This long-form review is given from a GM’s perspective and intended for both GMs and players who are thinking about getting into LL2090. The review is not based on a mere read-through of the book, but on actual gameplay experience (informed by about 25 sessions of play). The review assumes you have read the 20-page DTRPG preview and are therefore familiar with LL2090’s basic design and gameplay elements (class and level system, a d20-based “roll-under” core mechanic, diminishing Luck attribute, Reroll Pool, etc.).
This review also assumes no prior knowledge of any other cyberpunk RPG product, nor does it make any comparisons in this direction. Some comparisons are made to Low Fantasy Gaming, also by Pickpocket Press.
This review also critiques a few points raised in the Angel’s Citadel review of Lowlife 2090 (found here: https://angelscitadel.com/2021/07/09/review-lowlife-209-
The Core Mechanic: Roll-Under, Skills, and Reroll Pool
The d20 roll-under task resolution system is quick, simple, and elegant. Attribute checks are resolved in the blink of an eye – and in the event of a failure, the Reroll Pool is there to offer the PC a second chance to succeed on some attempts.
Reroll Dice quickly become a huge factor in play – often spelling the difference between victory and catastrophe. When a PC is out of Rerolls, almost everything (including the use of certain class abilities which require a successful attribute check to perform) starts to feel harder to pull off. This forces players to make careful decisions about when to use Rerolls and when to simply accept failure and conserve those second chances for later.
Skills and backgrounds can do so much more than simply granting access to one’s Reroll Pool. GMs can rule that certain actions succeed automatically provided a PC possesses a relevant skill or background (such as the Knowledge [Megacorporations] skill allowing a PC to know the personal history of a prominent corporate exec without having to make a check, or a PC with a Burglar background automatically succeeding on an attempt to break into a locker). Not only does this speed up play at the table, but it also makes PCs feel like talented, capable people without having to depend on random die rolls.
GMs can make skills and backgrounds mean even more by ruling that certain actions require a relevant skill or background to even attempt. Want to use explosives to blow open a lock box without damaging the valuable contents inside? You’re going to need to have the Demo skill, a Saboteur background, or similar. Need to make an emergency landing in the Exclusion Belt after your chopper’s been disabled by a missile? Only a trained Pilot can pull that off. Not only does approaching skills and backgrounds this way make them matter so much more – it also puts the onus on players to find creative solutions to problems when a relevant skill/background is not available.
Great Successes and Terrible Failures are excellent for bringing the game alive and making the action feel unpredictable and real. Creative GMs might bestow unexpected, off-the-cuff extra benefits when a PC rolls a Great Success. For example, a PC might succeed on a Cha (Gather Information) check made to determine if a person they are looking for was recently seen in a certain area. However, if they succeed with a GS, they might learn that not only was the person seen nearby – but also that someone just saw the person in a dive bar less than a block away! Likewise, a Terrible Failure can entail an added complication. A PC might fail an Int (Electronics) check to bypass a passkey lock – but if they fail with a TF, they might trigger an alarm in the process! GSs and TFs mean that the results of even the most routine attribute checks are never predictable; players – and certainly the GM – are always kept on their toes!
To comment on the depth of skills and backgrounds once again, GMs can also choose to rule that having a relevant skill/background negates the added complications of a Terrible Failure, and/or qualifies one for the bonus effect bestowed by a Great Success. This makes skills/backgrounds crucial for both avoiding potentially tide-turning failures, as well as for pulling off amazing little victories that lead to bigger ones.
For a GM, running LL2090’s core task resolution system is a joy. It is simple enough not to bog down the flow at the table and has enough depth to it (much of which is optional and can be tailored to taste) to never, ever get boring.
The diminishing Luck attribute offers an additional layer of grittiness and resource-management that keeps gameplay exciting and, once again, ensures that player choices mean something.
Like the Reroll Pool, Luck allows for players to think strategically about the choices they make and the risks they take. Since a PC’s Luck diminishes on a successful check or save, succeeding on Luck rolls gets harder, and harder, and harder the more a player chooses to make them. Do you make a Luck (Str) save now to avoid being bowled over by a charging monster – or do you accept the consequences, allow the beastie to knock you down, and save that Luck for when you really need to use it? Perhaps the monster bites you on the next round and you suddenly feel your limbs go numb. The GM calls for a Luck (Con) save and you gladly make it – fearing that the creature’s bite is venomous!
Major and Rescue Exploits (see Exploits below) are also powered by Luck – meaning that if players have spent too much Luck already, these tide-turning and often life-saving feats will be much more difficult to perform.
For a GM, the diminishing Luck attribute means your players can always feel challenged with minimal extra effort on your part. If you’ve prepped a job that seems too easy in the early going – don’t you worry. As the session goes on and those Luck attributes drop, the stakes get higher, the action gets tenser, and your players will be at their creative and strategic best.
Some players and GMs alike may not be pleased with the default “roll for everything” character creation system. However, there are some very good reasons to use it.
This character creation system works to minimize power-gaming and excessive optimization. If GMs allow players to pick their race instead of rolling for it, they ought not to be surprised when every Brawler is either a minotaur or skorn (with advantage on Str related checks), every Vex and Infiltrator is a spriggan (with advantage on Dex related checks), and so on. Likewise, if players do not roll for their starting cyberware, GMs should expect almost everyone on the crew to have the same augmentations: namely Chemstim, Trauma Sleeves, Core Reinforcements, Aim Assist, and other combat-enhancing cyberware. For those who want to cut down on the power-gaming and lack of mechanical variety between PCs, rolling is the way to go.
