Player's Guide as well, and now the 5E version.

Again, the basis for this book is to use 5E, and really to change as little as possible so that players will still recognize it as D&D 5E. Because the starting point is that you and your players want to play 5E, but with a sword and sorcery flavor (as described in the 5E DMG on page 38, "Flavors of Fantasy").

With regard to magic, the Sorcery of Xoth chapter mentions this specifically in the introductory text:

The Sorcery of Xoth chapter said:
...the philosophy of this book is to change as little as possible of the actual magic rules. The sword and sorcery feel can be achieved in a campaign by restricting or changing a few key elements of the core rules which interfere with the low-magic paradigm, without totally abandoning the fantasy that players expect and enjoy.
And the Classes of Xoth chapter has this to say about the Warlock class:

The Classes of Xoth chapter said:
Those who take this path are few indeed, for it means making a pact with an unknown entity, and the cost to life or sanity can be high.
Special Rules: A warlock of Xoth must choose the Great Old One as his otherwordly patron at 1st level, and the Pact of the Chain at 3rd level. To advance a level, the warlock must perform a sacrifice or service on behalf of his patron, as determined by the GM.
Even though no actual rules are changed here, the GM can use the pact and the demands from the warlock's master to get across the message that "maybe I should have chosen a clean steel blade instead of this powerful, but soul-destroying arcana" to the warlock's player. If the warlock's acts don't cause friction with the other players during the course of play, the group has missed out on some great S&S roleplaying themes.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Okay, so let's limit ourselves to the question "what would my N top optional rules be, for a S&Sian game of D&D" where N ≤ 6, since that is the number of optional rules I counted in Xoth's player's guide.

First, I would totally shuck out the existing options. Sorry! But in summary, 5E has already fixed everything you needed to houserule in d20! :)
The Massive Damage and No Alignment options has been previously discussed; Natural healing (since 5E already is more generous!), Ability damage (which 5E mostly don't have, and already have generous rules for when it does)

As for Treasure be spent, honestly even xp for gold is too fiddly (just replace with three levels of wealth*: Destitute, Scraping By, and Fabulously Wealthy and say you lose one step of Wealth automatically after each adventure).

Since 5E already works perfectly fine without magic swords, you could and probably should excise the section discussing that too, since it is framed as it being the problem it was in Pathfinder and 3E. Taking away the toys used to be a HUGE no no in D&D, but that was before 5E!


When it comes to magic, I would consider the benefits of telling players what they can do instead of what they can't. That is: to list the spells that you can cast instead of those you can't. The section is already so long it might be more user-friendly to just make a list. I would make this list as short as possible, and just say any other spell CAN be cast if you come across it (=GMs approval).

Here I would definitely not reflexively remove Fireball et al. After all offensive and damage is not a big balance problem (from the pov of the GM and adventure writer), and it IS supposed to be D&D after all. In other words: remove a casters ability to take his share of the spotlight and you could just as well prohibit the class entirely. No, I would keep most of the spells that "simply deal damage". What really is the dealbreaker is defensive spells - but 5E has already fixed the LFQW and buffing cheese! So I would humbly submit that most spells that need removin' are of the Rope Trick and Dimension Door and Create Food and Water variety, those that change or trivialize the environment.

Think of it like it was a MMO (yikes!): any spell that can't meaningfully affect the surroundings, that doesn't have a lasting effect or don't let the party trivialize said environment's restrictions can probably be allowed. yes it is true Conan never cast any fireballs, but a group prioritizing that simply never plays a D&D Wizard. In the larger context, the story does not change just because the Raiders died to fire instead of steel. So I'd leave the classes' ability to inflict damage mostly intact, or I'd prohibit them entirely. Otherwise, you're just creating trap options (one class choice being more nerfed than another).

Then I would choose my optional rules carefully. What are the most fundamental things D&D needs variant rules for (except spell selection)? Here's my shortlist of themes that could warrant a rules discussion - in no particular order:

  • I truly believe it is much more fruitful to tweak the fundamentals of magic than to argue over which classes should be banned or reskinned :)
  • no PC full casters: automatically makes every hero rely at least somewhat on his sword in a way that actually retains balance (every suggestion to make magic less safe or more controversial just nerfs caster classes)
  • gender differences (is all I'm sayin...)
  • if you don't want to prescribe a spell list, at least add a mechanism to use "heroic resilience" to "break" magic. It would go a long way of mitigating the worst of the "non S&S spells" without the complexity. I'd use Strength for spells with physical manifestations and Charisma for those without.

That's... basically it. I reread the thread but can't come up with any other. You'd still need to reskin certain classes, but that's just part of your "Xoth gazetteer" that already includes races etc.

