Thursday, August 26, 2010

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

From reading other reviews of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing (hereafter WF) and from stray comments about it, I think people are most impressed with the Referee Book (which I'll review in Part III). I agree that the Referee Book is good, but, for my money, my favorite component of WF is actually the Magic Book. This 52-page book covers everything you need to know about magic and playing spellcasters in the game and manages to do so succinctly but without losing an ounce of flavor. Indeed, one of the more remarkable achievements of the Magic Book is that shows just how easy it is, with a little thought and imagination, to turn D&D's rather bland magic system into something colorful and evocative of the weird tale.

The book begins with an overview of clerical magic, including how to prepare and cast spells. This is fairly standard stuff but it's good to see it spelled out clearly nonetheless. This section also includes rules for creation scrolls and holy water, as well as how to research a new spell. These rules are simple and straightforward and, I think, strike a nice balance between the vagueness of OD&D and the tedious specificity of later editions. There's also an overview of magic-user magic as well and covers much the same ground, along with rules for creating potions, staffs, and wands. Again, the rules are simple and straightforward, making the creation of these items easy enough that a character might conceivably consider doing so and yet not so easy as to make them commonplace. Raggi has found a healthy medium here and I may well swipe some of his rules for use in my own campaign.

Where the Magic Book really shines, though, is in its spell descriptions. The bulk of the Magic Book consists of individual spell descriptions of all seven levels of clerical spells and all nine levels of magic-user spells. These descriptions are much lengthier than those found in OD&D or Swords & Wizardry, though not because of additional rules. Raggi's spells are (generally) just as mechanically simple as their OD&D counterparts. What's different, though, is that he's fleshed out each spell with some compelling details. Take, for example, a favorite of mine, contact other plane:
The stars are repositories of all knowledge. By means of this spell, the Magic-User enters in communion with the star of his choice to receive wisdom and information. The caster asks questions of the star, and the star answers. The stars resent such intrusions and give only brief answers to questions, and they often lie.
The description also includes a chart of possible stars to consult to replace OD&D's rather uninspired "3rd plane," "4th plane," etc. Included amongst these stars are some familiar to regular readers of various old school blogs -- Fomalhaut, Algol, the Hyades Cluster. In WF, contact other plane still works more or less exactly as it does in OD&D, but it's presented in a way that's much more interesting and evocative.

Indeed, I'd go so far to argue that the bulk of WF's implied setting can be found in these spell descriptions, most of which are really well done. Here are a few more examples to give you a better sense of what Raggi has done:
  • conjure elemental summons a spirit from the nether realms to inhabit one of the four elements.
  • dark vision gives the ability to see 60' in the dark (as per infravision) but transforms the caster's eyes into "demonic pits of utter black."
  • hold person "unleashes millions of thread-thin spectral worms on the target(s)," which burrow into his brain and keep him from moving.
Not all of the spells in the Magic Book are flavorful and I think that's a good thing. If every spell had dark and creepy effects, I think it'd be overkill, undermining the uniqueness of the spell's that do have such effects. Nevertheless, I find what Raggi has done here praiseworthy. Simply by providing a new description of old standbys, he's managed to make them feel fresh and new, in the process painting a picture of what he means by "weird fantasy." It's very effective in my opinion.

On the downside, if you're not interested in the picture that Raggi's painting, you'll find the Magic Book less useful. Of course, if you really aren't interested, you probably wouldn't be buying WF and certainly would have little use for the Magic Book, which, underneath all its chrome, is really just a compilation of the standard D&D spells. Well, not all of them. Noticeably absent are spells like raise dead, reincarnation, restoration, wish -- all those powerful spells that make death, level drain, and other nasty afflictions a little less nasty. WF is definitely not a game that coddles its players and that's quite clear in the Magic Book.

In any case, no one should expect anything revolutionary from the Magic Book. It's a great book, but its virtues are in its presentation, not its mechanical originality. This is where Raggi gets to show off his ability to spin gold from straw and, more often than not, he succeeds. Even if one doesn't like the particular sheen of his gold, one can't help but admire his talent and be inspired by it. Magic in my own Dwimmermount campaign is, in general, pretty bland and matter-of-fact and that's by choice; I think it works well within the setting I've constructed. I can't deny, though, that, after reading the Magic Book, I did reconsider my choice, if only for a moment. I suspect I won't be the only referee out there who'll do so after reading the Magic Book.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for an imaginative presentation of the classic D&D magic system and spells.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer your spells less flavorful or would rather inject your own flavor into them.

20 comments:

  1. Nice review, sir. I've only read the beta so far, but the other thing I'd note here is the decision to make "Turn Undead" a spell rather than a Cleric class ability. I've been getting back into gaming playing a cleric, and when I first read the LotFP beta I couldn't imagine a low level cleric having to choose that spell over (the much disparaged) Cure Light Wounds, rather than just being able to turn undead all day long, which is the typical old school mechanic (as far I as I can tell). That, plus the fact that only fighters get better at fighting, seems to limit the appeal of that class.

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  2. The appeal of the class had to be limited - the spell-casting, good-fighting, undead-turning, low-xp class was a monster of a powerhouse class.

