Low Fantasy - Best Systems?

Argyle King

Legend
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?
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
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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Argyle King

Legend
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.
 


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