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D&D General Greyhawk and "Low Magic" : Why Low Magic is in the Eyes of Beholder

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I guess we are on the Fourth Greyhawk-adjacent thread now! To paraphrase the great Knight, Sir Ron of Burgundy, "You're writing another long Greyhawk thread? And you ate the whole wheel of cheese? How are you doing this? Heck, I'm not even mad, that's amazing!"


This is based in a concept brought up by @Minigiant when the idea of Greyhawk as "low magic," came up. Specifically, he wrote that that there are multiple axes of magic (Minigiant used power, frequency, and versatility) and it's difficult to say that a setting is "low magic" unless you really examine the ways in the which it is low magic.

But what does this mean, exactly? I thought I'd do a deeper dive into the question of low magic both for Greyhawk and for 5e. I will be looking at it in the following sections:

A. Why Low Magic is Difficult to Define
B. Why There are Some People that Advocate for Greyhawk as a Low Magic Setting
C. The Difficulties of Low Magic Campaigns in 5e
D. Does Low Magic Still Have a Place Today?


A. The limits of my magick means the limits of my world.

While I think that you could break down the categories into more, or less, areas that Minigiant does, I think the basic thesis that he has (that magic means means many things in a campaign world) is 100% accurate. Let's think of this in different ways.

One example is Game of Thrones; in GOT, magic is beyond uncommon. But when there is magic, it is incredibly powerful. Most people would refer to GOT as "low magic" yet would also acknowledge that magic is insanely powerful.

On the other extreme would be a setting like Eberron. Again, it is almost invariably referred to as "High Magic" because of the prevalence of magic (magic as technology, magic is ubiquitous) and yet it doesn't vary from the standard rules of D&D that would apply to other settings.

So how can we drill down to look at the various ways that magic is presented, and how many (we are all individuals!) people tend to view the differentiating factors of what makes a low magic setting? In my opinion, it tends to be a set of binaries.

1. The World.
Is the world one in which magic is common and ubiquitous (Eberron, for example) or one in which magic is uncommon or not accounted for (Game of Thrones, for example). Is the magic current, or is it from the past? Are there magic item shops where you can purchase magic?

2. The People.
Are spellcasting NPCs common and ubiquitous, or rare? Does every town have a high-level cleric, and disease unheard of, or are high-level spellcasters infrequent and sometimes more an object of myth than reality? Does the campaign setting have many organized wizard's guilds (for example) or is every wizard an island unto themselves?

3. The PCs.
How common are spellcasting PCs? Do most classes have "spells" or "abilities." Do martial classes cast spells? Are there a lot of "always on" cantrips, or is spellcasting more limited?

4. The Items.
Does the campaign setting have a lot of powerful magic items? Artifacts? Is it assumed that most PCs will acquire power through gaining these magic items?

I don't think this list is the end-all, be-all, but I think by looking at it in terms of various components (the world, the PCs, the NPCs, etc.) it might frame it in a helpful sense. So moving from this generalize concept to the more specific example of Greyhawk would be helpful!


B. Magick is what killed the dinosaurs, darling.

When it comes to Greyhawk, I think it is difficult to advocate for the setting qua setting as being low magic. The reason for this is pretty simple; the setting, at least if you're looking at the "Gygax setting" that predates 1984, is incredibly open-ended.

Brief aside- I will be discussing the Box Set / Folio version of GH, and not the later 2e and 3e material. This is not to say that those materials aren't good, or have fans, or are invalid in any way. This is just already long enough.

But the reason there are people that advocate for a "low magic" (or, at least, "lower magic") Greyhawk primarily has to do with the factors enunciated above. Looking at them carefully, it is easy to see that (4), the items, is not low magic in Greyhawk. Greyhawk is the ur-setting for the most powerful artifacts and relics in D&D. Instead, it comes down to the interplay of 1, 2, and 3.

Fundamentally, Greyhawk is a setting in which there is, and has been, powerful magic, but the most powerful magic occurred in the past. Whether it's the artifacts and relics (insanely powerful magic items from a bygone age) or the spells (the invoked devastation and rain of colorless fire), there is a recurrent theme of the power of the past compared to the future; one which dovetails nicely with the early D&D practice of graverobbing .... um, exploring dungeons and crypts. The reason adventurers can find all this loot (money and magic) buried and lost is precisely because the past was a foreign country, of untold power. More importantly, however, the present is a reflection of something we can understand- the medieval/early Renaissance period.

In a way, Eberron makes more internal sense as a setting. If you have the ability to churn out "always on" light, then why wouldn't you have lighting to counteract the darkness being churned out? Greyhawk (and other settings) tend to take the view, either explicitly or implicitly, of the "selfish spellcaster," that due to REASONS, there is no spellcasting for the general weal. That there are still plagues. That isolated villages still fear the night beyond their limited fires.

