RPG Review: Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing
When I started my blog there were three RPGs that I knew I wanted to have for my first review - this, Adventure Conqueror King, and Dungeon Crawl Classics. When I've discussed the possibilities of doing an old-school game with my group one of the more common concerns is attempts to repeat what's been done before. That's clearly more of an issue for some than for others - for example, I know some people who'd gladly get their White Box edition of D&D out and start playing that. That said, there is something to be said for those games which put their own stamp on things. I believe this trio of games does just that. With DCC we get something very focused at the bibliography of D&D, something perhaps even more "retro" than original D&D (not in its rules but in its style). With ACKS we get a game that starts off with B/X at its core and then proceeds to make its own tweaks, large and small, while maintaining a focus on what happens to the characters as they gain higher levels and seek to be movers and shakers of their campaign worlds.
So what do we get with LotFP? As I did in my previous two reviews I'm going to cover this in two parts. First we'll give an analysis of what the game is (which will include opinions) followed by my overall thoughts.I will be referring to author James Raggi directly in this review which I've not done in the past, largely because this is clearly primarily the work of a single author and his voice most definitely shines through.
LotFP is currently in its 2nd "edition", though the differences in editions are more akin to those between versions of Call of Cthulhu than they are in D&D. Both the original edition (called the "Deluxe") and the latest (called the "Grindhouse Edition") come in boxed sets with several small booklets. I have the Deluxe edition in physical form and PDF and the Grindhouse edition as PDF only. This review is going to focus on the Grindhouse edition. LotFP is excellently presented in its PDF form. It consists of multiple files, representing the various books found in the boxed set. It takes full advantage of PDF outlining, allowing for very easy navigation.
Let's talk a little bit about the term "grindhouse" as it really defines what James Raggi was aiming for in the tone of LotFP. Since this is not an academic paper I'm going to feel safe using Wikipedia as a reverence for the definition of grindhouse. What we see is this:
In the film Lady of Burlesque (1943) one of the characters refers to the burlesque theatre on 42nd Street, where they are performing stripteases and bump and grind dances, as a "grindhouse".
The introduction of television greatly eroded the audience for local and single-screen movie theatres, many of which were built during the cinema boom of the 1930s. In combination with urban decay after white flight out of older city areas in the mid to late 1960s, changing economics forced these theatres to either close or offer something that television could not. In the 1970s these theatres were put to new use as venues for exploitation films,either adult pornography and sleaze, or slasher horror and dubbed martial arts films from Hong Kong.
Grindhouse films characteristically contain large amounts of sex, violence or bizarre subject matter. Quality varied, but low budget production values and poor print quality were common.
Critical opinions varied regarding typical grindhouse fare, but many films acquired cult following and critical praise. Double, triple, and "all night" bills on a single admission charge often encouraged patrons to spend long periods of time in the theaters. The milieu was largely and faithfully captured at the time by the magazine Sleazoid Express.
This term definitely informs the artwork found within LotFP. There are extreme amounts of violence. There are lots of scenes of women adventurers getting maimed. There's a scene of a medusa who seems to enjoy collecting statues of her lovers frozen mid-coitus, complete with horrified/confused faces and erect penises. So what you are getting is exactly what it says on the tin - you cannot say you were not warned. If the artwork is too offensive (or if you just want a copy of the rules) a no-art version of the rules and magic sections (which is what a player needs to play) can be found at the products website. To be honest, one of the reasons I stuck with PDF-only is the "creepy snake-lady" on the cover scared my daughters (soon to be 7 and 10).
Book One - Tutorial
The first book is designed to serve as an introduction to role-playing games. It is far more detailed than what you find in your typical "what is role-playing' sections of most RPG books - it is more akin to the old "red box' version of the D&D Basic game in the amount of detail it provides. Indeed it has a walkthroughs that slowly introduce various concepts to the reader, much as the old D&D Basic did. The first is a fairly straight walkthrough with no real choices (much like Basic D&D, albeit no Bargle to kill cute clerics) and the second is a more traditional solo adventure.
After this we have a discussion about gaming in general - talk about preparation, where to play, snacks, the way people play, mapping, the likelihood your character will meet a horrible fate, mapping symbols, rules, house-rules.
