Low Magic D&D 5e

Posted: 2024-02-15
Last Modified: 2024-03-07
Word Count: 1333
Tags: d20 dnd5e rpg

Table of Contents

This work includes material taken from the System Reference Document 5.1 (“SRD 5.1”) by Wizards of the Coast LLC and available at https://dnd.wizards.com/resources/systems-reference-document. The SRD 5.1 is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License available at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode.

Low Magic Settings

Magic exists in a Low Magic setting, but it remains subtle, elusive, and sometimes dark and dangerous.

The Mundane

So what do adventurers do in a Low Magic setting? What humans have done in every world and in every time: earn gold by unsavory means, fight wars, rescue maidens1 (usually for a price), eat, drink, and kill each other over trifles. A Low Magic world is like any other adventuring world, only without the conveniences and safety of magic on command.

The Monstrous

If magic is subtle, monsters aren’t. Monsters may be beasts of unusual size and ferocity, ordinary animals warped by magic (or demons or witches), primeval beasts heretofore unknown, or people cursed long ago into bestial form. This last theory explains monsters of humanoid shape and manlike intelligence such as undead and goblins, as well as certain dragons said to be able to talk.

The Arcane

For nearly all of humanity (and other sapient species) magic is a matter of legends and myths. Fae haunt the woods, but few have seen a fae (and lived). Priests pray to idols of stone and bronze, but the gods they pray to may or may not hear them. Every place has a story about some monster who threatened the town; some may even be true.

Magic takes many forms. These are the most common.

Curses and Fate

Words spoken in anger or hate, especially by a dying man, can echo across the years to doom the target of that curse. All mortals are born under good stars or ill, and the fate the stars fortell cannot be eluded, only subverted.

Charms and Incantations

Nearly everyone uses charms or rhymes to ward off misfortune or invite good luck. Most of these do not work, save to calm the nerves of those chanting them. Yet words have power, as curses demonstrate. Some words, in the right order and addressed to the right entities, can pierce the veils between worlds and summon forces and beings which can only be called Magic. Finding these incantations can take the work of a lifetime, and sometimes the effect is not what the magician intended.2

The Otherworlds

Just as all but the most ignorant knows the world is a sphere, all learned people in a low magic world know there are other worlds: the world of the dead, the world of nature spirits, the poisoned paradise called Faerie, the many hells from which demons come, and so forth. They may argue how many such worlds exist, and how they’re related, but nobody doubts their existence.

Witchcraft

A tiny minority of humans(?) can channel magical forces at will. Opinions differ on exactly what these “witches” are. Evil women who made pacts with demons for supernatural power? Remnants of an ancient order of enchantresses? Diminished demigoddesses from the dawn of time? A particular lineage or strain of “mutant” touched by magic? About all the “authorities” can agree upon is that Witches are dangerous and should be avoided.

Creating a Low Magic Character

Creating a character for a low-magic setting is almost the same as creating any other D&D 5e character:

  1. Choose an Ancestry appropriate to the setting.
  2. Choose a Culture appropriate to the setting.
  3. Generate or assign Ability Scores.
  4. Choose a Background from the ones listed below.
  5. Choose a Class from the ones listed below.
  6. Record all the abilities, proficiencies, languages, and equipment provided by Ancestry, Culture, Background, and Class.
    • Characters may not start with magic items, but they may purchase masterwork items if they can afford them.
    • Non-enchanted mithral or adamantine items are not considered ehcnanted, but they are uncommon or rare and therefore only available through adventuring.

Ancestries

In the absence of setting-specific Ancestries, the default is Human:

Non-human Ancestries may be available, including Dwarf and Eldren . Check with your DM.

Cultures

Your DM will present you with Cultures appropriate to your setting. Generic Cultures may be available. Check with your DM.

In the absence of setting-specific Cultures, give the character any two skill, tool, or vehicle proficiencies of their choice.

