Friday, October 17, 2014

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Review (aka Gushing like a Fan-Boy)

After a taste of pathfinder, I found myself digging through my old D&D books and really jazzed at the notion of running an old-school campaign. Here defining old-school as having objectives in line with the pulp "explore ruins, get rich" style of gaming that started it all. That was about the time someone turned me onto Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Alright, odd name, but I'll roll with it. And there's a redhead on the cover, so there's that (I'm easy to market to). After some digging, I came across the free pdf version of the above and figured that was the best place to start. Now, it's an art-free version, so I'm sure I'm missing some of the ambiance here but can I just say: Holy crap, that layout. I guess we're doing a Lamentations of the Flame Princess review.

The thing that strikes me immediately is that it is so clean. I don't just mean the lack of art. There is a complete lack of bullshit here. There is no three page foreward about the OSR movement, or even the pretense of "What is a role-playing game?" in the beginning. He knows what you're here for, you know what you're here for. It goes from index straight on to character creation. The opening section of character creation lasts all of a couple pages, and each class is summarized in a page of text (save for the Specialist, who takes a page and a half.)

I have to congratulate James Edward Raggi IV (If but my own name were so impressive), there is this beautiful and ruthless efficiency in the text. If you are at all familiar with my blog or other writings, you know I am an invariably (perhaps regrettably) verbose bastard. I really have to admire and respect his writing style. Raggi said exactly as much as he needed to get an idea across or give you the vibe he intended to, and not a word more. I cannot stress enough how refreshing this is. There is a tendency in indie-games of all stripes to over-explain and talk about their book in their book. No, this is exactly what you need to play. Go.

The result is that you have an impeccably clean layout that flows very quickly from section to section, requiring the absolute minimum amount of reading to actually get the information down and ready to play. This is made even more impressive by the book's formatting - A5.

Can we take a moment to appreciate the A5 format? I know that most games are published in big textbook sized layouts, but I have a deep love of A5 hardbacks. They look good on a shelf, they feel nice and solid in your hands. They take up less space on the physical gaming table, and even if they would wind up with a higher page-count to fill the same number of words, they are much easier to navigate in practice. You can kind of flip through the pages in one hand. When I bought the gold edition of Burning Wheel, I was extremely impressed by the format, and that's a 600 page monster that requires a lot of page-flipping at the table. It works beautifully.

Inside, it appears to be very similar to B/x in a lot of ways, or at least how I remember B/x going, so you have the relatively light rules and the expected race-as-class setup. There are some noticeable differences though. The major one is the theme: Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a very different kind of aesthetic than your typical fantasy game. There is a huge emphasis on horror and weird-fiction, of a very Lovecraft / Robert E. Howard style. This may put some people off, but I eat this up.

I make the argument that the game's design should itself convey the setting, and LotFP does this quite well even with it's B/x roots:

The game uses AB and Ascending Armor class (as many OSRs do - yes, THAC0 isn't terribly difficult, but it is a pain) but only Fighter's AB gets better over time. Every other class starts with +1 and never increase. Fighters start at +2 and increase every level. How's that for niche protection?

Alignment has been rewritten in a brilliant fashion. Rather than being simply a statement of personality, it takes on a flavor of cosmic meaning. Lawful becomes the belief in a cosmic and unwavering plan, of destiny and omens. Chaotic is the stuff of magic, the otherworldly - the "howling maelstrom," of ruin and unmaking. That Which Should Not Be. Neutrality is the domain of most people - the lives of those who are lucky enough not to be part of cosmic drama. Adding to this flavor: clerics must be Lawful, and Magic-Users must be chaotic.

The spell list reflects this in spades, with the difference between those two classes exaggerated. Raggi seems to have removed most of the redundant or even overlapping spells between the two, even creating the notion that the arcane version of Dispel Magic can't be used to dispel divine spells. Clerical magic is very geared towards their archetype, with clerics gaining iconic powers of protection, walking on water, or creating plagues of insects. Their list is relatively limited, but very powerful. The magic user lists wild and diverse, but untamed and in many cases outright dangerous. The Summon spell doesn't just call forth a dire badger or goblin to fight for you, it randomly generates some terrible and eldritch horror from a tear in the fabric of space and time. It includes the series of tables you roll to work out the nature of this creature from scratch, creating all manner of lovecraftian horrors. And if that wasn't enough, the creature can be up to twice your level in hit dice and did I mention you aren't guaranteed to be able to actually control it? No? What If I then pointed out this is a first-level spell? Glorious. 

As much as I love the theme, the most impressive aspect to me was actually unrelated to the setting. One of the problems I had when dealing with AD&D was the urge to condense and consolidate some of the rules. You have a 1-in-6 chance of detecting a secret door, unless you're an elf then it's 2-in-6. If you're a thief, you start out with a 15% chance to blah blah. The various ways everything was handled always seemed like such a headache to me, so I had it in mind to hack and rewrite it into something simpler - possibly putting everything on a d10 or a d20.

Lamentations beat me to it, throwing everything on a d6 setup, and slapping it all on the sheet for you. The design for this makes it even better, with the character sheet laid out in such a way that the actual tracking is done on squares resembling d6s. Each "rank" one might have in a task is then represented as a single pip filled in on the die. I can't tell you how in love I am with that concept, just from a design standpoint.
Despite its A5 formatting and copious amount of blank space (read: art!), Lamentations manages to deliver a remarkably complete game in relatively small package - about 170 pages total in the pdf. It covers all the bases, from the expected basics of dungeoneering, encounters and combat, to wilderness adventure, maritime exploits and even managing properties and investments. In the back, he even includes additional rules for advancing the technological timeline to represent a setting in the 16th or 17th century, complete with black powder and buff coats.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is an excellent study for game designers, aspiring and otherwise. It is a great example of economy in writing, elegant mechanical design, and of mechanics supporting theme and feel of a setting. Even if the setting isn't your thing, it's definitely worth taking a look at. The pdf is free. You have no excuse not to go take a look. As for myself, I'll be picking up the hardback cover shortly. Fantastic.

Until next time,


  1. That "someone" was me, you ill-begotten insomniac! =D

  2. I have a habit of doing that, apparently. Once I invited a friend of mine to play A Game of Thrones Board Game. He was kind of skeptical. Now he owns almost two hundred board games.