Magicpunk Roleplaying with Lowlife 2090

on

Lowlife 2090 was a game funded on Kickstarter by Pickpocket Press back in September of 2020. I saw a post about it’s availability in late 2021 on twitter and remarked that this looked like a game I might want to pick up and review. Pickpocket Press responded by asking for my address so they could get me a review copy. They were kind enough to send me both the PDF and Hardback versions of the game, but other than that I’m receiving no compensation for my free and fair review.

The hardback book is a print on demand hardbound, with a glued spine. As such, it won’t lay flat, but other than that it seems durable and is easy to flip through. It’s printed on flat paper, which I always appreciate, and the interior layout is very good. Tables have a clear alternating row set up with unique colors, and call outs are also easy to spot while being unobtrusive. The base font is a Sans Serif which is easy on the eyes in both print and digital, and the section headings are well designed 1. Interior artwork tends to be comic bookish, which I love, though I’m greedy and want more. On occasion I did come across tables which were a bit confusing to read, as columns were repeated, and I did spot a number of minor typos in the text, but other than that I thought the layout was excellent. There are, however, a few organizational issues which made having a searchable PDF handy. The book includes an index, but the search helped me find things I couldn’t locate as I flipped paged 2. Overall, this is a nice volume I’m happy to have on my shelf.

The tables in Lowlife 2090 are easy to read, except when columns get repeated.
I love the design of Lowlife 2090’s tables.

About the Game

Lowlife 2090’s title is a multi-layered pun. First, it riffs of Pickpocket Press’ previous game—Low Fantasy Gaming. I’ve not taken a deep look at Low Fantasy yet, but from what little I have seen it shares a significant overlap in mechanics. Second, it communicates the nature of the game. The players are probably going to be on the wrong side of the law as they play 3, and will be dealing with the underbelly of society—what our culture uses the derogatory term, “low life” to describe. Third, this term is appropriated in-game by the characters, who use it to describe their existence—often shortened as “Lifers.” Players will take on jobs, and the way these work out include not only typical role playing tropes like NPC encounters and combat, they also include stringed events set up to feel like a montage in a heist movie. The variation looks like a lot of fun to play.

The setting is what I like to call “Magic Punk,” and combines elements of fantasy, cyberpunk, espionage thrillers, and heist flicks. In many respects, it shares DNA with Shadowrun, which is one of the originating games in this genre. Like it’s indirect ancestor, Lowlife 2090 takes place in a world that’s dominated by huge cities because social upheavals have altered the shape of civilization. The city itself is dystopian, while the wastes between the “Vert Cities” are apocalyptic.

In Lowlife 2090 magic has always been part of civilization, and its presence has colored the history of the world as we would recognize it. World War II, for example, wasn’t ended with a nuclear bomb but with a devastating magic ritual that leveled cities. The subsequent “Void War” was a struggle between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union over “Apocalypse Rituals.” The “Void War” doesn’t end with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, as in our world, but with a new accord to help better regulate the more dangerous elements of magic.

The world as the characters know it was shaped by something called the Catastrophic Transmutative Arcane Contagion (CTAC), which washed over the globe in 2022. This contagion killed millions, drove even more into insanity, and mutated still more into monstrous humanoids known as “Urgot.” By 2090 the countryside and suburbs have become a wasteland, the only “safe” areas are the Vert Cities. CTAC is a ominous threat which is every present in Lowlife 2090’s world, and its presence adds some uncertainty.

After all the game setting is a nice framework and from it a Game Master can build out their own lore. There is a two page spread toward the end of the book which lays out much of the history in more detail than I’ve recounted here.

Ability Scores

There are nine stats in the game. Seven of these are rolled—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Perception, Willpower, and Charisma 4. The two other stats are Initiative and Defense—which are derived from the rolled stats. Initiative is the average of the Dexterity and Intelligence scores 5, and Defense has a base of 11 to which the character’s dexterity modifier is added. Hit Points are not rolled in Lowlife 2090. Rather, a character begins with hit points equal to their constitution score—to which is added both their constitution modifier and any potential class bonuses. Characters gain one hit point per level.

A final character attribute is Luck, which is used in place of old school saving throws. Luck is variable, and has a starting point for any job based on a character’s level. Luck checks can be done straight up or modified by using an attribute modifier. Whenever a luck check is successful, however, the score drops by one. I love this mechanic! The longer a job goes on the more the characters moving toward their luck literally running out. A Luck pool does not normally restore itself during job, but there are ideas given for characters regain some luck during longer capers.

