Here at Angel’s Citadel, we have always stated that we focus on the Cypher System and other tabletop role-playing games. The bulk of that focus, however, has so far been on the Cypher System and Cypher-adjacent games (like Numenera and Invisible Sun). A lot of that has to do with the fact that those types of games are solidly within Joann and my current comfort zone (narrative-style, rules-light to moderate games). We still have a lot to say about those games and you’ll see that in the future too. The new year, however, is the time for new things and new resolutions. And so we’re going to start branching out somewhat to other systems and other settings.
The first of these is going to be Low Fantasy Gaming. Back in the end of September, 2020, Angel’s Citadel backed a Kickstarter by Pickpocket Press for a game called LowLife 2090. As part of that pledge, we received copies of some older works by the same company under the product line name Low Fantasy Gaming. The first of these that we’re going to review is the core rulebook, Low Fantasy Gaming – Deluxe Edition. Written by Stephen J Grodzicki, Low Fantasy Gaming is a d20 variant in the Old School Revival (OSR) vein of games, aiming to bring back what was great about tabletop roleplaying games from the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
“The general ethos of OSR-style play emphasizes spontaneous rulings from the referee, or Game Master, over set rules found in a book. The idea is for the players to engage with the fantasy as much as possible, and have the referee arbitrate the outcomes of their specific actions in real time. The idea of game balance is also de-emphasized in favor of a system which tests players skill and ingenuity in often strange or unfair situations. The players should expect to lose if they merely pit their numbers against the monsters, and should instead attempt to outwit or outmaneuver challenges placed in their way. Keeping maps comes highly recommended.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_School_Revival
Manufacturing and Production Quality
We ordered a Print on Demand copy from DriveThruRPG in addition to the PDF copy we received as part of the Kickstarter. The hardbound book is of good quality. The printing is on heavy weight paper, in color, and the print does not appear to bleed. The paper is non-glossy, but does not seem to be of poor quality either. The artwork, cover and some of the interior, was commissioned from Daniel Comerci and is beautiful and evocative. A good portion of the art is stock art (custom commissioned art is expensive, trust us), but for the most part, it fits the theme of the book well. The book itself is actually about a quarter-inch taller than most of our other role-playing books and so does not actually fit on our bookshelves as we have them set. It’s a small nit-pick, but was something I noticed and am not sure as to the reason why.
Low Fantasy Gaming, as we have said, is based on the d20 system using Wizards of the Coast’s d20 Open Gaming License (OGL v. 1.0). It uses the standard ability scores, except that the traditional Wisdom is split into Willpower and Perception. There is also a unique ability score called Luck that is added and is a calculated score. Luck diminishes over the course of play and is used in a variety of special situations where drama is injected into the game and the attribute itself is similar to the saving throws of other similar games (Dungeons & Dragons in particular). The fact that it diminishes over time (on a successful use, to a minimum score of 5) means that the game gets more and more perilous.
The tagline on the front cover is “Less Magic. More Grit.” Low Fantasy Gaming is a system that embraces the kind of games that view magic as something rare and often, something inherently dangerous. For inspiration on this theme, look at Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard, or perhaps Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber. Hit points are intentionally low, levels are kept low, and power levels are throttled. The game thrives in a sandbox environment where characters drive the action. Go where you please, do what you please. Take on whatever you will, and retain the option to retreat to fight another day. There is a setting, the Midlands, that was written specifically for Low Fantasy Gaming, but you can use it with other settings (the author recommends several on p. 274 of the book).
The first 62 pages of the book cover character creation, including even a small section on Party Bonds to encourage party cohesion with story hooks. Those of our readers that have followed us for a while, know that we are both huge fans of mechanics that promote group cohesion such as Character Arcs and Character Bonds. The next 22 pages contain the bulk of the rules for the game. The mechanics are simple. Most things are an ability check, where you roll equal to or under your relevant ability score. If you fail, but have a relevant skill, it grants access to using your reroll pool to roll the check again. Attacks, similar to other d20-based games, are rolling over a target’s Armor Class (ties go to the attacker).
Following this, is the section on Magic. Magic, in Low Fantasy Gaming, is “Dark and Dangerous”, power that mortals were not meant to have access to and play with at their own peril. Each time a spell is cast, the caster rolls a 1d20. If the result is a 1, an effect from the Dark and Dangerous Magic Table (DDM Table) occurs. If the result is anything else, the spell occurs normally. However, the threshold for rolling on the table increases by one (in other words, the next time, a DDM Table effect is rolled on a 1 or a 2). The chance of an effect increases by one for ever spell cast until either a DDM effect is triggered or the adventure ends, at which time it resets to 1 in 20. The effects on the DDM Table range from bizarre but mostly benign to Extremely Bad News, and there are enough of them (causing the table to be large enough) to cause variation in storytelling and things that happen to a particular character so that it doesn’t get “boring”.
Character advancement is presented in two styles based on how fast you want the pacing of your campaign to be. The more interesting of these to me is the Session Advancement style. It reminds me very much of the Cypher System style of advancement where several “mini-advancements” must be made before you can level up. The game has a built in level-cap of 12. According to Mr. Grodzicki:
“12th Level was chosen as the end point for a number of reasons: (i) to keep certain powerful monsters especially scary and dangerous to even the most powerful PC’s, (ii) to keep lower level monsters relevant for longer, and (iii) to remove the highest levels of magic from the game.”Low Fantasy Gaming, page 111
The next 158 pages are for the Low Fantasy Gaming Game Master. They provide tools and rules for dealing with all sorts of situations that may come up, from maritime events, to overland exploration, dungeon generation, hirelings, morale, rival adventurers, traps, tavern brawls and more. There are tables detailing with treasure, both mundane and magical, a moderately sized bestiary of monsters, optional rules for dealing with madness, discussion of how to deal with mass battles… While probably not everything a GM could run across, the author makes what can only be categorized as a valiant, good-faith attempt to arm someone running his game with the tools necessary to do so and feel comfortable doing so. The end of the book provides a series of useful Appendices including one that converts the names of common d20 System Reference Document (SRD) spells to the renamed ones used in Low Fantasy Gaming and vice versa. The book ends with a very well put-together index and two character sheets (one color, one black and white).
Having not actually played the system, I hesitate to critique it. However, the one piece of commentary that I would give has to do with organization and explanation. If this book (and the draft of LowLife 2090 that I have been playtesting) could use anything, it is some more explanation/examples of rules like checks, Luck, rests and healing, and leveling up. Not that these things are not understandable. But some of them, like leveling up, pull information from both that section of the book as well as character classes. Putting them together can be difficult to understand, particularly for a brand new player. While the advice to learn with a group that already plays is, as always, relevant, it is not always a luxury people have. More examples, or a flowchart here or there to illustrate a process would go a long way in making this more accessible to a player new to both roleplaying in general and this game at the same time.
For our money, Joann and I are both really intrigued by this game. LowLife 2090 is basically the same system and having playtested it some, we both really enjoy how fast and furious it plays. I expect more of the same from this and would guess that this will make an appearance at our table when we want to run a fantasy game. Want to check out Low Fantasy Gaming for yourself? Pickpocket Press has released the original edition of the PDF absolutely FREE on their website. You can download it HERE. You can get the books Print on Demand or the other PDF’s on DriveThruRPG. Pickpocket Press has a ton of free resources available on their website. We at Angel’s Citadel highly recommend them and their products. Stephen is a great guy and puts out excellent product that is absolutely worth the time it takes to look at. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles