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Low/Epic Fantasy Setting Assistance Sought


PaladinAg
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Hi, I've recently spread my wings from Champions to Fantasy Hero and inspired by "The Last Kingdom", I feel inspired to do a low/semi-epic fantasy set in a divided land (although more later medieval rather than Saxon period). Most of the setting information I've seen available is for High Fantasy campaigns, not for low fantasy and I would welcome thoughts on creating one. I would particularly welcome thoughts on low power/subtle magic systems, which would mostly be employed by NPCs.

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First off grab Fantasy Hero as it has a ton of great ideas and thoughts on tool-kitting your game.

 

i am currently running a low fantasy campaign.  These are some of the rules I use.  I make armor have a -DCV and -DEX per armor point.  Players can buy it off, but it really makes them think about armor as it takes over the game quickly.

 

I made recovery of body only available every two weeks, you could get grittier and only allow a recovery every month for body.

 

I use the breaking of armor and weapons from Fantasy Hero, they have decided to seek out a weapon maker to make stronger weapons.

 

As far as magic, I use a magic roll, incantations and gestures as well as side effects for all spells.  All spells are visible.  Also every spell generates .25-.50 corruption.  Corruption awakens enemies of the types of spells you are casting, demon vs divine, fire vs water etc.  I don’t allow healing spells or magic potions except in rare situations.  I also don’t allow any magic items except legendary ones that provide plot to the story unless the character buys it.
 

 Depending on how often you cast spells in a certain area it becomes active against a player.  This also creates corruption and areas have multipliers and END cost like 1.25,1.5 etc.

 

Must have Magic Endurance reserve and magic recovery.  

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I'm not sure if I've got any ideas which are particularly original but...

 

You could limit the active points of magical attacks so that they aren't any more effective than an arrow and allow hit locations for both regular attacks and magic. That'd push the players away from magic offense except for those who might want to try for extremely high accuracy magical attacks or who just want particular special effects.

 

Require extra time and immobile focus (such as a written pentagram) for most non-combat magics. Make it plain that magic isn't casually used by making it difficult or impossible to use magic casually. You could also require expensive spell components which, while not unique, are rare enough that players will have to quest to obtain them and will dread the day when they might lose them.

 

Many low fantasy settings in fiction seem to have followed a previous historical period when the world was a high fantasy setting and magic was much more powerful and prevalent. You could build story arcs in the campaign around trying to find out how to build more powerful magical items than the cantrip-type which are all the most powerful magicians today can manage. Or at least figure out why people today cannot manage the feats of magic which seemed to be more common in centuries past.

 

 

As for low-powered, subtle magic for NPC's, divine magic might focus on empowering groups of devout followers (a Blessing spell whether for combat or to increase the skill of farmers and craftsmen). Speaking to the deity. Healing wounds and diseases of believers. Increasing the PRE and Oratory of priests. Increasing the lifespan of the most powerful priests.

 

Most of the powers of the priests would be manifest from the influence they have over their followers rather than through the raw divine magic which they channel. Rulers would listen to the counsel of priests as much because of the power they have over the mob as because the ruler respects the mob.

 

And priests might literally be the power behind some thrones as the current high priest was the high priest in the days of the ruler's great-grandfather and taught the grandfather, the father, the ruler himself, and all of his siblings and children.

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Examples (to give the basic idea, not a full write-up):

 

Transform: target gets +1 to his professional skill (farming, blacksmith, cooking, whatever). Only affects followers of the deity. Can only be cast during the Festival of First Spring (which coincides with the time of year when farmers first go out to till their fields) or the Harvest Festival. Immobile divine symbol inscribed on the ground. Person receiving the Blessing has to hold some implement (focus) which is symbolic of his profession. Caster has to spend a week in meditation and fasting before the ceremony starts. Concentration 0 DCV during the ceremony.

 

In most communities, it is considered an honor to be the first person in the community to receive the Blessing and in many places there is competition and political maneuvering involved in the choice.

 

Transform: target gets Weapons Proficiency with the weapon types (foci) he is holding during the ceremony and gets +1 OCV /+1 DCV. Only affects followers of the deity. Immobile divine symbol inscribed on the ground. Caster has to spend 5 hours in meditation and fasting before the ceremony starts. Concentration half DCV during the ceremony. Some casters learn this as an area of effect spell rather than having to cast it on one person at a time.

