Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Reflections on (almost) ten years of LotFP play

Everything expressed here is just opinion and half-baked recollection

 It was in 2012 that I picked up Lamentations of the Flame Princess for the first time. For those who weren't heavily into tabletop roleplaying games then, it's hard to express how much of an outlier it was, for all of the reasons that might not be apparent in 2022. First, a little background.

I obtained D&D materials when I was pretty young, but only had a few short-lived 3rd edition campaigns in my late teens. Eventually, I found out that a co-worker was regularly playing D&D 4th edition as part of the Living Forgotten Realms organized play program, and I kind of dove into it hard. I started dedicating at least a day a week for home games, and an additional day per week for public games at a local game store. We tried multiple game styles within the system, including sessions without combat, but overall I found the game just as tedious as third edition. I was bored with sessions that were three combat encounters, railroad stories, and fights that took all night. Luckily, (unluckily?) I wound up needing emergency surgery that year and had plenty of time to read RPG blogs and books and catch up on all of the game theory of the day.

The Blogs & Blogrolls, pre-2012

Many of these blogs are still available, and several have had their 'greatest hits' compiled into books. Some of these people have retreated from the internet or are hated by a good swath of the internet for reasons (we'll get into that later) but I encourage you to do this little digging journey on your own, or find a different mapmaker.

One blogger I'll talk about though is James Raggi, creator of LotFP, since we're on this topic. Raggi has/had some very different views of D&D that really make sense. He talked about them at length on his blog lotfp.blogspot.com and also through posts in rpg forums. These ideas still shine on in the Grindhouse Referee Book and the Rules and Magic book. It's kind of weird that these aspects of D&D are still rarely talked about.

Some stuff I started thinking about in D&D

* The PCs start with so much more silver than the average person's wage, they probably come from a place of privilege, and are probably a little naive or something to willingly be jumping into dungeons for fun

* The average person coming across ANYTHING in any Monster Manual is probably scary as fuck, life-threatening, even PTSD-inducing. I think in Call of Cthulhu they call this "san loss."

* Characters rationing supplies and equipment, hiring tons of retainers, crawling through muck, poking a prodding things with a ten foot pole, is much like some version of Fantasy Fuckin Vietnam, and suddenly that whole genre of film becomes much more relatable.

* Magic items that are just +1 to rolls are boring. Magic items should always have names, purposes, histories, and so on. They shouldn't be limited to things that are useful to adventurers. 

* There is no RPG setting you could create that would be more depraved and miserable, more full of human suffering than historical earth; James picked the 17th century, which is indeed shit.

* You should run other author's adventures AS WRITTEN to see how their game design style really differs from yours, and to get some sort of worldly knowledge in ttrpg land. 

* Not everything we create will hit the mark but we should be allowed to try, and be allowed to fail.

LotFP also had some really good game design choices/innovations at the time. 

* d20 ascending Armor Class. This mirrors 3e and 4e that I had been playing so much of, so getting players to join in was extremely simple.

* d6 skills. Apparently this was a holdover from earlier Basic D&D editions that ported over very well thanks to the Specialist class replacing the thief/rogue. It was actually the graphic design of the character sheet d6s -- filling in the pips with a pencil -- that I found very novel and intuitive.

* Encumbrance that makes sense. Again, the character sheet design made the system feel very intuitive. I'm not the only one who feels this way -- pretty much every review of LotFP praised the encumbrance system as a great innovation. Few, if any games riffed on it since, which is a real shame. I think there is room for improvement, as without the character sheet design, the encumbrance system is not nearly as elegant as it seems. Still, this was the first time a game system got me to care about encumbrance.

* Non-useless level 1 clerics: Oh hey, they can cast at level 1 instead of standing around doing nothing.

* Henchmen and Hirelings: There are so many retainers, and it's such a large section of the book, that it kind of implies that hiring these folks are important. So, eventually, I did, and it's a huge change in gameplay and power. I tried to get some hirelings in a 4e Dark Sun campaign when Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium (4e) came out, which debuted hireling rules for that system. The DM disallowed it because he felt it would be too powerful. When I finally got my hands on a mini-army in LotFP, I could see his concern. LotFP balances this out by making you pay lots of penalties if you get your employees killed on the job.

