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What is "grim and gritty" and "low magic" anyway?

Remathilis

Legend
"I run a low magic game."
"Magic is more rare in my game than in standard D&D."
"My game is alot more grim and gritty than normal."

I hear these phrases tossed around many times on this board, from some perfectly good people and supposedly good DMs (haven't played under all of you to make that assertion.)

But what does it mean?

How do you define low magic? How do you define grim and gritty? What makes these seemingly more attractive than standard Core Rules D&D for many? Is this a direction more campaign settings and sourcebooks should go in? What about the core rules?
 

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Shadowdancer

First Post
OK, for me, low magic means there's not a lot of magic in the campaign. Magic is still powerful, just rare, and fills most people with awe/dread. Magic items are very uncommon, except maybe potions, which are more alchemy than magic. The few people able to cast spells are pretty powerful individuals.

Acquiring a magic weapon or some magic armor for one character might be the plot of an entire campaign.

Grim and gritty, to me, is a little different. It can be low magic, or not. The setting is closer to what the actual medieval era was like in Europe, not an idealized, somewhat sanitized version that is in most game settings. People are dirty and smelly. Food and water is not always safe to consume. Things are dark at night, and disease can be a problem, if it's a low magic game.

More importantly, combat can be lethal, no matter how experienced you are. There is always a threat that you could die from one well-placed dagger or sword thrust. Characters can't just shrug off massive amounts of damage, even at high levels. This usually involves some sort of VP/WP system, with critical hits going straight to WP.
 

Wombat

First Post
Remathilis said:
How do you define low magic? How do you define grim and gritty? What makes these seemingly more attractive than standard Core Rules D&D for many? Is this a direction more campaign settings and sourcebooks should go in? What about the core rules?

"Low Magic", to me, means no magic shops, no one sells magic, access to magical items is very, very limited, wizards (and sorcerers) are not that common.

"Grim 'n' Gritty", again to me, means the potential of One Shot, One Kill, the idea that a low level character stands a slim chance fighting a high level one.

Both put together also implies, to my eyes, a grim world, filled with death and darkness everywhere, lots of moral ambiguities, and Survival Of The Fittest.

Why are they attractive? Well, for some people such rules make things more "realistic" (a highly ambiguous and flexible term). For others they bring in more of a "Conanesque" feel, thus more closely mirroring specific types of some fantasy literature (the Game of Thrones serious pops to mind).

These are just some initial impressions; I invite others to chime in and correct any misinterpretations I have. :)
 
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Saeviomagy

Adventurer
To me
"Low magic" usually means "I hate handing out magical items, so I removed them, inadvertantly making anyone who plays a wizard or cleric significantly more powerful than the rest of the party, but that's ok, because I cover it by saying that wizards and clerics are uncommon. Even though there's one of each in every party."

"Grim and gritty" usually means "I love save vs death mechanics and I hate hitpoints. I've further devalued the fighters of the party by removing any staying power they have."

Simply put - if someone uses either of these phrases to describe their campaign, it means that they didn't really think about the campaign world beyond their own personal DMing preferences.
 

Krieg

First Post
Saeviomagy said:
Simply put - if someone uses either of these phrases to describe their campaign, it means that they didn't really think about the campaign world beyond their own personal DMing preferences.

Wow condenscending & insulting. How quaint. :\
 

Trickstergod

First Post
For me, low magic means that, for the world at large, magic is not a common thing. Society isn't based off of it, and it's more valuable than money can usually afford. It's not in the hands of store clerks, kings or even the local priest, but instead, rests with saints, hermits and other folk who often remain at the fringes of society for one reason or another. This does not mean, however, that the same necessarily applies to the PCs - they're the exception, after all. But the point is that that the kings champion likely is clad in normal full plate, the town priest is an Expert/Aristocrat, and the idea of a magic item shop is insanity.

Grim and gritty...evil's omnipresent. Being good get's you killed. At the end of the day, you're not likely to destroy the lord of darkness, but you might save a childs parents from being killed by the things minions. Bad things happen to good people, and evil prospers. It also means that death is likely a quite permanent thing, though that ties partially into low magic.

Both are the way I prefer to do things, to varying degrees for varying games.

Good examples would be the Midnight and Ravenloft campaign settings.
 

Epametheus

First Post
Low magic: either the DM remembers to ban spellcaster PCs, or spellcaster PCs grossly overshadow everyone else, who lack the equipment needed to compete.

Grim & gritty: bring multiple character sheet, don't get attached to your current PC, becuase the next roll could kill them no matter how good they are.
 

