Friday, August 6, 2010

Wierd Roleplaying Lands in New Jersey!

Late on Wednesday night, the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Wierd Role Playing boxed set arrived on my doorstep. I proceeded to spend most of the night reading through it and much regretted having to go to the office the next day. I must say that I'm impressed by this game. Raggi continues to improve his craft and set a high bar for the OSR in general: showing us all "how it's done" so to speak.

At first glance, the boxed set is just a bit overwhelming. The artwork is, simply put, astonishing. We're all familiar with the box cover and I'm sure that every single one of us will look at it and agree that it is a spectacular bit of work. But I'd like to take the time to put in a good word for the interior art as well: evocative, inspiring, and, if I may say so, not just a little fundamentally unsettling in some places (a certain bearded and distorted faced warrior image comes to mind here). On top of all of that, the books have terrific "hand feel." In my hands, they feel of equal quality with my old copy of the White Box sitting nearby, perhaps even superior in some aspects. The box and books are built to withstand the rigors of play.

We all know the contents of the box by now. Come on, let's all say it together. First out of the box is an introductory slip with something that every game should have, a very quick, concise definition of the contents and style of the game, though for the record, I would like to see that on the back cover, too, since the box presumably comes to the store sealed. It's also a bit of a quick instruction manual on how to proceed through the remainder of the contents and the now somewhat infamous disclaimer about male pronoun exclusivity. I find the warning about occult activity, mental abberation, and deviant behavior amusing and if I ever can get my act together, I'd ask James permission to copy it into any product I can put together myself. Perhaps it can become another in joke of the OSR, which I think desperately needs one.

Next out of the box is the Tutorial book. Disclaimer: this is the only bit of art in the box that I actually don't care for. The three figures across the top are just a little intrusive and don't strike the right vibe for me as I get it from the game. THey look more like the BECMI style ADVENTURE! type figures than the strange and wierd that the rest of the game gives off, though that little monster on the left is flat out odd. If it were me, and it wasn't, I'd have felt that the bottom image of the mob of peasants marching, pitchforks and torches in hand, to the castle gates was more than sufficient and evocative of the great Hammer Horror flicks of their day.

Anyway, I give the inclusion of a tutorial high marks, especially in a boxed set that purports to be a complete game. It's a mistake on our collective part to assume that anybody picking up the product is already a gamer and knows what it's all about if not the specific rules in play. It fosters a type of cliquism and continuity lockout that is problematic and obnoxious and discourages new adopters from attempting the game on their own. This tutorial artfully averts that tendancy that neckbeards have and takes the part of a kindly and patient referee walking a new player step by step through their first game (in this case, a haunted house) with quick instructions "on the ground" of how the basics work. The only issue I have with the tutorial is that it does go on longer than it should, but that seems to be because of the inclusion of an introductory, single person module there and an extended play example. This is fine, and I honestly don't see a way that it could have been done without compromising the step by step nature of the tutorial, I feel that some of the material there could have been pulled out into another booklet. One last note about the tutorial, I'm pleased to see a nice little glossary of important terms on the back in easy reach.

Next up is the Rules book with the titular Flame Princess I presume on the cover. Here we have what one would expect to find in the player's handbook. Character classes, in the style of the Basic game so long ago, the Cleric, Magic User, Fighter, Elf, Halfling, and Dwarf, and a Specialist (a renamed Thief). The classes are described completely with a refreshing brevity that is utterly lacking in today's published gaming supplements. It's excellent to find a comprehensive description of, well, anything that clocks in at under a full page of block text nowadays. The fact that the majority of character creation is completed within the first 17 pages of the book is no mean feat. Moving further, I find a surprisingly comprehensive equiment list containing in addition to classics such as the 50' rope, chalk, and shovel, some oddities like soap and manacles. What adventurer before has worried about his hygene? Or, for that matter, a pair of manacles? It speaks volumes in only to line items in a list in my opinion. There are, in addition, lists for weapons and armor, animals, vehicles, and basic services and an encumbrance system based rather than on weight like most others, on items. I find that last an interesting choice that shifts focus away from micromanaging weight distributions in the party to a systemized exercise in common sense. Rather than jiggering around with pounds to cram one more thing into the pack, it's simply a matter of counting items and moving on.

The rest of the Rules book contains, naturally, most of the rules a player would be expected to need to play the game. Swimming, climging, mapping, getting lost, healing, languages, movement, maritime adventure rules, rules for hiring retainers, rules for property and finance, and, finally on page 40, rules for combat. It's fascinating to me that the combat rules, which oftentimes are the first rules discussed after character creation, are quite literally the last rules presented in this game. It's obvious that combat, while important, is not the central focus of the game like certain other alliterative games out there. What's even better in my mind, is that the combat "chapter" is only six full pages, one of which is a full page illustration, and it covers as much as the AD&D books covered in significantly more page realestate. Again, that long lost art of brevity and concise writing coming to the fore again.

