Sunday, September 5, 2010

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

Before presenting my concluding thoughts on the entirety of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, I'd like to discuss a few other components of the boxed set I've not already covered. First, there's the box itself. Boxed sets seem to be a flashpoint for discussion amongst old schoolers, with some feeling that nothing short of the return of the boxed RPG will herald mainstream success for the hobby. Others simply like boxed RPGs (I fall into this category). Consequently, several OSR publishers have produced their own boxed games recently. What I've noticed is that it's apparently quite difficult to get boxes that are "just right" for RPGs -- at least not without having them specially made for the purpose. I think Brave Halfling's Swords & Wizardry White Box comes closest to "getting it right," but even it feels a bit too flimsy for long-term use. WF, on the hand, comes in what appears to be a mailing box. Initially, I wasn't too keen on it, but, having carried around with me, I've come to like it a great deal. It's sturdy and holds everything inside without any difficulty, so a big thumbs up on the box.

In addition to the four books and two adventures, the box also includes a single sheet OGL statement, some advertisements (for Dragonsfoot and Expeditious Retreat Press), and a satirical warning to the reader. There are also 10 pre-printed double-sided record sheets, 5 pages of graph/hex paper (one on each side), a tiny set of polyhedral dice, and a small pencil. I appreciate that all these things were included; they ensure that the game is "complete" in a single box, but one wonders whether, for example, the pencil was really necessary. Also included was a 12-page "Recommended Reading" booklet that provides capsule biographies of many important pulp fantasy authors, in addition to a list of other noteworthy influences on WF. I really like this booklet, though (of course) I do wonder why the entry for Robert E. Howard drew attention to his suicide or why the Lovecraft entry did the same for his racism. It's a small point, I admit, but one that rankles nonetheless.

As a complete product, WF is certainly one of the most impressive things to come out of the old school renaissance. In terms of its physical quality alone, it's remarkable -- an attractive boxed set that really does include everything you need to play. Its esthetics are distinctive, obviously drawing on the past but doing so without the need to ape it. Likewise, James Raggi has a strong authorial voice that comes through on nearly every page of WF. He has a vision of what he likes in fantasy roleplaying and he articulates it clearly and unapologetically. More importantly, he does a fine job of giving anyone who purchases this boxed set the tools and the knowledge needed to create their own adventures and campaigns according to his own preferences.

As you've seen in the first four parts of this review, I have quibbles and concerns with various parts of WF, but they're mostly "in the family," which is to say, they're the kinds of concerns one makes only because one is otherwise in broad agreement with everything else the author is saying. And I am; I think WF is a very good game, one that includes a number of genuine innovations -- its approach to "thieves," for example -- that old school gamers will find of interest. That said, I think WF suffers from a bit of a split personality, seeing as its actual audience is likely to be primarily gamers of long experience, while much of its text is written as if the reader is an utter neophyte. That's not necessarily problematic. Others have pointed out that many gamers of long experience aren't really familiar with old school play and WF serves as an excellent introduction to it -- a lengthier "Old School Primer," if you will. At $65, though, WF is also expensive and that may limit its appeal, especially to newcomers. I don't deny that the price is, in fact, a bargain, considering all one gets for it, but it's still a very large outlay of cash.

In the final analysis, Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing is a game I cannot help but like, warts and all. It's deliciously idiosyncratic and unabashed about its idiosyncrasies. It comes across very much as a hobbyist production in the best possible sense of the term. It's very "raw" and, for lack of a better word, "real." That is, the game is the product of a single person's love for fantasy roleplaying and that love comes through on every page, perhaps most especially in those pages I least like, where it's speaking to people for whom the wonder of discovering old school gaming is happening now, not thirty years ago. Time will tell just how successful James Raggi will be in introducing new people to old school gaming, but, even if he fails, no one can say he didn't make a pretty spectacular go of it.

Overall Rating
Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If: You're either looking for a new take on old school gaming or are interested in seeing what all the fuss is about old school gaming (and don't mind a hefty price tag).
Don't Buy This If: You don't need yet another take on old school fantasy roleplaying.

24 comments:

  1. I've concluded that, although I'm glad to have spent the money on the boxed set, the parts that are good about it are the free parts (the rules and magic books). Realistically, I'm never going to use the module, the sandbox, the tutorial, or the ref book.

    The rules are really, really good, though.

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  2. "I do wonder why the entry for Robert E. Howard drew attention to his suicide or why the Lovecraft entry did the same for his racism. It's a small point, I admit, but one that rankles nonetheless."

    Having not read the entries in question, I don't know the context in which these things were mentioned, so I'm not sure why they should 'rankle'.

    Certainly a biographical note on R. E. Howard could mention his suicide, but I can see why it might 'rankle' if it was dwelt upon in a way that would distract the reader from appreciating the quality of his writing. In contrast, I think that it is fully appropriate to mention H. P. Lovecraft's racism, as it does intrude markedly upon some of his stories in ways that some readers may find shocking (e.g., the name of the protagonist's cat in "The Rats in the Walls" left me stunned when I first read that story as a teenager). Lovecraft's racism informed his worldview, and thus his writings, in a way that Howard's suicide did not (at least as far as I can tell). I should emphasize that I am a huge fan of both authors.

