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Low Fantasy Gaming RPG – A Return to the Old Days of Gritty Dungeons & Dragons?

Part One

Like the dodgy dealer in the side-street, I’m wearing a long coat, stuffed, you believe, with all the content of some knock-off role-playing games. But when I speak, the words are not what you’re expecting…

“Wanna play some high risk D&D, do ya?”

This is Low Fantasy Gaming, and if it was a drug, it would be up there with the class A’s.

Pickpocket Press (Stephen Grodzicki and co.) successfully completed and shipped their kickstarter for Low Fantasy Gaming. For the primary backers, that meant that some of us received a link to make use of a discounted print version using DriveThruRPG. As a backer, I decided to get the hardback deluxe version and take a look!

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In this article, part 1 of 2, I’m going to look at the character creation and aspects of the game that relate mostly to the payers. Part 2 will focus on the GM section and go into detail on the various game elements introduced to widen the scope of the game and bring it to life!

Read on…

Why did I back LFG?

Mainstream Dungeons & Dragons, to some, has lost its danger element. It seems too easy to safely succeed. Clearly some of this is down to the GM’s style, but the game system itself feels designed to permit “winning.” The general feeling is that players are expected to win, with the rare exceptional circumstances. This is a huge area for debate, which won’t get covered here but it outlines why I wanted to see what LFG had to offer.

So, LFG takes D&D away from the safety of a kids animated TV show and throws it into a bloody meat grinder operated by Stephen King and the reanimated corpse of Howard Lovecraft. Frankly, no one is safe… which makes the game feel far more exciting. The tension is going to build easily when players realise their fighter is not the steaming tank of hit points, but rather a human with human weaknesses!

So what is Low Fantasy Gaming? What’s the book and its content like and how does it feel? Is it just a grittier version of Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition or is it something else? We’ve got you covered, so read on for more!

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A Note on OSR & OGL

Low Fantasy Gaming seems to be part of the old school revival (OSR) of role-play games. This revival focuses on less about keeping in line with the rules and more about full immersion into fantasy. The point of any exercise was to test the players themselves, encouraging them to test their ingenuity and creativity.

According to Wikipedia the OSR was only made possible by Wizards of the Coast introducing the Open Game Licence (OGL) way back in 2000. The OGL allowed for unofficial creative content that was in line with the traditional Dungeons & Dragons game content. The explosion of home brew rules and adventures from third parties exploded in the early 2000 because of this and is attributed to much of the long life of 3 and 3.5 editions of Dungeons and Dragons.

Low Fantasy Gaming is definetly part of the OSR, and it’s content is 99% OGL.

General Overview

Low Fantasy Gaming (LFG) is a primary source book, made up of a players handbook, a games masters guide and a monstrous manual all rolled into one. It is fully compatible with D20 system material RPG’s and with a bit of work compatible with content from Wizards of the Coast material such as Dungeons & Dragons. Saying that, why would you want to? This game is perfectly standalone and seems to have itself balanced out!

LFG is set in its own “quasi-realistic world” in which magic and monsters are present, but are not as common place as in your typical fantasy world setting. In its default setting, LFG is a game where player-characters are human and one of the 9 classes. Those classes are much less magically inclined but are still greatly inspiring.

The deluxe edition of LFG is 286 pages (from contents page to the end of the index) and covers everything from character creation, equipment, spells and magic, how to play the game and then onto the GM specific chapters, such as monsters, how to prepare adventures, traps, treasures and a whole host of other cool mechanics and ideas.

It is everything you need in one book. You just need paper, pencils and dice!

It may not be for everyone however, as the game is very much swords and a bit of sorcery, rather than the high fantasy heroics of its mainstream counterpart.

If you’re not a fan of tables you may struggle a little too. Although it’s not reliant on tables (the GM can, after all choose to ignore them), they do add a strong element to the game, particularly  if the GM likes to add a bit of chaos to the table!

The artwork is second to none too. The quality and variety of styles could be found in any professional quality gaming book. I would happily rank it right up there with Wizards of the Coast. You can find examples of the artwork throughout this article!

So what’s in the book?

Screenshot 2019-08-10 at 09.40.39

Character Creation

The first obvious change to the standard is that character attributes, those numbers which determine how strong, wise or fast your character is, have been altered. Whereas a score of 14 in an attribute would provide a bonus to a dice roll of +2, it now only provides a bonus of +1. The maximum score for an attribute for humans is set at 18, not 20. So we see a reduction of ability score bonuses and their maximum.

