Saturday, November 28, 2015

Low Magic in Dungeons and Dragons 5e

Trying to model a low magic setting in most Dungeons and Dragons systems can be challenging since the core assumptions of the game assume a very magical reality. There is also the fact that there is often disagreement on what exactly is meant by the term “low magic”. The one common element is that magic is uncommon in low magic settings. Some would extend that to assume that non-human creatures are also rare and that magic is weak. However, this is not always the case. There are several fantasy stories considered low magic which have instances of powerful magic within them.

In a low magic setting, magic is, first and foremost, rare. Which means there will be some rather extreme reactions whenever magic is displayed. When you look at the open users of magic in low magic stories, they tend to be in one of two main patterns: guarded dwellings or quiet wanderings. The ones that have protection live behind guards, wards, obscurity or spells either of their own making or those of someone that is keeping them sheltered in order to use their gifts for good reasons or evil. The wanderings try to make a habit of avoiding letting other people know where they are going. Nor do they like to stay in any one place for long. In neither case is their magic likely to be used with regularity.

When someone new shows up with magic then people react. Characters that regularly depend on flashy spells are likely to find themselves attracting unwanted attention. Displays of magic could potentially start an outcry in a village or city. A true cleric performing real miracles could find themselves tracked by the official priests of their god seeking to bring them under heel or even accuse them witchcraft. Warlocks or sorcerers could find themselves hunted down by mobs with pitchforks or by people seeking to control them for some purpose.

If you play this correctly, players should be encouraged to use methods like healer's kits or alchemist's fire, or else make sure to use subtler magic or wait until they're in a position to use magic without drawing attention. Characters with visible signs of magic, like dragon-blooded sorcerers, will tend to wear heavy disguises to keep those signs hidden. If races like dragonborn and tieflings are rare, then they would likewise disguise themselves. Even if they are only uncommon, they're likely to draw some level of unwanted attention. Being forced to use a fireball in full view of witnesses should be a major concern.

As another matter you can take up to encourage low magic is to actually make players keep track of their components, even those without a gold piece value. This won't seem too terrible at first since they still have their divine and arcane focuses, but those are items that can be disarmed by someone or stolen by a pickpocket. Especially if the players have been a bit free with magic use and someone assumes that these are inherently magical items that maybe they could use themselves.

All of these are well within the gamemaster's control without even changing any mechanics. The main reason most of us don't is that for most of us we don't want to bother with that sort of thing. Some GMs s might worry about being perceived as unfairly punishing the players for succeeding by use of magic. Most campaigns ignore a lot of these ideas, partially because most campaigns deal with situations where magic is relatively common. Making sure to tell the players ahead of time of the potential consequences for being known as a spellcaster then there should be no problem with being perceived as being unfair.

Other GMs might be concerned with the possibility of following through with this causing their planned story to be derailed. This is a concern with any action of the PCs and it should be already something a GM does to alter their planned storyline to deal with the consequences of PC actions. In this case, limiting the races and classes is probably the best choice because otherwise you're not going to successfully produce a low magic setting when you ignore consequences that would be natural to occur within such a setting. I would not use that method myself, but does avoid the issue.

Another thing that you might do is to use the Gritty Realism option of rests where a short rest is eight hours and a long rest is seven days. This would make it very important to ration out the use of spells since it will take a week or more to prepare no ones for most casters. Even warlocks and other classes that recover things on a short rest will find it necessary to consider the use of their abilities more cautiously. In this case it is likely that you can avoid things like players casting mage armor each morning as a matter of routine. This makes magic something they'll try to save as a trump card rather than a routine use which will again enhance the nature of low magic. Alternately, you can have magical abilities working on Gritty Realism but leave non-magical abilities untouched but that would heavily alter the balance of power in the party and should be treated cautiously.

You might also use the Injury rules. In any case, not every mechanical hit should be described as an actual hit, similar to how the hit points in Lord of the Rings Online is renamed “Morale” and injuries are represented by status effects. This is already a common interpretation of Hit Points but it is important to low magic because it creates a loop hole that allows healing magic to remain in the game as normal. Assuming hit points are only a representation of morale or endurance and real injuries aren't suffered save when you take a critical hit or are reduced to zero HP, then Cure Wounds spells aren't making wounds magically go away in front of everybody's eyes. The sort of injuries that can be removed with simple magical healing are limps and broken ribs, things not immediately visible and which can be passed off as “looked worse than it was”. This means that the basic Cure spell can be treated as subtle magic which usually won't create much attention unless they get to high level and start using things like Regenerate or Resurrect.

The Speed Factor option for initiative would also be a way to add a bit of downside to the use of magic because it adds a penalty to the initiative roll based on the level of a spell cast. The Speed Factor rules as a whole introduces a lot of extra complication to the initiative determination which could potentially slow down combat, which is already a fairly slow part of any D&D game. Those rules also penalize heavy weapons and two-handed weapons.

Another case of refluffing the story comes in the matter of describing magical items. Things like healing potions and magic armor or weapons can be representations of extremely skilled craftsmanship rather than true enchantment. Especially if you take the option that hit point loss is not considered true injury because it makes the healing potion rather more like an energy drink to the untrained eye, because, again, there are no visible injuries to magical go away (unless there is a real injury, but most of those that can be healed by a potion still aren't all that visible). Some of the specific blades, like the Sword of Sharpness, can also be considered a masterwork rather than an enchantment, but most of the named items will be where you get real enchanted weapons. In any case magic items should be a rare find that you place by planning, not by random chance.

Earlier I made mention about priesthood tracking true clerics. This is because in a low magic setting, most priests won't be spellcasters. There isn't really a need for a priest to be a cleric, druid or paladin. We have priests in real life, as far as we know none of them can cast spells. In this case, someone who has the class of cleric, druid or paladin would represent someone who, training or not, has attracted the real attention and power of a divine source. This could make some priesthoods desire to coup the character up for their own protection. However, other priesthoods might take this as a threat, Prophets in a lot of myths have tended to call out priests on their mistakes after all. As such, in a low magic setting it might be possible that a wizard is considered simply a master of an extremely rare skill but clerics and paladins get accused of being witches of some sort.

These are just some of the ways that you can try to simulate a low magic setting with minimal changes to mechanics and using mostly the options already present in the Dungeon-Master's Guide.


  1. My concern with a lot of the good ideas above is that if you start messing with magic as it is written for standard D&D it has a knock-on effect to the power of monsters, and/or (if one cares about it) the balance of classes. I've tried on a number of occasions to implement some of the ideas above into a setting but I always felt as if in the end I was either heavily implying to players that actually I didn't want any of them to take on a magic user role (or they'd find out quick enough that they were at an unfair advantage) or that I may as well just use another system than D&D to run my low-magic setting as I'd have to effectively re-write the whole Monster Manual (and leave out some monsters altogether) to get the thing working properly. But, maybe I'm wrong as I've never actually tried running a low-magic game because of these concerns - I'd love to know what actually happens.

  2. You might check out Low Fantasy Gaming RPG for a d20 variant with a low magic base (free PDF or print on demand: ). It implements a number of your suggestions: for example injuries and a longer "long rest" recovery period. It is designed with low magic in mind however, avoiding some 5e low magic tweak problems - like most classes having built in magic, at will cantrips being integral to full caster balance, etc

    1. I don't particularly mind the at-will cantrips for low-magic. A lot of low magic stories involve the characters having one or two simple tricks that they can do at will.


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