Hail, and well met! Today I’ll be exploring something I’ve recently been asked about an awful lot lately through Discord — the concept of a low magic campaign in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. The idea of a low magic campaign has been around for a while. It’s talked about enough in the D&D community for the creators of 5E D&D to discuss it from time to time. It’s mentioned in the 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide and was even mentioned as a possibility for 5E, back when it was still D&D Next, and the creators could only speculate on what 5E D&D was going to look and feel like even with the tremendous amount of playtesting for the new edition.
Low magic vs. high fantasy campaigns
There are two distinct genres of fantasy. There’s the epic high fantasy, and there’s gritty swords-and-sorcery. High fantasy takes place in magical worlds rife with wizards and other magical creatures and chock full of fantastic elements. It’s the type of world you see in many 5E D&D products and fantasy video games. The swords-and-sorcery option is much harsher, and the world is closer to medieval feudalism with peasants toiling away under their lords and kings. There are bandits and savages and the magic that exists is usually restricted to strange hermits, evil sorcerer-kings and terrible monsters. The average person has likely never seen a wizard and would be frightened if they saw one. Most people would outright fear magic.
Let’s dive into the works of running a low magic campaign in 5E D&D. The funny thing is sometimes I tend to get hung up on the question itself.
“How do I run a low magic 5E D&D campaign?”
The answer should be easy. Low magic doesn’t mean there’s no magic after all. So, if there are magical characters in the adventuring party, just assume they’re among the only ones in the world who can use magic, and react accordingly. You can argue the Lord of the Rings was pretty low magic, but they still had Gandalf in the main party. Just because the party includes a wizard doesn’t mean the rest of the world is crawling with them, right?
Most of the time I’m asked this, I’m prepared to assume it’s a trick question. But I’m discovering more and more it’s a legitimate one. As a Dungeon Master what you need to do for a low magic campaign is focus on the mundane threats, limit giving out magic items and when the party casts a spell in front of anyone, have those people freak out. When characters do find magic items make it both an event and a reward for toppling the evil sorcerer-king or corrupt tyrant. And if the party spellcasters do anything remotely bad, consider sending a torch-and-pitchfork mob to invite them to a cookout in the village square, if you know what I mean.
You see, there are two ways to do a low-magic game. The first is the way I alluded to. It’s to assume magic is very rare in the world at large, but any magical player characters are special. Rare doesn’t mean impossible. And if the party includes one wizard, all that means is there is at least one wizard in the world. It doesn’t mean that there are hundreds or thousands or whatever. In some ways, my homebrew setting of Orsterra is slightly low magic in that respect.
One of the features of most of my D&D games is not many mages remember how to make items anymore. Any magic items in the world were manufactured in ancient times. That way, I can put whatever magical items in the game I want to and the PCs can have all the magic they want, but there are no magic item shops outside of a major magocracy. The main exceptions to this rule are of course potions and scrolls. Beyond that, magic is just rare. It used to be more common, but it isn’t anymore. Arcane colleges were once a thing, and still are in some places in the world. But outside of a few nations of people, there’s just not enough people with the gift of magic in the population to support a place like Hogwarts.
The same is true of clerics. Priests and clerics are distinct. Priests speak to the gods and for the gods. They are the intermediaries between people and the gods. But they don’t have any power of their own. Not any they can exercise with agency. The best they can do is pray and burn goats and hope the gods do what they ask. But clerics are unique individuals, they don’t even have to be priests who have been chosen by a specific god for a specific purpose and have been entrusted with a little bit of divine power and agency. That’s why clerics don’t need training in Religion, or for those playing D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, knowledge (religion). Not every cleric went to seminary.
With that bit of introduction out of the way. Let’s dive into the process I’ve discovered to work with running a successful low magic campaign with 5E D&D. It’s not completely impossible to accomplish. In fact it can be quite easy to set up. However, a lot of times I’ve seen many DMs (including myself) want to remove a lot of the magic from the party, and that’s really not at all what needs to be done. Can you limit the wizards’ access to new spells? Sure, and I encourage this decision as a DM. Wizardly magic might be super rare in your world and thus only a handful of practitioners still operate in the grimy underbelly of society.
