Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Does Tone Matter?

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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.  


  1. Well, historically the cleric hanging the other slightly different cleric is a very Catholic/Christian thing (it's something that drove Constantine mad - Arians and Nicenians (Catholics) were at each other throats as soon as the religion was given legitimacy). Plus the 30 year war (the background setting for Better than Any Man) was set off by a inter faction Christian dispute (Protestant and Catholics). Monotheistic religions like Catholicism by definition ARE that way (if there is only one true god the stakes are much higher than if there is a pantheon - even to the point of the interpretation of that one true god being worth killing some one else in the same umbrella religion), historically "Pagans" are much more tolerant of other religious practises. If this is factor is baked in tonally this adds a great dimension depth and subtly to playing a Cleric.

    1. Well, I mostly agree with that if you replace "slightly different" with "seemingly slightly different." G.K. Chesterton said as much as well, if I remember correctly. I guess that's the rub. If you're part of it, you don't see the differences as slight.

      I know some contemporary sociologists argue that it's a monotheistic thing (see Rodney Stark's One True God, among others), but I see it just as much as a Christian thing, with a variety of unique causes peculiar to Christian theology and history. Does Judaism--pre- or post- the advent of Christianity--have the same history of theological disputes breaking out into violence?

    2. I don't know a tonne about Judaism, it's pretty damn ancient so they probably had a lot of prehistorical theological disputes (there's bound to be something in the Old Testament). There was a lot of civil unrest and violence from Jewish outrage when Christianity got started. Also the Sunni vs Shiite aggression in Islam is another example of it being a monotheistic thing.

    3. I guess the general problem I have with this sort of claim is that the sample is so damn small. It's like Jared Diamond asserting that "horizontal" continental masses are more conducive to technological progress than "vertical" continental masses. Well okay, but how many examples do we have to look at, two? The odds are 50/50 that any observed difference is just random. So for religions, what are there, three monotheistic religions that everyone cites and two or three polytheistic ones? Yet already you get counter-examples to the thesis--Judaism, I think--and if you add the next tier down you get even more counter-examples--such as Zoroastrianism. Now of course the counter-examples can be explained away due to special circumstances, etc., but then you're just creating an unfalsifiable theory.

    4. I mean, it's not really that small in terms of impact on world history. Nor is it small in number of worshippers. Also just because it's a numerical small sample it's still like..half the religion of all known western history. Several huge world changing conflicts hardly seems like a small sample to me. I don’t think the problem is necessary isolated to religious study. It's a habit of humanity that as soon as a group believes in one thing being the be all and end all and ultimate truth, a monotheism of an idea, than violence against others becomes permissible. The French Revolution, The bolshevik revolution, Democracy (Athens) Versus Oligarchy (Sparta) are examples of an ultimate truth idea making voilence permissible. Even capitalism and communism are basically forms of Monothesism (in there ultimate true forms you can't have the two existing in the same world). So there is more examples than you think of "monthestic" thought leading to voilence. So back to the "slightly different" or "seemingly slightly different", there's only enough at stake to kill another human being over it when your in an ultimate truth, monothestic mind frame (in which we just so happen to have several large, world affect examples of in Christianity).

    5. Human's tendancy to get agressive when in a monothestic world view is probably what leads to edition wars!

    6. Humanity is depraved.
      Pagans were violent slaveowners with no regard for life. Watch a few History Channel episodes on the Roman Empire. Thousands of people were slaughtered in a theatre for entertainment. Ruling in pagan society meant killing your mother, sister or whoever stood in the way to get there. (Nero, Calligula). Building roads, aqueducts or Pantheons meant enslaving thousands of people. After the servile wars Rome hung 6000 people to die the most excruciating death on crosses allong the Appian Way, and left the bodies there to rot. So imagining commuting along this road to work for a few weeks?

      This was Europe before Christianity.

      We have 2 millennia of "you shal not kill, steal, lie or covet" behind us because of one monotheistic religion. How could we even make statements about war, murder and slavery being bad if we did not have the statement " do to others as you would want them to do to you?"

      Yes, religious people are often also evil. But does that invalidate the religion by which standards we regard them as evil?

      You cannot have your cake and eat it. Before you judge religion as evil, go look at what it meant in antiquity to live in a pagan society. And think about where your tools of judgement come from.

    7. Great point! I'm not sure what the monotheism-is-violent people have to say about imperial Rome. But my view is you should be skeptical of all of these sorts of claims. Look, I think the Church is the greatest institution ever. it certainly has been the most resilient (whatever else anyone says about it). This despite the fact that a number of Popes were real bastards. People are people.

    8. Basing your view of all pagans, or even just Roman emperors, on Nero and Caligula is rather like attributing to all Christians, or at least all Popes, the characteristics of John XII.

