It took me long enough to finally play … or rather GM … LotFP. The system is no longer fresh, not by a long shot, and it has tickled for a long time. After all, among the Dungeons & Dragons editions, Moldvay’s B/X is my favourite, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess is based on it, so trying it out should come naturally. And yet, finding the opportunity to play a beginner game has eluded me.
Finally it happened: I GMed the entry-adventure “Tower of the Stargazer” with a Magic User, a Specialist, a crazy and murderous “Alice” (from Red & Pleasant Land), as well as two late-comers, a Fighter and an Elf, over two sessions, which the party completed victorious and with zero casualties. The adventure continued with a homebrew siege situation that turned completely on its head when the players decided to ally with my bad guys and cut down my good guy — a development that delighted me, as the freedom to choose one’s own path is what makes RPGs great in the first place.
The following is my review of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the rules system, and will assume familiarity with the Rules of D&D Basic/Expert by Moldvay/Cook; so it will be a bit weird for readers who have no knowledge of Basic DnD, and it will be boring for experienced Lamentations-players.
You are warned.
The Rules of Lamentations of the Flame Princess read like the work of a B/X fan who didn’t like the “skill” system (are these skills or probabilites? That is a debate independent of this post) and felt that the Fighter class got short-changed and could do with some power-up.
As a result, combat is much more tactical than in B/X, allowing for aggressive or defensive stances etc, with actual influence on the fight. Clerics get a spell at level 1, but Turning the Undead is such a spell, so it is essentially a power-down. Magic-Users have the same problem: They get 3 starting spells instead of 1, but casting is risky in a pinch: It means you are just standing there and mumble your arcane formulas, and you cannot defend, so whoever chooses to strike you down while you use magic is bound to kill you if are still level 1 or 2.
Two of my favourite changes from B/X are Death and Taxes: PCs do not die at 0 HP, they fall unconscious, and only negative 4 means death. This is more or less as I used to play B/X, so I am quite happy with it.
My second big gripe with B/X are the insane prices of items. Nearly always it is far better to make stuff on your own or barter with a craftsman than to pay the unbelievable piles of gold that are demanded for a simple ration for travel or a longbow!! Seriously: The B/X-longbow costs 40 gold pieces, and a sailor earns 10 gold pieces a month. By contrast, an Lamentations-longbow costs 45 silver pieces, and a sailor earns 60 silver pieces a month. The longbow is still expensive, but there is at least hope to get one without murdering a longbowman. A week of dried meat costs 15 gold pieces. A week of normal rations for travellers still costs 5. Try supporting a family with the wages of a sailor. It is not merely hard, it is impossible without turning to piracy.
LotFP even takes the time to think about what should happen with loot. Where do you stash it? Can you invest it in a business venture? Can you buy a house? All important considerations once you survive a couple of dungeon delves.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess is set in quasi 1600 or roundabouts 1650, plus some small change. That means, there are guns, and there are quite elaborate rules for gunplay, and they actually make sense.
Even a pro at reloading needs time so much time for it that the aforementioned longbow looks pretty darn attractive…. but when you take a military unit of 50 men, the gun becomes a fearsome weapon: Burst after burst of lead balls that smash through your expensive plate armor like through so much wadded cloth.
Like any RPG, you can mix up everything and use the rules for any kind of adventure, but naturally it has its own implied and even articulated setting, and this setting is Weird Fantasy. That means, where Dungeons & Dragons tends towards clean, happy, and beautiful, Lamentations of the Flame Princess tend towards grimy, stinking, and disgusting. Monsters are less creatures of stat-blocks and monster manuals, and more free-form, unknown and weird.
This mindset is important for magic too. In B/X, the magic user starts out very, very weak. Nobody dies as easily as the mage. A frail body, no armor and only a dagger means he is pretty useless in combat and he needs weeks of learning time to get better at magic … weeks that the campaign group could spend looting and advancing, but have to wait for the mage to rifle through books.
With many adventuring groups, this creates friction. Often, the others don’t want to wait. The magic-user has to rely on his comrades to get badly hurt so he can use their recovery time for studying. Needless to say, this is not ideal. In Lamentations, a magic-user has more options. For one, he can take a gun and fire it just as well as a priest. He can stab people, or blow them up, in other words, he can do non-booky stuff in between his learning sessions. (To balance this state of affairs, casting a spell leaves the mage defenseless .. a huge risk that gives opponents an auto-hit with maximum damage.)
Young upstart wizards starts not with one spell as in B/X, but with three in the spell book, plus the abilty to “Read Magic”.
Magic-Users MUST be of chaotic alignment, which means, they cannot believe that there is an overarching order to the universe … just as clerics MUST be lawful, meaning they must belive that life has a meaning.
Finally, magic is not a clean-cut affair of formula ==> effect, but weird and dangerous, almost unpredictable. This concerns the GM, as it is a mission statement for spell descriptions.
Every magic-user has his own personal style of magic, and must understand and bend a spell to his or her personal mindset. This is flavour, not rules, as in actual play a spell is still just a spell. The personal style only affects learning time and transcription, which is highly randomized.
In general, Lamentations has a much bigger number of spells than B/X or any other old school Dungeons & Dragons edition — 20 per level — and many extra-spells come with modules, as well as women-only spells in the special add-on “Vaginas are Magic” and another batch of spells in the later addition “Eldritch Cock”.
Lamentations has come out in several editions as of yet, but all of them are basically the same thing. The biggest change is the switch from gold to silver standard. And all over, B/X can be absolutely felt as the skeleton and muscles of our Flame Princess. LotFP is undeniably a child of B/X.
But the journey goes ever forward, and there is a supplement called “Eldritch Cock” that introduces a number of playtest options which develop the game farther away from B/X and make it its own thing. One interesting aspect is the unification of damage to uncouple it from weapon choice, like back in ODnD.
Eldritch Cock Lamentations also toy with the idea of ditching the “classic Fantasy races”… concentrating on humans and waving Elves and Dwarves goodbye. These species are great and everything, but they are not necessary, especially not for a game set in the age of black powder.
Another aspect, among many more, is a new magic system: Mages can still prepare spells … and even should do so … but they can go beyond it. They can cast more, or differently, risking grave and serious consequences from meddling with the Forces dark and arcane.
Eldritch Cock, in other words, means freeing the system from the confines of DnD, and growing it into a fresh form that can stand on its own.
In conclusion: B/X is still my favourite D&D edition for Dungeon-Delving and play by post, where simplicity is of the essence; but overall, for face to face sessions that include the aboveground and daily life, as well as more detailed combat, Lamentations of the Flame Princess appears superior.