Unearthed Mundana: High, Low, Wide – pick your magic

Unearthed Mundana: High, Low, Wide – pick your magic

This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Twenty Eight on 29th July 2020.

Killer DM: Really, you don’t know what you’re missing; I’ve seen people do really crazy things.
ROSTRO: There are certain quantum mechanical planes which derive similar effects in my experience.
Lennon: Oh dear gods why!? I mean, I’ve been good lately, haven’t I?
Killer DM: Hello Lennon! Would you care to explain this package a courier dropped off this morning?
Lennon: Um…they’re research materials for the thing Ostron asked us to work on, with the magic?
ROSTRO: There is a certain elegance in the amount of verbiage employed in that sentence despite a total lack of useful information whatsoever.
Killer DM: I couldn’t have said it better myself. Well, actually I could have; you ramble, but fortunately for you, limey, after a bit of discussion with my faaavorite coworker here, I figured out what’s going on.
Lennon: What’s that, other than completely ruining my day?
ROSTRO: As per usual the alarming number of homonymic definitions certain words in the english language can acquire have caused confusion in your execution of intellectual pursuits. To avoid unintended mishap, I have assumed direct responsibility for the dissemination of said knowledge.
Killer DM: I still say it’d be more fun my way…
ROSTRO: Please relinquish the psilocybin fungi and direct your attention to the output crystals.
Lennon (miffed): Can one of you please tell me what’s going on?
Killer DM: I doubt it, dear, but we’re going to try.

When different campaigns and especially different settings are discussed in the context of D&D or really any fantasy game, there are a few terms that get thrown around and people might not be familiar with. Or they might think they’re familiar with them but they’re wrong. Because I just live to help out my fellow creatures, we’re going to go over what all of that means.

What’s the real reason?

ROSTRO said it couldn’t play with me until it finished this.

Well I never thought reading something ROSTRO produced would be my least painful path forward, but…here we are.

The terms we’re discussing are the definitions of how much magic is present in a setting. The two most common terms are “low” and “high” magic with the less common but oft-used term “wide” magic included as well. While the labels are broad and not universally accurate when applied, they do a good enough job setting the scene that people usually know what they’re in for.

We’ll start with High magic. In general, a high magic setting is one where magic is not only a well-known phenomenon, it’s also pervasive. Basic Forgotten Realms D&D is the easiest example of this; wizards, sorcerers, and warlocks are so common that guilds and organizations exist in major cities to deal with them and establish policy, and it’s expected that people wielding obvious and overt magic will be present in major conflicts, political arenas, and really anywhere there are people.

High magic settings are very often the default for fantasy stories and role playing games, including D&D, because for the longest time they were the most common. Particularly in the early decades of the 20th century, any story classed as “fantasy” would be assumed to include spellcasters exhibiting deific powers  on a regular basis. Indeed the majority of traditional settings for dungeons and dragons are high magic, including those such as dragonlance, ravenloft, grayhawk and

mROSTRO: /error noise/
Lennon: Sorry, what was that?
ROSTRO: /error noise/ /error noise/ It would appear Ostron has hardwired a subroutine into my mechanism preventing me from addressing a particular setting in the game.
Lennon: Ah…yeah, we all know what you meant. Best to press on.m

Even a setting such as Dark Sun, where magic users were held directly responsible for an apocalyptic catastrophe and largely hunted to extinction, would still be classed as a high magic setting due to the presence of psionic practitioners.

But for every high there must be a low and if anyone knows how to sink to the depths of something it’s me. So Low magic is what you get when magic is a thing, but it’s either a well kept secret or it’s so rare that barely anyone believes it exists and even fewer people have seen it. People using actual magic will number something like one in a million, and any items or artifacts that have legitimate power in them will be legendary by default and either hidden away really well, probably with guards, or some really insecure leader will have it locked away in a vault or sewn into their forehead or something to prevent anyone stealing or destroying it, as if blowing someone’s head up is really that big of a deterrent.

There aren’t a lot of official D&D settings that really fit into the category, but it’s easy enough to find pop culture references. The immediate go-to is Game of Thrones; you have a few magical potions, and literally one or two people with real magical ability, but beyond that everyone from the king to the queen to…the other queen are all just people, and half the time when something magical does happen no one believes it’s real and they start looking for other explanations.

