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Saturday, 4 March 2017

RPGPundit Reviews: Low Fantasy Gaming

This is a review of the RPG "Low Fantasy Gaming", published by LFG, written by Stephen J Grodzicki.  This is, as always, a review of the print edition, which is a softcover book about 185 pages long.

The book's front cover is in black and white, featuring a very detailed image of the creepy entrance to a dungeon with the kind of ambiance that screams "not all the party is getting out alive". There's a decent amount of interior art, all black and white, most of which is done in a typical western-comic-book style, of varying descriptive fantasy elements.

I have to say this: based on hype and at first glance, I was looking forward to checking this book out.  I think I may have been drawn in by the title: "low fantasy gaming".  It is obviously meant to suggest gritty style, and I further read into it the assumption that this would be a tight and minimalist system which I hoped would be in the by-now classic OSR style of short sharp rules with a few neat innovations.

Unfortunately, what I read into it with my assumptions was wrong. That's really not what LFG is. It's understandable how I could have believed it; even the back cover says it's "rules light".  By the standards of some RPG styles, you could say it certainly is. By OSR standards, it isn't.

Low Fantasy Gaming advertises itself, aside from being rules light, as having 'fast and engaging combat', being 'dangerous and gritty', a 'realistic world', 'dark and dangerous magic', 'riches and glory' (where the characters are not epic heroes, but rather adventurers seeking riches and glory), and an 'open world'.
It also notes that it does not describe a new setting. It only has the rules and the setting those rules imply.

The game also details it has the following variations from standard OSR gaming: it only has 5 classes (barbarian, bard, fighter, rogue and magic user); it only goes to a max of 12th level; it resolves actions by rolling under ability scores; it got rid of the Wisdom ability score, replacing it with 'willpower' and 'perception'; it has a skill system and a 'reroll pool'; it also has a 'luck' attribute instead of saving throws; more dangerous combat; party retreat and chase rules; 5 minute short rests that recover hp and class abilities; magic tests that makes spellcasting riskier; and rare magic items that improve in power as characters level up.
As you can see, some of these are borrowed from more new-school systems. The book mentions that all rules are to be taken as guidelines only.

Characters are created with 4d6-drop-lowest method, except that every PC starts with 1 ability score at 15. A couple of alternate methods are provided.

The "Luck" ability starts at 10+half the PC's level, rounded up. It resets at the start of every adventure. Characters make luck checks (roll under) for situations that other OSR games would use for saving throws, but may also use them for other more creative purposes.  Every time luck is successfully rolled, the luck score goes down by one point, meaning that as the adventure wears on, characters will become less likely to succeed at these checks.

This alteration from saving throws reminds me of the Luck score in the old Fighting Fantasy books; that might have been an inspiration for it.  In any case, there's nothing particularly wrong with this mechanic, but at the same time there was nothing particularly wrong with saving throws either.

Hit points start at maximum for class at level 1; beyond this, however, the author has also chosen to seriously inflate the hit point values.  Barbarians, for example, gain a D6+6 hp per level. Fighters (annoyingly) gain a d5+5, and magic users a D3+3.  I'm not too clear as to the reason for such a huge inflation of hit points, given that OSR gamers tend to prefer the more high-risk situations of having lower hp than in more new-school games.  It also doesn't strike me that having inflated hit points jives well with what my idea of "low fantasy" means.

Characters each start with a variety of skills. In some cases, like the fighter, they have a couple of skills that are obligatory (leadership and athletics in the fighter's case) and then a selection of a certain number from a set list (the fighter gets to pick any four of acrobatics, arcane lore, detection, apothecary, gather information, general lore, insight, persuasion, stealth, deception, traps & locks, or wilderness lore).  Bards get to pick any 7 skills.

Much like in 3e D&D and up, each class also gets a number of special abilities at certain levels. Rogues, for example, get backstab (1st and 5th level), Finisher (1st level), Trick & Techniques (1st level, but there's a big list of tricks and they get to pick one use of the list per level), skirmisher (2nd and 7th level), a new skill at 4th and 8th level, lethal precision at 7th level, and thieves guild at 10th level.

In addition to this, EVERY class gets a "Unique Feature" at 3rd, 6th, 9th and 12th level; which is basically a kind of feat the player gets to invent for themselves (the author even suggests to borrow stuff from other books).
From my point of view, as an old-school DM, this is appalling.  It's an invitation to having to wrestle with players about whatever outlandish idea for an overpowered special ability they want to come up with. It is at least suggested that if a "table" (I assume he means a GM, but if he did, why didn't he say that, instead of implying that it should somehow be mutually up to the whole table?!) doesn't want to bother with this sort of nonsense, they could just grant a +1 to an ability score at each of these levels.

This is all starting to strike me a bit less like an OSR game than a kind of OSR-esque game for people who don't really like the framework of the OSR.

Skills in the game function by adding the skill bonus (typically +1) to the relevant ability score for the purpose of any ability score check which relates to the skill's area of expertise. There is also a "reroll pool" mechanic, where each character has a pool of 1 reroll per level. Spending one of these allows the PC to reroll a failed check. Characters regain expended reroll pool points by taking "long or short rests" (yes, there's those too).

We have a table of "party bonds": it's suggested that each PC roll once of the table to come up with a connection with one or more other members of the group.  I'm not a big fan of this artificial method of generating connections, in my experience it rarely works right.  Additionally, in this case the table only has 20 entries, meaning that for long term play you have way too few options.

The default for LFG is that PCs are all human, but you do get one page which gives some brief guidelines for Elf and Dwarf characters in case the GM wants to allow them.

Equipment is set up in a somewhat creative way; instead of a standard price-list table, what you get is a set of price ranges.  There's common equipment (stuff worth 1d6gp, which you can find almost anywhere), uncommon equipment (worth 2d10+10gp), which is harder to find, and rare equipment (worth 5d10+50gp) which require unusual materials or specialized skills.  The first two entries get a long paragraph of examples. So among the common gear there's belt pouches, ink, a ladder, waterskins, etc.; while among the uncommon, there are things like 'clothes with secret pockets', a holy symbol, holy water, a musical instrument, etc. Rare equipment items are each given a paragraph or so of descriptions. Among these you find acid, anti-toxin, a healer's kit, forged papers, poison, thief tools, and more.

You get back to the more traditional price lists for animals, vehicles, lifestyle expenses, hirelings, buildings, melee weapons, ranged weapons, and armor.  There's some special quality metals described for the weapons, stuff like adamantine (which gives you a +2 bonus for the weapon when used to break things) or 'cold iron' (which gets +1 to hit and damage against demons or the undead).
Almost every standard weapon also has its own special properties too: a battleaxe gets +1 damage if used 2-handed, a dagger gets you a bonus to initiative, short-swords have a chance to disarm foes, etc.

Armor class is ascending, and armor types are simply divided into light (robes, hide, leather, studded), medium (chain shirt, breastplate, etc), and heavy (plate, splint, chain or ring mail).  Any armor of the same type has the same bonuses and cost, meaning its purely an aesthetic choice whether you wear chain mail or plate mail. Special materials for metal armor are also included: silvered armor means lycanthropes and 'aberrant terrors' must make Will checks to be willing to hit you, while mithril armor has no action-penalties, to give just two examples.

Combat tends to follow along D20/3e format as well, for the most part.  Initiative on a D20, you can do ready actions, one move and one attack action, at least there's (thankfully) no Attack-of-Opportunity mechanic, though there is a mechanic for intercepting someone trying to move near you. From 5e, the author has made use of Advantage/Disadvantage mechanics.
Apparently inspired from DCC, the system also uses something similar to mighty deeds, here called "major exploits".  Any class can attempt a major exploit, not just fighters. To succeed at an attempted major exploit he must first successfully make an attack roll, and then must attempt a Luck check to see if the exploit succeeds.  A few examples of major exploits are provided; but maybe not as many guidelines as I might like for such an open-ended concept.

Rules are provided for many typical combat situations, like two-weapon fighting, unarmed combat, mounted combat, cover, visibility, surprise, etc.

In terms of damage, if a character gets down to 50% of their original hit points, they're 'staggered'. Curiously, this seems to have no effect at all on PCs.  On NPCs, it appears that in most cases it's just meant to be something the GM tells the players so they know the creature is halfway dead, but some creatures have certain abilities that activate only once they're staggered.

When a character is at 0hp, he falls, and remains out in a not-dead/not-alive state until someone checks the body; at which point the PC makes a Con check (using the reroll pool is allowed) to see if they survived or not.  Characters who do survive still need to roll on an 'injury table' to see if any permanent injury results.

Characters recover from injuries via short or long rests, as in 5e D&D.

The magic system has some considerable differences from either the traditional OSR D&D or new-school D&D.  For a start, any character can attempt to do an Intelligence or Perception check to detect magic.

To cast a spell, a spellcaster must roll a "dark and dangerous magic" check. This is based on rolling a d20, with an increasing risk of a "ddm" effect each time a spell is cast, until an effect is triggered (at which point the risk reduces back to the minimum of 1-in-20).
Whenever a ddm effect happens, the caster loses 1 point of Luck and must roll on a random table of weird effects. Also, there's a couple of spells that automatically cause a "dark and dangerous magic" effect whenever they're cast (eg. Animate Dead, Death Spell).
Effects vary considerably: you may grow a temporary beard, all plant life around you might wither and die, liquids around you turn to dust, you might temporarily lose your shadow, your eyes temporarily change color, your spells may gain special benefits, or be less effective, animals might fear you, someone around you might go nuts, a random demon may appear, etc. etc.
The table of 'ddm' effects is a d100 table, though some effects occupy more than one number; even so, it's broad enough to keep things interesting.

Spells go up to level 6, with 20 spells listed per spell level. Because there are no clerics, these lists consist of a mix of spells traditionally used by D&D arcane casters and divine casters.
Spell descriptions are of suitable detail, sufficiently complete without being stupidly long. The whole list of spells takes up 18 pages.

