This is a review of the free PDF of the 2016 basic edition. Since you can read it yourself for free, this review, while long, won't be as in-depth as my Let's Read of Best Left Buried. There's currently a kickstarter for the Deluxe Edition, in its final week. So if this review is rushed in places, I'm sorry, I wanted it out before the kickstarter ends.
TL;DR this ruleset did not grip me enough to back the kickstarter, but I would happily play it if a GM or my players suggested it. The bits that appealed to me are super easy to lift for other D&D-ish games. It's easy to learn if you're versed in 5e, though there's some interesting differences (including basic mechanics) that I'll cover below.
What Low Fantasy Gaming Promises
- Rules-light, rulings over rules.
- Fast combat, encouraging creativity over carefully delineated spells or powers. If you hate 5e's already loose combat maneuver rules (as compared to 4e or 3.5/PF), this will not be your cup of tea.
- Dangerous and gritty. Expect injury tables.
- A "Realistic" World. Magic and monsters are rare, PCs and villains are humans more often than not.
- Dark & Dangerous Magic. The basic rules have only one spellcasting class, and the Deluxe rules only have two. Magic is risky. Permanent magic items are rare. Expect wild magic tables.
- Riches & Glory. You're treasure hunters exploring the unknown, not the Epic Chosen Heroes.
- Open World. Sandboxy, episodic adventuring. Not that 5e has any mechanics that push long, arc-based storytelling *shrug*
- Generic Ruleset. The author has his own Midlands setting, but the rulebook can be used for various low magic &/or swords-and-sorcery settings.
The game uses the classic D&D ability scores, except Wisdom is split into Willpower and Perception. One score is automatically a 15, the rest are rolled on 4d6b3 as with 5e. The player chooses where scores go. There are no ability score adjustments for race, in fact, having races at all is entirely optional.
Ability score modifiers are closer to those of BX D&D rather than 3e/4e/5e D&D. e.g. an ability score of 9-12 maps to a modifier of +0, and 17-18 maps to +3.
PCs and monsters have a Luck stat, used for saving throws and as a character resource. It fuels martial exploits, but the text suggests playing free and loose with it, e.g. make a Luck roll to choose which monster to summon with a spell instead of it being random. Luck is always set to 10 + half level (round up) at the start of an adventure, but is depleted by 1 with every *successful* Luck check. A long rest only restores 1 Luck point.
PCs also have a Reroll Pool equal to their level, used for trained skills, various class abilities, and on rolls to avoid dying if the character hits 0 hp. Honestly I don't see why this couldn't have been merged with the Luck stat. It's difficult to remember which rules and abilities deplete which resources.
No Alignment, and no Backgrounds in the 5e sense. Instead, each PC rolls on a table of Bonds to generate connections with at least one other party member. e.g. you were both "lone survivors of the Blackbrand Mercenary Company, destroyed in a recent engagement with their bitter rivals, the Shen-Zu Raiders."
There are five classes, Barbarian, Bard (not a spellcaster), Fighter, Magic-User, and Rogue. The Deluxe rules are adding Artificer, Cultist, Monk, and Ranger.
There is no multi- or dual-classing, but every 3rd level, each class gets an open-ended "make up your own ability" feature, which includes the explicit advice to crib ideas from other games, pick "cross class" abilities if wanted (so... kinda like 4th edition), or just increase an ability score by 1 if you prefer a simpler character sheet. The Deluxe Edition promises 36 pre-made abilities for those who don't fancy designing/balancing their own.
Classes follow the "no dead levels" philosophy of later-edition D&D, getting a new feature (or spell level) at every level. The classes are all roughly the level of complexity of a 5e class, and most features are clearly written. They're all roughly what you would expect from playing 5e -- a barbarian can choose to enter a rage, a bard buffs their allies, etc. Magic-User can take healing spells and some other cleric staples.
All classes can contribute to finding traps and disarming them. All classes have Detection (the former) on their skill list, while Bards, Fighters & Rogues have the Traps & Locks (the latter) on their list. The Rogue has no class features making them extra-good at disabling traps, though they (and any class) can take such abilities with their open-ended slots.
