Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review: LotFP WFRP Tutorial

Having been one of the lucky "first 100" to order James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Grindhouse Edition, I have been slowly reading through the contents of the boxed set over the past couple of weeks, relishing the riches found within. What follows is part one of a three-part review of the game; my comments will be organized in the same manner as the game itself, i.e., Part 1 will cover the Tutorial book, Part 2 the Rules and Magic tome, and Part 3 the Referee manual. Let's begin!

First, a few general comments about the overall quality of this product. I am not the first to observe that James Raggi is arguably the most quality-driven publisher in the OSR gaming business. His products (since at least Death Frost Doom) are consistently of very high production value, with evocative original artwork, superb layout, and (for the most part) a clear, effective, and engaging writing style. LotFP Grindhouse is no exception -- in fact, it is more or less the highest-quality OSR product I have yet seen, its nearest equivalent being Zak S.' Vornheim, also recently published by Raggi.* I ask the reader to bear in mind this general assessment of Raggi's work in what follows, for when I critique aspects of Grindhouse, I am in some ways judging Raggi against his own incredibly high standards, and even my negative comments should be seen against a backdrop of general awe for what Raggi's LotFP (the company) has accomplished here. Also note that I do not own and have only cursorily glanced at the previous Deluxe Edition of LotFP WFRP, so my review takes the new Grindhouse Edition at face value, on its own terms.

The Tutorial book sports my favorite cover image of the trilogy, created by Aeron Alfrey and visible in its draft stages here.

Indeed, the art in general is very good in this book, and there is a surprisingly coherent feel to the artwork throughout. My concern all along has been that by involving himself with such a wide variety of contributing artists and by emphasizing the artwork so heavily (especially leading up to Grindhouse Edition's release), Raggi might over-extend himself or get so obsessed with the artwork that it would become too much a focal point. But I don't think that that has happened. The art balances nicely with the text and there isn't too much of it. Beyond the Tutorial's excellent cover, I am particularly fond of the images found on pp. 3, 15, 50, 54, 77, and 90 -- yet the artwork is terrific throughout.

The bulk of the Tutorial volume is taken up with two introductory "adventures" presented as choose-your-own-adventure type narratives which gradually introduce core gaming concepts to the reader, like the role of attributes and what happens during melee combat. As James Maliszewski has noted in his review of Grindhouse, this CYOA-style tutorial is not necessary for veteran gamers, and may even seem counter-intuitive (why use a narrative "story" to teach gaming concepts?) or too long and involved (the two tutorial "adventures" run 41 pages taken together) even for a novice. Some would ask, "why not just plunge the neophyte gamer into the core rules mechanics, i.e., rolling 3d6 for each attribute in order?" That seems to be Maliszewski's implication and it is, at least for us grognards, a valid stance to take.

Ultimately, however, I feel unsure on this point; like Maliszewski, I learned to play D&D from a combination of reading certain books (Holmes Basic, the AD&D Player's Handbook) and playing the game with more experienced players. So I have never had to learn D&D (or any subsequent RPG) strictly from a book, and therefore I don't know how best to create that kind of interface for the type of reader at whom this section is aimed. I think what Raggi is trying to accomplish on pp. 5-46 of the Tutorial book is to get the neophyte's mental feet wet without really crunching any numbers yet, but I honestly cannot judge how effective this part of the book is at accomplishing its intended goal.

That said, I really like the various tidbits of wisdom Raggi offers on pp. 47-55, under such headings as "More About The Game," "The Process of Play," "About the Rules," and "Winning and Losing." This whole cluster of short sections was my second-favorite portion of the book, after the "Recommended Reading" segment.

Ah, the "Recommended Reading" segment. This is far and away my favorite part of the Tutorial book, for it provides what I always hoped everybody else's "Appendix N" would: a prose essay contextualizing the work being recommended. More than just a list of books to read, Raggi (and his collaborators**) discuss certain key authors and (most importantly) tell us why we should read that author's works. This approach empowers the reader with information, a strategy which allows each reader to make informed choices about which authors (and works) to read first, last, or not at all. And the write-ups of each key author are very good -- overall, a highly recommended section.

Lastly, there is the "Glossary" on the back cover -- a nice touch, conveniently placed. A very smart use of that space given the book's function as a tutorial volume.

