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Recently, my players and I got kind of bored with the fact that Pathfinder relies heavily on magic items than martial prowess for fighting classes. I realize and accept the fact that spellcasters are more powerful than petty sword fighters in Pathfinder, but my players usually prefer fighters, rangers or rogues not spellcasting classes.

So, we came up with the idea of playing a low-magic campaign. Here are the terms;

  • No spellcasting classes for players. This includes paladins, rangers, bards etc. But archetypes that replace spells(such as skirmisher archetype for ranger) is ok.
  • No magical items except for very rare and powerful artifacts that will serve a specific purpose.
  • There will be spellcasters in the world, but, again very rare and they will probably be the villains of the story.
  • Alchemy exists, as well as special materials such as cold iron, mithral etc.
  • There will be magical creatures, such as undead, demons, devils.

The main purpose here is that, I want my players to feel competent when they kill a horrific creature, I want them to feel they killed it because of teamwork and tactics, not because they had the right magical item combinations.

Of course, with this comes several concerns on balance of the game.

  1. How should I handle healing between encounters? Refilling 30 hp can last a long time, even with the help of Heal skill.
  2. How should I balance encounters? Challenge Ratings assume access to magical items and magical items improve at an exponantial rate so maybe treat the party level as -1 for every four levels they have(against the magical creatures or those rare spellcasters of course)? Example; Party level 1-4 = -1 Effective party level, Party level 4-8 -2 Effective party level etc when determining Challenge ratings for "magical encounters".
  3. Without magic, Armor Class does not scale, however attack rolls do. At some point, attack rolls will be automatic hits and I don't like that prospect without magic or healing to aid the players. This will make fighting defensively, or feats like Dodge or Combat Expertise more important but I feel, they won't be enough. How should this be handled?
  4. And finally, without magic, everyone will be a fighter of one kind or another. What are your thoughts on replacing Fighter-level Requirements on feats like Weapon Specialization with Character level?

P.S; The question may be too broad and not have only one definitive answer from one person only, but every idea helps and I will combine those ideas while creating the campaign.

Thanks in advance.

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@Macona It's actually not that hard to do, in a technical sense. The hardest thing is overcoming "instincts" that no longer apply. It's actually pretty easy to run a low-magic campaign in d20 once you understand how to manage difficulty directly and ditch the CR system (which becomes a liability rather than a useful tool in this situation). –  SevenSidedDie Oct 28 '13 at 15:36
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Many comments have been deleted as they have gone over the line to excessive/warring and noise. If you have contributed an answer, clearly you disagree with the other answers, there's no reason to comment on all of them with the content of your answer. If you're contributing 5+ comments, maybe you should write an answer instead. Thanks. –  mxyzplk Oct 30 '13 at 21:24

12 Answers 12

up vote 26 down vote accepted

It will take some work, but it's perfectly doable.

Enemies with special defenses

The players won't have access to see invisible, flight, magic weapons, or ghost touch. Therefore, if you include enemies that can fly, or have DR/magic, or are intangible, these will be huge challenges, and may be downright impossible. The easy solution is simply to not include such enemies, but the more interesting way is to treat them as nigh-invulnerable enemies that the heroes will have to figure out how to defeat. In a normal Pathfinder game, a ghost is a normal critter with a +2 CR template pasted on top, and requires some minimal preparation to defeat. In a low-magic Pathfinder game, a ghost is a mystery: why did they become a ghost? How can you persuade them to pass on, or at least let the party pass by peacefully? Can you persuade the local priest to perform an exorcism, and will it even work? Instead of "find monster, insert fireball," these types of encounters are now role-playing challenges, because they can't be solved any other way!

Alternatively, you can simply strip out the special defenses from enemies. Pathfinder assumes you have level-appropriate counters to special abilities anyway, so by removing those special defenses, you aren't going too far from the original intent. Adjusting the CR is left as an exercise for the GM, because it's going to take a fair amount of trial-and-error to determine what the right balance is.