Similar to B/X, all classes cap out at 12th level. They also all get a "stronghold" type feature at 10th level. No level titles though ;-)
You roll for starting money which is used to buy equipment. This is made more awkward by the fact that prices for equipment (though not weapons or armour) are rolled randomly, e.g. an acid vial costs 5d10+50 gp. I prefer either the "equipment package" approach of 5e, the random items of a system like Maze Rats, or Into the Odd's table lookup method. If you want to stick with the shopping method, decide if you want lots of rolling for prices, or rule that items cost their average when bought during chargen.
Attack rolls are your typical d20 system rolls. Roll d20 + your attack bonus + relevant ability modifier, equal or exceed the target's Armour Class. Melee is always Str, ranged is always Dex, i.e. there are no finesse weapons, and the few spells which call for an attack roll don't base that roll on Int.
Unlike 5e, there is no unified Proficiency Bonus. Different classes have different attack bonus progressions: Fighters & Barbarians (and monsters) have an attack bonus equaling their level, while the other classes have a roughly 2:3 progression. You add your Str or Dex modifier to that, as appropriate for the attack.
Ability checks are *roll-equal-or-under* the relevant ability score. A relevant skill proficiency adds +1 to the ability score, and more importantly lets you spend a use of your Reroll Pool to reroll a failure.
The winner of an Opposed Check is whoever rolled under their ability score by the most. e.g. a beastman (Dexterity 10) is trying to hide from Linda's Fighter (Perception 15). The beastman rolls 7, Linda rolls 15. Neither failed the roll, but the beastman succeeded by 3 and Linda by 0, so her Fighter fails to spot the monster.
Saving throws are roll equal or under your current Luck score + the relevant ability score modifier. Recall if you succeed on the save, your Luck then decreases by 1. This means saving throws vs spells are more like the old-school norm. A 12th-level caster's fireball is no harder to resist than a 5th-level caster's, though it will certainly deal more damage!
Situational modifiers generally range from +2 to -2, though some rules like three-quarters cover grant larger modifiers, and there's the now-ubiquitous Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic. There are suggested rules for Group Checks (i.e. everyone succeeds if at least half do) and Degrees of Success/Failure, though unlike PbtA games and the like, there's no "succeed at a cost". There are also rules for Chases. They boil down to a 4e-style skill challenge, with a random event/obstacle/complication table that gets rolled on each turn.
Overall, task resolution is based on functional, well-understood ideas, but the mix of d20 system rolls and d20-roll-under is needlessly complicated. I love d20 roll-under, but if you're going to use that for ability checks, may as well use it for attacks as well a la Whitehack, The Black Hack, or derivative games.
1st-level characters don't have maximised HP. As with old-school D&D, after 9th level, characters only get +1 or +2 HP per level, no Con modifier. That and the different ability modifier scale means characters will have slightly less HP than in 5e. It isn't quite as brutal as BX and similar games though -- Hit Die results are limited to the upper half of their range. e.g. the Fighter doesn't roll 1d10 + Con each level, instead they roll 1d5 + 5 + Con.
Player turns in combat do look like they'd be kept fairly short despite the feature-heavy classes. Fighters and Barbarians can make an Extra Attack starting from Level 7, but each usage costs a point from their Reroll Pool. There are no bonus-action or reaction spells, and combat maneuvers either trigger on a natural 19 or are made in addition to an attack. Not all the tactical consideration is removed -- players will still be choosing what resources they're OK depleting (HP, Reroll Pool, spells, limited rages/bardic inspirations/day).
Combat follows a typical d20 system structure. Each character acts on their own individual initiative, rolled on a d20 unmodified by any ability score, though some weapons and other effects adjust Initiative).
Unlike 5e, you cannot move before and after your action.
Attacks of opportunity (called "free attacks") exist, but are provoked only by moving out of an enemy's reach (*not* moving out of each/every square within enemy's reach, as with 3.5) and by critical fumbles. Casting a spell doesn't provoke them.
