In role playing games, there are several genres. Sci-fi, fantasy, modern, and horror are just some of the examples. Some role playing games, such as Savage Worlds, Gurps, and Palladium, offer many different genres or settings for the game to take place in.
Dungeons and Dragons falls into the genre of fantasy, through there might be a few subtle differences within that genre (Eberron, Points of Light, etc.). These are all considered “high fantasy” settings, due to the proliferation of magic and magical items. While there are surely several games out there that use the “low fantasy” setting (little magic), D&D 4e is not one of them. In this article I’ll be discussing how to turn your 4e game into a game setting similar to Conan and Lord of the Rings.
When it comes to your map of the world, you should limit the amount of defined zones, or territorial lines. Since accurate maps are hard to come by for those in a fantasy setting, especially since lands disputes can go on for years, there is never really a sure sense of location. This should be especially true of territories between differing races (elves, humans, etc.).
In a classic fantasy setting, there are few races. Most likely, the only races available would be human, elf, dwarf, and halfling. However, that doesn’t mean that there is only one kind of human, or one kind of elf. Take any “off-limits” race (like an orc) and use that as your character, just call him an elf (or human, or whatever). For those races with special abilities, you’ll have to reflavor the abilities to be in line with your race (the dragonborn’s fire breath ability could actually be a lit flask of oil, etc.). When an elf walks into town, it’s a big deal – they’re an instant celebrity (or oddity).
With regard to character classes, the players and DM should limit most of the player characters (as well as enemies) to the martial classes (fighter, thief, ranger, etc.). Too many characters with mystical powers takes away from the realism of the setting (yes, I am aware that I’m talking about the fantasy setting, but remember that we’re going for low magic here). If you have a magical character, try to limit it to one per adventuring party.
With regard to magical items, less is more (and more powerful). The game of D&D 4e assumes that player characters carry a certain amount of magical items to help them through skill challenges, enemies, monsters, encounters, and adventures. Without those magical items, either the DM would have to work extra hard to tone done the challenges, or the PCs will not be “heroic” enough to deal with them.
While PCs will be carrying very little magic items (or none at all), they have to make up the difference somehow. There is an easy solution. Simply assume that your character has a level-appropriate magic item of his choice at 1st level. Every level after that, he gains another magical item to fill a different slot with, until all slots are filled (neck, weapon, feet, armor, etc). At the beginning of every level, the player is free to mix and match any combination of items that his character would normally be allowed to have. Now, he’s not actually getting any magical items; he’s just gaining the enhancements as if he had them. So, how do you explain that?
You need to explain how your character is getting these enhancements, since normal people don’t get them. Has your character been granted a single magical item (like a sword, wand, staff, or shield) that encompasses all of the magical properties of all of his “ghost” items? Has he been charmed by witches? Is he the son or daughter of a god? What’s important to remember is that individually, the magical items aren’t important, because they don’t really exist. You simply have to figure out their source, and use that as a major part of your character’s background/story.
Also, with little worry about individual magical items, treasure should be handed out much more sparingly. With no need to buy powerful magical items, there is no need for exuberant amounts of treasure. When characters come across a few hundred gold pieces, it now actually means something.
Enemies and monsters that the PCs face should primarily be human (since we’re going for a mostly human setting). When characters come across an orc or goblin, it’s not because their came across an orc camp, it’s because someone, somewhere, has created a band of orcs to wreak havoc. Fantastic creatures, such as the beholder should be reflavored as a powerful wizard, and then things like dragons should simply be very rare.
Remember, most of the adventures in a classic fantasy setting should involve threats devised by humans. Out-of-this-world threats should be from far away lands, where few humans venture. If you need some help envisioning the classic fantasy setting, just look at movies such as Clash of the Titans, Lord of the Rings, and Conan. That should get you in the mood to play a more down-in-the-dirt, real classic fantasy setting.