And this has other impacts, as well. Greyhawk, as a setting, has battles. Big battles, with troops. If spellcasting was common and endemic, those types of battles would be, at a minimum, more difficult to pull off.

As such, when I think of people advocating for GH as low magic, and putting it into the rubric above, I would say that:
1. In Greyhawk, magic is not prevalent, not accounted for, or excused away due to reasons. There is disease, there are battles of regular troops.

2. Greyhawk will have fewer spellcasting NPCs than a setting like FR. They exist, and they can be very powerful (Mordenkainen) or even get to god status (Zagyg), but they are interested in their own thing, not in the PCs. Wizards tend to stick to themselves.

4. Magic items are not made or produced anymore in any quantity, but powerful magic from prior eras is ubiquitous to those who venture to find it.

Which leaves (3). I think that many people who are advocating for "low magic" in Greyhawk are really advocating for a style of play as opposed to something necessarily within the campaign setting. In other words, this is more about the nature of 5e than about Greyhawk.


C. There ain't no iguana.

At a fundamental level, 5e is a "high magic" system compared to the editions of D&D that gave rise to Gygaxian Greyhawk. Only four classes (Fighter, Rogue, Monk, and Barbarian) aren't spellcasters by default, and the newest official class (Artificer) is a spellcaster as well. That means that almost every basic class is a spellcaster. When you add in the subclasses (like Eldritch Knight, etc.) that allow you to turn the martial classes into casters, or the feats (magic initiate, etc.), or the multiclassing, or the many races that provide you access to cantrips or spellcasting, then it quickly becomes apparent that 5e (in comparison to, say, the OD&D - 2e line, or the B/X - BECMI line) is high magic in terms of PC spellcasting ubiquity.

Just as notably, the existence of always-on attack cantrips makes magic much more ubiquitous in 5e as well. It is almost impossible to imagine a combat, or, for that matter, a single round of combat in 5e without spellcasting.

It's possible to see this when you compare the base 5e classes with a setting like AIME; in order to make a campaign setting low magic, you do have to re-work the classes. Because high magic is effectively baked into the rules when it comes to PCs.

So when people advocate for Greyhawk as a "low magic" setting, it usually means two things which are not the same:

1. Greyhawk is low magic as noted above; the PCs can special and different, and play by the 5e basic rules, but the rest of campaign world ignores this. You can define the "reasons" or be comfortable with not explaining the "reasons" but magic is not ubiquitous in the setting itself, although it is still powerful.

2. They want a coherent, official, "low magic" setting that would allow them to play something that de-emphasizes the spellcasting classes. In other words, this isn't about Greyhawk per se, but about the style of play.

So, a final question- is low magic, in terms of removing some spellcasting from PCs, even desirable?


D. Try, try, try to understand ... I want some low magic, man.

At a very fundamental level .... no. Low magic is not, in my opinion, that desirable. Just like people can say that 5e is too easy, and they should make a hard mode, etc.; well, there is a reason that videogames don't have that on as default. Most people don't want everything to be too hard. Most people want to be able to succeed, to have fun, and to use the konami code as necessary. I might like a 6e with low magic, and an emphasis on martial classes .... but I am not the target market. People like creating their characters, and new players are going to be inspired by an anime on Crunchyroll; not by a Fritz Lieber short story.

On the other hand, I think that campaign settings are a great opportunity to provide coherent rulesets for a variety of play. I don't think that low magic (for example) should be a default setting for D&D; that ship sailed a long long time ago. But I think that any given release of a campaign setting should introduce something new, and that a campaign setting that provided official and coherent low magic settings would be worth purchasing. If not today, and if not Greyhawk, then someday.

Anyway, those are my tentative thoughts. I'm sure others will have wildly divergent opinions on this!
 
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Aldarc

Legend
Is another one of your verbose Greyhawk essay threads really necessary? What's next? Greyhawk adventures? Greyhawk's contribution to D&D's mythos? Because we know that there will be a fourth and fifth spin-off Greyhawk thread where you try to advocate for Greyhawk via some point that could easily be included in your main thread.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Is another one of your verbose Greyhawk essay threads really necessary? What's next? Greyhawk adventures? Greyhawk's contribution to D&D's mythos? Because we know that there will be a fourth and fifth spin-off Greyhawk thread where you try to advocate for Greyhawk via some point that could easily be included in your main thread.

If you do not enjoy what I write, please ignore it. :)
 
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Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
Is another one of your verbose Greyhawk essay threads really necessary? What's next? Greyhawk adventures? Greyhawk's contribution to D&D's mythos? Because we know that there will be a fourth and fifth spin-off Greyhawk thread where you try to advocate for Greyhawk via some point that could easily be included in your main thread.

To be fair,this thread is more about the definition of low magic. A discussion that would get lost ina pure Greyhawk thread.