However, we also see the introduction of several more attributes. In “regular” D&D we have six attributes; 3 physical (strength, dexterity & constitution) and 3 mental (intelligence, wisdom and charisma). In LFG there’s a split of the wisdom attribute into Perception and Willpower and they’ve also introduced Luck as an attribute. Luck as an attribute isn’t new to role-playing games (we even have it in our own Pulp RPG beta system).

So, perception covers your characters physical wisdom, sight, hearing and observations, whereas Willpower is described as self confidence and mental fortitude. I suspect that these will either mean you must spread out your strong attribute scores or have to pick between one or the other. It does however mean you’ll likely be “OK” for at least one of them!

The Luck attribute is interesting. It is broken down into two primary functions; luck saves and luck checks. A luck save deals with direct attacks and reflects your characters adventuring expertise to avoid hazards.

The luck check is way more interesting. You can use luck checks to perform unusual actions which are situational, defined by LFG as “Major Exploits.” These are essentially like ‘get out of jail free’ cards but a bit more fun. For example, you can use your luck checks to escape from dangerous or ill-fated battles. This may seem like a role-play cop-out but the players need to explain how they will execute this tactical withdraw and there’s no guarantee it will work!

So as you can imagine, a game with this sort of narrative-enabling mechanic is going to have moments where the players decide it’s time to bug-out. The expectations are great, because in every game I’ve ever run for players, retreat never seems to be an option considered. It is a lesson that has cost them dearly, but I suspect a quick lesson for LFG gamers.

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Races are not limited to humans, but there is very little in the way of advantages per se. Dwarves for example gain advantage on rolls associated with resisting poison and magic of all kinds (which is quite a strong benefit but a low intensity mechanic). They have some benefits in low light conditions, but are just as blind in total darkness as humans.

In opposition to this, each race gains a less desirable trait, such as gold lust and highly honorific for dwarves – they must undertake willpower checks to resist opportunities for riches (making them reckless prospectors) and similarly, a willpower if they perceive themselves to be slighted. Don’t forget, there is no single Wisdom attribute, so be prepared to pull the dwarf out of the furnace trap!

Gone are the attribute score improvements and randomly assigned bonus skills and abilities. At most, a race other than human will receive advantage rolls of some sort, but that is all. The disadvantages may seem meekly role-play ones, but they will no doubt get the characters in trouble… and in a system like this, trouble can mean death.

Character classes are a lot less magically inclined and much more martial. This does not rule out characters with magical abilities. In the place of wizards, sorcerers, warlocks, clerics and priests we have the Cultist and the Magic User. Appropriate names in modern society? Probably.

Classes include: the artificer, barbarian, bard, cultist, fighter, magic user, monk, ranger and the rogue. Some of these may seem like magically themed classes, but they are not so obviously brimming with magical powers.

fantasy D&D dungeons and dragons Low fantasy gaming RPG gritty

Hit Points act much the same way as they do in other 5th Edition games but have undergone some changes: class hit-dice are half the potential maximum hit points for a higher minimum (for example, 1D5)… and since you’re only reaching level 12, you’re not due to get many more, especially when you realise that towards the upper levels, your characters bonus hit points are capped by class.

So far many of the changes are aimed at reducing numbers. In a strange way they also seem to be streamlining the game system. Compared to Dungeons & Dragons, we already begin to feel that the game is closer to a real life experience with believable heroes, compared to a heroic world with unrealistic and death defying mundanity. There’s less messing about too, which I like.

What about character Advancement and variety?

So where does the character variety and customisation appear from? They would be the Unique Features. Unique features (UF) are gained as characters advance in levels. There are 37 unique features to choose from but unlike Feats in Dungeons & Dragons, many of the UFs are tiered. This gives many more options to customise a character, where a player can dedicate their efforts into a single UF or spread out in a variety, becoming adaptable. Here’s “Iron Grit” as an example (edited so as to avoid spoilers!):

  1. Increase your hit point maximum by x per level.
  2. Whenever you suffer a critical hit, you can perform an attribute check (X) to turn it into a normal hit instead.
  3. Gain advantage (re-roll 2 dice and choose the best result) on all Dead or Mostly dead checks.

Interestingly, there are no tables of experience points to advance your character through levels 1-12. Instead, the games master is meant to decide with the players when they think they’ve earned it. This brings the game to both the players and GM: involving both sides pulls the cohesion of the game together and breaks down some of the barriers over the table. It also cuts out the farming of experience points in a desperate race to gain levels.

It worth noting too that monsters do not earn characters experience points for slaying them. This introduces the status quo element to LFG. Go to Dragontop Mountain, expect dragons. Fully grown dragons!

fantasy D&D dungeons and dragons Low fantasy gaming RPG gritty

The Magic System is both dangerously mysterious, and oft unpredictable!