Rolling poorly on initiative is bad for spellcasters -- you can't cast a spell at all if you've already been hit that round.
The weapon table has a similar number of entries to 5e, but the rules for each weapon are generally more complex. Many grant bonuses to certain rolls, and/or have a special ability that triggers on a natural 19, e.g. a heavy crossbow will knock enemies prone.
Attack rolls crit on a natural 20, dealing max damage + 1/2 your level. A natural 1 is a critical fumble, provoking a free attack from an enemy in melee or possibly hitting an ally instead.
Damage is based on weapon, not class. There are no Finesse weapons -- all melee attacks are made with Str, all ranged with Dex. Anyone can two-weapon fight -- unlike 5e the off-hand attack is made at disadvantage but adds Str modifier to damage. Unlike 5e, crossbows deal lots of damage but take your action to reload.
As with 5e, Armour Class is 10 + Dex modifier + armour bonus, but your full modifier is added regardless of armour type. Shields give a +1 bonus, but a player can also simply declare that a shield negates an attack. This ability cannot be used again until the shield is repaired back in civilisation, but the shield will usually continue to provide its +1 bonus.
Combat maneuvers (here called Exploits) are handled as case-by-case GM rulings. Minor Exploits with a 1-round effect (e.g. throwing sand in someone's eyes) are handled as follows: attacker states desired effect, then makes an attack. If it hits, it deals damage as normal, then an Opposed Check determines if the desired effect happens. Major Exploits (e.g. severing a limb) are available to PCs only, have some guidelines affecting their power (e.g. no single-target extra damage, no instant death/incapacitation unless the monster has Hit Dice less than PC's level), and call for a Luck Check instead of an Opposed Check, so are limited in use.
I really like these Exploit rules. They're not as constrained as, say, 4e martial powers or 5e's Battle Master Fighter archetype, but have more guidance and dwindling Luck management than just being a really permissive GM towards Champion Fighters, which is my usual approach in 5e.
The game borrows 4e's bloodied mechanic (called staggered here). Some PC and monster abilities care about whether a creature is staggered.
You are unconscious and dying at 0 hp. After combat (or once your body is hauled out of danger) an ally can tend to you. You then make a Con check (not a Luck save). If you fail, or if no ally is around to rescue you, you're dead. If you succeed, you're stable and will wake on 1 hp in 1d3 minutes, and make a roll on the Injuries & Setbacks table. Note that while magical healing works instantly if the target is above 0 hp, if used on a 0 hp creature, it takes 1d3 minutes to work. Once someone hits 0 hp, they're out of the fight.
Short rests are only a few minutes, rather than 1 hour. You are limited to three short rests every 24 hours, and each one allows you to roll a different number of Will checks: 1, 2, or 3, plus extra checks per day equal to your Con modifier, distributed among the three rests as you see fit. For each successful Will check, you either:
- regain half your lost HP + your Con bonus
- regain a limited-use class ability or spell slot
- restore 1 point to your Reroll Pool.
I am unsure about the shortened rest duration. I like how a short rest in 5e is long enough to incur at least one wandering monster roll, but also understand the desire to encourage players to push on instead of retreating & making camp for the day.
A long rest, on the other hand, takes 1d6 days (1d4 in an inn), recovers pretty much everything (including attribute damage), except only 1 Luck is regained, and you only regain slightly more than half your lost HP. This is fine, though with 3 short rests/day plus healing magic I'd just handwave everyone goes back to full HP.
There is even less emphasis on inventory management than in 5e D&D. The Fighter even has a class feature (useable 1/adventure) that lets them retroactively have brought along the right mundane equipment for the situation. There are no guidelines for how much items weigh, how much stuff a person of a given Str (or Con) can carry, or how they are affected if they approach/exceed this amount.
(I'm kinda OK with this. People with strong opinions on the importance of encumbrance also usually have strong opinions on their preferred subsystem for modelling it, and for everyone else, GM fiat is good enough)
There is no XP. Levelling-up happens after every adventure, assuming the character meaningfully participated. There's optional rules for acquiring parts of your next level (e.g. the extra HP, class abilities, or reroll die) after each session.
