Last week we took a look at Low Fantasy Gaming (LFG) by Pickpocket Press. Our focus then was aspects of the game most relevant to the players around the table. This week we’re going to look at the Games Master (GM) potions of the book, namely: exploration, traps, treasure, monsters and some of the extra content not always considered in fantasy roleplaying games.
There was some criticism on the title phrase of last week’s article, mainly that Betteridge’s Law of Headlines was true (in that, when a headline generally ends in a question mark, the answer is usually ‘no’). It was interesting to learn about something new (thank you reddit user) however, in part 2, I think Betteridge’s Law of Headlines will prove false this time: it is a damn sight grittier and a return to the old style of D&D!
I wanted to know why LFG was made, so I got in contact with Stephen Grodzicki at Pickpocket Press and asked that very question, here’s the answer:
“… it all stemmed from wanting to GM a Primeval Thule campaign with 5e. But the mechanics didn’t mesh with the setting. I wanted something gritty and dangerous, with magic that was rare, dark and unpredictable. Which is pretty much the opposite of 5e’s heroic, high magic system. And LFG was the result.”
I think they nailed it on the head. So, here comes the second part of the Low Fantasy Gaming review…
The GM Section
From the outset, we’ve seen LFG adjust many of the regular or common place rules, and completely get rid of others. So far most of this has been aimed at the character makeup and their interactions within the game. Now though, we’ll take a look at some of the content aimed specifically at the games master, and check out some of the cool mechanics included in LFG!
Exploration is often overlooked in modern adventures. The fact that exploration in 5th edition D&D is only mentioned in the DM guide as a form of travel, consisting of a few small random encounter tables, suggests that the element of exploration is now considered secondary to most tabletop role-play gamers. Indeed, we at CC have even written about how much more exploration should be part of a standard game. We feel that strongly about it.
So, how has LFG tackled exploration?
Pretty smoothly, it seems. While it’s not mind blowing in its approach, it certainly covers all the bases. Travel speed, weather effects, then broken down into divisions of overland, underground, voyage and even flight encounters are covered. Not all of these encounters are monsters or NPC interactions. LFG covers weather change, being off-course (i.e. lost!) and some tasty little role-play events.
Our favourite is the Inspiring Tale event, where the characters are having an uneventful travel day: one of the players may wish to regale the whole gaming group with a story or song of some sort. If most of the people at the gaming table are entertained, the GM may allow one of them to advance to their next level. It’s a pretty random occurrence, requiring a one in twenty dice roll, but it’s a wonderful learning and role-playing experience which has an in game effect. We feel this is a very encouraging element to any RPG and we’re glad it’s made it into the game! Not much on the gritty side, but certainly something you would expect in an early version of Dungeons & Dragons.
Finally, there’s a table of random encounters covering 20 aerial encounters, 100 city or settlement encounters, and sets of 20 encounters for deserts, jungles, forests & woodlands, mountains and hills, oceans lakes & rivers, plains & grasslands, roads and trails, snow and ice and swamps… pretty much LFG has got you covered wherever your adventure is taking you, and it looks pretty thorough!
And since monsters do not have associated experience points, any ‘level’ of monster could be encountered (in theory). Fear not though, this is simply another challenge for the players to overcome without battle. Maybe they really should let sleeping dragons lie?
Hirelings are included in the game too. It’s a small section with tables to generate names, catchphrases and other personal identifying traits. There’s even some scope for pets as hirelings.
What’s new and different about LFG is that there’s a simple advancement table for hirelings. And its not simply going up in levels, instead they can advance, for example, in their ability to increase their attributes, learn a skill or gain advantage to moral checks. This keeps the distinction between player characters and NPCs and does not permit an allie as powerful as the players.
And my favorite but about hirelings… there’s a 2D6 point table dedicated entirely to payback if you mistreat your hirelings. It’s another great little story and role-play element to the game. These little touches really do add up.
I don’t think we have ever used hirelings in a game of D&D since second edition, because since third edition they always just seemed like faceless add-ons rather than an opportunity to develop and become entertaining and useful.
Disease is pretty grim, and covers everything from Oozy Eye to Flesh Grubs. And we’re not talking about some minor afflictions that last a few hours or are passed on for a day or two. Some of these effects can last for months if they don’t get cured. Oozy Eye for example can affect one or both eyes and last for 1 to 4 months, suffering perception loss. For a game of low magic, diseases for player characters can really make a lasting impact on the gaming sessions.
Purge the Accursed is a 3rd level spell which removes a curse or disease from the target of the spell… but not right away, no, it could take up to 3 or 4 days. Otherwise, you need to find an apothecary who is familiar with the disease to cure it. Side-line adventure ideas should be boundless. And yes, pretty gritty even for early D&D editions.
