Why No Magic? Making a No-Magic Setting

Loren SmallDeep Dive, Game Dev, Game DevelopmentLeave a Comment

Moving on from Magic

Magic is a cornerstone of most fantasy tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs), especially Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). The allure of casting fireballs, healing wounds, and transforming into fantastical creatures is an integral part of the D&D experience. So, why would anyone want to remove such a compelling component from the game? That’s the question I grappled with when designing Born from Ice, a D&D 5e-compatible setting with a unique twist: it lacks magic.

A World Rooted in Reality

First things first, Born from Ice is set in a prehistoric Stone Age world. This setting is not one of high fantasy; it is rooted in the real world, during the end of the ice age. The aim is to provide an immersive experience that takes players back to a time when homo sapiens were not the dominant species, and every day was a struggle for survival. Since this is a real-world setting, the absence of magic is a given. There are no magic missiles, no healing spells, and no portals to other dimensions.

The Belief in Magic

Interestingly, while there may not be any “real” magic in the game, the characters and societies within Born from Ice hold deep-seated beliefs in magic, spirits, and the supernatural. This is consistent with what anthropologists understand about early human societies; our ancestors lived in a world filled with mystery and unexplainable phenomena. To them, the wind, fire, and even the animals had spirits. They believed in the magic of the world around them, even if they couldn’t tap into it as the wizards and sorcerers do in traditional D&D.

These beliefs in magic and spirits are not merely flavor text; they inform the in-game culture, folklore, and rituals. They can influence how characters interact with their environment and with each other. While you can’t cast a spell to heal your wounded comrade, perhaps a shamanistic ritual might provide a psychological boost. The belief in the supernatural impacts the game world, even if it doesn’t manifest as quantifiable magical effects.

Magic in D&D: More Than Just Spells

Magic in D&D is not just a list of spells in a rulebook; it’s woven into the fabric of the game’s world and mechanics. Whether it’s the utility of a simple light spell in a dark cave, the life-saving power of a healing potion, or the earth-shattering impact of a well-placed fireball, magic is a multi-faceted tool in D&D.

Philosophical Implications

Magic in D&D often comes with its own philosophy and cosmology. Different settings within the D&D multiverse approach magic in various ways, from the Weave in the Forgotten Realms to the more scientific approach in Eberron. Magic isn’t just a mechanic; it’s an integral part of the world-building.

Game Balance

The game itself is balanced with magic in mind. Characters are expected to have access to magical healing, either from a party member or through magical items. Many of the threats that characters face are balanced around the assumption that they will have magical assistance. Remove magic, and the game balance shifts dramatically.

The Challenges of Removing Magic

Taking magic out of the equation isn’t as simple as just deleting the ‘Magic’ section from the rulebook. It has wide-reaching implications on gameplay, balance, and even the types of stories that can be told.

Healing and Damage

In standard D&D, healing is almost exclusively a magical affair. Potions, spells, and magical items are the primary means of recovering hit points. In Born from Ice, this had to be rethought entirely. The introduction of herbalism and other non-magical means of healing was a way to balance this out.

Classes and Subclasses

Think about how many D&D classes are built around magic. Wizards, Sorcerers, Clerics, and even subclasses of primarily martial classes like Eldritch Knights or Arcane Tricksters. In Born from Ice, classes had to be reimagined to fit a non-magical world. This led to the creation of six new classes like the Mighty Champion and the Intuitive Sage, which offer a different but equally compelling set of abilities and skills.

Adventure Types and Plot Lines

A typical D&D campaign might involve thwarting a dark wizard’s plot or stopping a ritual to summon an ancient evil. These storylines often hinge on the use of magic. In a no-magic setting, the types of adventures and conflicts change. The focus shifts to more grounded, human issues like survival, tribal dynamics, and the struggles against the harsh environment and wildlife.

World Interactions

Without magic, interactions with the world also change. There’s no teleportation circle to quickly travel across the world, and you can’t use detect magic to find hidden artifacts. The lack of magical shortcuts makes the world feel bigger, more dangerous, and more mysterious.

No Magic? No Problem.

Removing magic from a D&D setting is no small feat. It requires rethinking fundamental aspects of the game, from class abilities to healing mechanics to the types of stories that can be told. However, this also opens up new avenues for storytelling and gameplay. In Born from Ice, the lack of magic serves to ground the game in its prehistoric setting, offering a unique, gritty, and realistic experience that stands apart from traditional high-fantasy adventures. It’s a glimpse into a world that once was, shaped by the beliefs, cultures, and harsh realities of life during the dawn of humanity. So, while you may not find wizards and sorcerers in this setting, you’ll find a different kind of magic: the magic of human ingenuity, resilience, and the indomitable will to survive.