Saturday, September 4, 2010

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

(I fully expect this part of my five-part review to prove the most contentious of them all)

The ambivalence the Referee Book in James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing elicited in me was also present when I read the game's Tutorial Book. Here, at least, I knew upfront that I reading a book that's aimed at complete neophytes. Consequently, I could judge it on its own terms rather than on any mistaken expectations of my own. At the same time, there are a number of things in this 52-page book that struck me as odd, repetitive, or simply unnecessary. Taken together, I was left feeling that the Tutorial Book didn't hang together quite as well as it could have, even if there was a lot between its covers I found genuinely praiseworthy.

The Tutorial Book begins with the obligatory "What is a Role-Playing Game?" discussion, but it's thankfully short and well done for what it is. There's likewise a discussion of dice and how to use them that's likewise short. A large section, entitled "Your First Adventure" follows, which is a kind of "guided tour" of the game and its rules. It assumes that the reader is playing a fighter and slowly introduces game mechanics as he reads through the structured narrative it presents. This narrative is not a "choose-your-own-adventure" style affair, but something much more railroad-y, a fact Raggi is quite to acknowledge at the end, where he notes that it wasn't "the real thing" where "the possibilities are limitless." As a primer of the most aspects of game play, it's well done, though. My only complaint is the extent to which the first adventure's narrative mirrors that of the Mentzer-edited Basic Rules, but that's probably my bias showing.

"The Second Adventure" immediately follows and it is a full-blown choose-your-own-adventure, as well as more complex mechanically. This second adventure is more impressive, allowing a very wide range of options, far more than is typical for tutorials of this kind. Of course, to do this, it uses nearly 20 pages of the book for a dungeon that consists of only 10 different encounter areas. Nevertheless, I think Raggi nicely ramps things up between the two tutorials, removing most of the "training wheels" and heavy-handed refereeing of the first in order to approximate something that's closer to "the real thing." Even here, he's quite to point out that "this isn't the full experience of the game either." I like admissions of this sort, since they make it clear that these tutorial adventures are just that: tutorials and shouldn't be confused with what an actual adventure session will be.

Raggi then goes on to include brief overviews of other game and rule-related topics, several of which were already covered in the Referee Book. This seems like wasted space to me, but I can't deny that a certain amount of repetition is probably inevitable once one adopts the idea of distinct player and referee-oriented books in a boxed game. That's rather why I don't like that sort of division, one that wasn't present in the little brown books or its immediate successors. But, again, this is a matter of taste, so I can't complain overly much.

On the other hand, I will complain about a 15-page example of play. Again, I think examples of play have a place in games geared toward newcomers, but I don't think they need to be as lengthy as the included here. Now, in Raggi's defense, the example is nicely done; it covers a lot of ground and illustrates many of the potential pitfalls of old school gameplay. Still, I think it could easily have been at least half its current length (if not shorter) and still achieved that same goal.

Introducing someone to the idea of a tabletop roleplaying game when they've never played one is a difficult proposition. I suspect anyone who's entered the hobby and stuck with it will recall that overcoming that early intellectual barrier was, in many ways, the toughest part about playing a RPG. When I entered the hobby at the tail end of the 70s, I relied on mentors already versed in the game to show me the ropes. I in turn introduced lots of others to the hobby, becoming a mentor myself, something I've continued to do with my own children. To my mind, this is the best way to induct someone into this hobby and no book, no matter how well written, will ever be a substitute for it. I might even argue that the shift toward treating RPG books into tutorial-driven technical manuals in the mid-80s was the first signs of rot setting into the culture of the hobby, but that's a topic for another day.

But, if one does think that a book alone can teach one to play a RPG, as I know James Raggi does, how does his Tutorial Book stack up? I think it does quite well, mostly on the strength of its two sample adventures. Beyond that, though, I'm not sure the Tutorial Book includes much that would be of particular help to a true beginner. The example of play is, as I said, too long; Moldvay's famous example of play is about a page and half long and covers most of the important points and does so in such a memorable fashion that blogs are even named after its characters. Meanwhile, the game and rules-related overviews are so brief that I'm not sure they'll tell a beginner anything they didn't already know or that they couldn't have picked up from their referee.

So, even acknowledging that I'm not the target audience for this volume or that I don't share the philosophy behind it, I'm still left feeling that the Tutorial Book doesn't quite accomplish what it sets out to do. It's a very solid step in that direction, but it has a slightly "ragged" feel to it, as if it's a first draft rather than the final word on how to introduce a newcomer to roleplaying. As an integral part of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, I don't feel as if it's useless, although I do wish more of its page count had been used in other volumes of the boxed set. Taken on its own, though, I found it unsatisfying and continue to wonder about its utility.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Buy This If: You're interested in some limited but well presented adventures to introduce someone to tabletop roleplaying.
Don't Buy This If: You'd rather learn how to roleplay through actual play.

