RPG Tasting Menu #1: Low Fantasy Gaming

This session marked the start of my RPG Tasting Menu series. The idea here is that we would play a one-shot session of a particular game that we'd never played before, a way of test-driving the game and seeing how we liked it.

Low Fantasy Gaming

There is an important disclaimer that I should put front-and-center. I am a Patreon supporter of Stephen Grodzicki and Pickpocket Press, the creator and publisher behind Low Fantasy Gaming. I've been oddly drawn to this game ever since I stumbled across a listing for the original edition of it on Lulu, marked at an astonishingly reasonable price. The cover of the book, with its shadowy, hooded sentinels standing guard at the mountainside entrance to a dungeon, were a perfect reflection of my nostalgia-laced memories of childhood D&D campaigns. And the game's blend of specific genre trappings, grim black-and-white art, and interesting take on d20 mechanics were an instant appeal. So it's possible that I'm a less than disinterested and dispassionate reviewer. Nonetheless, the view expressed here are sincere and honest. Though I'm clearly familiar with the game itself, in the true spirit of the Tasting Menu, this was my first time running or playing LFG.

The following sections of this post contain spoilers for an adventure published for this RPG! Be warned before reading on.

The Session
I acted as GM for the session and I had four players in the group. Since it was our introduction to the game, I opted for an introductory adventure and chose "Gift of the Silent God." This adventure was specifically intended as a simple adventure to introduce new players to LFG. I used the game's default low-fantasy, low-to-medium magic setting, The Midlands as the backdrop for the adventure. The PCs started off in the city of Crow's Keep, where they were hired by the head of the hunter's guild to locate a group of rangers who had gone missing in a forest while hunting for a dangerous owlbear.

Traveling through the woods, the party eventually found the rangers camped at a ruined farm. Half of their original number were gone, killed by the owlbear, the survivors claimed. The PCs shared an odd, tense meal in the farmhouse with the men before turning in, agreeing to accompany the rangers out the following day to track down and kill the owlbear. Unsure how to read the rangers and feeling distrustful, the PCs took turns standing watch outside the small structure in which they slept. In the middle of the night, the PC on guard noticed a figure sneaking into a smokehouse at the farm's edge. Confronting the figure, they discovered that it was one of the missing rangers, badly injured, stealing meat. Convinced to follow the ranger out into the woods to talk, he revealed the survivors at the farm had actually attacked and killed their own comrades. The injured ranger had escaped and hidden until that night. Just as the group decided to accompany the injured man back to Crow's Keep to get reinforcements, they were attacked from the dark by the gigantic owlbear. After a harrowing battle, the PCs killed the owlbear and fled back to the city with the ranger. They returned with more hunters a few days later, only to find the farm abandoned and one of the rangers dead, his heart cut from his body. The group deduced that the killings were part of a strange ritual, but could not bring the murderers to justice.

The Assessment
Overall, I really enjoyed playing Low Fantasy Gaming. The system is pretty close to the general mechanics of D&D, which created a very low and familiar bar for entry. Yet, at the same time, there were some new mechanics that made the game feel novel and fresh. The core of the game (roll high for combat tests, roll low for skill tests) covered most of the situations that arose during play.

It was only near the end of the session, during the final combat, that a chance to try out the martial exploits mechanic, which was used to great success during the battle. Basically, exploits allow a player to negotiate with the GM for a special, free-form attack effect or maneuver to save a threatened party member. The exploits gave a nice, flexible option for combat, allowing the players to improvise maneuvers without needing to worry about a pre-existing rule to govern it. Everyone picked up the mechanic with some ease, and using it for the first time didn't impede the flow of gameplay.

Another great aspect of the game was how it handled the sword and sorcery genre. I really like its approach to dark and dangerous magic. Each character class is given its own unique flavor and abilities without having to turn to magic -- except for the magic user, of course. And I really like how divine powers are handled for the cultist class, by creating a kind of deist cosmology in which devout follow tenets of faith to gain spell-like abilities, but must risk incurring the ill-favor of their deities, all of which are absent, uncommunicative, and relatively unknowable. The designer also did a fabulous job with the default setting for the game, called the Midlands. I usually prefer to create my own setting for fantasy RPGs, but I liked the Midlands enough to use it for my campaigns.

This brings me to another strong aspect of this game: the adventures. Or, to be precise, the adventure frameworks. I think this is an important distinction to make here, because the label aptly suits the nature of their design. They eschew railroading by setting up a dramatic, genre-steeped situation with one or two locales and the major NPCs, provides some broad outlines for likely courses of action by those characters, and a few potential hooks for involving the players, then lets the GM weave them into the action. These documents outline everything the GM needs to feel informed and inspired to create some visceral settings and situations into which the players will feel quickly immersed.

However, there was some critical feedback from my players that is worth mentioning. For a few of the players, while they said they had a good time during the session and didn't dislike LFG at all, I'm not sure that any of them would go out of their way to play it again. Based on their comments, I understand this is largely because it was still similar enough to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition that they would simply play that instead. These are folks who are very familiar with 5E, so a new system would have to bring something very unique or distinct to the table, which is pretty understandable.

Summary Impression: Low Fantasy Gaming is, in my opinion, a great game with well-designed mechanics and a lot of excellent content that is adaptable to many tables. It strikes a distinct chord for those seeking an old-school, sword and sorcery experience, but without the awkward mechanics and unnecessary subsystems of yore.

Pickpocket Press on DriveThruRPG.

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