D&D Without Magic

Maybe you’ve heard of an old RPG from the late 70’s called Heroes.  It’s set in a fictional Dark Ages setting, but is otherwise historically accurate, or at least more so than your typical fantasy RPG setting.  I first heard about it a few months ago and have been quite curious, though old copies of the game are very expensive (thankfully they’re working on a new edition, here, coming out this October).

It did, however, get me thinking about a grittier, fantasy-lite version of D&D (or, more likely, one of the clones such as Swords & Wizardry).  A game that keeps many of D&D’s tropes, but removes all the magic items and spells.  Some of the fantasy elements might be retained, such as fantasical races and monsters, though they’d have to be rare and live in isolated or well hidden areas…you couldn’t have an orc jumping out from behind every tree and rock.

The PCs would be fighters, rangers, thieves, barbarians and such.  There’d be warrior priests/clerics as well, though they wouldn’t perform divine miracles.  At best, they might give ‘believers’ a psychological morale bonus.  Scholars would replace wizards, using their extensive education and honed intellect to help the party.  Perhaps some kind of ‘magician’ class that used parlor tricks to frighten superstious peasants, or swindle the gullible.  And bards, though again no spells or ‘magic music.’

In most D&D campaigns I’ve played in, literacy was pretty much assumed for all PCs, even barbarians and ranger-types.  No so in this game.  Scholars would be literate, and know advanced mathematics; priests/clerics have a higher chance of literacy, but most characters would not be able to read or write and would probably only know simple math.  There’d be a lot of ignorance and superstition…and discrimination, too.

This would be a much dirtier world, with greater instances of disease and famine.  Infection would be a very real risk.  And it would be a far more oppressed and corrupt world than your typical fantasy campaign, with lots of douche bag nobles running around being dicks to everyone (think Game of Thrones).  And lots of taxes, something rarely dealt with in D&D:  road taxes, bridge taxes, gate taxes, treasure taxes, you’re-walking-on-my-land taxes.

Living in the modern world, we’re used to having lots of stuff.  This, however, would be a materially poorer world, for not only does it not benefit from industrialization, it doesn’t even enjoy the benefits of magic (not to mention the depressing effects of greater taxes, oppression and corruption).  You wouldn’t be able to walk into just any village and buy some rope and a horse (possibly their only horse)…though maybe someone could make some rope for you, in a few days.  If you needed a lot of gear you’d probably have to go to a city, or at least a large town on a major trade route.

Most of the PCs probably wouldn’t be able to get plate mail and swords, these being way too expensive and probably legally restricted to the nobility.  Most PCs might have to make do with leather armor and simple peasant weapons, like spears, axes, clubs, flails, hammers, slings and the like, though a lot would depend on the setting.

So, I’m just tossing ideas around here.  I’m not trying to create a historically accurate RPG.  Just a game that uses many of the generic convetions of D&D, covering ground that’s usually ignored or glossed over in D&D, where you can’t rely on magic to save your ass when you’re in a tight spot.


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7 Responses to “D&D Without Magic”

  1. E. Wilson Says:

    I started gaming with the original Chivalry & Sorcery. The game was based on historical ideas, so clerics had far fewer spells (called miracles) and few for attack. Wizards took a long time to learn spells and making magic items had a very detailed process which required a lot of work gathering and enchanting materials. The game didn’t come with a bunch of magic items premade and there were no “treasure tables”. The prices for gear were historically realistic, so plate armor cost a fortune. It ended up being pretty low magic, with a realistic/historical feel.

  2. edowar Says:

    I’ve heard of Chivalry & Sorcery, but never played it nor had the chance to read the rules. Were the social aspects of the game more historical/realistic as well? That’s something that is glossed over in most D&D campaigns I’ve played, though it’s certainly a byproduct of being raised in a modern society.

    I know players probably wouldn’t like being smacked around by nobles all the time, or dying from dysentary or the plague, but the grittier aspects of medieval/dark age life could be fun to play out once in a while.

  3. E. Wilson Says:

    For Chivalry & Sorcery characters you’d roll on a social class table to see what your family background was (anything from a beggar to the king/queen). You’d also roll your birth rank in the family, and your family’s opinion of you (black sheep!). Dwarves and elves had versions of the human tables. Later they came out with expansions for the mongols and vikings with suitable social class tables and cultural background explanations. FGU also came out with a cool dinosaurs and saurians book with a really cool saurian culture which was quite unique. The rules themselves were pretty clunky, actually, but I still use the books as campaign resources.

  4. Tiorn Says:

    This made me think of something… having players make daily constitution checks to see if they contracted a disease. Diseases could be randomly determined from a set list, with some regional variety thrown in. Just drinking the water could be a problem. Making it a daily risk would really make a game gritty.

    • edowar Says:

      It would make the game a lot more gritty, but I think the players would rebel at some point having to make a daily save. We can assume some degree of tolerance or resistance to disease. But certainly a save against disease would be warranted under specific circumstances, such as prolonged stayovers in large cities, drinking polluted water, ‘carousing’ with prostitutes, handling dead bodies, gutting monsters looking for swallowed treasure, and so on.

      • Tiorn Says:

        Maybe a once a in-game week check would be easier to swallow… with appropriate modifiers for the circumstances you mentioned (as well as others, not to be exclusive).

      • edowar Says:

        Once a week, or maybe every two weeks, would definitely be more palatable to the players, I think. Assuming, that is, that they were all on board for a gritty game like that, of course.

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