Ability Scores

First, generate or assign Ability Scores using one of the methods in the Players’ Handbook.

Then, add points to the Ability Scores as follows:

Backgrounds

These are the available backgrounds in a Low Magic campaign. Specific settings may restrict or add backgrounds.

Background Source Notes
Acolyte PHB/BR
Charlatan PHB
City Watch / Investigator SCAG
Clan Crafter SCAG Only if setting includes Dwarfs
Cloistered Scholar SCAG
Courtier SCAG
Criminal / Spy PHB/BR
Entertainer / Gladiator PHB
Far Traveller SCAG Work with DM on homeland.
Folk Hero PHB/BR
Guild Artisan / Merchant PHB
Hermit PHB
Inheritor SCAG
Mercenary Veteran SCAG
Noble / Knight PHB/BR
Outlander PHB
Pirate PHB
Sage PHB/BR Change “Wizard’s Apprentice” to “Arcanist”.
Urban Bounty Hunter SCAG
Urchin PHB

Classes

These classes are suitable for Low-Magic settings. Specific settings may restrict or add classes and subclasses.

Class Source Subclasses
Artisan MotM Armorer, Bladesmith, Bowyer, Tanner
Barbarian PHB Berserker, Beast (TCoE+MotM), Totem Warrior (PHB+MotM), Zealot (XGtE+MotM), Steel (MotM), Tribal Warrior (MotM), Viking (MotM)
Fighter PHB Champion, Battle Master, Cavalier (XGtE), Samurai (XGtE), Gladiator (MotM), Legionnaire (MotM), Marksman (MotM)
Hunter MotM Wanderer, Warden, Wilder, Wraith, Beast Trainer
Knight MotM Deliverers, Enforcers, the Green, Justiciars, Shield, Samurai, Chevalier
Minstrel MotM Troubador, Skald, Sword Dancer, Snake Charmer
Monk PHB Open Hand, Drunken Master (XGtE), Kensei (XGtE), Shadow (PHB+MotM), Mountain (MotM), Serpent (MotM), Elements (MotM)
Mutant3 MotM Alchemical, Aquatic, Bestial, Monstrous, Venomous
Rogue PHB Thief, Inquisitive (XGtE), Mastermind (XGtE), Scout (XGtE), Swashbuckler (XGtE), Brute (MotM), Dagger Master (MotM), Outrider (MotM)
Priest MotM Ascetic, Crusader, Inquisitor, Preacher; Domains: Death, Forge, Knowledge, Life, Light, Nature, Night, Tempest, Trickery, War
Scholar MotM Arcanist, Explorer, Physician, Tactician
Shaman MotM Land-Bound, Medicine Man, Star Caller, Sword Medium, Witch Doctor

Certain worlds will have traditional spellcasters, but they will be few and far between. Check with your DM before creating a spellcasting class.

Languages

Player Characters can speak Common and their Cultural tongue plus one other language if their INT is at least 12.

They may also gain languages from their Background or Class.

Consult the DM, who will have a list of all available languages.

Combat and Adventuring

Even without magic the rules of D&D 5th Edition still apply, except when superseded by my house rules.

Most of these house rules enhance the “gritty” feel of a Low Magic campaign, but certain rules give players an edge:

Sources

BR
Basic Rules
MotM
Masters of the Mundane
PHB
Players Handbook
SCAG
Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide
TCoE
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything
XGtE
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

  1. Maidenhood not guaranteed. ↩︎

  2. At the moment Incantations are a story element, not a formal magic system. Our protagonists must stop an evil cultist from sacrificing a noble’s daughter and summoning a foul demon. An Arcanist translates an old book and unwittingly unleashes a malevolent spirit. A hedge magician knows the precautions and rituals to keep the fae at bay … but they don’t always work. And so on.

    A full Ritual Magic system will be available … someday. Until then, enjoy these fragments↩︎

  3. Check with the DM before selecting this class. ↩︎