Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Ravenloft… almost all of the major campaign settings in D&D were built for epic high fantasy. In these worlds, a typical city might contain a shop with magic items for sale on the shelves, a temple run by a priest whose touch can heal wounds and disease, and a dwarf tending a bar where humans, elves, and half-orcs sit down for a drink.
There’s a certain whimsical charm to that sort of setting, but if you’re anything like me, after playing countless games like those, you start to yearn for a world where magic and monsters aren’t so mundane—where even a simple encounter with an elf or a dwarf feels, well… fantastical.
An elf, a dwarf, and a tiefling walk into a bar…
So when I was getting ready to run my first campaign in D&D 5E, I decided to go with a low fantasy setting. My approach was to put the research I did for my graduate degree to use (for once) and go back to the original folktales and legends that inspired D&D’s mythos. If you’re interested in doing something similar, here are some ideas for you to try in your next D&D campaign.
Magic in this setting is rare and widely distrusted. Most folk regard the use of magic as cowardly, dangerous, and blasphemous. Spellcasters tend to practice their art in secret, for if their sorcerous ways were exposed, they’d be accused of weaving curses and hunted down like criminals. At the same time, some towns have a chieftain or a mysterious hermit who is respected and consulted for their miraculous abilities. And it’s not unusual to see folk carrying charms to ward off evil or bring good luck. But this kind of magic is more subtle than the typical D&D spell. In fact, the players should have difficulty figuring out if the chieftain’s ritual sacrifice or the hermit’s ominous prophecy is true magic or mere superstition.
Elves look just like humans, but have a supernatural beauty and grace about them. They live in their own secret world known as Alfheim (essentially just another name for the “Feywild” of the D&D cosmos), which can only be reached through “elf-gates” hidden deep in the forests. An elf-gate is a portal tied to some prominent natural feature, such as an ancient tree or a cave shrouded by a waterfall. Usually the elf-gate is hidden by an illusion or enchanted to open only under special circumstances. Even when open, the elf-gate is invisible, so entering Alfheim is a seamless experience. That is, if you step into Alfheim, you might not even realize it at first. The high elves and the wood elves coexist, with the high elves serving as the nobility in the courts deep within Alfheim and the wood elves acting more as scouts and nomads who range around the borders between the two worlds. The dark elves are the descendants of a clan that was banished from Alfheim long ago. After their banishment, they hid in caves underground. Over time, their subterranean dwelling changed them into the dark-skinned, white-haired people they are now.
Half-Elves are extremely rare, since most elves never associate with humankind. However, an elf with a bit of a mischievous streak might seduce a human who wanders too deep into the woods alone. A man who has such an encounter may find an eerily beautiful babe on his doorstep several months later, for a half-elven child could never be raised in Alfheim.
Dwarves live deep in the bowels of the earth and have an innate affinity for stonework and blacksmithing. It’s no easy task to find a dwarf—they rarely travel to the surface, and the entrances to their subterranean fortresses are carefully camouflaged to resemble solid rock.
Gnomes and halflings live in burrows found in the mountains, hills, and forests. Humans have difficulty telling the two apart and refer to them both as “little folk.” Humans tend to leave the little folk alone, not because they’re hard to find, but because it’s considered bad luck to disturb them. And the gnomes and halflings, valuing their privacy, do nothing to dissuade humans of this age-old superstition.
Orcs have no permanent homes, roaming instead in rival tribes. If these tribes all came together and cooperated, they would pose a significant threat to the human kingdoms, but their enmity for each other is much too great. Unable to stand up to the might of organized human armies, the scattered orc tribes stick to forests, mountains, and caves, striking only when opportunity arises, and then retreating back into the wilderness. Survivors of orc raids are rare—people usually find only the burnt ruins and mutilated corpses they leave behind. The few hunting parties humans have sent out after the orcs have always failed to return.
Half-Orcs are, sadly, almost always the children of human women who have been ravaged by orc marauders. They’re practically unheard of since most orcs won’t let their victims escape alive. Sadder still, half-orc children who defy the odds and live to be born are generally abandoned due to their grotesque features. Half-orcs are strong, however, and one could easily survive in the wilderness on its own. When grown, a half-orc might even pass for an abnormally large and misshapen human, but it’ll have trouble finding a place in society other than as a beggar or some other kind of outcast.
Tieflings and dragonborn are regarded as demons and hunted by humans on sight. Only a handful remain, and they go to great lengths to hide themselves.