Publisher: Pickpocket Press
Engine: Low Fantasy Gaming (OSR-Compatible)
One of my earliest reviews was of Steve Grod's Low Fantasy Gaming: a system I have used on a weekly basis as a player and frequently as a GM to boot. You can check out LFG for free, and it is definitely worth your time, as it remains in my top 5 OSR games consistently.
After enjoying LFG, and his Cyberpunk & Sorcery derivative Lowlife 2090, which he kindly sent me for review around its release, I decided I wanted to make sure to show my appreciation. I picked up the Low Fantasy Gaming: Deluxe Edition in hard copy when I had a little extra cash from sales of my adventure modules.
I have been meaning to review it for over a year now, and I feel that I have definitely gotten a solid handle on the merits of the system.
Low Fantasy Gaming: Deluxe Edition is an upgrade from the free edition in a lot of ways. Or contains several extra classes: the Artificer, Cultist, Monk, Ranger. It also includes rules for sea battles, mass combat, sample unique character abilities, special rules for black powder and tavern brawls, and information about the Midlands campaign setting. It's spell list is also revised from LFG.
It is designed as a premium product. the layout and art are redone to make a more pleasurable reading experience.
Low Fantasy Gaming blends elements of Classic, B/X and 3e Dungeons & Dragons to create a fast, frenzied system. Most tasks other than attack rolls are handled by making ability score checks by rolling a d20 under a stat. The system splits Wisdom into Perception and Willpower stats, and adds an Eighth Luck stat. Instead of numerical modifiers it uses Advantage/Disadvantage.
Deluxe Edition recognizes graduated successes. A roll that is less than half the stat is considered a great success. A roll that is more than 150% of the stat is a Terrible Failure. These don't have a lot of mechanical effects, but give the GM some guidance on adjudicating rolls/
The Luck stat replaces saving throws and is often modified by a bonus from another ability score. For example, saving against poison requires a d20 roll under a character's Luck score plus the bonus from their Constitution. Every successful roll reduces the character's luck skill by one. Luck replenishes slowly through rest.
Characters have a pool of re-rolls that are replenished by resting. Most characters have re-rolls equal to their level, but humans have additional re-rolls. They may only use those re-rolls on saving throws and skills they have proficiency. The re-rolls can also be expended to activate certain class skills.
Characters have a limited pool of uses of their class abilities based on their level (humans also gain an additional use of these) and most characters select new class abilities from a list at each level. For example, rogues gain the option to evade hits, attack with a hidden shive, blind foes with a dirty trick, disarm enemies with a lariat, break out of mind control, feint to get sneak attack damage, or use poison. A rogue picks one such power a level, and can expend it using this pool of daily abilities.
Other class abilities, such as a rogue's sneak attack work separately from that pool of class abilities, giving characters some abilities that are a constant to keep the characters from completely running out of resources.
Resting comes in short and long rests. Short rests, however, only allow a limited number of rolls against the character's willpower to regain re-rolls, hit points, or daily class ability uses. A full night's rest is necessy to get back full hit points, class ability uses, re-rolls, and just a single point of luck.
Magic is limited in LFG:D; magic users have a relatively small pool of spells lots that they expend to cast a small pool of known spells in the style of 3rd edition sorcerers. Each spell or use of a magic item builds up a Dark and Dangerous Magic (DDM) Count. The GM may choose to roll a d20. If it is below the DDM count, the GM rolls for a magical mishap that can include temporary or permanent mutations, accidental monster summoning, random spell effects, or curses. Spells are renamed and re-flavoured to feel more like classic Sword & Sorcery stories. For example, Magic Missile is reimagined as Lash of Unerring Pain.
Characters gain Unique Abilities at 3rd, 6th, and 9th level that the PCs may themselves devise. These are meant to mimic feats in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition, and feats from that edition can easily be used. or players can create a power that the GM helps them develop and adjudicate. These were left mostly undeveloped in the free edition of Low Fantasy Gaming. In the Deluxe Edition there is a chapter of examples to work with.
