Civilisation prospered in the world of Ishtar. The world was separated into many countries, but war was rare and trade was flourishing. Harvests were not always abundant, but the good years more than compensated the few bad ones. In the cities, Art and Science Institutions were blooming. That was until the Event.

Nobody knows what happened that day. That day the sun changed its course, gigantic waves hit the shores, and floods never seen before destroyed crops, farms and towns. But the strangest was still to come. Slowly, some people discovered they had gained magical powers. Some could communicate with nature, others could ask their god to intercede in their favour, and many could just channel raw power.

Today many flourishing countries have disappeared, and their land has been divided between powerful sorcerers and sects. Bandits are to be feared again, and it is said that strange creatures have appeared in faraway regions.

I am going to set my next game in such a setting, and I was considering letting the players familiarize themselves with the world a bit before the Event. However that means that they would have to play for one or two levels in a world without magic.

One way to enforce that is to restrict my players to mundane classes at first, but I feel like it would cut out a lot in the game, especially in term of RP. Another way to do that is to allow any class from the beginning and just to remove the magical parts of each class until the event. But that would completely break the game's balance.

Edit: as noted by Matthieu M, at low level caster classes often use bows and/or slings anyway so removing their spells would not break combat. However I am still concerned that some necessarily mechanics that are usually covered by spells may go unattended. I am thinking in particular of healing, but also more generally a lot of the versatility of a party is covered by spell and so would disappear (though a skill-monkey may cover some of that).

How can I adapt the classes so that they are still playable in a magic-less world? Specifically, I am looking at the classes from the PHB, and only at level 1–2.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Do not answer in comments. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 11:51
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ This sounds less like a 'world without magic', and more like a world with new magic. A small difference in semantics, but significant in writing the world itself \$\endgroup\$
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 14:34

6 Answers 6


Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 is not well equipped to describe the world prior to the Event. If you try to do so, you’ll be fighting the system every step of the way: 3.5 is extremely high magic, and expectations of high magic are baked into the system at every turn (most especially with how CR is determined, and by extension published modules). It certainly works better at low levels, but even at low levels, having some people play barbarians and crusaders and others play, well, commoners is not going to work well within the system. Anyone who wants to play a magical class is going to have to slog through a few levels of being useless dead-weight, and the other characters are going to need a very good reason for carrying that around.

Also, the claim that low-level spellcasters spend significant amount of time with slings and crossbows is not, in my experience, particularly accurate. Low-level spellcasters must use spells judiciously, which means, usually, they try to cast just one spell to give their side some major advantage (usually entangle or grease, sometimes sleep or color spray; other options are possible), and then allowing the mundane classes to take advantage of it. They might take potshots with a crossbow or sling, but that’s mostly just for something to do: they’ve already done their major contribution to the battle.

What you propose eliminates that contribution to the battle.

Finally, the world of Ishtar pre-Event seems to be lacking much in the way of major conflict. The players might be sent on your typical rat-killing quest, I suppose, but mostly this is not a world where the rules of Dungeons & Dragons are appropriate: those rules are really designed for dungeon-delving and dragon-slaying. They have little to offer a world of prosperity and comfort.

My solution would be to run the game in a different system entirely, prior to the Event. Something rules-light and narrativist; these seem more appropriate to the tone of pre-Event Ishtar, and the issues of magic need not even come into play. Where Dungeons & Dragons is ill-suited to this, Fate would be excellent. In fact, considering the relatively-brief time spent pre-Event, I would probably go with Fate Accelerated Edition.

I would have the players still pick their post-Event D&D class and ability scores while building their pre-Event Fate characters. I wouldn’t have hard-and-fast rules for what each class and ability score array means in Fate, but I would look for some commonality: someone with high Intelligence after the Event would presumably have had strong skills with Clever approaches prior to the Event.

Then the Event happens, and they become their 3rd-level D&D-character versions of themselves, complete with magic as appropriate.

I can personally vouch for Fate being used this way; I played in a giant-mecha-style game, where the pilots were all Fate characters and the mechas were all D&D characters, and the mechas were supposed to enhance the natural abilities of the pilots, so this kind of commonality was required. It worked very well. For that matter, I’ve used Fate-inspired subsystems to replace D&D’s skill system wholesale, and that also worked well.

