Weird Fantasy grindhouse ed. review part three: What it isn’t, what it is

Man, there is a hell of a lot to cover for this!

I know I’m being very unsystematic and wandering around, but recently I’ve been reading the Referee book a bit and it is really, really good.  I wouldn’t say I agree with absolutely everything, but the advice on finding players, using published adventures, examining ‘weird’ ideas to decide whether to use them in your game, running a ‘sandbox’ type campaign where the players have to show initiative rather than be told what to do, and even providing an ‘end game’ type experience that gets the players using all that loot to research new spells, establish estates (and even invest!), etc. are pretty awesome.  Most of this can profitably be applied to any game.  I’m not really a rules junkie or even well-read in terms of the many RPGs out there and whatever advice they offer to DMs, so I can’t say if any of this is standard stuff or just brilliance on Raggi’s part.  But I did find the Ref material fascinating and worthwhile.

The suggestions about ‘how tough monsters should be’ was hidden here too, so my earlier complaint about there being no way to tell how big a deal the lack of attack bonuses for non-fighters really is, are allayed.  The Ref book suggests keeping monsters within the ‘human’ range of AC 12-18.  In that light, attack bonuses are not as critical as they would be if the ACs ran above 20.

So here I am back to the rules themselves.  At this point I think I am finally “getting it” that LotFP is, despite the foundations in B/X D&D, and despite the marketing of the game as something geared toward old-school gaming, something else entirely.  Perhaps the weirdest thing is that on the one hand James Raggi has been saying it is “not D&D” all along on his blog, but also allowing the perception that it is “an extreme D&D” too.*  In fact the bald claim (in the Ref book & elsewhere) that you can play adventures designed for D&D with the LotFP rules seems bizarre, since you’ll probably need, or at least want, to excise or rewrite much of the magic items and monsters in them (see below).  I think you’d be a lot better off using Call of Cthulhu adventures (Strange Aeons, for example) and other nontraditional fantasy games for ideas.  Lastly, consider the example of play in the Tutorial book.   It’s very funny and enjoyable to read; it is in fact a lot like any low-level D&D game, with quite a bit of combat.  The fights tend to go badly for the PCs but it’s not immediately obvious that the game designer expects combat to be a ‘last resort’ or even just avoided when possible.  That is actually a fairly huge break with ‘standard D&D.’  D&D need not be “hack & slash” but LotFP seems to be designed with the assumption that “hack & slash” will lead inevitably to a TPK.  This is neither a flaw nor an improvement but a notable difference, and while certain parts of the  books reflect this , other parts — like the tutorial — seem to contradict it.

The class-and-levels system of D&D is retained.  But, advancement is very slow,  in the senses that:

  1. the XP rewards are fairly low (the monster XP is at the B/X-AD&D level, rather than the much more generous rewards of OD&D  and later editions; the loot XP is the same but the loot is less common and more mundane)
  2. the rewards for levels gained are more modest (hit dice go up every level until 9th or so, as usual, but saves progress slowly, skills progress slowly if at all, attack bonuses go up only for fighters and stop at level 9, etc.)
  3. the DM is advised to withhold magic items as much as possible, and even mundane items like heavy armor are very expensive

So the net effect should be that ALL PCs are a bit “weaker” than “D&D characters” of the “same level”.  This is not a flaw or bug but a feature.  In last week’s B/X session I was reminded just far beyond the pale a relatively powerful mid-level PC is in a world of 0 and 1st level humans.  One PC has a magic weapon that is fairly potent for his level but among regular humans, it makes him a hero, or a superhero really.  That is D&D too.  I mean, a level 8 Fighting Man is called a Superhero, right?

But in LotFP, even a fairly high-level PC will be in danger should the local authorities decide to arrest him.  He won’t have magic arms and armor to make him a superhero.  Unless he’s a fighter or spellcaster, his only advantage will be the ability to absorb more damage than a normal human!   This makes for a more low-fantasy, low-magic, low-powered game.  That sounds like an interesting game, even if it is not the one I want to run.

I want to play a game where the PCs start out as regular Joes but can eventually fight giants and dragons and wield powerful magic.  I want their henchmen and hirelings to be things like shieldbearers and maybe heralds.  I want them to fight a wide variety of monsters for vast treasures, and travel to surreal realms, and all that.  Sure, some PCs will die horribly and ingloriuosly, but glory is attainable.  That, to me, is D&D.

I’ll run LotFP when I want a game where the PCs are more like competent but regular Joes from start to finish; who can maybe stop the horrors from being summoned in the first place but run like hell if a demon or dragon shows up; who will have as henchmen and hirelings mercenaries, craftsmen, muleskinners and accountants; who will fight mainly against man’s inhumanity with a few “true” monsters here and there (& which will therefore be unforgettable!), and explore weird locales in hopes of finding treasures, and travel a mostly rational world in their quest for adventure (where the magical and surreal and horrific lurks, to be sure, but not under every bed or in every hole!).  These PCs will mostly die ingloriously until the players learn to be extremely cautious and occasionally decisively brave, but like Aristotle said, courage is that middle ground between foolhardiness and cowardice  mapped out by knowledge.  No kicking in doors and laying about with sword and axe; more listening, spying, researching, and approaching a dungeon as a heist rather than a home invasion.

I am not down on either style of play, and think both can be fun.  So, I think LotFP:WFRPGe will stay on my shelf  and until I (& my gaming group) feel like a change, I’ll stick with what I’m doing.

Still, the adventures published by LotFP all look pretty interesting.  The short sample adventure in the Ref book is very nicely laid out for a new DM and has a very cool looking mechanic for handling the whole ‘doppleganger’ thing in a game.  It will take some tweaking to use in a game where the PCs have magic items though.

I commented on another blog that LotFP actually strikes me as a recursive meditation on the weird tale generally.  I said:

the “weird tale” involves setting up some situation and throwing in a twist that completely unhinges our expectations and assumptions…and the LotFP game does exactly that– it makes us think it is sort of a retro-clone D&D, but it turns out to be a low-powered, low-fantasy, low-magic game of investigation more akin to CoC than D&D.

I edited that for typos and grammar but I pretty much would stand by that conclusion.  My brother asked me why anyone would use D&D to play a horror-fantasy when there are other systems that do horror so well.  It could be Raggi just loves D&D and is familiar with it and it’s what he runs and the OGL made it easy to adapt.  Maybe on some level he chose D&D as the foundation for his game just because of all the expectations and assumptions in D&D’s baggage, which he can in turn exploit in the “metagame” (misdirecting players) of the game.  Probably not, but it would be pretty cool if that was the idea all along.



*By “allowing the perception…” I mean commenters all other his blog keep saying this and are not contradicted.  Reviewers say it and rarely get contradicted.  I imagine this is not so much that he wants to deceive customers as that doing constant PR and image management online is impossible.  For example, if you go back to the “tell me what to ask the illustrators to do for this last full-page  illustration contest” thing, many, perhaps the majority, of the suggestions focused on typical D&D parties in what the fan base imagined as “weird” or “horrific” or “hardcore” settings … extreme violence, deathtraps, etc.  Almost none of them were concerned with a town- or city-based adventure, investigation, simple exploration, or the like.  Raggi did mention his favorite suggestions and they fall more in line with the non-D&D theme.  Still, even the contest winner did not really understand. 🙂

Published in: on June 2, 2011 at 8:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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