Thursday, June 9, 2011

But, shouldn't we aspire to be the Hero?

Back in the late 80s, but mostly in the early 90s there was a trend towards "dark" games.  Not just in terms of horror, but dark, grim subjects.  Obviously the ultimate expression of this zeitgeist was the classic "Vampire: The Masquerade", but you could see it in the FRPGs of the time too.  I called it sort of the anti-D&D mentality.   D&D was, at the time, about being a hero-even a super-hero, in a world that needed them.  Sure there was still plenty of "killing things and taking their stuff" but often the things killed were black and white evil, and saving the world was still the end game of many campaigns or at least the published ones.
This anti-D&D mentality was drawn out of the then perceived watering down of AD&D2's content.  In fact there are a number of publishers and authors from the time that I have talked too that have said they published their game in opposition to the loss of demons and devils from AD&D2 or as reaction to the popular media's stance on D&D.  "You think D&D is evil? Wait till you see my game!! ".  Such was the design philosophy of the products from Death's Edge Games.

We kinda got out of that for a while.  But now it seems we are heading back into it again only this time without some sort of reactionary motivation to account for it.

I like horror games. I have worked on a fair number of them over the years and one thing all horror games struggle with is the desire to motivate their players while putting fear into their characters.  Sometimes this is via mechanics.  The Fear saves/checks of many games are usually the first thing used.  The Sanity checks of Call of Cthulhu is also a prime example of a mechanical feature that has effects on the character and the player.  The game Dread does this brilliantly with Jenga blocks.  You can instill a sense of foreboding and doom in players IF you are willing to try.

The latest batch of supposedly Grim-Dark FRPGs don't do that.  They are more akin to the reactionary games of the early 90s.

I am going to pick on one as an example, but there have been and will be others.

I don't like "Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing".

It tries, oh so hard, to be edgy, but really all I see is like watching a little kid dress up in their mother's or father's clothes and pretending to be big.

Let's start with the suggested reading.  This is now nearly boilerplate text in any RPG these days.  Not just to include it, but to include these exact same authors.  There is a reason though, the works of Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, Poe, Howard and Tolkien are all fantastic as sources for a game.  Each had a level of storytelling that was sublime.   LotFP is not sublime and I wonder truthfully if the author actually read those books.

The idea, as I take it, is that LotFP is supposed to be "wierd", but outside of the splatter-porn art and questionable abundance of violence on women, there is nothing in the game that I don't have already in Swords and Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord or Basic Fantasy.  Except with those games I get monsters.
Now the author claims there are no monsters because monsters should be unique.
Frankly that is not only lazy, it's bullshit as well.  The game has an introduction book aimed at new players, yet goes on to tell these new players to make monsters without ever giving them anything to work from?  That's also just bad design. This of course is the bias of an author who has not seemed to have played many games outside of AD&D; I am not sure what games Raggi has played, but venture outside of AD&D and there are a lot of ways to have monsters and make each and every encounter with them unique and fearful.

Let's compare this to Call of Cthulhu the pinnacle of horror gaming for most.  There is a whole chapter on monsters, right there in front of everyone.  In fact there is even a skill in the game so characters can know something, maybe a lot of something, about each and every one.  It still does not do them a bit of good.  Raggi quotes Lovecraft and Smith, but his depiction of what you do with those elements are almost antithetical to what the authors were actually doing.  Browsing through the art (which is fantastic by the way, when it is not over doing it with the violence on women) there is nothing here that would actually have appeared in any Lovecraft or Smith book.  Yeah, there is the vague Nyarlathotep-looking creature on the back cover of one of the books, but that was the exception rather than the rule.   He took the time (and use that phrasing rather loosely) to not include monsters, but didn't bother to say much at all about mood, tone and how to generate a sense of horror that doesn't involve a disemboweling.

Horror is not the only factor in these newer Grime Dark games, there is after all the Grim.
Well to get a good idea on how to best do this I'll take a very recent example, The Northlands, which I reviewed a while back is grim game. The stakes in this game are high; you screw up you will freeze to death and that is your best option.  It very successfully impresses on you the feeling of doom; yet people still live here and make a life out of it.  The Scarred Lands from Sword and Sorcery Studios a few years back is another grim world.  They are grim, but not to the point of nihilism. People/Characters still can rise up and be something more than they are now.