A. The limits of my magick means the limits of my world.

While I think that you could break down the categories into more, or less, areas that Minigiant does, I think the basic thesis that he has (that magic means means many things in a campaign world) is 100% accurate. Let's think of this in different ways.

One example is Game of Thrones; in GOT, magic is beyond uncommon. But when there is magic, it is incredibly powerful. Most people would refer to GOT as "low magic" yet would also acknowledge that magic is insanely powerful.

On the other extreme would be a setting like Eberron. Again, it is almost invariably referred to as "High Magic" because of the prevalence of magic (magic as technology, magic is ubiquitous) and yet it doesn't vary from the standard rules of D&D that would apply to other settings.

So how can we drill down to look at the various ways that magic is presented, and how many (we are all individuals!) people tend to view the differentiating factors of what makes a low magic setting? In my opinion, it tends to be a set of binaries.

1. The World.
Is the world one in which magic is common and ubiquitous (Eberron, for example) or one in which magic is uncommon or not accounted for (Game of Thrones, for example). Is the magic current, or is it from the past? Are there magic item shops where you can purchase magic?

2. The People.
Are spellcasting NPCs common and ubiquitous, or rare? Does every town have a high-level cleric, and disease unheard of, or are high-level spellcasters infrequent and sometimes more an object of myth than reality? Does the campaign setting have many organized wizard's guilds (for example) or is every wizard an island unto themselves?

3. The PCs.
How common are spellcasting PCs? Do most classes have "spells" or "abilities." Do martial classes cast spells? Are there a lot of "always on" cantrips, or is spellcasting more limited?

4. The Items.
Does the campaign setting have a lot of powerful magic items? Artifacts? Is it assumed that most PCs will acquire power through gaining these magic items?

I don't think this list is the end-all, be-all, but I think by looking at it in terms of various components (the world, the PCs, the NPCs, etc.) it might frame it in a helpful sense. So moving from this generalize concept to the more specific example of Greyhawk would be helpful!

One thing that can't be downplayed in "low magic" setting discussions is Magic Versatility.

There are many settings in TV, film, books, and games where the spellcasters are rally powerful but limited in what they can do.

You have settings like Harry Potter the Dresdenverse where there are entire communities of moderately powerful wizards. But these wizards' versatility doesn't match the height of their power. Entire schools of many are forbidden. Certain magical effects require very rare items or times to replicate. Wizards are totally defenseless against certain effects. You have death spells (FoD) but no basic healing spells (CLW).

Then you get to Japan and touch their anime. Overpowered spellcasters is the default assumption. Wizards and spellcasters are common in many settings. However the types of magic and magic items available are extremely limited. This is how fighters and rogue stay relevant. Because Joe Archmage can only do Fire Magic or Time Magic or Conjurations of specific things.

So you could have nuke dropping wizards everywhere and still be a type of "Low Magic"
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
One thing that can't be downplayed in "low magic" setting discussions is Magic Versatility.

There are many settings in TV, film, books, and games where the spellcasters are rally powerful but limited in what they can do.

You have settings like Harry Potter the Dresdenverse where there are entire communities of moderately powerful wizards. But these wizards' versatility doesn't match the height of their power. Entire schools of many are forbidden. Certain magical effects require very rare items or times to replicate. Wizards are totally defenseless against certain effects. You have death spells (FoD) but no basic healing spells (CLW).

Then you get to Japan and touch their anime. Overpowered spellcasters is the default assumption. Wizards and spellcasters are common in many settings. However the types of magic and magic items available are extremely limited. This is how fighters and rogue stay relevant. Because Joe Archmage can only do Fire Magic or Time Magic or Conjurations of specific things.

So you could have nuke dropping wizards everywhere and still be a type of "Low Magic"

That's an interesting thesis re: magic verssatility.

I am not entirely sure I agree with it. Not that I disagree, I'm just thinking this through.

One of the problems that I didn't really address in the OP is that when you are modelling fictional worlds and characters, you run into the constant problem that fictional worlds and narratives will always serve the needs of the author and narrative; but I don't want to go into that because I have a lot more thoughts on it I am going to develop at some point.

I think that versatility isn't so much separate from power, but a part of power. I disagree that a setting with nuke dropping wizards everywhere would be considered low-magic; I do think that in purely gamist terms, there is usually a tradeoff between versatility and power, and that you see that in all areas (whether it is spells or weapon specalization).

So my initial thought is to slightly disagree re: versatility.
 

Warpiglet-7

Adventurer
Well you are right about the fact that low magic can mean a variety of things. I had not given it too much thought but I picked up on that.

for sure, I prefer worldbuilding with less rather than more night level NPCs know all are everywhere ready for the rescue! I find it too safe and not very exciting.

I hate the ubiquity of magic shops and easy crafting.

