Weirder Fantasy

So, my Monday group has been talking a bit about a post by Ken on running a low-magic, restricted race and class (Human only, Fighter and Thief only) setting. A bunch of my thoughts on “low magic” and what feels magical have appeared on my blog (e.g. Niven’s Law and Low Magic) but I want to offer some further comments.

  1. I’m in favor of streamlined, quick systems in general, though you can take it too far. E.g. Systems which boil down to one roll for everything are usually too bland; it often ends up feeling like it makes no real difference whether you do something clever or stupid, expected or unexpected, genre-plausible or not: you end up rolling pretty much the same either way.
  2. Rare != weird or wonderful. It doesn’t matter if it’s the only one in the world, a +1 sword is still dull. Even if something is ubiquitous in the setting, it can still give the players a thrill (e.g. space-ships in an SF game).
  3. Whether something counts as wonderful or prosaic is entirely based on the players’ experiences, not the typical inhabitants of the setting.  A peasant in a no-magic setting might be completely freaked out if somebody actually casts a spell like Levitate; the player of that peasant won’t be.  Even if the player roleplays it well, experience with other fantasy outside the campaign is going to color whether the player feels awe.
  4. Finally, to Ken’s specific idea about a fantastic dungeon in a decidedly non-fantastic world, unless the characters spend a lot of time outside the dungeon, contrast makes little practical difference.  I’ve only played a few sessions in Monteporte, but all of them were so far down in the megadungeon the outside world might as well not have existed except as a source of back-story.

This isn’t to say that I’m against the idea of low-magic settings or stripped down character options, but I think to accomplish Ken’s stated goals, it’s best to concentrate on achieving them directly.  The bullet  points are Ken’s goals, followed by my commentary.

  • Focus play on exploration, rather than tactical combat.

Players are goal oriented. E.g. in D&D if you stick closely to OD&D xp (award XP for gold, minimal XP for killing things), or you directly award XP for exploring new areas, players will naturally shift their focus to exploration.  Of course, you have to make the exploration itself interesting, with new and startling alien vistas, things to interact with and decisions to make.  Resource management can be a big part of this, if you can do it in a non-boring way.

  • Focus the players to find different and creative solutions to challenges poised by having such limited options.

I find this to be more a matter of the GM’s openness to out-of-the-box thinking than limiting the mechanical options available to the players.  At worst having lots of mechanical options acts as friction, where play slows down for the players to review their options and make sure they haven’t missed any application of mechanics before they start poking at the problem space with off-the-wall thinking.  Limiting mechanics can help there, but it doesn’t actually spur the players to creative solutions unless the GM is willing to consider them. I’ve seen plenty of minimalist games bog down with the GM shooting down all the options until the players come up with the solution the GM is looking for.

  • Highlight the sense of danger and weirdness with regards to the dungeon.

This is best done by making the dungeon dangerous and weird in comparison to the things the players are familiar with, ignoring whether it would seem weird simply in comparison to the rest of the world or the characters’ expectations.  Eliminating PC MUs and Clerics helps establish a certain Conan-esque baseline for the world, but they won’t automatically ooh and ahh if they finally encounter an NPC capable of casting Magic Missile or even Sticks to Snakes.  A related point is that in order to establish a contrasting baseline it’s more important how the NPCs behave than what the PC options are.   Even if you have a stereotypical anything-goes group of oddball PCs (lizardman, elf, gnome, ninja), as long as the rest of the world treats them like a freakshow you get much the same effect.  In Rob’s game playing an elf feels special because the NPCs treat elves like they’re special, even though it sometimes seems like half of all PCs are elves.

  • Magic items become highly prized.

Useful and bizarre magic items are highly prized even in high-magic settings; worthless or dull ones aren’t, even if they’re unique.  Even if you can buy a +1 sword or a healing potion in Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, a collar that you can wear around your neck that lets you detach your head and fly it around is something the players will covet, (Not a random example, this was something that turned up in my Friday night GM’s game a bunch of years ago, and that particular bit of foolishness is still remembered fondly.)  Boots of elven kind that just add 5′ to your speed, not so much.

One last thought.   Consider a world (like our own in olden times), where superstition is rife.  People will leave milk out for brownies, put horseshoes over their doors for luck, even burn people alive for witchcraft.  Is there anything actually to be gained by having it be a no-magic world and telling the players that while their characters probably believe it, it’s all a bunch of hooey?  Or is it better to leave it open whether things like charms against the evil eye work, or they need to be careful when travelling through the forest at night lest they meet a Will o’ th’ Wisp or troll? Or even better to have a world where such things are absolutely possible?

My own preferences for a setting that emphasized the weird and dangerous would be to make magic and supernatural creatures real, and potentially lurking around any corner, but have most magic be dangerous and mistrusted, while certain types of superstitions be well-known and effective.  I think it’s weirder and scarier when, say, the players feel the need to seek a church-yard when they fear they’re pursued by fey creatures than when they know for a fact that since they’re not in the dungeon those sounds were at worst bandits.  Dungeons can be a higher concentration of weirdness and danger, making them strange and spooky places. but leeching that stuff from the world at large in hopes of increasing the impact by contrast doesn’t really pay off  But that’s me.

2 thoughts on “Weirder Fantasy

  1. Chris C. says:

    Nice post.

    “Systems which boil down to one roll for everything are usually too bland” – Agreed. One can go to far and end up with a coin-toss system.

    “A +1 sword is still dull” – Maybe. I might revise my own thinking on this to say that the +1 sword is dull if it doesn’t give a player an advantage that other beings in the world don’t have. If the game world is one where modifiers are low and few, the +1 sword is less boring. Still it wouldn’t hurt if that +1 sword also has some other power.

    “I find this to be more a matter of the GM’s openness to out-of-the-box thinking than limiting the mechanical options available to the players. At worst having lots of mechanical options acts as friction” – True. I think removing that friction though is the goal of having fewer mechanical options. Make the player’s first stop for solutions be the out-of-the-box thinking. You are definitely right that the GM’s openness to such solutions is key to this. Without that, any system without mechanical options is doomed to failure before it begins.

    “Dungeons can be a higher concentration of weirdness and danger, making them strange and spooky places.” – Point well taken. There probably shouldn’t be a strict boundary between dungeon and outer mundane world. Maybe the dungeon becomes the source of bad magic seeping into a world that *should* be mundane. Maybe solving that problem is why the characters brave the dungeon to begin with.

    • Joshua Macy says:

      I’m thinking about a +1 sword strictly in D&D terms: an additional 5% to hit, an additional +1 expected damage. Unless there are a lot of monsters that can only be affected by magic (in which case making such swords rare is guaranteeing TPKs) such small tweaks to probabilities aren’t exciting. If you don’t have some way of knowing it’s magic you’d need dozens of attacks, maybe hundreds, before you were sure it was any different from an ordinary sword. Even if you called it Excalibur and it was the only magic sword in the world, that’s one dull magic item.

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