Digging further into the box, I come across the magic book. This is majorly, as one could divine from the title, a list of spells for both Magic Users and Clerics including the Turn Undead spell which is no longer an innate power of the cleric and a quick rundown of the rules on memorizing spells and research that most experienced players and referees will find themselves comfortable with. In fact, very little needs to be said about it since most of us will be able to walk through this book quickly and understand the vast majority of it.

And that, actually, is all one needs to play the game. All the rules (excepting monsters) have been covered and you're ready to start rolling characters and get moving if you're a player. But there's still a number of other books to pull out here. Next up is the Referee book with the serpent lady demon, a marilith without her swords. This, I make no qualms about it, is my absolute favorite book in the set. Without a doubt. Inside, you'll find no rules excepting for a few guidlines in the monster section, only frank and straightforward talk about how to run a game. Themes that run through the wierd role playing "world" such as science versus magic and mystery, horror versus the wierd. But better still are the meditations on how to construct an interesting adventure that captures the attention and imaginations of your players, treasure placement, maps, and how to build a larger environment and world than just the current explorations, how to build connections to the outside world. I'm immensly impressed by this tiny little booklet and how it manages to equal Gygax's own DMG in content and, in somme way, exceed it since it rises above merely a section of the rules intended for the referee. This is, very simply, the act of taking new referee's under your wing in text format. Kudos Mr. Raggi.

Next up, two adventures, one introductory and one exploratory. The "Tower of the Stargazer" is an excellent little introductory adventure based on the titular location and the players' explorations thereof. Classic and comforting and full of explanatory notes on not just how things function, but why they are there, it's as much an adventure as it is a tutorial for the referee in adventure structure. An excellent quality detachable cover with maps, a feature sorely lacking in most of the old school world, is a nice addition.

Where "Tower of the Stargazer" is a tutorial on adventure building, "Wierd New World" is the excercise portion of a referee's training. As is noted in the introduction, there is a lot of work to be done here to make the module work, and it's up to the local referee to do it. Expand the brief descriptions into a living and breating experience for his players and draw the links here that will draw them further into the wilderness and, eventually, to the pirates cave. This modules is a graduation ceremony for both sides of the screen. On the one side, the referee is ready to start building his own world and the campaign, and on the other, the players are ready to graduate beyond confined and comfortable little dungeon crawls and start making names for themselves.

The last booklet in the box is titled "Recommended Reading" and it's Raggi's own personal Appendix N. If anything, it is a great list of inspirations from which James himself has drawn, and which individual referee's can garner ideas as well. It's also a nice touch that the individual authors are not just listed, but extensively commented upon and guidance given to the uninitiated.

The rest of the box contents include a few character sheets and some graph paper for mapping, a tiny little pencil and an adorably tiny bag of dice that, while to any experience gamer are virtually superfluous, to a new player would be indispensible and certainly go a long way to creating a complete game in a box.

I only have two small issues here. First, I want the box to be slightly larger. I have this strange urge to fit all of my LOtFP books into it, and they just won't fit without overly stressing the box. Yes, it's nice to open up the box and find it surprisingly full, but I would like to have the option to store all of these products together in a single container to carry with me to games. This is a minor and, likely, nonsensicle complaint as it would be easy enough for me to just grab a larger box to put them all in, but still.

My second problem, and slightly more serious, is with the magic book. All the spells are, on the one hand, completely familiar to experienced gamers, and that's a plus on some level. However, it is siumtaneously a problem for me. They're all familiar and workmanlike and none of them, in my estimation, really earns the title of "wierd." In the description of magic users back in the rules book, we're told that they taint their souls bit by bit for power, but I'm just not seeing that here. Yes, I understand that there are the alignment restrictions, but that's just one thing. I know, I should be making that rule up myself if I want it here, but this is something that could have been a spectacular addition to the vancian magic system to complement the themes of the game.

Overall, I think that Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Wierd Fantasy Role Playing is, as a product, a spectacular success and I honestly hope that the first printing sells out entirely and a new printing is worked. I wish all the success that the author has earned. There will be a love hate relationship with this game, though. New school gamers (those inducted into the hobby with D20 versions of the game) will love the themes and ideas here, but will gnash their teeth and tear their shirts because it's not "intuitive" or "complete" or whatever it is these youngin's complain about today.

The oldest and crustiest of grognards, on the other hand, will wail and shout about how its not just like the old boxed sets and that it's bait and switch and that they were tricked by its presentation as a boxed set.

Meanwhile, if you take the box on its own terms, you'll see it for what it is: a truly excellent example of minimalist game design and a wonderful exercise in atmosphere and creation.

Full marks and my sincerest congratulations and thanks to Mr. Raggi. Most excellent, sir.


  1. Nice comprehensive review. Thanks!

    I hadn't realized he was calling Thieves--Specialists.
    Doesn't really strike me as being the "Metal" feel Mr. Raggi ascribes to himself.

    Did the pencil mark up anything during transit?

  2. No marks from the pencil.

    As for the specialist, it's effectively a thief, but the intent is a skill based character able to get to places and do things that others would find troublesome rather than a prcourer of shiny things.