One difficulty here is the transition period. Spontaneous spellcasters have it relatively easy, as do divine spellcasters in general, but wizards (and wu jen) have an issue with regards to the spellbook. I would handle this through allowing them, at first, to use their spell slots on read magic. This spell is one “all wizards” can cast, and though that is usually something they simply have studied well enough to memorize without a spellbook, it could be that the Event itself imbued them with this ability.

I would then have the world itself provide the spells. Considering all of the physical and meteorological changes in the planet, which is likely caused by this new magic, I would also have arcane patterns appear in nature: rock formations, vines, even the rapids of a river. Temporary events, too, could work: the way a particular bush burns, the way tea leaves land in the bottom of a cup, and so on. Seeing magic in the world around them, and understanding it with their new read magic ability, allows these wizards the opportunity to begin to craft spellbooks. It also makes for a really fun way for you, as a DM, to offer special “loot” in the form of spells they can copy.

Since buying spellbooks already filled will be impossible, and they won’t be starting with a spellbook with months’ or years’ worth of spell-scribing going into them, I would also consider reducing the time required to scribe spells (but not other costs). Then again, wizards are so powerful that I might not, or maybe only for the lowest-level spells (cantrips, 1st- and 2nd-level maybe).


I suggest broadening the Event just a little: some people do indeed learn to cast spells, but others learn to draw subtler power from within themselves. These other powers are perhaps too subtle to be called "magic" -no one thinks of them as such, anyway- but because of them, even non-casters are still somehow more grand than what came before.

In the pre-Event world of Ishtar, use the Generic Classes variant from Unearthed Arcana (or d20srd.org), with the Spellcaster removed such that players are restricted to "Warrior" (in quotes to distinguish it from the NPC class) and Expert. D&D is not balanced very well for no-magic combat, so you will generally want to go heavier on the roleplay and intrigue aspects of things, though you could have the PCs fight characters who are also using the generic classes or NPC classes. There might just plain be no "monsters" yet; their creation could be directly caused by the Event, or as side effects of some of the earliest post-Event experiments. Or perhaps the Event made it possible for monsters to travel to Ishtar from other worlds.

Show the Event and its immediate aftermath, but then timeskip a year or two ahead. This lets you paper over at least some of the nasty, depressing stuff that would inevitably follow in the aftermath of an Event like this: governments falling, warlords rising, mage-wars and magical plagues and famines from experiments gone awry, whole cities decimated by monsters that the people have not yet learned how to handle, and so forth. But the world is only just starting to get back on its feet, and civilization is still precarious at best: prime material for adventure stories.

People have begun to learn about magic and other amazing feats of daring, and the PCs are no different. During the timeskip, the PCs can trade their levels of Generic Classes for levels of standard classes, without restriction. They can also trade feats in this way. In some cases, like "Warrior" -> Fighter, this represents honing their existing skills to a new and larger edge. In others, like Expert -> Cleric, the character leaves some old skills behind to focus on new ones. But there is no restriction on which generic classes can be traded for what standard ones: a show-off Warrior who always liked to focus on flashy moves and showy styles could become a Sorcerer, leaving his weapons behind (and falling out of shape) to learn to wield THE RAW MIGHT OF THE ELEMENTS on the battlefield.

Players should be advised that standard classes are coming, and that they should base their "generic" characters on the things they might aspire to: people who might dream of doing the things that, as of the start of the game, they don't think they'll ever be able to actually do. Continuing one of the above examples, it would make sense for an Expert who tends to his community's spiritual needs to become a post-Event Cleric.

This approach frees you from having to rebalance the spellcasting classes for a no-magic world while retaining their balance when magic enters the world: a Herculean task at best, if it's even possible. But it also avoids "punishing" spellcasters by forcing them to multiclass, simply by not forcing them to multiclass at all: when spellcasting becomes available, they can cash all of their old levels in to become single-classed casters. It also allows all of the PCs, even non-casters, to feel like part of the Event. Another advantage comes into play if characters want to experiment with some unorthodox transitions: the "Warrior" -> Sorcerer, for example, who leaves his old skills behind but not his old mindset.


