Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy RPG review

Taking advantage of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess anniversary sale on RPGNow.com, I was able to get the PDF "Grindhouse Edition" for $1.35, instead of the full price. I've been meaning to read this game for a long time, partially because James Raggi has graciously linked to my blog from his since nearly immediately after I started this blog. I suppose the "Carcosa" in the name was what got him; I've also noticed that there is a new edition of the (in)famous eponymous RPG being released by Lamentations of the Flame Princess Press. If a PDF copy of this book were to mysteriously appear in my inbox, I would definitely feel honor-bound to write a review of it; just saying.

The "Grindhouse Edition," according to the LotFP Press site, is a box set, available for purchase online for about US$40, and which comes with three books (a total of some 360 pages), a set of dice, and some pre-printed character sheets. I'm assuming this is how it distinguishes itself from the "regular edition," which, incidentally, seems to be between printings? Two of the books are pretty standard: there is a player's guide and a GM's guide (called the Referee Book). The third, however, is labeled "Tutorial," and walks a new player through the mechanics of the game by a couple linked solo adventures. The PDF version of the Grindhouse Edition only has scans of the box cover, the box back, the three books, the OGL, and the character sheets; alas, there are no scans of dice.

The tutorial book, I think, is a phenomenal touch. Rare is the RPG solo adventure to begin with, and the "choose your own adventure" style, I think, is particularly compelling. I think that this tutorial guide really does well to introduce new players to the "world" that this game takes place in, which is a bit darker and grittier than run of the mill fantasy RPGs. Most importantly, the adventure is LONG; it will keep you occupied for quite some time, which is a huge plus if you're forced to "game alone." There's also a very long "example of play" which does what most similar, shorter versions in other RPGs fail to do: actually give you an idea of how the game works, by working through multiple encounters, start to finish, and not just a sampling. Before even reading the player or referee guides, I'm already getting a sense for how the game works, which is great.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess advertises itself as a "weird" fantasy game. This is, to say, that some of the fundamental assumptions about fantasy role-playing will be perverted, subverted, or just plain wrong. It is a far more dangerous, unsettling, and unnerving world than "mainstream" fantasy, and, at times, it may seem that the "impartial" GM might be acting against your best wishes as a player. Sometimes, this might also be true. It encourages horror, violence, and mystery, and does not shy away from unsettling imagery or situations. It is, therefore, self-consciously a "mature" RPG. Much like other "weird" role-playing games (and I'd throw Cthulhutech, Trail of Cthulhu, Call of Cthulhu, and other games including the word "Cthulhu," for instance), misdirection on the part of the GM should be assumed. However, just as in those games, this should not automatically mean that there is a competition between the players and the game master; the game master presents a challenge, and the players have to be smart and clever and just damn lucky to overcome it. This being said, the Referee's Guide presents a pretty good collection of tips for how to encourage this sort of play, as well as a pretty detailed run-down on how to pave the way as the game master to ensure that adventures in the world of the Flame Princess are memorable. And, of course, the tips don't only apply to this game.

There are a few things to note for anybody who might be transitioning from having played Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition. First and foremost, levelling takes a lot longer. The next thing to note is that there really is not much of an implicit setting, "points of light" or otherwise. Much of the referee's guide consists of tips on how to develop your own game world; even past the introduction, there is not even much on encouraging GMs to keep it "dark." That, if anything, is the implicit part. The adventure included at the back of the referee's guide provides a very good case in point: at one point, a player may not even know whether they are actually in control of their character or not. LotFP succeeds when it tries to disarm the players' assumptions; it fails as soon as the players begin to suspect that the GM is actively acting against them.

A brief mention of something else entirely must be made at this point. Throughout all of the books, there is very graphic (both violent and sexualized) art peppered in among the pages. LotFP apparently wants to make it very clear that this is a "mature" RPG, and inappropriate for children. This is a sharp contrast to Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition, which markets itself to ages 12+, and Pathfinder, which markets itself to ages 13+. However, both Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder are very mainstream titles. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, decidedly, is not. But this also distinguishes it from an RPG which I'd consider to be both "mature" and "mainstream," Cthulhutech, which certainly includes "racy" imagery, but nothing to this degree. As far as "read an RPG in public" day is concerned, you might want to leave LotFP on the shelf, as it may raise more than a few eyebrows. Some people may find the imagery offensive, distracting, or objectionable, but for the most part it is not outrageous or over the edge. But all the same, do consider this fair warning.

One very prominent feature in character creation is starting off PCs with a static number of hit points. Dwarves get 6, clerics get 4, fighters get 8, and so on; essentially they get their maximum HD score. Then, after level 1, hit points gained are the designated class hit-die, plus constitution modifier (for a while). There are a few funky irregularities about HP gain, but those are well noted. Functionally this means a level 1 fighter will always have 8 hit points, and a level 20 fighter will have between 49 and 113 hit points, unless I severely flubbed my math skill check. More or less, though, once players reach level 10, they will be gaining HP much more slowly than they were before that point. The overall effect here is that characters gain HP early on a bit faster than similar games, but then after level 10 they gain them more slowly. One would expect this to level off at the end, but I'm not going to actually do the math. Lower-level characters will definitely need this little boost, as creatures tend to be a bit more devastating when they hit.