 

In contrast to the professional Blessing, the combat blessing generally goes first to the most capable people (knights, captains, rulers who are combatants, group leaders), then the most expendable (the very young, very old, drunkards, etc.) , then regular people, then to the ones the community would like to lose the least such as blacksmiths, coopers, and other skilled professionals. That way if the fighting starts more quickly than expected, the leaders at least are in place and have the most expendable people available to use to buy time.

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I'd suggest getting the fiction right, before you start looking at mechanics.

 

That is, how magic fits into the setting and its societies. That's particularly important since magic will shape those societies.

 

Once you've got all that sorted, then you can look at all the crunchy blah blah blah.

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Example spell:

 

SERVE THE CHURCH

 

Transform: target gets a professional skill.

 

Only affects follower of the deity. Target must be willing. Transform wears off if the person uses the professional skill in some way that doesn't serve the church. Caster can only cast the spell with the intent of benefiting the church. Immobile divine symbol inscribed on the ground. Caster has to spend 5 hours in meditation and fasting before the ceremony starts. Concentration half DCV during the ceremony. Gestures. Incantation.

 

If the church needs a team of muleskinners to transport supplies, the priest can get recruits and give them the skill to do it competently. If he needs the roof of the church fixed, he can give a volunteer the skills of a carpenter. If he needs someone to take over holding services in a locale until the church can send out a qualified priest, he can create an insta-priest who might not have divinely-given powers but who can fill a pulpit.

 

Priests have been known to try to stretch the bounds of "the intent of benefiting the church" with results which seem to vary with how devout the priest himself has been in the past. Some priests might be able to create a carpenter who can repair parishioner's homes after a storm while others trying the same thing might not. 

 

7 minutes ago, assault said:

 

 

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1 hour ago, assault said:

I'd suggest getting the fiction right, before you start looking at mechanics.

 

That is, how magic fits into the setting and its societies. That's particularly important since magic will shape those societies.

 

Once you've got all that sorted, then you can look at all the crunchy blah blah blah.

 

100% correct.

 

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PaladinAG, you might take a look at Hero's The Valdorian Age, which was designed to evoke the kind of fantasy written by the likes of Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, and Fritz Leiber. Several elements from it, particularly its unique magic system, seem applicable to the kind of setting you sound like you want.

 

Our long-absent forum colleague James Gillen wrote a pretty cogent review of the book: https://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/11/11199.phtml

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18 hours ago, assault said:

I'd suggest getting the fiction right, before you start looking at mechanics.

 

That is, how magic fits into the setting and its societies. That's particularly important since magic will shape those societies.

 

Once you've got all that sorted, then you can look at all the crunchy blah blah blah.

Not unreasonable at all. Here are the broad brushes:

 

1. The land is an island/group of islands and was once part of a large empire that fell about 500 years ago. Since then the land has been divided into a series of states that picked up the pieces and then bickered amongst themselves.

2. Parts of the land were never conquered by the large empire and so have a range of cultures (I'm still undecided if any of these should be non-human, although if they were, they would of the "retreated from interest in normal events" type).

3. In the last 100 years or so the land has been invaded by outsiders from beyond the old empire and these have taken over several kingdoms and are a continuing threat to the other states. This threat can wax and wane.

4. Contact with the neighbouring lands does happen but this is more social/trading rather than conflict.

5. The "epic" bit - one leader has the vision of uniting the land (at least that of the main culture) into a single state.

6. Religion is more about outlook and beliefs rather than magical power. The gods/god/divine spirits, despite calls from worshippers, don't seem to intervene in events.

7. The old, disappeared empire wasn't any particularly more magical than now but they were great makers and builders so weapons etc of those times are still valuable (think LotR special crafted items rather than "magic").

8.  There may be really old magic from a time even before that empire but it is very rare.

9. Magic, where present, appears more as great skill, ability to make specially effective tools etc. When it does appear I like Archer's suggestion of limited attack powers, boons and requiring lots of time to pull off. Also include seers and some low level cursing. Practitioners of such "true magic" or "sorcery" are rare. 

10. PCs can end up being involved in the conflict between the states, the "epic" vision of one nation, dealing with the outsiders, exploration etc into the non-core culture realms.