* Only the fighter gets attack bonuses... though there are ways around this. Running "Stranger Storm" from the Grindhouse Ref book has two Knights in plate fighting on a road. Go ahead and roll the attacks for each of them. Actually roll out the combat, attacks, initiative, etc. of the two Knights fighting. Get back to me with how much time it takes for that combat to resolve. (It's going to be a long time.) LotFP kind of innately discourages combat by subtly altering the math and making it fucking tedious and nearly impossible. Toss in weird things created by the Summon spell or the Random Esoteric Creature Generator and it's not guaranteed that a sword will solve your problems in any way. This kind of tugs LotFP into that sort of investigative survival game territory, like Call of Cthulhu, but eventually savvy powergamers will find that aiming and blackpowder weaponry and sneak attacks and the like can bring some traditional explosive D&D dice chucking back into the game.

Physical design choices were very important as well.

* The small A5 book format, used by Raggi to save on shipping costs and whatnot, actually saves quite a bit on table and shelf space. When you fall asleep reading it, it doesn't smack you in the face nearly as hard as an iPhone or some giant D&D hardcover.

* LotFP provided a free option -- the rules with the art removed. I thought this was pretty good because some of the art would probably be a bit much for other people. I also think accessibility is super important.

* I'm a fan of heavy metal. The music genre, as well as the magazine. I'm no stranger to seeing nudity or drug use or whatever in comic form. Seeing the guy who did Cannibal Corpse album covers do a piece in the middle of the book kind of said, "hey, this might be for you." To be honest, I'm not a CC fan (or death metal in general.) I much prefer classic heavy metal, new wave of british heavy metal, thrash metal, that kind of stuff. At the time that LotFP came out, there was nothing else like this. All of your old games that someone might have pointed to as "heavy metal-esque" were long out of print. That being said, given my background, I'm a little desensitized to objectionable content. Some of the things that I thought were the "whoa" moments ten years ago I don't care about; some of the things I overlooked I now say "whoa" about... more on that later.

* The box sets are extremely attractive and well priced. I started with the LotFP Grindhouse edition. I think it was somewhere between $40-80 USD (probably on the lower end, I was broke as hell at the time.) It gave you the whole game, a little pencil that reminds me of Keno or Ikea shopping, and a set of tiny dice, as well as character sheets.

* Maybe attractive is a weird word. You know, for the first year or so seeing it on the shelf, I walked by and thought, "heh, snake tiddy." (There's a topless naga fighting the flame princess on the cover of Grindhouse edition.) I thought it was a little gimmicky, but I wound up buying the box set anyway when I read the reviews. That cover did not carry over into the current edition, turns out. Some people might see snake tiddy as progress in Americans getting over their fear of breast tissue. I don't remember if I thought that at the time.

* These were successful RPG books with B&W interiors in an age when all books were glossy, full colored hardcovers. It felt kind of DIY and homebrewed, and it's because it was. It was almost like James was saying, "Hey, you can do this too!" (Turns out, many more people WOULD.)

The Community in 2012

LotFP has/had an official forum that didn't ever really get much use. The strength of of the LotFP community was bolstered by the now defunct social media platform known as Google+. Google was facilitating online games through it's platform Hangouts. If you wanted to get into the OSR scene, simply sign up for Google+, and someone could give you a "Circle share." Essentially a one-click button to follow everyone who ever wanted to be involved in talking about OSR. Of these hundreds of accounts, a few hundred would inevitably follow you back, and you're off to the races!

Twitter at the time was dominated by discourse from older RPG forums and WotC D&D content. G+ is where we were getting collaborative "gygaxian democracy" style hex and dungeon crawls, "secret santicore" gift exchanges, zines, one page dungeons, and micro games all seamlessly integrating with the blog scene (Blogger also being a google product.)

Of course, I could also say that the newfound level of instant connectivity created a lot of bad interactions and creator burnout, too. By the time G+ was announced to end, most of the prolific people had already retreated from the social media thunderdome. It really foreshadowed the kind of ttrpg/osr culture that would continue to fester ever since.

Things I started to notice about the game

* The Adventuring: Rules of the Game section is laid out in alphabetical order, instead of order of importance or frequency of use. As a person who went from 3/4e to OSR, I didn't have the background of Basic D&D to really understand which of these parts were important. There is no "strict time records must be kept," just "there are periods when keeping a strict record of time is important." I didn't really understand that uh... all time keeping should be important. At least in my opinion. I feel like this needs its own giant boldface page for timekeeping and relevance of time and all the timey stuff.