Fixing armor class, and other numbers issues

Pathfinder assumes that both attack bonuses and defenses will be augmented by magic items. This partially balances out if the players don't have magic items, but consider giving everyone a +1 bonus to AC and all defenses every four levels. Don't make them pay a feat for it, just give it to them.

While you're at it, give your players bonus XP for the monsters they defeat, by calculating the XP as if the monsters were a higher CR. Since they're operating without magic, every encounter is going to be harder than what the DMG "expects" when it calculates XP per CR.

What will they do with their money?

Your players won't be able to buy gear that personally enhances their ability to make things dead faster, or grant them new solutions. If you keep to the normal loot rules, then the party will have far, far more money than they know what to do with. You have two options here: give them less money, or give them something to do with that money.

Let them invest in mercenary companies or land holdings. Let them become influential in the church, or their hometown, or even their country as their economic might and donations in the right places give them power that they would never be able to take with a sword. Favors in high places give characters some very powerful options.

Recovery after combat

This will require explicit house rules; you'll need to accelerate natural healing (heal a percentage of HP per day instead of a flat amount?), allow Heal checks to do much more than they normally do, grant the local clergy some extremely localized healing powers (they can heal people brought to their church, but not outside of their place of worship), and/or make this a political game rather than a hack-and-slash game.

If everyone's having fun, then it's a good game. It doesn't matter if the characters aren't optimized: as long as they feel like they're making a difference in the world and they're enjoying the game, then you're doing it right. The characters will be balanced, more or less: they all don't have access to magic, so intra-party balance isn't as much of a problem. You'll see that the players lack all of the magic-based solutions that you'd expect in a normal Pathfinder game, and you'll select the enemies more carefully, but things will work out fine. Let your players know that things will be a bit different than normal, and your players will go along with it; they requested this kind of game, after all.

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I feel like the last point here is especially important. Even if your finalized design barely looks like Pathfinder at all, it's more important that fun is had. –  DuckTapeAl Jan 18 at 2:07

You are going to have to come up with houserules galore to make this work, and in general it's a bad idea. Here's some of the major points you're going to have to hit:

Damage Reduction has to be changed

Anything with DR/Magic will have to be changed, as this party can't overcome magic DR without magic weapons. If you can't overcome it, everything with it gets a LOT tougher. Ditto for DR/Good, or any other type that requires magic items or spells. Cold Iron and Silver are okay still.

Challenge Ratings will be Way Off

At low level, CRs will probably be pretty reasonable. As you go up in levels however they assume both access to magic items and to magic. For some monsters that won't be a huge deal, and you could just level adjust them.

Think about a Dragon. Any smart dragon is going to fly around above the party and simply breath weapon them to death, because a team of fighters without magic items really can't do a whole lot that's meaningful against a flying dragon. Dropping the CR by 1 or 2 won't make a lot of difference. Bows are simply not scary to dragons (particularly ones with damage reduction).

Then there's stuff like the Night Hag. More DR to change/remove. It can cast invisibility, which the party can do nothing about. It can cast Deep Slumber, and given a party of Fighters will likely all have base poor Will saves... that's a bad day.

Oh yeah, and it can turn ethereal, dream haunt, and shoot strength damaging rays. That's a bad day, though at least in Pathfinder the ray doesn't stack with itself. God forbid they come up against one of the nastier undead with high HP and a lot of magic abilities.

You see the problem here? The party has no energy damage defenses, no turn undead, no freedom of movement, and none of the other defenses that let a party survive against the more dangerous stuff.

Tweaking CRs won't matter. When you get to higher level, you're going to have to either significantly rewrite, or simply throw out large sections of the monster list as totally unusable.

What do they Spend Money On?

Oh yeah, loot. What are you going to give them? Magic items comprise most of the loot in the game, and as you noted are necessary to continue to progress stats like AC. What are you going to replace that with?

