Mages in a Low-Magic World

Unlike many fantasy worlds, Uteria is not brimming with magic, and for those with the gift of magic, magic can be a curse, for its use can lead to dire consequences. In this conversation, Michael and Dane explore how a mage could make their way or even thrive in a low magic world like Uteria.


SagaBorn RPG system
SagaBorn RPG: A simple d20 system that builds your character’s saga.

In creating what is, by today’s standards, a “low magic” fantasy world, I have often been asked why anyone would want to play a magic user in this world.

As I am sure it is clear to anyone who knows me, I love a strong story, and placing a limitation on power is how I feel the best stories come about. I have never been attracted to power-gaming types of characters or adventures. For me, the most exciting part of roleplaying is when the players don’t know if they will live. I played Skyrim for a bit, and as soon as the dragons became more of a nuisance than a threat, I quit.

One of my favorite mages in D&D fiction was Raistlin. Krynn, the world of Dragonlance, is not a low magic world, but it is lower magic than we are used to in RPGs these days. In fact, Raistlin’s beginning stats were pretty tame, his highest being intelligence at a 17. So why do people remember Raistlin? Is it because he almost became a god? Was it because he traveled through time and annihilated his long time torturer Fistandantilus? Or was it because he had flaws? In fact, his character consisted of more flaws than heroism. He was hard to be around; he was frail; he needed his brothers help; and without the deal with Fistandantilus, he wasn’t even a strong mage. But man, did he make an entrance and capture our imaginations.

So I feel if you approach playing a magic user in Uteria in this way, being a mage is a boon, not a drawback.


Exactly. Fantasy RPGs are driven, in large part, by wish fulfillment. This is why so many games allow you to have god-like powers of various sorts. I’ve indulged in this myself, in the past, by playing characters of immense strength, precise sword skills, potent psionic abilities, and most importantly, high magic.

These sorts of fantasies, though fun, have come to leave me empty. I cannot find the thread that connects back to my reality—an important component for me.

To become a flawed character, however, with human limitations, who manages to overcome the impossible with bravery, perseverance, and cleverness—that inspires me and makes a great, meaningful story.

In a system where characters are limited in power, or where characters’ powers are shunned or even punished by the culture around them, the players are forced to become creative. Sure, they may suffer from severe limitations, but this only makes it that much more satisfying when their true powers come to light.

The SagaBorn system includes a concept called the “Saga.” Each player, at the end of each session, writes about the moment in the adventure that stands out the most. For some, it’s the epic moment when a 20 is rolled and things go their way. But sometimes, the Saga occurs when a 1 is rolled and the character fumbles so dramatically that it becomes the highlight of the game. The point of an RPG does not have to be the quest for superpowers; it can also be about playing the role of a person who has average powers, makes mistakes, and heads into danger anyway with the intent to win.


So, Danny, you wrote a novella whose main character was a magic-using bard in Uteria. What was your thought process when fleshing him out in such a harsh world? Also, you plan on playing a bard in an upcoming SagaBorn RPG playtest. Did the same thoughts go into that character creation?


Crossroads of the Never CoverToryn is a great example. Writing a character for fiction is very different from creating a character to fit within a set of gaming mechanics, but Toryn can serve as an illustration. His life’s trajectory begins when his parents are executed by superstitious villagers who believe they are dabbling in dark arts. Toryn learns very early in life the dangers of provoking people’s fears. When his powers do manifest, they are much subtler than we typically think of in gaming—and yet, no less influential on the world around him. He is clever with the use of his power, and often, his greatest moments—along with those of his mentor—aren’t magical at all. I believe the story, as will be seen in the full novel, demonstrates that it is not always extraordinary powers that change the course of history, but the courage and virtue available to anyone. Just because power is available to a person does not mean it must be flaunted in grand spectacles at every opportunity.

When you slow down the progression and immerse yourself in the story rather than rushing headlong toward amassing power, I believe a greater depth of character and story can emerge. Rather than being obsessed with a character’s numbers, a player can instead take pride in his or her own choices that led to survival and success.

The bard I’ve created for the gaming campaign is an example of taking the concept of overcoming limitations to the extreme. His name is Dael, and he is a very old blind man. He is weak, and has never adventured until now—this is his very first. He is out of shape and suffers from myriad aches and pains.