21 comments:

  1. The"example of play" is my favorite part. I think it's long because the idea is to inculcate people in Raggi's take on How To DM. Are TPK's ok? Yes. Are player right? sometimes. Will your players whine? Yes. How do you handle that? Like this.

    I don't know what else to say except it was the part that I found the most fun to read.

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  2. This is the part I don't understand. Is anyone really going to learn roleplaying from LotFP:WF? I have to think the bulk of the sales of this game are going to Old School players who've been reading his blog. And at the price he needed to set for it, he's not going to get a lot of curious buyers who don't know how an RPg. Especially with the big name recognition product just released for $20. Certainly a Weird Fantasy primer, like the Old School Primer, would be a key component, but a how to roleplay section makes Raggi seem divorced from the reality of who his market is.

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  3. I'm with Zak on the example. I think most examples of play are good for illustrating GAMEPLAY, but fall short on how to deal with the out of character issues that pop up in a game. LotFP's does a great job, IMHO.

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  4. I don't know what else to say except it was the part that I found the most fun to read.

    It is fun to read, but is it something that a newcomer would read and find useful? I can't answer that, since I'm far from a newcomer. I think a much shorter example could have covered much of the same ground and kept the Tutorial Book at a less intimidating length, but, again, it's hard for me to judge.

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  5. This is the part I don't understand. Is anyone really going to learn roleplaying from LotFP:WF? I have to think the bulk of the sales of this game are going to Old School players who've been reading his blog.

    I honestly don't know. I am sure Jim hopes that newcomers will learn to roleplay from his game and that's why he wrote the game the way he did. I think the odds of it are slim, given the game's expense compared to other RPGs, but who knows?

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  6. I think most examples of play are good for illustrating GAMEPLAY, but fall short on how to deal with the out of character issues that pop up in a game. LotFP's does a great job, IMHO.

    You may well be right. What I'd like to hear from is someone whose first introduction to gaming is through reading this book. I'd love to know their reaction.

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  7. A few notes:

    I didn't have a mentor when I started. It was just me and the books. And I was the one to introduce role-playing to at least a dozen other people. Just because D&D was a phenomenon in the early-to-mid 80s doesn't mean a pre-10 year old knew where to find other players. I had to make my group from scratch.

    And I'm certainly not going to write a game that doesn't help the kind of person I was when I got started, ya know?

    While there probably won't be many blind buys from people looking to get into the hobby, I do know for a fact that at least one newbie has bought the thing off a store shelf. I also know that several of "our" people have bought copies for other people with little-to-no RPG experience. That is a small minority, yes, but it's present nonetheless.

    As for the example of play...

    My wife thought it was a bit short. Or more accurately missing something. "You should have shown them solving a puzzle."

    I've been quite let down by every example of play I've seen in RPGs. The one in the AD&D DMG is probably the best I've seen (most others feel so stilted and fake that they don't serve their purpose), but most are too short to get across what play is actually like. I wanted to address that.

    And the one thing about RPGs that's the most difficult to explain is the relationship between player and character. I thought I'd show, not tell.

    And the value of all this is not just for the brand-new role-player. Many (most?) current RPGs have a completely different set of assumptions about the process of play, the player-Referee relationship, power level, character mortality, everything. The Tutorial communicates the assumptions of the game quite well to them, putting them on notice that it's something different from what they're used to.

    And there are a decent number of those "gamers who started later and usually dismiss the older games" types who have decided to give my game a chance. And I'm just as happy to get them on board as I am a true RPG newcomer.

    I'm curious if you played through "The Second Adventure" at all? I was sure you'd complain long and hard about that more than the example of play. :)

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  8. And I'm certainly not going to write a game that doesn't help the kind of person I was when I got started, ya know?

    I didn't expect you to say otherwise :)

    I've been quite let down by every example of play I've seen in RPGs. The one in the AD&D DMG is probably the best I've seen (most others feel so stilted and fake that they don't serve their purpose), but most are too short to get across what play is actually like. I wanted to address that.

    As I said, it's a good example but it's very long. Maybe I underestimate others' attention spans.

    And the value of all this is not just for the brand-new role-player. Many (most?) current RPGs have a completely different set of assumptions about the process of play, the player-Referee relationship, power level, character mortality, everything. The Tutorial communicates the assumptions of the game quite well to them, putting them on notice that it's something different from what they're used to.

    That's certainly a fair point.

    I'm curious if you played through "The Second Adventure" at all? I was sure you'd complain long and hard about that more than the example of play. :)

    I did play through it and I enjoyed it for what it was. What did you expect I'd dislike?