* Speaking of not understanding time, I also didn't understand reactions. LotFP kind of truncates BECMI's larger reaction chart. When I purchased a used copy of Basic D&D, I was kind of blown away at how much better it explained the cautious interaction between two groups of characters.

* Light and Vision is likewise a footnote, and is of the utmost importance to the game, but takes up a single paragraph. It's very easy to miss critical rules like these, which are the bread and butter of dungeon delving play.

* I had no fucking idea how to run a hex crawl and Rules and Magic was not really any help there. I took a thorough look at the D&D Expert set, ran X1, the Isle of Dread, then designed and ran the initial hexcrawls in Parn, as well as some colonial Maryland games. This is a trend amongst all OSR games and even current D&D iterations -- the focus is always on delving or encounters, but rarely on anything else.

* The property and finance rules seem a little too fiddly and hands-off and no player has ever wanted to touch them. They always preferred to be more hands-on with purchases and investments.

* The Hirelings list includes a Slave and Slave Master, which are kind of a whole thing. This is the type of shit that stands out to people who are casually flipping through and heavily roll their eyes, which isn't great for system attraction. I have ran games in colonial America where slavery is present but these rules were not needed. Likewise I have run LotFP Dark Sun where slavery is present and these rules were useful though probably could have been handwaved. There is an interesting dynamic where players exploiting slave hirelings will quickly discover that, for the price, slaves are a "good buy" in terms of raw manpower, something I'm sure shitheads all over history thought as well while they dehumanized entire populations. I kind of hate that it's here and illustrates more than the death metal pictures how fucked up the world really is.

* Summon includes sexual assault and suicide as "horror" endings. I don't necessarily have a problem with these as elements of horror media amongst people who want it. I just want a cleaner game that doesn't explicitly lean into horror with its mechanics. This also circumvents the "art free" version of the game, because some horror-based material will be seen in the text as well as the art. When I was in my early 20s, self harm, suicide, and sexual assault were blind spots for me. I am at a point in my life where I just don't want to bring that stuff up with people unless I know they are OK with it, which means LotFP is slipping as my go-to game.

* Likewise, attempted suicide is depicted pretty early in one of the images of the book. I like the image, it's just not something I want to spring on someone who is unaware. It's just another thing that makes LotFP the "next step" game instead of the "first step" game, or even maybe the second or third. The people I play with more often than not play games to blow off steam; Some topics can, randomly, hit too close to home when we are blind to it.

* 5 saving throws is a ridiculous holdover from the past. It's actually kind of weird for someone a bit more new-brained like myself to fit any particular effect into any category, but over ten years I made it work. I don't think one saving throw is appropriate, but after seeing the reference in Broodmother Skyfortress to go to three saves, I think that is where I want to be.

* Rolling to hit in D&D doesn't make sense. You're rolling a target number which is affected by armor, dexterity, cover, and other conditions. I roll low, and I miss. Why? Was it because dude's armor was boss as hell? Or can I just not shoot a bow to save my life? All D&D games and simulacra tend to push this narrative bit onto the players or DM. I'd prefer something different.

James did an AMA on Reddit some years back about his game design ideas.

Will we ever get a "safe art" version of the core rules in print?

Not complaining about the art at all, and I like LotFP quite a lot. Just wondering if it'll ever be possible to not have to hide the book on the top shelf, lest my child gets her hands on it.

The response:

Not happening. It's one of those things where I could probably make more money if I did it, but compromising for the sake of greater acceptability or money doesn't seem right. I could go get a stable real job (if I haven't made myself completely unemployable) if I wanted to do that.

(I don't know how old your child is, but if they have their own phone or tablet you're likely to be horrified when you find out what they're looking at on their own at too young an age. Just wait for that, then move the books to a lower shelf. :P)

 This has been repeated a couple of times, even recently on a video for the LotFP YouTube channel. And, you know, it's fine. I don't expect it; what I expect is for James to do exactly what he wants to do, which is what he's been doing since he started his blog in 2008. 

