Thursday, September 2, 2010

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

Gaming books aimed specifically at referees are a tricky business. On the one hand, no one is born a referee (or, at least, very few are), so there's an obvious need for "instructions" on how to become one -- a need that's all the more acute in old school gaming, where the role of the referee is vastly larger than in its latter-day descendants. On the other hand, one doesn't become a referee by reading a book, or even many books, no matter how well written. That's because good refereeing is more a matter of instinct honed through experience and, while refereeing books can be helpful, they're no substitute for simply running lots and lots of adventures over the course of weeks, months, and years. Refereeing is a clear case of learning by doing.

That's not to say that there isn't a place for books on the theory and practice of refereeing, but there's a real danger that they'll either be too "philosophical" and thus of limited use in showing neophytes how to handle their responsibilities as a referee or too mired in minutiae and thus of limited use in explaining why a particular course of action is better for everyone involved in the game. When I was a younger man, referee's books veered too much toward the practical, right down to wasting space about deciding where a gaming group should meet and who should bring snacks. Nowadays, the trend is in the opposite direction, with lots of highfalutin talk derived from literary theory or using movies and TV shows as exemplary of good RPG campaigns.

The Referee Book included with James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing commits neither of those sins, but it's still far from perfect. That's admittedly a weak criticism, since even Gary Gygax's magnum opus, the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, is imperfect, but Gygax's tome was published over three decades ago. In a sense, it created the genre of "referee's book" and so its flaws must necessarily be balanced against its trailblazing nature; the WF Referee Book has no such easy out.

Before getting to that, let me begin by saying that the book is 48 pages in length and easy on the eyes. Art is sparse but attractive and the simple two-column layout is one I appreciate. The text is clear and I found few obvious editorial or typographical errors. The tone used throughout can best be called "conversational," though it often becomes more colloquial than I prefer. Some, I suppose, will appreciate this unpretentious style and I admit that it has benefits, but, traditionalist that I am, I still prefer referee's books to have a somewhat more "aloof" presentation.

The Referee Book begins with an overview of the role of the referee and the fundamentals of the game. It also includes brief discussions of "Rule Zero," a term about which I've already noted my dislike, as well as discussions of randomness and the long road ahead in becoming a truly good referee. All in all, it's a promising start and, quibbles aside, I think it does a solid job of elucidating just what a referee does in an old school game. Following this, there's a very good section about "the weird," what it means and how it can be evoked in a game. It's unfortunately a little more theoretical than I'd have liked, but I suppose Raggi can rightly claim that his adventures already provide extended examples of the weird for referees to imitate.

A large portion of the Referee Book is devoted to adventure building and rightly so. Raggi identifies five basic types of adventures: event-based, exploration-based, personage-based, location-based, and sandboxes. Each type gets a brief discussion before he tackles elements common to all of them. He also lays out the elements of good adventures, including appropriate obstacles and rewards, and cautions against the dangers of railroading. This is all very good stuff and broadly consonant with most of what the old school renaissance has been promoting over the last few years. Indeed, it's probably as good a sketch of what old school gaming is all about as any I've read and it does so without reference to contemporary gaming, since it's written with a neophyte in mind.

Another large section details "the campaign" -- meaning primarily the campaign setting -- and it's here where I think the Referee Book starts to fall down. All the usual topics, like maps, religion, laws, languages, etc. are covered but, even from the perspective of a newcomer, I'm not sure how useful this section would be. Perhaps it's been so long since I needed this kind of advice that I can't tell that a very basic overview of high-level topics like this is indeed valuable, but, compared to the adventure design advice earlier, I found the section on the campaign quite flat and uninspiring. Meanwhile, the section on NPCs started off promisingly, but was much too short. I would have much rather seen Raggi talk more about creating memorable NPCs than yet another discussion of cosmology or quasi-medieval social structure.

Since Raggi first made his name with his Random Esoteric Creature Generator, I expected WF to include something similar, albeit in a cut-down or at least more focused version. Instead, we get a mere four pages of rather terse advice on making monsters -- there are no "standard" monster listings in the game at all -- with special attention paid to animals, constructs, humanoids, oozes, and undead. I can't deny that I was disappointed by this, since I remain a big fan of his earlier work (which Raggi references in the text) and which I expected to see used in some form in WF. This section also lacks examples, which I think would have been invaluable in a game geared toward newcomers. On the plus side, Raggi does suggest a good alternative to level drain that I think retains the sting of this fearsome power.

Like the monster section, the discussion of magic items felt underdeveloped to me. I appreciate Raggi's contention that magic items should all be individualized and treated as "unique items of great power" rather than D&D's very generic approach. I am sympathetic to his point of view here and lean that way myself, but, if that is the approach one is going to take, I think it's important to provide more details and examples on how that approach should be implemented. That said, I think Raggi did a better job in this section than he did with the monsters, but I still would have preferred some additional elucidation of how to use the guidelines presented. The book concludes with some practical discussions about gathering a group and maintaining a campaign, as well as how to convert material for other retro-clones to WF.

