The Difficulties Of Running Low Magic Campaigns

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Tranquilis

Visitor
This is true, as far as it goes -- Monty Haul is as old as the game, itself. I do think, however, that video games have aggravated things, though.

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

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

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

CubicsRube

Explorer
Aa others have saod about lotr, moddle earth is a place rife woth magic, but that magic is in items and in places


Also the magoc ogself is much more suntle most of the time, causing fear, making illusions, foretell8ngs of the future and contacting people from afar.

This is a magic id love to see more of in a fantasy rpg as an alternative to d&d style fireballs. AiME seems to have made a solid step in this direction

Op, im not sure if this is derailing the thread and if so i apologise.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
Honestly, this is sort of a tempest in a teapot.

IF you insist on using AD&D and beyond, you keep your campaigns short and use lower levels. Better yet, use Basic D&D or one of the OSR versions.

Better yet, don't use D&D. Pendragon is a prime example since it provides a rich game with some of the most hardcore restrictions. Players are knights who only adventure during the summer. Magic is purely NPC and GM effects. Your PCs quickly age and the player has to become more concerned over the legacy, and bloodline, they create than just one dude and his treasures. During college it was one my most popular campaigns.

The "secret" is more than just getting player buy-in. It's by providing more than just the rote gaming experience. Eberron was a good example of that with its motto "High adventure, low levels," with fights on top trains and such.
 
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Saelorn

Adventurer
I think that the problem is that video games and modern action movies, sources from which many fantasy fans draw character inspiration nowadays, focus by necessity on confrontation. That requires the protagonist to have enough power (and that power to be retain or regenerate, not just be one-off).
That has very little do with it. You just need the ability to support confrontation that isn't resolved through magic.

From a design standpoint, if you want everyone to contribute on a regular basis, then you should never have a character who can only contribute through magic. If there's a wizard class, then they need to be able to do something useful when they aren't casting spells.
 

Celebrim

Legend
The thing is, Lord of the Rings isn't a low-magic campaign. As a setting conceit, magic items are supposedly super-rare, but the protagonists pick them up at a hefty rate. Gandalf and Aragorn come pre-stocked with magic swords, the hobbits get magic weapons out of the first dungeon they raid, Frodo gets magic armour in Rivendell, and magic items are handed out like candy in Lothlorien. That's just in the first book, and I didn't even mention the Rings.
Absolutely correct. While in theory 'Middle Earth' is a low magic setting, the story itself does not equate to a low magic campaign. The protagonists are special, and this specialness is frequently marked by the acquisition of magic items, which then become associated with their characters.

The issues with low-magic campaigns in D&D are largely logistical, a matter of not having the expected tools to deal with certain resistances and immunities. If you have that covered through careful monster choice or adjustment, you should be fine.
Agreed, though in the long run, this works both ways. As the PC's level up, even if you are careful to keep magic items out of their hand, if they have spell casters or magic at all, the problem becomes maintaining some sort of parity between the world you've envisioned - with its widespread vulnerability to magic - and the PC's with their salient prowess in it.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
From a design standpoint, if you want everyone to contribute on a regular basis, then you should never have a character who can only contribute through magic. If there's a wizard class, then they need to be able to do something useful when they aren't casting spells.
IMHO, there’s nothing wrong with glass cannons, but I recognize I’m an exception in that regard. Then again, I don’t mind playing casters who throw a lot of daggers & darts, use crossbows, etc.
 

pemerton

Legend
In 4e, running "low magic" or LotR-style is perfectly straightforward.

Of non-D&D fantasy RPGs that I'm familiar with, HeroQuest revised, Cortex+ Heroic and Burning Wheel all have no trouble with low magic.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
IMHO, there’s nothing wrong with glass cannons, but I recognize I’m an exception in that regard. Then again, I don’t mind playing casters who throw a lot of daggers & darts, use crossbows, etc.
I'm not quite sure what you're saying, but the wizard with a crossbow is exactly what I was getting at. If a wizard can still contribute to combat in a meaningful way, by firing that crossbow, then you can have as much combat as you want and the wizard won't ruin the low-magic tone by casting spells non-stop.