As for Madness effects, well I am a great fan of madness effects in tabletop RPGs. There are 20 possible madness traits, described from the first person perspective, such as: “I keep my dear friends ear with me always. As long as I have it, I know he can still hear me.”
Messed up. Quite cool.
These madness traits can vary in severity and intensity, with another small table to help define how serious the affliction is. It could be a day or two, or last for years and there’s no direct cure: a character has to pass up or down the intensity rather than just negate the effects. Much like in real life, and this suitably gritty!
Mass Battles, have a very good narrative feel without the need to roll thousands of dice.
This is something to be excited about. In most mass battle mechanics there’s a clunky or crunchy aspect which seems to either miss the personal role-play aspect or goes completely the other way to create a purely story driven battle. LFG manages to combine both in their mass battle chapter.
Mass battles then are broken down into two broad sets of rules; the party spotlight, where the characters are driving the story, and unit combat which details the battle field, managing, manoeuvring, fighting and moral of troops. LFG make it clear that these rules can be used separately or they can be combined.
In the party spotlight, it is the player characters’ exploits that are defined. This is achieved by the GM throwing critical events at one or more of the characters. Critical events include a variety of situations, each with a description and resolution followed by a player character impact and a unit impact. This can only really be explained by an example:
Hold the Line: In this example the characters are aware that the enemy is about to break through an allied line during the intense fighting. The resolution is simple: stay in the fight for 2D6 rounds, facing cumulative 1D3 enemies each turn. The impact of this is that if the players do not succeed a friendly unit is utterly overrun and destroyed. One less friendly unit to worry about!
Now this doesn’t sound too insane for a traditional game of Dungeons & Dragons where the warrior classes are capable of smiting down a good number of enemies in a single action, even helping the less martial characters in a close shave. But in LFG, it’s much easier to get laid low. There’s one extra facet of the mass battles which ties in nicely here; sudden twists!
Sudden twists occur when the players roll a 1 or 20, with a further roll to consult the sudden twist table. The table includes positive and negative effects, such as hirelings or allies being knocked unconscious (dead weight) or the opportunity to engage an enemy champion or officer with a successful dexterity check. An element of heroic actions, or the ill-fated meeting in the melee against a terrible foe. The GM gets to decide…
Unit combat works almost like a nicely polished mini-game. It could easily be employed with miniatures or tokens to represent different units on the battlefield. There’s a simple turn order, starting with ranged attacks, followed by movement, melee attacks and then a resolution setup for victory points. I’ve seen corporate gaming facilities create worse systems than this.
Each method of attack is simply a roll of two dice, with some modifiers to the roll for exceptional circumstances (such as units in heavy woodlands) along with more serious options, such as resource attrition. Consulting the table determines a units effectiveness on the battlefield that turn. What I like about this is that it’s not a direct amount of damage, it’s narrative effects created with mechanical elements. Check out the table for ranged combat for units in mass battles as an example.
There are unit attributes and stats for the main types of units found on battlefields such as cavalry, heavy infantry and the like. There’s also an Ogre warband and a dragon for when the battle needs an extra injection of adrenaline.
To top it all off, the characters may reach the final encounter: the final confrontation of generals or villains. It may happen early, by chance or it could happen after days of gruelling slaughter. As it says in the text, it is the battles ultimate encounter. This is a nice little touch because it creates a sense of actual achievement rather than the GM plotting or narrating the story. By giving the GM the option to fall back on chance (well, in part at least) it can give the players a real sense of taking part in the battle.
All in all, the feeling the mass battle mechanics generate is one of energetic, nay, frantic encounters in what could potentially be a very flat large scale combat session. Some GM’s do not need help with this sort of thing, but the content is usually not included in source books, or a game system may rely on third party homebrew mechanics. LFG though get it right on the pages, no doubt inspiring newer gamers and offering veteran gamers some interesting ideas or adaptations..
Traps. Blimey, I’m just going to give an example here. There are tables to generate random traps or to give you a good idea of how traps may operate in an adventure, but nothing is as grim as the example below:
The Harpoon Crusher is horrific:
- A room covered in tiles, which, if the wrong tile is stepped on triggers a series of harpoons to strike out. Now, here’s the fun bit: there are a series of rolls to judge just how unfortunate the character is – Dex save to avoid 2D6 damage, Dex save to avoid being knocked prone, a luck save will determine if your armour is snagged by the barbed harpoon or if its a body part that is snagged. We’re not done yet though!
- The harpoons, which are attached to chains, will then hoist the character into the air, retracting at the rate of 1D6 feet per round (while other harpoons are primed and ready to fire again that round). The rate of lifting increases by 1D6 feet per round, as it gains momentum.
