A short time ago, I contributed to a small tempest in a teapot regarding Ryan Macklin's rant against mediocrity on one of the Jennisodes. I made this post questioning the points he raised. We all had a little conversation on Jenn's forums and Ryan posted his own response on his blog.
In that conversation on the forums, the issue was raised that people are complaining about the lack of criticism, but not putting up good criticism themselves. I mentioned that I was considering a review of LOTFP. I had suggested it on this blog in the past as well. So here we are. I can't very well complain about lack of critique if I am unwilling to do it myself.
Purpose of this Review:
The purpose of this review is to attempt to set a standard of critique. Ryan and I agree that there is a deficit of serious criticism in the RPG community. Ryan is pessimistic about it due to what he feels are inherent flaws with internet communication. I am optimistic they can be overcome. So that is what this review is about, trying to establish a standard for analysis that is objective and unemotional. If we are going to be serious about our art form, we must be honest and open in our analysis of it.
The point of a serious review should be to evaluate the art objectively. I am not going to conclude that LOTFP is good or bad, worth buying or not worth buying. I am going to break apart the game in a rational way and discuss what I think is designed well and what I think is not.
LOTFP was chosen because it was the most recent game that I have acquired, it was an influential game on my thinking since I acquired it, and because I have been engaged in the OSR blog community and a lot of OSR gamers are familiar with the game. Furthermore, many others have talked about LOTFP but I don't feel those posts rose to the proper level of discussion that I think a serious art form deserves.
I choose LOTFP precisely because I have no strong emotions about it. I do not love it. I do not hate it. I have not played the game at the table, so I am purely judging the text on it's own merits. Finally, I received this game as a gift from a friend and not as a promotion.
A Note about Context:
There have been numerous reviews of this product already by several bloggers, in English and in other languages. I have read many of them, but it has been several months since doing so. I intentionally did not re-read those reviews, nor on Raggi's defenses against criticism since release. I am trying to assume nothing and read the text as it exists without the context of community commentary. This also means that I am not assuming to have a monopoly on any of the critiques below. Other people may have already made them.
Also, I want to note that my own games are in beta stage and I am certain the question will rise about whether I would want my game subjected to the scrutiny of this review. The answer is yes. My games are in public Beta precisely because I want public commentary. Perhaps not on Synapse, because I am actively rewriting significant portions of the next couple months and thus the review out be out of date, but after that republication I would. I believe that criticism is essential to improvement of our art form. And it is an art form, so let's be serious about it.
What I will not allow:
As I discussed in my counter-reply to Ryan, I feel that Alexis' system of comment moderation is necessary to prevent the fanboy flamewars that erupt around these kinds of discussions. If anyone makes a comment on this post that contains significant hostility towards myself, other commenters, or the game; I WILL DELETE IT. Such commentary has no place among serious people. Go play with matches instead.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess:
Weird Fantasy Roleplaying - Rules Book
This review is based on the PDF version of the Rules Book contained in the LOTFP box set. The majority of my comments should be equally applicable to the printed version, although obviously I am not reviewing the condition of the physical product by using the PDF as my source material.
The game uses a standard D20 model of resolution for combat and an innovative D6 model of resolution for adventuring tasks. The modifiers that are applied to these systems are significantly scaled back from contemporary D20 models. The character creation system is simplistic and involves only a handful of choices and some die rolls. These effects combine to create a unique low-powered fantasy game that is evocative of the old school D&D mythos.
Graphic Design and Layout:
The game employs a very simple single column layout format. It is broken into sections, however the design of the headers is the same despite section breaks. There are no actual indicators of section breaks in the text, so I am using the bookmarks as a guideline. For example, the Character Creation section header (which is a primary bookmark) is the same as each of the class headers within that section (nested bookmarked). Simple techniques to denote section breaks such as chapter break pages, color changes, or font differentiations were not employed. The two-line headers are employed throughout the text without a consistent pattern. For example, they are used for each class within the character creation section, but similar concept headers were not employed in the adventuring rules section for elements like Experience Points, Hazards, or Healing despite the fact that these elements contain their own sub-sections and thus deserve demarcation as their own text regions. Full page graphics are employed inconsistently as well, with no apparent pattern or intent to serve as content breaks. Instead, I suspect they are layout adjustments designed to make certain sections start on the right page of the printed book.
