Low Fantasy - Best Systems?

Johnny3D3D

Adventurer
First, to prevent starting from a miscommunication: what do I mean by "low fantasy"?

The common literary definition does not quite fit what I want. I prefer something similar to the definitions found in GURPS Fantasy.

Regarding "High Fantasy"
"If fantasy occupies the middle
ground between myth and history,
high fantasy is closer to myth."
~GURPS Fantasy


With that sliding scale in mind, my desire is for something which is weighted more toward the "history" and reality end of the spectrum. That's not to say I want completely realistic; I still want dragons, magic, elves, or whatever, but I find that contemporary D&D (beyond about level 4) and Pathfinder both skew in a very different direction that what I want.

In my mind, if some manner of fantasy venn diagram could be draw from my own imagination, the following list would be among the circles involved: R. Howard's Conan; 80s movies such as Beastmaster, Dragonslayer, Legend, and Conan; early seasons of Game of Thrones; PC game Mount & Blade; the book version of confrontations with Smaug in The Hobbit; Arthurian fantasy and the knight on horseback trope; and heroic tier D&D.
(Honorable mention to Witcher, the first Dragon Age game, and some of the classic fairy tales with a bit of a darker underlying edge of realness.)

I'm not opposed to higher fantasy elements, but I'd like things like demon lords trying to destroy the planet or powerful wizards to be few and far between -typically special events and notable when they occur. I'd prefer a magic sword to be cool because it has some manner of cool special feature rather than simply being a progression from +1 to +2.

From a game standpoint, I'm more interested in high level heroes leading armies rather than fighting them. I mean, yeah, sure, someone like Conan might be able to fight several combatants and regularly win, but that's still below a memory I have of an old D&D 3.5 game in which I realized that taking the leadership feat lead to very different play than imagined. (An army of lower level followers was essentially useless on a battlefield; it was better to have a team of people making and crafting gear.)

I do believe PCs should be people who are far above the average common folk of the world in some way, but not so far above that a player could rampage through a village with impunity. I enjoy many of the tropes from tabletop fantasy games, but not the way in which they are mechanically presented and the style of narrative that tends to lean toward.

If my rambling lead to anything coherent...

What games do you feel produce this style of gaming experience?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
First, to prevent starting from a miscommunication: what do I mean by "low fantasy"?
I always get stuck in my craw that "high fantasy" and "low fantasy" already have technical definitions. So, pardon me if I chafe a little.

What you seem to be talking about is low magic, and perhaps low-power fantasy.

In my mind, if some manner of fantasy venn diagram could be draw from my own imagination, the following list would be among the circles involved
The problem is that listing what the sircles are is not terribly meaningful - we'd need to see the intersections, with a pointer to the segment labelled, "What I want here".

I'm not opposed to higher fantasy elements, but I'd like things like demon lords trying to destroy the planet or powerful wizards to be few and far between -typically special events and notable when they occur. I'd prefer a magic sword to be cool because it has some manner of cool special feature rather than simply being a progression from +1 to +2.
You realize you just described Lord of the Rings, commonly considered some of the highest high-fantasy there is? There's only one demon lord (Sauron). There's only two wizards worth discussing (Gandalf and Saruman). Their interactions are most certainly the special event of the Third Age of the world, having not really happened ever before. Swords are cool because they glow in the presence of orcs...

From a game standpoint, I'm more interested in high level heroes leading armies rather than fighting them.
So, Aragorn does exactly this....

What games do you feel produce this style of gaming experience?
Well, you opened with GURPS. I'd put it in the list.

D&D, played E6-style, does a not-too-shabby job of it.

I daresay, the upcoming Swords of the Serpentine will probably also fit the bill.
 
For something like D&D but tweaked more toward low Fantasy, Shadow of a Demon Lord.

For something that is more realistic but offers crunchy combat and skill choices without classes and levels try Mythras.

For something older, but BRP based and relatively simpler try any iteration of Stormbringer/Elric/Magic World.

For something more pulpy but more medium crunch and with a metagame currency maybe Modiphius Conan 2d20.
 
