Lamentations of the Flame Princess is made of lies

Started by lumpley, October 11, 2011, 03:56:19 PM

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Fruitful, fruitful lies.

Let's see. It's our first real session, after a session of character creation and a bit of fumbling. I'm GMing. Meg's playing Van Joost, a dwarf. Sam's playing Brother Leobald, a cleric. Rob's playing Leike, a halfling. And Eppy's playing Brom, a magic user.

Our heroes land at a tiny stockade colony on the shore of the New World. I take my lead from Vance and provide them with more hooks and clues than they can possibly use, and some pretty good reasons to depart and/or overthrow the place. A vampire who visits the children's bunkhouse. The cursed pelt of the Wne Gikw Wakw. The colony fathers, who insist upon a policy of good order and, in return for an honest day's grueling labor, offer a generous least-share of the colony's annual increase, plus a cot in the men's bunkhouse and twice daily meals of boiled grain-kernels and salted rabe. The Warranawankong, who gather at night up the beach, where they toast crustaceans and mollusks and drink fermented tree sap and sing. Lost Vikano-dwarfish gold. The trappers' camp. Matthew Luke and Phillip, the three Mioonkhtuck who were "elected" by their people to convert to Christianity and join the colony to see if that life has anything better to offer than their own.

Now with Phillip to lead them they've departed the compound, following Brother Leobald on his utter fool's mission to spread the Word of Our Lord to the Rechgawawanc, who share their forest home with cannibal giants. It was a toss-up between them and the Mioonkhtuck, who, in the words of Phillip, "lead peaceful though benighted lives, and only rarely eat the brains of our enemies."

So that's a world of fun.

But the lies:

Before we started, I had a whole different vision for how the game would go. I expected and wanted something weird-horror-historical, straight up, with the sort of consistent moral underpinning that'd make it horror, you know? Where it's not just the players who judge whether letting a vampire eat your children is a moral failing, it's me, and it's the game world's conceptual structure (or something, I'm just making this up). Where a vampire is by nature a creature of moral failing, like it would be in Dogs in the Vineyard. I wanted a more adult, bloodier and scarier, more perilous version of my game Storming the Wizard's Tower, for those of you who know that game.

I believed - and still believe! - that this expectation of mine was well-warranted by the game's GMing text.

But then we sat down to make characters, and ... I dunno. I remarked to Eppy toward the end of character creation that I hadn't expected all this implicit Vance. I regarded it as a big problem, a betrayal, a complete undermining of my prepped enthusiasm. Where I thought and believed that the game's GMing text had oriented me to its rules, it hadn't. It had put me in tension with them instead! They weren't going to give me what I'd hoped for, at all, and the only way for me to reconcile my expectations with the reality of the rules was to go all frickin' Vance with it. The moral underpinning has to go out the window, to be replaced by an ironic and cynical relativism antithetical to straight-up gritty weird historical horror. I was discouraged and pretty mad.

If you ask me to point to the particular betrayal in the rules, that I noticed during character creation and pegged as "implicit Vance," I won't be able to do it. I just remember that slow uncomfortable realization that I'd signed up for something I hadn't signed up for. Maybe I'd still get to have my child-eating vampire or whatever, but I sure wouldn't get my precious system-supported, setting-supported moral outrage.

Then I remembered how much I love Vance, of course, and how much I'd enjoy trying to channel him, and just how much fun his ironic, cynical relativism is. So now it's great.

Anyway, I think that's pretty interesting. When I played Moldvay D&D a few years ago, I could just fill in its spaces with what I wanted to do, but somehow the mis-orientation of Lamentation's GMing text to its actual rules left me with only the one fruitful way to go.



Vincent, could you explain how the system supports moral outrage?

Its surprising that you mention being surprised by the Vance in this game because lately it has occurred to me that I enjoy dungeon crawling in a D&D style more when the Tolkien inspirations are dialed WAY down and the weirder elements of Leiber and Vance are dialed way, way up.  When I've mentioned this to friends online, they've pointed me at LotFP and I was planning on picking it up when I had a few bucks.