12 hours ago, Lord Liaden said:

PaladinAG, you might take a look at Hero's The Valdorian Age, which was designed to evoke the kind of fantasy written by the likes of Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, and Fritz Leiber. Several elements from it, particularly its unique magic system, seem applicable to the kind of setting you sound like you want.

 

Our long-absent forum colleague James Gillen wrote a pretty cogent review of the book: https://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/11/11199.phtml

Thanks for that Lord L. I'm not sure I want the sort of summoning magic the review talks about. However, the idea of limiting characters in terms of skill limit levels etc to something looks interesting (I think there are suggestions on how to make these work elsewhere).

 

 

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2 hours ago, PaladinAg said:

9. ... Practitioners of such "true magic" or "sorcery" are rare.

The obvious question here is: can PCs such magic?

 

If so, the issue of rareness goes straight out the window, as they will use it routinely, or as routinely as possible.

 

And you might need to increase the number of opponents who can also use it, in order to counter/challenge them.

 

If not, of course, you probably don't really need to design a consistent system at all.

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10 hours ago, assault said:

The obvious question here is: can PCs such magic?

 

If so, the issue of rareness goes straight out the window, as they will use it routinely, or as routinely as possible.

Isn't that a permanent issue with any low fantasy/swords and sorcery campaign?

 

Limiting Active Points, insisting on long casting durations, extra END, automatic side effects, slow recovery etc or using something along the lines of Gandalf970's "corruption", or LT Endurance could reduce the usage by PCs.

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1 hour ago, PaladinAg said:

Isn't that a permanent issue with any low fantasy/swords and sorcery campaign?

 

Limiting Active Points, insisting on long casting durations, extra END, automatic side effects, slow recovery etc or using something along the lines of Gandalf970's "corruption", or LT Endurance could reduce the usage by PCs.

 

One magic item I created required the person to dress in one particular, very distinctive, and culturally inappropriate manner in order for the device to recharge. That caused a lot of fun for me and awkwardness for the party.

 

Fun and/or debilitating automatic side effects:

 

Lose enough STUN to be unconscious for a week

 

Concentrate to 0 DCV for everything you want to do. Also lose the ability to Dodge (which avoids confusion of how that would interact with concentrate).

 

Drain OCV/DCV

 

Sex change transformation

 

More or less permanent aging transformation

 

Long term Running drain

 

Distinctive appearance transformation - just how long does that nose grow anyway? (replace with anatomical part or parts of choice)

 

Animals automatically hate you. Horses refuse to be ridden. Dogs bark/attack. Skunks spray. When facing attacking wild animals, they treat you as a priority target. (This one is more fun attached to an object the adventurers find rather than a casting effect. Might take the party a while to figure out what's happening.)

 

Teleported straight up 50 meters to see if the caster can survive a fall. Or teleport in a random direction if you prefer and see if he survives materializing inside objects. Optionally you could just megascale teleport in a random direction in order to separate the caster from his friends, minions and other resources.

 

Transformed so you have a 1d6 HKA aura which affects everything you touch whether you want it to or not. (your food, clothing, armor, foci, weapons, saddle, girlfriend, furniture, bedroll, etc.) For more fun, a couple of times a day at random it could turn into a HKA area of effect.

 

Hemophilia. 

 

Narcolepsy.

 

Changes the hit location when people are attacking you so that each shot goes to the head (or most vulnerable area if head isn't available).

 

One of your valuable items disappears (or one of the party's items if the caster tries to give everything away first). GM choice as to whether it is disintegrated, displaced to another dimension, or teleported to someplace interesting (like your distinctive dagger placed into the back of someone important, your thieves tools into a treasury which has just been robbed, your diary to your ex-girlfriend, your clothing into the sultan's harem). If you use the extra-dimensional option, it could perhaps be a "named spell" where the caster is calling upon some higher power by name whether god, demon, or djinn and the players could someday discover what he's doing with all these random valuable items which he's been getting in exchange for lending out his power.

 

Transform/Shapeshift to change your appearance. Will friends, contacts, and your bank believe it's you when you're a female orc who can't even speak the common tongue rather than a Gandalf look-alike?

 

Why not just go full Babel? The caster loses the ability to read? The caster can't speak the commonly-used languages? The caster becomes a mute?

 

Amnesia would be very dangerous in many circumstances. Not remembering how to activate your magic items. Not remembering you can cast magic. Not knowing who are your friends and enemies. Not knowing how much you can trust your friends. Not knowing how to get to your hiding place. Not remembering how to get out of your hiding place. Not remembering where you hid the money. Not remembering the words which command your guard dogs. Not remembering how to get back to civilization, the oasis, etc.

