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.
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.