If the answer is nothing, the party is going to wind up with nothing to spend money on very quickly. So you're either going to have to bring magic armor back, or create a functionally similar equivalent that does the same thing only isn't magic... which is just semantics at that point anyway. Maybe a "super Masterwork" or something.

If you don't, then after a couple of levels there will be no items left to give out that they'll find useful.

Feats

You mentioned trying to fix the armor problem above with feats. The problem with that is that those feats will be mandatory. Anybody who doesn't take enough Dex to pick up Dodge will be in a world of hurt later if Dodge is one of the only scaling ways to boost your AC later in the game.

So if you do make some feats have scaling armor bonuses, people will have to take them. That's going to make every character pretty much identical in feat selection, because they have no choice if they want to get more AC and thus survive.

How do they Recover After Combat?

You noted this problem already. The normal rules for this will be unworkable fairly quickly, unless you want to just do one fight a week. The simplest houserule is to allow Heal to fully recover HP after a couple hours out of combat.

Don't Do This

I could go on, because there's more problems than the ones I listed. But really... don't do this. You're trying to use the system opposite the way it was designed to be used, and the system doesn't like it. Magic items are so baked in that you can't remove them. At best, you'd have to replace them with non-magic equivalents, at which point you're not actually accomplishing a whole lot. The entire game is balanced around these things existing.

If you don't replace the magic items with functional equivalents, you'll have to throw out a huge pile of monsters because the party simply can't fight them. You'll have to rework mechanics, alter rules, figure out what in the world to give out for loot past level 3, and effectively be making so many changes that you're now playing your own system and not Pathfinder.

Alternative - Low Magic Game

What you could do is a low magic game. That is, nobody is allowed to play full spellcasters (Wizard, Cleric, Druid, etc, but Paladins and Rangers are in), and magic items are rarer or harder to create than usual (we had around 50% normal wealth for our level). In that case the party has less access to spells and magic items, but can still get them. If you do that, you can get by using monsters with lower CRs, and the list of stuff you just can't use is much, much smaller. The party still has items to buy and loot to find, and when +2 flaming magic swords are rare, finding one is a big deal.

I've played in a game like that, and it can work fairly well. The DM has to be on the ball about monster selection and encounter design of course, and the party has to choose how to spend their more limited magic item wealth very carefully. But the game still works, and it gets the feel you're looking for.

If you really, really want a no-magic game, I can't recommend strongly enough that you pick a different system. One designed for that, and there's lots of them. That would be another question, with the system recommendation tag.

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Money issue is a nice touch. For those monsters you mentioned, they will not exist in my game if they are simply impossible to face without magic. For dragons, consider game of thrones, who is stupid enough to actually face a dragon in combat without magic? :) Anyway, I dont intend that they face those creatures unless they can defeat them without magic. –  Can Canbek Oct 28 '13 at 12:13
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E6 may well be worth a look switched to PF –  Rob Oct 28 '13 at 12:27
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This is a good précis of the problems fitting Pathfinder to low magic, but has very little in the way of practical solutions. Most of the problems can be worked around. Some of the problems will be unimportant to OP - I suspect loot is one of them, rather than it "breaking" in a low magic setting, it becomes much less tied to personal item progression, so can be used for purchases which are more for group and story progression, such as buying buildings, getting involved in politics and other things that wealth is associated with. –  Neil Slater Oct 29 '13 at 8:35

Once, long ago, before most can remember, D&D had no concept of Encounter Level. If you wanted to figure out what/how many monsters to throw at a party you had to... just figure it out. It was an ignorant and brutal age, sure, but somehow people muddled through.

I think you are asking the right questions. Just let your players know that this is a departure from the normal rules and you may need to invent house rules as you go to fix problems that come up (like, hit bonuses outpace armor class).

For your specific questions:

  1. You don't have to increase healing, but if you don't it will change the game a lot. Attrition will be a huge factor. This can be dramatic and tactically interesting, but can have the major downside that a character with low hit points may have to hang back from danger for extended periods of time. If you don't like that, make something up that fits your campaign. Bump up natural healing, bump up heal checks, make brewing low-powered healing potions from natural materials a new common and easy skill, etc.

  2. No existing formula will work. Maybe try to run a combat quickly by yourself to see what happens. Remember that some simple things like flying creatures will become much harder. Also remember that a single failed save can take someone out with no recourse, and in such a case your pre-game run-through may go fine, but just a couple bad rolls can turn it into a rout.

  3. I would consider making Combat Expertise and Improved Combat Expertise an automatic part of the combat system that doesn't require a feat. This would be more "heroic", in the sense that high level characters could fight off hordes of lower level characters by being really hard to hit. Alternately, you could give everyone, say, a dodge bonus equal to some fraction of their BAB.

  4. This won't be hugely consequential either way, but I think I wouldn't. Fighters don't get a lot of cool class features because they get feats instead, so the feats with Fighter level prerequisites help balance them out vs. other fighting classes, which you aren't changing.

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A No-Magic Game is No Longer Pathfinder

The changes you would need to make to Pathfinder to make this work would be larger than the changes Paizo made to 3.5 to create Pathfinder in the first place. If Pathfinder is a separate system, so too would the the system you use for this game, if it’s going to work.

Since that’s an awful lot of quite-difficult work, I suggest you instead just find a system designed without magic in the first place. There are many, and while learning a new system can be difficult, it won’t be nearly as difficult as designing a new system, even a derivative one.

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+1 for that last sentence. Hacking systems isn't always hard, but this is a big hack if you're trying to actually preserve the original game structure. –  Alex P Jan 18 at 2:48

So, here's the thing. You want to change the 'fluff' of the game world to avoid magic items, but this causes 'crunch' problems. There's a simple (at least partial) solution, which is this: simply reclassify some magic items! Here are some examples:

  1. If your fighter finds a Longsword +2, it's actually an ancient blade forged by the Dwarves, using smithing techniques that far surpass anything available today.

  2. Your thief finds a cloak that helps them hide. It does this because it was created by a master ranger, who spent five years perfecting every stitch so that the whole blends with the shadows.

  3. Healing spells are gone, but many peasants can offer the players some cheap ointments, bandages and herbal medicines. Powdered willow bark (aspirin), bread-mould (penicillin) and iron-heavy foods to replace blood might be commonly known about as good ways to heal.

Of course, magic rings and other obviously otherworldly items won't be covered by this, but you should be able to partially cover the holes you identified. There are very few areas where magic is vital, and they are fairly easy to reskin. You are aiming to change the feel of the setting, not the mechanics.

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Consider Iron Heroes

...Either as your system or an inspiration for your house rules.

Iron Heroes is a 3.5 variant designed from the ground up for a low magic world. I've played a lot of both Pathfinder and Iron Heroes and love both systems. When I want a low magic game I personally just use IH...but even if you decide to modify Pathfinder to make it suit the low magic setting, you should find many good ideas in the IH rules.

For example,

  • It addresses the AC scaling problem with an "active bonus to defense" (basically the equiv of BAB) which all classes get, but at varied progressions.
  • It beefs up HP some and has an alternate means of recovering from damage, to account for the lack of healing magic.
  • It has some very interesting, flavorful martial classes so that an all martial party can be just as varied as one mixing fighters and magic users.

Any of these could be adapted to low-magic Pathfinder house rules.

From Mike Mearls' Monte Cook Presents: Iron Heroes

"You are not your magic weapon and armor. You are not your spell buffs. You are not how much gold you have, or how many times you've been raised from the dead. When a Big Bad Demon snaps your sword in two, you do not cry because that was your holy avenger. You leap onto its back, climb up to its head, and punch it in the eye, then get a new damn sword off of the next humanoid you headbutt to death."

