Inside Pulse 12

Tabletop Review: Lamentations of the Flame Princess Grindhouse Edition

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying Grindhouse Edition
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Author: James Raggi
Release Date: Out Now
Cover Price: $44.95
Get It Here: Noble Knight Games

When I was FIVE, my family went to the TG&Y to do some shopping. I remember the trip vibrantly because of a record I saw: KISS! I asked my mother who they were and she replied curtly, “Some scary clowns that make loud music!” That was the end of the conversation. In those pre-Internet days, I could only wonder what these black-garbed miscreants in facepaint sounded like. They were surely harder and louder than Black Sabbath and Ozzy, who I heard through my teenage Uncle Reed’s door! I imagined them to sound like the gates of Hell opening and Satan himself stepping out and jamming on a guitar made of scorched human remains, the wind blasting through his enormous mane of hair. Then, one sad day, I actually heard KISS…

The video for “Let’s Put The X In Sex” debuted on MTV when I was nine. I was not prepared for what I saw. There were no flames, nor any screeching guitar solos, no, this was a bunch of skeazy old dudes singing about sex in a way that even a nine year old could tell was juvenile. This was not what I wanted, no sir. A little piece of me died that day. From that point on, I have judiciously avoided hype. If someone wants to sell me on how awesome something is, they better damn well prove it to me.

My D&D experience was much the same. I was told numerous times how bad it was, how sinful. This did not deter me from ogling the advertisements I saw in the “ten for a dollar” Marvel comics I read. Gammarauders! Star Frontiers! The Forgotten Realms! I longed to explore these worlds. I imagined D&D to be a dark, frightening game, on par to holding a séance with Ghengis Khan’s spirit while listening to a band that sounded like Kiss looked.

When I finally got ahold of the D&D Red Box, my parents had mellowed on the conservative Catholicism they practiced in the early 80’s and were more accepting. I played it with a group of long-haired metal kids, military brats like myself, though I was never allowed to wear my hair long. D&D was fun and cathartic, a place for me to be an epic hero or a cunning thief without the fear of death or imprisonment, at least any permanent variation of either. D&D gave me a place to go and friends to hang out with, a common language and written tradition. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson birthed a great thing into the world, a thing that, no matter what Chick Tracts said, was anything but dangerous.

I have not played anything that could be remotely called D&D since the late 90s. I have played Rifts and some other one offs in the interim, but D&D just sort of died for me when TSR did. I recall the day my fellow players showed up with copies of the 2.5 Edition books and being put off. They were bright and colorful and packed with illustrations. They managed to be safer and cleaner than even the sanitary 2nd Edition, the one with the charging Jeff Easley horseman. I did not want this. Edition 2.5 begat 3rd edition, which begat edition 3.5. 3.5 edition branched into Pathfinder, with its manga art and handholding style, and 4th edition, which seems like World of Warcraft with more paper. Each version got further from being a game I would actually want to play.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess pretends that the last thirty years of D&D did not happen. By ignoring the move to Advanced D&D, Lamentations of the Flame Princess has the feel of someone’s house rules in published form. Unlike several other products that could be described the same way, James Raggi’s house rules actually make sense. If 4th Edition is D&D flavored by anime and MMORPGs, then Lamentations of the Flame Princess is D&D flavored with stoner metal and Michael Moorcock novels. There are no builds or templates, no points systems or feats. This is D&D as a guy who listens to Mercyful Fate on vinyl would want it: bloody and bleak and fun as Hell.

Before I get into the guts of the thing, and these are books with actual guts in them, I do want to issue a disclaimer, of sorts. When we started reviewing RPG products, Lamentations of the Flame Princess was on the first list of items I wanted to review. I had read the reviews, added the excellent Lamentations of the Flame Princess Blog to my RSS, and made my desktop background a rotating gallery of art from the Grindhouse Edition. Without reading a word of it, I was a fanboy. As always, I will point out flaws as well as strengths, but do know that I am pretty smitten with this product. Besides, Alex let me put this review behind the Age Gate, so I can say motherfucker. Also, I put up this picture of a swollen and distended fertility goddess birthing a demon through her vagina whilst another demon suckles from her teet and a warrior is sacrificed by nude maidens. I am only posting this particular piece because I like it and not for any sort of artistic reason. This is why I love Lamentations of the Flame Princess: it is over the top in its excesses, terrible in its fury, and completely unapologetic. If you aren’t interested in a book that contains such filth, this is where you should take your leave.

If the artwork above does not give it away, Lamentations of the Flame Princess Grindhouse Edition does not adhere to the same artistic guidelines more mainstream RPG products do. When the art credits include the guy who does Cannibal Corpse album covers, you should know what to expect. There is blood and gore and nudity, all things I would expect from a product labeled “Grindhouse.” Grindhouse does not mean Quentin Tarantino making movies for Disney under the auspices of Miramax. No, Grindhouse means watching Cannibal Holocaust in a dark room that smells of sweat salt and soda sweetness and the base scent of cum. Grindhouse is stale popcorn and people yelling back at the screen. That is where the Grindhouse in Lamentations of the Flame Princess Grindhouse Edition comes from.