Next we have an example of play. It's an interesting example as it is fairly long and includes some of the banter you'll often find at the table (or virtual table as the case may be). I remember in Basic D&D the example of play had poor Black Dougal dying. Well this example of play ends in a total party kill, something I don't think I've ever seen in such an example.
Next up is our Recommended Reading section. I'm very pleased that LotFP does not simply provide a list but rather discusses the authors recommended. Each of his main authors gets a lengthy discussion as to why he is included. It gives a very good view towards the feel that Raggi was aiming for. I'm familiar with most of the prime authors he refers to and I do think LotFP captures the feel of them well. They are:
- Clive Barker (oddly never read anything by him)
- Robert E Howard (some familiarity with his works)
- Fritz Leiber (familiar with his works and one of my favorite writers)
- HP Lovecraft (another I'm pretty familiar with)
- Edgar Allan Poe (another of my all-time favorites)
- Clark Ashton Smith (an embarrassing hole in my reading and one I plan on remedying shortly)
- JRR Tolkien (I'm familiar with his core works and Raggi makes a good argument towards his inclusion, given some might see him as out of place in a "Weird Fantasy" game with a strong dose of horror. Raggi reminds us just how influential Tolkien is and also some real horrors along with a lack of a true happy ending.)
- Jack Vance (familiar with a decent amount of his works)
- Jules Verne (one of my favorite authors, albeit one for whom it is vital to get a good translation - if it is dirt-cheap or a free e-book it is almost certainly a poor translation)
- HG Wells (while I'm more a Verne fan I've read most of Wells famous works and War of the Worlds is a definite favorite of mine)
Book Two - Rules and Magic
LotFP characters have the same basic ability scores that most D&D-type games use and it uses the same bonus and penalty system that D&D B/X uses (discussed in my ACKS review). Like most older style games the assumed generation system is roll 3d6 for each ability in order.
There are four human classes and three demi-human ones. For the most part, each class gets to excel at one thing at the expense of most other game-related items. For example, fighters are the only characters who get better at hitting in combat over time - all other characters keep the same attack bonus throughout their careers. The classes are:
- Cleric - Able to cast cleric spells (which includes turning undead).
- Fighter - Only character whose attack bonus increases.
- Magic-User - Able to cast Magic-User spells.
- Specialist - Only character whose skills increase (all characters have a base chance, usually 1 or 2 in 6 chance of succeeding at a "skill check"), specialists get to increase these. Depending on how built this type of character can be a ranger, assassin, or thief.
- Dwarf - Best hit points and saving throws.
- Elf - Able to cast magic-user spells, has better hit points than a magic-user but advances slower and seems to have slightly worse saving throws.
- Halfling - Sneaky and stealthy, hard to hit and have good saving throws
No character has weapon or armor restrictions, though with encumbrance rules weaker characters are likely to have problems with the heaviest armors. For various types of armor and amounts of gear a character gains encumbrance points which limit movement ability. Dwarfs are able to ignore encumbrance better than other characters.
A lot of the rules will seem familiar to players of B/X D&D. For most non-combat tasks a character will have an x in 6 chance of succeeding. For example, searching for secret doors usually has a 1 in 6 chance, though if a character has a better Search skill the chances go up. However, usually only Specialists can increase skills, though some races start of with certain improved success chances (like a Halfling's outdoor stealth).
There are rules for traveling, various dungeon activities, maritime adventures, henchmen,etc. - pretty much the same sorts of topics you'd find in the B/X rules.There's also rules for handling characters who invest in things like property for those lucky high level characters with more money than they know what to do with.
Rules for Encounters cover most combat activities. There's nothing here that will shock players experienced with the B/X rules but like many games there are some interesting twists. For example, there are options to parry if a character chooses not to attack, gaining a small bonus to Armor Class, with Fighters, Dwarfs, and Elves getting a larger bonus.
The rules for magic discuss how to handle clerics and magic-users/elves.
Clerics need to pray for their spells daily and must choose their spells in advance. They can turn undead, but unlike traditional D&D this is handled as a spell. Clerics can create spell and protection scrolls and can also create holy water and research new spells. There abilities are not restricted by level but do require time, components, and money.
