Low Life: The Rise of the Lowly

(Cross-posted to RPG.net, where it won 2nd prize for Fantasy Week.)

Amidst the muck and toilet humor there lies a real gem of roleplaying with wonderful art, a light-hearted spirit, and an unerring sense of childish fun.


Personal Hygiene Notice

The human body, as a byproduct of the process of digestion, produces a semi-solid substance commonly known as poop. When it comes to the discussion of poop, people tend to fall into three general categories — those who, for one reason or another, find poop to be objectionable as a topic for conversation; those who find poop to be generally uninteresting as a topic for conversation; and those who find poop, to one degree or another, funny.

If you find mention or discussion of poop to be objectionable, for whatever reason, stop reading now. The game product about to be reviewed is not for you, and you might as well spend the next two minutes of your life more profitably.

If you find poop to be funny, it is likely that you already own the product to be reviewed. If you don’t, stop reading this review right now and go buy a copy. You will not be disappointed.

It is to the remaining category — those who find poop generally uninteresting as a topic of conversation, being neither particularly entertained by it nor particularly repulsed by it, that I address this review.

Low Life: The Rise of the Lowly

Low Life is a 144 page hardback setting and campaign book written by Andy Hopp, and produced by Great White Games and Studio 2 Publishing for the Savage Worlds system. Many very nice reviews have been written about the Savage Worlds original edition, including this one, that one, this other one, another one, that one over there, the rather sinister one lurking in the alley, that further one, and, for completists, this one and that one on the somewhat mutated Explorer’s Edition which shall be seldom mentioned in this review since Low Life was created for the original system. As there are already a veritable flock of reviews that currently exist which discuss the mechanics of Savage Worlds, I will avoid most mention of mechanics save for those few additions and modifications that help make Low Life what it is.

In addition to writing Low Life,, Mr. Hopp also illustrated it. Lavishly. Very lavishly. In fact, Low Life, is illustrated to an almost unheard of level by industry standards. Mr. Hopp’s art adorns (or infests, depending on your aesthetic preferences) almost every page of the work — there are only 15 pages in the entire book that contain no artwork, and not a single two-page spread is lacking in illustration. Mr. Hopp’s vision of the setting leaps out from every page — one has only to peruse the art to gain a vivid picture of the world of Low Life. Most pages also have a small quip or snippet of information in the bottom margin, which add to the overall flavor of the product.

Like most writers in the business who know their stuff, Mr. Hopp divided his product into pages. Upon these pages the subject matter of the game was clumped under subject headings for ease of reference. Though lacking an index, the Table of Malcontents is sufficiently comprehensive to allow easy navigation through the book.

The first three headers — “The Face Merchant Speaks”, “A Brief History of Slime”, and “The Lowdown (Special Info)” provide a brief overview of the setting. Low Life takes place on Mutha Oith, a version of far future earth in which virtually every disaster and catastrophe ever depicted in a B movie disaster film has befallen the planet. Nuclear war, alien invasion, close cometary passes, volcanoes, earthquakes, mudslides, and dimensional rifts all contributed to what natives refer to as “The Big Flush” which turned Oith into a ruined sludge puddle in ages past. The mythical Hoomanrace has long ago mutated beyond recognition, and new races have arisen from the muck to populate the world.

“Character Creation” gives a brief overview of the rules of how to make a character in the Savage Worlds system. Since I assume that after the avalanche of references to the system above has made the reader as familiar with the character creation rules as he/she/it wishes to be, let me just mention that Low Life contains a very nice flow chart of the character creation process, and move along to detail the various lowly critters that can become the heroes of a Low Life epic.

Bodul (Being of Dubious Lineage) — Boduls are the horribly mutated descendants of the long lost Hoomanrace. Take every bad mutant movie mutation you have ever seen or imagined, put them in a blender and frappé them, and you have a Bodul.

Cremefillian — the heavily contaminated and irradiated remains of snack cakes, which have gained sentience over the millenia.

Croach — evolved cockroaches.

Horc — descendants of a barbarous denizens of Middle Oith who arrived via a dimensional rift.