I am on the fence about how much magic PCs have and especially cantrips. On this latter point though, the cat is out of the bag. I won’t worry about it any longer.

In short, anything that creates wonder and rarity is generally good in my opinion, for MY enjoyment. Likewise, healing is a little to easy to come by of late.

i don’t know if Greyhawk solves this. Maybe halfway? Fluff surely can be different with its assumptions but the rules are hard wired against low magic.

I like the idea of Greyhawk a lot. I would love a refresh but the truth is we can do it ourselves if we want it.

Deities domains are easy...I want an arcana cleric of wee jas...simple.

the low magic question is not simple of course. There are more at will powers earlier on but fewer (it seems) magic items. In the balance not sure how I feel.

but I will always like the idea of scarcity in fluff. there is no Drizzt and Elminster hopping into local disputes continent away.

that is just taste but I know it’s best for me
 

It may help define Greyhawk to clarify that Eberron is generally thought of as wide magic, not high magic, and that FR is generally narrow, but high magic.

Magic is everywhere in Eberron: both in the world and users of it. However in the part that PCs are generally involved in, it is not high magic: 3rd level spell effects are unusual, 5th level are very, very rare, and there are only a handful of spellcasters on the continent capable of 9th level casting. Compare with FR where there are many fewer minor magical effects and users, but high-level spellcaster NPCs are quite prevalent.

If you want to limit magic use by PCs, that is a rather different tangent. Do Greyhawk wizards toss low-power handfuls of fire around when they're out of power, or do they pull out a crossbow? Is that you're after actually to limit the levels of all classes, or would you perhaps just want to limit the level of spellcasting by setting a spell level limit perhaps?
 

dave2008

Legend
On the other hand, I think that campaign settings are a great opportunity to provide coherent rulesets for a variety of play. I don't think that low magic (for example) should be a default setting for D&D; that ship sailed a long long time ago. But I think that any given release of a campaign setting should introduce something new, and that a campaign setting that provided official and coherent low magic settings would be worth purchasing. If not today, and if not Greyhawk, then someday.

Anyway, those are my tentative thoughts. I'm sure others will have wildly divergent opinions on this!
I really know next to nothing about Greyhawk, but I love the idea of using the setting to introduce some low-magic / gritty rules. I could see revised class or possibly a version of the class feature variants we are getting with Tasha's book that allows class to do with less or no magic (I'm looking at you ranger).

EDIT: a way to remove/limit at least damage cantrips if not all cantrips would be good too.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
It may help define Greyhawk to clarify that Eberron is generally thought of as wide magic, not high magic, and that FR is generally narrow, but high magic.

Magic is everywhere in Eberron: both in the world and users of it. However in the part that PCs are generally involved in, it is not high magic: 3rd level spell effects are unusual, 5th level are very, very rare, and there are only a handful of spellcasters on the continent capable of 9th level casting. Compare with FR where there are many fewer minor magical effects and users, but high-level spellcaster NPCs are quite prevalent.

If you want to limit magic use by PCs, that is a rather different tangent. Do Greyhawk wizards toss low-power handfuls of fire around when they're out of power, or do they pull out a crossbow? Is that you're after actually to limit the levels of all classes, or would you perhaps just want to limit the level of spellcasting by setting a spell level limit perhaps?

This is what I was addressing in the post.

People use "high magic" and "low magic" to refer to numerous things. There is nothing wrong with saying (as you do) that Eberron is "wide magic" and that may be a phrase that has been used by Keith Baker to explain about the use of "magic as tech," but it does not have very common currency in general conversations. I think that people can refer to

The primary issue that I see is that people often refer to this dichotomy (high magic / low magic) both in reference to the campaign world (which has multiple different subparts) as well as the style of play/rules mechanics.

It's the difficult with a commonly used, nebulous term that means different things to different people.
 

Mort

Hero
Supporter
What exactly "low magic" is, is an interesting topic and deserves discussion.

But right up front: However you settle on defining low magic - Greyhawk as originally presented wasn't it!

I just grabbed the original Temple of Elemental Evil (It was the first thing I ever bought on Ebay - many, many years ago). Looking at the village of Hommlet -there are clerics, there are magic users (8th level even), there are magic items, and that's before you ever set foot in the moathouse or the temple itself.

As for magic items present in this and other adventures? Someone used to 5e would have their eyes bug out at the sheer number of magic items in most modules!

The magic status of the world, from the pov of the PCs at least (from a default perspective), will be a world rich in magic almost from the word go.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
On the other hand, I think that campaign settings are a great opportunity to provide coherent rulesets for a variety of play. I don't think that low magic (for example) should be a default setting for D&D; that ship sailed a long long time ago. But I think that any given release of a campaign setting should introduce something new, and that a campaign setting that provided official and coherent low magic settings would be worth purchasing. If not today, and if not Greyhawk, then someday.
I've been arguing that they should use the campaign setting books as defacto alternate PHBs for years, so I'm on board with this.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
That's an interesting thesis re: magic verssatility.