 

Transformation: Skill Wipes. Some or all your skills disappear until the transformation wears off. No knowledge skills to help you do research. No weapons familiarity. No Transport Familiarity. 

 

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2 hours ago, archer said:

 

One magic item I created required the person to dress in one particular, very distinctive, and culturally inappropriate manner in order for the device to recharge. That caused a lot of fun for me and awkwardness for the party.

 

Fun and/or debilitating automatic side effects:

 

Lose enough STUN to be unconscious for a week

 

Concentrate to 0 DCV for everything you want to do. Also lose the ability to Dodge (which avoids confusion of how that would interact with concentrate).

 

Drain OCV/DCV

 

Sex change transformation

 

More or less permanent aging transformation

 

Long term Running drain

 

Distinctive appearance transformation - just how long does that nose grow anyway? (replace with anatomical part or parts of choice)

 

Animals automatically hate you. Horses refuse to be ridden. Dogs bark/attack. Skunks spray. When facing attacking wild animals, they treat you as a priority target. (This one is more fun attached to an object the adventurers find rather than a casting effect. Might take the party a while to figure out what's happening.)

 

Teleported straight up 50 meters to see if the caster can survive a fall. Or teleport in a random direction if you prefer and see if he survives materializing inside objects. Optionally you could just megascale teleport in a random direction in order to separate the caster from his friends, minions and other resources.

 

Transformed so you have a 1d6 HKA aura which affects everything you touch whether you want it to or not. (your food, clothing, armor, foci, weapons, saddle, girlfriend, furniture, bedroll, etc.) For more fun, a couple of times a day at random it could turn into a HKA area of effect.

 

Hemophilia. 

 

Narcolepsy.

 

Changes the hit location when people are attacking you so that each shot goes to the head (or most vulnerable area if head isn't available).

 

One of your valuable items disappears (or one of the party's items if the caster tries to give everything away first). GM choice as to whether it is disintegrated, displaced to another dimension, or teleported to someplace interesting (like your distinctive dagger placed into the back of someone important, your thieves tools into a treasury which has just been robbed, your diary to your ex-girlfriend, your clothing into the sultan's harem). If you use the extra-dimensional option, it could perhaps be a "named spell" where the caster is calling upon some higher power by name whether god, demon, or djinn and the players could someday discover what he's doing with all these random valuable items which he's been getting in exchange for lending out his power.

 

Transform/Shapeshift to change your appearance. Will friends, contacts, and your bank believe it's you when you're a female orc who can't even speak the common tongue rather than a Gandalf look-alike?

 

Why not just go full Babel? The caster loses the ability to read? The caster can't speak the commonly-used languages? The caster becomes a mute?

 

Amnesia would be very dangerous in many circumstances. Not remembering how to activate your magic items. Not remembering you can cast magic. Not knowing who are your friends and enemies. Not knowing how much you can trust your friends. Not knowing how to get to your hiding place. Not remembering how to get out of your hiding place. Not remembering where you hid the money. Not remembering the words which command your guard dogs. Not remembering how to get back to civilization, the oasis, etc.

 

Transformation: Skill Wipes. Some or all your skills disappear until the transformation wears off. No knowledge skills to help you do research. No weapons familiarity. No Transport Familiarity. 

 

None of these are fun.

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17 minutes ago, Ninja-Bear said:

None of these are fun.

 

Changing sex as you cast spells isn't fun? That's half of the powers of the superhero Starhawk!

 

Narcolepsy isn't fun?

 

Roleplaying amnesia isn't fun?

 

Tracking down the djinn who has been stealing all your stuff as you cast spells isn't fun?

 

If you think having all your Running drained and having to leap around like a kangaroo isn't fun, I'll just have to throw up my hands in despair for your funny bone.

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2 hours ago, archer said:

 

Changing sex as you cast spells isn't fun? That's half of the powers of the superhero Starhawk!

 

Narcolepsy isn't fun?

 

Roleplaying amnesia isn't fun?

 

Tracking down the djinn who has been stealing all your stuff as you cast spells isn't fun?

 

If you think having all your Running drained and having to leap around like a kangaroo isn't fun, I'll just have to throw up my hands in despair for your funny bone.

