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Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is an OSR clone which seems to lean on RedBox D&D. Its differentiation seems to be a love of weird fantasy and the aesthetics of gore and porn-filled horror movies, hence the labelling of the boxed set as the "Grindhouse" edition. I picked up the box at Dragonmeet 2011 as you have to admire the commitment to the project.

The box set contains a bag of dice and three booklets: an introductionary tutorial and two rule books.

The introductory book contains a programmed introduction to the game and then a dungeon to explore in a Fighting Fantasy style. I have played through the solo adventures and these thoughts are based on that experience.

Rememberance of things past

Overall playing Lamentations for me is a reminder of all the ways that the original D&D games were broken. Combat often consists of "you miss, I miss" and even successful hits can result in underwhelming damage. The grind here is not so much grindhouse as a combat situation that lacks any meaningful input from the player and is instead an exercise in long-run odds that is better pushed into a computer script to resolve.

Saving throws are also brutally unforgiving. During my play through of the dungeon I managed to lose my armour and my weapon to a rust monster. This effectively ended my game as I had no way to make good these losses. Since there was no way to back out of the encounter or not use your sword in the fight I have to wonder at the point of including such a fun-killing encounter. Perhaps the point is that old-school gaming is meant to be more like work than fun…

The problem with classical saving throws is that d20 based checks require many rolls to balance the wide range of results available. With saving throws an individual bad roll can be catastrophic while succeeding in the roll provides no benefit apart from the really bad event not happening. It's one of those classic bits of game design that does not transfer from playing a warband of ten characters to roleplaying just one.

None of these rules problems are particularly unique, they were all addressed in D&D 3e and 4e. To not adopt similar solutions seems an act of nostalgia replayed as perversity.

I did enjoy playing through my copy of the original Redbox solo adventure and random dungeons. In my memory though encounters were less instantly deadly with better relations of monsters to character level.

In the intervening period of course computer games have also come to fill the random dungeon experience. Pure combat and puzzle situations now need to compared with Rogue-like games. Here if I have to put up with grinding difficulty and repetitive gameplay I find the computer game preferrable.

Wierd fantasy

One of the things that LotFP brings to the table is a particular sensibility of fantasy adventure that it calls "Wierd fantasy". This might be described as a the rediscovery of the classic fantasy authors mixed with Lovecraft and modern horror films.

As expressed in the programmed adventure the sensibility expressed itself in the form of a very strange setup to the adventure where historical accuracy is sidelined in favour of a kind of American Colonial vibe. During the adventure the gory death of a helpful cleric subverts the expectation of heroic reward and villanous punishment. Finally the introduction of a race against time to cure yourself of a zombie curse introduces an element of personal and body horror.

I liked some of this but often in a kind of knowing metatextual way. Only the death of the cleric ally was sudden, engaging and surprising. The zombie curse while engaging from a introspective point of view ends up feeling more like a subtle railroading and by the time the character had also involuntarily lost his equipment to the rust monster it felt like the story I was creating was told with all the delicacy of a brick through a window.

The fundamental issue though is that there is no attempt to integrate the stylised trappings with the game. This is a setting and aesthetic that tries to rationalise the outcome of its rule systems. The systems mean that death is capricious and frequent even with potentially "perfect" or ideal play. Therefore a layer of gothic horror and cosmic nihilism is introduced to explain why this might be true. I actually like Lovecraftian nihilism but where as the cosmic scale drives Mythos fiction here it is used to excuse poor game design.

Physicality and credentials

LotFP is a beautiful package that is generously illustrated and has a number of full colour glossy illustrations. The cover of the Tutorial booklet is particularly attractive with a more explicitly Mythos take on necromancy. The Russ Nicholson illustrations actually do the best job of capturing the an eerie fantasy feel while also been technically excellent.

The game is also interesting to me as something that very much exists in an indie independent groove and which at the same time is very reactionary. How admirable is it to watch someone flog a dead horse with such determination and vigour? Ultimately LotFP is not ironic it is purely nostalgic and it is not just flawed but at times leaden and dull. But duller still not to have it.

Subpages (1): Tales of the Scarecrow