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Johnny3D3D

Adventurer
I always get stuck in my craw that "high fantasy" and "low fantasy" already have technical definitions. So, pardon me if I chafe a little.

What you seem to be talking about is low magic, and perhaps low-power fantasy.
I've seen "low-fantasy" mean different things depending upon if a literary context or a gaming context is being used. As I was attempting to use a mixture of both, I felt starting with some background concerning what I want was best to prevent miscommunication.

The problem is that listing what the sircles are is not terribly meaningful - we'd need to see the intersections, with a pointer to the segment labelled, "What I want here".
You realize you just described Lord of the Rings, commonly considered some of the highest high-fantasy there is? There's only one demon lord (Sauron). There's only two wizards worth discussing (Gandalf and Saruman). Their interactions are most certainly the special event of the Third Age of the world, having not really happened ever before. Swords are cool because they glow in the presence of orcs...
Yes...

Though, I'm of the opinion that -even as what could be called a "high fantasy" setting- it's still more grounded than a typical contemporary d20 (D&D or PF specifically).

That's why I went with the venn diagram approach. I'm not necessarily looking for an exact point on a graph, but more of a general intersecting ballpark.

If it helps, I also like the idea of castle sieges and ship-to-ship battles at sea feeling like fights and challenges rather than the PCs essentially being supers in comparison to the world around them.

I like the general vibe of some classic sword & sandal movies (Ben-Hur, Venus Meets the Son of Hercules, etc), but would like to add in more fantasy. I support (and enjoy) cinematic action and heroics, but I don't like how D&D and PF so quickly render certain challenges trivial; I believe something like a battle should be serious -regardless of level.

So, Aragorn does exactly this....
Yes, and the army is able to participate in an encounter in a meaningful way.

Well, you opened with GURPS. I'd put it in the list.

D&D, played E6-style, does a not-too-shabby job of it.

I daresay, the upcoming Swords of the Serpentine will probably also fit the bill.
I play a lot of GURPS. I'm trying to be more open-minded and try some other games.

I'm not familiar with Swords of the Serpentine. I'll check it out.
 

imagineGod

Explorer
The Modiphius Conan game is very low fantasy, not totally devoid of magic, but a better game engine than The Witcher RPG.

However, if you open up your options and allow other game types, then "Band of Blades" by Evil Hat or "Ironsworn" are both good low-fantasy gritty role playing games with simple rules.
 

Puggins

Explorer
I’m always amused when someone mentions Conan as being low fantasy. In fewer pages than a single LotR book he meets two dragons, at least three demons, a sorcerer that makes a dragon run the other way and a couple of what would be considered liches and a vampire queen. He also manages to kill a demonic gorilla with a dagger and walks away from a beating from that gorilla. A lich wrenches an ancient city from the past to exist in the present. Huge serpents slither through the streets of Stygia on the new moon looking for human prey. It makes Lord of the Rings feel like historical fiction.
 

JeffB

Hero
Check out Runequest- While the classic (and once again core) setting Glorantha in the current RQ is high magic/high mythology, the core systems from the RQ 3rd edition (Avalon Hill), the Mongoose versions (MRQ1 and MRQ2- now called Legend I believe), the Design Mechanism (RQ6 and Mythras) or even just heading over to Chaosium and picking up Basic RP are all good ways to go.

Also

Chivalry & Sorcery
 

innerdude

Adventurer
@Johnny3D3D -- Commenting on your reply to @Umbran upthread, my initial question would be, how is GURPS failing to provide the type of "low fantasy" feel that you want?

Because GURPS is certainly one of the go-to systems that comes to my mind when looking at playing a "low fantasy" campaign/system. In fact, it's probably one of the ONLY general game milieus to which I think I might enjoy GURPS at all.

Any and all of the Runequest/BRP spinoffs are in many ways going to give you the same feel as GURPS --- deadly combat, loads of tactical combat options, roll-under system (though Runequest's flat distribution versus GURPS normal distribution/bell curve will definitely feel more "swingy" at times).

I've read through the Legend PDF (the OGL version of Runequest 2) a few times---since it's free, after all---and my general impression is that it was very much tailored from the same basic cloth as GURPS, with the major differences being approaches to magic. So if you're just wanting to try something new without completely abandoning what you like about GURPS, this might not be a bad place to start.