And so far I don't like Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Why are we looking at a game and extolling it's "non-heroic" mien as a virtue?

Plus, on a pragmatic point, neither of these games are particularly original or new.  What new has been added?  Specialists (LotFP) are new and I'll grant that something that would work well in a Swords & Wizardry game.  DCC? Well I am still reading through the BETA to be honest with you.  The art reminds me of the old school art, but lacks the charm of it.

I like the old school games. I still love playing B/X and it's modern clones.

Butt what I did then is what I like to still do now.

Play the game, save the village, town, kingdom,  or even just the princess (or prince), defeat the monster, and be the Hero.

I have both the Deluxe and Grindhouse versions of LotFP and I'll pick up DCC too.
I doubt I'll play either.


Geek Gazette said...


Trey said...

Good review. While I don't really know where I come down on this (I'm typically suspicious of the dismissal of things as Grim-Dark--indeed the use of that turn tends to make my eyes want to roll--I'm also suspicious of the overuse of "weird" fantasy author name checking with little indication of a real grappling with the material) cogent opinions dissenting from the majority are always interesting.

Pontifex said...

Epic post. And ballsy. I like it.

BlUsKrEEm said...

Summed up exactly how I feel. I do like much of Mr Raggi's work, but LOTFP is not one of them. I am reminded of Freak Legion and some of the other "Black Dog Games" books released by White Wolf.

scottsz said...
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cibet said...

Great post. I agree with the sentiment for the most part. Especially the violence on and objectification of women aspect of many games and, especially, game art.

BTW, it's time for the Lovecraft blowback to start now. Can someone create an RPG that doesn't involve Cthulhu or Mythos monsters? I dare you. Consider it a challenge. It seems like RPGs just throw in random "elder beings" now because they have to.

Anonymous said...

First off, I love your points and I agree with them. However, Scottsz brings up a question, and I think it has a right to be answered.

Short Form: I can see a place and a need for a game that explores what it is like to be on the other end of the law, and doing explicitly evil things. Surely there is a place for a game where you take the role of Jack the Ripper, as an example. However, it is hard to make an extended game play game around such a thing, and these 'let's be bad guys because it's fun' games don't touch the level of sophistication that is required for a real exploration of what it is like to be the hunter hunted.

Pun Isaac said...

This reminds me of issues that I had playing D&D with my friends family. They almost always played evil characters. I'm not saying I always played a shining paladin, but I like playing the hero.

As far as Flames is concerned, I'd never actually knew anything about it until Something Awful's: WTF D&D?! did a segment on the Grindhouse edition. I can't unsee those things. I then decided to scan some of the blogs I've recently subscribed to, to find out more about the game. I'll admit that I've not actually looked at the product itself, but I'm not impressed with what I've read about it and I think your description sums up some of my reasons nicely. Lamentations seems like Death Metal D&D based on the artwork, and that has no appeal to me.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

I don't even see it as Death Metal D&D, it says it is, but in the end it doesn't deliver. Nothing there that isn't in S&W or OD&D. Actually less, since there are no monsters.

I LIKE to play the Paladin, I like to be the hero. I also play horror games where I get to play the witch or the occult investigator. I even played Kult for a while which is more metal than anything we have seen in the entire OSR.
I have no issue with people wanting to play these games, I take issue with the trend that games *must* go into this direction.

Pun Isaac said...

As I said, I haven't actually read the book, just reviews and things. It actually makes a "Death Metal D&D" claim? The art they previewed had on WTF: D&D?! looked like Canibal Corpse covers (which the guys writing the article make the same joke).

Pulp Herb said...

I don't see a trend that they must go in this direction. Certainly S&W, LL, OSRIC, etc don't.

A better question might be "why, when games decide they have to choice a direction do they go dark/grim dark/black?" I think your standpoint is part of the answer.

Looking at OD&D it didn't have much inherent stance for the PCs. What little it did was freebooter/mercenary. Not heroes but not really villains either. Over time D&D evolved more into a game of heroes. By second edition that was a conscious setting for the game. A lot of people have suggested this was in reaction to MADD and 60 Minutes.

