I am considering starting a Pathfinder game, however before I do this I would like to brew-up some house-rules on the use of magic for a "low-magic" setting (think Conan or A Song of Ice and Fire) that make magic more unpredictable and dangerous in practice.

My ultimate goal is to a: add more balance between caster/non-caster classes, b: add a mechanical component to the flavor that magic is both dangerous and powerful, and c: avoid adding too much unnecessary crunch. I am not sure I want to ban magical classes outright, so the ideally I don't want to completely nerf spellcasting or frustrate players with arbitrary punishment.

Edit: If you think another system would work better for this please explain why you think so - I'm not super familiar with systems outside of d&d. My main interest is really how to add a mechanical element to the idea that magic is dangerous/unpredictable, while remaining fun to play.

Some of my ideas:

Implement a Call of Cthulu-style sanity system for the use of spells: the greater the spell level relative to caster level, the greater the risk to your psyche? Perhaps casters have sanity-resistance for spells 1/3 their level? This has the potential to be clunky, and I'm a bit worried about arbitrarily telling players how they have to role-play their characters.

Or maybe some variant of the Wild Magic rules: I'm a little more cautious with this one, as the magic surge rules in 3.5 seem obnoxiously unpredictable, and I don't want to have to consult four different d% tables every time a spell is cast. Maybe a card-draw mechanic on a d% roll less than 10x(spell level - 1/3 caster level) + concentration check? The cards would be 2/3rds negative, 1/3 bonus metamagic effects?

Or maybe just restricting PC casters to a certain class?

Any ideas for how to do this or concerns you have that I might not have considered would be greatly appreciated.

  • \$\begingroup\$ There's a huge (3rd-party pdf) compendium online somewhere with 10000 different metamagic effects for AD&D2e, in a table that you access by rolling percentile dice twice (e.g. 44% and 39% ->item 4439). This might be useful if you are looking for ideas of side-effects. \$\endgroup\$
    – Dakeyras
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 19:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Check these two questions and their answers, I think you may find them useful: Is there a system for modeling insanity in d20 3.5? and Introduce CoC d20's spell costs into DnD3.x \$\endgroup\$
    – OpaCitiZen
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 19:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ What is the actual question here? I'm not sure it's a good fit for the Q&A format as stated. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 22:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think it's reasonably plainly stated: how to house-rule a mechanical element to the idea that magic is dangerous/unpredictable. I offered a few of my own ideas, to see what others think of them, but I am interested in other suggestions as well. \$\endgroup\$
    – BRZA
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 1:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ I edited my answer to provide the information on some other systems you requested, @BRZA. Hope it helps! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 2:28

5 Answers 5


This is not the way to do this

Wanting balance between caster and non-caster classes is as noble goal; however, adding mechanics that punish players for choosing to be spellcasters is not how to bring them in line. Random mechanics like Wild Magic just make the game unfun for spellcasters or those with spell-like abilities; sanity rules are difficult to implement and tend to be harsh to roleplay out.

Ultimately, 3.X is not a good system for low-magic anything

Magic is entwined in 3.X's mechanics EVERYWHERE - in the items, in the class features, even in the racial bonuses. There's no escaping it. There are some systems available that might suit your needs better (Iron Kingdoms, FATE, World of Darkness), and I'd advise that you seek them out rather than attempting to re-write almost the entirety of D&D to suit your campaign.

Check out Tome of Battle

Tome of Battle goes leaps and bounds to making melee competitive against monsters and permitting them to meaningfully contribute in a party that contains spellcasters, and is definitely worth checking out. If supernatural maneuvers don't fit the mood of your campaign, edit the maneuver lists available to only include Stone Dragon, Tiger Claw, Setting Sun, Iron Heart, and Diamond Mind. I'd suggest still permitting Devoted Spirit to make healing available, especially if you include divine magic in your setting.

Other Systems

The question has been edited, asking for information on other systems, so I thought it would behoove me to provide.

  • New World of Darkness is a modern fantasy system that depicts a world plagued by the supernatural. However, its mechanics can be adapted fairly easily for a low-magic style game! You'll want the World of Darkness core rulebook, as well as Armory Reloaded for archaic weapons and additional Fighting Styles. Consider using some of the rules from Hunter: the Vigil as well - not only does that expansion have some suggestions for editing combat, it has some quick-and-dirty rules for custom making your own supernatural creatures. Though the game assumes a modern day style, there's no reason it can't be used for fantasy. Pros: Customizable, easy to use, easy to understand. Cons: highly lethal combat (may be a pro depending on the group), notoriously shoddy mechanics (only an issue if your group enjoys optimization).