I believe they are two distinct issues:

  • how to deal with "magical" classes prior to the Event
  • potential consequences for the affected characters after the Event

and I will answer them backward as the latter issue depends on how the former was dealt with.

What are potential consequences for the affected characters after the Event?

You suggest starting everyone with mundane classes (as magic is not available). This may seem like a reasonable choice, however it does have some long ranging consequences. For example, suppose that I the Wizard starts with the 2 levels of Rogue:

  • the abilities required for Rogue and Wizard are fairly different, in the long term it will be better to aim for Wizard (but it will mean a Rogue with low-Dex/low-Cha most likely, so not a terribly good Rogue)
  • the skills of a Rogue and a Wizard are fairly different, your Wizard is going to lack those 5 points in Concentration and Spellcraft
  • at ECL 3, the Wizard can cast a few cantrips and a handful of lvl 1 spells, when normally it should have access to Resist Energy => delay encounters with elementals for 2 levels, please
  • at ECL 5, the Wizard finally accesses lvl 2 spells, when normally it should have access to Fly => delay encounters with flying creatures for 2 levels, please

It is a well-known fact that for pure spell-casters any delay in getting their next level of spells is a huge efficiency hit. Seeing as they quite quickly overtake their more mundane companions, it might be seen as a non-issue, however a party is not Fighter vs Wizard, but about cooperation, and the party (as a whole) being denied access to key spells (Resist Energy, Fly, Restoration, Lesser) will face "level appropriate" challenges that are in fact not quite appropriate.

I see 3 categories of solutions here:

  • allow magical characters from the start (but without magic)
  • allow retraining after or as part of "The Event"
  • adapt encounters for the rest of the campaign, delaying the apparition of monsters requiring some "key" spells

How to deal with "magical" classes prior the Event?

I would advise simply letting players taking levels in those classes, as they wish, but forbidding them accesses to any spell (or supernatural/spell-like ability):

  • a Wizard is a Scholar
  • a Cleric is a Priest
  • a Bard is a Bard (this guys sings well!)

This let the players preparing their feats/skills as appropriate, so they are ready for the big day. Of course, no mention should be made in-universe of magic (so the Spellcraft skill is a bit weird...).

The one tricky point I can foresee is healing. At first, the healing spells are quite powerful, and given how squishy a 1st-level or 2nd-level character is, they are very useful. I see two options:

  • either avoid fighting; there are other kinds of encounters/quests, so a bit of roleplay and social interactions could be nice. It might even let you introduce the party members to each other without some Deus Ex Machina: "You (measly scholar with ink-stained fingers) walk into a tavern and sat at a table with a burly Half-Orc and a rotund Dwarf laughing uproariously; that's it guys, time to play".
  • or provide alternate sources of healing; +Con modifier HPs for 8 hours of rest (instead of 1 HP) and 2*Con modifier HPs for 24 hours of rest (instead of 2 HPs) are not game changers (the amount will be low after a few levels), but they will make the two first levels much more bearable

I do not think that versatility is going to be an issue; players might have to get creative, but a Sorcerer only has 2 1st-level spells known at 1st level and 2nd level, and parties still work. At higher levels it might matter more, but you'll have magic by then.


Simply put, I don't think you should try to fit D&D 3.5 classes into a magic-less system. It is obviously possible to just reflavor everything so that nothing is actually magical, and anything that can't be reflavored, you just remove. But I don't think it will catch the flavor you want, and it might even remove a nice possible "surprise" for your players.

However, what I think will be more fun and useful for your pre-post Event, would be to start at level 0, and create level 0 characters from DCCRPG. (Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG) Basically, you create a character pretty much the same way you would in 3.5, however instead of picking a class, you choose a profession and some starting adventure gear. You can either roll dice to create random characters, or pick options from the tables.

Creating level 0 characters from DCCRPG and then advancing into a level 1 character in D&D is a popular enough activity for gaming groups, even in worlds with magic, such that I think it would be possible to surprise your players with this life changing event when they reach level 1.