It is possible to play D&D as low magic; the Dungeon Master’s Guide actually references the possibility in the beginning of its first chapter, but it puts in a lot more restrictions than most players are used to. First of all, magic using classes would either not be allowed or the players and the DM would have to work out some sort of creative workaround to make them fit. That also means healing would be a lot harder to come by; clerics would either be severely limited or have no access to healing magic, and things like healing potions would be almost impossible to find.

The last classification that usually gets tossed around is “wide” magic. This is one I’m familiar with because the setting usually held up as a prime example of it is Eberron. With wide magic settings, there are a lot of things accomplished by magic, and most people know about them, but the magic only goes up to a certain point. Really flashy stuff like fireballs and lightning bolts and true resurrection of the dead are uncommon or just don’t happen.

As just mentioned, Eberron is the D&D setting most commonly attributed to wide magic. There are also suggestions that the Magic the Gathering crossover setting of Ravnica could qualify as a wide magic environment, though the example is less definitive.

Wide magic settings are frequently employed when the crafter of the story wants to keep the tone of the adventure firmly in the realm of fantasy, where protagonists and opponents will be employing swords and metal forged armor or possibly rudimentary firearms, but they want the setting to more closely resemble present-day or at least more modern settings. In those situations generic “magic” often takes the place of electrical power and/or computing and various spells or spell effects apply the same basic result of those technologies with different means.

Now some of the more well-read among you will start wondering when we’re going to mention steampunk and the thing is, we aren’t. I’m not sorry.

There is in fact a reference to that genre and its common implementations in the following-

Oh sometimes I wish I could just turn you off, but then I have to listen to Ostron and that’s only fun when he’s screaming about his organs. Fine.

Steampunk settings are usually, though not always, devoid of magic; it’s just that someone decided the steam engine was the end-all and be-all of the tech frontier and they figured out how to do everything with electricity, steam, and bowler hats. But things get muddy in some cases because a lot of popular steampunk settings have things like dragons or magical talking bears, or something like that. There’s debate about whether so-called magical creatures tip the scale on a setting. If you have dragons is it low magic or high magic? Or is the setting magic at all if you just say they’re natural creatures, which also means you’re really bad at biology, by the way.  And what happens if you have things like talking dogs or rats or capybaras?

People invested in the subject often have the same debate about Lord of the Rings. There’s no doubt it’s a magical setting, but low or high magic? Sure there are magical artifacts and wizards running around but comparatively speaking there aren’t a lot of them. The whole fellowship wasn’t decked out in magical gear until they left Lothlorien and even then they basically had to get everything from the one lady there that did magic. And the only ones slinging magic around were bearded men and the witch king. That’s a really low percentage.

Gods are another thing that can kind of muddy the waters. Some people think if there are gods directly interfering with mortals on a regular basis, like what happens in Norse or Greek mythology, that makes it a high magic setting by default, while others say that divine intervention is not equivalent to magic and it should really be a low magic setting because very few people are actually doing magic other than the gods, who are kind of rare by definition.

The ultimate conclusion, however, is that such debate serves little practical purpose for the average player or Dungeon Master. The labels of high, low, and wide magic are primarily measures of predetermined conditions in the world of the adventure soon to take place. Announcing that a particular endeavor will be high magic should suggest an experience very similar to an average Dungeons and Dragons game, while defining a module as low magic similarly should cause those with aspirations of controlling a wizard or sorcerer to rethink the probability of that outcome. Hopefully the clarifying information provided will serve to reduce confusion when the aforementioned terminology is employed going forward.


Lennon: So I will grudgingly admit that did clear things up for me. But…what happened to those mushrooms I ordered?
Killer DM: Don’t you worry about that, I took care of it.
Lennon: Okay, that makes me more worried about it.
Killer DM: ROSTRO’s done with his work now so that means we can relax together like I wanted to originally.
Lennon: Actually…
Killer DM: Oh don’t tell me.
ROSTRO: My remote sensing capabilities do indicate a need to address the buildup of correspondence in the magical communication apparatus.
Killer DM: Can’t you just, autosort it and send blanket responses or something?
ROSTRO: My last attempt at such an endeavor resulted in several strongly worded messages and a high decibel reprimand from the individual known as RaeRae. She is a formidable individual.
Killer DM: Well I suppose you’re right there. Fine, shoo, shoo, we’ll have Ryu and Ostron along to join you in a bit.