Game Review: Low Fantasy Gaming
Engine: OSR / d20 Hybrid
I've been playing Low Fantasy Gaming for more than two months now with a group of other developers, and I figured it was high time that I reviewed it.
Low Fantasy Gaming (LFG for short) is a game derived from Dungeons & Dragons that is designed to emulate the gritty swashbuckling weird fiction of authors like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. Magic is meant to be rare any mysterious, while action is meant to be fast, furious, and evocative.
The game mixes strong elements of OSR games, particularly AD&D, with D&D3.5 and even a few D&D 5e mechanics and a dash of OSR community hacks to keep play moving swiftly and evoke Appendix-N-style swashbuckling action
From 3.5, LFG takes ascending Armour Class, monsters with PC stats, and its hit point scale. However, LFG owes at least as much to AD&D: almost all other rolls are roll-under d20 Ability Checks. If a character has a proficiency in a particular skill, they get a +1 bonus and may expend dice from a re-roll pool that is used for a range of functions and replenishes with rest. The Ability Scores themselves offer bonus at much the same rate as AD&D does.
LFG also uses a Luck score much like Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG does. It is a stat that you may be called to roll under to test whether your chsracter gets a lucky break and shrinks with every roll. Luck replenishes much faster in LFG than in DCC, however. It also replaces saving throws: when a saving throw ought to be made, an LFG character rolls luck with a bonus from an appropriate stat. This makes depleting Luck a real hazard for PCs. And also as in DCC, Luck is used when the rest of the party "rolls the body" after someone hits 0hp to determine whether they are "All Dead" or "Mostly Dead".
LFG has no Clerics, it adds a few healing spells to the Magic-Users' list instead. It has an assumption of a low-magic setting where magic items are extremely rare and gods are distant or disinterested.
Low Fantasy Gaming has a host of innovations well worth considering... and stealing for use with your OSR games.
What I Love
Non-standard Stat Array
I am with Matt Finch on this one: Player Skill should be like a guardian angel for PCs, no matter what is written in the character sheet. A lot of players feel shackled to play the stats on their sheet, even when it hurts play experience; they might refuse to help on a puzzle if they have a low INT stat, or be hesitant to speak up if their character has poor CHA. Low Fantasy Gaming obviates this a lot by changing the array of stats. It replaces Wisdom with the far easier to understand Perception and Will. This is a strong step in the right direction: When a stat like Wisdom is low, a player might choose to pull back from the table in order to "properly" play their witless character. No Wisdom score means no such inhibition.
Personally, I like to remove Intelligence and Wisdom in favour something like Focus and Perception to represent only the parts of a character's mind that need a mathematical representation. A character with a low "Focus" score isn't stupid... they might even be brilliant, but processing their thoughts and putting them into action on the fly can be difficult.
Luck and Re-roll Mechanics
I like luck mechanics, and have used them in some way, shape, or form since AD&D2e when all players in my game had a hidden stat that I rolled for them to determine pure dumb luck. The way Low Fantasy Gaming handles Luck is straightforward and easy to use. It also makes saving throws feel damned scary: each time you roll a save, your next one is going to be harder.
The re-roll mechanic is interesting. Equal to your level, it is a pool you can use to re-roll failed rolls. Normally, it is used when you are rolling a skill in which you are proficient or for a roll apropos you your background. For Barbarians and Fighters of higher levels it can also be used for extra attacks, bards for rallying shouts, and thieves to dodge attacks or get better backstabbing damage.
At 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th level a character gains unique abilities. These can be borrowed from another class or made up by the GM and player. There are some rough suggestions on how to design these and adjudicate them. Using Feats from D&D3.5e is one suggestion made.
I love how loose this is, because it invites the player's to develop successful characters in accordance with the activities and ambitions of the character. A Barbarian played as a howling berserker might be able to build a frightening howl ability. A thief that relies on jury-rigged traps can build a power that represents it.
Martial Exploits and Rescues
Martial Exploits are moves any PC can add to an attack. These are the bread-and-butter of good swashbuckling: tripping, disarming, blinding, and herding your enemies. These are broken into minor and major exploits. Minor exploits are the ones that give players a temporary advantage, like leaving a foe unarmed, or kicking some sand in their face. Anyone can try a minor exploit against any enemy when attacking, and it succeeds if they hit and do damage. If you miss, you can't try another exploit until you gain some other narrative or tactical advantage over your foe.