NPC reactions and morale are handled with Cha and Will checks rather than the 2d6 rolls of old-school D&D. This is fine, but I'd use degrees of success here -- binary "friendly/unfriendly" is less interesting than the old-school reaction results of "hostile, unfriendly, unsure, indifferent, friendly". Some monster abilities, e.g. magic resistance, are handled with percentile rolls.
Wilderness travel speeds and encounter distances by terrain type are provided, but no B/X-style procedures for hexcrawling, getting lost & veering course, weather at sea, etc. This is probably not the ruleset for you if you're interested in playing a game about the journey, not just the episodic adventures that punctuate it.
Traps are divided into Simple Traps, and more setpiece Complex Traps. There are no "hazard/trap severity by level" guidelines as with later D&D editions. Clever narration of a PC's actions can find Simple Traps without a Perception check, and it's suggested that Complex Traps telegraph their presence before they activate. Good advice, wish more DMs would follow it.
The big change is that casting magic is always risky. Whenever a spell is cast, the caster rolls a d20. A natural 1 causes a roll on the Dark & Dangerous Magic table and a loss of one Luck point, but the spell is still cast. If no DDM effect occurs, the odds of DDM increase by 1 for subsequent rolls. When a DDM effect finally happens, the DDM chance resets to 1 in 20.
The rules are unclear whether one DDM number is used to track all PC and NPC casters, or if each has their own DDM number. I could see either choice being fun.
The DDM table is full of creepy/sinister effects rather than the lighthearted goofiness of the 5e Wild Magic table. Some mechanical benefits, some banes, and some that have no mechanical effect but which could definitely influence play direction. For some reason, "an enraged [monster appears for 1d4 minutes]" has multiple entries in the table, even though the table is already d100 with varying odds for different entries.
I like the DDM mechanic. I know some people aren't a fan of how 5e Wild Magic Sorcerer triggers their magic surges (i.e. the DM just says a surge happens, then gives the sorcerer their special reroll back). This is a good alternative that is applicable to all spellcasters. And some of the DDM table entries are great, e.g. "Heartless: You have no discernible heartbeat, and do not bleed. The effect lasts 1d12 months.", even though I overall prefer the goofiness of the 5e table.
The rest of the magic system changes are more subtle:
Magic-Users cast spells like a 3e Sorcerer, or 5e non-warlock class, i.e. spontaneous casting from your known list, not strictly Vancian fire-and-forget casting.
Magic-Users have no cantrips, but otherwise have a similar number of spell slots to 5e wizards (though remember a long rest is 1d6 days!). Int is always their casting stat, but this has minimal effect on their spells' effectiveness. I only spotted it counting towards HP healed by Cure Light Wounds or Cure Serious Wounds, and to a Luck(Int) check that Dispel Magic instructs you to make. Int does determine number of known spells (Int mod × character level) + 1. In a nice touch that pushes adventurers towards dungeon delving, magic-users get an extra known spell each level-up if they have new tomes, scrolls etc to pore over.
Each spell level has 20 listed spells, which are numbered. Anything that aids random generation is good. Some spells can be reversed, as with older D&D editions.
There's no casting a spell as a ritual to save the spell slot. Some spells like Detect Magic have much longer durations to compensate, a nice attention to detail. Similarly there's no "Duration: Concentration" spells. You can maintain as many spell effects as you have slots to cast them with. There are also no "At Higher Levels" entries for spells -- they automatically scale with the caster's level, such as Fireball, or they don't scale at all, such as Sleep.
The spell text is a mix of old and new, e.g. Thunderwave is in there, but so is Protection From Normal Missiles. Fireball will shape itself to the available volume, Lightning Bolt doesn't bounce off walls though. The damaging spells are closer to their AD&D and 3e text than to 5e, e.g. Magic Missile produces 1 missile every odd caster level, instead of 5e's 3 + 1 per higher-level slot. Sleep affects 4d4 Hit Dice of creatures, rather than affecting creatures by current hit points as in 5e.