His hearing is exceptional, and he feels a deep connection with music, particularly rhythm. When he was a child, he would beat rhythmically on items around the house until his parents bought him a drum. Using his drum, and beating varying rhythms, he learned that he could control the moods of the people around him. He could help them sleep. He could give them and himself surges of energy. It was a subtle gift, but he found it to be powerful as he learned to give small nudges to himself and the people around him as necessary. For this reason, though he never became a man of means, he always survived handily. He is resourceful and knows how to shift people’s psychological states to help get them through their rough periods.

His parents died of plague when he was a child. A decade ago, his son died in a hunting accident. His wife died of natural causes, as she, like him, had grown quite old. It was too late for him to start a new family, and he could not just sit around an empty house, singing along with his drum to no other ears but his own. So he left to live out the rest of his days traveling.

As Dael grows in power, it will be important that he play it safe. While adventuring with his party, it could become necessary to use his power to its fullest, although there is the chance of party members who are hostile toward magic. When he is in a town, he cannot do anything overt, because he could be executed on suspicion. But he can play them music, and if certain feelings result from that music, that does not indicate magic. If he is clever, he can work magic without ever raising suspicions. In fact, magic can often be veiled by music, such that people think strange occurrences to be mere coincidence. If a painting falls from its nail, no one will suspect the musician busy playing a song. If someone heals quickly, it may be a local deity at work rather than an old man’s melodies sung over a beating drum.

Mike, could you provide an example of a how a more straight-forward wizard might be played with the fear of execution looming over her head?


First, you have to want to play in a world like this. You wouldn’t start up a post-apocalyptic RPG if you wanted to drive a shiny car and never worry about resources. So if you want to jump into a mage in Uteria, you must have the drive to play with these sorts of limitations, and a desire to find a story there. So you are in a place that hates your abilities. You are untrained. Where do you go?

One player made it his quest to find out about the ancient druids and join their ranks. He still went on with the other adventurers, but between quests, and during quests, he was always looking for clues about the Druids. This gave his character some depth, and gave me, as GM, something to pull him along on adventures. A lot of what makes a good campaign is player buy-in. They buy into your story, giving the GM something to build beyond a linear quest from point A to point B. They help make it a shared story, rather than just a railroaded GM adventure.

Another player, in another game, was very cautious about his magical talents. He was afraid that even his companions might react badly to his magic. He was focused on healing, and he never just laid his hands on someone and healed them. He would wait until after the battle and bandage the wounds, rubbing herbs into them, and would cast at this time. Sometimes he might even apply pressure to the wound as he cast so the person he was healing was distracted by the pain and would hopefully miss his casting. This definitely makes the game harder, but it made the simple mechanic of a heal spell into something almost cinematic.

Another way to play is the way my brother approached it. He was a newly returned elf, unfamiliar with human culture, so he cast spells as if it was second nature. This lead to a lot of trouble for the group, but while it often took explaining and diplomacy to get out of bad situations, it added to the experience for the players. This made Uteria feel like a real world, one filled with fears and bias, rather than a cardboard setting that just accepts that someone can cast a fireball in the middle of a tavern.

In my current campaign, there is a group of wizards who are looking to help new mages escape the oppression of the city that executes accused magic users. They are also looking for mages who abuse their power, ravaging the world around them, in order to put a stop to them. In my mind, this opens up so many possibilities for players. Someone could start as a level 1 luminar (trained magic user) who is working for the mages of the Defiance. While going on quests with other adventurers, they would also be seeking other magic users in order to take them to Eredar, the tower of the wizards.

Or a player could be an untrained wylder, looking for guidance in this hostile city, which could lead to some good storylines with the Defiance.

If a player wanted to go darker, they could be a ravaging necromancer, not believing in the restrictions of the Tower, instead forging their own way to power.

I feel that this can be a fountain of ideas for character development and story, rather than a restriction on playing.


Exactly. I’ll wrap up by mentioning that a great deal of research has shown that imposing limitations on creativity, rather than impeding the process, can actually have the opposite effect. We intuitively feel that any restriction will be stifling, but the truth is actually the exact opposite. If you watch an improv troupe perform, you’re watching a group of people follow a predefined set of rules. One of the first things a fantasy writer will do when creating a novel is to come up with the internal physics and laws of magic, along with the consequences of magic. We’re free to make the restrictions, but it’s best to start there because you’ll be much more creative to work within those rules, or to come up with clever ways of breaking them…and that’s what makes it fun.