I am not entirely sure I agree with it. Not that I disagree, I'm just thinking this through.

One of the problems that I didn't really address in the OP is that when you are modelling fictional worlds and characters, you run into the constant problem that fictional worlds and narratives will always serve the needs of the author and narrative; but I don't want to go into that because I have a lot more thoughts on it I am going to develop at some point.

I think that versatility isn't so much separate from power, but a part of power. I disagree that a setting with nuke dropping wizards everywhere would be considered low-magic; I do think that in purely gamist terms, there is usually a tradeoff between versatility and power, and that you see that in all areas (whether it is spells or weapon specalization).

So my initial thought is to slightly disagree re: versatility.

Although it commonly intertwines with the authors narratives, I think power and versatilty are separate axises. "What effects you can perform with magic" and "How strong your magic is" feels like different things. It is on display in common D&Dism of "wizards cannot heal" or "necromacy is often evil" but layered over a whole setting.

Like I said in anime, there are several popular ones where the spellcasting community is large and powerful but every spellcaster is very limited in what they can cast. This drives the world to be bsed on magic frequency but the metaplot that hows the whole together are the very rare items and people who can break into magic types most magic people cannot.

So said world become "high magic frequency Greyhawk" where the few rare spellcasters have big impacts then disappear, leaving tools and knowledge to drive future generations to search for or drive to.

Or it can break into a psudeo-superhero were all the superpowers are just magic but the world looks similar to a classic comic book.
 

Aldarc

Legend
If you do not enjoy what I write, please ignore it. :)
Fair point, but as this is a yet another tangent from Greyhawk, this is starting to feel a bit much in terms of overlapping subject matter regarding Greyhawk.

I've been arguing that they should use the campaign setting books as defacto alternate PHBs for years, so I'm on board with this.
I would like this, as you can still sell PHBs, alternate rule books, and settings all in one.
 

ardoughter

Adventurer
Supporter
Snarf, while I sympathise with your case I do not see a low magic option for D&D for any reason getting official support because high magic is baked into the PHB. The PHB is wildly successful, as is the PHB +1 is core sales pitch and I do not see WoTC walking back from that anytime soon.

Now I think that house ruling lower player magic is not too difficult I really do not see any official support for this anytime soon. I do think that a reprint of one of the 1'ed boxed sets/source books marketed as Gary's Campaign might sell I am not sure about anything else.
 

ninjayeti

Adventurer
Personally I would describe it as:

Greyhawk (Low magic): Powerful spellcasters exist, but are rare and isolated; common people have little exposure to more than basic cantrips or cure wounds spells. In many places high level magic or unusual races may cause people to react in irrational ways. Seeing even mid-level magic is something most people will tell their grandkids about. Adventurers commonly use and encounter magic, but they are the rare exceptions.

FR (High magic): Powerful spellcasters exist and magic is fairly widespread; common people have a fair bit of exposure to it (the gods walked the earth during the time of troubles, people mutated during the spellplague, the magic garden Goldenfields supplies food to the cities of the Sword Coast). Magic won't freak anyone out, but savvy people will also take countermeasures against it. (e.g. the casino in SKT having a mage to cast detect thoughts on anyone doing suspiciously well.) Seeing magic is like a person IRL seeing a Ferrari or a C-list celebrity - kinda cool, but not that big of a deal.

Eberron (Industrial magic): Few high level spellcasters exist but magic is widespread and seen as a normal (though likely unaffordable) part of life.

I would point to Robert Howard's Conan stories as an example of Greyhawk-style low magic. Conan encounters the supernatural in almost every story, but these supernatural elements are always depicted as extraordinary and unbelievable. When Conan tells people they think he was hallucinating or concussed (see, e.g. The Phonex and the Sword; The Frost Giant's Daughter). Whereas if Conan told someone from FR a dead sage had visited him and cast a spell on his sword so he could defeat a daemon the response would likely be: "Oh cool, the same thing happened to my cousin a few years back."
 

What exactly "low magic" is, is an interesting topic and deserves discussion.

But right up front: However you settle on defining low magic - Greyhawk as originally presented wasn't it!

I just grabbed the original Temple of Elemental Evil (It was the first thing I ever bought on Ebay - many, many years ago). Looking at the village of Hommlet -there are clerics, there are magic users (8th level even), there are magic items, and that's before you ever set foot in the moathouse or the temple itself.

As for magic items present in this and other adventures? Someone used to 5e would have their eyes bug out at the sheer number of magic items in most modules!