Before the release of WF, James Raggi was probably most well-known for his superb old school adventure modules and, reading through the Referee Book, it's not difficult to see why. The book is at its best and most insightful when it focuses on the creation and running of adventures. I found it far less useful when it shifted focus to campaigns and campaign settings. Some of that might be because, as I noted, I'm an old hand and so don't see the value in some of the Referee Book's discussions. If so, I think it only highlights the split personality of WF -- clearly geared toward complete neophytes yet often containing "inside baseball" theoretical discussions that probably don't mean much to such gamers. I'll grant that it's a tough balancing act to maintain and that, to be successful, WF, at least initially, needs to attract experienced gamers as well as beginners, so a split personality of some sort is probably unavoidable.

At the end of the day, the Referee Book is a good effort and contains much of value, particularly its discussions of the weird and how to create memorable and exciting adventures. It does, however, feel like a step down from the thoroughgoing excellence of the two previous volumes of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. In terms of both content and utility, it's notably less excellent, even given its more narrow focus. That still puts it ahead of a great many other RPG products, both within the old school renaissance and without, so it's a limited criticism, but it's criticism nonetheless.

Presentation:
7 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're a complete neophyte to refereeing or an experience referee just keen to read another referee's perspectives on common aspects of this game role.
Don't Buy This If: You're an old hand with no interest others' approaches to refereeing.

13 comments:

  1. It's always interesting to read your perspectives James. I have to say that for me, the Referee's Book was my favorite of the volumes in LotFP, although that is in part because I'm most likely to use the LotFP material as inspiration with other rule sets, and this book is nothing but inspiration. In contrast to you, I found the discussion on monsters far more useful than that relating to magic items. The discussion of the purpose and defining characteristics of various classic monster types (e.g. humanoids, oozes, undead) I think stand as great rules of thumb on what sort of monster to select in a given situation, and how to best kit it out uniquely, while staying true to its fundamental theme. In contrast, the magic item section was little more than a statement of philosophy and then a long list of mundane items that might form the basis for a magic item, with almost no practical guidance on how to go about that.

    But overall, I find this book to be of a pair with another recently released volume, Luke Crane's _Adventure Burner_. Both volumes by in large amount to a personal conversation with a very experienced game master/designer, explaining clearly & concisely how best to apply the rules of their favored system to great adventures in their preferred mode. I find this sort of discussion just as invaluable as an experience referee as I think it would be to a neophyte, and far more valuable than an aloof or less personalized presentation might be.

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  2. It seems like a great game to play with goth gamer chicks uninterested in the heavy number-crunching and character-optimising needed by 4e D&D. I bet Raggi is quite the man about Helsinki. >:)

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  3. I was before I got married, anyway. :P

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  4. James you use elucidate when clarify would have been sufficient (once is fine, but you flogged it). Other than that, I enjoyed this review as I did the others.

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  5. I think the Ref book is the weak link in the set, but other people whose opinions I respect have had the opposite impression. Weird world indeed. :)

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  6. I prefer the flogging of big words to the flogging of wine preservers.

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  7. Your reviews thus far have been really good. I've caught Raggi's blog here-and-there, and was interested in his work. Your incisive critiques, coupled with your praise, make give me a lot to think about. I'm by no means an Old Schooler, but I appreciate the movement and your reviews have seriously made me consider picking this game up.

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  8. S'mon: I don't think any of them are goth, but there is this campaign already being run with Raggi's rules.

    I was a little let down by the campaign material myself, but I suspect Raggi's a bottom-up campaign designer, where I'm a top-down designer. In the final analysis, however, campaigns can more easily grow from great adventures than vice versa.

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  9. "five basic types of adventures: event-based, exploration-based, personage-based, location-based, and sandboxes."

    2) exploration-based, 4) location-based, and 5) sandboxes all sound rather synonymous to me.

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  10. I think the Ref book is the weak link in the set, but other people whose opinions I respect have had the opposite impression.

    I think it's a weak link, the Tutorial Book being the other one, but I recognize that, on both these points, my opinion is an outlier.

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  11. 2) exploration-based, 4) location-based, and 5) sandboxes all sound rather synonymous to me.

    Raggi does a good job of differentiating them. The differences might be too fine grained for some, but I think they're valid distinctions.

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  12. No monsters stats or magic items at all?

    I must say, that knocks LotFP several notches down on my "things to get when I have the spare cash" list.

    Whatever the "philosophical" reasons for the decision, it's a pretty crippling handicap to a fantasy game's utility.

    At least he included actual classes and spells instead of another reiteration of "Just make some up, I guess. Make sure they're, like, cool and stuff, though."

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  13. No monsters stats or magic items at all?

    Nope -- just guidelines for how to make your own. I found it a huge disappointment myself. I can certainly understand not wanting to repeat D&D's approach, going for something more unique and customized, but at least give a few examples to show how one might use the guidelines. It's very odd that, in a game geared toward newcomers and that includes a 17-page example of play, we don't get even a single monster or magic item statted up.

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