  • Iron Kingdoms was designed as a low magic D20 system by Monte Cook and does quite a bit to make melee versatile or at least less boring. Pros: Similar to 3.X. Cons: Failed to successfully nerf spellcasters.

  • I am not an expert in FATE and FATE-based systems; however, BESW has this to say about how the Dresden Files RPG might fulfill your three goals:

DFRPG accomplishes all three of those handily.

a: by using Refresh as both character feature currency and narrative control currency, casters and noncasters get roughly equal power levels if they have the same starting Refresh.

b: Spellcasting always inflicts mental stress, which can take you out of the conflict if it builds too high. The more powerful the spell, the more stressful it is. If you channel up more power than you can control, you have to choose to let it hurt you or release it into the environment under the GM's control.

c: spellcasting uses the same basic system as the rest of FATE, only adding a different method for achieving similar actions.

The B part isn't perfect; as Jadasc points out, there are ways to control and contain and avoid the worst effects. But there's really no way to avoid the fact that magic is stressful, and too much of even the most controlled magic will drop a wizard.

  • \$\begingroup\$ If Paladins and Monks are in the setting, then Crusaders and Swordsages (and therefore Devoted Spirit and Desert Wind/Shadow Hand) shouldn't have any trouble either. Also, Iron Heart is purely Ex and available to the pure-mundane Warblade. Though Lightning Throw may push the limits of suspension of disbelief. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 19:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd love to know why this answer was downvoted so that I may improve it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 1:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Lord_Gareth: I didn't downvote, but if I were to hazard a guess it would be because you didn't answer the question ('how can I modify D&D'), rather answering a different question ('what systems work well with low magic'). \$\endgroup\$
    – Charles
    Commented Sep 2, 2014 at 16:01

For the most Call of Cthulhu-like Sanity rules, try and get a copy of Call of Cthulhu d20, and adopt its rules as you see fit. The book also has excellent - in terms of d20 adaptation - mechanics for darker, unpredictable spells, spell costs and spellcasting. In case you truly want to run a Lovecraftian d20 fantasy, it also has great DM advice and a section + an extra appendix detailing CoC's unholy deities and creatures in d20 terms.

For greater efficiency regarding grittiness and that special dark fantasy feel, try and combine this with the E6 variant of DnD3.5 (which should be easy to run in Pathfinder as well.)

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for suggesting another system that's actually designed to handle this from the ground up, and +1 (not that I can actually give a +2) for mentioning E6, which does help make things somewhat lower-magic. Note, however, that E6 is not enough to make 3.x, which is generally extremely high-magic, anything really like low-magic. It's just lower than it otherwise would be. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 19:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 on the E6 reference; a great variant for games trying to stay gritty. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 19:44
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Hmm, I like the E6 idea. In my experience it's really around that point where the flexibility and power of casters begins to increase exponentially. \$\endgroup\$
    – BRZA
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 21:31

You might want to check out Iron Heroes, which is Mike Mearls' take on a low magic D20 system. It has some nice takes on making 3.x combat and classes interesting without magic, along with an Arcanist class that has some nice risk/reward mechanics.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for going with another system designed to handle low-magic to begin with rather than attempting to mod 3.x. Not familiar with Iron Heroes myself but I've heard it recommended in the past. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 22:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Iron Heroes is a 3.X mod. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 1:29
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk But it's not a few houserules, it's a systemic change to the entire system, is my point. It's not just "magic items are hard to find!" or something. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 1:49

First, I agree with Lord Gareth in that you probably don't actually want to do this. And if you go through with it, you need to consider its impact on your teams power levels and lower the power levels of the threats you are sending them against accordingly. If you really want a low magic world, consider another system entirely.

However, its an interesting thing to think about, so I thought I would try to answer the question directly, and here are some options. To be clear, I haven't tried to incorporate any of them into AD&D (which I played a lot) much less DnD 3.5 (to which I am very new), so take with a grain of salt. Also, some of these are compatible, so you can use more than one.