Distribution of graphics is equally disorganized and usage appears to be dictated by necessity to adapt to poor typography. Several pages contain small snippits of text that overflow from the previous page. Professional design dictates that this text should have been simplified to fit or the entire element should have been moved to the next page. For example, the text on Traps is divided between two pages, with one full paragraph on either side of the page break and a paragraph in the middle that is cut in half by the page break itself. This entire section should have it's own page, with a small graphic to round out the hole left in the page it currently begins on and a smaller graphic beneath it's new lower boundary on the page it currently ends on. Another example is the description of the Wisdom attribute, which is a single line on one page and the remainder of the paragraph is on the following page.
Charts are poorly designed and unnecessarily difficult to read. For example, on the very first chart (Ability Scores), rather than resize the columns to provide adequate space, the word Modifier is split onto two lines in a manner that looks very amateurish. Those columns should be resized outwards so that the text headers of each column can fit onto a single line. The charts do not employ shaded backgrounds, differential shading between lines, or any other simple techniques to make them easier to read. The columns are too tightly drawn, with no column differentiations, so that the header texts run together. For example, the names of each saving throw are far too close together in the class charts. It makes it harder for the eye to sense the break between each column.
Additionally, some charts employ inconsistent text alignment. For example, the armor table in the equipment lists section has the first column in left alignment (which is proper), while the 2nd and 3rd columns are in right alignment and the 4th column is center aligned. Given the nature of the data in the chart, center alignment for columns 2, 3, and 4 would be appropriate. There may be a case to do all three of those columns in right alignment, if you are concerned about lining up the price unit notation (gp) and thus having numerals flow out leftward from that standard line. However, that would require manual centering of the column to avoid a disjointed look in comparison to the centered column header.
The layout of examples describing how to use the text are clumsily constructed and have a poor appearance. For example, the sequence of character creation is outlined using an actual numeral/letter outline format. A professional design element here would lead off the text with a crisp and easily understood structural model, instead the text begins with amateurism.
Many of the pages contain significant white space due to poor formatting. For example, looking at the first page of character creation, the chart at the bottom of the page should be right-aligned and the Ability Scores rolling instructions could be compressed slightly and aligned on the same horizontal axis. Then more text or additional artwork (or an expanded graphical representation of the character creation process as described above) could be added to enhance aesthetics.
Overall, the font choices leave the text looking plain and uninspiring. This can only be appealing for nostalgic reasons and cuts against modern design principles. Bullet lists are employed using fairly simple stars. If the designer is going to employ non-standard bullets, they should be inspiring and relate to the game content in some way. These stars look like simple glyphs. Free photoshop shapes are available that would be much more appropriate and require very little work to employ (shields, medieval weapons, helms, etc), thus this choice comes across as very amateurish.
Artwork as a whole is evocative of a consistent feel that is aligned with the mood of the text. I would like to single out the Renaissance Indiana Jones on page 12 as being a particularly excellent art choice. If employed properly in combination with professional design standards, this could be a really stunning piece. I feel like it is a wasted opportunity instead.
It is my understanding that the printed material employs a slightly different format involving two-columns. To verify that my critiques held valid, I did a quick google search to find images where people have posted pictures of the book. These images have convinced me that most of the same issues that I cite above are present in the printed book, albeit in slightly different form. For example, in the images in the review on the Spanish blog Aventuras en La Marca del Este, you can see the text from the Dexterity description is split between the two columns. See below.
Character Creation Section:
The book begins with this section. There is no introduction, that is handled through another text in the box set called the Tutorial book. Unfortunately, there is no reference to this fact and this means that someone who is approaching the book as a new player may have a difficult time understanding what should be occurring and would have to reference two texts simultaneously to get a full picture. For example, the meta-description of what an Ability Score represents, why they are used, and what is average or extreme is in the tutorial book (although even there, this meta content is very simplistic and conversational in tone). Thus the book reads very matter-of-factly and with little descriptive context to integrate the player into the game.
Ability scores are the same as classic D&D attributes and created using a single method (3d6, assign in order rolled). These attributes are used to generate modifiers that are subsequently applied to rolls made during the game. The ranges are slightly larger than those in the D20 design, with 4 scores at +0 and each concentric range shifted 1 point outward. Thus an 18 is only a +3 modifier instead of a +4 with D20. Ability score descriptions are listed alphabetically instead of the classic sequence, which I actually found refreshingly novel. Several of the abilities are defined substantially differently from classic D&D. Charisma is an example of this, with a clear notation that it does not represent physical beauty but instead a force of personality. Overall the descriptions are short and much of that length is content oriented towards the game. This does not provide a strong foundation of the system against the real world, thus reinforcing the abstracted nature of the system vs the actual gameplay of being in the setting. Connecting the dots between what scores your character has and how they actually behave/look/feel in the game is left to the character.