To sum up, while there is much here for the for the veteran gamer to skip over, and while I cannot say for sure how or if the choose-your-own-adventure style tutorials would work effectively to introduce a neophyte to the game, the LotFP WFRP Grindhouse Edition Tutorial is a well-produced tome that is highly appropriate for inclusion in a boxed set. Plus there are several gems herein -- the "Recommended Readings," some gaming wisdom in the last third of the book, the impressive artwork throughout -- that are sure to at least make enjoyable reading for the veteran RPG'er. I shall withhold "scoring" Raggi's game until I have read and reviewed the second two books, but for now, let me state that I am impressed with Tutorial's aesthetics and layout, and while its content hasn't fully satisfied me as an experienced gamer, it has surely whetted my appetite to get a look at the frikkin' rules!

Next volume, here I come.

* Review forthcoming.
** The "Recommended Reading" section is co-authored by Raggi, Michael McClung, Jukka Sarkijarvi, Scott S., David Larkins, James Murphy, Chris Hogan, and Juhani Seppala.


  1. Great review Carter

    I have my copy of Grindhouse edition and like you haven't really gone into the older editions from Raggi. Unlike you I haven't even read my Grindhouse edition yet, but have read Vornheim, which I purchased at the same time.
    I buy far more than I read.

    As for the Tutorial Book, I taught myself to play D&D with Mentzer red book. It began with a choose your own adventure, just like all the Choose Your Own Adventure Books I had been reading in 1982. It was all In needed to know. Expert set followed, then AD&D and two long lived periods of both D&D and AD&D play continuous play.

    So I think Raggi has chosen wisely. His game will hopefully find new players not just grognards.

    Looking forward to the next part of this series.

  2. I recall from the run-up to the deluxe edition that Raggi said he took the CYOA approach from the Mentzer Basic edition, which I believe was his introduction to D&D. And he had to learn it himself, he had no older friends/brothers to teach him. So I think he's aiming to serve THAT new player if one buys his game.

    How I come to know so much detail about the early life of some dude in Finland ... blogs are weird.

  3. Yeah, I remember Raggi talking about emulating the Mentzer tutorial as well. I was another one who basically learned D&D through the CYOA section in Mentzer, albeit somewhat unusually--a friend had the set and "ran" me through that section by reading the sections out loud and letting me make the choices.

    It's funny to see how closely Raggi has emulated Mentzer, actually. If you read the original Red Box tutorial, then the LotFP tutorial, you'll see Raggi has patterned the whole thing almost beat for beat on Mentzer--but changing the details to reflect the "weird fantasy" approach. For folks like me who are familiar with the original, it's an effective way of communicating the difference between LotFP and classic D&D. I'm still not sure what having a tutorial aimed at newbie gamers in such an incredibly niche product is going to accomplish--it's not like someone's going to find this box sitting in the Games section at Borders--but I do admire the implementation.

  4. THANKS everybody for that clarification -- Mentzer is the one edition of D&D I have literally never looked at. And I would agree that despite my finding little direct personal utility in that section myself, I do admire the way Raggi laid the CYOA parts out. Especially the little map snippets in the second CYOA adventure, which I probably ought to have mentioned in the body of my review. Is that specific feature horked from Mentzer?

  5. Yes it is.

    Funny thing - I hadn't meant to follow Mentzer's format quite so closely (nor the storyline in the first tutorial bit), but through misremembering details my "changes" were not actual changes at all.

    I would have made significant changes for the Grindhouse Edition, but I'd sent the Deluxe Edition to Mentzer and he gave it a thumbs up, so no need...

  6. Now please tell us what you think of the "example of play" in the tutorial. For me, it was the most interesting part. It just felt so much like my first game of D&D...

  7. @Khouni: Ah yes, I liked that part as well, especially the conclusion, where the players decide to roll new PCs and charge right back into the adventure. It nicely highlights the role of meta-game discussions of stuff like time limits for play sessions -- all that "real-world" stuff RPG groups actually do have to navigate quite regularly.

    Where Raggi's example group most reminds me of my own is in the following exchange (p. 57):

    James: Barrelman [. . .] points out to Jacques that he doesn't take orders from Gorgon.

    Enrico: That son of a bitch!

    Anne: You guys know that these hirelings refuse to be used as cannon fodder. [etc.]

    Enrico: What good are they then? Just draining our gold and xp!

    I can hear my own players saying this same kind of shit.

  8. Ahem ... that's wisdom, Carter, not shit.