Low fantasy and historical fantasy RPGs
Whether you like it or not, the popular standards and stereotypes for what passes for “fantasy roleplaying” are dictated by the Dungeons & Dragons behemoth. In the current era, this generally entails superheroic and near-indestructible player characters embarking on epic-scale adventures in colorful “kitchen-sink fantasy” worlds teeming with fantastical creatures and all-pervading magic. Many players, however, are looking for alternatives to these high fantasy setting assumptions. They are still interested in the general ambiance of pre-modern times and their legends, but prefer a more down-to-earth mode of play. Other groups would wish to replace the “faux-medieval” trappings of the dominant fantasy settings with something more historically authentic and set in a specific time and place in our history.
This is a list of RPG systems that are suitable for just such purposes. To a greater or lesser extent, they eschew the familiar tropes of heroic high fantasy in favor of a more grounded or historically-based gaming style. While the criteria for inclusion were quite broad, each game listed here has one or more of the following features (but not necessarily all of them!):
- Human-only or human-centric: The player characters are all human beings, not members of any fantasy “races”.
- Non-heroic: The player characters are (relatively) ordinary people with appropriate abilities and concerns.
- Rare, dangerous, or subtle magic: The world features a sharp division between the mundane and the supernatural and is not organized around the latter. The characters can’t just throw a spell at every problem.
- Gritty and lethal: People are presented as vulnerable and dangerous situations as truly dangerous. Violence is not something to be laughed at.
- Verisimilitudinous: The world operates according to widely recognized, predictable laws, and the characters are not shielded by any “plot armor”.
- History-based: The setting is a more or less strict representation of a particular era in real human history. For the purposes of this list, this means any period ranging from the so-called Dark Ages to early modern times (for roleplaying in the ancient era, see my list of sword-and-sandal RPGs).
I attempted to limit the listed items to standalone systems. Many of these games are supported by various additional materials that are relevant to the theme of this list (such as specific low fantasy or historical setting supplements); however, listing them all would be beyond impractical. I did make some allowances for cases like Cthulhu Dark Ages, where only the supplement fits the list while the main game would be out of place here.
Because the sword and sorcery genre is often identified as a subgenre of low fantasy, I also recommend taking a look at my list of sword and sorcery RPGs. A large portion of my OSR list might also be relevant as a supplement to the current list.