Rolling for starting Contacts injects an element of fun and often useful randomness into the gear/intel acquisition phase of play (see Core Gameplay Package below). Having an unexpectedly useful Contact is another way to make PCs feel useful and capable – but the opposite can occur if a player has selected all of their Contacts themselves, only to find that none of them are particularly useful for a given job. Turning Points are great for integrating a PC into the setting from the get-go, but if left to choice instead of random chance, players might prioritize those Turning Points that offer a higher living standard or a bonus piece of cyberware – leading to a lack of creative variety between PCs.
The choice to roll for everything during character creation, to roll for only some of it, or to let players simply select everything, is ultimately up to GM preference. If a GM prefers PCs to be more mechanically varied with optimization dialed down to a minimum, the default “roll for everything” character creation system is a tremendous positive.
The classes: what they are, what they do, and what both players and GMs need to know about how they work at the table.
Brawlers are melee combat specialists with high attack, defense, and hit point bonuses. Their starting augmentations tend to make them stronger, tougher, and deadlier in combat, and they can use any melee weapon in the game without penalty. The Brawler’s class features are almost 100% focused on enhancing what they can do in melee combat.
GMs need to understand that in LL2090, players will often prefer using ranged weapons in combat instead of closing to melee (due to the high damage potential of guns, amoung other factors). However, when melee combat does occur, there is perhaps no other class that handles it as well as the Brawler. Therefore, it is sometimes in a Brawler’s best interest to close to melee even if they have a firearm on them. Also, when the stakes hinge on stealth and silence, the Brawler can usually handle threats without blowing the crew’s cover with loud gunfire – making them something of a secondary stealth specialist with the right skills/background.
Entechs are a unique class focused on advanced cybernetic inventions. The Entech is the only class in the game that begins play with the Cybernetics skill, which allows one to repair debilitating cyber glitches (which can disable a PC’s augmentations). Their starting augmentations as well as their class features are a mixed bag of goodies with both combat and utility applications.
Class features tend to be quite powerful, and many mimic the effects of expensive gear and/or magic spells (such as allowing the Entech to fly on their turn, giving them a 50% chance of negating a hit in combat, and letting them fire off an EMP or even an anti-vehicle rocket!). However, these features are tempered by the fact that the Entech must succeed on an Int check every time they attempt to use one (meaning they may be dipping into their Reroll Pool more often than other classes).
Exarchs are magic-themed combat specialists with high attack, defense, and hit point bonuses. They begin play with no augmentations to speak of (and in fact, cybernetic implants interfere with their core class abilities), but make up for it with a variety of powerful combat and magic-mimicking abilities. They can use any melee weapon in the game without penalty, yet are distinguished from Brawlers in that their combat features are not singularly focused on melee. The Exarch’s abilities are generally more defensive in nature (such as enhancing their Defense and Armour Rating, protecting them from physical Trauma and Injuries, and allowing them to negate certain types of hits), allowing the option to play them as more of a defense-oriented Brawler.
Other abilities allow them to overcome monster resistances to mundane attacks, permanently enhance certain attribute scores, gain a chance to attack twice in one round, or replicate certain magic spells. The Exarch tends to have a lot of versatility at the table: it can be played as a combat specialist, a secondary magic-user, or with the benefit of the Acrobatics, Detection, Electronics, and Stealth skills, even a secondary, ninja-like infiltration specialist.
Gunhands are the ranged equivalent of Brawlers, with high attack, defense, and hit point bonuses, and class features focused almost entirely on enhancing their ability with guns. Their starting augmentations provide bonuses to ranged attacks, vision and defense enhancements, and include a small assortment of utility cyberware. The Gunhand is the undisputed master of ranged combat in the game – but can suffer greatly in melee.
Due to the high damage potential of guns over melee weapons in LL2090, GMs should understand that Gunhands tend to be very powerful in most combats – and due to all of their ranged combat benefits, are some of the best attackers during Vehicle Combat (see Vehicle Combat below). Without the benefit of silencers and the like, Gunhands tend to ruin a stealthy approach once they start shooting – making them something of an “in case of emergency break glass” type of class that the crew unleashes when the chips are down.
The Hacker is perhaps the most specialized, niche class in the game, focused entirely on hacking almost any type of machine or computer system. Hackers tend to be weak overall where combat is concerned, with utility cyberware for many of their starting augmentations, and class features that are 100% focused on hacking, VR Combat (see VR Combat below), and other interactions with computers and machines.
It is very important for GMs to understand that Hackers tend to make certain challenges feel a lot easier (such as having them hack a camera instead of the entire crew having to find a way to sneak by undetected). However, Hackers can also feel very limited in terms of what they can do on certain jobs. Unless there is ample opportunity to hack machines and servers during a given job, or good reasons to enter a VR Server (Hackers are also the only class in the game that have the required cyberware and abilities to engage in VR Combat from the get-go), players can feel that Hackers have next to nothing to contribute to the crew. Therefore, if a player wishes to play a Hacker, GMs need to make sure there are plenty of things for the Hacker to do on a given job (such as hacking into computers, protecting devices from enemy hackers, and engaging in VR Combat).