Saeviomagy

Adventurer
Krieg said:
Wow condenscending & insulting. How quaint. :\
Perhaps I should qualify.

If someone's primary description of their campaign includes only the phrases "grim and gritty" and/or "low magic", then you're in trouble.

If they start out by describing a WORLD as opposed to their houserules, and you then say "so it's low magic and grim and gritty", and they say yes - my comments don't really apply.
 

Kormydigar

First Post
Remathilis said:
"I run a low magic game."
"Magic is more rare in my game than in standard D&D."
"My game is alot more grim and gritty than normal."

I hear these phrases tossed around many times on this board, from some perfectly good people and supposedly good DMs (haven't played under all of you to make that assertion.)

But what does it mean?

How do you define low magic? How do you define grim and gritty? What makes these seemingly more attractive than standard Core Rules D&D for many? Is this a direction more campaign settings and sourcebooks should go in? What about the core rules?

There are several types of "low" magic campaign types. The features of these types are often mixed and matched. None of these magic levels are truly "better" then the one presented in the core rules. It's all a matter of style preference. Some of these magic levels are:

1) A completely reduced magic level in the world. Spellcasting classes are hard to qualify for, resulting in fewer numbers of casters. The effects of spells are reduced in power and are seldom flashy. Magical items are extremely hard to come by, nigh impossible to make, and are rarely, if ever, sold. Magical creatures are often more mythical than real. If civilizations exist where the majority of the population do not believe in magic, then the overall presence of magic is extremely low by D&D standards. This level of low magic gives the game a sort of pseudo historical feel akin to the Pendragon game.

2) A somewhat reduced level of magic. Spellcasters are not as common as they are in the core rules, but still wield significant power. The general population is aware of magic though not all may have experienced it directly. Magic items are still not common, but are a little easier to come by. Some items such as potions and scrolls, can be made with some difficulty. Magical creatures are present to the extent that nearly everyone believes they exist.

3) A slightly reduced level of magic. Spellcasters are common and command the standard powers presented in the core rules. The general population accepts casters as members of society and most have witnessed real magic. The main restriction at this level is magic items. Some items can be obtained on the open market while others cannot. You could buy a potion of healing rather cheaply for instance but a +3 longsword would not be available for any price. Potions, scrolls, and possibly wands could be made by the pc's, but permenant items must still be obtained through adventure.

As far as grim and gritty are concerned, its all in the presentation of the details. A critical hit chart that is capeable of taking out a high level fighter in one good hit does not make the game "grittier" just more deadly. A game can have a gritty feel when the overall tone of the campaign is dark and even the heroes feel "dirty", much like the main characters in The Black Company, by Glenn Cook. By contrast a game can be lighthearted in feel while having an extemely high pc mortality rate. " Oh wow, we lost Bob, and Joe on that trip. Lets head back to town and look for a couple of out of work fighters!" Neither style is right or wrong. Whatever the the DM and players enjoy is right.
 

Krieg

First Post
Saeviomagy said:
Perhaps I should qualify.

If someone's primary description of their campaign includes only the phrases "grim and gritty" and/or "low magic", then you're in trouble.

If they start out by describing a WORLD as opposed to their houserules, and you then say "so it's low magic and grim and gritty", and they say yes - my comments don't really apply.

That is certainly fair enough. Of course the same can be said of pretty much ANY campaign under those qualifications (replacing grim/gritty & low magic with other descriptors).

FWIW Wombat, Shadowdancer & Trickstergod's comments echo my opinions on the subject...although I don't necessarily agree with Trickstergod in that evil must be omnipresent. I feel that moral ambiquity is a more likely prereq.
 

kamosa

Explorer
In my experience "grim and gritty" and "low magic" has equaled poor DM. It means DM's that feel magic missle is over powering, but a fighter with a sword that critical threats on 16 or greater and does 4D6 plus strength, 3 times per round is perfectly balanced. It means the DM is getting ready to keep the best spells out of the game. It means the Mage might was well not even attempt to take item creation feats.

It means that anything that is more creative then "I swing my sword" will be crushed by an egotistical GM, that would rather have a boring lame game then see his/her story ruined by altering the adventure even a little bit.

It means fear of what the players could do, and fear that their perfect little game would be ruined if the players had any power.


Maybe your experience has been different, but that's been my experience.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
kamosa said:
In my experience "grim and gritty" and "low magic" has equaled poor DM. It means DM's that feel magic missle is over powering, but a fighter with a sword that critical threats on 16 or greater and does 4D6 plus strength, 3 times per round is perfectly balanced.
That may be your experience, but I do not feel that that is a fair summary of "grim and gritty". You are implying that the style is, in itself, bad.