Eero Tuovinen

That's an interesting reaction to the text. I think it's illustrative that when I read the GMing text in LotFP, I came to it from a heavily opinionated gamist perspective, expecting the text to either fail or redeem as a treatment on how to reconsile player freedom, GM preparation and the sort of drastic consequences (party death) that D&D is known for. I was reading it in the context of D&D and my own research on refereed adventure gamism, with the outcome that I didn't get any moral underpinnings from it at all - there was some noise about horror in the arrangement, but it all seemed to me just some arbitrary aesthetics that by itself has no bearing upon the procedures of old school D&D at all. In fact, for me the most important bits of the GMing instructions were the spots where the aesthetic procedures conflict against traditional D&D materials: when Jim writes about how greenskins need to be replaced with human aboriginals and how there should be no such things as generic magic items, those are the important principles that latch onto the changes he made to the rules to produce the LotFP-style grim and true-to-life D&D.

Insofar as it matters, I agree with Jim wholeheartedly about the aesthetic direction he's attempting in there for D&D: he's creating a D&D that does not involve mechanical inflation as the systemic basis, and trying to remove the stylistic conventions from stakes and consequences encountered by the player characters, enabling a more natural flow of events without all the cruft that's built up on D&D fantasy, distancing it from its literary antecendents. The "weird fantasy" program is, I understand, primarily his way of deciphering these structural goals of setting up the game - as is often the case with roleplaying gamers, he's discussing literary style as a shorthand for actual play-impacting procedures. It's sort of the same thing you get with the various official D&D campaign settings, where it's implicitly expected that swapping orcs for vampires in Ravenloft will make the players play with more moral gravity.

The game you describe, by the way, seems to be Dread - it does that moral-center-lies-with-the-GM thing just about perfectly, I find. Looking the LotFP text over now I do see the spots you mean, stuff about imposing gravitas upon the players. I have to admit that I just about ignored all that when reading the book for my own purposes, being as how I was so deep into my own discourse upon D&D's nature at the moment - it was easy to pin-point the bits that would be irrelevant to how I understand D&D, that were only there to fulfill the traditional requirements of what you should write about when writing GMing texts. I was reading with the conviction that I had a funnily-named D&D text in my hands, so interpreted my reading in that light.

But yeah, I agree with your ultimate conclusion - there's no moral underpinning to LotFP, and the horror thing is just aesthetic color on what is essentially a brutally challenge-oriented fine-tuning of Mentzer D&D. The horror is not entirely insignificant in that it impacts the nature of the situations the player characters end up in, but that's not theme at all, it's just campaign logistics: instead of having monster-slaying be a routine occupation in the setting, it's "horror", meaning that nobody in the setting does it except the player characters, who go to the dark places and experience the horror others won't acknowledge. The horror thing has more to do with how you frame your challenge set-ups within the campaign setting than with anything thematic and personally meaningful for anybody.

I've read about other people coming to the game with the expectation that it'd be a horror game of some sort, and it is a fair assumption based on much of the marketing - the back cover text, particularly, which Jim wrote in the traditional RPG author bullshit mode, insofar as I understand, but also the illustrations and such. While people coming to the game with the expectation that it's part of the on-going D&D discussion don't seem to get confused with it, it would probably have been better overall to have the text be more clear about how all that fluff is still for the purpose of coloring an amoral universe where scruples are something your character gets the luxury of by first being a success. Old school D&D, in other words, just with an aesthetic program and a chip on its shoulder about character advancement.


Regarding your campaign, an unrelated question occurs to me out of curiousity: how comfortable are you with the demihuman PC races as a part of your setting? I'm asking because it's a prominent place where Jim was rather light-handed in revising Mentzer; considering his aesthetic program, I'd have scuttled the lot myself, and other people (Jim included) have said as much. It's not impossible to do the demihuman thing without being awfully cheesy, I think (see my recent favourite Anomalous Subsurface Environment for an example), but at least for me it takes some active work to visualize how my setting needs to be to handle these forehead-swap aliens walking about.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Hey, Judd, Eero, if I say this following, are you both with me? I expect so:

Moral questions and answers can create fun tactical texture in Step On Up play the same way that tactical questions and answers can create fun moral texture in Story Now play.