As one may be able to ascertain from the above commentary, the net result of these changes is that normalization of the characters to a great degree. A character with a high ability score will be rare and more highly valued as a result. However, even then the grounding of the system in the innate ability of the character is lowered. Attributes have less impact on the game than in the D20 design and a character is more likely to have several low scores. This should result in a low-powered game compared to contemporary editions of D&D on the market.
After having assigned ability scores, the character must be given a class. Since ability scores are simply rolled and assigned in order and the impact of alignment & equipment are minimal, this is perhaps the only significant character creation choice. The game employs the race-as-class concept from the original D&D. The obvious drawbacks to this is that it rigidly limits the cultural options of a demi-human player. For example, there are no Dwarven magic users of any kind, nor thieves of any great skill, and so on. These limitations enforce a quasi-setting upon the player and limit the portability of the game into established fantasy RPG settings like Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms.
Each class comes with a short description that provides context regarding the role of that class in the game world and some general descriptions of physicality in the case of the demi-human races. Each class description also contains progression charts for a variety of things; experience points, hit point, saving throws, etc. These are highly variable by class and do not have the standardization of progression that we see in contemporary versions of D&D. Spell progression for clerics is slower than contemporary D&D and all magic using classes have access to fewer spells as well. Hit points are significantly reduced, with fixed gains instead of die rolling at 10th level, and initial hit die can change for 2nd level (ex. Dwarves start with 1d8 hit points but begin rolling 1d10 as their hit die from 2nd through 9th level). Experience points required for level-ups vary significantly by class, in the classic D&D mode. This makes class-balance difficult or perhaps impossible to achieve. As I have not played the game at the table, I have to assume it is either roughly balanced or gameplay occurs in a way that makes balance less relevant to enjoyable play.
There are two innovations in the class designs that warrant notation. First, Fighters are the only class to progress in combat skill through leveling. Thus instead of having statistical inflation across the board with more rapid progression in the Fighter class, statistics are held constant and the Fighter is the only one to move forward. I found this solution to stat-inflation to be refreshingly elegant and admirable. Second, Dwarves having enhanced carrying capacities was very innovative. In a game where the focus is on exploration and treasure recovery (which I will discuss in greater detail later) this was a very neat change from the classic design.
After the class descriptions, there is a short section on hit points. I found this section poorly written compared to other parts of the text. There is a discussion of "average" results, without a chart showing average results by die type for handy reference. There is extra text where it is unnecessary, for example a full sentence regarding how certain adjustments are not made after first level, when that could be a short "At first level only," clause added to a previous sentence. Considering the simplicity of the subject matter, I found the section strangely wordy and unnecessarily difficult to understand.
The next section it titled "recording attack bonus and saving throws", yet it contains description not just of how these statistics are derived but how they are used. This information should either be in two sections or given a better section title. The attack bonus chart contains an unnecessary middle column (which could be solved with a single sentence in the text portion) and is placed at the end of the section when attack bonus is discussed first. There are confusing wording elements, such as "many characters, including all Player Characters" (when we are only discussing player characters here) and "these saving throws cover all possible save situations". Saving throw descriptions are thrown into the ordinary text when merely bolding the terms would bolster understanding. There is a statement that the referee will call for saving throws, not the player, yet this is followed by a description of how to determine which saving throw to use. These both cannot be true. If the referee is making the decision about which saving throw applies, explaining such matters to the player only adds a potential for conflict with the referee when opinions differ about context.
Alignment is defined differently from contemporary D&D with only three choices and a notation that it does not control a players "allegiances, personality, morality, or actions". Thus the choice is almost a non-choice, where the player has no way of predicting what will result for taking any of the three options. As such, it strikes me that such a design element would be best determined randomly, especially considering the textual notation in the chaotic description that "many mortals who are so aligned desperately wish they were not". Random determination seems the natural course here.
This is followed by determination of starting possessions. There is also a description of coinage exchange rates which would really be best covered in the equipment section. The description of cost variation between rural and city locations would be best covered in the equipment section as well. There is no variation in starting money by class.
The final element of this section is the character name. In a very telling quote, the text says "a character's name is, after character class, perhaps the most important identifying feature of a character". As I eluded to earlier, the degree of character customization is extremely low. Whether a highly simplified and almost automatic character creation process is appealing, I leave to the reader. However, I do want to note that it is very regimented and leaves almost no room for customization in mechanical terms. The game encourages the player to take this simple structure and build their own (mechanically irrelevant) character content.
