Low Fantasy RPGs – Part Two

In the last post, we looked at some of the options for Low Fantasy gaming – here are three more if you want some one-shots where magic is awful and terrifying, and the players are rooted in mud.

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Wolves of God

Cleanse yourself of any lingering anti-Saxon sentiment from Pendragon with this Sine Nomine game from Kevin Crawford where you play brave Saxons exploring Roman ruins and skirmishing with the Welsh in England. With a system that’s sort of OSR-based, with some heavy shifting, it’s well grounded in the setting and you can feel the mud seep off it.

Pros: It’s a straightforward system, and the game comes with loads of tables and guidance for populating a low fantasy sandbox – applicable to any of the games we’ve talked about.

Cons: For the one-shot, Sandboxing is tricky – you want to add some structure and plan to the exploration to prevent any turtling or getting stuck in a rut. Get them rescue a lost herdsman from the Roman ruins, or parlay with the Wealh to defend your common lands from the undead. Kevin Crawford’s stuff deserves a future post about this, after I’ve run some one-shots with his system.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

This is one of the originals, and a heavy touchstone for TTRPG gaming for any (especially British) gamers of a certain generation. With 4th ed, there’s a system that works well for one-shot play, and it’s a brilliantly realised world that manages to be quasi-European without being awful. There’s even a review of 4th edition on this very blog.

Pros: There’s loads for this – including loads of one-shots already done, some of which are awesome. Night of Blood is great, there’s a .pdf of One-Shots (soon to be reviewed here), and lots of resources even for previous editions that are easily adapted. Tons of art, rich lore and a rich history are all there to help you.

Cons: It’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness – it can be difficult to make a WFRP game feel new, when there are so many already out there. It can get a bit Monty Python, as well – such a commonly referenced touchstone can be hard to make serious. Personally, I’m not a fan of comedy *orcs or chaos cultist conspiracies, either (largely due to them being overdone in WFRP) – there’s plenty more to use here, so look a bit further away from the “classic” antagonists.

Wolf’s Head

This is a FATE World, set in feudal Britain with no magic in it as written – but it’s super easy (it’s FATE, after all) to add evil sorcerers and savage beasts roaming through Norman England alongside the oppressive authority the game is based around. Lean into this by making the Baron have all the cards where magic and weirdness is concerned, thus keeping to the theme of it being a terrifying and inaccessible practice.

Pros: It’s heroic and easily modded. I see this as a basis for a wide range of semi-Historical low fantasy games, and FATE is a great ruleset for mixing it up (see advice for running it as a one-shot here).

Cons: Alone, there’s not as much fluff as you might want – you’ll have to use other sources (or other games on this list) as sources if you run out of inspiration.

So, a selection of six RPGs you can use to bring the mud and guts into your games. Next week, we’ll look at low fantasy-ing a more traditional fantasy RPG, to bring some of the feel for this into a more high fantasy game, and the advantages that gives a one-shot. What have I missed off? Message me on Patreon, or on twitter @milnermaths, to make your suggestions!

Low Fantasy RPGs – Part One

In this previous post, I gave some general tips for making low-fantasy one-shots memorable and exciting. I’m going to begin some reviewing of the systems you can use for this sort of play now, beginning with a mixture of big hitters and lesser-known systems.

I’m sure that some of the ideas here will provoke cries of “that’s not low fantasy!” from commentators – I’m using a broad definition that basically just limits the PC access to fireball spells. For each game I’ve given a brief overview of how I think it’ll work for a one-shot, long with some pros and cons.


See my post on historical gaming here – in Pendragon, a game from the days of the grognards that has aged amazingly well, you’re Cymric knights gallivanting around England solving problems.

Pros – it’s a big touchstone, not just as a genre but as a game, and there are easy hooks to get the players involved (e.g. your Lord tells you to do it). Everyone playing knights is less of a problem than you might think, and there’s a funky Passions system that lets you do emotive stuff as well

Cons – a lot of the depth of Pendragon is in ongoing play, watching your Passions etc go up and down. While there’s a huge library of published material for it, most will take some solid adapting to make them really sing as a one-shot.

Romance of the Perilous Lands

A Black Hack-inspired romantic fantasy game, while there are playable wizards they’re much more embedded in the setting than in traditional D&D, and the quasi-historical setting means you’ll be getting muddier than you might expect.

Pros – simple, quick system that gives players plenty of options while remaining easy to grasp in a one-shot. Nice range of character options give some niche protection.

Cons – it might end up being a bit too heroic if you’re heart is set on full-on low fantasy.

Cthulhu: Dark Ages

A supplement for the classic horror game that takes you into the 12th Century, with all kinds of scary cultists, goat-headed hermits and stuff

Pros – a really straightforward system that still gives enough depth in resolution – the book also comes with great setting material and sample adventures that would be brilliant one-shots right out of the box.

Cons – I mean, really, it’s a horror game. Pick the right archetypes and I think you’ll have a lot of fun with this though, and there’s only a tentacle-width between grim fantasy and apocalyptic horror after all.