Magic-users can learn elemental variants if desired, e.g. Frostball instead of Fireball. Researching unique spells is also briefly mentioned as a possible downtime activity. Sometimes players need explicit permission to come up with new stuff, make the game their own, so this is good. Monsters rarely have elemental resistances or vulnerabilities, so modding spells doesn't cause any balance issues.
The Deluxe text (and the Midlands setting) renames a bunch of spells, e.g. Hold Person becomes Crush of the Warp. This may or may not suit your tastes.
Resurrection magic is deliberately absent, as is long-range teleportation and lie detection. Dimension Door is in there, but unlike 5e, requires line of sight to the destination.
A couple of original spells are quite nice: Ritual Magic is a catch-all for long-term warding spells like explosive runes, while Forbidden Wish can duplicate lower-level spells, or strike a bargain with an otherworldly being for a more powerful effect, incurring a debt, madness, and Con loss.
Overall this keeps magic relatively simple, not as easy to teach as Knave's system, but closer in power level to 5e with less of its fiddly specifics.
Permanent magic items are meant to be rare, most magic items should be potions and spell scrolls. Unlike 5e, anyone can cast from a scroll. But if you're too low-level (or not a Magic-User) you make an Int check or the spell goes awry, rolling on the DDM table instead. This is basically how I houserule scrolls in 5e anyway, so this change is welcome.
Because permanent items are rare, there's no equivalent to 5e's "max 3 attuned items" rule. "Attunement" in this ruleset refers to the tendency of permanent magic items to gain extra powers as an owner continues to wield them. The rate at which these powers might be unlocked, and/or any requirements for them, are left to the GM to decide.
Instead of a list of "canonical" permanent magic items, the game provides a random table of item types, and two random tables of item properties, one obvious, one discreet. Items have a 2 in 3 chance of being discreet in their nature, but there are 20 listed discreet properties and 34 obvious ones, which is a bit back-to-front? Probably still enough to get you through a campaign or two before duplicate effects get rolled. Many properties, when used, cause a DDM roll to be made after their use. Many properties mimic a spell, these generally can only be used every 1d4 days, but aren't subject "if you've been hit this round, you can't cast spells" rule.
I just rolled up:
- a Storm-Calling Greatsword that can change the weather within 10 miles to anything short of catastrophic (i.e. no cyclones) for 1d4 days. It requires a DDM check each day the unnatural weather persists.
- a Telepathic Cloak, that lets you mentally communicate at will with creatures, causing a DDM roll after every conversation.
- a mysterious scaled egg, the size of a child's fist and warm to the touch. Its possessor can treat themself as trained in any skill, but must make a DDM roll each time they use this benefit.
Pretty functional way to quickly put together treasure for a one-shot :-)
I covered the Dark & Dangerous Magic and Magic Item tables above. This book has plenty of other random tables, most of which are either system-neutral or trivial to adapt to your game of choice.
I like the 1d20 list of Bonds for connecting PCs with each other. e.g. you were both "Indentured gladiators of the dreaded Ogorien Fighting Pits". This is much faster and easier to bring up in play than 5e's Ideal, Bond, Flaw system.
The Injuries & Setbacks table (rolled on if you hit 0 hp but survive) is rolled on d20, has 13 injury effects, 3 "damaged equipment" effects, or is just a minor scar on a 17+. Some entries cause ability score damage, requiring recalculation of modifiers. Others cause a roll on a separate Madness table. Otherwise, pretty straightforward.
The Chase Events table is quite useful. I prefer Whitehack's auction mechanic for chases over the skill-challenge mechanic here, but will pinch this table for spicing up the former.
A d30 table of paragraph-long dungeon room entries, generally pretty evocative and good in a pinch.
The Madness table has no associated mechanical penalties/benefits, leaving that up to player/GM suggestion. There is a minor mechanic for madness progression/remission, i.e. more or less frequent triggers. The spell Cure Malady can weaken a madness one stage, or cure a madness on the lowest stage.