*) I definitely think 5E has a weakness in "gold being worthless" for any campaign not focused on downtime (you can easily find lots of discussion on this issue). But honestly, S&S is not the right hill to die on - S&S isn't about wealth accumulation or building permanent structures. If anything, it is the direct opposite: why not wine and wench it all away since you don't know if you live tomorrow! So instead of trying to shore up the weakness here, I suggest you simply double down on the 5E characteristic of gold being worthless by not even tracking it in any detail.
 
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FXR

Explorer
Casters
I really like Xoth's druid and wouldn't change it. It fits S&S while remaining familiar for vanilla D&D players.

As far as warlocks go, I would allow PCs to chose a demonic or undead patron and the pact of the tome.

I'm still on the fence about the cultist class. It doesn't seem necessary to me as a warlock with the acolyte background could easily represent a cultist.

One thing I would add is, perhaps, some sort of monk archetype which provide third caster features. It could be used to model hedge magicians who have a few "white magic" spells, from the divination or abjuration schools.

Offensive cantrips seem to go against the genre conventions of D&D. It makes magic seem, perhaps, less magical and more trivial. However, banning offensive cantrips can screw the warlock and would need to be replace by another feature, perhaps some sort of "Master, aid me!" feature.
 

xoth.publishing

Swords against tentacles!
First, I would totally shuck out the existing options. Sorry! But in summary, 5E has already fixed everything you needed to houserule in d20! :)
This just goes to show that 5E is a pretty good fit for S&S to begin with, which is obviously one of the main reasons I like the system.

It's still useful (in a guide to players) to list the things that makes S&S distinct from regular fantasy, even though the rules are left mostly intact.

When it comes to magic, I would consider the benefits of telling players what they can do instead of what they can't. That is: to list the spells that you can cast instead of those you can't. The section is already so long it might be more user-friendly to just make a list. I would make this list as short as possible, and just say any other spell CAN be cast if you come across it (=GMs approval).
Instead of creating a whitelist of allowed spells, my approach is to create a framework that explains what kind of magic fits the genre, and what does not. This is useful for players, who can then understand the reasoning behind certain things being left out, and useful for the GM, who then has a framework to evaluate spells from the PHB as well as other sources, and can make the final decision (another important principle of 5E).

Here I would definitely not reflexively remove Fireball et al. After all offensive and damage is not a big balance problem (from the pov of the GM and adventure writer), and it IS supposed to be D&D after all. In other words: remove a casters ability to take his share of the spotlight and you could just as well prohibit the class entirely. No, I would keep most of the spells that "simply deal damage".
Fireball is not on the warlock spell list, so that is not a problem anyway! :) But the problem is not "spells dealing damage", it's spells dealing damage to a large number of creatures at once (area spells), what I call "artillery spells" in the Sorcery chapter. (Note: Magic missile and disintegrate are somewhat unfairly lumped in with those "artillery" spells, I would in fact allow those and I'm going to remove those from the text.)

In the larger context, the story does not change just because the Raiders died to fire instead of steel. So I'd leave the classes' ability to inflict damage mostly intact, or I'd prohibit them entirely. Otherwise, you're just creating trap options (one class choice being more nerfed than another).
As mentioned above, it's not about taking away the ability to deal damage. It's about the ability to do stuff that doesn't fit the genre or that is way too powerful in a setting where many/most opponents are "normal" people who do NOT have access to magic.

(Warning: A little rant about spellcasters) Look, any spellcaster, no matter how nerfed, is still way, way more unique and flexible than any fighter or rogue can ever hope to be. So, you can't have your teleport, fireball, invisibility or fly spell? Too bad, I don't feel any pity for you. You can still climb on walls, make people your mental slaves, move things from afar, remove curses, talk to entities on other planes, etc, etc. If you don't feel that's interesting, maybe you should play a fighter instead for a while, to get an appreciation of the awesome powers you actually have as a spellcaster, nerfed or not. A spellcaster with a few banned spells is in no way a "trap" option. (End of rant!)

So instead of trying to shore up the weakness here, I suggest you simply double down on the 5E characteristic of gold being worthless by not even tracking it in any detail.
Personally I would be okay with that as a player, but I know many people who get a lot of enjoyment out of counting every single coin after looting fallen enemies, and spending said (exactly counted) coin on various stuff after the adventure. So I think each group (GM and players) has to come up with a solution that maximizes their fun.
 

S'mon

Legend
Fireball is not on the warlock spell list, so that is not a problem anyway! :) But the problem is not "spells dealing damage", it's spells dealing damage to a large number of creatures at once (area spells), what I call "artillery spells" in the Sorcery chapter.
I feel the S&S genre does have examples of widespread poison gas attacks, and psychic damage attacks, at least in the hands of villains (the gas attacks often require a lengthy ritual though); so it's not AoE per se that is un-S&S. I think it's the Fireball and similar physical damage spells that are not a feature of either S&S or Tolkienesque fantasy; indeed I don't really think they featured in fantasy at all prior to D&D. And Gygax in Chainmail was creating fantasy analogues for WW2 artillery.
 

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