I disagree. While some of the more obvious bits (removing Demons and Devils for example) were responses to that mindset most of the changes to heroic were not. They came about because most people want to play heroes.

Master of the Universe toy line came about when research suggested boys 5-10 liked to spend a lot of time pretending to fight and defeat evil. He-Man was a response to that research. I think the drift in D&D was a response to the same realization, especially as the D&D market aimed at teenagers more than adults. I think, however, adults tend to skew the same way.

So I think gaming culture at large these days has as assumed "be the hero" current and those interested in having a different tone will tend to go away from that by default.

Dangerous Brian said...

You know, I agree with you regarding everything you say concerning Legends of the Flame Princess (I refuse to call it by it's acronym, a far, far better game got there first).

But I disagree about AD&D being heroic? What's heroic about entering the territory of an aboriginal tribe, killing them all and nicking their stuff? Typical D&D dungeon delvers weren't heroes in the modern sense of the word. They were no better than vikings.

Certainly, the might have been doing the civilised world a favour by fighting off evil. But at the end of the day, AD&D characters were (for the most part) after just two things: XP and loot. They were, in a word, reavers.

Now I understand that it didn't have to be played that way. In many campaigns the PC's were indeed heroes. But lets not forget that the central concept of D&D was about a bunch of anti-social rejects trying to get rich quick by bucking the established social system and risking their lives for money.

scottsz said...
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christian said...

Very nice. I don't get the fascination with LotFP. Pictures of women being slaughtered and gaping demon vaginas leave me yawning.

I am so tired of old school themes involving racially motivated murder and home invasion robbery. I think I'm pretty much done with that. Now that I have small children, it's just not something I want to glamorize.

Harald said...

I've never played LotFP, and I seriously doubt I ever will, but with the hype it's been getting the last year, I've looked into it a bit. What I've seen have made me view it in the same manner as a 14 y/o who tries to be shocking by writing "cunt" on a toilet wall.

To use porn as an example. There's good porn and there's bad porn. The good porn makes you believe that the actors are enjoying themselves, while the bad porn just shows you close-ups of moving body-parts, accompanied by phoney screaming and moaning.

LotFP looks like the second type. It comes across as immature and unispired, plain and simple. I may be wrong, but the first impression is bad enough that I'll stay clear of this game.

Tim, your points were well made, and I agree with most, if not all of them.

Dangerous Brian said...

I'm not so sure Scott. Sure, there is an element of serving the cause of good in eliminating evil, but it's the motive that makes the hero, not the byproduct of their actions (in this case getting rich is the motive. Making the area safer to live in by defeating evil is just the byproduct).

However, I agree that hunting down brigands and rapacious orcs to kill them and take their stuff is a world away away (morally speaking)from doing the same to the local peasantry.

Some groups might argue that the looting aspect is neccessary to fund additional expeditions against yet more bad guys. That is slightly more heroic, I agree. In this case doing good is the motive, not just the by-product. That's the type of group you're most likely to find a Paladin or cavalier belonging to.

I always try to ensure in my games (even in my sandboxes) that there is an opportunity for the PC's to rise above their status as common mercenaries. A turning point when they can decide once and for all if they're in it for the money or for the heroics.

Even so, you'd perhaps be suprised at how often the party chooses the path of self-interest over the path of righteousness. My current group are a rare (and somewhat refreshing) exception to the rule. All too often, when the moment of truth comes, the byplay goes something like this:

PC: There's an army of demon-possessed orcs marching on the town? Time to bug-out.

Townsman: But, but, you're the only ones who have a chance of delaying them long enough for the King's host to arrive. Without you mighty heroes to bolster our line and inspire the milita we're all doomed.

P.C: Then I suggest you begin evacuating the town. T

Second PC: Excellent, if they're going to evacuate we can loot the town before we leave.

Rhonin84 said...

I have read through Lamentations of the Flaming Princess and I really didn't see what was new in the writing. I have read similar in most of the recent OSR and was not impressed with this.

I didn't see what was dark in the writing other than allusions to "dark" writers...huh? I don't know Mr. Raggi but I'm sure he had good intentions and there seem to be many who like it, but I am not one.

The artwork while good in some spots, eventually turned me off as it degenerated into woman being assaulted piece after piece.