    More helpful, I think, would be a discussion of both authors' religious/philosophical views, which clearly informed their stories. Both Howard and Lovecraft were nontheists (this is clearer in the case of Lovecraft, who was quite explicit in describing his materialism and atheism). This outlook greatly influenced the kinds of stories they told (IMO), and certainly warrants mention (just as Tolkien's Catholicism would, given its influence on his writings).

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  3. Good review. Cool that you went into so much detail; it definitely deserves the close look. I think it hits more than you do, but opinions can reasonably differ. I'm a little surprised at the 7 on Presentation. Can you point at some examples of better-presented OSR or RPG products? Cause this thing looks damn good, IMO.

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  4. >"More helpful would be a discussion . . . of religious/philosophical views."

    I totally agree. A person's worldview dramatically affects their creative output. And yet discussions of worldview often take a back seat to other matters.

    Many of the OSR materials that are being put out are strongly affected by religious/philosophical commitments on the part of their authors. I think LOTFP is one of the more obvious examples. The review of LOTFP on Dragonsfoot and ensuing (slightly heated) discussion shows how even the presentation of a class like "Fighter" can be totally reworked in the light of someone's unfounded presuppositions.

    The link is pasted below. Notice how Raggi implies that all fighters are evil. I.e. There no such things as heroes. Then in the discussion, it turns out that this is his view in the real world. Worldview affects creative output. The way a person views the real world affects his construction of a fantasy world.

    http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=38&t=44719

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  5. Thanks for the very comprehensive review James.

    I just had the thought that LoTFP is to OD&D as New, "Reimagined" Battlestar Galactica is to old Battlestar Galactica. Not exactly my cup of tea, and I prefer the more optimistic worldview of the '70s original, but certainly intriguing and generally very well done for what it is.

    Also, I suspect that the same people who prefer the aesthetics and morality of New Galactica to the original will also prefer LoTFP to OD&D and its retro-clones. >:)

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  6. "Many of the OSR materials that are being put out are strongly affected by religious/philosophical commitments on the part of their authors." I'm sorry, but I don't see this at all...not OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Swords Wizardry, Ruins & Ronin? Play style? You'd have a point there, but I do not see this breaking down on religious/philosophical lines.

    I'm glad that there are people like James pushing the envelope! I haven't felt this way about an rpg in ages. Its always been, "That'd be interesting to play," but now its "THAT'D BE INTERESTING TO PLAY!" and we are playing!

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  7. Also, I suspect that the same people who prefer the aesthetics and morality of New Galactica to the original will also prefer LoTFP to OD&D and its retro-clones.
    Ooh, I don't know. I quite like LotFP, but found Nu Galactica incredibly dull and pretentious. ;)

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  8. Clearly the analogy is not a perfect fit, Kelvin :) - and I haven't bought LoTFP, but it does seem to fit into the same "reimagining" territory as new BSG.

    (BTW have you seen the new-BSG original mini-series? I thought it was pretty awesome. The later seasons did get dull & pretentious IMO but season-decline is par for the course in most US TV shows due to the workings of the renewal system, they almost always put their best ideas out first).

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  9. Well, it's what you get when you order biographical essays from a pair of philologists like Juhani Seppälä and me. I wrote about Lovecraft, he wrote about Howard. You get details like how it came to pass that the author died at thirty, or mentions of significant elements that are often explicitly present in his work, like Lovecraft's racism.

    Indeed, since Lovecraft's views on race so clearly inform so much of his writing ("Horror at Red Hook" being the classic example, with the less-known "Medusa's Coil" going clean over the parody horizon.), I am rankled by the suggestion that I should not have mentioned it. In my mind, such an omission would be intellectually dishonest.

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  10. The rules are really, really good, though.

    They're by far the best part of the boxed set's contents.

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  11. Akrasia,

    I'll admit that I am very touchy about the way REH and HPL's lives and opinions are often portrayed in popular presentations of them. Howard's entire life tends to get summed up in his suicide, as it's somehow a singular act that "explains" him and his writings. Lovecraft's racism, meanwhile, tends to get overplayed to assuage any guilt one might feel in actually enjoying his writings.

    I guess I've read too many unsympathetic biographical sketches of both men that I overreact when certain aspects of their lives get mentioned without sufficient context.

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  12. I'm a little surprised at the 7 on Presentation. Can you point at some examples of better-presented OSR or RPG products? Cause this thing looks damn good, IMO.

    The presentation score isn't just a matter of its physical appearance, though that is a big part of it. It's also a reflection of the feelings/thoughts it engenders in me while simply looking at it. I docked it because I think the boxed set "feels" large and uneven to me. I like individual pieces of it better than the overall package.

    I realize that's incredibly vague and subjective, but there it is.

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  13. Indeed, since Lovecraft's views on race so clearly inform so much of his writing ("Horror at Red Hook" being the classic example, with the less-known "Medusa's Coil" going clean over the parody horizon.), I am rankled by the suggestion that I should not have mentioned it. In my mind, such an omission would be intellectually dishonest.

