Dungeon Mastering 101: Running A Low-Magic D&D Campaign

In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax exhorted DMs to avoid handing out too many magic items. He mocked the characters who had accumulated too much magic, leading them to strut about with “scores of mighty magic items, artifacts, relics adorning them as if they were Christmas trees decked out with tinsel and ornaments”. Gygax’s D&D was fundamentally a low-magic game, but was it the kind of thing you wanted to emulate?

Gygax’s campaigns were places where 6th-level characters were amazing individuals known throughout the land and where arcane spellcasters (‘magic users’ and ‘illusionists’) jealously hoarded their knowledge and charged exorbitant fees for their services. This was, in part, how Gygax kept adventurers spending their millions (yes, millions) of gold pieces; obtaining rare spells and items to aid in their quest to accumulate ever more rare spells and items. His were worlds that followed a great cataclysm that claimed much of human and ‘demihuman’ knowledge, where pledging oneself to a devil for knowledge didn’t mean a nifty class, but rather a campaign-making decision; where getting innate magic was more than just taking a level in sorcerer and claiming to have discovered a long-lost draconic ancestor; where there were only a couple magic items might be shared by the entire group.

As you can tell, his D&D was very fundamentally different in design and execution. To run a similar low-magic campaign in Fifth Edition, you have to be clever in how you pull it off. You can’t just say, “I’m running a low-magic campaign, so only one person can be a spellcaster and they have no spell slots above 4th level”. At least, not without alienating most of your players and rendering half the classes effectively useless.

In this article, we will look at the seven main considerations to address when coming up with a low-magic campaign.

Make Spellcasters Less Common, Not Weaker

The biggest mistake we see Dungeon Masters make when they try to make a low-magic campaign is to try putting limits on spellcasting classes and magic in general. This approach is always doomed to fail. Why, you ask? One need only look at the game design to understand.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS has five full spellcasting classes, two half-casting classes, and two subclasses that grant spellcasting abilities to non-spellcasters. Magic is built into the chassis of the game. Not only would it be a Herculean effort to rebalance them for weaker magic, it would also change the entire feel of the game such that your players may not feel like they’re actually playing D&D anymore.

Likewise, the next-most common solution of imposing spellcasting checks or variable magical strength is equally ill-advised. You don’t force a fighter to roll arbitrarily to merely be able to make an attack roll that might still fail, nor tie the effectiveness of their sword swing to a phase of the moon rather than the damage roll—and fighters can attack forever because swinging a sword doesn’t use spell slots!

A much more effective solution is to limit the number of spellcasters, both in the party and in the world. Consider that one of the most successful low-magic campaigns, Dark Sun, has few spellcasters outside the ranks of the Sorcerer Kings and their lieutenants, all of whom are widely feared for their arcane might. Players are discouraged from loading the party with spellcasters because it would negatively impact their ability to interact with various authorities. Magic hasn’t been limited in this setting, only magic users.

Remember, as well, that this isn’t a story that happens to include the characters; it’s a story about the characters. They are expected to embrace all the different archetypes of the world, including magic. You wouldn’t have Lord of the Rings without Gandalf, after all. If you reduce magic to the point that nobody wants to use it, then you’ve failed to engage your players in a meaningful way and may want to reconsider your approach.

As for how you intend to limit the number of spellcasters, there are many different options available to you, each of which come with natural implications that you can use to form the plot of your story. If you make magic an innate gift, it can provide a natural support for themes of birthright and destiny. If you make magic a secret knowledge steeped in impenetrable tradition open only to a few of society’s elite, then you open up the possibility of engaging themes of social justice and disestablishmentarianism.

Rethink Magic Items

Let’s address the elephant in the room: the unfortunate tendency to distribute an abundance of magical items. It seems you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Dungeon Master who is tired of their players’ nonchalant attitude toward picking up just a +1 magic sword. In a way, the push for low magic is a natural punitive response, the equivalent of a Dungeon Master saying, “Spurn my generous rewards, will you? Well, how about I make a campaign where you have no magic items!”

Of course, when it comes down to it, DMs realize that they usually hand out magic items not just for their players’ sake, but for their own. Potions of healing help the party make it through the adventure you designed; a magic weapon bypasses damage resistance that would otherwise make a challenging fight deadly; a bag of holding allows the DM to stop hounding the players about how they’re carrying all their stuff; and so on.

So how can you continue to hand out enticing rewards that keep your players motivated without hitting a critical mass with magic items that causes them to lose their mystique? A solution we recommend is allowing them to improve enchantments over time through ongoing quests.

Picture a forgotten elven ruin, the sleek arches and columns cracked and overgrown with moss and ivy. This once-great city sits in a remote mountain valley close to what was once a very active transition to the Feywild, before the ceaseless movement of the planes gradually forced it close and prompted the elves to depart. Shrouded in mists, it has lain undisturbed for centuries.