The magic status of the world, from the pov of the PCs at least (from a default perspective), will be a world rich in magic almost from the word go.
Low magic does not reside in the items or the power of some casters but in the availability of high level caster. An 8th level wizard is not high level by standard and historical definition. Name level was the bare minimum to be considered "high" level. This means that in 1ed a wizard had to be 11th level. In the old Greyhawk appendice, 10% of the population was classed. Of these:

From the 1st edition box set of Greyhawk about High level NPC and Random encounters.

1598900269898.png

1598900297350.png

This means that in a castle + village 500, you might see 50 classed NPC. Very few of these might qualify as high level. Perhaps one maybe two? Of these 50% of the time it would be a fighter and 60% chance that this NPC might not even be higher than 12th level. All the rest would be below named level, that is 9th level for fighters, 10th for thieves and so on. This is not what we can see in Eberron or in FR. The occurence of high level characters is staggering compared to what we see in Greyhawk. I could even show the page of High level important NPCs and the list is quite short. 1 page for a whole continent!

The rarity of high level casters was two folds.
1) The requirements for being a caster. The minimum ability to cast a spell was directly related to the stat. There was even spell failure if you had a wisdom stat lower than 13. The minimum to cast spell was 9 but it also meant that you would never cast spell of 5th level and higher as the minimum stat requirement for a spell of level 5 was 10. Then the table would diverge wheter intelligence or wisdom was the stat. With no ASI available, you were stuck with what you had. Without the maximum stat (18) to cast the highest level spells, it meant that your caster might be gimped into not ever be able to cast these spells ever. With no upcast possible, it litteraly meant that some of your spell slots would never be of use, ever. This is one of the reasons many casters would retire at some time. They would not be able to cope with the power creep.

2) Training was a thing. Finding a higher level trainer to train faster and cheaper was also a thing. Otherwise the cost of training between level was astronomical. With access to money and a good trainer, it meant that some casters were effectively stuck at their current level if they could not find the funds to train. This was happening often enough for people to consider retiring. Players were often sharing gold in a manner that would allow everyone to train but it was not all groups.

Today, it would be difficult to emulate these factors. The only way to do it would be by going the gritty way. 5ed can be relatively easy but if you apply the optional rules in the DMG for resting and a few others, it can be quite deadly. But would it be enough? I doubt it. A 5ed Greyhawk would be filled with more higher level NPCs than a 1ed one.
 

Coroc

Hero
I guess we are on the Fourth Greyhawk-adjacent thread now! To paraphrase the great Knight, Sir Ron of Burgundy, "You're writing another long Greyhawk thread? And you ate the whole wheel of cheese? How are you doing this? Heck, I'm not even mad, that's amazing!"


This is based in a concept brought up by @Minigiant when the idea of Greyhawk as "low magic," came up. Specifically, he wrote that that there are multiple axes of magic (Minigiant used power, frequency, and versatility) and it's difficult to say that a setting is "low magic" unless you really examine the ways in the which it is low magic.

But what does this mean, exactly? I thought I'd do a deeper dive into the question of low magic both for Greyhawk and for 5e. I will be looking at it in the following sections:

A. Why Low Magic is Difficult to Define
B. Why There are Some People that Advocate for Greyhawk as a Low Magic Setting
C. The Difficulties of Low Magic Campaigns in 5e
D. Does Low Magic Still Have a Place Today?


A. The limits of my magick means the limits of my world.

While I think that you could break down the categories into more, or less, areas that Minigiant does, I think the basic thesis that he has (that magic means means many things in a campaign world) is 100% accurate. Let's think of this in different ways.

One example is Game of Thrones; in GOT, magic is beyond uncommon. But when there is magic, it is incredibly powerful. Most people would refer to GOT as "low magic" yet would also acknowledge that magic is insanely powerful.

On the other extreme would be a setting like Eberron. Again, it is almost invariably referred to as "High Magic" because of the prevalence of magic (magic as technology, magic is ubiquitous) and yet it doesn't vary from the standard rules of D&D that would apply to other settings.

So how can we drill down to look at the various ways that magic is presented, and how many (we are all individuals!) people tend to view the differentiating factors of what makes a low magic setting? In my opinion, it tends to be a set of binaries.

1. The World.
Is the world one in which magic is common and ubiquitous (Eberron, for example) or one in which magic is uncommon or not accounted for (Game of Thrones, for example). Is the magic current, or is it from the past? Are there magic item shops where you can purchase magic?

2. The People.
Are spellcasting NPCs common and ubiquitous, or rare? Does every town have a high-level cleric, and disease unheard of, or are high-level spellcasters infrequent and sometimes more an object of myth than reality? Does the campaign setting have many organized wizard's guilds (for example) or is every wizard an island unto themselves?

3. The PCs.
How common are spellcasting PCs? Do most classes have "spells" or "abilities." Do martial classes cast spells? Are there a lot of "always on" cantrips, or is spellcasting more limited?