Oofo — remnants of alien invaders and tourists, now stranded on Mutha Oith.

Pile — magically animated piles of contaminated goo.

Smelf — another race that arrived via dimensional rift from Middle Oith. They have huge noses.

Tizn’t — the evolved remains of Mutha Oith’s animal life. So named because “Tizn’t this, tizn’t that.”

Werm — evolved annelids — they come in ‘earth-‘, ‘flat-‘, and ‘intestinal-‘ varieties.

Each of the races is lovingly illustrated with full-page art.

Following this is the Skills section, which covers not only setting appropriate skills but also new edges and hindrances. Here you can find such gems as the hindrance “Inumerate” (you have no concept of numbers) and the edge “Evil Twin” (if your character ever dies it is immediately replaced by a twin from a parallel universe that looks the same as your character except for a goatee, and is evil). Then comes a discussion of the Low Life take on Arcane abilities – “Holy Rolling” which discusses the various religions of Mutha Oith (including Boorglezarianism, Hoomanitarianism, Jeezle Freakism, Jemima’s Witnessism, Stanism, and a host of minor cults, and “Eldrich Wonders”, which covers the Arcane backgrounds of Contanimator (a specialist in animating waste and trash), Dementalist (a mastery of mind over matter), Hocus Poker (the Low Life equivalent of a magician), Holy Roller (the Low Life equivalent of a cleric), Smellcaster (a specialist in containing and magically treating smells distantly related to alchemists), and Weirdo (the Low Life equivalent of a Mad Scientist). Following is a section of “Gear and Goods”, which includes the truly innovative “Wacky Wongo’s Wonderous Weapon Workshop”, which gives rules for players to actually create weapons to their own specifications rather than relying on a weapon list.

“The Craptastic World of Mutha Oith” is a 16-page description of interesting locales, including such must-see tourist attractions as the Incredibly Huge Monster (the corpse of a creature so large that its ears are mined for wax), the Moonular Cheese Fields (vast fields of cheese that fell to Oith after a comet collided with the moon) and “That One Place With All the Sand” (a vast wasteland of sand and ash described as ‘the world’s biggest litter box’). The following section, “Beastiary of Oith” is a nine-page compilation of critters such as Brocodiles, Cute Little Duckies, Esophogators, Schnoobles, and Slogs.

Finally, there is a section entitled “Savage Tales”, which is a series of twenty-one adventures linked together to form a campaign. In addition there is a random adventure generator that you can use to generate adventures randomly, for when being systematic just doesn’t cut it.

PLAYING WITH IT

Now you may be sitting there, scratching your head, glancing back and forth between what I have written and those numbers over on the right side of your screen. “What the hell is this?” you are thinking. “This game doesn’t seem like any great shakes to me”. However, this game is a rare find for a certain type of group (and I am not talking about coprophiles here). I ran most of the campaign for our group (16 of the 21 adventures) and still get requests to continue the game. We had a rollicking good time with each and every adventure we played, and each adventure left us wanting more. The inherent humor of the setting overlaid on the fast, furious, and fun Savage Worlds rules system still left the players with plenty of room for heroics (and hysterics), and me as the GM able to come up with quick mods for the published adventure ideas to fit them to the characters. Moreover, beneath the veneer of toilet humor lurks a high quality campaign! Many of the other Savage Worlds campaigns I have read or played (Necessary Evil, Evernight, 50 Fathoms, Rippers) have often felt to me like chained excuses to move from one fight scene to another. The Low Life campaign felt, to me, very different. While there was plenty of action to be had, there was also a modicum of thinking, planning, and negotiating to be done. Some scenarios were only winnable through talking, and some scenarios were just excuses for the PCs to strut their stuff and look cool. The campaign is very forgiving of PC wandering, and GMs have a fair amount of leeway in scheduling the order of the scenarios to avoid the “A, then B, then C” progression so common in published adventure packs.

