Saturday, September 4, 2010

What It Is: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Okay, here is my detailed review of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, by James Edward Raggi IV.  From here on out, it's going to be known as LotFP,  for obvious reasons.
Buying it.
This is only a review of the PDFs.  The actual boxed set is on it's way to my fiancee's house in Pennsylvania, since I'm in Afghanistan and PDFs are all I need.  That said, much respect to Indie Press Revolution for being the only USA Vendors that *I* saw that offered both the PDFs and hard copy for $65.  For those of us who deploy overseas or travel often, a PDF option is just too good to pass up.  I found IPR on the LotFP blog page, where James lists all of the vendors (and actively solicits more to be posted).  Sure, it's in his best interests to do so, but by having a comprehensive list of vendors, it allows the consumer to find the package that works best for their particular situation.  I found just a box set for as low as $50.  While the bundle looked better for me, I appreciate the choice.

Skimming it.
I skimmed all of the PDFs first to get an idea for the vibe of the game.  What permeates this game more than the grim and moody artwork is the love for the genre and its roots.  A 21-page recommended reading booklet (not list) discusses the influences to the game, paying homage to and giving the reader reasons to check out these books which have created a whole industry of games.  The whole set seems focused on hooking new players, so some grognards may not enjoy the Barney-style breakdowns and examples, preferring a Gygaxian aloofness and elitism.  As someone who genuinely loves RPGs and would love to see more people playing them, I embrace James' attempt to write a game that will bring players into the hobby.

The Tutorial Book.
Is it 1984?  Last night, I played through the tutorials and felt like I was 9 years old again, partly because James chose to sacrifice originality in the name of nostalgia.  I was one of the kids who got into D&D by chasing Bargle and mourning the death of Aleena the cleric.   Swap Bargle with Iri-Khan and Aleena with Alice and you have the tutorial from the original Red Box.  The choose-your-own-adventure style second tutorial is eerily close to the Red Box version as well.  For those keeping score at home, my burgeoning adventuring career ended abruptly, getting eaten by a ghoul after one round of combat.  After the tutorial adventures, James breaks down a lot of basic gaming concepts and includes a pretty realistic and thorough example of play.

The Rules Book.
Clear and simple.  It jumps right into making a character.  A lot has been made of the reordering of the attributes (they are alphabetical instead of leading off with Strength) and lack of prime requisites. The former is merely a cosmetic change and the latter only effects one out of twenty characters (even less in the case of the racial classes who needed two abilities at 16).  Since the game is derived from the old Basic Rules-era D&D, they have the racial classes, meaning all Dwarves and Halflings are Fighters and all Elves are Fighter/Magic Users.  I've never been a huge fan of this, particularly the Halfling Fighter aspect of it.  I'd rather have seen them as a modified Specialist, which is the LotFP version of the Thief.  I love what James has done with this.  Instead of advancing across the board in all thieving abilities, Specialists are able to place points into the abilities as they see fit.  This gives you the ability to customize him to be a locksmith, pickpocket, or thuggish assassin, as opposed to a watered down version of all three.

One of the other big talking points character-wise results from the decision that in LotFP, unless you are a Fighter, your hit bonuses remain static.  The fighter is the only class which gets more accurate as they level up.  I see this as an outstanding balance to the increasing spell lists and skill points the other human classes get.  The only class I think gets short changed is the Halfling.  The Dwarf and Elf classes enjoy better average hit points than the Fighter and Magic User, respectively.  The halfling, though, gets a bonus to his Dexterity score and Armor Class and has less hit points than the Fighter.  That one-time bonus never gets better.   From a game mechanics standpoint, the Halfling offers little growth.

The Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic alignment system is in effect in LotFP, true to its roots.  In the Warhammer-esque camp of Magic = Chaos, all Elves and Magic Users are required to be Chaotic.  Personally, I love the concept.  Unfortunately, the concept is not reflected in the mechanic.  Pre-memorized slots with preordained effects are far from chaotic in practice.  I'll get into that more in the section on The Magic Book.

The equipment lists are decent.  They've got more than the bare minimum but could certainly be expanded in future supplements.  They have a good variety of equipment to choose from, however, so no complaints there.

After the information you need to make a character is presented, James then gets into the bulk of the rules you need to play the game.  It's fitting that a game from Scandinavia has robust maritime and survival rules.  Even sleep deprivation is covered in the "Hazards" section.  The two rules that I particularly like are the encumbrance rules and the language rules.

