Publisher: Pickpocket Press
Engine: Custom d20 variant
Over the last year I have got a lot of play out of Low Fantasy Gaming by Stephen Grodzicki. I have played in the campaign that started as baseline Low Fantasy Gaming online, and run both a short adventure series, and a full-length campaign in LFG at home. I like it because it has a simple engine that matches some of the best elements of AD&D2e, Dungeons & Dragons 3e, Warhammer Fantasy Gaming, and Advanced Fighting Fantasy in one clever package mixed with a few of its own innovations. I have become a huge fan of the system
Another game that I've been passionate about for many years is Shadowrun. I started playing SR in second edition, but ran a campaign in first when my old manual went missing. Since then I have run campaigns in 3rd, 4th and 5th edition Shadowrun. I would guess that I have put in about 2,000 hours of play in the system over the years.
So, when I heard that Stephen Grodzicki was making a spiritual successor to Shadowrun, but using his Low Fantasy Gaming rules, I was quick to hit him up for a review copy.
(The first time I had been bold enough to do that with anyone.)
I m very impressed with the final product. It may be up there with Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG and Index Card RPG Core 2e in my top 10 role playing games reviewed in the last year.
Of course, this game is perfectly tuned to my taste, and so make of that what you will.
Lowlife 2090 is set in Mendoza City, a vertical sprawl set on a series of islands ruled over by seven Megacorporations and a fading government
I can't be 100% sure, but the map looks like the islands of lower New York to me.
Unlike Shadowrun, Lowlife 2090 assumes that human beings have lived alongside monsters, magic, demi-humans, and supernatural phenomena for thousands of years. However, the game also makes it clear that magic is not safe or easy for mortals. When it goes bad, it goes really bad. And so, humanity, as well as Dwarves, Elves , Spriggans, Minotaurs, and Skorn, have continued to develop technology at a pace similar to ours, with the exception of weapons of mass destruction, which are generally replaced by magic.
The history of Lowlife 2090 is mostly parallel to ours, major events up to WWII are often there, if different. However, China has remained an Imperial Dynasty under an Immortal Empress, Christianity has faded and been supplanted with an Authoritarian neo-pagan pantheon, and the USSR survived its internal coups in 1991 and continues to clash with NATO in an Occult version of the cold War.
In the early 2030s, a plague, CTAC spread globally. CTAC is a magical disease that causes infected humanoids to become mutated and violently insane. The resulting riots and mass hysteria forced humanity to flee to the safety of easily barricaded island cities like New York and central Montreal. Even these cities had to be rebuilt after the mayhem of the CTAC riots. Most cities have been renamed for the companies that footed the bill for the reconstruction (such as Mendoza Heavy Industries, in the case of Mendoza City.)
The game itself is a blend of various editions of Dungeons & Dragons designed for speed and simplicity. Most tasks are resolved by rolling a d20 under their ability scores (Wisdom is replaced by Willpower and Perception). A Luck Score replaces saving throws, which depletes every time a character succeeds a Luck test. Characters have a pool of re-rolls they can spend on any Luck check, or on an Ability test if they have a relevant skill. Rolls use 5e-style Advantage and Disadvantage if numerical modifiers exceed ±3. Success is gradiated with rolls of less than half an attribute having additional benefits and rolls over 150% being Terrible failures.
Combat uses ascending attack bonuses and defense ratings (AC), but rather than being based on the armor a character is wearing, a character has a Defense based on class and level, while Armor offers mild damage reduction. Levels are capped at 10 and hit points start around 10 - 20, but are capped very low, while weapon damage is quite high.
The game uses a variety of Warhammer - style injury tablse that can be applied to characters an natural 19s on many attack rolls, as well as on Melee critical hits, and other Catastrophic events.
Spells are level-less and powerful, but require a Willpower roll to activate and a failed spell roll triggers a roll on a magical mishap table that has some truly nightmarish results. Each spell cast also depletes the Willpower, making frequent spellcasting increasingly risky.