4. The Items.
Does the campaign setting have a lot of powerful magic items? Artifacts? Is it assumed that most PCs will acquire power through gaining these magic items?

I don't think this list is the end-all, be-all, but I think by looking at it in terms of various components (the world, the PCs, the NPCs, etc.) it might frame it in a helpful sense. So moving from this generalize concept to the more specific example of Greyhawk would be helpful!


B. Magick is what killed the dinosaurs, darling.

When it comes to Greyhawk, I think it is difficult to advocate for the setting qua setting as being low magic. The reason for this is pretty simple; the setting, at least if you're looking at the "Gygax setting" that predates 1984, is incredibly open-ended.

Brief aside- I will be discussing the Box Set / Folio version of GH, and not the later 2e and 3e material. This is not to say that those materials aren't good, or have fans, or are invalid in any way. This is just already long enough.

But the reason there are people that advocate for a "low magic" (or, at least, "lower magic") Greyhawk primarily has to do with the factors enunciated above. Looking at them carefully, it is easy to see that (4), the items, is not low magic in Greyhawk. Greyhawk is the ur-setting for the most powerful artifacts and relics in D&D. Instead, it comes down to the interplay of 1, 2, and 3.

Fundamentally, Greyhawk is a setting in which there is, and has been, powerful magic, but the most powerful magic occurred in the past. Whether it's the artifacts and relics (insanely powerful magic items from a bygone age) or the spells (the invoked devastation and rain of colorless fire), there is a recurrent theme of the power of the past compared to the future; one which dovetails nicely with the early D&D practice of graverobbing .... um, exploring dungeons and crypts. The reason adventurers can find all this loot (money and magic) buried and lost is precisely because the past was a foreign country, of untold power. More importantly, however, the present is a reflection of something we can understand- the medieval/early Renaissance period.

In a way, Eberron makes more internal sense as a setting. If you have the ability to churn out "always on" light, then why wouldn't you have lighting to counteract the darkness being churned out? Greyhawk (and other settings) tend to take the view, either explicitly or implicitly, of the "selfish spellcaster," that due to REASONS, there is no spellcasting for the general weal. That there are still plagues. That isolated villages still fear the night beyond their limited fires.

And this has other impacts, as well. Greyhawk, as a setting, has battles. Big battles, with troops. If spellcasting was common and endemic, those types of battles would be, at a minimum, more difficult to pull off.

As such, when I think of people advocating for GH as low magic, and putting it into the rubric above, I would say that:
1. In Greyhawk, magic is not prevalent, not accounted for, or excused away due to reasons. There is disease, there are battles of regular troops.

2. Greyhawk will have fewer spellcasting NPCs than a setting like FR. They exist, and they can be very powerful (Mordenkainen) or even get to god status (Zagyg), but they are interested in their own thing, not in the PCs. Wizards tend to stick to themselves.

4. Magic items are not made or produced anymore in any quantity, but powerful magic from prior eras is ubiquitous to those who venture to find it.

Which leaves (3). I think that many people who are advocating for "low magic" in Greyhawk are really advocating for a style of play as opposed to something necessarily within the campaign setting. In other words, this is more about the nature of 5e than about Greyhawk.


C. There ain't no iguana.

At a fundamental level, 5e is a "high magic" system compared to the editions of D&D that gave rise to Gygaxian Greyhawk. Only four classes (Fighter, Rogue, Monk, and Barbarian) aren't spellcasters by default, and the newest official class (Artificer) is a spellcaster as well. That means that almost every basic class is a spellcaster. When you add in the subclasses (like Eldritch Knight, etc.) that allow you to turn the martial classes into casters, or the feats (magic initiate, etc.), or the multiclassing, or the many races that provide you access to cantrips or spellcasting, then it quickly becomes apparent that 5e (in comparison to, say, the OD&D - 2e line, or the B/X - BECMI line) is high magic in terms of PC spellcasting ubiquity.

Just as notably, the existence of always-on attack cantrips makes magic much more ubiquitous in 5e as well. It is almost impossible to imagine a combat, or, for that matter, a single round of combat in 5e without spellcasting.

It's possible to see this when you compare the base 5e classes with a setting like AIME; in order to make a campaign setting low magic, you do have to re-work the classes. Because high magic is effectively baked into the rules when it comes to PCs.

So when people advocate for Greyhawk as a "low magic" setting, it usually means two things which are not the same:

1. Greyhawk is low magic as noted above; the PCs can special and different, and play by the 5e basic rules, but the rest of campaign world ignores this. You can define the "reasons" or be comfortable with not explaining the "reasons" but magic is not ubiquitous in the setting itself, although it is still powerful.

2. They want a coherent, official, "low magic" setting that would allow them to play something that de-emphasizes the spellcasting classes. In other words, this isn't about Greyhawk per se, but about the style of play.