    9. Wynand, I never said any religion was evil, nor do I think that any are. Nor was I making a value judgement on any religion pagan or monotheistic. All I was saying that Monotheism historically seems to have an odd habit of leading to violence towards other Monotheists. I’m sorry if this offended you.
      Also your argument for the roman empires adoption of Christianity fundamentally changing the brutal bent of civilization in Europe seems to be skip over the fact the proceeding 2 millennium were filled with just as much violent conflict and depravity on the continent. The Empire’s conversion to Christianity didn't stop civil wars, border wars, genocide or slavery happening in any way shape or form. Also the your argument about Christianity inventing “"you shall not kill, steal, lie or covet" seems to forget that the 10 commandments are taken from the much older Jewish faith, along with the fact there is innumerous law codes dealing with those very subjects a millennia before the advent of Christianity.
      Stating with a straight face that the 2000 years since Christ’s birth has been an era of peace, love, joy and goodwill between all mankind and the previous allegedly “ pagan” eras where atrocity filled hellscapes is a bit much (and an untrue oversimplification). Christianity is undoubtedly somewhat responsible for the seemingly and relatively liberal, peaceful Western world we live in today but it has not been a smooth ride getting here!

  2. "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? After all, why not just ignore that stuff? Rule Zero."

    Why do it as a hypothetical? There's Dragonraid, which was written by an Evangelical Christian using Evangelical Christian concepts and with an Evangelical Christian tone. Now, I am a practicing gintlí (a polytheist), and so my worldview and assumptions are diametrically opposed in many ways to those of an Evangelical Christian. That said, though, I am fascinated by Dragonraid, and have considered running a one-off using the rules but without some of the more Evangelically-oriented parts (such as the requirement to recite a Bible verse in order to use "spells", I forget at the moment what the game calls those special powers). I'd also be likely to introduce a slightly more nuanced view of the "evil" powers in the game, as well as adding a little more nuance to the "good" side. That's just how I roll.

    So, no, I don't think that the tone a game is written in is determinative - though I would accept that, generally speaking, people choose to play a particular game in pursuit of the tone it presents. LotFP, though, includes some really nifty rules of general use in a D&D-ish sense. The Specialist, for example, is a hundred times better than the traditional Thief. The survival rules are really easy to implement at the table. And so on.

    1. Thanks for the reference. I had never heard of Dragonraid but I had a look at the website. It looks way to serious and educational for this Christian, but I suppose it's one way to get your kids to learn their Bible passages :)

    2. Actually, the tone he takes in his promo materials are because of his target audience, which has historically been pretty leery of RPGs generally. He has to sell it to Youth Ministers and such. In actuality, it's not a bad game, and has some spiffy rules ideas that contribute to the assumed background of a singular Supreme Being with an imperfect adversary. It does also have the goal of getting kids to learn their Bible verses, but there's actual adventure and whatnot.

      Not that I'm trying to sell it, but I have a soft spot for games that I feel have been unfairly maligned in the past, and Dragonraid is definitely one of those.

    3. I hope you don't think me patronizing, faoladh, if I say that you are a great example of tolerance and anti-ideological fairness. I mean that.

      As for this Christian, I find aggressively Christian RPG games to be annoying. That's despite the fact that I probably agree with these guys 90% theologically. Now, I put a number of Christian references into my own game, something that absolutely no one has remarked upon (pro or con), which is probably just as well. But I did that not to make my game Christian, but to remove the taint that it might be anti-Christian--to make it, if you will Christian- friendly. But I find the implicit claim that everything must be explicitly Christian (or pro-Christian or whatever) in order to have value, to be boring at best and oppressive at worst. Consider it this way: The first Christian--that fellow named Jesus--when doing his carpentering, presumably didn't make Christian tables (or Orthodox Jewish tables or whatever). Now, of course they weren't anti-Christian or anti-Jewish either (presumably Jesus would have refused to carve poetry in praise of Baal into them). But they were just, well, tables.

      Everything good glorifies God and is worthwhile in His eyes, whether there are Youth Ministers involved or not. :)

    4. It is my belief that polytheism requires a radical tolerance. We aren't like the (and please forgive me for saying it like this; I have nothing but respect for Christianity except in this one area) atheists, which we see as anyone who denies the divinity of other people's gods. There are individuals, of course, who have personal histories that cause them to react more strongly and negatively, but that is not inherent to, or even supported by, polytheism. For example, the only two instances where Rome acted against a particular religion were entirely political in motivation: the Druids (my people!) were seen as a hotbed of political sedition and rebelliousness, and the Christians were actively unpatriotic, as we'd say today. Their refusal to participate in the civic religion was seen as a deliberate attempt to undermine the legitimate source of authority, and so was seen as, again, sedition and rebelliousness. And even then, there were long periods of time in which the Christians were actively tolerated and concessions made to their religion.

      (Which is not trying to minimize the periods in which the Christians were persecuted, as those were horrible. But it does need to be understood in context.)

      You can take a look at the game itself in it's 1.0 version for free here.

