Tuesday, August 24, 2010

REVIEW: Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing (Part I)

I generally try to avoid doing multi-part reviews, but, sometime, there are products that demand such an extensive treatment. James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing (hereafter WF) is such a product, which is why I'll be devoting five days to discuss it, one to each of its integral books -- I've already covered its intro adventures here and here -- and a final day to discuss other components of the boxed Deluxe Edition and to sum up my feelings about the entire thing. I will be providing ratings for each book of the game, as well as for the complete product, since there are likely to be some people who are interested in only the Rules Book or only the Magic Book. In a similar fashion, I'll be discussing the physical and esthetic qualities of each book separately in each post.

I start with the 48-pages Rules Book rather than the Tutorial Book, mostly because I thought it a better book overall and wanted to start positively but also because I think discussion of the Tutorial Book makes more sense once the rules of WF are better understood. The Rules Book's layout consists of two columns of dense text, broken up with black and white artwork by a variety of artists. I was pleased to see Laura Jalo's artwork in the Rules Book, though there's too little of it for my tastes. Newcomer Amos Orion Sterns is a welcome addition; many of his pieces are excellent. Cynthia Sheppard's cover is very striking, though a little stiff. All in all, the Rule Book looks good and is easy to read. I noticed few editorial or typographical errors in the text, which is another point in its favor.

WF uses 3d6 roll in order for ability score generation, but the abilities are listed in alphabetical order rather than something more traditional. It's a defensible decision, particularly as Raggi has dispensed with any notion of Prime Requisites or XP bonuses based on high Prime Requisites. Still, it's a bit jarring to see Charisma top the list of abilities. WF uses a standard set of modifiers for abilities that's identical to that in Moldvay/Cook (or Labyrinth Lord). Interestingly, Raggi has made Intelligence and Wisdom mirrors of one another in terms of the mechanical utility, with the former affecting magic-user spells and the latter affecting cleric spells.

There are seven character classes in WF, four human and three demihuman. The cleric is much like his OD&D counterpart, except that he gets a spell at 1st level and turning is no longer an inherent ability but instead a spell. Fighters are likewise as in OD&D. Unlike OD&D, they are the only characters whose ability to engage in combat improves with level. All other classes fight as well at 1st level as they do at 15th. It's a bold design decision on Raggi's part and one that certainly makes fighters much more formidable, but it's also sufficiently divergent from D&D tradition that many may not approve it (I'm not sure that I do, for example). Magic-users are more or less the same as in OD&D. Specialists (aka thieves), on the other hand, are quite different than their OD&D counterparts and are better for it. Aside from the name, which I strongly dislike, I consider the specialist the best implementation of this class I've yet to see and will likely adopt it in Dwimmermount campaign. The class is so brilliant because its special abilities -- climbing, searching, finding traps, etc. -- use the same mechanics as other classes when attempting those same actions. The difference is that the specialist is better at these activities, increasing his chance of success as he advances in level while other classes cannot. This is the approach I've long preferred and one that I feel is much more in line with the way the pre-thief OD&D rules worked.

The demihuman classes are dwarf, elf, and halfling. They're not notably different from their OD&D counterparts other than the fact that their racial abilities are tied into the same "skill" system as the specialist. I have to admit that, on one level, I half-expected Raggi to drop demihumans from WF entirely. I won't say they "don't fit" the game, but they do feel mildly out of place nevertheless, not that I'm complaining about their inclusion. It's worth noting here that nearly all 1st-level characters start with 1d6 hit points + Constitution bonus, even if at 2nd level they use a different hit die. This puts all 1st-level characters, PC or NPC, on an equal footing and ensures that even a 1st-level fighter is potentially quite vulnerable.

WF retains five saving throws, which I appreciate, the lack of such being one of my primary beef's with Swords & Wizardry, although Raggi has simplified and rationalized them somewhat. There are three alignments, as in OD&D, but WF assumes that most non-supernatural beings are Neutral, with the exception of elves and magic-users, who must be Chaotic, owing to their use of magic. WF's equipment list is extensive, with lots of specific gear, vehicles, services, food, and lodging in its pages. Interestingly, weapons are mostly schematized, according to the categories of small, minor, medium, and great. I can appreciate the desire not to distinguish overly much between, say, varieties of maces or axes but something doesn't completely sit well with me about this approach, even if that something is likely purely irrational on my part.