So, a final question- is low magic, in terms of removing some spellcasting from PCs, even desirable?


D. Try, try, try to understand ... I want some low magic, man.

At a very fundamental level .... no. Low magic is not, in my opinion, that desirable. Just like people can say that 5e is too easy, and they should make a hard mode, etc.; well, there is a reason that videogames don't have that on as default. Most people don't want everything to be too hard. Most people want to be able to succeed, to have fun, and to use the konami code as necessary. I might like a 6e with low magic, and an emphasis on martial classes .... but I am not the target market. People like creating their characters, and new players are going to be inspired by an anime on Crunchyroll; not by a Fritz Lieber short story.

On the other hand, I think that campaign settings are a great opportunity to provide coherent rulesets for a variety of play. I don't think that low magic (for example) should be a default setting for D&D; that ship sailed a long long time ago. But I think that any given release of a campaign setting should introduce something new, and that a campaign setting that provided official and coherent low magic settings would be worth purchasing. If not today, and if not Greyhawk, then someday.

Anyway, those are my tentative thoughts. I'm sure others will have wildly divergent opinions on this!
greyhawk is not low magic as written. You stated the facts already in your post, but i willl add some.

besides artefacts you had a super high level magic cataclysm. You got zones where magic runs differently. The greyhawk city boxed set has many npcs besides the circle being at least mid level spellcasters.
church heads being mid to high level clerics is the rule not the exception.
adventure modules like rary or vecna lives feature ultra high magic in action.
and long before eberron you got magic commodities like a permanent wall of fire chimney.
 

When people talk about a D&D setting being "high magic" or "low magic" I think they're referring to how often magic is typically encountered in the everyday life of the setting.

In Eberron, they've got magically powered railroads, airships flying taxis, magically augmented skyscrapers, a PC race of sentient golems, Artificers, and in 3.x they even had Magewrights. . .NPC casters that specialized in doing nothing but churning out low-end magic items and "routine" enchantments in mass production. Even though it's a fairly low-level setting, it's seen as "high magic" because magic is something most people encounter in their everyday lives. Saying "I want to be a wizard when I grow up" is like saying "I want to be an electrical engineer when I grow up", just another profession, just one that requires a lot of study and practice and intelligence to master.

In Forgotten Realms, there are places like Halruua, or Netheril, or Thay, where magic and spellcasters are literally a part of everyday life and things like flying cities, airships, or mages in everyday life. . .and there are places like Sembia or Cormyr or the Moonshae Isles, which are a more typical fantasy realm where the average folk might not see magical items, spellcasters and constructs on a daily basis, but they know they exist and have probably at least seen them before. The local temples might have a few low-level Clerics, but that's about all they'd ever see without anything special happening.

Then there's "low magic", where most people have never seen actual magic, or dealt with anything that's obviously and provably magic. Wizards may keep their magic secret, or just be that rare. Clerics with actual spellcasting are uncommon and most priests can't cast spells.
 

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
Here's the definition from Wikipedia, and it is of course pretty nuanced;

Low fantasy or intrusion fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction where magical events intrude on an otherwise normal world.[1][2] It thus contrasts with high fantasy stories, which take place in fictional worlds with their own sets of rules and physical laws.

Intrusion fantasy places relatively less emphasis on typical elements associated with fantasy, setting a narrative in realistic environments with elements of the fantastical. Sometimes there are just enough fantastical elements to make ambiguous the boundary between what is real and what is purely psychological or supernatural. The word "low" refers to the level of prominence of traditional fantasy elements within the work, and is not any sort of remark on the work's quality.

An alternative definition, common in role-playing games, rests on the story and characters being more realistic and less mythic in scope. This can mean that some works, for example Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian series, can be high fantasy according to the first definition but low fantasy according to the second,[3] while with other works, such as the TV series Supernatural, the opposite is true.


Greyhawk, IMO, is not truly low-magic under the first definition. Because even if we can argue magic is uncommon, it's still common enough for it to have certain rules and physical laws. Add that monsters like vampires and beholders are common enough that they define the world too.

I think one could argue the second definition, that the characters and story is low-magic, is potentially true depending on your PCs. If you have a few magic-users, it's not that low-magic. If you have mostly fighters and rogues (like Conan) and are focused on local problems like slavers (and many Greyhawk modules fit this mold), than it is.
 

TwiceBorn2

Explorer
If Edge Entertainment manage to pull off an excellent low magic 5e variant for Midnight: Legacy of Darkness, I might use that model and apply it to my future Greyhawk campaigns. That, and maybe elements from Adventures in Middle-Earth, if my players are open to it.

From the Ashes era Greyhawk and Midnight have a lot in common, and are my favourite settings (though I have admittedly only run pre-Wars Greyhawk).
 

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