Thursday, March 24, 2016

Why Lamentations of the Flame Princess Made Me Love the OSR

I haven't been at this gig for long, and truth be told, my fancies have changed dramatically in a short amount of time. My initial interest was in new school games: 4th edition d&d, 5th edition d&d, fate, cortex, cortex +, storyteller, and a slew of hipper indie games like stalker, fiasco, and the like. Save for a few outliers, like Palladium (I blame the esoteric sorcerers of the OSG for that nugget), I would have considered myself a heavily story oriented gamer.

Like any ailment untimely thrust upon the innocent, its grasp weakened and I eventually healed. I had fun tinkering with the concepts and participating in the ad nausea armchair philosophy surrounding it, but as I opened myself up to different styles of gaming, I began to realize there was something beautiful in the simplicity and honesty of the old school. It was brutal, it was fun, and it promised to slay pretentiousness. Now, in a lot of ways, I would describe it as bullshit light.

My first jaunt into the OSR or old school gaming was through Lamentations of the Flame Princess. From my early days of Youtube, I remember a deeply disturbed sorcerer named Tim Haper (love you Tim), who preached about a weird fantasy game full of maiming traps, sadistic dungeons, and the glory one can only feel when they realize 4th level is the end game. At the time I gawked at it, but the idea stayed with me. Maybe it was the crazy metal image that the name invoked; I don't really know.

Jumping forward a couple of years later, the Flame Princess decided it was time to blow up, triggered by a post Ian Christiansen made on the One Shot Group. I remembered Tim's passion for it and knew right away I needed to get a piece of the action. I downloaded the free artless rules and rolled up my first character, the specialist.

I was shocked at how simple character creation was. There wasn't any Frankenstein's monster bullshit going on here. It was pure archetype baby! Races were straight up classes and the mechanics pretty much limited you to a single style of play based on your choice. Of course, I had my reserves about what this would mean in practice, but I was more than willing to give it a shot.

Character creation really enlightened me to something about LotFP; you don't need to stew and fuss over a character concept or backstory to play an RPG. You can very easily, and to great effect, grab a character, jump into the game, and let the circumstances and your actions paint a vivid picture for you. And now, I attack you with my first major heresy: I prefer quick character creation with less backstory.

Alright guys and gals, before you start collecting wood for the pyre, I want you to hear me out. What playing old school games has taught me is that it is what you do that defines a character. When everything about the game is lethal, sadistic, and out to get you, the story writes itself and characteristics and psychology arise from simply making choices and putting yourself in danger. What is more compelling? Telling somebody your character concept is based around self sacrifice and talking about the stuff he saw as a child, or jumping in front of a spike trap to save the party's wizard, taking an 80 mph missile of conical doom square to the chest? I think we both know the answer.

And that is another thing LotFP turned me onto; lethality. I think it is easy to fall into a pit trap in story based games, at least for me it was, where it is hard to kill a player because they feel entitled to an outcome or are invested to the point it would cause drama. Which leads me to heresy number 2: character death is hilarious, and when done in epic ways that show a character's personality or faults, easily makes for the best moment of any session.

In the last game of LotFP I played in, we went to a wizard tower where one of the characters freed 'an entity' from a circle made of salt. The rest of the party pretty much wrote it off as a demon or other sinister force, but he was certain he could make a deal with it. They hashed out a contract, he broke the containment ring, and immediately was destroyed with world shattering magic that chopped him up 10,000 times finer than any cuisine art could have dreamed. I laughed myself silly, and his frustration made it even funnier. When we all stopped to think about it, OF COURSE he should have been murdered for trying it. OF COURSE!

And that is perfect in my mind. His character, who was a grave robbing thief, meddled with something he couldn't understand because he was greedy. It ended up biting him in the ass, which is poetic justice if you ask me.

Which brings me to my next point about the old school feel: dungeons are unapologetic for what they are and what they deliver. They aren't stupid or silly, nor are they loot receptacles to be plundered at your leisure. They are dangerous as all fuck, and when you find one, you know going down into their depths is like looking a hungry Cerberus in its salivating mouth.

When it comes to LotFP, its dungeon modules are hands down the best I have ever seen. You are surrounded by context, everything can be interacted with, the components of the dungeon have real purposes, and there is logical consistency that makes you feel like this could actually be a place in the world. To state it simply, they bleed atmosphere. These dungeons accomplish a tremendous amount and they tend to do it in a way that is highly usable.

A lot of the adventure modules or dungeons I have been accustomed to, mostly from the newer stuff, are utter trash comparatively. They spend so much time bogging you down with fluff and crap about the writer's precious NPCs and meta plot, that there is no substantive meat to use when it comes time to run the game. It is more like, here is some story themed crap to texture onto your adventure. You would have been equally as well off creating your own plans from the ground up, and if you would have went that route, you would have known it better because it would have been your own brain child.

There is none of that with Lamentations (mostly). You can give a module a once through and be ready to run a memorable session that will feel like it was prepped for. That is the quintessential point of modules. How have these other mooks gotten is so wrong?

Which brings me to my third heretical jab: old school is function over form. It feels like Raggi really gets the concept of creating 'content that is usable' and 'that works in practice'. The books Zak S. have done for him take this to the highest conceptual level, being works that are devoid of even the faintest hint of filler or uselessness. I can honestly say, I felt like I learned more useful things from Zak's A Red and Pleasant Land and Vornheim than I did reading dozens and dozens of books from the new school.