WF provides a large but easy to use section detailing the rules for "adventuring." Everything from opening doors to gaining XP (by defeating monsters and recovering treasure, of course!) to dealing with traps is covered, along with some unusual topics like foraging, sleep deprivation, and tinkering. WF's encumbrance rules are elegant and I'll likely be swiping them for my own campaign. Rather than keeping track of specific weights, WF instead tallies the number of items, adding points for wearing certain types of armor, carrying oversized items, and so forth in order to determine a character's "encumbrance points" and thus his movement rate. It's probably not the most realistic system but experience has taught me that undue realism results in encumbrance simply being ignored entirely, which is even less realistic than what Raggi has provided here.

There's a surprisingly extensive set of rules (3 pages) dealing with maritime adventures. Rules for retainers are even longer (4 pages) and there's also a section about "property and finance." Taken together, you can see that WF is very much in line with OD&D, arguably even going farther than its predecessor by providing clear, complete rules for these important activities. Combat is well covered, with elements such as reactions and morale given appropriate coverage. WF also introduces a few simple attack and defense strategies (such as "press" and "defensive fighting") in order to make combat less of an I-roll-you-roll sequence. Disappointingly, WF uses ascending armor class but more perplexing is that its version of it is different than any others of its kind, with an unarmored character possessing AC 12. There are rules for a wide variety of common combat circumstances, but these rules are far from exhaustive, so there's plenty of scope for house rules. Concluding the book is a keyed character record sheet in order to make it easy to understand how to fill it out.

The WF Rules Book is an impressive package -- a cleanly written, well presented set of rules that are at once very familiar and yet fresh. Consequently, WF feels doesn't really feel as it's a "new" game but, at the same time, it also doesn't feel like a rehash of stuff we've seen a dozen times before. In this age of a retro-clone-a-minute, that's an impressive achievement. Even if you don't intend to use WF in its entirety, as I do not, there's enough here, such as the specialist and the encumbrance rules to cite but two examples, that one might be interested in picking it up for ideas to adapt to other rules sets. And, of course, as a rules set in its own right, WF is remarkable as well, far moreso than I'd expected. It's well worth a look, even if you already have a set of old school rules you like.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 9 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for an original yet familiar take on old school class-and-level fantasy.
Don't Buy This If: You've got no interest in seeing yet another iteration of the OD&D rules, no matter how clever or well-presented.

18 comments:

  1. A litmus test for "true spirit of OD&D" is disproportionately extensive maritime rules.

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  2. Looks like your thinking on the Rouge/Thief/Specialist issue has been evolving. How would compare my approach in the Majestic Wilderlands vs that in Lotfp? Aside from the fact he uses a d6 and I use a d20.

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  3. Rob,

    The main thing I like about Jim's approach is that his skill set is small and focused almost entirely on dungeoneering activities, at which the specialist/thief can improve over time, but which are available to all other classes and, at which, they can be just as good as the specialist/thief, assuming he hasn't devoted points to improving that area as he's leveled. I also prefer the D6 resolution mechanic, but that's pure esthetics talking.

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  4. So... not to be totally blasphemous, but since I'm running a 3.5/Pathfinder game, is there anything in the boxed set that would give me ideas for making my game more "old school" or different? The description of "Weird" Fantasy Roleplaying intrigues me, and I have bought a few old-school things that I've really liked as far as "idea fodder" (like Knockspell and Fight On! magazines) but I don't really need another rule set. I'm mainly just looking for some cool, fun ideas that I can incorporate into my game, no matter what rule set I'm using.

    Does "WF" have any of that?

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  5. Martin, WF has so many new, great and transplantable ideas that I reached the point where it was simpler for me to just adopt the entire system. If you are worried about the financial investment grab the PDF - if you're really tight for cash, the Magic and Rules booklets are a free download from Jim's site.

    I confess, I thought I'd seen everything OSR had to deliver but I was wrong!