Sea travel and mass battle Systems in LFG:D are conceptualized as a series of events where the PCs can affect the outcome.
For example, an artillery barrage might start where the PCs are in a position to sabotage the siege weapons. For each event where the PCs effectively aid their side they gain an event point. Additionally, there are rules for abstracting large units of soldiers to act as single creatures to determine engagements. The PCs, if they choose to aid these units can vastly increase their abilities. For every engagement where the side the PCs are on win, the PCs gain a victory point. After several events or engagements, the PCs begin rolling 3d6 plus their event and victory points. When they beat an 18 the PCs are drawn into a final confrontation which will allow them to determine the final outcome of the combat.
Likewise, a sea voyage is abstracted into a series of events and encounters that slowly build up a point total towards arrival at their destination.
In combat, Low Fantasy Gaming has rules for rescues which include pulling allies out of harms way, or shielding others with your body, intercepts, that let you quickly sacrifice your action to interfere with enemies, and combat exploits that allow characters to trip, blind, disarm, maim, stun, or otherwise disrupt enemies during combat that is freeform and uses a simple mechanic.
LFG: Deluxe includes all of Low Fantasy Gaming's rules for treasure generation, random dungeon generation, few but evolving magic items, and madness that I found worth of remark in my previous review.
What I Loved
Low Fantasy Gaming is very fast; it does a great job of simplifying the rules so they get out of the way of play, but still feels very complete. Re-roll mechanics, using Luck instead of fixed saving throws, and having a simple mechanic for almost any stunt you might want to pull in combat makes the game move fast all of the time. Which for me is one of the biggest advantages of the system.
Luck Makes Saves a Time Bomb
Because Luck depletes quickly, and returns very slowly, each saving throw feels like a tick of a time bomb. The more risks you take in an adventure the more you are heading towards a potential death spiral of failed saves. It does a great job of getting players to calculate risks, and ratchets up tension as an adventure goes on.
Exploits can cover any clever trick a PC wants to pull from tipping a bookshelf on to enemies, to kicking sand in faces, disarming, or slashing a belt to make a character trip, all use a very simple system: the GM determines, based on how likely the exploit is to cause a temporary versus permanent problem for the target, and uses that to decide whether they attempting a Major or Minor exploit. Minor exploit requires an opposed attribute test. Major exploits require Luck tests.
Each player may only try exploits on a given target once when combat begins. An additional opportunity might be granted if the target is bloodied (drops below half hit points), or if the tide of the battle turns significantly in the favor of the characters.
This, like the Might Deeds of Arms system in Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, encourages players to be creative.
When I first reviewed Low Fantasy Gaming, I was unsure about the madness mechanic. I think that it is perhaps more gameable, and possibly more realistic than the madness mechanics in Call of Cthulhu. A Madness is expressed as an obsessive thought that the PC is stuck in, which players may or many not choose to play. A Character's madness can increase or decrease in severity, which might eventually make a character who doesn't seek help become unplayable.
Madness doesn't often have mechanical consequences, but on occasion the GM might demand a Willpower test to act contrary to their stuck thought.
I have found that if PCs are offered and incentive to play out a Madness will often rise to the occasion and give them teeth. I created a more mechanically impactful version of this system for Deathtrap Lite.
The way Low Fantasy Gaming handles treasure is one of my favourite parts of the game. It has tables for trinkets, carried loot, and valuables. Searching a group of bodies might lead to a roll on carried loot, which may lead to rolls on other tables. Treasure hoards include both a coin total and a few rolls on the other tables.
The treasure tables themselves are full of cool, evocative items that both build the world and generate adventure hooks as they go. I discuss them in detail in a recent article on treasure types.
Loose, Collaborative Rules
Exploits, unique features, and madness are all very loose rules that are open for taking a "rulings, not rules" and "play your world" approach to play. They also strongly reward player creativity. I like that fact that the game strips rules down and offers a lot of trust to the table to co-create a fun experience.
The Retreat Mechanic
I still think that Low Fantasy Gaming's retreat mechanic, using group luck tests, is smart, straightforward, and frees a lot of cognitive load from what can be a very confusing part of Dungeons & Dragons play.