If a wizard is not contributing with that crossbow, because they're probably going to miss and a successful hit deals trivial damage anyway, then you're stuck with the design dilemma of raising the magic level so they can always cast spells or turning that character into a bystander for half of the encounters.
 
I'm running a game right now for my son and his brother and sister (ages 6-10) and all of them are new to D&D but they are levels 3/4/4 and they have a total of 3 magic items in their group (not counting potions). My son who plays a thief/wizard has a staff of spell storing, his sister who is a thief has a dagger of venom and his brother who is a fighter/thief has a short sword of quickness and they all think the world of their magic items. I have found when the group has fewer magic items they mean more to the group. I have always run a low magic world. I originally created this world back in 1989 (senior year of high school) and play it in 1st, 2nd, 3rd and now 5th edition.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I'm not quite sure what you're saying, but the wizard with a crossbow is exactly what I was getting at. If a wizard can still contribute to combat in a meaningful way, by firing that crossbow, then you can have as much combat as you want and the wizard won't ruin the low-magic tone by casting spells non-stop. If a wizard is not contributing with that crossbow, because they're probably going to miss and a successful hit deals trivial damage anyway, then you're stuck with the design dilemma of raising the magic level so they can always cast spells or turning that character into a bystander for half of the encounters.

This is a very good point. The late 5E onwards addition of things like "at will" magic blasts was done primarily to allow caster type characters to have something to do in between casting their limited number of Vancian spells. Even crossbow wizard was not a thing in 1E and 2E, though dagger or dart throwing wizard was not. Still they weren't that good at hitting, though overall attacks weren't that differentiated at the time. Still, the popularity of multiclass casters should indicate the issues that single classed wizards faced.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I'm not quite sure what you're saying, but the wizard with a crossbow is exactly what I was getting at. If a wizard can still contribute to combat in a meaningful way, by firing that crossbow, then you can have as much combat as you want and the wizard won't ruin the low-magic tone by casting spells non-stop.

If a wizard is not contributing with that crossbow, because they're probably going to miss and a successful hit deals trivial damage anyway, then you're stuck with the design dilemma of raising the magic level so they can always cast spells or turning that character into a bystander for half of the encounters.
Whether or not they deal significant damage or even hit, I still view the attempt as meaningful contribution. Ditto the use of grenade like projectiles (which, depending on the caster and his projectile choices, may be even more effective). Part of that is because 1) nobody hits all the time and 2) by conserving spells until they’re needed, they get a lot more mileage out of their resources.

Now, that’s in standard D&D mid/high level magic campaigns.

But in a low-magic setting- depending on the particular type of low magic we’re discussing- that caster may have even fewer magical resources, and therefore must rely more on non-magical actions. That’s why I used the restrictions I did in low-magic D&D games (mentioned upthread): the half casters are already built with those other resources as part of their classes; the leveling restrictions ensured that the PCs would have more HP and better accuracy in combat.

And, as always, there are build decisions that will have significant long-lasting effects on the efficacy of a given caster. If you’re taking a lot of spells that require ranged attack rolls, like rays, you’re going to be better with ranged weapons than the typical caster. If I build a character like that, I try to make sure they have access to LOTS of ranged weapons. A single class dip to expand weapon proficiencies coupled with a Quiver of Ehlonna filled to the brim makes for a magic-slinger who can at least make enemies reconsider the pros and cons of closing the distance as he flings spears and javelins.

Or remember the Knowledge Devotion Feat?
Knowledge Devotion: One Knowledge skill of your choice is a class skills (KS:Religion) regardless of the class you are advancing. Whenever you fight a creature, you can make a Knowledge check based on its type, provided that you have at least one rank in the appropriate Knowledge skill, gaining an insight bonus on Att/Dam rolls against that creature type for the remainder of the combat.
Arcana: constructs, dragons, magical beasts
Dungeoneering: aberrations, oozes
Local: humanoids
Nature: animals, fey, giants, monstrous humanoids, plants, vermin
Religion: undead
The Planes: outsiders, elementals
Either dipping into skill monkey classes or just using the amount of bonus skill points due to casters’ general penchant for above average intelligence turns this into a nice boost to attack & damage.

