Author's Note: The following grew out of a pending review I was writing. But I thought it deserved it's own space. It may sound critical of the primary game discussed in the post--Lamentations of the Flame Princess--but that was not its purpose. With the caveats expressed below, I think the game is excellent--the most perfect example of a completely realized OSR game product that I own. Indeed, I spent more money on the thing--31 Euros or whatever (which is $519,000 or thereabouts in U.S. currency)--than I have on any other contemporary game or accessory.
And I like the painting.
Perhaps the defining element of Lamentations of the Flame Princess is its tone, which we might variously describe as dark, macabre or expressive of what author James Raggi calls 'The Weird'. We might contrast the tone with the rules and setting of the game. The rules are Classic 'B/X' D&D with some new twists, extrapolations and additions. The setting--perhaps early Baroque if anything--is actually surprisingly thinner than many games, owing to the fact that LOTFP does not include its own catalog of monsters or magic items.
So I think the tone is the thing, partly set by Raggi's sharp and evocative prose as well as the often graphically violent illustrations. We are introduced to it quite forcefully in the descriptions of the character classes in the Grindhouse edition. Let's skip the Thief and look at the three original human classes in the order first presented in OD&D. First the Fighter (to save space multiple paragraphs are concatenated):
Slaughter defines man’s history. Every new era is defined by the cruelty man inflicts upon man...In battle, there is no law. Man maims man. Horribly wounded men scream for mercy as their life’s blood pours out from cruelly hacked wounds. Their cries are ignored and their lives extinguished by those too cruel or frightened to listen...in battle there is no justice...To be willing to slaughter at another’s command in the name of peace and nobility, to be hardened to the deaths of loved companions, to be immersed in this worthlessness of life, that is the life of a soldier. Fighters are these soldiers that have seen the cruelty of battle, have committed atrocities that in any just universe will damn them to Hell, and have survived.
Some have called the tone of LOTFP cynical or nihilistic. But given the above, one could also brand it almost Nietzschean. Note that I'm not saying that Raggi himself is a Nietzschean or even that he is cynical or nihilistic in real life. I would strongly bet that he's not. But I think the author believes that infusing the text with that sort of tone helps to create the Weird effect he's going for. It makes it cool in the way that, say, certain kinds of dark horror films are cool or a Lovecraft story is cool.
Now one reaction to the description above is to embrace it. Indeed, embracing it might almost be the expected reaction of a normal human being that has had nothing but a steady diet of the pap that passes for prose in the current and recent editions of the world's most popular fantasy role-playing game.*
Another reaction is to be put off by it. Wait, I don't want to play that guy.
Let's follow along with that reaction as we look at the other two classes. Here's the Magic-User:
Magic-Users choose a different path. Instead of cowering away from the darkness, they revel in it. They see the forces of magic as a new frontier to explore, a new tool for the attainment of power and knowledge. If it blackens the soul to equal that of any devil, it is but a small price to pay.
But what if I don't want to have my soul, you know, blackened?
Well, hope still lies with the Cleric. Here's the text:
Some religions teach the people how to receive the grace of their loving deity. Some religions teach the people how to survive the wrath of a cruel and vicious deity. Some religions simply strive to teach the truth about creation. All religions serving true powers have one thing in common: orders of those selected few who are not mere priests, but spiritual warriors endowed by their deity with mystic powers. These few are known as Clerics.
Okay, finally at least a neutral description. I'll be one of those guys, please!
Not so fast. On the opposite page of this text is an illustration of a Cleric, or rather two Clerics. The one has just lynched the other and is admiring his work as the victim's eyes bulge out. Behind is a burning church with bodies strewn about. Why did the one do such a horrible thing to the other and his parishioners? After all, they seem to be wearing similar hats, similar robes and have similar pendants. But look closely. What's that? There is a difference with the pendants. Or rather a slight difference. The star on one of them has five points. The other star has seven. It's sort of a very adult version of the Sneetches.
Now, I'm a Catholic, so by definition I don't think religion or at least all religion must be like this. Nevertheless, I think the illustration is very clever and even I suppose quite funny in a very dark way. In addition it probably expresses a cynical truth about human beings (and even religions) at their worst.
But it doesn't make me want to play that Cleric.
Is that reasonable?
Here are four possible ways to look at it:
- You like the tone. That is, you like it for purposes of the game, not that you necessarily agree with the morality or metaphysics of it in real life.** That attitude presents no problem of course.
- You like the tone or at least appreciate its point of view or effectiveness as art or literature. But you don't want to play in a campaign defined or infused by that tone.
- You hate the tone and therefore don't want to play in such a world or have anything more to do with the game. You're sorry you spent those Euros. You could have instead purchased a croissant and two espressos at a cafe on your next trip to Paris.
- You hate the tone but like the rest of the game. Therefore you play the game--with its rules and setting--and ignore the tone completely. Why should it matter? Rule Zero, after all.
I subscribe to 2. I think tone does matter. If it didn't matter, why put it in? In the case of LOTFP it elevates the game (in a good way) over much of the competition. But at the same time it colors the game in a way that if the tone doesn't agree with you, it might interfere with your enjoyment of actually using it for a campaign.
Think of this hypothetical: Suppose Lamentations were rewritten by, say, a Fundamentalist Protestant. After each important bit of text there's a corresponding bible passage that supports it. Instead of Clerics lynching each other, you have pictures of Aslan and sandaled biblical heroes. If you didn't like that tone, would you play the game? Why not just ignore that stuff? Rule Zero.
I think that would be a stretch. You can't have your cake and eat it too. Or rather, you can but only if you like it.
Ideally, a successful OSR game is not just a sum of mechanics and lists. It should be evaluated as an aesthetic whole. The original 1974 version of Dungeons & Dragons was such a game, as is the contemporary Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And of course there are many other examples. Every successful game is such an example. This may seem like an obvious or even trivial point, but I think it is often a bit lost amidst discussions of house-ruling this or hacking that (not that there's anything wrong with it).
You should aspire to rise above the bland. But you should understand that some people may then have a problem. Tone matters. If they're fair people, they'll still appreciate your effort (even if they don't use it for their next fourteen year campaign). If they're not fair people, then who cares?
*A human in clanging plate armor holds her shield before her as she runs toward the massed goblins. An elf behind her, clad in studded leather armor, peppers the goblins with arrows loosed from his exquisite bow. The half-orc nearby shouts orders, helping the two combatants coordinate their assault to the best advantage.
**That last sentence was a later insertion motivated by a comment made by Stefan Poag in the Google+ OSR Community discussion on this topic.