The characters have arrived here because an old journal in a sage’s library led them along the dangerous road in search of something few have laid eyes on: an enchanting altar. Sure enough, the party finds what they seek in a half-ruined building, though hours and hours of experimentation fail to activate it. Not all is lost, however, for the party’s actions have not gone unnoticed. An old elven ghost, the echo of the last master of the laboratory, has deduced that they are worthy to benefit from his centuries of experience and manifests before them, offering his help.

His power has waned while the altar has sat unused, and so all he can manage for now are simple enchantments, but the more powerful the reagents and the better quality the materials the party brings here, the more impressive the feats he can accomplish and the stronger he becomes. Star metal from the Black Meteor of Andaris, for example, can be used to forge a new magical sword. From there, even more exotic substances can be used to enhance the enchantment to greater potency.

The actual process of creating or improving magic items in this fashion shouldn’t take all that long, as the effort and time has already been invested in obtaining and preparing the materials. Twice-cured leather from a manticore’s hide, phase spider silk spun with a silver spindle… you don’t go to all the trouble of getting this just so that you can wait 300 days for the enchantment to be completed. Get the materials, get it to the altar, and be ready to go within a day or two. This is magic, after all.

By changing wondrous items in this way, each item becomes a treasured possession of its wielder, shrouded in mystique, rather than another hunk of shiny metal in a pile of stuff to sell.

Hand Out Interesting Nonmagical Rewards

Not all items have to be magical to be of significance. Curtana, the coronation blade of British kings and queens, supposedly belonged to the mythical hero Tristan. It is attributed no special powers, but that doesn’t mean its appearance in a battle wouldn’t been inconsequential. Allies may be emboldened, foes disheartened, and more.

Given the nature of fantasy, this can be taken even further, as certain items could even gain mechanical benefits in spite of being nonmagical. You may decide that a mithral chain shirt can be created without magic, or that a silverite sword has, in the manner of fantasy metals, superior balance, strength, and sharpness, such that any roll of a 1 on a damage die for attacks made with that weapon counts as a 2.

Cut Down Significantly on Gold Rewards

In our article on handling gold rewards, we addressed the question of how to determine amounts of treasure to award your players. We identified a significant reason why the rules recommend handing out enough treasure to buy entire countries as being the assumption that players will use it to buy magic items.

If your campaign does not include the ability to ever purchase magic items, then handing out significant quantities of wealth is going to result in it being used to do things you couldn’t possibly prepare for, or—even worse—lead the players to devaluing the rewards they receive and becoming less easy to motivate.

Be Careful with Enemy Damage Resistance

The standard challenge rating calculation rubric (see chapter 9, “Dungeon Master’s Workshop” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide) assumes that resistance to nonmagical damage becomes meaningless after 5th level. If a dearth of magical damage would cause such creatures to continue benefiting from this at higher levels, then you may need to adjust your encounters.

Without belabouring an in-depth evaluation of each and every creature, a general guideline can be applied. Any creature with resistance to nonmagical damage should have their CR adjusted by +1. Creatures with immunity to nonmagical damage should lose their immunity and gain resistance to nonmagical damage and one additional legendary resistance (or gain one legendary resistance if they had none).

Rethink the Adventuring Day

While less commonly followed than some bad house rules, the adventuring day can be a useful guideline for Dungeon Masters to build a challenging adventure for their players. Simply ensure that the cumulative XP value of the challenges (creatures, traps, et cetera) in your adventure is around this threshold and you’ll most likely put a moderate challenge to your party.

Of course, the adventuring day is calculated assuming that the party has access to healing resources such as spells and potions. If they have neither, or fewer of each, then the Dungeon Master may have to make special accommodations, either allowing nonmagical healing options or reducing the cumulative XP parties will face to ensure they can meet the challenge without being overwhelmed—especially if the DM has also made resurrection magic more difficult (or even impossible) to access.

Consider Alternatives to Travelling Spells

Outside of certain city-based campaigns, most parties who advance sufficiently far in their careers generally find themselves travelling to distant locales—or even other planes. Limiting the availability of such magic can severely impact the party’s ability to engage with grander plots that threaten wider areas, as many dramatic villain plots are wont to do. It is therefore advisable to devise alternatives.

Like with how the Dungeon Master limits the number of spellcasters, the consequences of the alternatives may vary considerably. If an ancient civilization left behind a network of enormous stone gateways that can be activated to magically link two locations, control of such assets could be a point of contention between major powers. Likewise, forests with naturally occurring connections to the Feywild, circles of standing stones that bridge this world with one of the outer planes, and other such locales would be centres of entire cultures, inextricably tied to their heritage and social values.

Putting It All Together

Worldbuilding is an important aspect of building a campaign, and is absolutely essential to running a low-magic D&D campaign. Removing or reducing the prevalence of magic in the game would be a massive undertaking that would likely alienate many players, but it has been done successfully on a few occasions, including one of the most beloved campaign settings in D&D history. The lessons to be learned from successful low-magic campaigns are always based around allowing players to make exceptional characters who are able to engage with the way that reduced magic has made the campaign different from high-magic campaigns.