An example of the latter: does being able to seize the throne make you a better king? An example of the former: does being a good king make you better able to seize the throne?

For Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I'm all about moral questions and answers creating fun tactical texture in Step On Up play. That's unchanged, that was always my plan.

I was expecting it to go one particular way: I'd create a horror, meaning a moral outrage dressed up in gaudy gory imagery, and the PCs' righteousness, or compromise, or fear, or desperation would create fun tactical texture. Their response to the horror is would be up to them, of course, but fundamentally they'd identify it as a moral outrage, right? Because it would be one.

It turns out it's going a different way: instead, I create a system of cowardly, self-serving banalities dressed up in gaudy gory imagery, and the PCs' indifference to it or engagement with it - again, totally up to them - creates fun tactical texture. I present the child-killing vampire and they shrug and go off with Phillip and Brother Leobald, and they're not allowing a moral outrage to stand, the way the would be in the game I imagined. They're simply affirming the immutable nature of the world, which is that generally one selfish creature is able to assert itself upon another, to the detriment of the latter.

I don't know if this is making sense! I don't know if it's making sense at all.

I'll come back and answer about the demihuman races, though. That'll be more concrete.


Callan S.

Quotewhere scruples are something your character gets the luxury of by first being a success.
In something like riddle of steel, you have the spiritual attributes. I imagine in LOTFP you can accumulate money, the better weapons and armour and perhaps even magic.

So it's possible to read that progression as an empowerment like spiritual attributes empower whatever character principles. To read it that the gold you took after killing is also an out of game nod of encouragement towards play that questions that killing.

But it's also possible to read it as you might read chess. I'm thinking of a player in some D&D 4E encounters I've played in who actually says he sets out to make a broken ranger (and by gosh, it outputs some high damage numbers!). Such a thing always strikes me as being like a scar upon the fictional landscape. Not so much because I give a shit whether it's just played like chess, but presumably the player is attracted by the fiction to some degree. So he's attracted to the fiction, but he makes things within it that are devoid of fiction - thus creating a scar against, apparently, his very own pursuit. I can almost imagine this scar simply traveling about the sense of bad and even good things in the game world, moral outrages, whatever, and tearing them all to dust and tinder as a set of numbers pursues the accumulation of more numbers, making one long scar through it all. Kind of an avatar of nihilism. Great damage output, though. ;)

I'd consider whether LOTFP can just as easily slip into the latter, for any given player, due to mechanical structure, and also due to mechanical structure, that'll just seem to be how you play to that player. There wont be any moral texture to it all from the perspective they are mechanically sat in by the rules, even if you try real hard as a GM or even as fellow player. Just numbers, some higher, some lower, some ambiguous.

Quotebut at least for me it takes some active work to visualize how my setting needs to be to handle these forehead-swap aliens walking about.
Perhaps fly the idea at the game table of humans as also being demihumans themselves? No one gets to be the one, definite, true race, even though every race thinks they are.


Conveniently, nobody chose to play an elf, so THAT's good. I can say "sure, you've heard stories about elves," and leave it at that. When somebody decides to play an elf we can figure it out then, or maybe I'll decide to bring one in as an encounter sometime.

Some number of generations ago there was a dwarfish diaspora across Northern Europe. I suppose that the original dwarfish kingdom was under the mountains somewhere; why they all abandoned it, I haven't considered. Now dwarfs are integrated into human society, more or less, keeping their own ancestral customs and adopting local customs in the mix that seems best to them case by case. Thus our heroes can come upon a 500-year-old Vikano-dwarfish bedstead ornament of cast gold in the New World. Meg plays Van Joost as practical and worldly.

Halflings live apart from humans and dwarfs in their little aboriginal pastoral villages, under sod roofs and in the roots of giant trees, in remote places throughout Europe. They've been here longer than anybody except maybe the elves, but we don't know about the elves. Rob plays Leike as wide-eyed.

There's no such thing as species in this world (as our heroes will learn most concretely if they go hang out with the Warranawankong, but shh don't tell them) so it's not saying much to say that humans, halflings, dwarfs and probably elves are all ultimately the same kind of critter.