The art, and there is plenty of it, is evocative and puts the “Weird” in the subtitle Weird Fantasy Role Playing. The most eye-catching pieces are the paintings on the cover of the box and the three books inside. The box cover, which I think is the same as that of the previously released Deluxe Edition, is of a redheaded female warrior in clothing that would not look out of place in a Thanksgiving play fighting a topless snake woman. This image of a steely-eyed fighter, completely clothed, with a determined look on her face, is sexy in a way that Larry Elmore’s barely dressed damsels never could be. The only nudity in the painting is decidedly unsexy, unless you have a predilection for snake women. Excluding the crimson of the Flame Princess’s hair, there is naught but grey and black on the cover. The tone is set here, on the cover, and it continues within.

The Tutorial book has an equally striking cover image, though it is memorable in a completely different manner. A man in arcane attire is either assembling or disassembling a corpse on a table as a creature looks on. The man looks a fair bit like Sid Haig, which only makes the Grindhouse nomenclature even more apropos. The creature brings to mind a seahorse given human form, a vile chimera that evokes the debased folk of Innsmouth. The colors are off in a most peculiar and appealing way and a sense of dread permeates the grotesque proceedings.

The Rules and Magic book, the thickest and most important of the three, also has the most impressive cover. A familiar looking redhead, this time much younger, is pointing a sword at an unseen source of terror. Tears stream from her eyes; a dead man and a terrified woman with a baby are behind her. Her garb is decidedly chaste and has an almost clerical feel, perhaps she is a novice nun or the equivalent. The scene evokes the “Final Girl” trope common in slasher movies. Whether intentional or not, the chaste, presumably virginal, female taking up a phallic weapon against evil personified is a powerful archetype to draw upon and this painting does so with aplomb. Honestly, this painting, even more than the box cover, captures what I imagine that James Raggi means by “Weird Fantasy.”

Finally, we come to the cover of the Referee book. A bright yellow creature, looking like a cross between a moth and a Japanese sentai monster is perched amid an inky black background. The verve and action of a first encounter with an unknown and unknowable monster hangs off the page. I am reminded deeply of my earliest dungeon crawling exploits, when githyanki and even kobolds can seem new and exciting. While it is the weakest of the four covers, I would snatch up a book on the shelf bearing such a cover, no matter the utility or cover price.

I could espouse the art for several more pages, though I doubt that would serve this review well. The interiors are lined with interesting pieces, illustrations that give form to the idea of a pitiless, senseless world that is rife with adventuring opportunities. A series of illustrations depicting a duel comes to a surprising end when the female sword fighter comes out on the losing end, the obvious victim of a critical hit. As Something Awful’s review of Grindhouse Edition so eloquently put it, the illustration of the Dwarf class, “is like the recruiting poster for dwarfs,” an almost comical amount of carnage with a one-eyed stunty in the middle. There is a color insert in the Rules and Magic book, with several paintings as powerful as the covers.

One such piece, of what appears to be the end of the Flame Princess’s life, is as good a place as any to slay one of the hounds that has snapped at Lamentations of the Flame Princess‘s heels: the charge of misogyny. Rules wise, there is no difference between male and female characters. There are no sex related rules, so push all of the hyperbole about F.A.T.A.L. and the ilk out of your mind. As far as the art being misogynistic, the males in the paintings are being equally abused. The feminine fertility creature birthing a demon is not exactly what I would call “humanoid.” That very same drawing has a man being murdered by what are very plainly human women. Yes, the female duelist loses, but so did all of the males beneath the dwarf. Female characters in RPGs die, just like the male ones. It is more insulting to make them unassailable than it is to show them losing on occasion. I suspect that a combination of the “Internet White Knight” instinct that many young men suffer from mixed with exposure to the sanitized D&D of the last twenty years has led to much of the chastisement sent Raggi’s way.

The physical components of the box are as follows. The box itself is a thick one piece box that feels like it can handle the travails of being tossed in my knapsack. The three books are of similar dimensions to the LBBs of D&D and the Vornheim hardcover, but each is much thicker than those slim volumes. There is a stack of character sheets, though I do prefer to photocopy my own so that they bear the familiar smell of Xerox toner. The final bit is the one that you will need to keep the closest eye on: a small bag containing the smallest set of polyhedral dice I have ever seen. So wee and adorable are these game randomizing plastic baubles that I can easily see them being swiped in a heartbeat. Mark my words, more than one set will be drilled through and worn as necklace beads or earrings before long.

The first book, appropriately titled Tutorial, is an interesting item. For one thing, I can scarcely imagine the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Grindhouse Edition boxset being someone’s first exposure to roleplaying games. Between the price, the limited print run, and the obscurity of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, it seems odd for it to be conceived as a starter product. With that in mind, what makes the Tutorial book interesting is that it is such a fine introduction to roleplaying games as well as being a fine primer for the experienced player. It would be interesting to play with players introduced to gaming via this book, as I suspect they would be different from the bulk of us who picked it up ad hoc. Of the three books in the box, however, the Tutorial book is the one with the least amount of use. The solo adventures, while fun, are simply not going to be played through more than once or twice.