Vehicle combat is a hybrid of Shadowrun 4e's chase combat rules and Dungeons & Dragons 5e's optional chase system. Drivers make an opposed roll to determine who gets to control how far apart the Encounter is, based on a set of abstract distance bands. Once that distance gets to extreme, a fleeing driver can lose the pursuers. Vehicles don't have hit points, instead they have an Armor Rating; anything that does more damage than the rating prompts a roll on a vehicle damage table. Different attacks roll different dice on the table, with higher results possibly disabling or destroying the vehicle. During the chase, random obstacles present themselves to either party requiring tests and creativity from the drivers to evade.
Hacking is simple and kept fairly abstract, using Intelligence (Computer) rolls to do a number of possible actions to affect a device or server. Hacker characters get special class abilities that offer more options than the average character has. Virtual Reality hacking let's a hacker get bonuses and extra actions, while keeping to the same rounds as the other PCs.
What I Loved
Setting, and It's Presentation
It is hard to talk about Lowlife 2090 without comparing it to Shadowrun, and comparing a new game to one with 32 years of lore and history. Especially when talking about setting. Shadowrun's Sixth World is rich, elaborate, and complex. Unfortunately, it is also overwhelming.
Even as someone who has been playing since 1992, I have a hard time keeping up with the setting now. Every manual adds dozens of new facts and events. And it often seems as if the developers are striving for complexity. It is no wonder that the video games and one of the most successful spin-off editions (Shadowrun 2050) rewind the setting to the period of the first two editions.
Lowlife 2090's Mendoza City is beautifully self-contained. It is a breath of fresh air to have a setting with a smaller setting.
By having magic and meta-humanity be part of the setting since the beginning, we don't need nearly the same amount backstory. It also cuts down on the bigotry and clashes that were baked into the Shadowrun setting; different species have had time to figure it all out and get used to each other.
By having an apocalypse that has confined humanity to fortified sprawls, we need to cover far less ground in terms of what's going on in the world.
Beyond these very intelligent setting choices, one of the things I genuinely appreciate is how the setting is presented. Aside from a two-page rough, and a time line there is very little in the way of narrative info-dump. Compared to SR, which now cannot satisfactorily cover setting in two chapters of a core book, Lowlife 2090 creates an impressive world in very little space that can do most of the things Shadowrun can do.
Where the meat of the setting is presented is in factions and in area information about each of the burroughs of Mendoza City which consists of an at-a-glance info block, two paragraphs, and two d20 random encounter tables. Those random encounter tables include information about vice, gangs, culture, day-to-day life, the operations of the factions, the religious practices, and economics of the sprawl always in the context of a gamble encounter. This is a masterclass in showing, not telling in world design.
I have previously praised Low Fantasy Gaming's rest system. I am very impressed with how Lowlife 2090 improves on it. Each short rest (up to three per day) allows two willpower rolls to regain lost ability score points, remove conditions, or regain uses of class abilities.
All class abilities in LL2090 draw on a single pool of per-day uses based on level. This lets PCs recuperate, but only slowly, and forces each rest to be a compromise on what characters regain. Hit Points cannot be regained at all with short rests.
Long rests restore one point of luck, several points of list ability scores, class ability uses, and some hit points. Recovering from injuries and damage can take a long time in LL2090.
Short rests in LL2090 allow a character to keep pushing on in a job without making them feel invulnerable or superheroic.
Low Power Curve
Dungeons & Dragons suffers from massive scalability issues. Shadowrun suffers from characters feeling superheroic from the start. Even attempting to reset the power level of PCs in 4e fell apart once PCs had access to Arsenal and Augmentation. By treading both worlds Lowlife 2090 finds itself walking a delicate line.