Major exploits require a character hit and damage a foe, and then require a Luck check to complete. These are encounter-changing abilities that let you terrorize enemies, destroy objects, or even instantly kill foes with fewer HD than yourself.
Exploits are free-form: there is no menu or mechanics for disarming or tripping. These are left undefined with the understanding that If you need more crunch, you can always go to the d20 SRD.
Similarly the game has a free-form "rescues" where a PC may attempt to save another character from danger by moving up to 30' and making a luck check. If successful, they prevent that character from being harmed.
Just like the Mighty Deeds of Arms in Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, the minor exploits in Low Fantasy Gaming mean that characters almost never have an excuse to "just attack" an enemy. Players who don't try to an least use minor exploits are just wasting opportunities. Players figure out pretty quickly that they should be trying something cool with each move. And because exploits ate available to any PC wielding a weapon, and therefore swashbuckling is not confined to players who have the right feats, every player will get in on the act.
Add in rescues, rules for intercepting other foes when they move, unique player character abilities, and characters with incredible mobility or instant killing strike powers and you have the perfect recipe for intense action from your PCs.
The Retreat Mechanic
Running away from battle can be a pain in many versions of Dungeons & Dragons. Everything having the same movement rate definitely does not help, and chases in 3e and earlier were fairly dull affairs. In Dungeons & Dragons 5e a far more useful chase mechanic was introduced, but it was needlessly dicey and could slow the game down.
Low Fantasy Gaming takes the essence of the 5e chase mechanic and makes it much simpler. If the PCs want to flee a battle, they must all make Luck checks. If they are successful, they escape the encounter. If the GM doesn't want to deal with pursuit it can end there. If they want to have a chase, or if the PCs are chasing a quarry, however, LFG offers a stripped-down version of the chase mechanics of 5e in a much more compressed form. Random obstacles are only rolled once per round, A gap between chaser and quarry fluctuates based on the way they handle obstacles, and if the Quarry can evade the chaser long enough, they get to escape. It is much faster than D&D's chase mechanic while using a very similar engine.
Characters in Low Fantasy Gaming can level to a maximum of 12. This creates a cap on PC power that keeps weaker monsters relevant, and the most powerful monsters forever terrifying. Levelling is done by completing an adventure in which the characters have meaningfully contributed. Pacing can be controlled by instead awarding a level for every two or three adventures.
This is simple, straightforward, and lets the GM award players for completing goals and surviving peril rather, than specifically for stealing treasure or slaying monsters. The completion of an adventure is defined by the GM and allows him or her to choose what gets rewarded in a given campaign.
I don't think this system would work for every game. It requires a clear gameplay loop built in already to give the game structure. LFG is built to make swashbuckling action easy, and so the kind of game you are likely to want topp0 play, and what makes sense to reward is at least partially baked in.
Low Fantasy Gaming has some very cool tables for treasure generation. There are fewer piles of coins and more valuable trade goods and random items. The 100 trinkets on the trinket table in particular are filled with weird and quirky items.
Low Fantasy Gaming follows the D&D 4/5e paradigm of Short and Long rests . Long rests restore one point of luck, one point of other lost attributes, the full re-roll pool, uses of class abilities, and little more than half of zacharacter's missing hit points. This means that injuries take time to recover... PCs aren't magically at 100% after a good night's sleep, like they ate in current editions of D&D, nor will one battle put PCs out of commission for weeks at a time like older editions.
Short rests allow a character to make 1-3 Will checks to regain uses of class abilities, a few hit points, or a re-roll die. Players have limited rolls to attempt on each rest, and only three short rests per day. There is no guarantee of recovery. This keeps the short rest from being as powerful as it is in modern D&D, and because it is a limited resource, PCs won't rest between every encounter.
The Madness Mechanics are Sketchy
Low Fantasy Gaming has a Madness system that is used when characters are being affected by certain monsters, magic, or have experienced significant trauma. Overall, the system has a great deal of promise. I particularly like the way the madness table itself is organized. Rather than name a specific mental illnesses, it gives a statement of belief that should guide your role playing. While the madness mechanics do a fairly good job of saying when a character might gain a Madness trait, and which magics, downtime activities, etc might heal it, the actual in-game effects, beyond a suggestion for role-playing are fairly flimsy. The game suggests that a character should suffer a penalty once or more per session based on the severity of their Madness. How and when to use those is left extremely nebulous. While I'm sure most GM's can manage, a little guidance would have taken this system up from good to excellent.
