Non-Magical Adventuring Parties: Why & How to Run One
Magic is good. Magic is great. In Dungeons & Dragons, just about everybody’s got it.
Seriously. Of the twelve classes in the Player’s Handbook, six of them are dedicated spell-casters, two more have built-in spell progression, and three others can select an archetype that allows them to unlock some form of spell-casting. Only the barbarian class offers no spell-casting whatsoever—and that’s only if the character doesn’t multiclass!
Magic is everywhere in Dungeons & Dragons and (let’s face it) fantasy role-playing because it’s simply part of what we consider fantastical. It’s how we imagine the worlds we fill with vampires and dragons, beholders and demonic princes.
But what if it wasn’t?
As much as the use of magic can spur our imaginations and thrill us with heroic possibilities, it also detracts from the successful telling of certain kinds of stories—namely any story in which the characters should feel vulnerable, even afraid.
Fear Is Good
Role-playing—even fantasy role-playing—allows us to imagine all manner of stories, including horror stories, stories that get us to consider our mortality, and stories that encourage us to look for wonder within the everyday world.
But these types of stories are more difficult to role-play successfully when the characters are superheroes with the ability to Fly, Disintegrate their opponents with a word, and Raise Dead. When these abilities are on the table, it’s harder to think subtly, to appreciate certain nuances, or even to just be afraid of anything.
Take away the magic, though, and the characters suddenly become a lot more like their players—even if they’re still supremely talented rogues, fighters, spies, archers, or whatever.
Without magic (or even without the standard degree of magic), players have more incentive to consider the risks involved with any course of action. And they have more incentive to think about the different ways they might approach their problems. No longer can the wizard simply say, “I have a spell for that.”
Without magic, the whole tenor of an adventure or campaign changes. It’s no longer your standard Dungeons & Dragons superhero fare. It’s more like Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Or as another analogy, you can consider standard Dungeons & Dragons to be like those parts of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf was with the party, and an adventure without magic is like those parts of the same stories when Gandalf was absent.
Strange things can still happen, but the characters feel bewildered by them and exposed. They have to scramble to come up with a plan, rather than simply turning to the wizard for guidance.
Options for Your No-Magic Campaign
Just because you’re taking away your heroes big, flashy spells doesn’t mean you have to strip your campaign of all magical or supernatural elements. In fact, some supernatural elements (read: vampires, ghosts, and spooky undead) work best when the heroes don’t have magic.
Here, then, are three no-magic campaigns you can try with your play group:
1. The Secret Society
In a world much like our pre-industrial Earth, the heroes are all humans of exceptional talents and members of a secret society dedicated to the recovery and preservation of powerful relics and forbidden knowledge. Some of these things may actually introduce limited measures of magic into your adventures, but in only in such quantities that they feel truly exceptional and extremely important.
Meanwhile, the heroes’ efforts frequently lead them into dangers completely unknown to other mortals, and you can introduce these characters to vampires, ghosts, lost cities filled with giants, otherworldly oozes, dinosaurs mistakenly thought extinct, and aquatic monstrosities that simply never revealed themselves to the world’s surface dwellers.
2. The Horror Story
You can set this next campaign anywhere, even within your standard Dungeons & Dragons setting.
Something terrible has happened. There’s been a gruesome series of murders, and the heroes are called to help. Or they simply wander into the middle of things. Either way, they find themselves confronted by powers seemingly beyond mortal reckoning… and, this time, they can’t rely on Invisibility and Fireballs.
When your standard spell-caster is effectively a flamethrower, machine gun, and impromptu bunker all rolled into one single humanoid figure, it’s hard to give too much attention to the unusual nature of a crime. After all, strange scorch marks and shriveled bodies aren’t terribly unusual when you have spell-casters fighting.
But remove that sense of “been there, done that,” and you have a new appreciation for the details of the mystery, a new sense of vulnerability, and a new sense of dread as you head into the spooky castle to confront someone rumored to be several hundred years old…
3. The Junior AdventurersThere’s a great series of Star Wars spoof comic books that features the characters Tag and Bink, a pair of relatively normal people who find themselves caught up in the galaxy’s most pivotal events. Much of the humor revolves around the idea that this relatively unassuming and non-heroic duo could be inadvertently altering the course of history, even while acting in the shadows of such powerful and imposing figures as Boba Fett, Darth Vader, and Emperor Palpatine.
When you remove the magic from your Dungeons & Dragons campaign, you can lead your players into adventures with the same tone as the Tag and Bink spoofs. Here, the “heroes” are some ambitious farmhands, scoundrels, and forest dwellers who are just completely out of their depth when they encounter ogres, trolls, and magical traps.
Still, their talents may just barely get them through their adventures alive, and you could have fun with the campaign by introducing a party of NPC adventurers that better match expectations.
These parties could meet at times, with the player characters inadvertently getting the better of the NPC heroes time and again. Or they could simply do all the grunt work, figuring out which evil villain is behind the week’s dastardly plot, and then reporting back to the NPCs who may have established themselves as high-priced mercenaries with all the power they need to stop evil, but none of the patience needed to root it out.
Not Convinced? Try It!
The next time you’re looking to shake things up or challenge your players, consider removing—or severely limiting—the players’ access to magic.
Try a short campaign with no spell-casting, or even just a single adventure. You’ll find that it truly does change the tenor of your game, and once you get a hands-on appreciation for how Dungeons & Dragons can function without magic, you’ll probably come up with a bunch of different ideas that you can add to the ones we presented.
And when you do? Tell us! We want to hear all about them!