I have played the Goodman Games release and I'm sorry but if I have to go out and buy a whole new set of dice that I will not use for anything else, then I will not be playing this again nor wasting money on it....

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...


Woodclaw said...

I'm probably going to be killed for what I'm about to say, but I usually like grim settings, at least some grim settings. I don't like those setting than gave a grim tone and force the player in a descending spiral, where everything got darker and uglier by the second.

F.S. Fitzgerald was right when he said: "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy." Heroism, for me at least, is a matter of choices and morality not allineament. Making "the right thing" is pretty easy when it doesn't cost a thing. The Dungeon Crawler logic of "killing the demon = doing good" doesn't work because it's not a really heroic choice because there's no pathos, no tragedy. It's a simple gaming equation.

In a really grim setting a hero had the chance to shine even brighter than usual. Making hard choices and living with the consequences is the mark of real heroism.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Hey, I like dark. I have played, ran or have written for every horror RPG on the market (nearly, I have not played Dread yet). I get the appeal.
But the characters in those games are heroes, not jerks or assholes.

Heroes do aspire to be higher. I get the feeling that many of the characters (not the players mind you) that some of the games have in mind never plan on rising out of being the anti-social jerks they are when they started.

Geek Gazette said...

I think that people, gamers in particular, seem to latch on to a specific trend and hold on for dear life. There can be a real herd mentality at times. It doesn't discount or invalidate what people like or dislike, but it does seem to make them take it too far.
Now that everyone is on the old school bandwagon you hear that the only "real" D&D was pre-2e. If it doesn't have Gygax's stamp of approval then it isn't "real" D&D. Call of Cthulhu is the epitome of horror gaming. Now it seems that Flame Princess and DCC are the most amazing games ever created .
I think that all of the hyperbole is actually giving me a negative view of those games. I wasn't impressed with either of them and I'm not 100% sure my negatively skewed POV was not the result of hearing everyone getting all hot and bothered over their existence.
I have games I love to read and play (2e AD&D, Pathfinder, SAS, HEX) but even as a fanboy of those games I can see their faults. They are not perfect and if something better comes along I have no problem giving it a try and possibly adopting the new. The old game gets put on the shelf, remembered fondly and maybe even played out of nostalgia on occasion(ex. 3e and Pathfinder).
Now I'm ranting and this isn't even my blog!

Geek Gazette said...

To throw a little more fuel on the fire.
I like 2e (post Gygax D&D)waaay better than 1e, Basic or OD&D. Although as a gaming book the RC is pretty awesome. I just wish they did a 2e and 3e version.
I like and admire the spirit and DIY attitude of the OSR, but I think far many, but not all, in that group are a bunch of elitist, know it all snobs.
I do not think that Jack Kirby is the greatest artist to ever live.
While I like him as a person, I don't like Stan Lee's writing.
I can't stand Martian Manhunter.
I like white grapes better than red.
I can't stand beer.
I think Law & Order is a horrible show.

I feel better now.

Woodclaw said...


That's exactly my point. In my career as a gamer I've played heroes, villains and scoundrels alike and I noticed that the best part is having the possibility to choose.
Many games tend to set a tone and force the players to conforme to that tone creating characters that have no chance to evolve. As you said they start as dark, antisocial jerks and they stay there. What bugs me is that some systems force the players to stop there because otherwise they will "ruin the mood".

Now I don't pretend to be an expert, but I always thought that the best way to underline hopelessness if to allow a hero to try to change things and then crush his hope. Not stopping him before he even had a chance to try.

Mr.Castle said...
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Mr.Castle said...

@ Tim:

Where is the problem with the art of women beeing murdered? As far as I understand it, there are also a lot of art pieces of men beeing killed/....
I don't want to defend these pieces, but i don't understand why it is okay to have pictures of men beeing mistreated, but not of women?

And for the rest - I like the specialist, encumberance, and the treatment he gave to spells, also his adventures. But in the end, there isn't much weird going on here. In my opinion, a lot of people don't stray far enough from their D&D roots...

Timothy S. Brannan said...

@Mr. Castle: That isn't the argument I made. I never compared it to the art of violence on men (which there is some) nor on the relative merits of one over the other.