  3. The tone of a game is more representative of the default setting which is entirely optional but does give the reader an idea of what the author had in mind. This game would work well in Carcosa, the Wilderlands, and Dave Arneson's Blackmoore, all of which have a gritty tone. I could also use these rules in Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms, both of which have an heroic fantasy tone. I've read too many negative reviews of games where the primary criticism was the lack of a defined setting which made the game "plain vanilla" in tone. As a consumer, the tone is less important to me than the content and Raggi, in my opinion, has hit a home run in that department.

  4. thanks for the blog post. I just want to register that I think you are spot-on. I am okay with lots of variation in tone, but I find myself attracted or repelled by a game exactly by its tone. What I like about OD&D is its almost lack of tone. You fill in the tone (or the DM). Why does LOTFP feel like it needs to invite me into such a dark world. And as for me, well, no thanks.

    1. Yeah. I actually think it does have a sort of tone, but it's difficult to put one's finger on it. And as you point out, it's easily stretchable or possible to fill in. For me there's a fairytale quality about it, which may be as much about the box and the little books as anything else. Also, if you go back to the introduction of the game, there was by definition no prior existing D&D universe, so you had all of these diverse creatures from different myths and stories roaming about with no obvious naturalistic rhyme or reason. It's harder to see that now because we're so used to it.

  5. I think that tone is a very important part of a game, expressed as much in its prose and artwork as it is in its lists of monsters, factions, spells, and other magical objects. In fact, I think that when people in the OSR get together to hash out the "profound differences" between, say, Moldvay and Holmes, what they are getting at is largely a difference in tone created by some different artwork, a few quirky rules shifts and a different writer. And that is why a lot of these conversations go on so long, because the tonal difference between those two games and, say, OD&D are actually rather nebulous and hard to pin down. For my tonal heartbreaker, it would definitely be Blue Rose, the Game of Romantic Hippies. At its core, it was actually a wonderful system, and could be the bones of a wonderful fantasy RPG. But the setting... let's just say that it wasn't so much about fighting evil and monsters as it was about fighting narrow-mindedness and coming to understand the point of view of the rampaging hellbeast and learning to appreciate its uniqueness. Later on, they turned it into True20, but like many great generic RPGs, it seemed to suffer from a lack of setting. DnD might not have had a specific setting in mind when its authors put it together, but they definitely knew that they wanted to mess around with Martians, and Balrogs, and Grey Mousers and whatnot. They also had some fairly quirky rules that seemed to assume that certain situations would come up frequently, i.e. Turn Undead, which wouldn't be a core power of the Cleric unless the party was always running into undead. I actually think you did a fine job of establishing tone in your own game, Mr. Spalding. The artwork did have a fairy-tale adventure quality to it, and the level names were very evocative. The monsters were a hodgepodge, but many of them had "kings," hinting not only at a society but also furthering the fairy-tale aspect (the Goblin King and the Kobold King had been at war for years...). It did not tell you what game to play, but it did let me know what games in this world would FEEL like, if I played as written. And that can be more valuable than yards of text written about a specific setting.

    1. "i.e. Turn Undead, which wouldn't be a core power of the Cleric unless the party was always running into undead"

      Or unless the people playing the game were watching a lot of Hammer horror films and saying, "Man, I wish I could play Van Helsing in this!" Likely a combination of the two, actually: "I wish I could play Van Helsing because we always seem to have real problems with vampires".

    2. Agreed. And in honor of the Flame Princess, let us not forget the great Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter.

    3. Thanks for your kind comments, Anathemata. I think you're right that you don't need a lot of words. I'm glad that's the case. I'm lazy, a slow writer and I revise a lot, so the fewer words I have to deal with the better.

  6. Tone matters and a publisher certainly steers their games by the tone they project in their game and adventures.Tone matters even more at the table where what reads or presents well in print doesn't mesh with what folks at the table expect.

  7. What I find interesting is that the tone of LotFP manages to obscure the fact that it's one of the more generous retroclones in terms of player survivability: minimum hit points at first level, negative hit points, etc. However, I do think the Cathars would find the LotFP cleric's depiction to be appropriate:

  8. 1. "What I find interesting is that the tone of LotFP manages to obscure the fact that it's one of the more generous retroclones in terms of player survivability". Great point. I totally agree. But stay away from some of those killer LOTFP modules. :)

    2. "However, I do think the Cathars would find the LotFP cleric's depiction to be appropriate." I disagree. And that's not because I am an opponent of the Cathars (which I am). It's because I think neither side--traditional Catholics or Cathars--thought that the differences were minor.

  9. I didn't read any of the aforementioned arguments about anything religious. The game is loosely set in the 17th Century earth. Remember that the Thirty Years' War was started with the Defenestration of Prague in 1618; two Protestants threw a Catholic clergyman out of a second story window.

    You either dig the setting or you don't. All pedantry aside, this is what Warhammer used to be, a Grim World of Perilous Adventure. I read the rules in the free pdf first, then went out and bought the book from my FLGS and can't wait to play. I'm in balls deep and feel that the setting has more in common with the fantasy writings of Clark Ashton Smith than anything else. Now lets Orc the fuck up and go kill some monsters!