Low magic does not have to be a question of what the DM considers "overpowered"; more likely, it is a question of the flavour and feel he wants in his campaign. Reducing magic does not unbalance the game as long as the DM takes into account that magic has been reduced in other areas of the game.

Obviously, a party without magic will not be able to deal with monsters which can only be harmed by magic. That's a DM call - he needs to design his world, and his adventures, to make sure that the lack of magic is not a disadvantage. This requires some effort on his part, but it is not necessarily unbalancing, and certainly isn't wrong in any way.

Imagine playing a Middle Earth campaign; magic exists, but it is not common. This, however, does not detract from the setting - it merely gives it a different flavour to "standard" D&D.

You might personally find low magic to be boring, but that does not mean that it is universally boring - that's just your taste. When it comes down to it, if everyone is enjoying themselves, then they are playing D&D correctly.
 

mmadsen

First Post
Remathilis said:
How do you define low magic?
I think that most people use "low magic" to mean "more like classical fantasy" (e.g., Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Howard's Conan stories) -- not particularly low in magic except in comparison to D&D's implied default setting.
 

Gothmog

First Post
Low magic means that magic is less common, but not necessarily less powerful. No magic item shops, and maybe once every 3-4 adventures a minor magical item shows up (potion, +1 item or equivalent). I have run a low magic game for the last 12 years, and in 3E, my solution to the overly powerful core class casters was to grant all characters an extra feat at every odd level (not every 3), and to make casting classes gain a new level of spell every 3 levels instead of every 2 (much like the adept), but one more spell per day of each level. Its worked well, seems balanced so far, and the high-level magic (5th+) will pretty much always be out of the hands of most characters in the game. Spells of 6th level and higher are ritual spells, and require either lots of time or multiple casters to work. Cursed items or items with side-effects are also more common and interesting to use in such settings.

Grim & Gritty is a style of game where morality is relative (like real life), and cosmic forces of absolute good and evil are rare (especially good). Life in such a setting is often harsh, brutal, and short, and those with power hold it over those who don't. It isn't necessarily easy to die, but death can come from a mob of peasants just as easily as it can from the jaws of a dragon. This type of world is often protrayed in fiction and gaming as worse than the real world was in medieval times. Game mechanics that go along with this are lowering the massive damage threshold, using WP/VP (especially giving big critters extra VP based on size), and slowing HP advancement after a certain level (usually 10th).

I'm a big fan of both styles, and combine them to varying degrees in the games I run. I personally find that low magic and grim & gritty games are more fun to play in and run, becasue the players can more easily identify with their characters, and rampant munchkining of the game is much less likely with the kind of folks who like these games.
 

Dark Jezter

First Post
"Low magic" usually means that the DM hates powerful spells that can be used to divine the villain's intentions or bring dead characters back to life, and also hates powerful magic items. So they make magic items almost nonexistant and severely nerf spellcasters (but usually don't reduce the difficulty of encounters to compensate for this reduced-power party).

"Grim and Gritty" usually means that the DM wants the PCs to die every time they get an unlucky roll. "Grim and Gritty" worlds usually appeal to cynical and pessimistic DMs, because there is no hope for anybody and life is hell. If combined with low magic mechanics, players in "grim and gritty" campaigns will be rolling up new characters all the time.

As you can probably guess by my post, I'm not too fond of "Low Magic" or "Grim and Gritty". :p
 
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ManicFuel

First Post
This seems to be a love it or hate it topic. For what it's worth, any house rule or other deviation from core that is poorly implemented, poorly "balanced", or poorly refereed will garner similiarly negative responses.

I think the others have said what "low-magic" and "grim and gritty" are, and I agree generally, so I'll tell why I insert these ideas into some of my games. For me the draw is to put more emphasis on the characters and their abilities than on and magic items and just-in-time buffs. It means putting some measure of wonder back into magic. It means the players feel a bit the courage required for their characters to wade into combat with unknown enemies. Most of all, it allows all of us the chance to change the way we play, from a more brazen "I blast this" and "swing my sword" style backed up with readily available magic, to a more tactical, planning style. Less swagger and more tension.

These sorts of games tend to be more character- and interaction-driven rather than combat-driven, for obvious reasons. When these campaigns are DM'd and played by the players just like a standard rules game, bad things happen. If the understanding on both sides of the table is that Things Are Different, it can be an enjoyable change of pace.
 