To put it another way, you can’t just make a low-magic campaign and expect it to interest your players. You have to provide ways for them to enjoy things they like in the game in a new way that is made possible by the nature of your low-magic world. It will be different, but that doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In fact, removing important elements of the D&D experience will not lead to a better D&D game, it will just make everyone wonder why they aren’t playing something else.

Let us know your thoughts on low-magic campaigns in the comments below. Have you played a low-magic campaign? What did you like about it? What did you hate? Do you think we missed anything in our list?

7 thoughts on “Dungeon Mastering 101: Running A Low-Magic D&D Campaign”

  1. I think 5e is easier to run low magic than 3.x or 4 because there’s no built-in expectations that PCs will have magic items. However, I think the best solution to running a low magic game is “don’t run D&D” – even without magic the power scaling doesn’t suit “low” fantasy for my tastes.

  2. You can very easily make the game low-magic by utilizing the optional injury rules and keeping track of the small details, like disease and sickness. Your Wizard might be able to create portals to other worlds and fly, but he can’t really cast many spells if he loses an arm. This will compel him to wear armor, which will cause him to suffer Arcane Spell Failure chance.

    Things like disease aren’t something player’s should know about instantly, so player’s shouldn’t be told about it immediately. Just keep track of them and see if they bathe or not, or have reasonable about of down time for grooming, and if not, perhaps they start smelling, then the Sorcerer starts having trouble focusing and needs to make concentration checks because it turns out he’s succumbed to the Flu.

    Speaking of concentration checks, that little skill doesn’t quite get a lot of use out of DM’s, who should be using it every time the sorcerer is casting a spell in rough weather, in the middle of a loud and heated battle, when there’s disgusting pungent odors oozing all around, or what have you. The concentration check was meant to keep caster’s in line when they were in even a remotely distracting environment. One thing you can easily do to make a low magic setting is to force Concentration checks when they’re even slightly disturbed, and increasing the difficulty of passing them as well. Perhaps instead of just trying to roll higher than a 10 in stormy weather, he has to roll a 15 or 16. Perhaps if he smells something making him gag, it requires a 14 or higher.

    On top of all that, you could ban the “eschew materials” feat, which will very quickly make it more difficulty for almost every single caster you have in your game.

    If all of this isn’t enough to get your low-magic setting off the ground, you shouldn’t be DM’ing in the first place since you’re very likely a very poor DM, since 3.5 confers itself nicely as a low-magic setting. People who think other-wise just never really put any thought into how they could make it low-magic, and they just use magic as a crutch for creating exciting or interesting games.

    1. Hi Jester,

      Some good points you make, though we actually focus on Fifth Edition D&D here, so a few things like arcane spell failure and eschew materials are not in play for most readers. Same thing with concentration checks to successfully cast spells in chaotic environments; Fifth Edition only has Constitution saving throws to maintain ongoing spells in such situations.

      – the Archmage

  3. “You wouldn’t have Lord of the Rings without Gandalf, after all. ”

    Except Gandalf was deliberately limited by Tolkien (in story, as part of Gandalf’s mission), to prevent him from Dominating every scenario.
    His purpose was to work through others, inspire them to do great works and to throw down Sauron.
    In the entirety of the LoTR books he probably use magic less than a dozen times and those effects while powerful are not quite the suite of “swiss army knife” solutions to every possible problem that exists in D&D.

    Most of what is accomplished in LoTR is accomplished through strength of arms. Warriors, swords, and battle. Magic is rare, and so are magic items.

  4. Anybody who’s actually read low-magic fiction like Conan should know that while magic is rare and hard to master, it is hardly ever “weak”.

    The problem is 5E’s cantrips. Powerful, scaling, at-will offensive spells. Firebolts and eldritch blasts and sacred flames out the whazoo.
    I don’t feel D&D needs to go back to “1 spell per day at 1st level and you’ll LIKE IT” but there’s got to be a better balancing point between that and firebolt-spams.

    It really ruins the immersion of low-magic worlds when every round of combat the spellcasters have easy go-to’s for offense, that in some cases outmatch the martials by not having to worry about nonmagical resistances or immunities.

  5. Well, in my opinion, D&D has grown old and fat. Do we really need 20 levels, even though most people will never reach more than 12th level? Is it a good idea to have PCs with 200 hitpoints? Do we need ever more spellcasting classes and lots of subclasses? Do we need spells that can kill half a city? My answer to all those questions is no. Limiting levels, hitpoints, damage, classes, races and many other things will result in a better game! Even the designers of 5th edition have recognized that prior editions have gone the wrong way by expanding in every direction possible. I have yet to meet someone who can explain me why gnomes, halflings or dragonborn, races which do not even have a homecountry or civilization, really improve the game. And please do not mention tieflings, the comic-book race.

    1. You can always and at any given time limit the system in any way you want. Want 12 levels instead of 20? Just do it. Want 200 Hit Point maximum? Just do it. Want to ban races other than elves, dwarves and humans? Just do it. There really is no one stopping you.

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