Flimsy Morale System
Earlier this month, I wrote an article on morale and have one in progress on NPC reactions. Both are included in Low Fantasy Gaming, but morale is pretty flimsy in the execution. At first, the morale section tries to take a modern approach, suggesting that the GM should simply decide narratively when enemies flee. Is also suggests that a saving throw modified by Will could be used as an alternative to determine whether they flee or not. However, this is just a half of a morale system, as we also need to know when to roll, and when to modify that roll in order to make morale fully functional.
Many games, including editions of Dungeons & Dragons from 3rd on up have discarded morale altogether, but it is a very valuable system. LFG seems to recognize this in theory, but doesn't put much thought into practice.
Hardcore 3e-Style Traps
Unless you were willing to ratchet up the complexity, traps in 3rd Edition were not much more than taxes on hit points that slowed the game and made PCs paranoid. They required a certain amount of Game Master fiat to work well: They had to be telegraphed at least a little; it had to be obvious whether a specific adventure would include traps; and they had to be set up to be as interesting or frightening as possible to make up for the fact that they were basically a 1-round encounter with only two possible outcomes. Making them always potentially lethal was one solution,but one with some pretty significant trade-offs.
Low Fantasy Gaming preserves these annoying traps, but does crank them up a bit in terms of power, with major traps being instantly lethal. Ultimately, though, the poison needles and spikes pits are once again, not much more than either a time-waster or exist as flavour.
LFG does an admirable job of simplifying them into categories in lieu of challenge ratings, which reduces the need for having dozens of variations. But it is a lot of hard work to put lipstick on the proverbial pig.
Complex Traps Need Some Explanation
In the Official D&D forum circa 2005-6 this was a matter of a lot of discussion. I was part of a thread dedicated to making sophisticated traps (I was goon-for-hire, if you were around back then). At first there was a lot of emphasis on chaining multiple smaller traps together. Then we tried creating traps like monsters with several abilities that could most effectively be hurt by Disable Device tools or finding a hidden bypass while being harrowed by various trap effects. The point was to make traps that were encounters unto themselves.
Building traps that are more than just a hit-point tax, ones that use environment, alarms, multiple mechanisms, etc., is handled in Low Fantasy Gaming with complex traps. These are very reminiscent of the kinds of designs we tinkered with; stacking multiple moving parts together to create a larger trap. As is, however, it is presented as an abstract concept and an example without any mechsnics or design guidelines.
This is one place where recent material for Dungeons & Dragons 5e has something to offer: Xanathar's Guide to Everything has a Complex Traps system that can be stolen and ported to LFG with relative ease.
Low Fantasy Gaming's rules are simple enough to fit into a single book and are relatively easy to search. The Art makes for good bookmarks if you are hunting for something and have read it three or four times... but the arrangement of sections is confusing, to say the least. When actually learning the game, it can be a little tricky thanks to the need to bounce around the book.
The Monsters are kind of in the middle of the GM section. Specific case situations are strangely placed: Aërial Combat and Falling are first in the GM Section, before Advancement, Madness, or Monsters and Treasure, but Underwater Combat and Drowning and Wilderness Exploration are near the end. NPC Reactions and Morale are sandwiched between Monsters and Treasure instead of being with the rest of the GM procedures. The Random Dungeon Room Generator is early in the GM Section, but Random Encounters are at the end. It is like it started put in alphabetical order, and then a sleight reorganization was started, then abandoned, leaving it in mostly-alphabetical order.
A grouping by related subsystems would really help make the book easier to navigate.
As a disclaimer, I have played a great deal of LFG but it is not by its vanilla rules. I've been using substitute classes, skill systems, and Magic systems selected by Steven Smith over at Steven's Hobby Blog as I have been play testing his World of Weirth campaign setting.
That said, I have played the parts of LFG that are at their absolute strongest: the combat and tasks resolution. I can say with confidence that combat flows very quickly and has very high energy. And that, in general, no task takes more than a few minutes to resolve in LFG. Once you have given it a good read and taken a few notes, it is an easy system to pick up and play.
Not only that, it is a cool system. It is one that, by its structure, encourages players to be inventive in their choices of character actions. and it is open to the best kind of character customisation, the kind were the player and the GM work together to create custom content to fit the game. It is what D&D 3e might have been if there was more trust in GMs to adjudicate fairly.
Even if you are not looking for a new retroclone, LFG is worth pillaging for a few of its combat and chase subsystems, as it can breathe a lot more creativity into action sequences.