Next time, another 3 systems for low fantasy gaming – and after that, guidance on hacking D&D5e to make it a grim and gritty low fantasy system. Easier than you might think, I’d imagine.

What are your go-to systems for low fantasy gaming? Any you’d like to see my thoughts on? Let me know in comments.

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Burn After Running has a Patreon

Just a short blog post today to let you know –

I’ve got a Patreon. There’s currently one level of funding, £2 a month, and for that you get

  • Early access to all Burn After Running posts (you’ll get them a week prior to them landing on the actual blog)
  • The option to request articles (I’ve got a pile of topics to cover still, but nothing will go unconsidered)
  • The warm sense of accomplishment from supporting something you find interesting or useful

Why am I doing this? Well, at the moment BAR is entirely self-funded; I’d like to be able to recoup hosting costs, and get some logos and art to make it look a bit nicer – I sometimes feel like the content is let down by the presentation. At the moment, any playable materials are just thrown into the blog, with a .pdf made on word and whatever art I can scrounge up – this will give me some options to produce slightly more professional output.

In the future, I’d like to offer some online one-shots to Patreons as well – but that will depend on interest and online requests. There will be the occasional Patreon exclusive, but it’s not my intention to make anything too exclusive – the vast majority of posts will appear here as well as the Patreon.

So, if you like what I’m doing, would like to see it continue, and have a few spare copper pieces after your last expedition, please consider joining the horde of Patreon supporters here. The first post is already up – continuing the Low Fantasy One-Shots series – a week before it’ll hit this blog. As always, any feedback is welcome – are there any other special Patreon rewards you’d like to see offered? Let me know here or at @milnermaths – or, of course, on Patreon.

Mud, Blood, and Saxons – Low Fantasy One-Shots

If, like me, you’re an Assassin’s Creed fan, it’s likely you’ve been spending at least some time interfering in Mercia’s fortunes in AC: Valhalla over the past few months. With this in mind, and playing in a Pendragon campaign run by @the_smart_party, I’ve been hankering for some down-and-dirty low fantasy, with rare, dangerous magic that’s a long way away from the PC’s understanding.

There are lots of systems that support this – and soon, I’ll give you a run down of some of them – but there are some principles which I think are useful when running low fantasy games, no matter what rules you have. Without the constant threat of magic and monsters, and the comforting embrace of the D&D-style dungeon, you need a few different approaches to get the genre right…

Make Humanity Distinct

In D&D, you can get away with “the generic bandit” – there are orcs, goblins, and other beasts to be distinct enemies for you. In a low fantasy setting, you will end up with an awful lot of bandits, corrupt noblemen, aggressive Norsemen, and renegade constables. Make them distinct and interesting, so they can be recognised and different – maybe the Misty Woods Bandits have white runes painted on their faces, or the corrupt Lord’s marshalls all wear brilliant blue tunics, perfectly laundered. Brand your NPC groups, so they are distinct and interesting.

Make Humanity Horrible

“Start with the baddie” is good advice in any one-shot prep, but no more so than in low fantasy where the antagonist is likely to be another human just like the PCs. The seven deadly sins are a good starting point – maybe the Lord is determined to crush the peasants because of pure greed, or maybe it’s vengeance for when that farm boy disrespected him as a child. Make their motivations understandable (and, as always, prep them so the PCs can find out about them) and then make them prepared to do anything for it. Give your NPCs history, too – every village should have a dark secret, with consequences that come out in play, and difficult decisions to make.

Present Normality

In low fantasy games, life is often cheap, and so to make it meaningful, make sure that the general NPC populace have distinct personalities. When the Lord kills generic peasant #1 it doesn’t mean much, but if it’s Old Eckhert who gave you that healing potion the one time, it hits different. There’s a lot of day-to-day toil and strife in a low fantasy life, and so giving the common people some hobbies, interests, and quirks makes them feel a lot more real. The honest working man, oppressed by the corrupt noble class, is a good trope because it reflects life well, so use it.

Make Monsters Unknowable – and Possibly Unkillable

If you are going to have monsters, and you should, they need to be very much not human. There’s a few different ways to do this – have contradictory rumours about them show up, have their habits seem terrifying, and show the genuine terror they cause. One approach may be to simply make them unkillable unless certain conditions are met – the PCs must find these conditions, and achieve them, in order to defeat them.

The wyvern that’s stealing cattle cannot be harmed by mortal blades – so they need to find out from the wise woman how to craft a blade that can pierce its hide, and then trick it into emerging from its lair to be defeated. In general, “pacing” encounters along the way should be human – monsters should only be the boss fight of a one-shot, and indeed might be the focus of the entire one-shot.

Use Wilderness as an Enemy

The other unknowable about low fantasy that I like to use is the actual wilderness as an enemy. Long journeys may be challenges in themselves, and a storm or heavy snow can be in itself an enemy. You can use a skill challenge for these, or another subsystem your game has. Also, don’t neglect animals and beasts as challenges. An angry bear, hungry due to the wyvern taking its territory, can be a great challenge for the party.

So, five ways to look at low fantasy games, and keep them grim, bloody, but still heroic. I’ll review a few of these games next week, but in the meantime – what have you found to work well in low fantast settings?