Better Development of Complex Traps
In Low Fantasy Gaming, traps come in two flavours: simple and complex. Simple traps feel very close to how traps were expressed in Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, they are an annoying, paranoia-inducing hit point tax (although the damage tends to scale to keep them perilous.) Complex traps are far more sophisticated and feel like deadly dynamic encounters. In the free release they are underdeveloped and difficult to figure out how to use. The revised explanation and examples in the Deluxe Edition make it far easier to use.
Much Improved Organization
One of the proud nails of Low Fantasy Gaming's free version is the organization of the GM section. Every rule that wasn't player-facing was included in a single GM's section arranged alphabetically. This meant all the monsters appeared in the middle in the 'M' section right after Madness, and before NPC reacions, Treasure in the 'T' section. It was a frustrating mess to navigate.
In LFG:D, the rules are broken into discrete chapters with a table of contents and decent index. This makes finding material far easier than in the original LFG.
Spell Names are Confusing
I understand why Steve Grod' chose to rename the spells in Low Fantasy Gaming. Not only is Magic Missile dull and uninspired, it also doesn't sound anything like the names of spells we might have read in Jack Vance. On some levels, I love "Lash of Unerring Pain" more, but losing those familiar names makes it a lot harder to reference magic when using other OSR materials.
Monster Stat Blocks Make Conversion Trickier
Another spot where it is a little harder to use other OSR products with Low Fantasy Gaming is stat blocks. Like D&D3e, LFG gives monsters the full array of ability scores, and in the Exploits system, those stats actually matter. This means that the GM is going to have to assign stats on the fly if he is using material that isn't made specifically for LFG. This isn't necessarily too difficult, but it adds to the cognitive load.
DDM Scares the Wits out of My Players
The Dark and Dangerous Magic tables include so many nightmarish outcomes that my players are actually afraid to use magic, and often extend downtime to avoid the danger of having it go off. On its own, it wouldn't be so bad, but with the very limited number of spells learned and spell slots, the magic users in LFG just start to feel like fragile time-bombs. Some of my players have complained that DDM takes the fun out of the game.
This has been dealt with to some extent in the Low Fantasy Gaming Companion, which offers an alternative table, the Perilous Magic system, that is a little less punishing while still making magic feel risky.
If you are the sort of GM who wants magic to be dangerous to NPC sorcerers and PCs alike, this may not even be an issue for you. It is definitely one of the places where LFG has a particular tone it is going for.
The Randomized Pricing can be Funky
Low Fantasy Gaming breaks items into common, uncommon, and rare items that have a randomly generated price range, Common items cost 1d6 gp, uncommon 2d10 + 10gp, and rare 50 + 5d10gp. At first, I liked this system. It lets you skip checking the manual, and lets PCs imagine that there is a fluctuating market that they can game to make a fortune.
It has a very notable downside, however, some things end up being priced completely unreasonably. I've ended up paying 3gp for a bundle of chalk, and 5gp per pint of lamp oil. On the Other Hand I have paid only 1gp for a fine lantern, and 14gp for a musical instrument. While it all balances out in the end, I find it has queer effects on PC immersion and engagement in the game.
LFG really needs a trifling price category for things that are typically only bought with silver pieces that keep the cost of things like chalk, oil, string, and sealing wax from being absurdities.
The Deluxe Edition of Low Fantasy Gaming adds lots of cool player options to the already formidable LFG. Where it was vague in the free version, it is often much more specific in the Deluxe, and offers players and GMs with a lot of gameable examples. Adding in sea voyage and mass combat rules gives it some additional oomph for running a campaign that I really appreciate as well. It is better organized, more elegantly presented, and overall a tight refinement of what was already a good system.
Many of its flaws are where innovative systems go off the rails, or when the tone you are looking for isn't close enough to the desired Conanesque swashbuckling action story style gameplay. On the other hand, many of its innovations will give you one of the fastest, smoothest OSR experiences that you could ask for,