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  6. I find it intriguing to find out that only Fighters increase in a chance-to-hit as they level up; I take it this means that AC doesn't scale very much, otherwise all other classes would never find themselves hitting. Apart from that worry, I also wonder at exactly how much a Fighter increases.

    So tell me James, if a party of adventurers reach level 20 in this game, would all Fighters hit on everything but a 1, and would all non-Fighters miss on everything but a 20?

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  7. Nicely reviewed. I like the return to the three-alignment system, although detect evil, protection from evil, and other 'evil' warding spells in the spell book should have been renamed.

    Not that it makes much difference to the review, but if I recall correctly, in Weird RPG, 0-level fighters get a d6 for hit points, while 1st level fighters get a d8. Everyone else gets a d6 to start.

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  8. It also seems that all classes start off with at least half their die in HP, whereas the Fighter starts off at least 8.

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  9. Rogzombie said...

    What is 'weird' about it?


    I've been trying to get a handle on that, too. I looked at the freely available parts on the website and I didn't really get a sense that anything was "weird". It looks to be just another, albeit very well-done, retro-clone (which I'm totally fine with - that's not a slam. I just don't get what's "weird" about it).

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  10. Although there are traces througout, the Weird part of Weird RPG is most pronounced in the Referee and Magic booklets.

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  11. Also, remember that the "Weird" is used very specifically; technically really, coming from "Weird Fiction" (i.e. the stuff written by Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, et.al.).


    Two thing that annoyed me (and maybe just me):

    1. The dictum that if a PC's modifiers don't add up to at least 0, discard the character.

    2. The overly-complex method of determining starting HP. Seriously, just say Max HP at 1st level and get on with it. That is, why bother to roll if you disregard half the possible outcomes?

    One thing I found very intriguing:

    1. The idea that WIS helps against cleric spells and INT against magic-user spells.

    But if you are going to go that route, I don't see why you don't just go with Ability-based Saves, modifier by class a la Spellcraft & Swordplay.

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  12. But if you are going to go that route, I don't see why you don't just go with Ability-based Saves, modifier by class a la Spellcraft & Swordplay.

    Someone blogged a very workable ability-based saves system many months ago. I have toyed, off-and-on, with implementing something similar.

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  13. I'm mainly just looking for some cool, fun ideas that I can incorporate into my game, no matter what rule set I'm using.

    Does "WF" have any of that?


    It does, but less in the Rules Book and more in the Magic and Referee Books, which will be reviewed soon.

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  14. What is 'weird' about it?

    This is a topic I'll discuss at greater length when I get around to reviewing the Referee Book and summing up my opinion of the whole package. In brief, "weird" in this case refers primarily to the "weird tales" of the pulp era, such as those written by Lovecraft and Smith, among others. These stories were not quite horror and not quite fantasy and often evoked strong -- and dark -- emotions in their readers. WF tries to mine that rich vein for ideas. How well it succeeds is something I'll get to in my later posts.

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  15. So tell me James, if a party of adventurers reach level 20 in this game, would all Fighters hit on everything but a 1, and would all non-Fighters miss on everything but a 20?

    Fighters max out at a +10 bonus at 9th level, while all other classes get +1 at 1st level and never improve. A natural 20 is always a hit and natural 1 is always a miss. Because there are no standard magic items in the game, AC isn't likely to inflate the same way that it does in many iterations of D&D, which means that, while the fighter does have an advantage over other classes for hitting in combat, other classes still do have a chance to hit. They're definitely less effective than the fighter, though.

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  16. Not that it makes much difference to the review, but if I recall correctly, in Weird RPG, 0-level fighters get a d6 for hit points, while 1st level fighters get a d8. Everyone else gets a d6 to start.

    You are correct. That was a misreading on my part. Thanks for pointing it out.

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  17. Two thing that annoyed me (and maybe just me):

    1. The dictum that if a PC's modifiers don't add up to at least 0, discard the character.

    2. The overly-complex method of determining starting HP. Seriously, just say Max HP at 1st level and get on with it. That is, why bother to roll if you disregard half the possible outcomes?


    I agree with your assessment here, but they're both minor enough issues that I'm willing to overlook them.

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