Now, if you're really wanting to "break the mold" from GURPS entirely, there's definitely more stuff out there. Barbarians of Lemuria, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, Harn, Zweihander, Burning Wheel . . . heck, even Genesys would probably do "low fantasy" very well, depending on how you wanted to handle healing.

If you wanted to do "high action / low fantasy", Savage Worlds would also work really well, if you were willing to do a little research on how to "tune" the system to get the proper grim/gritty feel you want from it. But I rarely recommend Savage Worlds to hardcore GURPS players, because on the surface Savage Worlds looks a lot like GURPS, but once an old GURPS player starts digging in, they generally feel that Savage Worlds isn't nearly crunchy enough for their taste.

But all of this is depending on what kind of game experience you want. Do you want more player narrative freedom? Do you like GURPS, but just want something slightly different? Do you want the players to feel more "heroic" than GURPS, but just want a low-fantasy setting to mill about in?

I also think @Puggins comment is relevant as well---don't mistakenly equate a "low tech" setting/system with a "low fantasy" setting/system.

If you're looking for some outstanding examples of what I'd consider "low fantasy" in fiction, I'd highly recommend reading any of Guy Gavriel Kay's pseudo-historical fantasy novels, particularly the Sarantium series, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and Under Heaven.

Thanks for being patient with my rambling thoughts, just throwing spaghetti against the wall here to see if anything is useful for sparking ideas.
 

B1okHead

Explorer
I have found Hackmaster 5e to be a refreshing take on D&D. A simple orc is stronger than a level 1 character and larger monsters like ogres can be truly terrifying. In general, the default setting is lowish magic with a heavy emphasis on verisimilitude.
 

aramis erak

Adventurer
WFRP 1E can do this easily... just don't allow magic users careers, and don't use the demons in the bestiary. 2E is a bit less suited to it, but still quite reasonable.

While I've not personally used the "D&D E6", I've run all editions except OE, Holmes, and 4E through 7th+ and I agree a low-level capped D&D may work quite well, if one handles the monster choices carefully.

GURPS can do it; whether it's a good choice or not depends upon GM self-control, and players agreeing to the limits... and everyone's tolerance for long skill lists. GURPS is a bit complex for even large skirmishes, but there's a mass combat mechanic in 3E (C I or C II) that allows that.

The Fantasy Trip is one I've used for this level/style, but only for minicampaigns (3-5 sessions) or one-shots (1-3 session single adventure); I have extensively played the solo modules. It's a far better fit than GURPS, IMO, in part because of the broader talents vs the narrow skills, and because the magic system is less convoluted, less potent, and closer to the swords-and-sorcery genre tone. Large (20 on a side) skirmishes can be played out with core mechanics, but are a bit slow. Mass battles are beyond scale, but the related "Lords of Underearth" is a related game.

Rolemaster is close to the best for this feel I've run/played, but I've not gotten past minicampaigns and 4th level.

The old MERP is a streamlined version of Rolemaster - lousy for Tolkien, but great for that pervasive yet low powered magic and larger than life zero-to-hero. Plus, MERP can use the wider RM monsters, as it's pretty compatible. MERP also much reduces the table load: weapons tables are 2 pages (vs over 20+ for RM), crits another 4 pages (vs about 15 in RM), and attack spells another page (vs 15+ for RM). Moving maneuver and static maneuver tables 1 page each (same as RM). Still, second best.

Which brings me to The One Ring. With Rivendell and the Corebook, one has probably the best for the lots of minor magic, no big magics in play, exotic critters, and slow growth with great thematic combat.
 

mach1.9pants

Adventurer
I’m always amused when someone mentions Conan as being low fantasy. In fewer pages than a single LotR book he meets two dragons, at least three demons, a sorcerer that makes a dragon run the other way and a couple of what would be considered liches and a vampire queen. He also manages to kill a demonic gorilla with a dagger and walks away from a beating from that gorilla. A lich wrenches an ancient city from the past to exist in the present. Huge serpents slither through the streets of Stygia on the new moon looking for human prey. It makes Lord of the Rings feel like historical fiction.
I guess because the protagonist doesn't use magic, only NPCs - just like LoTR with Gandalf the DMPC or Bad Guys. TO me that is a big part of Low Fantasy, what magic is available to the protagonist/player - if there is magic about they don't get much of it!
 