Despite being low fantasy, there are some surprising little tricks in the magic mechanics f LFG. Firstly, anyone can “sense magic” with an appropriate Intelligence or Perception check. That’s quite cool, it means that any character can get a foreboding sense or eerie feeling about something – very flavourful!

On the down side for spellcasters, if you take damage before your turn, you simply can’t cast a spell. Quite limiting but in tune with the low fantasy setting – casting spells requires a lot of concentration, so rather than pump a stat or skill to overcome this, the option is simply taken away. Good or bad, I’m not too sure. I like the flavour, but others may see it as a little too constrictive.

Casting a spell is great though! In LFG sorcery is inherently dark and dangerous. So rather than just casting a limited number of spells per day, an extra dice roll (a D20) is required. On the roll of a 1, something bad happens when the spell is triggered (and the spell is always cast). There’s a lovely table of 100 effects for this!

And it gets better. Every time a spell is cast, the chance of rolling a dangerous effect increases by one. So if you cast 5 spells, on a D20 roll of 1-5 a dangerous effect applies. This only resets after a dangerous effect triggers or the character survives to the end of the adventure… the END OF THE ADVENTURE.

So yes… a cumulative 5% chance of things going wrong!

fantasy D&D dungeons and dragons Low fantasy gaming RPG gritty

Negative effects can include having ones lips fused together for upto 24 hours, aberrant terrors, demons or undead appearing nearby for several minutes or a limb turning into a giant tentacle for several days! Preserve your spells or go nuts for a touch of chaosivity!

Cultists (the divine casters if you like) don’t get away easily either. If you do not follow the tenets of your faith, or displease your god in some way, you can lose Favour. There’s a whole set of rules similar to sorcery which can hinder and play with the mind of your player character. The essence is as above; it’s all about flavour and enhancing the roleplay and excitement of the game.

So far, there are 120 spells in LFG each of which follow an easy to read and execute format. The spell names are colourful but termed in a way which makes them easy to identify. The descriptions also contain a lot of variety or variations. What I really like is that the GM often has control over how some of them work in the form of “The GM may allow a perception check to identify if something is wrong.” Essentially, it cuts out those players who are rules lawyers (that is, those who stick to the word of the rules and does not like any sort of variation or GM flavour to permit a smooth game). Empowering the GM or players in equal yet different ways. Good skills LFG!

fantasy D&D dungeons and dragons Low fantasy gaming RPG gritty

In Battle your character is not just a sack of hit points encased in a numbered armour class in need of being reduced. No, it’s far worse than that!

The warning signs come on pretty early – when a character is reduced to half of their maximum hit points they incur penalties as they slowly get beaten to death. Just when they thought they could lie down and wait for help, the end may be sooner than they expected.

A character that is reduced to 0 hit points is out of the fight. To add some tension, no one around the gaming table knows if they are truly dead or mostly dead (those are the actual terms used in LFG) until, and I quote “… someone turns the body over for a closer look (rummaging through pockets optional).”

No dice rolling to pass three fifty/fifty saves, no sudden burst of hit points in a ranged heal. Just quiet, excruciating death-tension.

fantasy D&D dungeons and dragons Low fantasy gaming RPG gritty

Let’s assume your character survives the ordeal, you’re still not out trouble: there’s a table for injuries and setbacks. Now, I loved the old Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying injury system, with its visceral and character building effects, but it’s very crunchy and can slow down the game, reducing the tension as the GM begins rolling on several tables and calculating just how messed up a character gets. LFG gives a simple table of 17 effects, each of which can only be dealt with in a certain way… sometimes with very particular spells to help you out.

So far this RPG system feels wonderfully gritty, with a real measure of danger that goes beyond the GM simply killing of their player characters or fudging dice.

That’s the end of part 1 of our review of Low Fantasy Gaming.

Next week we’ll be looking in depth at the GM side of the game, review the cool mechanics and content, such as mass battles and the scary monsters that lurk within it’s pages!

fantasy D&D dungeons and dragons Low fantasy gaming RPG gritty

You can find Pickpocket Press on twitter with @LowFantasyGamin or their website. With thanks to Stephen Grodzicki (author of Low Fantasy Gaming) for being a top bloke, and generally making us here at CC really happy with a cool RPG system, and a fancy book (we’re so happy we backed it!).

You can find me @FerrisWrites for Twitter,

Our Facebook Page!

Interested in how to become a great games master or dungeon master? Take a look here and here!

Maybe you want to learn more about how exploration could work in your role-play games? Check out our article here.

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