Magic-users (which includes elves for all purposes here) must also choose their spells in advance but are limited to the spells in their spellbook. With access to other spellbooks or scrolls they can gain access to new spells. They can brew potions (including healing potions with the help of clerics), create spell scrolls, transcribe spells from a scroll or spellbook, and research new spells, all at 1st level, albeit with the same limits a cleric has - time, components, and money. They can also create wands or staves to hold multiple "charges" of spells but this requires access to the higher level permanency spell.
The spell list is pretty much what you'd expect though the spells have their own little "weird fantasy" twists to them which I found rather appealing.
Book Three - Referee Book
The Referee Book is largely a book of focused advice for LotFP referees. However, covering every bit of advice would be both cumbersome and bordering on plagiarism so let us rather investigate the types o things discusses, with a few specifics here and there.
Overall I really like the tone of this book. James Raggi has made the unusual choice of providing a lot of guidance on a game clearly aimed at "mature gamers". However I find his guidance good and far more realistic than most pieces of GM/Judge/Referee guidance. He talks about how you will screw up. "Your first attempts will hopefully be enjoyable but they won't be good." Looking back to my earliest games I can't help but agree. I have fond memories of visiting the Village of Hommlet and pretty much going on a massacre... No, not of the nearby Moathouse or Temple of Elemental Evil - the village itself.
The book does delve into a nice discussion of how to capture the "weird" part of fantasy - the sorts of elements you will find in such literature and how to replicate it in game.
We also discuss the nitty gritty of adventure creation and the importance of player choice with a maxim for Judges to repeat:
My adventures and campaigns will have no pre-set endings. Characters are not required as I wish them to act during the course of the game. It is natural player behavior to trash scenarios and take the game to places unforeseen.
A similar section deals with the establishment of your campaign setting, with an eye towards making it a place full of adventure.
The section on NPCs and monsters is well worth reading, foregoing the normal list of standardized monsters. It discusses how to build monsters, different types of monsters, etc. but really emphasizes the importance of making every monster unique. A sample version of a vampire is provided, though it is clear other types of vampires could be built.
One thing Raggi suggests is where you would normally use orcs or similar humanoids, replace them with humans. Feel free to keep the orc stats if you want, but to make them humans, taking full advantages of the prejudices the locals will have against these outsiders. This is something I've seen done well in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire and HBO's adaptation in A Game of Thrones.
Similar advice applies to magic items, where Raggi advises that aside from items like potions and scrolls (which mimic spells), all magic items be unique. There are no "+1 swords", all magic items are unique. Guidance is given on building these magic items along with a trio of magic items detailed to show examples.
LotFP closes with some final practical advice on getting your group together and playing and closes with an overview of other similar games out there (i.e. Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, etc). with guidelines on how to adapt materials from those types of systems to LotFP. Lastly, the book closes with a sample adventure which makes use of many of the concepts discussed in the referee book.
Previously I spoke about how ACKS went with a fairly subdued writing style (not a bad style at all, just not in your face) while DCC was a bit more aggressive. LotFP is an interesting artifact. It is part introduction to RPGs and part manifesto of Raggi's style of play. That may sound like a bad thing but I don't think it is. First of all, I do think it is a good introduction to the hobby. If I were to have a friend that decided to join my game for a session or two to see what it was like and wanted a rulebook as an introduction to the hobby, assuming he or she wouldn't be offended by the art this is something I'd definitely recommend. And also, I think it is sometimes a good exercise to look a things anew as if we see them for the first time and reading through the Tutorial Book gives an experience at sitting at another group's table and seeing how they play. As far as the "manifesto voice" goes, it works for me. It allows Raggi to clearly illustrate the way he feels the game is best played and is definitely his own style, not trying to imitate "High Gygaxian" prose reminiscent of the style of early D&D and AD&D.. Even if you don't view gaming the same way Raggi does (and to be honest his style is certainly different from mine and I'm not really a fan of grindhouse works) there is just so much to take away from LotFP that I absolutely recommend it. Even if I never make use of any of the rules, his sections on monsters, treasures, and recommended readings are worth the price of admission.
For the most part I like his tweaks to what we normally find in D&D rules. The limiting of each class to a narrow focus won't appeal to all ("what do you mean my magic-user can never get better at climbing?") but it is something I'm curious to see how it would work.
LotFP is a bold work but I think it is a boldness that is largely justified. I admire those games that take our well-loved D&D game to different places and LotFP certainly does just that. You really can't read this game without getting your brain thinking of different ways of doing things you'd always done the same way.