Encumbrance, in most games, can be a tedious exercise in arithmetic, leading many to just abandon it.  LotFP's system has a checklist where certain criteria (types of armor, number of regular items possessed, and oversized items) are given a point value.  A dwarf in chain mail with 15 items, none of which are oversized has 3 points, making him Heavily Encumbered.  Not every item counts, and the character sheet is well set-up to keep track of what does and doesn't count.  It's quick and easy, and thereby much more likely to be used.  Instead of determining what languages the characters know ahead of time, you begin with a base of racial/cultural languages and once you encounter the language in person, you roll a simple check to see if you understand it, modified by how different the language is from the languages you know and your Intelligence score.  Very quick and very flexible.

LotFP has extensive rules covering Hirelings and Owning Property/Businesses.  I like the variety and the depth of explanation given.  The Encounters and Combat sections are clear and succinct with a lot of options for the players, but not too many to slow the game down.  One thing I like about the explanation of the Character Sheet which ends the Rules Book is that there are index links to the sections of the book which address each part of the Character Sheet.  Not enough companies do this.

The Magic Book
Many of the differences between LotFP and the original game are cosmetic and in the flavor text.  One huge difference?  There is no spell to raise the dead.  Well, raise the dead in a manner that most players would want to be raised.  Animate dead is alive and well, but if players want to come back from the dead, it appears they cannot.

Like I had mentioned previously, the Magic User and Elf spell mechanic (identical to the (until recently) traditional D&D slots) does not, in my mind, adequately reflect that chaos is the source of arcane magic.  You can use flashy effects and the casters can be as random and chaotic as they come, but when you really get down to it, the task of learning, studying, and flawlessly executing with results within reasonable expectations is incredibly orderly.  The only thing chaotic about magic in LotFP is the damage rolled.

In the author's defense, I'm not sure how much you could have done with it and kept it true to it's roots.  Something like the 2e Wild Mage from the Tome of Magic is more fitting with the vision, but I don't know how much of that (if any) is in the SRD and recreating something that doesn't violate OGL might have been a bridge too far.

The Referee Book
By starting off the book with "This Book is Compost," James signals that the Referee's Book isn't a necessity.  It is a Barney-level breakdown of what every good referee knows if they are a good referee.  After reading the book, I can't say I am that much better a referee, but I also have been playing the game for 26 years and have spent the majority of that time running games.    What the tutorial book was for players, this book is for referees.  It is a book that old-timers won't need to consult, but new referees will find invaluable if they haven't picked up a guide on how to run a game before.  We can't always assume that players have played a particular RPG before, so there is a chance that LotFP is the first exposure someone has had to running a game.  So kudos to the author for at least hoping that his game is the gateway drug to a wonderful hobby.  The quality of the advice is high, both broad AND deep.

Overall Thoughts
Whether it's intentional or not, game designers not intentionally writing a generic rules set will allow the themes they love to permeate the mechanics of the game.  From these rules, it is clear that a LotFP games are hard, gritty quests to unforgiving locations where the elements are as deadly or deadlier than any adversary you may face.  I like it.  For the most part, the system is the OD&D many of us grew up with.  The subtle changes balance out the characters a bit more and add a new layer of danger.  With no mulligans in the way of easy resurrections, the learning curve can be harsh.  It requires players and characters to be smart and not approach a game in the manner that they might approach an MMORPG.

With that, a certain maturity is required.  I remember playing Warhammer with some players who tended to throw their toys out of the pram if their character suffered any kind of disability.  Players like that are probably not ready for some of the adult themes hinted at in the game--in the recommended reading, Clive Barker was given equal time to J.R.R. Tolkien.

I like this game.  Any concerns I have about mechanical things are minor and easy worked with, ignored, or modified.  What I love about this game is it's attitude.  The tone its written in, the way the mechanics steer the game, and even the moody artwork, all point to a vibe which I love.  As soon as I was done with my initial skim of the game, my brain was already coming up with ideas.  There is nothing in the rules or the referee's guide that points you in a specific direction.  It's a subtle prod, one that gets you going "What about..." and then allowing you to make it happen.  I like that.  I like it a lot.

If you want a more balanced and deadly OD&D ruleset, look no further than Lamentation of the Flame Princess.  If you are looking for a gateway game and don't want to subject your target to 4e, look no further than Lamentation of the Flame Princess.  If you are intimidated by a wide open sandbox with little firm structure as a referee?  You may want to look elsewhere.  If you get annoyed with frequent, easy-to-use explanations written at an "I've never played an RPG before" level and prefer your games to be an esoteric code that only certain people can understand easily?  You may want to look elsewhere.