Similarly the Reserve Feats and Alternative Class (or Race) features that granted additional/at-will minor magical options have an outsized effect in low-magic campaigns. (Once the PC is of sufficient level to gain their benefit, of course.)
 
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EthanSental

Adventurer
Here here for the class of 89!! Similar edition play for me as well. Sounds like a fun campaign and passing it along to the next generation too!
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Whether or not they deal significant damage or even hit, I still view the attempt as meaningful contribution. Ditto the use of grenade like projectiles (which, depending on the caster and his projectile choices, may be even more effective). Part of that is because 1) nobody hits all the time and 2) by conserving spells until they’re needed, they get a lot more mileage out of their resources.

But in a low-magic setting- depending on the particular type of low magic we’re discussing- that caster may have even fewer magical resources, and therefore must rely more on non-magical actions. That’s why I used the restrictions I did in low-magic D&D games (mentioned upthread): the half casters are already built with those other resources as part of their classes; the leveling restrictions ensured that the PCs would have more HP and better accuracy in combat.
One problem is the fact that D&D, especially 1E and 2E, had very limited ways for such characters to contribute meaningfully because of how niche protected D&D is. Rattling away on a crossbow that misses most of the time isn't that fun for many players. Their defenses were poor, too, so they couldn't take much of a beating either. Grenades---the ever popular flaming oil---and pets like wardogs were the low level single class wizard in those games. Small wonder many people played multiclass wizards.

In games that simulate genres that don't have casters being strong on the battlefield, such as swords and sorcery, you will often see them picking up some combat abilities. In modern D&D, as you say, half casters. In 2E, bards fit the bill.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Part of the “meaningful” equation is situational...as in, dependent on target selection and weapon of choice. If you’re aiming your crossbow at the Death Knight, no, you’re probably not being helpful.

OTOH, if you fire at its cadre of low-level undead squires using 2-hand swords, you might wind up saving the front-line fighters a handful of potentially seriously damaging hits.

Strategically casting a Grease spell before lobbing a firebomb may mean you don’t even have to get close to your target.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Part of the “meaningful” equation is situational...as in, dependent on target selection and weapon of choice. If you’re aiming your crossbow at the Death Knight, no, you’re probably not being helpful.OTOH, if you fire at its cadre of low-level undead squires using 2-hand swords, you might wind up saving the front-line fighters a handful of potentially seriously damaging hits.
Certainly the case that this is situational, although I do think that the DM often needed to make sure that there were such targets around. I guess my point is that there was a reason the magical at will dink got invented.


Strategically casting a Grease spell before lobbing a firebomb may mean you don’t even have to get close to your target.
Yes, this is old skool wizardry at its best. The wizard really had to wait for their opportunity. The problem I think was that having so limited a resource either meant the DM had to hand out a lot of magical gear, making a low magic game obviously beside the point, or do some very careful encounter design.

That said, I played in a pretty low magic game more than once. In one 2E game the PCs were a fighter, a bard (custom class modeled on the original Bard's Tale bard, not the book 2E bard), a paladin, and a thief. We often had an NPC or henchman of some sort but that was the core group of PCs. I had intended to play a wizard but he got killed in the first session and ended up playing the bard instead. I really enjoyed that game. There were some notable challenges due to our lack of area effect attacks and general paucity of magical healing; the bard and paladin had some interesting quasi-magical powers that were much more subtle than would have been typical, though. We socially engineered our way out of more than one encounter by playing "let's you and him fight" and of course used things like flaming oil. Again, that was highly dependent on the group of players and DM, all of whom were very experienced.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I guess my point is that there was a reason the magical at will dink got invented.
Sure- player complaints! There were many who wanted their spellcasters to be doing magic all the time because- to them- throwing a dart or dagger didn’t seem “wizardy” enough.

I mean, it’s REALLY obvious looking at the earliest versions of the at-will magical attacks (besides the Warlock’s) were only marginally better than using a ranged weapon. And that’s ignoring the resources you needed (Feats, class features, levels) in order to obtain them, in comparison to the weapons that were readily available for mere GP.

Don’t get me wrong- I used some of those for builds. But I only did it when it fit the PC concept. Otherwise...look out for my badass wizard wearing twin bandoliers of throwable stuff...
 
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