The Rules and Magic book is a whopping 160 pages and contains the real meat of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Basically serving as a player’s handbook, Rules and Magic has all of the rules to create a character, fight a combat, and cast a spell. While the bulk of the rules feel familiar, there is real refinement here.

There are four human classes and three demi-human race-classes. The Cleric has no innate abilities in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, with powers like Turn Undead taking up vital spell slots. The upside is that weapon limitations are imposed by GMs setting and discretion. The Fighter is familiar, changed more by the lack of combat skill improvement by the other classes than by a change to the class itself. The Magic-User is as you would expect, though the Magic-User spells in Lamentations of the Flame Princess are a shade darker than you might recall them being in D&D and the more extreme spells, like Wish, are nonexistent in this world. Taking the place of the Thief is an odd specimen called the Specialist.

The Specialist is tied to Lamentations of the Flame Princess‘s fairly novel skill system. Non-combat skills, like Climbing and Searching, are resolved by rolling a d6. If the player rolls a 1, then they are successful. Thus, even a Fighter can try to pick a pocket or build a trap. The Specialist starts the game with 4 points that may be allocated to the skills as the player chooses. This means a Specialist can be a pretty bog standard Thief, if one so desires, by putting poinats into Sleight of Hand and Open Doors. As well, an Assassin is possible by putting points into Sneak Attack and Stealth. Languages and Architecture could make for a scholarly type. By simplifying this often unwieldy class, Lamentations of the Flame Princess makes the Rogue style character both more balanced and more viable.

Race classes are an interesting anachronism. The convention of races being a class instead of an additional choice is a definite throwback to the original D&D. Some will argue against it, but I have to confess that I am for it. For one, race classes increases the number of human characters in a party, since playing a demi-human is more limiting. It also reduces min-maxing, though Lamentations of the Flame Princess is not likely going to appeal to the min-max crowd. Besides, it makes sense to me. Dwarfs and Elves and Halflings are an uncommon sight in human dominated lands, so it stands to reason that the most commonly encountered amongst them would be fairly stereotypical. Besides, how often do players actually want to play a dwarf cleric?

The Dwarf is similar to the Fighter, though he does not benefit from the ascending attack bonus. A Dwarf player can look forward to an epic amount of hit points at later levels. The Elf has the ability to cast Magic-User spells, though the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Elves are stranger than most. They must be Chaotic, since magic is inherently so, and are more fey and alien than they are in a setting like the Forgotten Realms. Halflings are as you would expect them and I would expect to see them played as often as they appear in the artwork, which is to say not at all.

The third, and final, book is the Referee book. The essential value of this volume falls on whether or not it can prepare a GM, or Referee, for running a game in the Weird Fantasy tradition. Ultimately, this is a very subjective matter. James Raggi’s philosophy of Weird Fantasy hinges on a simple idea: remove player knowledge from character knowledge. This is achieved with a couple of techniques. There are no established monsters in the book, save an example Vampire. This removes the age old problem of players knowing exactly what the clues the GM is leaving will lead to and how to deal with it and the characters magically having this same information. Making the GM create his own monsters makes the players stay in character in order to find a solution. An interesting side effect is that I suspect this will lead to an overall decrease in monster density in adventures, which keeps monsters special and unique. The best example I can think of is from G.I. Joe. When the B.A.T.S. first appeared, they were a frightening robot army that seemed invulnerable. Lasers bounced off of them and the Joes could not defeat them. After that initial appearance, the B.A.T.S. became so mundane that they exploded with a glance from Sgt. Slaughter. The same principal has applied to D&D from time since the LBBs.

Magic items get a similar treatment. There is no Sword +1 factory in the world of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, no sweatshops churning out wands and scrolls. Each magic item in a game of Lamentations of the Flame Princess is supposed to be unique and dangerous. The trick is to think more in terms of cursed items from a horror story than the “Gee, whiz!” party favors of D&D. This chilling effect means that when a magic item is the impetus for a quest, characters are more likely to put up with a magic item having a downside to match its upside. Even the money system leans towards a more hardscrabble existence, with silver as the standard instead of gold.

What all of this means is that a Weird Fantasy game is a lot more work for both the players and the GM. The players cannot coast on the inherent power of their characters and the builds they find on the Internet. Each encounter carries more danger and each magic could be potentially murderous, since a Weird Fantasy world is an uncaring one. The GM must make every monster and magic item from scratch, which can either be freeing or agonizing. The black metal darkness that must be evoked to make the Weird Fantasy world come to life must be handled with care, lest it tilt too far into nihilism or silliness.

For my money, the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Grindhouse Edition boxed set does a good enough job implying the world it is set in. The art, the specifics of the rules, and the thorough Recommended Reading section do a better job of telling me exactly what sort of game I should be running and playing than I ever got from the classic D&D books, even the beyond thorough D&D Rules Cyclopedia failed to shape the world it took place in this well. For those who want a complete, hand-holding world premade from them, this is probably not the set for them. For the GM who wants to play in a Weird new world, and is patient enough to build the details himself, Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a breath of fresh air blown from a corpse’s mouth.