Monday, 21 May 2012

Review: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to play Basic D&D. I got into it at school, migrating there from the popular Fighting Fantasy game books, and it was a great starting point for me into the fantastic world of pen and paper RPGs. I played it a lot during school years, despite the efforts of some to convert me to AD&D - which I found nebulous, inaccessible and at times entirely illogical, with detailed rules for some relatively unnecessary things and nothing at all for other important issues - a bit like the European financial regulatory system, to be honest!

In recent months we've seen many independent game publishers turning to 'old school' systems, possibly as these have risen in popularity while disenchantment with D&D 4e has set in. They offer less complexity than, say, Pathfinder, while at the same time encouraging players to spend more time role playing and less time min/maxing their characters (something of a Pathfinder disease, I find).

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is one of these old school clones. I've really only had experience previously with Swords & Wizardry, and more recently received a copy of Crypts & Things, which is very similar in scope to Lamentations but with more of a hard core swords and sorcery feel to it. Our group has just started playing Lamentations, and you can read more about the GM's thoughts on it here. What follows are really my own, additional views as a player.

Going back to old school RPGing seems like a good idea on paper, but you do immediately miss some things. For starters, you forget how weak your PCs are. A first level magic user or cleric is really, really pants. There are no orisons in this game. You have one spell per 24 hours, and once it is cast, your 1st level magic user is little better than a dude in long robes waiting to get carved up. Secondly, unless you play an Elf, you're really little better than a glorified encumberance reservoir, until you get to higher levels. Clerics in Basic used to have the additional benefit of Turn Undead, but in Lamentations it is a SPELL - if you don't learn it, you don't get it! With Cure Light Wounds, a Basic D&D cleric could at least combine the attributes of an anti-undead weapon with healing magic. Not so in Lamentations. I can't quite figure this out. Why cripple a cleric even further when he is weak enough at low levels?

I also missed the separation of race and class - having got used to picking both race and class as character options in 3e D&D, it seems somehow restrictive to go back to having races like Elf as a de facto class in the game.

Lamentations does include quite an interesting skill system based off d6 - e.g. an average PC will have a 1/6 chance of succeeding in a Search task. It extrapolates the old searching for secret doors mechanic in Basic/Expert, allowing some characters to specialise in some areas. Halflings, for example, have a 5/6 change of hiding in the wilderness, which in our game made them ideal as scouts, sneaking around in the undergrowth. With two halflings in the party, both armed with missile weapons, they can become quite a devastating force.

Lamentations is, however, quite deadly at 1st level. As with some other D&D variants, I can see how once you are past level 6 or so, a party of characters can become more invulnerable, but at 1st level there is plenty of scope to die like flies, and access to healing magic is limited. Forget about the 'surges' in 4e!

Cover of the Relics & Magic guide
Being old school, the XP system is again based off loot more than monster slaying or task achievement, even though scenario objectives might not be keyed to plunder. This creates somewhat of a conflict for PCs, because if you want to advance, you need to be plundering, although the scenarios being set by our GM have seemed to be move investigative in nature, and more suited to a game like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Basic was more about plundering dungeons. You might earn a fee from a patron for completing other missions, but the bulk of your reward came from the loot, and the XP system was geared accordingly. In the old D&D module B3: Palace of the Silver Princess, your mission was to rescue the princess and save the kingdom, but you still got to keep all the loot you found in the palace! It should therefore come as no surprise if the PCs become more like vikings than noble paladins - that's what they get rewarded for!

In our two sessions to date, there has been a great deal more intelligence gathering, investigation and intrigue. But that has not translated into XP as the PCs have not been focused on looting. This may now change, and we could see the party becoming much more interested in the opportunity to loot. Given that they have largely been adventuring in human-dominated locales, however, it may come as no surprise when the adventurers indulge in a little theft too! After all, a bit of robbery can go a long way to helping you reach the next level!

Overall, Lamentations is a good addition to the increasing library of Basic D&D clones. Whether you need it if you already have Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry is an open question. I guess if I wanted to go back down this road as a GM I might even dust off my old Basic books and then graft on home brew rules, and Lamentations is simple enough to do this, if you wanted to (one of the great appeals, in my view, of these more stripped down rules). In summary, I think I've probably traveled too far as an RPGer to go back to playing this level of rules on a long term basis without some excessive tweaking/conversion. There is probably just a tad too little crunch for my tastes in Lamentations, although I have found myself wondering whether it could provide me with the foundations for my Viscounts & Vagabonds RPG project.


  1. The author of Lamentations of the Flame Princess is going for a specific tone for the game, more Warhammer than Forgotten Realms, and that's reflected in some of the mechanics, such as the spells, the way turn undead is no longer an innate ability, and the way elves show up under detect evil. Similarly, there's no bestiary in the rules, as it's assumed that most antagonists will be human or animal, and that true monsters will be unique and memorable. He only put the non-human player races in as a concession to the old-school crowd.

    All of this is well and good, but I do wonder if it's incompatible with the classic experience-for-loot model of basic D&D. The experience guidelines even say that experience can only be earned for recovering money from creatures that have no use for it, which narrows the field even more.

    There was treasure in the first scenario, but the author hid it away where I can't imagine many groups will find it; I've made the loot easier to find in the one we're playing now, but you just haven't got to it yet. There is more to explore in the mine, after all.

    That said, I am unused to running basic D&D so I would imagine that part of the problem is me. The scenario I wrote wasn't supposed to be as investigation-based as you lot made it, so perhaps I should have steered you away from the roleplaying and more towards the fighting and looting. Or perhaps I should have run it under WFRP.

    The thing is, LotFP is a version of D&D that has solved almost all -- experience aside -- of the things I dislike about D&D. If it's not to the group's tastes, then that's fine, as we have plenty of other games to play, but I wanted to give it a try, at least.

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