The "GM Information" section takes up a variety of different subjects: there's aerial combat, level advancement, chases (with a table of 'chase events'), stuff PCs can do during downtime, a D30 'dungeon room generator', and rules on madness.

The monster section is not gigantic but quite adequate. It covers 33 pages, with 2-4 monsters per page. Mostly, the designer sticks to the D&D classics, with one or two unusual choices (like the "Man-eating Monkey").

After this, there's a section on morale rules, and one on traps. This is followed by the section on treasure, where treasure is divided into two types: "carry loot" and "lair treasure".  Carry loot is what a single person might have on them when looted. It's generated by a random d100 table, where most of the entries are just randomized sums of money; some have other objects, or a chance of a magic item.  Some also tell you to roll a second table, of "trinkets and curios" which is also a 1d100 table.
Lair treasure is based on the HD of the defeated foe, with a chance of a magic item, a certain amount of gold, and a chance of rolling on a table of 'valuables'.

Magic items are divided into potions, scrolls, and permanent magic items. The latter are relatively within the range of standard D&D objects.  But permanent magic items are interesting: they are all unique.  There's a random roll to determine the basic form of the item (an amulet, bracer, armor, weapon, rope, lamp, etc etc.). Then the powers of the item are rolled on a couple of random tables.  Characters generally need to attune to the magic items, and when they do so again as they level the items may reveal additional powers. This is all fine in concept, though in execution there should probably be a distinction made between magic weapons/armor (and their properties) on the one hand, and other types of permanent magic items (and their properties).  Also the table of magic properties should probably be larger.

After this we move onto underwater rules, wilderness exploration, and some random encounter tables. I have to give credit to the encounter tables: they're not just random monsters or something.  While one or two entries are like "water elemental 10HD", most of the entries provide a bit more detail; like 3d6 bandits blocking the road to demand a 'toll', or 2d4 highly paranoid centaurs who are likely to be hostile to outsiders. That kind of thing. It's not huge detail but it's little touches that add a lot to the tables. Good job.

So, what do I conclude from Low Fantasy Gaming?  Well, like I said, it definitely wasn't what I expected.  I don't think it'll be exactly what a lot of OSR gamers would expect. I'm not going to go so far as to say it's not an OSR product, but it is certainly an attempt to bring a lot of material and mechanics from later editions into a kind of OSR style.

I don't really see that much of the 'low fantasy' in it, to be honest.  Yes, humans are the only fully-fleshed character race, and there's a level limit. But it's not like magic isn't about as plentiful within that level range as you'd expect it to be in standard D&D.  So it's not really low-fantasy in the sense of being low-mana.
Nor is it really low-fantasy in the sense of being highly lethal; instead you get inflated Hit Points, 'short rests', and survival rolls whenever your character 'dies' to see if he actually doesn't.
And I've already covered that it isn't really low-fantasy in the sense of having sharp simple rules in the style of, say, Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

On the other hand, what it does, it does fairly well. It incorporates good ideas (IF you like those ideas) from a number of other systems; not just 5e and 3e D&D but also stuff clearly inspired by Dungeon Crawl Classics. The question really is just who is going to find this book useful? Not pure OSR people, because this is not a purely OSR product.  Not 5e fanatics, because they already have 5e; likewise, DCC gamers already have DCC (the only reason I could imagine anyone who already loves DCC wanting to switch to LFG instead would be if, for some reason, they wanted a slightly LESS Gonzo version of DCC, but who the fuck would want that?!).

I'm not sure that this game should be marketed as "Low Fantasy Gaming" to the OSR crowd.  Because to the OSR crowd, it really isn't.
On the other hand, this might make an ideal sort of product to the "O5R" crowd, the group of people who play mostly 5e, 3e or Pathfinder but who are sometimes tempted by the crazy goings-on of the OSR. Because to me, really, it's not so much "low fantasy", or certainly not "rules light", as it is what a 5e player might imagine to be "rules light" and "low fantasy". It could very well be "low fantasy gaming" to a crowd full of 5e players.

So to sum up, if what you're looking for is a fast, gritty, lethal and low-magic type of game for OSR play, this is NOT that product.

On the other hand, if what you're looking for is a product to bring in some 5e add-ons and structure to the OSR framework, or an OSR product that you could potentially sell to your group full of 5e-gamers (or semi-older gamers brought up on 3e), then this might be the product for that.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Rhodesian + Image Latakia


  1. Oh well, another extra hit point, fast recovery, guaranteed high attribute version of D&D. Not sure I see the need for yet another rewrite of D&D with a new author's name pasted over where it used to say E. Gary Gygax.

  2. Thanks for the review RPGPundit! I like to think of Low Fantasy Gaming as a mix between OSR and 5e, with a few new options thrown in too.

  3. The PDF is free Matt, so you can check it out for yourself if you're inclined (or just grab the tables in the GM section)