Ban full out cast classes, but permit hybrids

Wizards, Clerics, and Druids are all extremely powerful, and extremely reliant on magic. If you want a low magic system, you should flat out ban them. But you can allow hybrid classes that make lesser use of spells like the Duskblade, Bard, etc. If you want, they can be reskinned to call them Wizards by the public.

The Duskblade really works very well as a classical wizard. Remember that Gandalf drew his sword more than once. The wizard's in Jack Vance's Dying Earth Series (which heavily influenced D&D) also frequently engaged in swordplay. While not directly comparable, in Shadowrun it is the various magic users that are the prime users of swords (because of how they interact with spirits). It was D&D that really banned wizards from using swords and armor for balance purposes, not the classical idea of a mage, especially in a low magic setting.

Ban flashy spells

Flashy spells like fireball violate the feel of a low magic setting much more than subtler buffs and debuffs, even when the buffs and debuffs are more effective strategically. You can encourage a low magic feel while not really weakening magic-users too much by banning those flashy spells.

Of course, if you do this and a player is using a character (like a Duskblade or Warmage) that has a very restrictive list of possible spells you probably want to work with them to replace those flashy spells with something less flashy rather than just yanking away their options.

Increase the penalties for failure

As Lord Gareth mentioned, adding too much randomness to magic can make it unfun, so this should be used with caution. But you certainly can add side effects to spells, either applying side effects when a spell fails or rolling a separate die for it.

You don't want to make them too penalizing, but penalizing enough to make the caster think twice. You could take a look at the paradox rules from Mage. You could also have it apply stun damage similar to Shadowrun. Alternatively, you could have it apply increasing difficulties to further spells that day, so the more magic someone uses the less they will be able to use it the rest of the day.

If you allow pure wizards/druids while using this, you probably want to give them some non-magical abilities that would let give them more options besides spellcasting to make these choices tactically interesting. Perhaps giving them a wider weapon selection or pehraps handing them some of the "leader" abilities.

Enforce a modified spell component rule

Actually tracking nit-picky spell components is no fun. But if you make each spell require a certain amount of gold per level in components and actually track that usage in general (so that magic-users are spending money for every spell and more for high level spells) that will make them think twice about if the spell is really needed. Especially if you give them more non-magical options for things to do in combat to go along with the spells.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think even simplifying the components to their gp value is too much accounting, but it's a far cry better than nit-picky tracking of each individual component, and the rest of the answer is great, so +1. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 2:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I'm inclined to agree and I don't like accounting, I would prefer to avoid something like that. But it is one of the gentler ways of making a caster think twice before tossing out a spell. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 2:25

I've done this successfully and have seen a system I'd like to try that does it a bit more.

The simplest first level of doing this is to remember that the "battlemat" is not reality. In a chaotic melee in a dark cavern when under attack, placing a fireball so it perfectly runs down the line of enemies facing the line of friendlies is patently unrealistic. In one long term D&D campaign I used the grenade-like missile rules for spell placement. This made the caster be more cautious and the other characters better support them tactically. In our current Pathfinder game the GM makes PCs "on the edge" of a spell effect save for half/none. Along the same lines is enforcing greater realism and avoiding metagaming in general - I remember one time a guy in wraithform snuck up to the bad guys but the wizard, unable to see him, fireballed him. Then they couldn't get a cure light wounds into him because he was unconscious and incorporeal... Part of magic-users' power is the spells themselves, the other part is that unlike combat they use a "auto succeed, perfect place" system. Disrupt that and they're much more on equal footing with the other PCs that have to roll to do stuff.

Now, Dungeon Crawl Classics has an interesting take on spellcasting. Now, in almost every non-D&D game, using magic is a skill and requires a skill check like everything else, so if you want to make a fireball using your Creo Ignam (Ars Magica) you have to roll it and maybe you get a big ol' fireball, maybe you don't. DCC extends this to D&D and there's a big chart for like every spell on rolling to cast it and how well it does. This is a bit of a "heavy" approach because you have to have the chart for every single spell... You could probably get the same net effect with GM calls (Spellcraft check DC something x spell level, fumble, fail, half-assed result, good result, super result based on how well you do vs the DC).

  • \$\begingroup\$ I was also thinking about Dungeon Crawl Classics, but I don't yet have enough personal experience that I was comfortable recommending it. \$\endgroup\$
    – okeefe
    Commented Feb 26, 2013 at 2:59

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .