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The title pretty much says it all. I'm getting ready to run a very low-magic (but high martial combat/adventure) Pathfinder campaign, and am looking for any systems to draw mechanics and inspiration from. Essentially no straight casters will be allowed and no magic items will be found. I'm looking for some ideas on how to adjust mechanics to balance against core 3.5e / Pathfinder monsters / NPCs.

I have already scoured the following systems:

  • Midnight Campaign Setting
  • Iron Heroes (all existing books)

Are there any other quality low-magic d20 systems out there?

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8 Answers 8

Let's see. Iron Heroes is definitely good. The Conan d20 RPG from Mongoose tends to favor warrior types, it lets you play a ritual caster if you are really into that but most of its assumptions are "stick a sword through it."

For 3.5e the Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords had a lot of high energy martial arts stuff in it. We've used that in some APs.

I see this WotC article on ideas for de-magicing D&D posted in a bunch of places.

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Book of the Nine Swords stuff is so high energy it's almost indistinguishable from magic, but it has a very martial feel to it. Good suggestion--might be overkill, but definitely has a lot of combat flavor (at a power level that doesn't require much else to be adjusted). –  Ichoran Mar 23 '11 at 14:25

Game of thrones d20 is one without cheese, and low magic one, And it's great for a game where narrative has it's place, and where plotting is usual, and social status has such an importance that gives a full other perspective of the game.

It's centered on the world of George RR Martin whose novels are already best-sellers. Even HBO will release a TV series in may about this Campaign Setting look at this

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I'd take a look at d20 Past - d20 Modern has casting as an option (in FX), but it's more an option that core to the system, and d20 Past takes that and makes it lower tech. This would be more for taking the real world in the past and throwing some magic in.

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If you're OK with ranging a bit further afield system-wise, True20 is pretty solid for low- or no-magic games. (It handles high-magic games well too, come to think of it...) The key is that the system is modular enough that you can just drop the magic subsystem completely and the game still functions normally.

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True Sorcery is reasonably weak if you twiddle the knobs right; it's very easy for casters to do low-power stuff regularly, but also very easy for them to knock themselves out if they try to do powerful things. They also have rules for using their system in IH and True20, and only the strongest of their magic items are constant effect / uncharged.

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I find that high-level D&D tends to feel pretty magical regardless of what classes the characters have, on account of their various amazing abilities and the way the game handles combat and skills.

If your idea of "low-magic" is something like "Fireball is scary and totally a big deal, while stuff like Gate and Wish are unheard of," try E6: The Game Inside D&D.

Basically it's a variation on D&D 3.5 (could easily be PF or whatever) that cuts off at level 6, just as the characters develop from "gritty fantasy" explorers to "heroic fantasy" badasses, without ever going full-on "superheroes" or "wuxia".

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If you want to run a low-magic campaign but still have most D&D character classes be viable (that is, at least as viable as when playing with magical items), there's a simple fix:

Don't change the math. Instead, change the story.

Non-magic weapons without punishing the players

Instead of a weapon being a magically enchanted Longsword +1, why not extend the masterwork idea. Use the rules as written but explain it differently: Maybe there's a famous blacksmith who is able to create weapons far better than usual (+1).

If the party manage to find special materials (rare metals, 'dwarven steel', hide from a rare creature,...), the smith can create even better weapons (+2).

And if they can convince an alchemist (chemist) to teach them the process of hardening the dwarven steel using chemicals extracted from a plant that only grows in a specific area in the mountains, or they meet a traveler from a far away land that can teach the smith the art of folding metal (similar to certain japanese or arab swords)...

Getting the 'improved' weapons should probably happen earlier than in a normal campaign because you will still lack the usual buffs and enhancements to strength and dex.

Making up for the lack of ability enhancement items

I would advise you to use a high point buy to begin with, so STR/DEX are higher in order for the characters to hit.

Later in the story, you can add opportunities to 'train' their main stat at a suitable time, or allow them ability increases on additional levels.

What about healing?

Using the two methods above, you can create a non-magical atmosphere without having to modify all the monsters to account for the changed math. Of course, healing is still a problem, but this could be solved by allowing alchemical items to make up for some of the common healing magic.

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You can also look at the dark fantasy setting Alfeimur (you can find it in Italian here; some things are being translated into English here.) In it, magic is dangerous and chaotic, so not usually used.

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