So I'm finding the demihumans fun and nonproblematic!

Callan, your thing about a chesslike approach to play may or may not apply to Lamentations sometimes, I don't know, but it's off the mark for this game.


Eero Tuovinen

The bit about moral basis being a part of the tactical landscape makes sense to me. When we've been playing D&D lately, the moral core of the activity has sometimes been part of the goals ("Can I make it in this fucked-up world without descending into iniquity?"), sometimes part of the means ("Wow, look at how much easier it is for me to get the gold by being nice once in a while!"), sometimes a part of the consequences ("Hey, who knew I'd get in trouble by being an asshole.") and so forth. In a sense being a paladin is its own reward, because it's the iron man mode of play in my conception of the game: your choice of playing the heroic type is not rewarded in any way by the game, except in that you can say that you've hacked with the best of 'em, and you're good enough to make it look good, too.

D&D (and LotFP, being as how it has that same die-for-your-stupidity-and-money-is-its-own-reward thing to it) truly is an utterly cynical world, I recognize that unwillingness on the part of the players to play the hero; it's not encouraged by anything in the system, and it can so easily become an unneeded difficulty that it's no surprise the players will most of the time gladly play immoral opportunists. Their characters will still do the right thing when presented with the easy opportunity, but the gravity of the risks in baldly refereed D&D is enormous; it's one of the few games where I've ever seen a player balk at doing the heroic thing when given the chance, when the same player will always take that option in your average narrativist game. The combination of random mechanics leading to random death for the brave ones and an uncaring universe does that. The long-term consequence seems to be that the characters who choose the high road are vivid exceptions (or quickly dying naive ballast), and when the characters achieve heroism the GM doesn't keep back from celebrating it - the one time in ten sessions when the characters actually manage to help somebody, they better be able to enjoy it in terms of fictional color and positioning.

It's pretty easy to sympathize with the 2nd edition D&D developers who wanted to make the game more clearly support underlying morality in how it was played. It might not be far-fetched to interpret the softer and nicer GMing approaches with this need for moral validation; there's a lot more room for vicarious chivalry in a game where the GM actually acknowledges it and plays fast and loose with the rules to make sure the errant knight actually gets, if not the girl, at least an honorable death. The OSR stuff I've been considering lately is quite opposite in this regard, the GM in most of that will never give an inch - you live or you die by the dice and your decisions, and the only chivalry in this world is the one you bring to it yourself. In that sort of context player characters almost have to be neutral opportunists to begin with, and the players have to downplay moral absolutism; to do otherwise would be to constantly focus on how mediocre, powerless and mean our own characters are. We've only gotten some characters to third level, but I can already see how the players loosen up and are willing to have their characters take more moral stances when they start feeling like they're a force to be reckoned with - a third-level character in my campaign has enough freedom and security to afford chivalry, one might say.

I think that reading Ravenloft material from the 2nd edition era might be an interesting counterpoint to your campaign experience. There's a lot of different and diffuse ideas in there, and a lot of it is blatantly dramatic in nature, but often you can see it sort of attempt to get to the place where moral absolutism becomes a tactical concern. It's a difficult conundrum, as you can't really convince a player to put his character (and interest to play) on the line with moral constraints unless you also back him up by guaranteeing him some respect and support for that choice; how to do that without going over the line and starting to ensure that the good guys win all the time?
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Vincent, you lost me but that is fine.  I'll watch the thread, marinate and ask questions later.



Hi Vincent,

I'll broadly agree with Eero.  In the OSR, Lamentations has cred as a nice hack of Moldvay/Cook, but I don't think anyone regards its "spoooooooky" stuff as much more than flavor text. 

D&D does not easily lend itself to moralistic horror stories.  The rules of the game directly reward getting rich and, if necessary, killing whoever gets in your way.  As an emergent property it encourages operating from a position of overwhelming tactical advantage.  These are shitty moral values if taken seriously: in the real world, they would be the values of a psychopath.  Therefore Vance's sense of irony as a method of detachment.