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Salad Shooter

First Post
Saeviomagy said:
To me
"Low magic" usually means "I hate handing out magical items, so I removed them, inadvertantly making anyone who plays a wizard or cleric significantly more powerful than the rest of the party, but that's ok, because I cover it by saying that wizards and clerics are uncommon. Even though there's one of each in every party."

"Grim and gritty" usually means "I love save vs death mechanics and I hate hitpoints. I've further devalued the fighters of the party by removing any staying power they have."

Simply put - if someone uses either of these phrases to describe their campaign, it means that they didn't really think about the campaign world beyond their own personal DMing preferences.

Ouch...I don't know who you play with, but any DM worth his salt will balance out a lack of magic...if its low magic...that means you probably aren't going to have a mage in your party...that statement seemed like a misinformed attack on people using house rules, to me. Low magic means there is very little magic in the world, mages are so uncommon that the odds of your party having one is very slim, and their magic may or may not be nearly as strong as that in a setting with normal magic. White Wolf's World of Darkness would be my idea of a grim and gritty setting. And thats my two cents
 

Aezoc

First Post
I think that, as a DM, the campaigns I run probably fall into both the "low magic" and "grim and gritty" groups, although both of these terms are extremely subjective and have come to possess nearly as many meanings as "munchkin."

ManicFuel already covered most of the reasons that I like this style, but there is one other that I consider to be important, although it involves world-building more than individual characters and adventures. Most people I know despise the idea of magic as technology (the so-called "Flintstones-style game" that the DMG briefly mentions being an extreme example of this). However, as a DM, I have found it very difficult to find a believable explanation as to how, in a world where the default D&D level of magic has existed for thousands of years, this has not occurred. mmadsen touched on this by stating that many literary fantasy worlds have a level of magic that is much different than that of D&D. This creates an interesting sort of dilemma when much of Greyhawk, FR, and many other "generic" D&D worlds draw on fantasy archetypes from literature for inspiration, and then insert them into a world built upon entirely different assumptions. For instance, no kingdom should be without teleportation circles linking major cities and outposts, or items of sending to eliminate the need for messengers and troop movements entirely. Also, blacksmiths should be a thing of the past, thanks to fabricate and wall of iron. There are many other examples that unfortunately I can't really point to without my books in front of me, but the point is that I've yet to see a setting that factored these peculiarities into the dynamics of the setting. Rather, they seem to make variations on established fantasy that are independent (and sometimes completely contrary to) the gameplay rules that govern the world.

In short, I've found that lower magic and a grittier setting not only tend to make for better roleplaying and stories, but they also get rid of many inconsistencies that D&D created by borrowing out of context from fantasy literature.
 

Fenris

Adventurer
Gothmog said:
in 3E, my solution to the overly powerful core class casters was to grant all characters an extra feat at every odd level (not every 3), and to make casting classes gain a new level of spell every 3 levels instead of every 2 (much like the adept), but one more spell per day of each level. Its worked well, seems balanced so far, and the high-level magic (5th+) will pretty much always be out of the hands of most characters in the game. Spells of 6th level and higher are ritual spells, and require either lots of time or multiple casters to work. Cursed items or items with side-effects are also more common and interesting to use in such settings.

And if I say pretty please could I get a copy of such a simple and elegant mechanic?
 

Gothmog

First Post
ManicFuel said:
This seems to be a love it or hate it topic. For what it's worth, any house rule or other deviation from core that is poorly implemented, poorly "balanced", or poorly refereed will garner similiarly negative responses.

I think the others have said what "low-magic" and "grim and gritty" are, and I agree generally, so I'll tell why I insert these ideas into some of my games. For me the draw is to put more emphasis on the characters and their abilities than on and magic items and just-in-time buffs. It means putting some measure of wonder back into magic. It means the players feel a bit the courage required for their characters to wade into combat with unknown enemies. Most of all, it allows all of us the chance to change the way we play, from a more brazen "I blast this" and "swing my sword" style backed up with readily available magic, to a more tactical, planning style. Less swagger and more tension.

These sorts of games tend to be more character- and interaction-driven rather than combat-driven, for obvious reasons. When these campaigns are DM'd and played by the players just like a standard rules game, bad things happen. If the understanding on both sides of the table is that Things Are Different, it can be an enjoyable change of pace.

Very good points. Low magic games do tend to be much more character oriented, and IME the players have had to think much more and use sound tactics to overcome odds rather than blowing through it with obscene amounts of magic. Characters rely on their skills and knowledge, not on their nifty magical gizmos. And you are right in that without some sort of modification to the core system, low magic games with the normal D&D classes simply fall apart fairly quickly.
 

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