Even still, for a Hacker to have almost any utility at all, they need to take the Hijack Machine, Hijack Server, and VR Exploit abilities as soon as possible. Without VR Exploit, the Hacker cannot use any other VR-related abilities (almost 30% of their total class features), and without the Hijack abilities, the Hacker will have next to no practical use to the crew outside of their skills, gear, and cyberware.
Keeping the Hacker relevant is not a difficult task. The ubiquity of technology in the cyberpunk genre means that, even if there are no cameras to hack, codes to slice, or VR Sentinels to do battle with, the Hacker can always detect any piece of technology in range of their Cortex Cell (so long as it broadcasts a wifi signal – which many things in LL2090 do), unlock the door to a vehicle, steal information from someone’s phone, and so on.
Infiltrators are stealth specialists. Their starting augmentations are focused on a variety of stealth and utility enhancements, and their class features are a true mixed bag that gives the Infiltrator a lot of versatility at the table. Features include stealth-focused abilities (including permanent advantage on Stealth checks, the ability to allow an ally to reroll a failed Stealth check, vision enhancements, and temporary invisibility), combat abilities (including preventing a target from speaking or moving after hitting them in melee and dealing extra damage to a surprised target), and the ability to hack cameras, doors, and windows just like a Hacker. Infiltrators are also the only class in the game that can use sniper rifles with no penalty, making them excellent for assassinations and when striking from afar.
Without an Infiltrator on the crew, any job focused on sneaking into and throughout a location while remaining undetected can seem much tougher. When they are not using their skills or class features, Infiltrators tend to be good secondary combatants – but are no replacement for a Brawler, Gunhand, or Exarch. GMs should know that, although they lack VR or Server hacking capability, Infiltrators can often function as poor man’s Hackers when a crew does not have a proper one.
Influencers are focused on social interaction, contacts, crew support, and unique utility abilities. The Influencer begins play with more Contacts than any other class in the game (very useful for gear/intel acquisition), with most of their starting augmentations focused on non-combat utility cyberware.
About 20% of the Influencer’s class features bestow permanent advantage on a skill (Deception, Leadership, or Persuasion), and around 30% of their features are special, one-use-per-job abilities (such as summoning NPC muscle to aid you on a job, learning valuable information about your current mission, or bestowing advantage on the Supply check to acquire a piece of gear). Other features include the ability to bestow a +3 bonus on an ally’s roll, a 50% chance of detecting spoken lies, and a spell-mimicking ability that emulates “mind control.” With an Influencer on the crew, challenges involving social interaction of any kind tend to be easier. Influencers, being one of only four classes proficient with assault rifles, also tend to make decent secondary ranged combatants.
Mages are the full-time magic-users of the game, focused entirely on spellcasting. At a basic level, Mages tend to be the weakest combatants in the game, with lower hit points, attack bonus, and proficiency with only pistols, SMGs, and one class of melee weapons. In addition, cyberware interferes with their spellcasting, so most Mages will be without any augmentations to speak of. Mages are one of only two classes in the game (along with Exarchs) that can sense the presence of magic (auras, items, etc.) with a Will check.
Mages are all about spells. Magic in LL2090 is dangerous and unpredictable. When a Mage casts a spell, they must make a Will check. Depending on the degree of success or failure, the casting might succeed, fail, or even succeed with extra potency. Regardless of success or failure, casting a spell always drains the caster of 1 point of Will – making each successive spell more difficult to cast. Failing a casting check initiates a Dark Flux effect (similar to Low Fantasy Gaming’s Dark & Dangerous Magic effects), a random effect rolled from a d100 table. GMs need to know that spellcasting in LL2090 is always risky – for not only the caster but everyone around them as well (friend or foe). Spells are very similar to those found in Low Fantasy Gaming, and provide a mix of powerful combat, utility, restorative, and miscellaneous effects.
At the table, Mages tend to be very powerful at the beginning of a job but tend to lose their potency – and become a bigger and bigger danger for their allies – the longer the job drags out. Recovering Will loss via Short Rests is very important for Mages – yet since Will is drained whenever spellcasting is even attempted, recovering Will only gets harder the more a Mage casts. Therefore, Mages tend to be better off being strategic about their decisions to cast, perhaps only making one or two casting attempts between Short Rests. Spells in LL2090 do not have levels and tend to be fairly powerful across the board. Even one successful casting can make an incredible difference on the job.
Vexes are vehicle and drone experts. Their starting augmentations include a mix of defensive, utility, and enhancement cyberware. In addition, a Vex always begins play with a Vehicle Nexus link, providing them with benefits while operating a vehicle. Features are focused on expanding what the Vex can do in a vehicle, enhancing their performance in Vehicle Combat, and providing specialized hacking ability (limited to vehicles and drones). From a combat perspective, the Vex is rather unique: it is one of only two classes in the game (the other being the Gunhand) that begins play with proficiency in powerful exotic-class firearms, and is the only class in the game that begins with proficiency in anti-vehicle weapons.
What follows is very much a friendly critique of points raised in the Angel’s Citadel review of Lowlife 2090. In this review, the Vex is described as feeling “fairly one-track.” While this may seem to be the case based on a simple read-through of the material, this is not at all true during actual play at the table. Vexes are a very useful class for almost any type of job – even if Vehicle Combat never occurs during a play session.
