As I am sure is evident from the name of the blog, I am big fan of low fantasy fiction of the sword and sorcery variety. I am a devote acolyte of the great Robert E. Howard (REH), a proponent of the work of Fritz Leiber, and a casual enthusiast for the various Clonan titles (Thongor, Kothar, Kyrik, etc.). This predilection has led me to attempt time and again to run a low fantasy campaign in Dungeons and Dragons. Up until recently this has met with limited success. Players of D&D, it seems, have a general preference for high fantasy environments. After much trial and error, I have come up with some strategies that work for keeping players who would otherwise not be interested in an anthropocentric, sword and sorcery game engaged.
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Human, All Too Human
This is the first thing with which many players take issue when you decide to run a low fantasy game in the style of REH. The urge to min-max characters among the modern role-player is strong indeed, and players know that there are certain class and race combinations that yield their desired results best. Limiting their choice to human characters can be a huge turn off at face value, but there are numerous ways to spice up the race to encourage players to stretch their role-playing a bit. For 5e, I recommend using the human variant option in the player’s handbook.
This invokes the best lesson I have learned from REH: create racial sub-categories. In the Hyborian Age, a Stygian and a Hyrkanian, for instance, have many differences in their appearance and culture. In D&D this is achieved most easily by providing additional skill training depending on the culture. If perhaps a character comes from a society known for its illicit dealings, then it makes sense to provide training to sleight of hand, whereas a barbarian character form the extreme north of the continent might have a natural aptitude in the survival skill. By providing characters with a list of ethnic or national identities from which to choose, you can provide them with more customizability than afforded by the “stock” human traits. As a caveat, this racial skill bonus should be in addition to the free skill training afforded all human characters.
Magic and Healing
The most important concern when crafting a low fantasy campaign is the extent to which magic is included in your world. This seems rather straight forward, but the decision to limit the availability of magic impacts everything from character creation to loot to survivability. The discerning Dungeon Master needs to be careful with how (s)he handles this aspect of fantasy. On the one hand, the complete elimination of magic would seriously hamper the more fantastic elements of the genre, but too much magic (conversely) would ruin the gritty, pulp atmosphere you are trying to craft. Here are some options with which I have found some success.
1. Disallow spell-casting classes at character creation. This seems like a no brainer, but it follows that if magic is something that is rare and powerful that a beginning adventurer will not have access to it. This is not to say that multi-classing at later levels would not be appropriate. Perhaps the character finds a grimoire while adventuring enabling him/her to become a wizard. There is also the ever popular bargaining with higher powers to gain arcane prowess. Since the relative absence of divine intervention is a cornerstone of the low fantasy genre, it is unlikely that characters will be able to become clerics or paladins.
2. Limit the acquisition of magic items. While there is no perfect rule of thumb for this, I have found that one major magic item per character per five levels seems appropriate. Likewise, consumable magic items should be limited to three per party at any given time. This helps to paint the picture that magic is extant but hard to come by.
3. Limit schools of magic. In a world where magic is nearly non-existent, the ability to conjure a mythical creature or hurl a lightening bolt is remarkably powerful. While those powers may certainly exist in a low fantasy world, it is better to reserve them for the most threatening of antagonists. I have found success limiting spell schools to abjuration, enchantment, divination, illusion, necromancy, and transmutation. While this does not ban many spells by any means, it does prohibit the use of the most potent offensive spells; this should help keep the threat level high.
4. Healing. Since magic healing is going to be almost non-existent, I recommend using the healing options given in the DMG for a start. Particularly at lower levels, this amount of healing will not be sufficient to have an adventuring day of sufficient length, however. In this regard I have experienced success by providing the healer feat as a bonus feat at first level. Also, allowing healing kits to be used during combat does a great deal towards helping the party survive.
5. Eliminate classes that utilize divine power sources (excepting the druid). One of the cornerstones of the sword and sorcery sub-genre is the relative absence and/or indifference of deities. Deities have a tendency to either be ephemeral or simply outsiders of sufficient potency. Given this, the magic imparted by such deities (when they impart anything at all) would be more akin to the patronage system used by the warlock class than that of the cleric or paladin. I hade an exception for the druid because of its reflection of shamanistic religious practices which do fit pretty well in a low fantasy environment. Just be careful when allowing a character to pick up this class, since its power will be significant, and (as above) prohibit it at character creation.
6. Spell levels and ritual magic. Insofar as spell levels are concerned, if you are going for a truly low magic environment, limit pc spell levels to the 5th level of spell casting. Having said that, I would continue to allow NPCs and monsters to cast higher level spells to really sell the point that they are extraordinarily powerful. Human NPCs who use higher level spells should have some sort of item that enables them to do so, or suffer from some manner of corruption. Dungeon Crawl Classics, Crypts & Things, and Barbarians of Lemuria are all sources that can be mined for ideas on corruption from spell use. Another way to keep magic powerful and balanced is to disallow the normal casting of ritual magic. While the player’s handbook states that ritual spells can be cast over the span of ten or so minutes in order to prevent a spell slot from being used, I do not believe this works particularly well in a low fantasy environment. Rather, the DM should make it so that spells always use a spell slot (to keep magic use restricted) and that those spells with the “ritual” tag must be cast over a period of time.
Re-flavor, Re-flavor, Re-flavor
So what to do with classes or character options that do not fit so easily into the categories above? Why re-flavor them, of course. Spells can become alchemy (which fits better in a low fantasy world anyway) or even woodsman skills in the case of the ranger (for a great build for a martial ranger, check out this gentlemen’s blog response to one of my Facebook posts). Just remember, the most important balance to achieve is one which maximizes both player enjoyment and genre fidelity.