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.

If you like this post, you could have read it a week earlier by supporting my Patreon – you’ll help to pay for hosting costs, as well as making BAR get even more awesome. Follow the link for early access and the chance to request articles.

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?