For instance, the Vex is the only class in the game that begins play with a vehicle. Vehicles can be a HUGE asset in LL2090; having a car allows the entire crew to cover more ground in a shorter amount of time, provides them with a mobile “base of operations” (including storage space), allows them to effectively avoid certain dangerous encounters (Ambushed by a bunch of gangers? Just drive away!), effectively gives them an ultra-dangerous weapon (Or just run the gangers over!), and provides them with defense bonuses (anyone in a vehicle counts as being half-covered for the purpose of being targeted by most attacks). What’s more, the Vex’s Vehicle Nexus implant and class features only enhance the utility of a given vehicle further. Vehicles also tend to be expensive, so starting with one can save the crew a lot of trouble later.
In addition, not only is the Vex the only class that begins play with access to the Remote Control skills (there are three – RC [Drive], [Pilot], or [Sail]), it is the only class that avoids the usual penalties for operating a drone or vehicle remotely (namely a -2 to all checks, saves, and attacks). This makes Vexes better than anyone else at using drones and vehicles for any purpose – including tactical, recon, and combat – and without necessarily having to be engaged in Vehicle Combat to do so either. The Vex is also the only class in the game that begins play with anti-vehicle weapons, which are extremely powerful – and can also be used against non-vehicle targets (for example, a humanoid target that is not behind cover or in a vehicle is automatically reduced to zero hit points when hit by an anti-vehicle weapon).
The Vex is also one of only three classes (the others being the Entech and Infiltrator) that begin with access to the Demo skill. This makes them great with explosives, which can be used for blowing down doors, creating distractions, eliminating targets, and so on. Vexes are also able to hack drones and vehicles, making them incredible at fighting against these threats. In LL2090, combat drones are very tough and hard to damage with most weapons. Vexes, however, can render them a non-factor in the blink of an eye.
The Vex is in no way a one-track class. It is a unique utility class that in fact never needs to be in Vehicle Combat to thrive.
UFs are special features attained at every 3rd level that offer opportunities for further PC customization. Any class can choose any UF from a list of more than 30. Further, the rules even encourage players to create their own UFs in conversation with the GM.
Based on my table experience with LL2090, the crossclass UFs (which allow a PC to gain a limited version of another class’s abilities) are by far the most popular with players. GMs should therefore expect and prepare for players to “multiclass.”
GMs also need to be careful when allowing players to design their own UFs. Despite LL2090’s emphasis on gritty “anti-attrition” play, it can be very easy for players to get excited and fall into the trap of crafting overpowered features for themselves. In LL2090 especially, it is important for the GM to be able to step in and vet player-designed UFs given the system’s design philosophy; an overpowered UF can quickly make LL2090 feel like a completely different game.
Combat in LL2090 is mechanically similar to that of other d20-based RPGs, such as Low Fantasy Gaming. Unlike other d20-based games, however (where a single adventure often features several combat encounters), LL2090’s standard gameplay package anticipates only a scant few combats over the course of a single job. While combat encounters in LL2090 tend to be few and far between, they tend to pose a much greater challenge to the PCs – and impose far more severe consequences on an ill-equipped or underperforming crew.
The LL2090 rulebook describes the game’s combat as “anti-attrition” in nature. In plenty of d20-based dungeon-crawling games, combat serves to gradually wear the party down (reducing their hit points and resources, prompting the use of healing magic, rest mechanics, etc.) over the course of multiple encounters. In LL2090, however, combat is not designed to whittle the party down over the course of an adventure – but rather is meant to feel like a major challenge encountered just a few times per adventure.
Here is how the game accomplishes this:
PC hit points are relatively low. Depending on class and race, a given PC will usually start with between 10-20 hit points at 1st level and will gain only 1 additional hit point per level. This means that, compared to characters in other d20-based games, PCs tend to have more hit points at first level – but gain significantly less as they advance. As such, PCs often do not get a whole lot “tougher” as they gain levels – meaning combat rarely feels easy, no matter what the crew is fighting. If a monster feels deadly when the PCs fight it at level 1, it will probably feel just as deadly when they fight it again at level 4.
When a PC reaches 0 hit points, they are dropped and out of the fight. If the body can be recovered, the PC makes an All Dead/Mostly Dead test (which is a simple Luck [Con])save. Failure means the PC is dead, while success means the PC survives and returns to 1 hit point in a few minutes – but their brush with death leaves them with an injury (rolled from a random table).
LL2090 uses a Defense/Armour Rating system. PCs possess a flat Defense rating (which gradually increases with level, varying by class) modified by their Dexterity bonus. This is analogous to “AC” in other d20-based games (i.e.: the number an enemy needs to roll in order to hit the character). Actual armour in LL2090 does not increase a character’s Defense rating. Rather, it provides the PC with points of Armour Rating (AR), functioning as damage reduction (which reduces the amount of damage a PC takes whenever they suffer a hit). This tends to result in PCs getting hit in combat fairly often – and also makes armour very important for surviving those frequent hits.
Having the right equipment and weaponry can give the crew a huge edge in combat. The power of weapons in LL2090 cannot be overstated. A PC armed with a shotgun is usually going to survive longer than one armed with a pistol.
