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Minireview: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is, first of all, a very strange name for a role-playing game. The author, James Edward Raggi IV, explains the origin of the name in this interview, in case someone really wants to know. Skipping the (admittedly cool) name, what is it? Well, it’s a “retroclone”, and a very interesting one.

A “retroclone” is a copy of old (first edition) Dungeons & Dragons, with modifications. This is quite legal due to the OGL, though there are various requirements – for example, you cannot use the name “Dungeons & Dragons” anywhere, so games end up using all sorts of stuff like “compatible with version X of the world’s most popular role-playing game” and such. But the legal side skips the important issue of “why?”. Why take an ancient game engine, with lots of weird design when compared to modern stuff, and use that as a basis for anything? I can see two reasons. One, there’s the nostalgia factor; lots of (older) people started off with 1st edition Dungeons and Dragons and still have fond memories of that. Second is compatibility; while the engine is old, it’s also quite simple and easy to tweak, and there’s a ton of material that is easy to convert for it.

So we’re left with “why one more retroclone, don’t we already have lots of them?”. I’m glad to answer that with “because this version goes in somewhat different directions compared to the original game”. LotFP terms itself “weird fantasy roleplaying”, and quotes authors like Howard and Lovecraft. The intent is to go in the old “sword & sorcery” direction, where magic is dangerous and erratic and not all tales have a happy ending. To this end, the box set (yes, it’s a boxed set) does some heavy modifications on basic D&D. First off, many of the classes and mechanics are tweaked. No more Thief, instead we have a Specialist which uses the game’s (also tweaked) skill system to emulate thieves and lots of other professions besides, for example. The spell lists are quite different from the base version (though some similarities remain). I have to admit it’s been ages since I last looked at the basic D&D ruleset so I’m sure I did not spot all the changes, but there’s a lot – in many ways, the game engine has been “modernized” to run better. While the game still has alignment, “good” and “evil” are gone, there is only “lawful”, “neutral” and “chaotic”. As someone who hates good/evil alignment distinctions, this is awesome. Oh, and magic users are all chaotic, to keep with the “sword and sorcery” tropes.

More importantly, there’s a huge emphasis on how to (and how not to) tell stories. There are no stock monsters here (a controversial choice, but one I do agree with), because the author felt that they diminish the scariness. If you can name it, it’s not a horror anymore, it’s just “one more kobold”. Same goes for magic items: the GM is strongly encouraged to keep them rare and unique. No +1 swords, for example. This is sure to be a shock to many old-school D&D players who lugged around +N swords like golf clubs, but I agree with the author on this one too.

Organization-wise, the kit is divided into three books: “Tuturial”, “Rules and Magic”, and “Referee”. The Tutorial is both awesome and a bit unnecessary. Awesome bacause it has one of the most complete examples of play I’ve ever seen, and a very comprehensive intro into the whole “what is roleplaying?” thing. I even includes a “Fighting Fantasy” -style solo adventure!. As for “unnecessary”… well, how many total newbies are going to pick this one up and try to figure it out by themselves? I’d guess not that many.

The “Rules and Magic” book contains the meat of the thing: rules, spell lists (both magic user and cleric), that sort of thing. There’s also a lot of cool, inventive stuff like a randomized summoned creature generator (with some potentially very nasty results). Finally, there’s the “Referee” book, which contains a lot of advise on how to run the game and set the tone.

My copy is the “Grindhouse Edition”, which contains definitely NSFW art with gore and full nudity. I found this to be a nice touch, in keeping with the “Sword & Sorcery” game theme, but I’m sure there are many Americans and other prudes who will be shocked (shocked, I tell you!) and seeing pictures of nude people (and creatures). Those people should probably get the “Deluxe Set”, which is an earlier edition with tamer art (and some extra included adventure modules).

While the game is certainly not to everyone’s taste (ruleset based on old D&D, NSFW art and an emphasis on sword & sorcery and horror instead of stock D&D hack&slash), I must say I really liked it, much more than I was expecting.The ruleset is compact, there are lots of inventive tweaks, and there’s a ton of pre-generated material out there that could be run with this for a very different feel (just remember to remove most of the pre-generated magic items and huge piles of loot, and to replace the monsters with your own creations). I especially liked the emphasis on style and tone, and also on making magic and monsters unpredictable and dangerous. Far from being a direct clone of D&D, this game is something interesting on its own.

As an aside, the redheaded swords-woman on the box cover looks very much like a real-life swords-woman I know, which is an interesting coincidence. I very much doubt the picture is actually based on her.

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