Johnny3D3D

Adventurer
I’m always amused when someone mentions Conan as being low fantasy. In fewer pages than a single LotR book he meets two dragons, at least three demons, a sorcerer that makes a dragon run the other way and a couple of what would be considered liches and a vampire queen. He also manages to kill a demonic gorilla with a dagger and walks away from a beating from that gorilla. A lich wrenches an ancient city from the past to exist in the present. Huge serpents slither through the streets of Stygia on the new moon looking for human prey. It makes Lord of the Rings feel like historical fiction.
Even so, all of those things are presented in a way which is very different than a D&D party ROFL-stomping an encounter, magic items on every corner, and etc.

It's also worth mentioning that Conan is effectively a high-powered PC. He is capable of things beyond the normal folk of the setting. Yet, he's still vulnerable to mundane things in many circumstances -rather than becoming immune to the world around him. The world around him is a big part of what I consider as well, not just one character.

It's less about the content and more about how the content is presented. As such, it fits, and -even if I were doing just a Conan game- I would find (and have found) most d20 games (with D&D-style HP, levels, and etc) to very poorly fit what I want out of the experience.


@Johnny3D3D -- Commenting on your reply to @Umbran upthread, my initial question would be, how is GURPS failing to provide the type of "low fantasy" feel that you want?

Because GURPS is certainly one of the go-to systems that comes to my mind when looking at playing a "low fantasy" campaign/system. In fact, it's probably one of the ONLY general game milieus to which I think I might enjoy GURPS at all.
I don't find it to be failing.

I wanted to ask a question of others, to see what else may be out there. I'm curious to hear what others may recommend.

Having more options doesn't hurt. I may find other games which I enjoy or maybe I'll find a mechanic which I can import into a GURPS session.

I noticed Hackmaster mentioned. I do have one of the books from that system. I've never played it, but reading through it has been enjoyable.
 

Johnny3D3D

Adventurer
WFRP 1E can do this easily... just don't allow magic users careers, and don't use the demons in the bestiary. 2E is a bit less suited to it, but still quite reasonable.

While I've not personally used the "D&D E6", I've run all editions except OE, Holmes, and 4E through 7th+ and I agree a low-level capped D&D may work quite well, if one handles the monster choices carefully.

GURPS can do it; whether it's a good choice or not depends upon GM self-control, and players agreeing to the limits... and everyone's tolerance for long skill lists. GURPS is a bit complex for even large skirmishes, but there's a mass combat mechanic in 3E (C I or C II) that allows that.

The Fantasy Trip is one I've used for this level/style, but only for minicampaigns (3-5 sessions) or one-shots (1-3 session single adventure); I have extensively played the solo modules. It's a far better fit than GURPS, IMO, in part because of the broader talents vs the narrow skills, and because the magic system is less convoluted, less potent, and closer to the swords-and-sorcery genre tone. Large (20 on a side) skirmishes can be played out with core mechanics, but are a bit slow. Mass battles are beyond scale, but the related "Lords of Underearth" is a related game.

Rolemaster is close to the best for this feel I've run/played, but I've not gotten past minicampaigns and 4th level.

The old MERP is a streamlined version of Rolemaster - lousy for Tolkien, but great for that pervasive yet low powered magic and larger than life zero-to-hero. Plus, MERP can use the wider RM monsters, as it's pretty compatible. MERP also much reduces the table load: weapons tables are 2 pages (vs over 20+ for RM), crits another 4 pages (vs about 15 in RM), and attack spells another page (vs 15+ for RM). Moving maneuver and static maneuver tables 1 page each (same as RM). Still, second best.

Which brings me to The One Ring. With Rivendell and the Corebook, one has probably the best for the lots of minor magic, no big magics in play, exotic critters, and slow growth with great thematic combat.

I'm mostly familiar with GURPS 4th Edition.

I have considered the new edition of The Fantasy Trip.
 

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