This section is very straightforward and simple. My only critique is that there is an awful lot of discussion about game rules mixed in here (shields give these kinds of bonus, definition of "unadjusted" Armor Class, etc) when these elements are unrelated to variation in the equipment itself (i.e. the shield bonus is for all shields and does not vary based on shield size). This could make looking up this information at the table cumbersome. This could have been combined with the combat portion of the Encounters section of the book. As an aside though, I really did like the dual listing of urban and rural pricing. This is a very nice touch that emphasizes the economic impact of feudal distribution of power in terms of pricing.
Adventuring: the Rules of the Game
This seems an odd title in a book called "Rules". Isn't the whole book rules? This is just a quirky point, but I have noticed there is a certain degree of laziness about terminology through the book and this serves as a useful example.
In general, the descriptions of each concept are overly short and lacks enough detail to cover obvious issues that will arise. For example, the description of climbing provides no indicator of how far you can climb on a single check, what to do when you are climbing a surface that has obvious hand-holds, or what kind of roll is necessary to climb a rope or ladder with 1 hand, nor what to do if encumbered while climbing a rope or ladder. The description of doors provides no indication of how to handle higher quality locks. These kind of things occur throughout this portion of the book.
I do think it is good and important that there is clarification that it is not a combat game, which enshrines a lot of the OSR community discussion about the implied focus of the original D&D game in the actual text. Definitions of what gives and does not give XP appear fairly straightforward and clear, except there is no definition of what exactly constitutes a safe location to bring treasure to. There should be a paragraph after the statement about monsters counting only once for XP in a given session which explains what is meant by a hit die and thus transitions to the next paragraph more smoothly. This could be alleviated if the Hit Die term was clarified already in the Character Creation section under Determine Hit Points.
Under gaining a level, "Three caveats to this:" is improper English. This should instead say "There are three exceptions to this". The sentence is composed poorly and the word caveat is incorrectly used (there is no warning presented). All three items are exceptions to the principle of gaining all benefits immediately.
Regarding Foraging and Hunting, the jungle should enjoy the same winter exception as a desert. That the number of days of meals that can be generated through hunting is always 1-in-4, regardless of training or skill, seems unrealistic.That there is a flat 1-in-6 chance of going off course in the wilderness, regardless of training or skill, also seems unrealistic. There is no indication what might actually cause ability score loss in the section on ability score loss, you must learn such things from other sections like disease. There should be a note indicating what kind of events cause this kind of damage.
Under healing, I think the distinction about the abilities of someone at half HP and below are very good breaks from the classic D&D binary model of unconscious vs totally able to do anything because you have more than 1 HP left. The decisions to have all characters begin play as literate, considering the darkness and downtrodden nature of the world being described, seems out of sync with the mood of the game. I do think the idea of rolling to see if you know a language at the point of contact with the language, not before play begins, is a great innovation. I don't understand why specific radius values are provided for light sources if the ultimately the game is going to give control over light and vision to the referee. It seems like it would be both more efficient and allow greater control of the environment for the referee to simply gain fiat control over all light and vision issues.
The rules requiring someone to be literally mapping the area in order for the players to be able to map their environment was a nice touch. I also like the use of exploration speed to illustrate how it would be reduced if you were actually doing this. The game employs a simplified encumbrance system that does not attempt to track actual weight but uses a point system to determine how encumbered you are. I found this subsystem to be designed very well. The game handles searches, sleight of hand, sneaking, swimming, and timekeeping in industry standard ways. The game handles traps in a simple and interesting way that I think works very well.
Overall, a significant portion of the adventuring rules depart from what you may be used to in classic and contemporary D&D. A large portion of exploratory behavior is shifted onto a 1-in-6 chance model and I found this change to be refreshing and easy to explain to a new player. The integration of these systems into the Specialist class was also very good. In general, my biggest critique of this section is numerous instances of poor wording that leave open possible differences of opinion between player and referee. The problems I cited in the climbing section are excellent examples of what I am talking about here.
This section is simple and straightforward. It provides excellent support for integrating naval activity into your game, something which is sorely lacking in most other RPGs.
This is another section that is simple and straightforward, while being an excellent supplemental piece of the book. The text provides rule support for managing people on a fairly large scale. The sheer volume of information related to this is staggering and it makes clear that you are intended to use retainers in play. The loyalty system seems straightforward and functional. The return to an emphasis on retainers compared to contemporary D&D editions that have largely abandoned the concept is refreshing.