What I’m suggesting is you run a high powered campaign and fluff the premise like this: The world used to be high fantasy, and crawling with mages, and rife with powerful magic swords and dragons. Seriously, go nuts with the history of your world. Players on both sides of the screen have fun with this. And worldbuilding is one of the many joys of being a DM.
Another thing to keep in mind is you need to roleplay the world. If you want to run a low magic campaign, altering the mechanics of the game or barring access to certain classes is not going to fix the issue. For example, you might decide to make a nation in your campaign setting use mages (sorcerers, wizards, and warlocks) as nothing but glorified artillery for the military, with this nation being under martial law.. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from Full Metal Alchemist for this type of society. Spellcasters might be little more than thugs, or in worse cases, you might have an analogy to the Magelords of Athalantar from the Forgotten Realms. People in power are little more than puppets on a string to these corrupt mages.
This brings me back to roleplaying how the common folk of your world are going to react to seeing fantastic feats of magic being worked, sometimes on a daily basis). The trick here is to provide yourself and your players with sufficient amounts of fluff to be able to work with. Giving arcane magic a slightly more sinister bent can be a very rewarding experience for players and DMs alike.
For example, in my homebrew setting of Orsterra, once a School of Conjuration wizard reaches a certain point to where they’re summoning demons, and trafficking dark forces on the regular, they undergo a type of metamorphosis, slowly adopting features of the fell creatures they beckon forth from the lower planes. A conjurer known for summoning imps and other lesser devils might have their skin turn a reddish color, or their eyes might carry an otherworldly sheen to them.
On the same note, have certain types of magic induce certain physical changes on their practitioners. A seductive enchanter might not exhibit any physical changes in terms of looks. But they might otherwise have a more magnetic personality, or in some cases a hypnotizing gaze. There’s a lot you can work with as a DM here that in some ways goes outside of the rules, which you might need to consider if you want this type of game to truly take off. You need to occasionally bend the rules (but not break them) if it means telling a better story with your players.
The next point to consider is the type of campaign you want to run. I myself like the grandiose quests of saving the world, but I rarely run them. For the most part with a low magic campaign, I’m more concerned with facilitating an open ended sandbox adventure. These are sometimes very difficult to run, but they can serve as a great roadmap for your campaign.
Once it’s all said and done, It all comes back to roleplaying. How can you as the DM get your players hooked on this concept? Primarily it comes down to two things. The first and by far the most important thing is to flesh out your world. I find maps really help with this, especially when your players make their characters. They’ll want to pick a spot on the map to have their characters hometown. When you’ve taken the time to flesh out your world, a lot of things happen. And some of them are downright awesome when they do happen.
You’ll find your players will want to roleplay and get into character more. This means less min/maxing and building to do cheesy and outright goony things, and it allows you as the DM to sit back and enjoy watching your fellow nerdy friends around the table have fun exploring the world you’ve worked to create.
The second thing that helped me immensely throughout the years has been to have a session zero. This is technically an optional thing, and you shouldn’t feel beholden to it. But it really helps, since you can use that time to let players know your expectations and to inform them on the type of campaign they will be playing. Having a session zero also allows players to make their characters at the table, together. If you informed your friends the campaign will be high roleplaying, don’t be surprised if some of them decide to have their characters know each other in some way. The DM’s role in a session zero is to act as a soundboard for your players, answer their questions and explain the world you’ve created. Trust me, this will start turning some gears in their heads.
On a final note, the main reason I find running a low magic campaign is difficult to explain, is simply that each table is unique. My home group is not the same as the other groups I run for online. Each of them have different likes and dislikes. D&D is kind of like science in this regard, in my case at least. My hom egroup acts as a control group, and the other groups I run are a bit more experimental. Once I find something that works for the other two tables, I work on testing it with my home group.
So, fellow DMs and players, I urge you to find what works for your groups. Maybe you like the crazy swashbuckling adventures of Eberron, or like myself you love the nuance of the Dragonlance setting. There’s bound to be a flavor of fantasy for you and by extension a flavor of low magic campaign that suits your group’s needs. Stay nerdy everyone!