A few weeks ago I needed a break from DMing our regular 4E D&D campaign, so Ryk Perry started up a new campaign to run for a couple of sessions. We rolled up new 1st level characters, but used special rules. You had to spend character creation points to gain access to any spellcasting class, or to start your adventures with more than two copper pieces to rub together. I think Ryk is planning to write up his system at some point, so I won’t go into too much detail about it, but I can say it worked. The first adventure was great fun, forced the party to be creative and placed a greater emphasis on role-playing and problem-solving. I love that we had to steal horses.
Gritty comic books are an archetype that started in the 1980s with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen. That has since become a familiar and often overused trope of the genre. Gritty fantasy settings didn’t gather much interest until the late 90s, when George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series drew a cult following that has, over the years, snowballed into mainstream success. By now, it’s become a full-blown trend, with numerous current novels trimming away the dragons and necromancers and upping the sex and gore. This summer’s new D&D campaign setting, Dark Sun, is very much a gritty world (and I’m not just talking about the sand), which feeds into this trend as well.
[For the record, I know there are gritty, low-magic fantasy settings that predate Game of Thrones -- arguably Lord of the Rings, for one -- but in terms of the current trend, it's difficult to overstate how influential Martin's magnum opus has been and will continue to be.]
So what does playing a gritty campaign do for you?
- Reduces magic item fatigue. As campaigns go on, they tend to shift toward monty haul treasure hoards. Even if you go strictly by the recommended treasure amounts for various editions of D&D, there comes a point where the magic items become a pain in the ass rather than a reward. You can’t be bothered to identify them all, or keep track of their effects or which items slots you might be able to use them in, and the party basically just wants to trade them in for their GP value at the nearest major city. If there are only a dozen magic items in the entire campaign world, the players are going to pay attention when they find one.
- Forces you to think more realistically. When the DM doesn’t have a host of inherently evil supernatural creatures at his disposal, he has to think of better reasons for the bad guys to be the bad guys. This naturally leads to more interesting and involved plots. The players start to think this way too. If my paladin doesn’t regularly see the direct divine effects of his god’s presence, that character is dealing with faith in a much more realistic way, for example.
- Makes it easier to identify with the characters. Our PCs always involve some form of wish fulfillment. We all want to imagine ourselves as uber-capable bad-asses. But can you really get into your character’s head when she flies into battle on the back of a celestial pegasus lopping the heads off of trolls with her Flaming Sword of Holy Vengeance +6? What if instead she’s walking through a wolf-infested forest with nothing but her father’s worn hide armor and a decent sword she stole from a dead bandit? It’s still not something most of us have experience directly, but it’s a hell of a lot closer.
- Reveals the horrors of war. RPG combat can be very abstract, and even the most descriptive combats can be more cartoonish than realistic. What does radiant damage actually do to a human, anyway? When you’re hitting with blades and arrows only, suddenly things seem quite a bit more immediate. That guard you just impaled was just a guy trying to make a buck, like you. And that crossbow bolt to your thigh? That’s a much bigger deal when you can’t chug a potion or beg for a Cure Light Wounds spell to have it instantly fixed.
- Makes supernatural things seem truly astounding. Song of Fire and Ice has supernatural elements, but they’re incredibly rare. When they do show up, they have a vivid impact on the reader. In your typical D&D campaign, zombies aren’t really scary, they’re just another monster. If your characters live in a world where dead people never get up and shamble around malevolently, then everyone’s going to start freaking out when they do. If you’ve only ever fought brigands and mercenaries, that day you turn a corner and find a dragon waiting will forever be etched on your mind.
The biggest problem with a low-magic campaign is that most fantasy RPGs depend on magic item power boosts to keep the balance between monster abilities and player power. This is just a mechanical problem than can be solved any number of ways — in our case, Ryk developed weapons and armor that have increased bonuses based on material quality and manufacturing. You could also just boost inherent character bonuses as they level up, or reduce monster defenses.
If you’ve been feeling a little burned out on your current campaign, I suggest giving a gritty campaign a try. Spending a few weeks going on quests like, “Find somewhere safe to sleep,” or, “Figure out how to get enough money for food so we don’t starve to death” will give you a whole new outlook on your typical fantasy RPG.