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Saturday, 23 October 2010

White Box Fever VI

Last month in September, we saw the re-launch of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition from Wizards of the Coast with the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Set, the first entry in the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line. To celebrate that fact, Reviews from R'lyeh is running a series of reviews devoted to RPGs that aim to bring new players into the hobby.

We began with look at Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set, the less than successful 2008 attempt from Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition before slipping back in time for an examination of the hobby’s second fantasy RPG in its most recent edition, Tunnels & Trolls v7.5. These were followed with reviews of entries in the contemporary Old School Renaissance movement, in particular, Tower of the Stargazer and New Weird World, the two scenarios that come in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the very latest and perhaps the most interesting of the Retroclones. These were followed by a step forward back in time to look at a more traditional Retroclone, the Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition, almost the very game that inspired the “White Box Fever” series, and then, a look at an introduction to roleplaying and Dungeons & Dragons that was more a Dungeons & Dragons game than a roleplaying game, the Castle Ravenloft Board Game. Last week I examined the introductory fantasy RPG, Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! An Introductory Roleplaying Game from Precis Intermedia. This week, in what is the penultimate review in the “White Box Fever” miniseries, the game under review is Weird Fantasy Roleplaying.

Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, or to give its full title, Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, is perhaps the most highly anticipated Retroclone version of Dungeons & Dragons in the Old School movement in many a month. Its sole author, James Raggi IV, is best known for his atmospheric, naturalistic scenarios that evoke a sense of dread and eeriness, of which Death Frost Doom and The Grinding Gear are the best known. It is this sense, inspired by authors such as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and others that Raggi attempts to infuse into his Retroclone, a sense of the unknowable, the inexplicable, of dread... In this he attempts to draw back from the high fantasy elements that have come to dominate the gaming genre in the last forty years, to make the world that the adventurers inhabit dark and dangerous as a matter of course, rather than in certain spots away from some rural idyll.

The first thing that strikes you about Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is that it comes in a box. Not a “white box” or a “buff box,” but a gloriously full colour depicting a lone swordswoman – who appears to be dressed to deal with the cold as much as she is with other threats, such as the snake demoness that she is, in fact, facing. Done by Cynthia Sheppard, its realistic style is not only eye catching, but it marks this game as being very different from other Retroclones available. The look of the box is quite literally a statement that demands the potential purchaser’s attention.

Open up the box and you will find that it is packed to the gunnels. The first thing that you see is a “Warning and Welcome Sheet,” but below that are a Tutorial Book, the Rules Book, the Magic Book, the Referee Book, and two adventures, New Weird World and Tower of the Stargazer, both of which I have already reviewed. In addition there is a pamphlet of Recommended Reading, character sheets, sheets of squared and hex paper, a pencil, and a set of polyhedral dice. All of the books are roughly fifty pages in length, A5 size, with full colour card covers, and black and white interiors. The artwork throughout the interiors of these books is dark and ominous. Two of the books, the Referee and Rules Books, use the box cover artwork, the latter on the female warrior, the former on the demoness. The two covers sit nicely together allowing the viewer to view to see the artwork in more detail.

Of the extras, the dice are nice, if a little small, and the pencil seems superfluous. Both sets of sheets are useful though, and the booklet of Recommended Reading gives the reader a solid introduction to the authors that inspired the game. In essence, for Weird Fantasy Roleplaying this is equivalent of Gary Gygax’s Appendix N from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and there is some crossover here, with most of the authors mentioned here also having appeared in Appendix N. In comparison with Appendix N, the authors listed in Recommended Reading are fewer in number, indicative of the particular focus in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, and are discussed rather than just listed. The Recommended Reading booklet is also the only part of the game to not be authored wholly by Raggi himself. Overall, it serves as a good introduction to the Weird Tales genre, and is more useful than the “Warning and Welcome Sheet.” This serves as the introduction to the contents of the box as whole, and while I probably agree with Raggi’s sentiment, his tone is unnecessarily flippant, even condescending. If this game goes to a second edition – and Raggi already has plans for that, then this sheet needs to be reconsidered.

The first book then, is the Tutorial Book, which the “Warning and Welcome Sheet” advises is not necessary to read if you are an experienced gamer, but it is worth taking the time to read all the same. As its title suggests, it introduces you to the game, and if you have never roleplayed before, then it really does it rather well in four easy steps. The first gives a short, but easily understood explanation of both what roleplaying is and what the dice do, while in the second, Raggi literally takes you by the hand and guides your Fighter through a strange experience in a supposedly haunted house as part of "Your First Adventure." In terms of presentation it is more a narrative with points at which the author steps in and offers the reader choices. Raggi makes it clear that this not how roleplaying works, but as the first step to that end, this “breaking the narrative” approach is highly commendable. “Your Second Adventure” is the third step, and its format will be familiar to most gamers, being the more traditional solo or “choose your path” adventure. In terms of story, it carries on from “Your First Adventure,” but it is already offering a player more choice, and indeed, Raggi packs a lot into ten locations and their exploration.

