What Do You Prefer? High or Low?

Magic CloakMagic. That all encompassing power that pervades the fantasy worlds we all love and play in. Pathfinder’s Golarion world cover the gamut of high and no magic. Most campaign worlds tend to stick to one or the other though. Forgotten Realms is definitely a land full of magic while Greyhawk is a lot more middle of the road and Conan’s world is definitely low magic punctuated by individuals of great power.

I am keen to try different things with magic. I liked the idea presented in Pathfinder’s Ultimate Magic of Words of Power being an archaic but still functional form of magic but it is a little hard to get my head around how a secondary magic system works in the system. This desire to find something that works well is also why I recently supported the Spheres of Magic Kickstarter hoping that they will come up with a good alternative to the specific spell systems used in Pathfinder. There are just so many spells in Pathfinder and in my experience a player will read the title and expect the GM to know the rest. Well with that many spells available we don’t know them by heart, so learn your spells.

Right, rant over. So why is there such a variety of different magical settings? Magic is magical isn’t it? Everyone should love a high magic setting and a lot of people do. High magic settings always seem to fall into settings of high civilization and neat approachable fantasy lines. There are some that fall in love with the low magic settings run to a gritty realistic experience in game. Every game is a struggle and finding a magical item is like the culmination of several sessions of story arc. That +1 dagger forged from cold iron is exactly what we need to take down the demonic army feel! In a lot of games the magic system is the core that a lot of the rest of the material is born off of.

Consider Conan for a moment. And I mean Howard’s Conan, not the silver screen incarnations. He is a barbarian that wields his blade with utter faith that each strike will fall true and he is capable of dealing with any situation. Imagine if a sword that guided his hand and burst into flames at times was found by him. He would throw it away scared of the magic and the demons that may possess him. But in most standard fantasy systems that are well known you cannot play the magic fearing barbarian as the systems are actually balanced on magic use. Conan would not be able to take on the demons with the sword he carries as it would be completely ineffectual based on this balance.

Magic RingMy point with the Conan decision is to play a fantasy game in a certain way you may actually need to make hard decisions about the system that you are going to use. There are some expectations that I have shown above as to what type of system you are likely to get with a basic presumption of high or low magic. There are some that break the mould (Earthdawn is high magic but gritty realistic feel) but in general they will be high magic, highly civilized; middle magic, standard adventuring fare; and low magic, gritty struggle for life most days!

Of course, all of the above is just conjecture and opinion based on my experiences. I have found out that there are a lot more game styles out there that I could ever imagine and I learn a lot from reading all of your comments. Tell me I am wrong, but also tell me why. Show me the proof of these things. Tell me why I am so old school because of my examples, but most of all tell me about your experiences! Tell me if it is high, low or middle magic that you prefer and why it is so. Do you see yourself in the Lord of the Rings where magical items beyond weapons were but myths that only the high wizards and elven rulers used or are you akin to Elminster of the Forgotten Realms with rooms full of magical trinkets because they are so pervasive in the world. Or are you Conan, wandering the wilds destroying the sorcerers and their items one individual at a time. Tell me in the comments which it is that you prefer and why! Keep rolling.

Mark Knights is  39 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia.  I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games.  I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM.  When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules.  I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner.  When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be.  On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.

6 thoughts on “What Do You Prefer? High or Low?

  1. The World of Greyhawk is my preferred gaming world, but I wouldn’t mind it being a little lower in magic, but not as low as Conan – and I love Conan – or the Lord of the Rings.

    In truth, those two worlds are almost no magic. For all the talk, Gandalf did next to nothing and Saruman’s “claim to fame” was sending Orcs against the walls of Helm’s Deep with his newest “magic,” gunpowder. Personally, I hate mixing science with magic. And no, for me, perceptions don’t count. Airplanes are not “magic,” they’re science.

    The same can be said of Thulsa Doom and Thoth Amon; they did very little magic for all their boast of “power.” In Howard’s Conan, Thoth Amon’s power came from a magical ring and its ability to summon demons from the Outer Worlds. Nope, no Fireballs for these guys either.

    And I understand what you’re saying about Players and their spells. Recently, one of my Players asked if he could run a Duskblade. I knew nothing of the Class and took a quick look: Fighter/Magic User without the need for a Dual/Multi-Class character. Well of course it was “invented” by the Elves. (I hate that too)

    I said, “Sure, why not.” Next thing I know, the Player’s asking me what his character can and cannot do! “How the hell should I know? I never even heard of the class until you mentioned it!”

    I’ve only just begun gaming with 3.5; I’m a 2nd Edition guy. First off, 3.5 has way too many books for me to “learn,” so I don’t bother. I limit what books can be used in my game. Simple. Second, I don’t allow all of the Character Classes, too many of them and many I don’t like.

    But, as you say, too many Players want to play characters and cast spells that they nothing about, expecting you, the DM, to know it all – by heart!

    Though Wizard is my favorite class to play, I don’t care for many of the Prestige Classes that have been introduced. It’s too much. Too much power – don’t get me started on the Gestalt class – and too much weirdness. Player’s don’t want to learn it all, though they are eager to play it. I’m not going to do their work for them. Hell, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to write an appropriate back-story!

    Your average, everyday “Wizard” is quite powerful enough once he gets up in levels. It is the group’s responsibility to insure that he/she makes it there. All the various Prestige Classes are designed for a one Player game; a Wizard. It’s just not needed.

    I know that there are many who will disagree with me, but I don’t care. Opinions are like a certain orifice – everybody has one and I’m entitled to mine.

    Anyway, something between Conan and canon Greyhawk is what I strive for when it comes to magic.

    • Heh! A lot of your frustrations are what have led me back to Swords & Wizardry or DCC RPG for my day-to-day gaming! I still am a Pathfinder fan and keep current, but some of the older systems are pretty liberating!

  2. Conan actually had a lot of help from magicians. For instance, in Phoenix on the Sword, he had to use an enchanted sword to kill a demon, given to him by a long dead priest of Mitra (a Lich?).

    He didn’t like them, but he recognized their value.

    • He did, actually, and more than once. Tower of the Elephant, The Hour of the Dragon, The People of the Black Circle and others come to mind.

      But none of those Wizards tossed Fireballs and Lightning Bolts around. Pretty “low level” magic, or “little evidenced” you might say.

  3. One of the things that bugs me about Earthdawn is that by the story, it feels like it should be high magic. After all, magic was the cause of a worldwide, 4 century long disaster. But on the other hand, even the most Monty Haul-ish character would have a hard time fighting a great dragon or some of the Named Horrors, spells seem weak [a spell is much more likely to give a plus to a skill, than to bypass it, as in D&D], and if you’ve got more than 1-2 magic items, most of your time could be spent wandering around, finding Names of beings associated with it’s history.

    Compare that to Exalted, where you won’t have storehouses full of magic items [but a nation probably does], but you’ll likely have an enormous amount of personal power. Or Ars Magica, where casting a spell that lasts for months is fairly routine, and a spell that destroys a city is quite possible.

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