Race and Class

An example of a "Brawler" character.
The comic book like art is a great fit for the game.

Lowlife 2090 boasts nine character classes, allowing players to work with a nice array of archetypes—street brawlers, mad techno-geniuses, wizards, stealthy infiltrators, and even stunt drivers are all possibilities. Aside from class abilities each class has a list of potential starting contacts—these are special NPCs on which a character can lean during a job. Each of these contacts has a starting contact rating, which is determined by rolling a 3d6 6.

Each class has a cap at level ten, and advancement is milestone based. Characters can either level up after every successful job, or advancement can be handled piecemeal— players can either pick one aspect of their classes next level after each session, or they can roll to randomly select what aspect of their character advances 7. In the piecemeal option characters are considered leveled up only after they have advanced enough to obtain every level upgrade for their class. I appreciate the piecemeal approach, as there’s a chance characters will be at much different power levels at the end of a job.

There are six playable races. The classic Elf, Human, and Dwarf are present—to which are added Minotaurs, Skorn, and Spriggan. Minotaurs are similar to their fantasy counterparts, while Spriggans are Lowlife 2090’s version of goblins. Skorn are similar to goliaths from D&D. Each race has it’s own strengths and abilities, and this can impact what type of classes a player will select. In the rules as written character race is determined by a d6 roll, this is something I’d probably ignore at any Lowlife 2090 table I ran.

All about Rolls

The majority of rolls in the game use a roll under mechanic which utilizes a character’s ability scores as the number to beat. A 1d20 is rolled, and if the result is equal to or under the attribute then the task was successful. Modifiers can be given to attributes, at the GM’s discretion, to indicate easier or more difficult tasks. Simply succeeding or failing, however, isn’t the end. In Lowlife 2090 there is the possibility of great successes and terrible failures. Any roll equal to or less than half the applicable attribute is a great success, and any roll 1.5 times greater than the attribute score is a terrible failure. Think of these as results with extra narrative consequences. The rulebook includes a handy table to display what is considered both a great success and a terrible failure, so GM’s don’t need to be doing even more math in their heads.

A opposed check is accomplished when two characters roll challenges for an appropriate stat 8. The character with the greater success wins. If there is a tie, or if neither character succeeds, then the result is up to the GM’s discretion—often this will mean a re-roll. I’m not sure how I like this mechanic. One one hand it’s nice to see a contest between characters using the actual ability scores in the mechanic, but a series of bad rolls could mean a contest becomes a mini game which might bore other players. In general, however, I’m a fan of making ability scores mean something so I appreciate how Lowlife 2090 tries to do this.

On occasion, there are also percentile checks in game, which is another roll under mechanic using a d100 against the base chance to succeed 9. I found this inclusion to be a bit odd in an otherwise simple game. It works to have some abilities use a percentile check instead of a attribute check, but in an otherwise modern game it feels out of place.

Combat

Lowlife 2090 Cover Art
Combat is tense, but a ton of fun.

Combat is fast, though it has some quirks.

Initiative is determined by each character rolling an initiative check, those who succeed go before enemies, while those who fail will go after. In the case of a great success characters will also take their initiative before any bosses or heavies involved in the combat 10.

Attacks are are roll over mechanic with the character trying to best the target’s Defense Attribute, with appropriate modifiers added. Hits can be deadly, considering the amount of damage many weapons can dish out, but this can be mitigated by the use of armor. Each armor type has an Armor Rating which reduces damage taken. Lowlife 2090 is not a murder hobo game—strategic movement, taking cover, and retreating are essential elements for success when a party comes under fire!

When attacks hit, characters can attempt an exploit. Minor exploits are resolved at the GM’s discretion, often with an Opposed Check, and effect a single target for a limited duration. One example given is throwing dirt in an opponents eyes, which blinds them for one round. Major exploits may be used once per combat and are impressive actions which both impact multiple targets and have a lasting effect. These great exploits cannot kill any target, or render them otherwise incapacitated, unless the targets’ luck is 10 or less. In order to effect a major exploit the character needs to make a Luck check 11—and a success reduces the character’s Luck by one point, as usual. I love how Lowlife 2090 handles exploits, which fill a adjacent niche to bonus actions in D&D 5e. Instead of combat being all about numbers, exploits encourage creativity in action, and help integrate combat more into the narrative of the game.

Also included in the combat section are decent rules for chases and vehicular combat, both of which open up the game to taking on an action movie feel which fits this setting.