 

It sounds like fun for you as GM. If I was a player in such a game, for me it would get old really fast.

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3 hours ago, Lord Liaden said:

 

It sounds like fun for you as GM. If I was a player in such a game, for me it would get old really fast.

 

I'm not a fan of low fantasy when compared to high fantasy.

 

But one of the tropes seen in low fantasy is that using magic exacts a cost and people who do use magic think and plan before using it.

 

You see them having to use meat shields while doing magic ceremonies. You see them die or be seriously wounded and forced to retreat when someone gets passed the meat shields. You see the opponents throwing a single dagger across the room and hitting the caster in a vital spot.

 

You see them spook animals because animals can sense the dark powers the person wields. 

 

You see them falling unconscious after casting.

 

You see them waking up weakened and unable to fight, sometimes unable to ride.

 

You see them having to stop their research and other activities to rest and recover. Is it only to rest and recover or is it because they're forced to stop for some other reason?

 

You see them casting magic in their strongholds and other safe places rather than out in the world where they're vulnerable.

 

If you don't find that fun, you don't have to play in games which follow any of the established tropes. There's certainly low fantasy worlds where casting magic doesn't exact any costs so casters don't have to think and plan before using any of it. 

 

It's certainly legit to pick and choose your games or communicate to the GM when you find something getting old really fast.

 

In the original post in this thread, the author specified that magic would be used mostly by NPC's and not the players. Having a magic system where players such as yourself wouldn't enjoy the burdens of casting magic is a drawback to the campaign. How much of a drawback? That probably depends on the playgroup.

 

 

 

Consider the classic superstition that a witch can't swim. If in a fantasy world where a witch really can't swim, then that lack of ability is obviously related to her magic. How would that work mechanically?

 

Create a suite of witch spells for the PC or NPC with the side effect that the witch gets -20" swimming and none of her movement spells can move her through water or keep her on the surface. Have it wear off after a certain period of time, maybe based on the active points of the spell and the time period be cumulative for all the spells the witch casts.

 

If the witch is casting spells all the time, she can probably never swim. If she isn't a practicing witch, she might be able to swim most of the time and could pass a casual "toss the potential witch into the river" test. That could even explain why some people in the campaign world think the idea that witches can't swim is just superstition rather than an established reality.

 

Viola! 

 

 

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5 hours ago, archer said:

 

I'm not a fan of low fantasy when compared to high fantasy.

 

But one of the tropes seen in low fantasy is that using magic exacts a cost and people who do use magic think and plan before using it.

 

You see them having to use meat shields while doing magic ceremonies. You see them die or be seriously wounded and forced to retreat when someone gets passed the meat shields. You see the opponents throwing a single dagger across the room and hitting the caster in a vital spot.

 

You see them spook animals because animals can sense the dark powers the person wields. 

 

You see them falling unconscious after casting.

 

You see them waking up weakened and unable to fight, sometimes unable to ride.

 

You see them having to stop their research and other activities to rest and recover. Is it only to rest and recover or is it because they're forced to stop for some other reason?

 

You see them casting magic in their strongholds and other safe places rather than out in the world where they're vulnerable.

Now these imo are fine. I would accept them as a player. 

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Hey, not everything in folklore or literary fiction works in an RPG. What you describe as precedents always fit in those media because they happen to NPCs who serve a particular purpose in a story. It can be very different for PCs who just want to enjoy their game. Also, the precedents you cite are serious elements enforcing a certain tone and style. OTOH the examples you imply are from your games sound, at least, like they're intended to frustrate and humiliate the PCs.

 

However, I concede that it's all in the execution. If the folks you game with are on board with what you do and how you do it, it's not for me to gainsay you. :)

 

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Another option: using magic requires the ingestion of powerful entheogens. These have side effects.

 

In short: magic causes diarrhoea. (And vomiting.)

 

A player can still play a wizard if they want.

 

More generally: most PCs won't be magic users in low fantasy games. That's kind of the point.

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16 minutes ago, assault said:

Another option: using magic requires the ingestion of powerful entheogens. These have side effects.

 

In short: magic causes diarrhoea. (And vomiting.)

 

A player can still play a wizard if they want.

 

More generally: most PCs won't be magic users in low fantasy games. That's kind of the point.

Why? People play magic users in games where you can’t wear armor, only get one spell per day and can only use daggers.

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