I am. Impressed with how well LL2090 does at neither starting the PCs as overpowered nor having them level to godlike power later. The game takes some very smart measures to make that happen:
Hit Points start high at CON + Level + Class Modifier, but have a flat gain of 1hp per level. So, a Gunhand, one of the toughest character classes, with a 13 CON will start at 18 hp (13 CON + Level 1 +4 for Gunhand,) and peak at 26 hp at level 9.
Damage is relatively high, with baseball bats doing 2d6 and heavy pistols 2d8. Even the best armour available can't fully stop a lucky bullet.
Characters retire at level 10. Monsters, however can have fairly high HD to reflect abilities far beyond human limits.
Level-based defense ratings don't exceed 18 even for the toughest characters.
Even heavily augmented characters don't exceed two actions per round under normal circumstances.
Characters begin with fixed options on gear and cybernetic augmentations that keep players from starting with bionic killing machine characters.
While Luck improves with level, that it depletes ensures even high-level PCs can only go so long before saving throws start to fail.
Magic doesn't restore lost hit points.
Like Low Fantasy Gaming and Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, 0hp doesn't represent instant death in Lowlife 2090: instead, the PC is out of commission. Then a Luck test is made to see if a character is "all dead" or just "mostly dead" (love the reference). If a character is mostly dead, they roll on a trauma table for a serious, possibly life-altering injury.
This setup gives dropping to 0hp a sense of tension, especially late into an adventure when Luck is running low. And it means dropping to 0hp is going to have an impact on the character. Getting up and walking away from an injury that drops a character to 0hp just isn't likely w happen.
Vehicle chases take the best of Shadowrun and Dungeons & Dragons 5e's chase systems and mash them into something that is far better than the sum of its parts.
Random events don't show up every round, and don't necessarily affect everyone, but they do create mayhem when they appear. The tables to generate them are fun and help with world building.
Contests for the better driver are modified very lightly (they are a mathematical tangle in every edition of Shadowrun), and allow the driver to control the Distance of the Encounter. The goal for a fleeing party is to get far away enough that they may choose to be lost.
Limits on actions keep the speed of chase encounters fast and tense.
The vehicle trauma table keeps players from having to track vehicle hit points, and makes damage to vehicles far more meaningful. A blown tire, cracked windshield, and failing sensors are much scarier than having less than half hit points.
The system is robust enough that I was able to use it to simulate sea monster racing in Square Dungeon for my son.
Simple Character Generation
Character generation as written is completely randomized from the class and race down to the equipment of a PC. A full character can be made in 18 die rolls. Lowlife 2090 definitely embraces the idea of discovering your character rather than "creating" them.
However, simply letting player use an array and choose off of tables allows for pretty solid and fast character generation with very little modifications
Gear is pre-assigned and cyberware is a mix of pre-assigned and randomly selected. This helps avoid the burdensome shopping for PC equipment that slows character generation in both in Old-School Dungeons & Dragons and Shadowrun to a crawl.
This also means that you don't have to understand the system before diving into character generation; Shadowrun rewards PCs who know the system and setting better by making character optimization easier, and penalizes new players. Lowlife 2090 keeps all PCs a simple chain of rolls or choices.
Also, you can't min-max your way to superheroic ability.
This is a worthy carry-over from Low Fantasy Gaming: any character may, once per opponent, attempt a special trick, like tripping, disarming, throwing sand in eyes, etc., and if they are willing to commit some Luck, instead blind, injure, or even instantly kill opponents. Once attempted, a character may not try another exploit until the conditions of the battle have shifted significantly by the GM's estimation.
This opens up cool, creative approaches to combat using light, robust rules that any character can access. Once players grasp how Exploits work, they rend to use them rigorously. Making combat a lot more flavourful.
Bullets do a lot more than poke holes in your hit points in Lowlife 2090. There is a 5-10% chance that any attack, regardless of hit point damage might cause shock, injury to a limb, bleeding, disorientation, or far worse. That chance is much higher if characters are using Combat Exploits or high-end weaponry.