What D&D does do fairly well is "lousy human beings get devoured one by one as they panic, and serves them right" type horror stories.  If you present a creepy room in a dungeon, and the players sense the danger but can't bring themselves to leave it alone, then there is at least a sense of dread.  Maybe if you establish that all of the characters are scumbags, that might provide a moral framework for the carnage that follows...?

Ron Edwards

Hi Vincent,

As an intellectual issue, I am having a little trouble with the term "lies." I want to let that statement sit quiet for now, maybe to be addressed later.

The crux point for your experience seems to me to have been right at substantive character creation. You had a vision, or an aesthetic, or whatever we want to call it, in your head; character creation occurred, and you found that vision to be inconsistent with the raw tools-of-the-trade, i.e., the characters and their evident purpose at the player-use level.

I think you can probably see how my old, incomplete Color-first project is implicated here. That project sought to examine how goals of play and rewards of play were given shape through character creation, and what information was necessary - and differed - from game to game regarding that exact process.

Therefore I really, really would like to know about the following.

1. What precise information were the players working with regarding "what this game is about"?

2. What steps did they go through to make their characters, in terms of both (i) the literal step-by-step instructions and (ii) socially, the extent to which it was overseen by you?

3. What exactly were the characters as they emerged, i.e., what and who were they, right there on paper?

Best, Ron


James (and Eero):

Huh, well.

In Lamentations' GMing text, I see very definite statements about horror and the weird, including strong systemic support (like not including monster writeups), and I see no emphasis on dungeon crawling at all. So I'm running it as a horror-and-the-weird game, with few or no dungeons. So far it's perfectly suited, as I expected! All that's surprised me is how insistently it's brought the Vance out in me and my NPCs.

Now, that's in me and my NPCs, not in the players or their PCs. I don't know how to say this strongly enough. There's no sign yet of the PCs being psychopaths or scumbags, and maybe one or another of them will turn out to be, individually, but I really don't see any systemic pressure toward it in the game. Unlike my NPCs, I expect the PCs to, mostly, have real compassion and a sound sense of justice.

Most concretely, they don't get XP for treasure they've gained by criminal enterprise, only by adventuring. This is such a clear statement! It gives the PCs this impulse away from the lazy self-interest that, lacking it, nature and I give every NPC in the world.





1. Who knows! Maybe half of them had read the game individually and brought their own conclusions about it with them. I said "I have this historical weird horror game I've been wanting to design, see if Lamentations does it so I don't have to, yeah?" I also said "don't expect dungeons," and pointed out the picture in the book of the PCs talking to the farmers where we the audience can see a disemboweled body hanging in the barn.

2 & 3. We met to create characters and made them out loud, in public. The step-by-step is quick: roll some stats, choose a class, derive some derived stats, buy your crap. I brought a name list. I said "if magic has been a big part of your life before now, choose chaotic alignment; if you're a priest or nobility, choose lawful alignment; otherwise, choose neutral."

I oversaw lightly. At this point, I believed that I was well-oriented to the rules, and that the process of character creation would put the players in the same orientation - that's how I design my own games, after all! So as character creation proceeded, and the players asked questions that I didn't expect them to care about and began to form shared backstory that I didn't expect them to want, I was surprised. I free-associated halflings' place in the world for Rob, and deferred to Meg about dwarfs' place in the world; that was fine. I blinked dumbly at Eppy when he said that his character was a bearded lady magic user who'd been kept locked up in a tower by her father, also a wizard, until quite recently. That was ALL wrong, but I'd clearly already pre-allowed it. If I was going to impose limits on character creation, I should have thought them through in advance and said them up front.

Then there was this funny piece where Evan said "my guy's a sailor!" and as a group they decided they had a ship, but I was like "have you looked up how much a ship costs? It's in there," so Evan decided that he was a shipwrecked sailor who'd just washed up on the beach and at the same time everyone else decided that they'd all just signed on a ship, which left Evan frowning and scratching his head. Ultimately, with some fumbling around about the voyage, I just grabbed it and said that they were arriving at the New World on this miserable little ship, and they could suck it up. The New World it is.

