I’ve been playing through Dust and Salt recently, and I’ve been struck with how much I enjoy a fantasy game when magic isn’t the core focus of the narrative.
Dust and Salt is gritty. You start as a ten-year-old who watches his father get murdered by conscripts from the city of Murk, and after rescuing some prisoners, you start off on a life-long journey to enact revenge against the people who killed your dad, burned your village, and scattered your people.
You are not magical. No one you know is magical. You’re good with a sword, and as you grow up you might get better at speaking or thinking on your feet. You don’t learn any spells. Instead, you work at getting better and better at exacting material revenge against a city of warlords. And I can’t express how refreshing that feels.
I’m tired of magic in my fantasy games. Look, I know that magic is often important for people to get into the feel of fantasy. It helps establish how this new world is different from our own, and it often creates a helpful set of “rules” that establish how characters interact with each other.
Dust and Salt is so excellent, though, because we can’t lean on big lore dumps about priests and wizard orders and Red Cloaked Mysterious Figures Who Talk With Devils. Instead, we have to start learning the rules of how power operates in this world. Who are the allies? Where can we drive a wedge in order to unite disparate kingdoms against our enemies? I’ve called the game a “power simulator,” and I still think that’s the best way to discuss it. It demands that players make choices about how they gain power and what kind of power they want.
Avoiding magic in the game means that we can avoid easy solutions to problems. There’s no mode of charming our enemies or casting big spells that annihilate our enemies from orbit. In fantasy, magic is the great equalizer that can help the lowly hero fight against insurmountable odds. That big spell during the final battle will always make a brighter day possible.
There’s none of that here. Like a Conan story, when magic appears in Dust and Salt, it’s an evil that needs to be eliminated for the good of everyone. Mystical forces are not to be trusted. All you have here is your gut, and it means that the big decision points feel more poignant. Here’s a section of writing after a betrayal, for example:
[The betrayer] looks at you with hatred, and the warriors gathered around you await your decision. You feel the rage they have accumulated against the traitor who tried to kill you. Many insist that he pay with his head.
You know that one day, when the Great Judgment comes and there is nothing left of your body but dust, the tears of the wounded and the slain will weigh against your soul. But you also know that your soldiers expect you to be just, even if that means being cruel. You have to be the ruler whom they want to follow.
That’s some fist-pumping “hell yes” writing to me, and it’s something that I think you can only access in a fantasy game when you make the choice to really ground the world without magic. I can’t teleport this betrayer away, send them to a magical world, mind wipe them, or charm them. My problem is only solved with a sword or with mercy. And it’s a very, very hard problem.
I think my love for this kind of low fantasy is why I can never really lose myself in Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age games. It seems like I am always chasing artifacts and doing big world-altering magical spells to defeat enemies who are playing dimensional chess against some wizard.
This is also probably why I like The Witcher series so much more than those other franchises. Despite being neck-deep in magic, those games at least make magic look risky and dangerous. It backfires as much as it works, and at the end of the day Geralt is as likely to use a mechanical trap as he is to use a magical artifact. It remains grounded in a world with real cause-and-effect relationships. If we have to have magic, then this is how I want it to be.
In the rare event that magic crops up in Dust and Salt, it is most often as a form of contrast. A villain has put an entire village to sleep, just like something out of a fairy tale, and you have to use your decidedly non-magical skills to defeat the foe. A bunch of villagers and some smart thinking that win the day every time, so take that wizards!
So, please, give me more of these fantasy worlds where swords, fictional politics, and vengeful beings run the world. Fewer wizards and dark priests, please, because I want to sideline magic in favor of the machinery of arms and axes. More swords, less sorcery please.