Experience is gained primarily through the acquisition of wealth. The players' book notes that a game where the characters get most of their experience from vanquishing foes is not ideal, and in fact, labels those sorts of characters "psychotic." Furthermore, not all styles of wealth acquisition were created equal; there is a list of what nets XP and wealth, and what simply nets wealth. To me, this seems a bit unbalanced. If you are told that you aren't supposed to go out killing monsters, but you only gain XP from collecting mineral wealth off of enemies' bodies, out of their lairs, and out of abandoned habitation structures, it creates a game where the adventuring party does more scavenging than fighting. Of course, in a game world where, with all else being equal, most characters of any level will probably not survive the encounter with any given eldritch horror, this almost seems to be a necessity.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess takes place in a "magic poor" world, where magic-users (why can't they just be called wizards?) are inherently dangerous (and probably insane), and magic items are vanishingly rare. Characters will not go on a quest to find a +1 sword, they will be on a quest to find the +1 sword. Magic items, by their definition, give characters an advantage over situations tilted against their favor, and when considering that an adventuring party may only see two or three magic items over the course of their entire lives, the loss of this advantage will be palpable. Also consider that the world of Lamentations of the Flame Princess is considerably more deadly than the "stock" fantasy RPG setting, and the absence of any advantage will be even more obvious. Players are told to not become too attached to their level 1 characters, and to not mourn their loss if they die, but, all the same, characters will stay level 1 for a disproportionately longer time than with similar RPGs, given the slow levelling inherent with the system. But where guile is preferred, if for not other reason than self-preservation, it seems that players playing certain classes might be underwhelmed by the experience. This seems to be especially uninteresting to the "fighter" class, where it says in its description in the book that fighters live for fighting. If they're not supposed to go out and get into fights, what do they do? Spoils should be secondary; a side-effect of doing what they want to do, and players will probably be loath to send their characters in to a situation where they are quite confident they are going to die, just because it makes sense for the character's personality.

Experience is evidently also not gained by hunting, scavenging for food, or succeeding on skill checks, and it is not mentioned (or if it is, I don't see it) whether there are experience bonuses above and beyond wealth accumulation for succeeding on a particular quest. Not only do individual classes not gain special experience for taking advantage of their own particular class traits, they still level at different rates. Since experience is always divided evenly between all player characters, there will always be an imbalance between what the characters are capable of, which is aggravated by the fact that the others will not level quickly enough to catch up before getting thrown into a situation that is above their ability. The ideal situation would be to have 2-3 fighter characters, 2-3 specialists, and a cleric and/or wizard to pad out the battle capabilities of the group, plus a paid retinue of hired thugs to help if things get grim, who nevertheless will probably flee in terror at the first sign of anything remotely unusual. Strength in numbers seems to be almost a necessity.

Returning to wealth for a moment, it is, at least, very easy for clerics and magic-users to find ways to spend their vast stores of wealth gained from adventuring. There are myriad opportunities in creating magic implements, potions, scrolls, and the like, as well as researching new avenues of religious or magical knowledge. Less certain is what other classes are spending their dough on, but it seems that hiring henchmen, as well as maintaining a household with appropriate staff, is the intention. There are even rules on how to invest money, and what the returns will be. Capitalism, industry, and commerce are heavily emphasized in the players' book, but one also must maintain the knowledge that the individual handling your investments might, at any moment, mutate into a fish-faced monster that sprays black acid out of its eyes, and its croaks cause paralysis. Suffice to say, not all financial gambles will be lucrative.

But perhaps all of these critiques are just based upon a bad imagination on my part. It is obviously an adventure game, obviously styled after AD&D and what came before, and the system seems pretty streamlined and straightforward, with no major surprises (Death of THAC0 Day should be a real holiday). Most of the skill tests are resolved by rolling one or more d6's, rather than rolling a d20 against a chart; many other incidentals are resolved with a d% check. For the most part it is a "chart-lite" book; players will be able to tell whether they have succeeded or not on an endeavor just by the result of their roll, more often than not. Perhaps a better comparison would be to one of the early James Ward games like Metamorphosis Alpha or Gamma World, where instead of "save or die" your option is simply "die."

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a "tough" RPG. There is very little opportunity for advancement, advancement progresses very slowly, and there is a high likelihood that any given adventurous endeavor will end in failure and/or death. Ordinary incidents can turn deadly at the drop of a hat, and seemingly benign situations can (and will) turn bizarre and dangerous without any provocation. "Winning," as far as LotFP is concerned, is "not dying this session," and by that definition winning seems to be very hard to do.

Does all this mean that I don't particularly like the game? No. I'd be willing to try it.  I don't think this is going to replace my "default" fantasy RPG any time soon, but I think, much like with Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, it would be a fun diversion to run in a one-off, or 2-3 session adventure setting. "Weird" works for me, and in a "weird" game, deadly is very often necessary. In a Weird World, there are entities that can destroy the world without even taking notice, not to mention the puny things that may be crushed underfoot in the process.

One last comment to make is that there is no standard set of stock monsters to choose from, and this is explicitly mentioned in the books as intentional. To keep the world as "weird" as possible, the GM is encouraged to create custom monsters for every situation (and is given guidelines to do so). However, LotFP does concede that it is compatible enough with other OSR/OGL games that many can be reskinned and dropped in to it without too much modification. There is even a conversion guide between several other d20-based games for how this might be managed, but if you're expecting to use it completely stand-alone, you don't want to be in for a shock here.

In conclusion, Lamentations of the Flame Princess (though at the end I still have no idea who the Flame Princess is, nor why she is so upset) sets out to do something specific, and makes no apologies nor pulls any punches concerning what it's trying to do, and I have to, at least, give it props for that. The world is rough around the edges, to say the very least, and I can imagine that quite a bit of houseruling would be necessary for a lot of situations, but the product that is presented is well-organized, well-presented, and imaginative. Perhaps the most important contribution that LotFP provides to the RPG world is a reminder that nothing is sacred and that all plans, no matter how meticulously wrought, have a habit, in the end, of unravelling.

1 comment:

  1. "a fish-faced monster that sprays black acid out of its eyes, and its croaks cause paralysis"

    -- I am totally going to steal that, if you don't mind.