The group I GM’ed fo were as wretched a bunch of scoundrels as ever had crawled up out of the muck. They included a Bodul with no arms or legs and only one eye, who was an amazingly effective begger (+6 charisma!), an Oofo Dementalist alcoholic, a grumpy Tizn’t Smellcaster, and a host of other reprobates who showed up part time. In the course of our adventures the party became addicted to chili, founded a new religion, bilked lots of people out of lots of money, stole a ship, created a chain of restaurant/churches, and still managed to follow along the plotline. While doing it we had an incredibly good time. One player described the campaign as “Dr. Seuss meets Hol”.

THE WHOLE STEAMING PILE

Low Life is, I think, a rare product — a game supplement driven by the vision of a single individual that actually succeeds in bringing the author’s vision unambiguously and clearly to the reader. One may or may not find that vision to be palatable (and that will largely determine whether this product succeeds or fails with a given reader) but it is rare to see a product produced with such focus and intensity throughout. It helps that Mr. Hopp is the sole author, illustrator, and designer of the product, but it must also be said that he produces a professional grade of product in all three areas. Given the amount of toilet humor in the book I hesitate to use the term “immersive”, but the product does succeed in portraying the wacky world of Mutha Oith, both in its prose and its illustrations.

In addition to being a good example of one man’s literary and illustrative vision on a project, Low Life is also a high quality roleplaying product. The large number of unique races, edges, hindrances, and arcane abilities allow players to design unique characters well suited for the game world. There are several nice additions to the game that make it more playable as well — the weapon creation system allows players to let their imaginations run wild when it comes to their equipment, and all the scenarios in the campaign section are rated by the Rank that the characters should achieve before undertaking a particular adventure (something I had not seen in other Savage Worlds campaign books). As previously mentioned, the adventures in the campaign are robust and success in a given scenario can usually be achieved by several means, which leaves the individual adventures and the campaign as a whole much less susceptible to derailing from the players doing something unexpected.

The artwork in Lowlife is very high quality, though again it will not be to everyone’s taste. For some examples one need look no further than some of the galleries of Mr. Hopp’s website like this one or this one. The amount of high quality artwork in the book is delightful, and elaborately conveys the childish, “let’s-play-in-the-muck” whimsy of Mr. Hopp’s world to the reader.

It’s Solid

So how do I rate this product?

Style: 5

The artwork is of high quality and plentiful, the writing is good and the writer’s voice conveys a strong sense of what the product is about, the layout and design of the product are both professional. While there is no index, the table of contents in the front is very complete.

Substance: 5

The product contains several nice features, such as the weapon design table and Rank listings for the adventures. The setting is unique and entertaining, and the book does a good job of supporting it with plenty of unique races, unique takes on arcane talents, extensive campaign specific edges and hindrances, and an excellent and well thought-out series of linked adventures. Most of all, it proved to be one of the best products our group had seen in years, both in terms of the fun factor of individual games and the longevity of the product, which continues to occupy a special and fond place in the hearts and memories of the players and GM alike.

Low Life is, however, a special product, and it would be unfair of me to review it without making allowances for the fact that it may not have universal appeal within the roleplaying community. For this reason, I offer:

The “I am not Shosuro Kando” chart of ratings modifications for some people who are not me

“I am not impressed with Mr. Hopp’s artwork”: -1 style
“I really, really hate Mr. Hopp’s artwork”: -2 style
“What? No index?”: -1 style
“Chuck Norris wouldn’t like this setting, and neither do I”: -1 style, -1 substance
“I support the ‘My hero never needs a restroom’ school of roleplaying”: -1 style, -3 substance
“Toilet humor has no place in roleplaying!”: -10 style, -10 substance (and don’t say I didn’t warn you at the beginning of the review)
“I game in order to kill shit and take its stuff!”: -1 substance or +1 substance, depending on your definition
“I don’t like games with childish humor!”: -2 substance
“I’m inumerate!” -fish style, -chips substance

WASHING MY HANDS

In conclusion, I feel that Low Life is one of the unrecognized treasures of roleplaying. I admit that it takes a slightly offbeat sense of humor to fully appreciate it — it is not a “serious” product by any stretch of the imagination. That doesn’t prevent it from being well made, innovative, clever, and engaging.

Follow the discussion on RPG.net.

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