Thursday, December 22, 2011

What I’ve been reading - Part II


With Christmas this weekend and the réveillon fast approaching, plus things rushing at work and preparing to move out to a new house, it has been hard to find time for my leisure reading (at the moment Burroughs and Umberto Eco), and yet harder to find time to read RPGs.

All the topics below deserved each a full post (and reviews), but, given the circumstances, they’ll have to make with just a few comments.


Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role Playing

Lamentations of the Flame Princess will always be an incomplete product for me. I like the art and many of Raggi’s clever and practical house rules for the original D&D game; the problem is that LotFP sells itself as “Weird Fantasy” and it sorely lacks in this aspect. You pay for the weirdness but all you get is a retroclone. At least the first version of LotFP had Weird New Word and Tower of the Stargazer in it, but these are standalone products given as extras. I really wish Raggi had added one full adventure in the Grindhouse edition (which, mechanic-wise, I found an improvement over the first version), something like the awesome Random Esoteric Creature Generator and, finally, concrete examples in the Tutorial Book for playing “weird” (like this outstanding and free PDF).

However, while the core rule set has its disadvantages, I’m very happy with the products from Lamentations of the Flame Princess press. Raggi keeps raising its standards; the best examples so far are the amazing books by Geoffrey McKinney – Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown. I just can’t wait for The Monolith From Beyond Space and Time, with material from the non-Euclidian sage Kenneth Hite.


Geoffrey McKinney’s Carcosa
[These impressions are based on the PDF, as my book hasn’t arrived yet.]

 
For those of you that don’t know, Carcosa is a great blend of Sword & Sorcery, Science Fantasy and Cthulhu Mythos. It details a barbaric world populated by weird-colored human races living in the ruins of a Serpent Men empire, trying to survive the presence of eldritch Great Old Ones, ancient artifacts from Lovecraftian races and contact with technology-aligned Space Aliens (Greys). It’s an amazing mash-up, very in the spirit of OD&D, that creates one of the most unforgiving and dark campaign settings I’ve ever see and yet a perfect place for emulating famous pulp characters like Conan, Kane, Elric – all that with ancient Elder Things artifacts, mad robots, spawns of Shub-Niggurath and more.

Carcosa is (in)famous among the Internet because of its dark and violent details of its sorcery rituals. Geoffrey himself points that this isn’t something new giving as an example M.A.R. Barker’s Book of Ebon Bindings, for Tékumel. While I can understand the author’s reasons for the graphic descriptions of Sword & Sorcery magic (Carcosa is, as I said, a very grim and brutal setting), I find them neither offensive nor necessary for running a Carcosan campaign. A very important point in this regard is that the author doesn’t immaturely relish or highlight those descriptions.

The LotFP’s version of Carcosa is a beautiful, revised and expanded book. All the cool rules (like sorcerer class, the psionics and the tables for robots and Shub-Niggurath spawn) are still there. The Carcosa PDF is one of the most user-friendly products I have ever read – the maps have links to the various monsters living in that hex, while each creature has links for rituals relating to it (and vice-versa).




Geoffrey McKinney’s Isle of the Unknown
[These impressions are based on the PDF, as my book hasn’t arrived yet.]

 
Despite the fact that I was anxious to see the new look of Carcosa, the product that really grabbed me was this one. Why? Let me answer what sold me on Isle of the Unknown – this is the Ashton Clark Smith game!

Geoffrey McKinney took the Forgotten Bard’s amazing and weird fantasy tales – especially his Averoigne Cycle – and created an island populated by strange and unique monsters, besides eccentric spellcasters and mysterious happenstances. The Isle of the Unknown is a hex-based location for sandbox campaigns where EVERY monster meet is new. Not only that but also every hex on the map has an encounter – be it a creature, a NPC, a magical statue, a bizarre location etc. Yeah, it is that awesome!

Isle of the Unknown is also beautifully illustrated (as you can see by its cover), particularly the full-paged arts of some of the island’s spellcasters.



Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay


Ok, this is a very different product from those above. You can almost argue that it is entire different way of playing RPGs.

As some of you already know, the current Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, by Fantasy Flight Games, it the 3rd Edition of the game. Akin to D&D 4th Edition, WFRP 3rd is a complete divorce from its predecessors. It has been (wrongly) accused of turning the RPG into a boardgame (like D&D 4th did).

WFRP 3rd is a traditional RPG, played with different dynamics. Things that normally would be written in the character sheet or annotated by the Gamemasters are now represented by physical components or counters. However, WFRP 3rd truly innovates with its resolution system.

WFRP uses special dice to determine the success or failure of a player character’s or NPC’s actions. Basically, each die has a symbol representing success (a Hammer) or failure (Crossed Swords). Bonuses are represented by another type of die (white dice), while penalties are represented by another type (black dice). The system is very simple – you gather your dice pool, roll and cancel out Hammers with Swords. After this step, if you have at least one Hammer your action is successful.

The originality of the system comes from banes and boons. Banes are represented by Skulls on the die’s face and indicate a complication, while boons are indicated by Eagles and indicate good luck. Because of these, it is possible to succeed at an action and yet suffer some kind of complication (or to fail at an action and have the consequences lessened or somehow altered by boons). This removes the traditional binary limitation of Yes/No or Success/Failure, common to most RPGs. It’s a great tool and I found out that it increases the drama and the players’ input at the table – everyone offers advice about how a bane or boon should be read.

WFRP 3rd has more to it than the short description above (like the Reckless/Conservative stance, the party sheet, the Chaos Star/Twin Comet dice etc). I just wanted to comment on the whole Bane/Boon aspect. Like Dragon Age’s Stunt mechanics or FATE’s Aspects, it is such a great idea that I’m at times tempted to implement in other games.