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September 14, 2011

Reviewing the Flame Princess – Weird Fantasy Role-Playing: Grindhouse Edition

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Written by: Matt Timmins
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Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing: Grindhouse Edition is a box set (a reoccurring trend I hope to see more of), complete with three books, ten very nice character sheets, and a full set of tiny dice. All three books have useful charts on their back covers and feature thematic and evocative art throughout. It should be noted that this art is “R-rated” and includes full frontal nudity (both male & female) and some graphically violent pieces. The books include no indices, but each has a detailed table of contents making reference fairly easy.

The game is written in a friendly and earnest tone and is clearly labor of love. There is no setting per se, but a grim pseudo-16th century Europe is implied through the rules, writing, and art in the same way that D&D implies a magical medieval quasi-Europe.

Let’s look at the three books in turn.

 

Tutorial

The first book in the box is Tutorial and if you have any muggles in your groups or are new to role-playing yourself, this little volume is worth the price of admission! The author has an infectious love of traditional RPGs and understanding and old school gamers (the second section of the book is on the power and importance of dice).

After one of the best and most honest “What is a Role-Playing Game?” chapters that I’ve ever encountered, the reader is plunged into the game with “Your First Adventure”, a walk-through scenario introducing a few concepts and themes. This is followed immediately by “The Second Adventure,” a choose-your-own-adventure-plus-dice that is fun and challenging regardless of your previous gaming experience.

Next comes more honest advice about basic gaming concepts: gaming space, snacks, player vs. character, immersion, arguments, and maps (the author really likes maps). The book ends with an excellent “Recommended Reading” chapter that includes the greats plus a few lesser-known authors. And I give the author extra points for his insightful thoughts on J. R. R. Tolkien.

Indeed, if Tutorial were available separately I believe it would sell rather well.

“Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a good, serviceable D&D variant
with an Old School flavor and some really nifty rules and ideas.”

Rules and Magic

The second and largest book in LotFP is Rules and Magic. The game uses a simplified version of the D&D engine: 3rd edition with some Basic D&D thrown in. The book starts off with character creations and shows its old school roots straight away. The traditional six stats (Charisma, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Strength, Wisdom) are rolled using 3d6, though players are allowed to switch the position of rolled numbers.

The game has seven classes: Cleric, Fighter, Magic-user, Specialist, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. Fighters are fairly standard, though they have fewer hit points than most gamers will be used to. In fact, all PCs hit points are relatively modest making the game more deadly than usual.

Both in the class and spell descriptions Magic-users and magic are presented throughout LotFP as unnatural and Chaotic, while Clerics are portrayed as Lawful defenders of the Natural Order of Things.

The Specialist, Lamentation’s answer to the Thief, is a “professional adventurer” possessing no unique skills of his own but rather excelling in skills that all classes share: Architecture (spotting unsafe structures, detecting slopes, etc.), Bushcraft (hunting, foraging, tracking, etc.), Climbing, Languages, Open Doors, Search, Sleight of Hand, Sneak Attack, Stealth, and Tinkering (picking pockets, disarming traps, etc.). All non-Specialists have a 1 in 6 chance of success in any of these areas, whereas Specialists may increase his chances of success by allotting skill points. It’s an elegant skill system and allows for some customization in an otherwise limited character creation.

Dwarfs are a dying race of stoic and hardy warriors. Elves are immortal fighter/magic-users. Halflings are quick, agile, and lucky. While traditional, almost archetypal, the Demi-Human descriptions are nevertheless interesting and evocative.

Lamentation’s alignment system also hearkens back to Basic D&D with Lawful, Chaotic and Neutral being the only options. Furthermore, one’s alignment represents not a moral philosophy but one’s attunement to certain cosmic principles.

The rules themselves are thorough but not overwhelming, covering must situations smoothly. Combat is straightforward with just enough options to keep things interesting. There are more in-depth rules covering NPCs, maritime adventures, and (oddly) finance.

 

“Lamentation’s encumbrance rules are first I’ve ever seen that I would even consider using. They are so intuitive and simple that just looking at the encumbrance box on the character sheet is explanation enough.

In fact, LotFP seems almost obsessed with treasure. Acquiring treasure is the primary of gaining experience points (XP is awarded for defeating monsters, but it’s rather modest). This bothers me for two reasons. The first is theoretical: experience points are supposed to be an abstraction of how much a character has learned. What does finding a pile of gold teach a Fighter about fighting, or a Magic-user about magic, or worse, a Cleric about her god? My second objection is practical. The author writes that LotFP is not “about combat or slaying foes”. Fair enough. But is it really about treasure hunting? The back of the box promises all the tools needed for a “long lasting campaign”, but if every adventure is a treasure hunt then I’m not sure how long the campaign will last. Even the author has trouble adhering to this model. Of the three adventures featured in the books, none offer much in the way of treasure. Maybe things are different at the author’s table, but if treasure is the primary way to gain XP, then my players will want every session to be a treasure hunt.