On the question of healing (and what to do about players accumulating money)

I think you can solve both with one change: Healing potions exist but they're expensive. Additionally, if you want to limit in-combat healing, make them work best out of combat (e.g. they take 10 minutes to work, or have less of an effect if you're moving around).

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There are several different mods to Pathfinder or D&D 3.5 that would work well for this sort of thing.

Vitality Points

The Vitality/Wounds system makes it much easier to come back from a fight. Basically, your regular hit points work like subdual damage, and come back more quickly than regular hit points. Critical hits are a bit deadlier, but combat in general is easier to recover from without magic.

E6

E6 is an alternate way to play which makes the level cap of the game 6, rather than the traditional 20. The rules that I linked are for 3.5, but they convert to Pathfinder pretty easily. Basically, once you hit level 6, you can spend XP on feats and skills rather than increasing your character level. This means that you never run into the scaling problems that happen at high levels, and it works particularly well in a low magic game.

Non-gear Rewards

One way to get around the problem of magic is to give magic-like abilities as rewards. For example, maybe your ranger becomes especially eagle-eyed, and can pierce the veil of invisibility without the use of magic. Basically, giving out limited uses of specific spells that make sense for your players' characters as extraordinary abilities can serve to help your players deal with specific magical threats without actually having magic. This also partially deals with the money issue, since players may get these abilities instead of money or other gear.

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If it helps any, to address your healing issue in a low-(no)magic game, perhaps you could use the reserve points rule variant from Unearthed Arcana. That could work for you. It essentially gives players a way to heal hit points outside of encounters, by giving them a pool they can spend to regain an equal amount of health. Just a nice thought.

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Rather than tweaking Pathfinder, why not crib rules from a low mana d20 setting?

The 1st or 2nd edition Conan d20 setting from Mongoose has been tried and tested and is a balanced, low mana world. Magic is rare and dangerous, often involving pacts with demons. Martial valor is emphasized, and spellcasters are rare and tend to be villains just as you've specified.

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Pathfinder will work just fine without magic. It'll play out differently, but it will be just as enjoyable. Yes, it'll no longer play like a MMORPG game with the tanks in the front line slogging it out with the Big Bads while the healers spam healing and the mages through in the artillery.

If you want to bone up on the setting, read some classic Swords and Sorcery type fantasy (Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, etc.). combat will run more like RL, where soldiers use tactics to overcome opponents who can slaughter them in one firefight gone bad, etc.

I'd suggest considering some of the optional rules choices like "armor as damage reduction".

Just remember 2 things: 1) Pathfinder is just a toolbox; magic is just a setting. 2) If you're having fun, then you're doing it right.

Just some thoughts from a grizzled old RPer whose played off and on since (gasp) 1978.

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I am a fan of low magic campaigns. I strive to make magic more special. In my home brew setting there was a rise of magic and a huge fall that ended with magic being outlawed. I have struggled with the vancian system of magic and the poorly handled clerical casting system but know there are a few semantics that might help you along.

Magic weapons and armor. Simply limit magic to effects and not to hit or damage bonuses. Make all +whatever weapons stages of masterwork. This fixes the math while changing the flavor.

Encounters, simply limit the amount of magical beasts and allow more combat with humans. When a magical terror reveals itself, it will be much more awe inspiring. Adjust EL for those beasts by +1 for every four levels exponentially.

Another thing I am toying with is handling armor like damage reduction. Armor soaks damage and the remainder gets through. AC is now a factor of 10 plus dex for to hits. Creatures get to where they hit more often so you give a defense bonus as part of the character tree based upon class. I a, trying fighters with a +1 to defense every three levels.

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What did you mean by the "I a," in your last sentence? –  doppelgreener Jun 30 at 7:23
    
Typo. "am" makes sense in the context, and ',' is right next to 'm'. –  Gustav Bertram Jun 30 at 10:16

A setup that I have used which balances magic out nicely without screwing up the game mechanics:

1: Hitpoints: Take the largest hitdie from any class the character has. Take the maximum value of it. This becomes the character's hitpoints. People become realistically squishy. Do basically the same thing for monsters, but feel free to tweak them a bit to make them match their descriptions.