The Carry Loot table (i.e. "I loot the bodies") entries are generic, though I guess you don't want every slain brigand to be carrying bizarro trinkets and cursed gold. The Trinkets & Curios table is excellent at building out the world in unpredictable ways. The Valuables table is somewhere in between, there's some description but far fewer of them will spark unusual play directions.
The Random Encounter tables are pretty solid, unlike some games the author actually realises not every encounter should be "raar, a monster attacks". There's advice for new GMs that not every rolled monster should be approached as a combat encounter. The City/Town/Village table is almost entirely non-combat (though could certainly escalate into it). A few entries are basically just local colour, but a lot more entries will likely drive play forward. The wilderness tables are 70% monsters, 15% hazards, 15% oddities/adventure seeds. The tables deliberately avoid providing "level appropriate" encounters. Monsters usually have a stated behaviour or motivation, even if it's just "hunting for food" or "camping", these are better prompts than just saying "1d6 fire beetles".
There's a better idea density in the encounter tables than in, say, Xanathar's Guide to Everything. But they felt very typical low-mid level D&D to me, not the "monsters are rare, most threats are human" that was promised. This isn't necessarily bad -- I'd use these for a Forgotten Realms or Skyrim game, just not a Westeros or Middle Earth game. Maybe the Midlands setting book has different encounter tables?
These have simplified stat blocks closer to old-school D&D. Their Hit Dice (always d8) also count as their attack bonus. Ability scores (including Luck) are provided for the purpose of ability checks, but modifiers to attack, damage, etc are ignored, and monsters don't have skills. Special weaknesses and powers are usually described in accompanying text rather than the stat block. Each monster has a special ability that triggers on a natural 19 attack roll, e.g. an ogre mage can summon spirit warriors, a roc might grab a target and fly away, some other monsters just force a roll on the Injury & Setback table.
I like this "take the load of tactical analysis off the GM by having monster abilities proc randomly" idea -- speeding up the GM's turn and getting back to players is always good. But I would increase the odds for a lot of these abilities. 5% per attack is pretty low given how many rounds combat usually lasts, e.g. 3 rounds means only a 14% chance the monster's neat trick will come up.
Guidelines for turning any monster into a Boss Monster are provided: double HP, immune to Major Exploits unless staggered, a Reroll Pool same as adventurers, Off-Turn Attacks, and special powers of the GM's design.
Most of the provided monsters are standard D&D-isms, which is useful for compatibility purposes but undermines their scariness for all but the newest players. Converting monsters, either from 5e or OSR games, is trivial though, so that's not a huge problem. A few nods to classic tropes, e.g. dragons automatically smelling all living things within 60 ft, make some entries feel more alive than 5e's more sterile "blindsight 60 ft" text.
There's a lot to like in this game, and it's very easy to pick and choose the bits you like and apply them to other d20 games. Creating a character is faster than in 5e, most classes don't have spells, the spellcasting rules are easier to explain than 5e's are. Dark & Dangerous Magic and the depleting Luck resource are fun mechanics, death & dying is more threatening than 5e, but magical healing still isn't necessary to have. PC and monster combat abilities are worded so as to avoid combat slowdown, while the Exploit rules provide just the right level of guidance for me.
But I'm underwhelmed by task resolution being a mix of typical d20 system rolls and d20-roll-under, by the game having both a Luck stat and Reroll Pool, by some aspects of the combat system, by the resting rules.
I would happily play in a LFG campaign, or run one if players specifically requested it. But if I ran it, I'd be inclined to houserule a bunch of stuff, and at that point, choosing this over 5e or Whitehack makes a lot less sense without some external factor pushing me to do so. And if I specifically wanted swords & sorcery, Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells provides at least as many tools to emulate that genre as LFG does, while being a much lighter ruleset.
I won't be backing the Kickstarter, but I will keep an eye out for the Deluxe version once it's available for non-backers & see if I like it more. I also want to read more of the Adventure Frameworks -- I bought one and it's gone straight into my pile of one-shots, so it's pretty likely I'll buy and read the Midlands setting book sometime soon.