Oh, this is significant! I'd envisioned characters who were down and out, kind of desperate, hungry, but the game gave them money and weapons and allowed them (by pure default) to create their own non-desperate starting circumstances.

3. Briefly:

Meg's dwarf Van Joost. He's rich and has kind of a lot of crap, because Meg rolled high for starting cash and dwarfs enjoy encumbrance advantages. Meg plays him like I say practical and worldly, with an agreeable but firm personality.

Sam's cleric Brother Leobald. He's an older man who's come to the new world to preach God's word and stamp out sin - he's let on that he's seeking truly unusual sins to stamp out, the usual kind don't do it for him anymore. As a cleric he gets to cast only one spell a day, and he has to choose it in advance, but he can choose from all the cleric spells.

Eppy's magic user Brom. She's a bearded young woman passing for a man, quite tall and robust, with chain mail and a sword and one spell a day. (Eppy: "I rolled perfect stats for a fighter, so I'm making a magic user. It makes for a poor magic user, but it's the only way one can survive level 1!" I don't know if he's right about that. He might be.) She also gets to cast only one spell a day, chosen in advance, but Eppy had to roll to see which 3 spells she could choose from each day. He was happy to get sleep and charm, and I forget the third.

Rob's halfling Leike. She's a teenager, but so small physically that I've decided that my NPCs will take her for a child. Halflings are good at bushcraft and stealth and stuff. Rob made up a backstory about how she's been driven from her home because she has a disease that only halflings get, but I'm ignoring it. If they meet more halflings I'll have to decide what I think about it, but they probably won't.

Even created a specialist sailor whose name and details I don't recall, and dropped out before the first session. He dropped out for grad school reasons that aren't suspicious, but I wouldn't care if they were. We're joking that I have a pool going for who drops out of the game in which order and how soon, and we're a little surprised that Evan dropped out before Rob did, but it's not all the way a joke. The truth is that I'm playing this game entirely for my own entertainment, so no questions asked and no hard feelings for anybody who ditches for any reason.

I can't have answered your questions all the way. Help me out?


Callan S.

QuoteCallan, your thing about a chesslike approach to play may or may not apply to Lamentations sometimes, I don't know, but it's off the mark for this game.
I suppose I'm looking at psychology upon contact with whatever rules/structure/material is there, given the noted dissonance between GM text and rules/structure. Given that the two examples I gave are wildly different and yet would feel perfectly normal and "How you play" to the individual, the whole Vance style of play may just as much be another wild tangent as well, and yet, just as much as with the others, feel perfectly normal, the status quo and "How you play".


Hi Vincent, I may have misread you before so I'm just checking to see if I've got this right:

So the problem is that char-gen let you down as a DM because the process didn't really orient the players to the type of Weird Horror stuff you had in mind?  Like, their questions and ways they built their characters didn't take the moral dimension of Weird Horror role-playing sufficiently into account . . . and when you realized they were oriented all wrong, it was an "Aw, fuck it, let's just do Vance" type of moment?

Looking over the Lamentations of the Flame Princess character-creation rules, it looks almost exactly like D&D, except that there's a bit of flavor text associated with each class.  Did the players get to read that flavor text?  The stuff for the Fighter and Magic-User in particular at least hint at what the game is going for, atmospherically.  But without that, it just looks like the creation rules would lead to a standard D&D sandbox with a creepy atmosphere, a custom Thief class, and some easy-to-use encumbrance rules.  Getting Weird Horror would probably require a stronger hand from the DM.

Have you read Death Frost Doom?  I haven't, but it's widely regarded as one of Raggi's better efforts and an example of what he was hoping Lamentations of the Flame Princess would lead to.



Callan: Maybe, but what other people might find normal isn't on point.

James: Ah, good! No, not quite that, but close.

Character creation, not my pre-play musing, is the real start of the game. Character creation revealed to me that my pre-play musing was just musing, that I was the one oriented all wrong. I grasped at the time, and then it because quite clear over the next couple of days, that what was missing from my orientation was the Vance.

There's no "aw, fuck it, let's just..." for me trying to do Vance. This game so far is some of the best situation creation I've ever done!