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  9. Re new players - I think LoTFP has clearly created far more of a buzz outside the OSR crowd than has any prior OSR product. It's the one thing my FLGS Leisure Games tried to sell me when I visited recently. The threads on rpgnet are indicative - in fact LoTFP hits many of the buttons for becoming an RPGnet darling, except for being D&D-based.

    I doubt it will bring in a huge number of players completely new to RPGs, only WotC's new Red Box can even hope to do that, but it looks to me like it's doing *something* significant.

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  10. S'mon's point is a good one, and it's why I really liked the Example of Play. As someone who plays a lot of new games and hasn't played a lot of old-school games, it taught me as much as the Referee book how a game of LoTFP should work. I agree that not many people new to RPGs will see LoTFP and learn from it, but you may have a good deal of people new to old-school gaming.

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  11. The threads on rpgnet are indicative - in fact LoTFP hits many of the buttons for becoming an RPGnet darling, except for being D&D-based.

    Yikes! There's a bullet dodged :)

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  12. As someone who plays a lot of new games and hasn't played a lot of old-school games, it taught me as much as the Referee book how a game of LoTFP should work. I agree that not many people new to RPGs will see LoTFP and learn from it, but you may have a good deal of people new to old-school gaming.

    Well, if Jim succeeds in opening up a new market with his approach, then more fool I. I readily admit that I have a hard time judging the utility of many aspects of his approach, so I'm willing to admit that I may be mistaken on this score. I can only say that, from my perspective, the example of play was unnecessarily long.

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  13. New experiment:

    I have a player who has rolled many times in our AD&D/3.5 hybrid and now wants to be a DM.

    He asks questions along the lines of: What about sailing ships? Are there rules for that? Or "How do I get the players to start the adventure?"

    I hesitate to point him toward either the 3.5 or AD&D DM guides since both seem like they're likely to make DMing seem way more complicated than it actually is at east just to start out) and I'll have to keep saying "well you don't HAVE to do it like that..."

    However, LOTFP may hit the sweet spot: broad enough to cover everything a DM may feel they "need" to know, but narrow enough for it to not seem overwhelming.

    I'll let you know how it works out.

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  14. I'll let you know how it works out.

    Please do! I am very curious to hear how things work out.

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  15. @james

    it's this guy...

    http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2010/09/heres-what-youre-missing.html

    ...so, y'know, could go in any of -several- directions.

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  16. I must admit, I glossed over the early examples in the tutorial book, and only really paid attention to the last example of play. That I liked, and wished I could have found out how things worked out with the second party the players created.

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  17. >>What did you expect I'd dislike?

    The playtesters seemed to all think it was rather lethal. Which was intentional - I want readers to get to one of the death scenes before being able to win.

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  18. My main beef with the choose your adventure -intro game in LotFP wasn't that it was very lethal. Rather it was its sheer complexity. I tried it several times, and not once did I manage to keep accurate score of plot points, page numbers, etc. I had to backtrack a lot, since I kept getting confused about where I was and what my options were.

    Then again, since I haven't read this sort of critique from anyone else, I guess its just me. I've never been very good at keeping small details straight in my head. ;)

    Also, I think one of the corridors on the mini-maps is one square too long. As written, the right hand side of the dungeon doesn't align up with the central part when it re-connects.

    Regarding this: " I do know for a fact that at least one newbie has bought the thing off a store shelf.", I'm the one who sold the game to the newbie. It was a 30-something father and his teenage son. The father had played Rolemaster way back when, and was now returning to gaming, deciding to take his son (a total RPG newbie) with him. He had looked at 4e, but was put off by the strong emphasis on combat, and was shopping for a beginner friendly, rules-light game for him and his son to play together. I didn't take much of a sales pitch to sell him on LotFP. I really hope he likes what he got, and returns to the store to share his experiences.

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  19. The playtesters seemed to all think it was rather lethal.

    It is lethal, yes, but I see that as a good thing.

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  20. I never see lethality as a good thing. For examples, I cite Rolemaster (where a single severed artery, even on the first hit, pretty much meant death), and Cyberpunk (where a gun battle meant serious injury). Another would be 1st level D&D, where you didn't fight, but ran. Running is what Professor Harvey does when faced with a Deep One, not what Conan or D'Artagnan would do.

    If you want to demonstrate what real battle does to people and that it's not fun, I guess lethality is what you want. But I want my character to feel confident in situations where I personally would be looking for a place to hide.

    To me, lethality belongs in survival horror, it doesn't really belong in a game inspired by the works of Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien or Fritz Leiber. But, as always, YMMV.

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  21. The lethality of the example adventure is due to bad decision-making by the players. The examples of play (or at least the last one) demonstrate that 'player skill', and paying attention to the descriptions of your surroundings, is critical to success. That is why I like the example of play in the tutorial book, and why the TPK is a fitting end.

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