If however, you do not wish to use a different but similiar system, you can try the level -2 classes from D&D Apprentice rule variants.


Gestalt characters

In the situations you described for the Event, and taking into account that the characters can manage with mundane equipment and masterwork equipment only for the early part of the game, letting the players choose Gestalt classes will give them some leeway while simultaneously giving them a bit of fallback until the Event actually happens in the narrative.

Doing so could settle your group up with some Rogue/Wizards or Fighter/Wizards which are just fine in the early levels before magic actually starts being necessary during fights to turn the tide of battle.

You also will end up having to deal with arcane casters who are coming into their powers and don't really know how to cast spells, so to do this you can populate the air and random walls with magical text, glowing blue runes appear in walls and can only be read by a proper casting of the Read Magic spell. These runes will describe the rituals ( Verbal and somatic ) necessary to cast spells and also any material components they can use as a catalyst.

For Divine and Nature based casters they can speak with nature or their gods seneschal to cast spells, and will only teach the PCs to cast spells which their wisdom lets them meet the prerequisites for.

There will also be an alarming lack of magical items and your PCs will likely have to craft a bunch of them on their own, relaxing the creation requirements for items using low level spells may facilitate the magic items creation that you might be looking for to further your game, but there will definitely be a lot of adjustment as you're playing.


Full-caster classes could be problematic.

If you have a wizard, you will need to start some time after the cataclysm has happened - it is assumed by the rules that a "Level 1 Wizard" has already spent a number of years as an apprentice to another Wizard, or as part of a university, and has learned from them the basics of spell casting. For your wizard, you'd have to assume several years have passed, and they have already begun studying the nature of this new magic and learned to hone it in some way on their own or with a group. You'd also have to assume they are constantly learning new ways on their own as they advance in levels.

Clerics are presumed to be part of an order that worships deities - so unless you have established deific beings (either beings made real by the cataclysmic event, or beings brought into existence by the event), Clerics are going to be a hard pill to swallow.

Druids are a bit easier to explain, but even their intrinsic understanding of the way nature works would take time.

Sorcerers would perhaps have it most easy - their magic is self-contained, and they wouldn't have to study anything to use it. But RAW still requires them to use spell components (which is honestly just a way to take magic away from them when they're in custody, and if you trust your players, you could remove that requirement without severely impacting the campaign).

Partial caster classes might be easier to write in - bards, rangers and paladins - their gradual understanding of the nature of magic over their development as a character would make some sense in your campaign, and it's all understood to be self-contained (tied to music, knowledge of nature, and devotion to faith), though the Paladin's faith-based magic might be a hard pill to swallow, if you don't establish some Gods.

All that being said, it could work. It would require a considerable injection of flavor text, but DnD 3.5e handles flavor text fairly well. It would, however, require your players to be 100% on board with the campaign settings - you'd need a group willing to roleplay the marvel and wonder of discovering magic in the world, and you may want to limit your game to no-full-casters, just to keep magic in the realm of 'special'.

If you're feeling especially daring and want to try something unique for full-caster classes, you could have all full-casters start at level 1 and non-full casters at level 2 (Full casters are already unbalanced in DnD 3.5e, so it's a modest price to pay).

Regardless of how you do it, you're going to need to write a lot of flavor text to describe this 'new magic' world anyway - so you may as well put the extra effort in to write it into each character class too.

Oh, and it should go without saying, but magical items should be very rare in this universe.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Regarding Paladin/Ranger-like characters, they only get spellcasting at level 4, so since the characters will get magic starting from level 3, they should be mostly unaffected, just a couple absent specials maybe but their sudden appearance at level 3 is easily explained by The Event. The Wizard's study is a bit more difficult, but the character can discover new spells (Wizards have that ability after all). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. The wizard is the most problematic to write into this universe by far, and the only thing that really makes any sense is either self-study, or a small group that has just begun exploring the nature of the new magic of the world. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would see it as a the latter; the Wizard would start as a scholar (maybe an alchemist or a physicist?) and as magic emerges would immerse herself in the study of those new phenomenons. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 6:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MatthieuM. That could work. The great thing about world-crafting is that you can take multiple different routes to get to the same place. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 11:53

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