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  3. "I can't deny, though, that, after reading the Magic Book, I didn't reconsider my choice, if only for a moment. I suspect I won't be the only referee out there who do so after reading the Magic Book."

    Huh? What?

    Oh, you should've discussed the cover, too. That shit's lulzy. It's like a Wicca version of Jack Horkheimer.

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  4. @Thoust Raggi:
    I understand the decision, and I'm not saying it's a bad one. I hope I get a chance to see how the class would play out in your system. It's interesting that you consider Cleric a powerhouse class in the earlier formats, where the usual refrain (maybe more from players than DMs) is that cleric spells suck, and a Level 1 MU Magic Missile is 100x more awesome than a Level 4 Cl "Lower Water" or "Create Food and Water" (but not the 5th level "Lower Food and Water" which does come in handy when a PC is stuck in a pit trap).

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  5. Create Food and Water right over the head or the archers is usually pretty effective as an offensive spell, at least until it stops amusing your DM. :)

    But yeah, being a cleric is usually no fun. You can't fight full out, because people want you to stay back and heal people. You can't throw spells full out, because you don't have much power until fairly high up. If you roll high for initiative, all the fighters complain and want you to hold your actions. Nobody ever wants you to develop your character or deity or religious culture, either. And if you usually play the cleric and then don't, people also complain, because suddenly they find out how hard it is.

    So I wouldn't call it a "monster class". It's more of a multi-purpose dogsbody class.

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  6. Who would put up with such treatment?

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  7. Why, sir, it would take a saint!

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  8. Huh? What?

    That's my brain working faster than my fingers. I'll fix the text so it's more clear.

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  9. > the bulk of WF's implied setting can be found in these spell descriptions

    I think that a magic system is often more tied to the the flavor and metaphysics of a game's unique setting than any other component (combat, classes, skills, etc). Perhaps this is because magic has no real-world referent and therefore how magic "works" must be entirely based on imagination.

    From your brief examples, James, it sounds like WF's magic system is more spirit/demon-based. Is this the case? Are there any changes to the actual mechanics of spell-casting to reflect this? I've always felt that a demon-based magic system is a neat solution for folks who prefer their magic less mechanical and more "weird" and dangerous. Actually, I think that Vancian magic dovetails nicely with a demon-based interpretation -- "memorizing" is a ritual in which a demon is invoked and bound, with the last portion of the ritual (and release of the demon) delayed until the spell is "cast" during an adventure.

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  10. When I first read the PDF rules, I was not impressed.

    "Here is another Sword and Sorcellerie of the Labyrinth OSRIC Minotaur Lord's White Box", I said to myself.

    I must admit your review made me reconsider my opinion. I'll read those rules more closely...

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  11. I know a girl whose eyes are "demonic pits of utter black."

    Don't think she can see in the dark though.

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  12. @Matthew

    The cleric spell Dispel Evil banishes memorized spells from a wizard's mind.

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  13. Hmm. So, memorized spells are "evil"? Certainly fits with the idea of spells as bound or bargained demons. Perhaps "Dispel Evil" could *release* the demon -- with random consequences for bystanders. Now that would be weird.

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  14. "The stars are repositories of all knowledge. By means of this spell, the Magic-User enters in communion with the star of his choice to receive wisdom and information. The caster asks questions of the star, and the star answers. The stars resent such intrusions and give only brief answers to questions, and they often lie."

    This is great. This and the picture of the dwarf carver a few posts back are two of the most inspiring D&D things I've seen lately.

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  15. Maybe spell failure would mean that you're slowly possessed by the demon -- or at least that certain parts of you are.

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  16. From your brief examples, James, it sounds like WF's magic system is more spirit/demon-based. Is this the case?

    Not really. Many spells are rewritten in such a way as to include the agency of spirits/demons/otherworldly entities to effect the spell, but that's not universal.

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  17. When I first read the PDF rules, I was not impressed.

    Neither was I and I admit that I may be biased in favor of the game's approach for reasons other than pure content (which I'll talk about in my summation). That said, I would say that WF is, ultimately, just a very slickly presented variant of OD&D, one with a clear sense of what it's about and how it wishes to present itself to newcomers. If you've already got one such a variant that you like, there's really no need to get yet another one, even with its really great ideas.

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  18. Hmm. So, memorized spells are "evil"?

    I think this connection is based on two facts. One, as noted elsewhere, magic use is inherently Chaotic and spells like protection from evil really protect one against the adverse effects of Chaos. Two, even in the LBBs, there was a connection between evil and magic, as certain spells (like the aforementioned protection from evil) equated "evil" with "enchanted."

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  19. "The stars are repositories of all knowledge. By means of this spell, the Magic-User enters in communion with the star of his choice to receive wisdom and information. The caster asks questions of the star, and the star answers. The stars resent such intrusions and give only brief answers to questions, and they often lie."

    I doubt I'll buy the game, but, if the above is a typical example, the spell descriptions sound wonderful.

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  20. I like the stars/knowledge connection. I used stars/runes/knowledge/forms in my campaign, so very long ago.

    Though if you check ability at 100k x.p., clerics were powerhouses in OD&D. Amazingly so.

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