The Tutorial Book’s fourth step takes the reader onto how the game is played in general and with a proper group. This step discusses the conventions of play more than the actual rules, and while older, more experienced players might need them, they are useful nonetheless. Rather than offering more participation for the reader, this step gives a detailed example of play with the author as the GM. Oddly, it is an entertaining read, yet fails to entertain. It goes on too long and it shows how we roleplay, including warts and all, there being one awkward player in particular, the type that sees hired retainers as cannon fodder rather than as actual help. The GM also needs to read this example, as it is also the only actual example of refereeing in the game. It has to be said that the climax of the example of play is definitely cruel, and will probably make the reader smile, but it is not an unfair result.

The Rules Book begins with character creation and the first of the mechanical changes made to the Open Gaming License. Most obviously and weirdly, character abilities are listed in alphabetical order, but the first real change is the dropping of Prime Requisites being needed for Classes and Experience Point bonuses based on them. Another is that the Intelligence and Wisdom modifiers both affect a character’s spell saves, the first against those cast by Magic Users, the second against Clerical spells. These are not the most obvious of changes, which really start with the RPG’s Character Classes.

Weird Fantasy Roleplaying has seven classes, much like Basic Dungeons & Dragons. The Cleric, the Fighter, the Specialist, and the Magic User are all Human Classes, whilst the Demihuman Classes are the Dwarf, Elf, and Halfing. The changes to these Classes are small, but have striking ramifications. The Cleric does not the innate ability to Turn Undead for example, but must instead take it as one of his spells, and since at first level, he only has the one spell slot, his player has a choice to make. Similarly, the Fighter is the only Class in the game whose ability to fight improves as he goes up in level. None of the other Classes allow this. Whether this has the effect of empowering the Fighter Class like no other version of Dungeons & Dragons or weakening the effectiveness of all of the other Classes depends upon your point of view.

The only Class to remain unchanged is the Magic User, but the Class changed the most is the Thief or Specialist. Weird Fantasy Roleplaying uses a very simple skill resolution system. All characters, whatever their Class, can attempt skills such as Climbing, Searching, Find Traps, and so on. Their chance is simply equal to a result of one rolled on a six-sided die. Where the Specialist differs from this is that he is more capable at these skills receiving points to assign to them at each level. Pleasingly, this makes the Specialist Class a better version of the Thief while using a simpler mechanic and giving a player choice as what his Specialist is good at. There are of course, not enough points for a Specialist to be good at everything. This simple skills system also leaves the other Classes not wholly incapable of attempting many of the same actions.

And then there are the three Demihuman Classes. Of the three, the Elf is probably the most playable, in that being trained as both a Fighter and a Magic User, has advantages of both Classes. Thus the Elf has more Hit Points than the Magic User and gains the same number of spells as the Magic User, but he does not improve in his ability to fight. Of the other two Demihuman Classes, there is absolutely no mechanical advantage to playing either. Neither the Dwarf nor the Halfling improve in any sort of proactive way as they gain levels except for the extra Hit Points and the improved Saving Throws, which are reactive aspects of the character. If the author has empowered the Fighter Class, then he has also weakened the Demihuman Classes to the point where their presence in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is all but window dressing. On last aspect particular to all Classes is that they all start with the same number of Hit Points, putting everyone on the same footing, though this changes once a character rises to second level.

Our sample character is the fickle and greedy Gederick. He usually makes a living through theft or outright robbery, but would be willing to hire on to aid an adventuring party. Of course, such parties engage in dangerous activities and who is to say that they will return from one such venture?

Gedrick the Weasel, Level 1 Specialist
Chr: 6 (-1) Con: 11 Dex: 17 (+2)
Int: 9 Str: 11 Wis: 11
Hit Points: 4 Armour Class: 16
Skills: Climbing 1, Searching 2, Find Traps 1, Languages 1, Sleight of Hand 2, Stealth 3, Tinkering 1
Leather Armour, Short Sword, Dagger, Garrote; 13gp

Weird Fantasy Roleplaying keeps its Alignment system to the simple three of Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic. All very much like Dungeons & Dragons, except that it is more Moorcockian in that magic is associated with Chaos. Which means that both the Elf and the Magic User Class are Chaotic in nature. Almost everyone, including the other player characters, is assumed to be Neutral in Alignment.

Except for combat, the rest of the Rules Book has a strong fiscal slant. Not just in the extensive price list, which gives differing prices for rural and urban locations, and covers weapons, miscellaneous items, vehicles, lodging, and more, but also in the rules for property and investment (giving something for high level characters to do with their treasure), maritime adventures, and retainers. The rules for maritime adventures support the campaign adventure provided with this RPG, New Weird World, while the lack of rules for aerial travel are indicative of the game’s less fantastical tone rather than are an omission. The need for retainers is shown in the example of play in the Tutorial Book and highlights further that Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is written to create and support potentially heroic characters rather than ones that are absolutely heroic.

