Thursday, November 22, 2012

REVIEW: The Magnificent Joop van Ooms

Reviewing almost anything James Raggi writes poses unique challenges, but it's his adventures that are particularly troublesome to me. Partly, it's because Raggi's understanding of and approach to fantasy is often so different from my own. I don't think any of the adventures he's written to date are ones I can imagine myself as having written. Mind you, that's a good thing! To my way of thinking, what separates a good adventure module from a bad one is that a good one gives you ideas -- whether in rough or polished form -- that you could never have come up with yourself.

The flip side of this is that I frequently have no idea what to do with these modules, however intriguing their ideas. I recall reading somewhere (perhaps on Google+?) that Raggi says this is a common response to his writing and that he enjoys watching people wrestle with it. That's fair enough and, truth be told, one of my biggest cavils about adventure modules is that they can encourage passive consumption by referees rather than active, imaginative engagement.

Which brings me to The Magnificent Joop van Ooms, an 16-page product written by James Raggi, illustrated throughout by Jez Gordon, and with a cover by Jason Rainville. Though released under the rubric of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Adventures, it's not really an adventure at all, at least not in the traditional usage of that term. Rather, it's more of a collection of settings, mechanics, NPC descriptions, and related ideas that can be used to create adventures, thirteen examples of which are included in the book itself. Consequently, I can easily imagine some purchasers being disappointed by its contents if they were expecting a map-and-room-key sort of product, because The Magnificent Joop van Ooms (hereafter JvO) is nothing like that.

Before discussing exactly what JvO is like, a short digression regarding its physical qualities is in order. As I noted above, this product consists of 16 pages, which are staple-bound and enclosed in a cover with a wrap-around illustration depicting the eponymous Joop van Ooms demonstrating his unique magical abilities. The interior uses a clean, two-column layout and is amply illustrated with superb black and white artwork. The text is small, like all Lamentations of the Flame Princess products, meaning that it is in fact meatier content-wise than its page length would suggest. The book sells for 3.00€ (about $3.80 US) in PDF or 7.50€ (about $9.50 US) for the print + PDF combo.

Like Death Love Doom, JvO is set in the "real world," specifically early 17th century Amsterdam. While the amount of material unalterably grounded in early modern Europe is small (about two pages), I nevertheless find its inclusion needlessly off-putting. It's not that I mind the real world setting; it's that Lamentations of the Flame Princess, as currently written, doesn't really support that setting. There are, as yet, no rules for firearms, for example, and there are too many swordswomen and too much magic (never mind the implicit demihumans) for me to buy it as anything like the 17th century I know about. Now, that said, I think it's pretty clear that Raggi loves the early modern period and wants to make it the game's native setting, but, to do that, there's some work remaining. In the meantime, I think he confuses and frustrates some potential customers of his adventures.

JvO begins with overviews of both the United Provinces (of the Netherlands) and Amsterdam itself. Following that are 50 random encounters adventurers might have "down on the wharf." These encounters range from the mundane (a swarm of street urchins) to the exotic (a mermaid on the prowl) to the downright bizarre ("Everybody dies. Seriously. Roll up new characters, start them somewhere else. Amsterdam is wiped from the face of the Earth."). There are also simple rules for buying and selling on the black market.

This brings us to Joop van Ooms himself -- "an inventor, architect, engineer, painter, poet, and sculptor" who "has broken through to the Void Beyond the World and has seen both the glories and feculence of creation." He also works magic through his art. The book provides many examples of just what he is capable of when painting, writing plays, sculpting, etc. Also detailed are his constant companions and the studio where he lives and works in Amsterdam. The sections devoted to Joop van Ooms and his activities contain almost no game mechanics. Instead, they're simply descriptions and ideas, leaving it up to the referee to implement.

This is the point where I expect opinion of JvO will be divided -- between those who lack for ideas they can riff off of and those who want a complete, ready-to-run product. Bearing in mind my minor cavils, the former group ought to be quite happy with JvO, while the latter are bound to be disappointed. Even the former group may have some issues with this product, since it's ideas are of a very specific kind, rooted not just in the early modern era but also in an idiosyncratic take on a Lovecraftian cosmos. On the other hand, I find it hard to imagine almost anyone buys a James Raggi product not expecting these things, so my sympathy is somewhat limited.

In the end, I suspect whether one likes The Magnificent Joop van Ooms will depend greatly on whether one has enjoyed Raggi's previous works. It's very much of a piece with them, so, if they appeal, this one will too. If not, then this product will do nothing to change one's mind and may in fact only encourage further dislike.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 5 out of 10

Buy This If: You've enjoyed James Raggi's previous efforts or are looking for a collection of inspirational ideas from which to craft your own weird fantasy adventures.
Don't Buy This If: You're expecting an adventure module you can run "out of the box" or have no interest in weird fantasy set in early modern Europe.

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