The community in 2022

When G+ closed, LotFP was scattered to the four winds. James had a couple attempts at appointing social media managers -- or the like -- to deal with things like Facebook, Discord, YouTube and Twitter. I don't think any of them realized the sheer amount of shit they'd have to deal with by proxy. Eventually, they were all let go or burned out. With everyone from G+ "going their own way," individual LotFP communities on different platforms are smaller than the reach it once had.

Facebook, for instance, has a legacy unofficial group that is barely supported by posters, and an official group that is now moderated by James. It is set to public so that everyone on your Facebook feed can see what you post in there -- and since I don't want to bombard everyone on my feed with RPG shit (I have other promotion to do!) I simply don't post there. I don't know why it's set to public, but I imagine it might deter other posters as well.

There is also a discord. It was once official? Maybe? Run by one of the former social media helpers, who then burned out and turned it over to some other people. It had a decent following, then was brigaded by trolls copy-pasting neo-nazi shit, so they had to close it down and clean it out. It's a lot smaller now.

These online areas have little in terms of real moderation -- just what exists on the platform. Any community moderators of any LotFP space, unofficial or official, seem to adopt the same stance of "just block them" instead of making moderation decisions. It's fine, it just doesn't gel with everyone, which is why you don't see a lot of growth in these online area. 

There is also the ever present problem, since day one, of "problematic creators." LotFP has published books by people who other people hate, for reasons good or bad. Some people genuinely care, others don't, and just get engaged in these conversations to stir the pot. Since there is such sincere hatred of these creators, a lot of emotional labor is forced onto the community surrounding them constantly. People legitimately spy on the LotFP communities for content to demonize in private circles. It's actually kind of strange to me, because being a heavy metal fan (or a fan of heavy metal magazine!) I never felt forced to validate some art or music in my house, even if we knew the creator was a shithead; an album never aligned me with a 'side,' it was just a collection of riffs. I still don't have to worry about someone chiding me for owning a Type O Negative record, citing the shit Peter said in Carnivore. (I don't actually own a Type O record.)

I try to be conscious of where my money is spent though, I'd hate to buy a neo-nazi album and you know, fund actual neo-nazis. So I do try to be responsible. I do "vote with my wallet." Hopefully that informs where LotFP goes, though probably not, because James just kinda does what he wants instead of doing what makes money. With that in mind, I don't have any regrets about anything I've purchased.

The games in 2022

While James is doing his own thing instead of printing the megabux, the rest of the RPG world moved on without him. They formed communities on Facebook, Twitter, and Discord, and decided to clean the old guard. This was effective because the lifespan of D&D 5e had come to a point where those players were starting to migrate to their second, third, or fourth system. Those players were younger, had different sensibilities, and no time to research decades long internet beef. But they could pick up on winning strategies; A5 sized books, a strong focus on art and layout, going B&W on the interior, and doing crowdfunded offset printing. Many of them offered free rules, affordable game packages, and most of all, no fucking drama from inside or outside the stable.

It sucks that the rush to get away from James, the OSR community left so many of his ideas behind. Old School Essentials takes the print size, but fails to deliver a new game, instead repackaging Basic D&D (sans trademarked creatures) once again. Mork Borg takes the print format and one-ups it with all sorts of near print treatments and artsy layout -- but in the end strays a bit too far from D&D for my liking. I can get a multitude of complete small format -- or even zine format! games for under $40.

With the community fragmentation and focus on supporting so many individual creators (or not supporting them,) what has happened is that very few people are coalescing around one game anymore. And I suppose that was a big boon for LotFP -- at the time, it did not have competitors, so it had more players. Now, a lot of those players are split between OSE, Mork Borg, and other indie titles. The prospect of supporting one creator's game with your game session means you're not supporting the other creator. Or maybe you're not spending as much time with any one game as you would have in the past. None of these newer titles seem, individually, strong enough to carry the torch for the whole scene. Some front-runners are certainly trying.

Final thoughts

In true OSR tradition, over ten years I have found the things I would hack and homebrew for my own LotFP-style game, and have a document for just that! In the meantime, though, I have tons of character classes and conversions and campaign content for LotFP and still play it. I still think the game is great and the content generated by many creators over the years is full of amazing game design and passion for the craft. Some part of me thinks of Jim as the "cigar chomping old man from the record label" that Frank Zappa talked about in the past. I'll leave you with a video of what I'm talking about.

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