Damage and Healing

Player Characters are not auto-killed at 0 hit points. Rather, at that point they make a Luck save, with their Constitution bonus added, to determine their state. A failed save means “all dead,” and the player gets to roll up a new character 12. A successful save means the character is only mostly dead 13, but this leaves the character with a lasting effect, as determined randomly in the Injuries & Setbacks table. Some of these setbacks can be minor, and others may require a PC to replace body parts with cyberware. There are also separate trauma tables for the different damage types, each which has its own impact on the affected character. The way damage is handled in Lowlife 2090 lands half way between the abstract notion of hit points in D&D and more gritty rule sets like Mutant Year Zero. I appreciate how it splits the difference.

Extra Special Skills

Hacking and Magic are two separate abilities which have rules which exist in-between normal actions and combat actions 14. Hacking can take over computer systems, but always carries the risk of the character being detected and treated as an intruder. Magic requires a Willpower check to be activated, modified by -2 for each piece of cybernetics the caster has, and the results vary according the relative greatness of both successes and failures. No matter what, each cast spell reduces a casters Willpower by one 15, and failures mean the caster is affected by Dark Flux—the results of which range from the silly to the downright dangerous. There aren’t a huge amount of spells in the game, but what’s there offers a good number of options, and the write ups are well done. Characters are able to cast a number of spells equal to their level per job, and the combination of casting being a limited resource which holds both potential and certain consequences makes this magic system intriguing.

Adversaries

Because Lowlife 2090 is mostly an urban RPG, there aren’t a huge amount of traditional “monsters” in the Adversaries section. There are some creatures, but the focus is really on what the party may encounter during their jobs. Stat blocks are compact, but clear, and include everything a GM will need to run them well—including attribute scores, defense, attacks, and damage. I’d have loved to have seen a bit more artwork in this section, but what’s there is beautiful.

One impressive aspect of the Adversaries section are the instructions for the GM to create their own. This encouragement to homebrew actually runs throughout the book, which makes room for the players and GM to create aspects of the table together.

The Setting

The final section in the book describes Mendoza City, which is the default setting for the game. This is a well structured section which gives a GM a history behind the world, the current state of the official city government, factions, and neighborhood write ups 16. There’s enough here for a GM to run a campaign in Mendoza city out of the box, and it serves as an excellent example of how a GM might go about making their own Vert City playground. It’s not super detailed, but it serves as an excellent structure on which to build.

Conclusion

Lowlife 2090 seems like it would be a fun game to play, either as a PC or as a GM. Both the magic and cyber aspects of the game are integrated well, and the varied aspects of play do a great job keeping everyone involved. The list price for the standard hardcover book on DriveThruRPG is $70, and the PDF alone is $20, but the book is 321 pages and includes everything needed to play. At full price there’s good value here, but as of this writing the standard hardcover book is on sale for $47, at that price it’s a steal. There are some typos, and a few sections where I’d love to see some rewriting for clarity 17, but over all this is a game worth picking up!

I’d love to see Pickpocket Press release a supplement exploring the wastelands between the Vert Cities in more detail. Or, even better, complete the trifecta and release a post-apocalyptic RPG using this game engine.


  1. Confusing or inconsistent headers are a pet peeve of mine.  ↩

  2. Like how to determine a character’s Defense and how “Bosses” and “Heavies” we handled in initiative.  ↩

  3. Not necessarily on the wrong side of morality or justice, mind you, but certainly on the wrong side of the law.  ↩

  4. If you are familiar with the classic six attributes from D&D, these should look familiar. Wisdom has been split into two different stats. The standard way to roll is 4d6 and drop the lowest die.  ↩

  5. Rounded down.  ↩

  6. This comes into play when the player wants to use the contact during a job. The Contact Rating becomes the number to beat in the game’s roll under mechanic.  ↩

  7. If the result of the roll is irrelevant, the closest applicable option is chosen.  ↩

  8. Not necessarily the same one, just one appropriate to the contest from that character’s perspective.  ↩

  9. Think old school thieves skills from D&D.  ↩

  10. In the Adversaries section, these two types of opponents have a “Quick to Act” feature which explains why. I feel referencing the adversary ability would have made this point more clear.  ↩

  11. In addition to any other checks the GM deems necessary  ↩

  12. Yippee!  ↩

  13. Have fun storming the castle!  ↩

  14. Though both have combat implications.  ↩

  15. This is can be regained during down time.  ↩

  16. Complete with random encounter tables.  ↩

  17. The formula for calculating defense is buried in an an introductory list, for example.  ↩