One rule that deserves special mention is encumbrance. I’ve never played with encumbrance rules before. They always seemed too fiddly a replacement for common sense. Lamentation’s encumbrance rules are first I’ve ever seen that I would even consider using. They are so intuitive and simple that just looking at the encumbrance box on the character sheet is explanation enough.

The other section in Rules & Magic is, of course, magic. The section opens with a few words on Clerics and Magic-users and how they learn, use, and create their magic. There are some very helpful rules on creating magical items and potions plus some nifty interpretations (magic is a an art and each spellbook is unique, etc.). Next are the spell descriptions. Here, for the first time, LotFP begins to live up to its billing as “Weird Fantasy Role-Playing”. Many of the standard D&D spells are present, like Magic Missile and Hold Person, though some are significantly altered (Dispel Magic can destroy magical items!) and the flashy heavy artillery is missing (Fireball, Lightening Bolt, etc.). But the new spells are indeed weird, ranging from the quirky “Bookspeak” (a book report from a book) to the bizarre “Animated Artwork” and “Strange Waters II” (conjure up a score of tiny fish which can be swallowed to produce a random effects) to the stupefying “Summon” (a 1st level spell that allows the caster to summon an extra-dimensional creature but risks tearing a whole in reality and unleashing swarms of hostile monsters).

Referee

The last book in the box is Referee and it packed with good advice about running a game: the main message being “don’t coddle the players”. There is a chapter on solid adventure design and one on creating a campaign world. There is a helpful section on other, compatible gaming products and a nice little sample adventure. But there are three sections that I want to mention specifically: Monsters, Magic Items, and The Weird.

Quite purposely, LotFP includes no list of monsters, as the author feels such lists lead to lazy overuse. Instead, the game expects GMs to create individual monsters tailored to specific adventure. This is a laudable goal and the Monster chapter provides some tips for doing so, but for many it will not be enough. Creating an interesting and challenging monster from whole cloth is no easy task. “Stock” list of monsters may risk lazy overuse but they also provide inspiration – weird inspiration. Compare a “stock” monster from a D&D Monster Manual – Phantom Fungus, an invisible, four-legged, man-eating mushroom – and the sample monster provided in LotFP – a vampire, a bog-standard, garlic-hating, blood-slurping nosferatu (with, admittedly, one nice little twist). Which one seems more appropriate to “Weird Fantasy Role-Playing”?

The Magic Items chapter is no better. Yes, magic items should be legendary, unique, and risky, but how does a GM go about creating them? Again the author tells what to do but not how to do it. Even the sample magic items leave something to be desired. Two of the three samples are weird and interesting. But the first example is a Ouija board. A Ouija board? I can go down to the shops and buy a Ouija board. Granted, it won’t contact the dead and there’s no risk of possession, but are players likely to find a Ouija board mysterious, unique, or weird?

This brings me to The Weird, presumably the most important chapter in the book and the game’s raison d’etre. There are few good suggestions (like contrasting the weird with a fairly mundane gaming world, and using unique rule-breaking magic and “science”) but the principal advice is “be surprising”. It’s all well and good to tell the GM to “take away player knowledge by using your own creation” and “keep players off guard by never being predictable” but these are skills that need to be learned and developed. And LotFP doesn’t teach them.

Conclusion

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a good, serviceable D&D variant with an Old School flavor and some really nifty rules and ideas. I was a bit disappointed. It’s nicely presented and written in a friendly and earnest tone. But it’s just not as weird as advertized. It could be weird, but it’s not intrinsically weird. There’s no weird setting or tools for creating a weird setting. There are no particular rules for weirdness. There are some weird spells and weird art, but for me that was insufficient. And while the Tutorial was perfect for beginners, the Referee volume is not.

If you haven’t run weird games before, I’m afraid LotFP won’t show you how. If you already run weird games, LotFP is a great game to use, especially if you have new players.

ADDITIONAL: Recently I’ve had the chance to experience LotFP as a player and I was very impressed with the system in actual play; it was simple, light, and fun.  LotFP is not just a retro-clone, it’s a very good retro-clone.

 



About the Author

Matt Timmins





 
 

 
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One Comment


  1. [...] Review: Visiting “The Isle of the Unknown” by E. Ortiz When I reviewed Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I complained that the game wasn’t weird enough. Well, that’s not a complaint I can make about [...]



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