2: Armor/natural armor: A portion of the AC gets converted to damage reduction and elemental resistances. Will take a bit of common-sense, (metal armor might do really well against physical attacks, but will be weaker against most elemental ones than other materials, etc.) The tables in Unearthed Arcana are a good place to start, but usually need some adjusting as they don't deal with different material types, only overall AC value. This makes non-magical armor far more useful. Spells which add AC bonus may add either AC or damage reduction based on their description.

3: Add reflex saves to Initiative and as a dodge bonus to AC. Fast is good when you're this squishy.

4: When hitpoints go negative, it's fort save vs number negative to avoid death, and will save vs number negative to stay conscious.

5: bi-exploding d20s: Roll a 20? roll again and add. Roll a 1? Subtract 20 and roll again. Critical hits and misses are calculated based on how far from the target's AC one gets. (Dividing attack roll by AC and multiplying the integer part-1 by the weapon critical multiplier is a good place to start. For critical misses we've settled on less than half the target's AC provoking a free riposte.) For extra fun, apply this to skill-checks too!

6: Remove skill level-caps. Being a really good one-trick-pony in a party of one-trick-ponies is almost necessary for survival unless the DM is overly merciful.

Now, what we do with spells! muahahaha!

7: Multiply all casting times by 3. Spells are lethal, but you're going to have to stand there for a while. Attacked spell casters count as flat-footed unless they abort the casting (costing them the spell-slot, of course. The feat that lets you recover miscast spells becomes very handy.) Quickened spells are restored to their normal casting times. As a option, a full-round action may count as two standard-actions. (So a standard spell takes two rounds to cast standing still, or three if moving around.)

8: All ranged spells require a ranged-touch attack. For ones like magic missile that "strike unerringly", the caster may retry the attack every round until they either manage to hit something with it, or break concentration.

9: Cast-and-hold: To somewhat mitigate #7, casters may cast the spell, but not release it immediately. Casters may hold any number of spells, but it requires a concentration check of 10+(total-held-levels squared). Failure results in losing the spell (and backlash if the DM feels sadistic.)

This will get you most of the feel of a "low magic" campaign. Casters are squishy, and won't do well unless they have someone to protect them. You get to keep the utility magic that takes the headache out of healing, feeding, transporting the party, but using it in combat requires good strategy. You can tweak it further by increasing cast times more, reducing spell allotments, and/or reducing spell progression.

If by "low magic" you really meant "no magic", then you'd be better off to pull out the rules for D20 Modern or GURPS.

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This is a pretty sharp change from the regular rules. I'm curious, though: why does removing/reducing magic require everyone to be squishy? –  Paul Marshall Aug 8 at 21:26
    
This seems like a specific set of houserules for some personal campaign, as it ignores the requirements of the original poster. Interesting, but it doesn't mesh well with the question. –  Arkhaic Aug 9 at 22:16
    
Paul: The squishiness offsets the lengthened casting times enough for magic to still have a viable combat purpose. Non-magical combat balance stays pretty close to what it was due to it being harder for normal weapons to bypass damage reduction. You can do without it if you want to reduce the prevalence of magic even further, but that creates a world where magic users consist of bards and those who stay away from combat because they'll be dead before they can do anything useful. –  Perkins yesterday
    
Arkhaic: This was the shortest set of rule changes my group could come up with to yield a setting where it was not logically necessary that the world be ruled by spellcasters, while still allowing enough magic to exist for the campaign to not get bogged down with it taking months or years for characters to recovery from injuries, days for them to properly maintain/repair equipment, and otherwise spend more time on logistics than on following the plot. A campaign very similar to what the asker is considering is what we ended up actually running, hence why I offered it as a starting point. –  Perkins yesterday

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