    I doubt that the comments to this part of the review is the best place to debate this, but I think, in a necessarily short essay, Lovecraft's racism hardly merits a mention, particularly when his actual views on the matter are complex and contradictory. Like Howard's suicide, it's all too easy to reduce these men's lives to a single "key" and I've seen too many instances where both REH's manner of death and HPL's opinions on race and class are treated as such.

    As I said in a comment above, this is a sensitive area for me and I admit that I may be overreacting.

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  14. I found this boxed set to be one of the more exciting games that I have picked up in a while. I agree that it has a very strong author's voice and that the rules were pretty cool. I did not mind the price point; it's competitive with the prices for BECMI and in new condition. It's a very nice way to keep the rules in print.

    The attack bonus (only fighters exceed plus one) threw me (especially for dwarves, whom I would have expected to be intermediate) but it makes a lot of sense once you read the magic item section (no +1 swords). So what began as a flaw ended up as being a unique vision of how to position the OD&D classes.

    Thank you for the long reviews. You publicizing LotFP is what led me to buy a copy and I have been very happy with it.

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  15. Lovecraft's racism is a non-issue for me. He never physically attacked or robbed people. Lovecraft simply expressed his opinion, and every man has the right to his opinions. I don't mind a dispassionate discussion of Lovecraft's racism, but I have no interest in a self-righteous tirade by people who have logs in their own eyes. (Note that I have no opinion of LotFP's "Recommended Reading" book, for the very good reason that I've never seen it.)

    I would also advise caution against inferring an author's religious and/or philosophical beliefs from his works of fiction. I am a Christian Universalist. (Basically, I agree with the theology of George MacDonald.) Is there anything in Supplement V: CARCOSA that would suggest that?

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  16. I do wonder why the entry for Robert E. Howard drew attention to his suicide or why the Lovecraft entry did the same for his racism.

    Do you really have to wonder? At a guess, I'd say good old-fashioned sensationalism.

    As for HPL's racism, as with others, I think a tad too much is made of it. He was a white male author writing in the first three decades of the 20th Century: you simply have to be prepared to encounter things like this. I also don't think the racism is quite as all-pervasive as others assert: it's a comparatively small part of his literary corpus.

    Both Howard and Lovecraft were nontheists

    I don't think that's particularly clear in Howard's case. Based on his letters and work, he'd be an agnostic at most.

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  17. Geoffrey:
    "...every man has the right to his opinions..."

    I can tell you don't live here in Europe, Geoffrey. >:)

    Re HPL, I haven't seen the racism in the stories I've read, but I've heard how he'd walk down the street with his Jewish wife, making anti-Jewish comments about passers-by. Strange fellow. For me the most striking thing about his horror stories is how horror is always "out there", on the margins, in the dark places of the world, whether Innsmouth or the Bayou or a Pacific atoll. The US Government is entirely to be trusted - report a Deep One infestation, they'll torpedo it. Report a Cthulu cult, they'll raid it and break it up. Very different from post-'60s horror.

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  18. "I would also advise caution against inferring an author's religious and/or philosophical beliefs from his works of fiction."

    In the case of H. P. Lovecraft, there is no "inferring" to be done! He was quite explicit about his religious and philosophical beliefs:
    "In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of rational evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist. The chances of theism’s truth being to my mind so microscopically small, I would be a pendant and a hypocrite to call myself anything else.” (Lovecraft's emphasis.)

    More on this here (if you are curious):
    http://akraticwizardry.blogspot.com/2010/08/lovecrafts-philosophy.html

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  19. A serious question: do you use the full 0-10 range for your review scores? Does a "5" mean average to you?

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  20. Akrasia, you are right.

    I thoroughly approve of studying an author's personal beliefs, and then letting that knowledge cast light upon his fiction. What I caution against is quite different: "Hey, this guy's story has X in it, so he must be a Buddhist!" (I'm not saying you're doing that, of course.) If someone were to infer my beliefs based on his reading of CARCOSA, he'd undoubtedly (and mistakenly) think that I'm a nihilist.

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  21. S'Mon said:
    "Also, I suspect that the same people who prefer the aesthetics and morality of New Galactica to the original will also prefer LoTFP to OD&D and its retro-clones."

    Well, I like the style of LoTFP, even if all the rules don't grab me. I can tell you, though, the new BSG is blah. Every time I flipped to it, on my way to something else, it seemed somehow NOT science fiction. I prefer the characters and the tone of the originals, particularly the Lords of Kobol, ancient pyramids on alien planets, the idea that "life here began out there," and the mystical undertones of the series.

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  22. $65 isn't really that much for the entertainment value you would get out of it when you consider thata new Xbox 360 or PS3 game costs $60 these days. If you can run multiple campaigns using just the box set then it seems to be worth it from your review.

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  23. > another take on old school fantasy roleplayin.

    Hooee! Well, bust ma britches ah've been fixin' fer a good ol' bituv fanasy roleplayin!

    (sorry couldn't resist).

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  24. A serious question: do you use the full 0-10 range for your review scores? Does a "5" mean average to you?

    Yes.

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