Property and Finance:
This section seems like it was bolted on without enough thought. It is almost as if the author realized the importance of writing something for this topic, but did not feel like doing so. As a result, iimportant issues are hand-waved as being in the referee's purview. For example, there is a discussion of purchasing property but issues of rulership are left to the GM. Considering this is a feudal period, these things are intricately intertwined. The game has great rules in the retainer section for hiring accountants and handymen/craftsmen, yet these things are merely 1% modifications to upkeep. A great opportunity for really connecting the character with their retainers is overlooked. Imagine a chart of potential outcomes for failing to have an accountant or handyman on staff, similar to a dismemberment table. What a great opportunity squandered. The rules for investment are intriguing, but sparse and with simple outcomes. Again, a lost opportunity.
This section is really out of place at the end of the book. It really deserves to be after the adventuring rules. That said, there are some really interesting bits in here. I really like the simplification of surprise to a d6 roll compared to contemporary D&D. It runs against the grain of a huge theme in RPGs to use the primary mechanic for initiative issues and I found it a welcome change. I also think the encounter reaction table with a significant chance for non-hostile reactions maintains the same original focus, that not every encounter is a combat and that the game is not a tactical combat simulation. Morale rules are also good in serving this purpose.
The rules for combat adjudication are very similar to OD&D and easy to understand. Since the game has removed a lot of the complexity of contemporary games, there is not a lot of ancillary rules like flanking or what happens if you are standing on a table while ducking and holding two weapons but kicking someone. This brevity is appreciated. The rules are written in a way that does not require miniatures, also an appreciated facet.
A lot of the writing in this section is very good in the way it highlights trope-like play decisions that are unrealistic. For example, in the description of pursuit the text makes it clear that chasing someone down dark corridors and leaving your party behind in the dungeon might not be the best idea. This contributes to the overall tone that combat is a last resort, not a first opportunity.
Grappling rules are decent, albeit perhaps a bit too complex in comparison with the rest of the game. I think it would be more in-line with the rest of the rules if they were simplified down to an opposed Strength check with the Referee making the call on any unusual activity like grabbing items from people's hands or wrestling monsters.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess suffers from consistent shortfalls in graphic and structural design. This is reflective of the inexperience of the designer, therefore it is very hard to hold it against him. In general, the product is very admirable as a "first design" and I think it is important to judge it from that standpoint. However, it definitely lacks the refinement and polish one would expect in a modern roleplaying game. A significant portion of the book is charts and improvement in that aspect alone would go a long way to making the game more aesthetically appealing.
Character creation is extremely simplistic. There are several board games with more developed character customization. In many ways, this is an advantage because it allows players to replace lost characters quickly, it requires minimal learning on the part of a new player, and it allows the character to develop purely as desired by the player. However, there is the counter-balance that creating this character is the player's responsibility. The laziness of a player may lead them to always have a character with their own personality, thus avoiding one of the great aspects of roleplaying in that you are becoming someone else for a short while. There is no architecture to build upon in the game structure, so unimaginative players may feel like they are having to invent too much of the character on the fly. Some players need that structure to latch onto. So this is really a mixed bag of results.
It seems to me that, especially in light of the contents of the Referee book (not reviewed in this article), that the game is intended to be run by a very strong GM. As with light character creation, this has advantages and disadvantages. The GM can build a world as they see fit, but they MUST build the world. And they must run the game strongly, as the rules call for significant GM providence. There is a burden in that.
Compared to all editions of D&D, LOTFP focuses significant attention on the exploratory and investigative side of the game. There have been a lot of arguments with the so-called Old School Revolution about how the original D&D is about exploration because the rules are tilted towards avoiding combat if you can (greater rewards for getting the treasure than killing the monsters, combat is very dangerous, etc). This game takes that argument and provides rule support for it.
Overall, the game is dominated by a feeling of harsh realism. The world is dark and scary. Resources are limited. People are unreliable and perhaps dangerous. You must survive by your wits alone. I share a love for a game with that feeling. The critiques I have made in this review are where I feel the book fails to deliver such an experience.
So here we are..... finally.... the end of this mammoth article. I hope that this review has provided you with a complex picture of what Lamentations of the Flame Princess is all about, both in the shiny bits and the moldy corners. Your comments are appreciated, just remember my earlier warning about keeping things civil.