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.
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?