Better Guidance than LFG
Low Fantasy Gaming has some very open elements, such as spots where players are invited to create a unique custom ability for a character, or the above-mentioned Exploits. In LFG, very few examples were given on how to best use these. Lowlife 2090 offers solid examples that make using these features much simpler.
Repurposing Old Monster Design
Lowlife 2090 uses some old monster art and design to create fresh new creatures. The Destrachan appears in this edition re-imagined as the Skrunts. Grells serve as the template for the sinister N'Tarc Aliens. Demogorgon is used as the template for the Bataru demons. It is cool to see some old monster designs used in new ways.
Lowlife 2090 is an OSR game before it is a Cyberpunk game: it avoids the pitfalls of a lot of Cyberpunk game design by avoiding being over overcomplicated or concerning itself with "realism." It is interested in being fast, Rules-light, and focused on encouraging player creativity and random events to make the game engaging and unpredictable.
Damage Curve Presents a Hiccup to OSR Conversion
With a short sword doing d12 damage and a submachine gun dealing 3d8, the damage curve is a little wonky in LL2090 compared to standard OSR fare. Monsters' Hit Dice will likely not represent how many hits they can actually take. This might require some crunching to make an OSR module remain challenging.
Random Chargen is Not for Everyone
Making character generation random down to race and class is fine by me. I like character discovery over character creation... But the default chargen system takes more control out of the hands of players than I know my players would be happy with. It can be a hard sell as written.
Perhaps making it explicit that the GM might want to allow players to choose their table results and listing some alternative stat-rolling methods might make some players more comfortable.
Maybe Some More Prompts?
The hardest part of Shadowrun is coming up with good runs for PCs to go on. Lowlife 2090 makes it clear that the lowlifes are more than just spies, and the random encounter tables give some great ideas, but a collection of adventure prompts or a random job generator might give us GMs some inspiration about what lowlifes can get up to for pay in Mendoza City.
The Hacking is really Bare-Bones
That we could use some more hand-holding true of the Hacking system, which is beautifully open, but too brief. It needed more examples of what a hacker could do when they are spoofing a device or in control of a server. When a server should be on alert would also be useful to see more parsed out.
Lowlife 2090 falls into the same trap Shadowrun does of having a huge, bulky equipment list with exemplars of every class of firearm, vehicle, Drone, etc. all on display. Want a luxury car? Check. Sports car? Check? Family sedan? Check. It leads to a bulky, overwhelming chapter that I suppose, is a necessary evil of gaming in the modern or scifi eras. But weighing in at 62 pages, the gear section is almost overwhelming.
Every Cyberpunk game I have ever read except Emanoel Meli's pamphlet-sized CBR+PNK has come with its own two-page sheet of setting - specific slang. Lowlife 2090 is no exception. I don't care for the convention, but I don't hate it, either.
In the case of LL2090, the slang feels odd. It doesn't trip off my Canuck tongue the way Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020's does. "Welcome to the 'Doza, Crump" doesn't have the same flow as the equivalent "Welcome to the Sprawl, chummer" or "Welcome to Night City, Choomba." I would say that this slang works best if you are used to the cadence of Australian or South African English. I find all my NPCs start sounding like they are from Jo'burg by default. Not a complaint per se, but the slang does not feel naturally evolved.
Like Low Fantasy Gaming, Lowlife 2090 characters level at prodigious speed; once per job. As a guy who likes languorous 200+ hour campaigns, this is far too fast for my taste. At that pace character turnover from retirement puts an awfully tight limit on duration. Personally, I would import the experience system from The Dozen Dooms to slow things down.
Lowlife 2090 offers a familiar OSR alternative to modern Shadowrun that offers a faster, simpler, and overall fairly clean experience. It is well thought-out and executed. It's setting is presented artfully through the medium of encounters and tables. In places it can be scant, relying on GM or Player creativity to fill in open spaces. I have already pirated the chase mechanics, and would gladly steal it's rest and trauma rules
I plan on running a Lowlife 2090 campaign this Summer, and will post updates on my experience on W2tDT.