Weapon damage dice tend to be very high. In keeping with the game’s more realistic approach to combat, weapons in LL2090 are dangerous. A simple knife deals a whopping 1d10 damage, and basic pistols can dish out as much as 2d8. Some SMG models can spit out 3d8 damage when using the burst fire option, and larger, two-handed firearms (shotguns, assault rifles, etc.) can do even more damage. It is not uncommon for a modestly-armoured PC to be completely cut up by one shot from a firearm-wielding enemy.
LL2090 makes use of Trauma effects, an expanded version of the Injuries & Setbacks mechanics from Low Fantasy Gaming. When an attacker rolls a natural 19 on a weapon attack roll (19-20 with melee attacks), the target can suffer Trauma – a random, debilitating effect rolled from a table. Trauma effects vary with weapon type (Blunt, Blade, Bullet, etc.), and make not just every single combat encounter – but every single attack roll – a risky, and potentially deadly, affair.
Hit points cannot be recovered by resting after combat. While LL2090 does make use of a Short Rest mechanic, Short resting takes a full hour of in-game time and is used to recover class ability uses, Reroll dice, and to heal attribute damage. 1 hit point (and 1 hit point only) can be recovered by taking a Long Rest (sleeping for six in-game hours). This means that, if PCs want to be able to recover hit points on a job, they need to be well-stocked with healing items, and/or have access to healing magic.
This “anti-attrition” design scheme results in a particular character to combat that sets LL2090 apart from other d20-based games. Success in combat tends to rely greatly on preparation and strategy. There are plenty of mechanical options to facilitate this, such as surprise, dodging, aiming, charging, Exploits (see Exploits below), flanking, cover, burst fire, and visibility, that, if taken advantage of, can give the PCs an edge in what might otherwise be a fatal combat. Skilled use of “trump card” class features and abilities can also spell the difference between victory and defeat in combat. If the Brawler is not using his Brawler abilities, he – and the crew – are usually getting beaten by the bad guys. If the Gunhand is in a shootout, but not using her Gunhand abilities, she is probably going to get shot and killed instead of shooting and killing the enemy. At the table, LL2090 feels like a strategy-based resource-management affair (especially where combat is concerned). However, said resources are not simply limited to class ability uses, usable cyberware, spells, Reroll dice, and the Luck attribute, but also special actions and combat options that players need to carefully weigh, select, and execute.
The problem, however, is that players often do not take advantage of these options. LL2090 advertises itself as featuring “streamlined rules” – but this label is belied a bit when you actually sit down to play. While combat mechanics are relatively simple, and so-called “crunch” is kept to a minimum, the sheer number of things one can (and often has to) do in combat can be a bit overwhelming to casual players. The added element of strategy making use of special combat actions, maneuvers, and the like is really only there if players bother to learn it. It is very common to see PCs fail to make the most out of what they can do in combat; neglecting to use cover, not taking advantage of flanking opportunities, failing to use full auto fire against a cluster of enemies, ignoring the aim and dodge options, and neglecting to use Exploits and class abilities can result in failures that could have otherwise been successes. Players might wonder why combat seems so difficult unless they are aware of (and making use of) the options available to them. GMs should expect to frequently remind players of these options and “hand-hold” unless players are willing to familiarize themselves with all of the different things that PCs can do in a fight. Some GMs might wish to prepare combat “cheat sheets,” featuring a breakdown and summary of the different combat options and special actions, as handouts for players.
Despite LL2090’s promise of “fast” combat, guns (and the special mechanics that go along with them, such as jamming), Trauma tables, and other “moving parts” (such as the rather large list of incremental fumble effects for firearms, the rules governing how grenades work, etc.) can actually serve to slow combat down at the table unless the GM and players alike are already well-versed in these rules (or are able to quickly reference them). Combat can really drag if you are figuring things out as you go along.
Finally, when victory is truly out of reach – the crew can always attempt to Retreat. At the start of a round, the PCs can decide to flee from combat outright. If the GM agrees that retreating is possible, the PCs may attempt a group Luck check to cut and run. The GM might determine that the PCs get away, or that action transitions to a Chase (see Chases below).
Exploits are a staple of Pickpocket Press games: evocative combat maneuvers on top of – not in lieu of – damage that anyone can attempt regardless of class. Exploits are generally player-defined and add a narrative, “anything can happen” feel to combat.
Minor Exploits are limited to one target, have short durations, and can be performed whenever a character hits and deals damage. Minor Exploits might include simple maneuvers such as disarming or tripping, temporarily blinding an opponent, tossing a foe headfirst into a garbage can, etc. The GM makes a ruling to resolve the exploit (usually an opposed attribute check), and if successful, the effect occurs.
Major Exploits are for bigger, more “tide-turning” feats. Only one Major can be attempted per combat and requires a Luck check to pull off. Majors do not have the same limits as Minors (Majors can affect multiple targets, result in permanent effects, etc.). Major Exploits might include severing a foe’s arm, hitting two opponents with a single sword swipe, or even killing a target with a single attack (subject to certain conditions).
Rescue Exploits allow a PC to attempt to negate an adverse event for another character. When a PC witnesses something happening to another character, they may react with a Rescue attempt (a check to react quickly, followed by a Luck check). Rescues might include pulling an ally out of the line of fire, grabbing the wheel and swerving to avoid a head-on-collision, and so on. Only one Rescue can be attempted per job.