The combat rules in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying provide the players with more options. Fighters, Dwarves, and Elves can now attack, defend, or press their attacks, each option providing small bonuses, while all characters can choose to nothing but parry. The game’s treatment of Armour Class is more modern than most Retroclones, being ascending rather than descending, as the lack of Class limits placed on the wearing of armour and wielding of weapons, while weapon damage has simplified into three groups: minor, small, medium, and great, the damage rising from a four-sided to a ten-sided die. Raggi does not ignore unarmed combat either, his rules being clear and simple.

This simplicity and clarity continues in the Magic Book, which covers both divine and arcane magic. The basics of both are discussed, as is the spell research, the creation of scrolls, potions, holy water, and more. Invariably, spell books are spell books, and not always the riveting of reads, but while the spells work as you would expect in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the author has paid a lot of attention in terms of flavour and feel. For example, the spell description for Conjure Elemental begins with, “Spirits from the nether realms despise the natural world and wish to destroy it. This spell tricks one of these spirits through the mystic veil which separates our worlds from theirs, and forces them to inhabit one of the four classical elements...” On the same page, the spell Contact Other Plane has the caster contact stars such as Algol and Fomalhaut to receive wisdom rather the anodyne, if traditional Outer Planes of Dungeons & Dragons. A favourite is the description given the spell, Hold Person with which a Magic User unleashes millions of thread-thin spectral worms... which through every orifice and instantly travel to the subject’s brain, travelling through the synapses and threatening to tear the subject’s mind apart if he moves.” Not every spell is accorded this degree of flavoursome detail, and that is all it is as it adds nothing mechanically, but where such spells are, it brings out the weird elements of the RPG’s title. Any player roleplaying a spellcaster in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying should certainly be embracing this flavour text.

The last of the core books in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is the Referee Book. This is perhaps the most personal of that quartet, the author’s voice maintaining a heavy presence throughout as he dispenses advice aimed at those completely new to roleplaying and being the referee, and those experienced gamers who are new to the Old School Renaissance. He prepares the new GM by explaining what the task of the referee is, how difficult a task it is, and how it takes time to master the skill. Here Raggi’s conversational tone is reassuring, nicely helping to allay the neophyte’s fears. As is his essay on “The Weird” which also complements the separate pamphlet of Recommended Reading. Given how his reputation has been built on writing inventive and moody scenarios it is no surprise that his advice on creating adventures is also well done, looking in turn at adventures built around events, exploration, locations, and individuals as well as the sandbox adventure.

Unfortunately, once the Referee Book moves on from discussing the various elements that make up an adventure, it is less useful, not as specific. When dealing with campaign creation Raggi cannot bring his customary attention to detail to the subject, the same issue that was a problem in New Weird World, the campaign setting that comes in the box. Rounding out the Referee Book is one guide to getting a gaming group together and another to other Old School Renaissance publishers and how to use their products with Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. All Retroclones have some compatibility, no surprise given that they share the same origin, but it is good to see the author take the time to more than acknowledge it.

One of two major disappointments in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is the lack of monsters. Where other Retroclones have provided the GM with a readymade bestiary, the Referee Book only discusses the various types and their place in the Weird Game, looking at in turn animals, constructs, humanoids, oozes, and the undead. While Raggi has never been one to write “monster fests,” this is very much a case of the author telling the reader rather than showing. The other disappointment suffers from the same issue, being the lack of examples for magical items. These are meant to be very individual and anything other than generic in Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, but again we are only told about them. It is almost as if the RPG needed another book that covered both of these aspects.

There is, unfortunately, an identity crisis at the heart of Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. One that boils down to, “Who am I aimed at?” The inclusion of the Tutorial Book and much of the Referee Book are primarily aimed at the novice, at those new to roleplaying, yet the novice will find the lack of examples in the Referee Book unhelpful. Most obviously in the lack of actual sample magical items and in the lack of actual monsters. Worse still, this lack is likely to leave the novice wondering where to go next for both. While an experienced GM will have a better idea of how to address both issues, much of both books are likely to be familiar already. Compounding this issue is the fact that while much of the RPG is aimed at the new player or GM, its price and availability (at least physically), is not. Of course, a second printing of the game and wider distribution will address these issues.

If Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is anything, it is James Raggi IV’s polemic on the Old School Movement. It is his labour of love, a bespoke creation that starts from where all Retroclones draw from before stripping back to make it less like fantastic fiction. The dual effect of that stripping back is first to make the play of the game harder with characters more capable than heroic, the second to leave room for its signifying flavour, the Weird. Again it is a question of scale, because Raggi does not always work this flavour into every aspect of the game, but when focusing on certain elements, such as the spell descriptions, he manages it.

Even without the monsters and the magic items, Weird Fantasy Roleplaying feels like a complete package when you take the two scenarios into account. Although very much a bespoke product – any future version that appears as a book will certainly be not so, it is not perfect. There is so much to like though in the contents of this RPG, that you would be forgiven for overlooking its deficiencies. Above all though, Weird Fantasy Roleplaying provides a fresh look at an old game, giving us a new approach rather than mere replication.