Here is a classic example of what I am talking about: person A on a forum says, "I just got the new popular story game book. Good layout, good ideas, and good fluff." This always makes me cringe a little. Fluff is simply filler, but certain individuals have cast some kind of dark magic ritual to associate it with being setting essential. Here is what I say to that; check out a Zak S. product, where setting information is usable directly from the book and relevant to every session. It is designed to be mechanically and atmospherically applicable and literally begs to be used, and guess what guys? That's why it isn't fluff. It has a fucken use. Go figure. That makes it a far cry from the arcane babble that passes as setting information (fluff) in a lot of products. The favorite hobby of the duke's third son who lives in the Outlands has little baring on my game, and if it did, I could have riffed it up myself. No paid consultation required!

Something else about the old school feel I really love is its seeming lack of pretension when it comes to why we play games. The style asks, why not for entertainment? I don't think there is anything wrong with people who play games for other reasons, but it can become exceptionally annoying when somebody tries to talk down to your pastime like blondie did to Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting. Remember that scene at the 'not your typical' Harvard Bar? It kind of makes you want to smack the intellectual smugness off their face. Which brings me to my final heresy of the day: old school games don't shame the shit out of you for playing them the way you want.

Of course, this goes further than just the material. I find it is true of the community as well. I felt like I use to spend more time bullshitting about philosophy of gaming than I did actually playing games. It wasn't good feeling philosophy either; closer to an unsettling passive aggressive slap fight. If I need Hellenistic dialogues to tell me why I should or shouldn't say yes to a player's in game requests, I am cashing out! Fuck me ;)

In closing, I plan on picking up some more OSR titles soon: a whole heap of LotFP books I dont have, Dark Albion, Dungeon Crawl Classics, White Star, and Zak's book coming out titled Maze of the Blue Medusa.

I would love to hear recommendations on what else I should get. If you suffered to this point, you probably have a good idea of my tastes!


  1. I'll not burn you at the stake, but I'll do something almost as bad as that: I'll disagree. However, I disagree based on having another play style.

    About your first heresy: I don't say that quick character generation is bad. I won't agree to less background being better. Just look at your language here: either I tell someone about my character concept or I jump in front of a spike trap. It sounds weird because one thing is something my character does and one is what I, as a player, do. There have been numerous situations in which my characters do things I would never want to do. After all, I don't RP myself but a role which I defined.
    Sure, you don't need a novel for your character, but I haven't seen any games which require that much.

    About heresy number 2: you actually are right there - to an extent. Generally, my characters don't have a high life expectancy. That said, the character deaths which happened because I just rolled horribly all are rather plain and didn't add much to the game whereas the character deaths which resulted from my choices are remembered fondly.

    Onto number 3: "function over form" is a nice credo - for chairs. Drinking Wiskey and perfume serves the same function, but there is a rather significant difference in flavor. To get back to the actual topic: in dungeons, you have a very controlled environment in which very few things actually matter. If the characters travel in the overworld, every rumor they hear about can produce a side quest or can lead the characters to conclusions about what's going on. In other words - the flavor is an integral part of the experience.

    So let's end with your final heresy: old school games do hella shame you for not playing them as you want to. If you're not of the "let's go into a horrible dungeon for no good reason and get our near blank slate characters killed" faction, the message pretty much is "get out".

    And now to get the Inquisitors verdict: you're not a heretic. You're a heathen. What you describe as old schools strong points seems weak to me. My playstyle is so different from that that my group hardly ever is in dungeons.

    Dungeons and Dragons traditionally is set up as the one RPG - and so, it tried to cater to all play styles until 4th edition. For most players, 3rd edition and pathfinder include some things they really don't need. We just can't agree at what those things are.

    When it comes to systems which are slim on rules, I do like Barbarians of Lemuria. If you have a good memory, you can play it without books and create your character on a beermat. I think it can be played old-school without any major effort.

    1. " old school games do hella shame you for not playing them as you want to. If you're not of the "let's go into a horrible dungeon for no good reason and get our near blank slate characters killed" faction, the message pretty much is "get out".

      You are obviously insane and shouldn't be writing on the internet.

      Like Vornheim is a whole city kit written for exactly what to do if your players _don't_ go into the dungeon.

    2. "Just look at your language here: either I tell someone about my character concept or I jump in front of a spike trap. It sounds weird because one thing is something my character does and one is what I, as a player, do."

      I guess my contention is, "Why tell when you can show?" It isn't a big deal for me, but I have tried it both ways and certainly derive more entertainment from the latter. The real issue for me is when lengthy dissertation on backstory is expected; like writing fan fiction. I'd rather play the game with a rough idea and figure out the grit on the fly, if that makes any sense.

      "Function over form" is a nice credo - for chairs. Drinking W[h]iskey and perfume serves the same function, but there is a rather significant difference in flavor."

      I think things have to be usable, which firmly orders the importance of function and form for me. I am all for flashy, smooth, and atmospheric, but I have to be able to use it. I just find a lot of the newer stuff doesn't put much effort into usability. It seems to be more about the bells and whistles. LotFP has bells and whistles, but what strikes me as exceptional is the usability of its material. Granted, I am new to the OSR, but that seems to be something a lot of people are taking to heart.

      "let's go into a horrible dungeon for no good reason and get our near blank slate characters killed" faction, the message pretty much is "get out"."

      Zak gave a great example of this with Vornheim, which is one of the best RPG books I've read, not even limiting the discussion to LotFP or the OSR.

      "And now to get the Inquisitors verdict: you're not a heretic. You're a heathen. "

      Lmfao. I guess, if nothing else, this is proof in a significant difference of taste