PCs should be making use of Exploits as often as possible. Exploits make a huge difference in combat and are often just as potent a weapon in a PC’s arsenal as their guns, cyberware, or class features. Is the crew outnumbered and outgunned? No problem – because a single successful Major Exploit to shoot a nearby gas pipe, causing a stream of noxious fumes to blind all the baddies at once, might be enough to turn the tides. Are the bad guys slicing the crew up with swords? A few Minor Exploits to disarm might take care of that. Victory in combat comes to hinge not only on what a PC can do (via stats, equipment, class abilities, etc.), but also on what they’re willing to try to do.
LL2090 includes a complete set of “mini-game” style rules for foot chases. Chases involve opposed checks between the pursuers and quarry, with the winners widening or narrowing the gap between each other until the quarry is either caught or escapes. Adding to the excitement are Chase Events, rolled from a random table, which add new and unpredictable complications for one or both sides, and sometimes even allow for one or more characters to take regular actions against their opponents (such as shooting a gun or using a piece of cyberware).
GMs need to know that Chases are a great tool for challenging the PCs in an action-oriented way outside of direct combat. Chases can often be just as exciting as a combat encounter, and if used right, can be a great way to manage the pacing of an adventure.
LL2090’s rules for Vehicle Combat have just the right amount of depth to make vehicle chases feel fast and exciting without giving everyone at the table a massive headache. Vehicle Combat entails drivers, pilots, etc. making opposed Driving checks to change distances between one another before taking regular actions against the opposing side (such as firing at a pursuing car, casting a spell, etc.). Special vehicle-related actions are also available (such as navigating, driving defensively, etc.). A Vehicle Combat round always begins with a Vehicle Event (similar to Chase Events) rolled from a random table to introduce added excitement, challenge, and unpredictability into the action. If a vehicle makes it to Escape range, a Retreat test can be made to escape a pursuer, otherwise vehicle combat continues until one side is defeated or gives up.
Special rules are included for damaging vehicles, damaging passengers in vehicles, and ramming. Distances are not measured out in units, but rather interpreted through a seven-category scale (Adjacent, Very Close, Close, Nearby, Far, Very Far, Escape Range). A chart is included that translates weapon/spell ranges to this scale – meaning no calculations of any kind ever need to be made.
Vehicle Combat is a great way to add variety to the combat encounters of a given session. However, GMs need to know that unless Vehicle Combat involves the entire crew (in a car or each riding motorcycles, for instance) as opposed to one member of the crew (alone on a motorcycle, etc.), the entire affair can feel more like an exclusive mini-game featuring one PC only.
When a Hacker uses the VR Exploit ability to manifest a Digital Entity into a VR server, they may encounter a hostile Digital Entity. When they do, VR Combat ensues.
VR Combat does not resemble regular combat in LL2090. There are no turns or initiative in VR Combat; Digital Entities make opposed System checks against one another with the winner causing damage to the opposing side (Hackers have plenty of special abilities that can be used to assist them in VR Combat). A Digital Entity that is reduced to zero hit points is defeated and wiped from the server.
VR Combat tends to be fast and furious but can feel a bit clunky at the same time due to a slight lack of clarity in the rules. Despite VR Combat not featuring initiative or turns, the rules state that a VR hacker gains “an extra action each round that may only be used for hacking or VR related purposes.” Yet if VR combat does not feature an initiative order, how does one determine which combatant takes their extra action first? GMs should be prepared to make an on-the-spot ruling here: such as saying that the winner of the opposed System check takes their extra action first.
Crew Challenges can add a great level of depth to the game if used properly. The GM might call for a Crew Challenge when the PCs engage in a particularly time-consuming or ongoing task (such as sneaking through a parking garage to avoid cameras, searching an entire city district to find a specific person, surviving a long trek on foot through the Outlands, and so on).
Crew Challenges entail the PCs proposing courses of action towards the fulfillment of a goal, with the GM deciding which checks might be needed. If the PCs succeed on a requisite number of checks before suffering 3 failures, the Crew Challenge is successful.
GMs need to know that Crew Challenges offer a great opportunity to challenge the PCs without having to resort to deadly combat encounters. To make a slight rebuttal to some of the critiques of LL2090 raised in the Angel’s Citadel review, I would suggest that creative use of Crew Challenges can offer plenty of opportunities for roleplaying, character development, and stimulating challenge. With Crew Challenges, “encounters” do not have to be limited to high-lethality shootouts – and skilled use of Crew Challenges on the part of the GM can mean less combat encounters overall (obviating the need for concerned GMs to tinker with the LL2090 ruleset to lower the “lethality” level).
For the basics on magic, see the discussion of the Mage in the Classes section above.
Here, however, it is worth mentioning that magic and monsters are not necessarily something every GM would want to include in a cyberpunk game. Thankfully, it is very easy to strip these elements out of LL2090 with little to no “ripple effect” whatsoever. For a “purer” cyberpunk experience, the Mage and Exarch classes, magic items, magic-using NPCs, and monsters can be removed from the game with no problem at all.
The Mendoza City Setting
Lowlife 2090 includes a full cyberpunk campaign setting. About 60 of the book’s 321 pages are devoted to the Mendoza City setting, with just enough of it fleshed out to allow you to situate yourself in the setting right away and get playing. Like other Pickpocket Press settings, the emphasis is on playability as opposed to defining every conceivable creative detail; the general feel and features of the setting are quickly established, a bit of fictional history is given, and GMs are then left to fill in the rest when and where they need to.