- Panels surrounding the harpoon that struck the player open, and large grinders whirr to life. At 25 feet the character is dragged into the grinders and dies horribly in a spray of gore and crunching bone, forever dead and losing all of their gear too.
- Sure, you can try to save them by breaking the chain, but it’s bloody difficult, or you could pull your friend to safety but they’ll suffer more damage and likely fall onto another panel if you haven’t triggered another harpoon yourself!
- Helpfully, there are methods of resolving the traps (which won’t be mentioned here in case you want to find out for yourself and there’s also suggested variants should the GM wants to make the trap easier to overcome, or indeed harder!
This is just one example, others include: the Flesheater Tank (made me shiver), Snare & Roast or the Whirlpool of Reduction (yikes!).
Treasure is broken down into some nice and easy to manage tables. The most helpful I found is the table of carry loot, which is used for the treasure lining the pockets of monsters or NPCs. It’s a D100 table so there’s quite a bit of variety. There are tables for lair treasure, trinkets & curios, valuables and potions.
For magical items there’s a nice mechanic which may be familiar to some veteran gamers: obvious properties and discreet properties. This is a nice touch to the game and provides a bit of mystery for the players, such as “Why am I never surprised by an ambush, is it the weapon I’m carrying or the trinket I found?”
These simple but cool tables certainly bring out the questions and the sense of mystery lost in mainstream D&D games. It’s all too easy to become familiar with the same list of iconic magical items throughout the various editions of D&D, and although some of these are similar in LFG, they certainly will raise and prompt questions around the gaming table.
From the lowliest goblin to the mightiest dragon, you’re f****d…
There’s a good variety of monsters from the lowliest goblins to the mighty dragons.
Some monsters receive the cause injuries ability, which, rather than just knocking off hit points produce lingering effects that can range from impressive scars to internal bleeding. They really do bring the game of death to life!
Off-turn attacks means player characters must consider that monsters are not always out of the game if they’ve already taken their turn. It adds a new dimension to the turn sequence and requires more tactical thinking from the players. This ability means characters cannot simply pile in if the monster has taken its turn, so it’s always going to be capable of dealing damage throughout the turn. The mental imagery of this violence is quite visceral, and combined with the added level of destruction really highlights the danger level.
Magic resistance works as a percentage, making them better or worse than the characters resistances. Quite good as it harks back to older versions old D&D but also provides more variation for creatures resistant to magic, eg, a minor resistance (10%) or a major resistance (90%).
Boss monsters are improved monsters from the typical monster type. They almost always have off-turn attacks, have greater hit points and cannot be instantly killed by major exploits from the players. They also gain re-rolls and can cause injuries on a roll of 19-20. The designer’s thoughts on this is that boss monsters should be capable of taking on the player characters by themselves.
There’s also scope for Custom & Improv Monsters as a way of creating your own monsters or perhaps making existing monsters harder or easier encounters for your player characters.
There are mainly classic monsters, such as Medusa, Merrow and the Minotaur to Wraiths and Wyverns, along with regular animals and example NPC humans, elves and dwarves. Added to these are more unique monsters to the LFG such as the Slop Gorger, as slug like monster who is surprisingly fast overland and the Urgot, remnants of cursed humanoids bloodlines
How does it feel?
Harder, grittier and dangerous. Excited just reading through the pages. Very much nostalgic feel to it from first viewing of the AD&D in the 90’s – my character can die so easily!
From the outset, everything is geared towards choices. The GM decides on how hard the game is going to be by selecting what options to take. And there are plenty of options for the GM to choose from (or ignore).
Is it gritty? YES.
Would I play LFG or run it as a game? (thanks for the suggestion, reddit user!)
Yes, but I think as a player I personally would get more out of it. The excitement of losing a character permanently and knowing that it could happen at any moment really gets the juices flowing. The effort of creating a character, their persona and motivations means they become more than just a literary device – will my character live to see their dreams come true? Better be careful!
As a GM, I think the game runs very smoothly. Just reading through the book makes it very clear that Pickpocket Press has put time and effort into writing something that makes sense and keeps to the style of a very dangerous adventure game. Nothing is in there without considering the impact on the speed and flow of the game. The optional rules, or indeed the ability to remove rules from the game without the whole thing breaking down is a selling point for GM’s who may like to plan a game with out too much focus on mechanics and more on story also really helps.
Value for Money
20 dollars gets you the watermarked PDF, 45 gets you the colour softback book. Current at the time of writing, you can get the deluxe version of the book for 60 dollars (down from $80). I’m a collector of RPG books, so for me the discounted Kickstarter pledge was great, and the book looks tasty and fragrant. It feels good in the hands and the pages are a nice thick feel too. That said, you could grab a couple of the $20 PDFs and have enough content for the gaming table.
That is all for LFG.
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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.
Ferris, CC 😉