Sunday, October 24, 2021

My Thoughts About a Low Magic RPG Campaign

My Thoughts About a Low Magic RPG Campaign
Last night I watched Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins and while I do not intend to try and review movies here, let me save you a potential waste of 2 hours: its bad.

Yeah I'm not going to start listing the reasons why the movies sucks and right now at least one of you is thinking, "Well then WTF are you even mentioning this bad movie here at the Tavern?" I had already been thinking about magic items and wouldn't you know it, Snake Eyes had a named sword...not magical btw, but it did have an ACTUAL magic item! It was kind of a MacGuffin that came out of nowhere, well the magicality (not sure that is a word, but I'm coining it now) only came out of the blue. I didn't get it....now if the named sword was magical I'd still be WTF since it was GI Joe, but I'd get it.

When it comes to magic in an RPG, I've always been a fan of a relatively low-magic (specifically arcane magic) campaign. Now I don't mean as-in there are no magic items to be had, but that to the average commoner, exposure to magic is a rare, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime event. Sure they know magic exists, but they don't know a Magic-User personally, have never witnessed a spell being cast. A magic item? Maybe they've heard of these things, but they are in the realm of superstition or rumor. Now they may have heard or even seen a magical weapon, but they don't necessarily realize it was magical. I think magical weapons should have names, histories, and have a lore of their own.

Clerical magic is also a bit on the rare side, but a LOT more common because.....well the gawds do like their worshipers. The average commoner goes to church and may have witnessed the low-level Cleric answered prayers. Maybe there is a small stash of Healing potions or a Cure Disease, for emergencies in the congregation.

Most of my favorite fantasy worlds, and clearly I'm not counting GI Joe, are relatively low magic. Lord of the Rings immediately comes to mind, which seems like a misnomer, but aside from the One Ring  the only magical items are the Hobbit's cloaks & clasps, Sting, Gandalf's Staff, and what...the Phial of Galadriel? I'm sure there were some others, but that campaign was EPIC level. The average commoner in Middle Earth might have heard of Narsil and even seen Herugrim, but they probably didn't know that these named blades were magical.

In a lower magic campaign, magical weapons have names. Not really used to seeing non-weapon magical items have names, for the most part, but why not?

I personally like the idea that while common utilitarian magical items, Bags of Holding, Elven Boots, Potions of Healing, etc. can be made, I like the idea that magical arms and armor are created, and not deliberately. Now in the current edition of  HackMaster, IIRC.....the first +'s up to a +5 of a weapon are not magical in nature, but due to higher quality materials and workmanship. I'm ok with that general idea maybe for a +1 or +2 "plain" weapon or armor, but anything else is created by experience. That Sword +1, +3 vs Dragons was a high quality (+1) sword that was the only thing that survived a blast of Dragonfire. It's wielder managed to defeat the Dragon before he expired from his wounds. Now this +1, +3 vs Dragons blade was picked up by the Fighter's companions and dubbed "Dragonsbane" and has been handed down within the deceased fighter's family.

Miscellaneous magical items can be created because of a fortuitous combination of material composition and exposure/experiences. I've written a handful of "mundane" magical items, some for KoDT and some I put up on DTRPG. Mostly items that are magical, but not necessarily known as magical. Stuff that might be considered "lucky" to be used, or a quality heirloom of sorts.

Coming back to the magic in Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins, that named sword wasn't magical, but it should have been. If it was worthy of a name, it should have been worthy of a backstory, and had some abilities......like maybe it could explain why Snake Eyes, with essentially NO formal sword training, could be a match for Storm Shadow, who clearly had been training for decades. The actual magic item in the movie, the MacGuffin, should have been just a normal, albeit huge, gemstone with a mythological history.


  1. One problem I have with low-but-not-no-magic settings is the way our own world worked...and still works, arguably. Your fantasy peasants should be at least as convinced they've encountered the magic now and then as real-world ones were, and probably more so. Superstitious beliefs should be even more prevalent when there's a bit of demonstrably real supernatural stuff out there, not less - and your fantasy peasants definitely shouldn't be more jaded about magic that real ones were.

    Cast a spell openly in a backwater settlement and you can expect to have the whole town wondering if you're responsible for their cow going dry, or looking for romantic help with a love potion, or asking you to get in touch with their dead parents for advice, etc. And if things go wrong, you could wind up chased out of town ahead of a lynch mob or formally charged with witchcraft or somesuch. Good luck proving you're *not* a witch in the face of mass hysteria - it wasn't easy to do in the real world, and should be less so in a truly magical one.

    1. Good comment. I guess the town witch didn't roll with a fighter, cleric, and paladin that could vouch for her or at least keep her safe from the rabble.

      Maybe that's a good backstory for why a wizard would leave his tower to go adventuring. The local yokels were threatening to string him up.


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