The setting information includes a map of Mendoza City, a lexicon of local lingo, and short treatments of different factions operating in the city. However, most of the Mendoza City section is devoted to describing the various city districts (and includes random encounter tables for each area).
While only a portion of the book’s page space is specifically focused on setting information, GMs and players alike should know that everything else in the book, from races, to equipment, to cyberware, to NPCs and enemies, references the Mendoza City setting. Nothing in the Lowlife 2090 text is “generic” – Mendoza City is the implied setting throughout, so a bit of tweaking and re-naming may be in order for GMs who wish to run LL2090 in other settings.
At the table, the Mendoza City setting works very well in service to the entire LL2090 package. LL2090 is built for Mendoza City and vice-versa, so LL2090 is very easy to “pick up and play” if one is using this setting.
Core Gameplay Package
Right out of the box, LL2090 is set up for mission-based gameplay. The game expects less of a “sandbox” style stroll through the game world as opposed to event/site-based jobs.
LL2090’s implied gameplay package is structured around the job, which usually begins with a preparation phase focused on acquiring intel and gear, transitioning to the main phase of play, and ending with a post-job Downtime Cycle.
PCs primarily gather info through Contacts. When a PC wants to make inquiries with a given Contact, the GM rolls 1d20 and compares it to the Contact’s rating. Depending on the result, the Contact may or may not be willing to provide the PC with whatever information they might have. If the Contact is willing to provide the intel, and the PC meets the Contact’s price (intel is never free), the information is shared.
PCs can also borrow gear from Contacts using the same process but will often attempt to acquire gear on their own. This is done by making a Supply check: attempting to roll 1d20 under a piece of gear’s Supply score (representing the general availability of the item). If the check is successful, the PC is able to find the gear for sale.
The Downtime Cycle represents the period between jobs. During Downtime, PCs handle a number of concerns, including paying lifestyle expenses, recovering from injuries or addictions, attempting to acquire new Contacts (or increase the ratings of existing ones), and engaging in other activities (purchasing gear, conducting research, repairing equipment, etc.).
Much of the material in the book assumes that you are following this gameplay paradigm. This means that if you wish to go outside this mode (especially if you are interested in getting away from the mission-based format of gameplay and instead structuring adventures in a different way), you may not have use for things like Supply checks. If you step too far outside of LL2090’s implied gameplay package, you may have to alter or throw out certain class abilities and other mechanical features that rely upon it (such as plenty of class abilities that affect Supply checks, provide Contacts, or reference Downtime). This means that going “off-script” with LL2090 results in a significant ripple effect that requires a bit of attention to manage.
GMs need to know that the intel/gear phases of play, as well as the Downtime Cycle, can eat up a lot of time at the table. Unless players come to the table prepared (i.e.: with desired gear and intel inquiries already in mind), expect to spend perhaps far more time than desired on pre- and post-game activities.
It should also be emphasized that gear and intel can make a huge difference during actual play. Combat will feel easier or harder depending on the type of gear PCs can get their hands on. Likewise, certain pieces of gear can make some tasks much easier to complete – or even render them completely obsolete. Intel (especially if using the official published adventures) can also have a huge effect on how a job plays out. At the table, if PCs tend to know more about what they are getting themselves into, they are usually able to prepare better and meet challenges with a much greater rate of success.
Much has been said about LL2090’s so-called “lethality.” The Angel’s Citadel review in particular emphasizes this – and the following is meant to be a rebuttal to this perspective.
Lethality in Pickpocket Press games is often more myth than reality. First of all, there are plenty of ways for PCs to recover hit points in LL2090 – even if they cannot do so by taking Short Rests. Spray-on skin, first aid kits, and other med gear are there, as are healing spells (in fact, playing a Mage as a straight healer can go a long way in this game). It is not uncommon for a PC to recover all of their lost hit points with a single use of a first aid kit – yet if players are not taking steps to acquire such items in the first place, it should come as no surprise when their PCs cannot seem to recover from damage.
While hit points tend to be lower and damage values tend to be higher in LL2090 than in other d20-based games, that is not to say that this necessarily translates into frequent PC death. Mechanics such as Retreats and Rescue Exploits are there for a reason – and skilled use of special combat actions and options can go a long way in preserving a PC’s life as well. The game does not have to be “lethal” with a high PC turnover rate and therefore less room for character development if these characters are approaching their high-stakes, dangerous missions in a cautious, thought-out, and realistic way.
LL2090 is a system for running gritty, dangerous, realistic cyberpunk adventures. Yet there is quite a distinction between a high-lethality game system where PCs can almost never handle the challenges presented to them without dying, and a system like LL2090 that puts the onus on players to make clever and effective use of the options at their disposal in order to survive. In this sense, it can also be said that LL2090 is suited more for the advanced, experienced RPGer who is willing, able, and thoughtful enough to take this proactive approach to PC survival instead of expecting the system itself to feature an overabundance of safety nets.
Here are a few survival tips, which, when followed, tend to make LL2090 feel less “lethal” by virtue of wise resource management.
1. Do not, under any circumstances, ever fight anything unless there truly is no other option. Don't let all the super-cool combat abilities fool you - LL2090 is not a “badass simulator.” Tough guys don't just finish last in Mendoza City - they finish in a bodybag! Talk it out, Retreat, or avoid conflict altogether before you pull out those Saabs and start shooting!
2. Watch your Luck! With very few exceptions, Luck cannot be recovered during a job, period - so manage your Luck like the precious, finite resource that it is. Only choose to make Luck checks and saves when you absolutely, positively, cannot deal with the consequences of not doing so (such as when resisting a lethal poison, performing a Major Exploit to cripple an ultra-tough enemy that is handing the crew their behinds, or when performing a Rescue to save a PC from certain death).
3. Watch your Reroll Pool! Avoid spending Reroll dice to reroll attribute checks unless your life is in danger (i.e.: rerolling a Dex [Acrobatics] check to keep your balance on an unstable platform lest you plummet to your doom is a good use of a Reroll - rerolling a Charisma check to show off your dance moves is not). Also avoid spending valuable Reroll dice on Will checks during Short/Long Rests; unless you have a high Will score, there is always a good chance that the rerolled check will fail - and your Reroll die will be completely wasted. Spend Rerolls on checks that matter - namely checks that serve to keep you alive such as All Dead/Mostly Dead tests, and Luck saves to resist lethal or debilitating effects.
4. Stock up on med gear! First aid kits are for healing after combat, spray-on skin is for healing during combat, and heartjackers grant a dead character a chance to effectively come back to life! Load up on these gimmicks hodas - you're gonna need 'em!
Critiques of the Text
There are plenty of rules and references in the text that are vague and ambiguous. Some of this seems to be on purpose, encouraging GM rulings over rules, but some of it also seems to stem from editing and clarity issues. GMs should be prepared to fill in the gaps and/or make on-the-spot rulings where clear information is not given. A few examples are as follows:
Some gear descriptions seem ambiguous. For example, I have heard players frequently ask what type of gear a Fake ID includes a license for. Fake IDs are described as including licenses for “general weapons, armour, and gear” but this description makes no specific reference to Legal, Controlled, or Prohibited gear categories. Some GMs may simply be comfortable making their own rulings, such as that “general” refers to Legal and Controlled gear but not Prohibited.
Some class abilities seem to be very unclear, or even appear to contradict other mechanics. For example, the Hacker’s Digital Overwatch ability allows them to negate a “digital attack” on a piece of tech, but their Override ability allows them to cancel a command to a piece of tech. The difference between the two becomes clearer on a closer reading and consideration of both abilities, but confusion can result upon first glance.
Another example is the Vehicle Nexus. A vehicle linked to a character’s Vehicle Nexus implant cannot be hacked. The Vex class begins play with a Vehicle Nexus by default, yet has an ability called Auxiliary Firewall that allows them to attempt to negate a hacking attempt on their vehicle. If the Vehicle Nexus prevents a linked vehicle from being hacked, the Auxiliary Firewall ability would appear rather redundant. Of course, Auxiliary Firewall would have use if the Vex’s Vehicle Nexus were broken or non-functional – but this point may not be clear on initial reading.
The Adversaries section features a wealth of NPC and monster stat blocks. However, these stat blocks often do not include all of the info the GM would need to run the NPC/monster. For example, an NPC might be armed with a certain firearm, but some important pieces of info regarding that firearm (range, jamming, etc.) is not included. GMs should expect to do a lot of flipping through the book while running combats, or otherwise do some appropriate prep beforehand.
Comparison to Low Fantasy Gaming
Many of those interested in LL2090 may also be familiar with Low Fantasy Gaming, also by Pickpocket Press. LL2090 uses the LFG “engine” as it were, and is very easy for LFG players to pick up. All core mechanics remain the exact same, and the obvious differences between the two games relate to combat and “grit” level.
Combat is a touch more complex in LL2090 than in LFG due to a number of rule changes and additions. These include the rules for firearms and grenades, how N19 effects and Trauma tables work, changes to the way initiative is handled, altering how a charge attack works, the introduction of a codified list of conditions, and so on. In LL2090 as opposed to in LFG, PC hit points tend to be lower, Short Rests do not heal hit point damage, Luck/Reroll progression is slower, PCs can only attempt one Major Exploit per combat, and only one Rescue Exploit per adventure.
LL2090’s mechanics are also easily transplantable to LFG for grittier, deadlier fantasy adventures.
LL2090 presents a very enjoyable experience with a slight but rewarding learning curve. It is streamlined when compared to other crunch-heavy systems but is more complex overall than something like Low Fantasy Gaming. LL2090 does not necessarily play like other cyberpunk game systems and tends to rely on sessions following the implied gameplay package of mission-based adventures bookended by gear/intel gathering and Downtime.
This GM recommends running a published adventure or two to get the default “feel” of LL2090 first before branching out on your own or homebrewing the system to your preferences. Roachtown Rumble works as a brief introduction to the general mechanics of LL2090, while No Sprawl For Old Men is a great, full-length adventure that will help GMs get used to running adventures in the Mendoza City setting.
My rating of 5 stars is 100% from a GM’s perspective and based on the question of whether or not LL2090 is enjoyable to run at the table. My answer is yes – and I recommend anyone interested in cyberpunk RPGs to give LL2090 a shot.
[5 of 5 Stars!]