Monday 28 January 2019

Echoes and Reverberations 4: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

If Shadow of the Demon Lord positions itself halfway between WFRP 2 and D&D 3rd edition, then Lamentations of the Flame Princess stands between WFRP 1 and B/X D&D. Its kinship with WFRP is obvious from its seventeenth-century Northern European setting, its fantasy-horror themes, and its focus on PCs as doomed, crazy low-lives rather than epic heroes of legend. WFRP and Lamentations share a common language of evil cults, body horror, and black humour, and many Lamentations adventures could easily be repurposed as WFRP scenarios, or vice versa.

There are, however, important tonal differences between the two games, as Lamentations is much more nihilistic than WFRP ever was. The Warhammer chaos gods are sometimes described as a form of 'cosmic horror', but a comparison with Lamentations shows just how humanistic they really are: they're all rooted in richly human feelings of lust and rage and disgust and ambition, whereas Lamentations mostly deals with completely impersonal cosmic forces that inflict death and suffering either by accident or just because. Chaos is all about the dark side of humanity, and confronting it is about confronting our own willingness to see other people as things to be sacrificed in the service of our own bloodlust (Khorne), pleasure (Slaanesh), survival (Nurgle), or lust for power (Tzeench). The antagonists in Lamentations, by contrast, tend to see people as just so much interchangeable meat. The chaos gods love us: Khorne loves killing us, Tzeench loves fucking with us, Slaanesh loves actually fucking us, and so on. But the beings in Lamentations just really don't care. (Do U?)

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This tonal difference has some important knock-on consequences. The default Lamentations adventure pitch is 'get rich or die trying' rather than 'save the innocent from evil'. WFRP characters are plugged into the society around them by their careers: Lamentations characters are mostly assumed to be rootless wandering killers, with few if any connections to other people. WFRP scenarios tend to be human-scale, all about protecting individuals or communities, whereas Lamentations scenarios often include situations that can casually destroy the world, or at least depopulate large parts of it, in order to emphasise just how small and insignificant human lives are compared to the forces they depict. WFRP adventures are often very social affairs, all about understanding the relationships at work within settlements and organisations, whereas Lamentations adventures are usually much lonelier, set in desolated spaces where virtually everyone is already dead or worse. WFRP cultists tend to be driven by warped ambition, whereas Lamentations cultists usually just hate everyone and want us all to die, which makes their scenarios much more chilly and alienated than most WFRP adventures. Whether you view this tonal shift as an improvement or a weakness is going to come down to personal preference, but it means that several Lamentations adventures which seem on the surface as though they would be ideal WFRP fodder - No Salvation for Witches, for example, with its seventeenth-century setting and its demon-summoning coven - actually turn out, on closer examination, to be driven by very different themes.

Lamentations has been around for a decade, now, which is a long time in RPG terms, and its most WFRP-esque material was mostly released during its earlier years. Since 2016 it has increasingly focused on more experimental material, rather than on the early modern fantasy-horror that characterised its earlier output - and much as I love books like Veins of the Earth or Broodmother Skyfortress, I think you'd struggle to find a place for them in most WFRP campaigns. So what follows is a few notes on some LOTFP adventures that could be easily adapted for use as WFRP adventures, instead, insofar as they are fantasy-horror scenarios that should still work if the PCs are WFRP-style vagabonds rather than D&D-style 'adventurers'.

(I should note before I begin that I'm a year behind with LOTFP, and have yet to read any of their 2018 books, which are thus not included in this survey.)

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Death Frost Doom (2009, revised 2014): This is one of the all-time great 'evil temple' adventures, and perfectly suited to games about bands of adventurous misfits getting in way over their heads. The antagonists here exemplify my point about the tonal differences between Lamentations and WFRP: they revere death and pain in an abstract, almost clinical fashion, far removed from the red-blooded messiness of the chaos gods. It could still probably be used in a WFRP game with some minor rewrites: you could swap the ice for bloodstains and use it as a Khornate temple, or else rewrite it as the base of a necromantic cult who revere Nagash as a god. Probably best to leave out the mountain-sized giant underneath it, though.

No Dignity in Death (2009): This odd little adventure from the early days of Lamentations is a pretty minor work. It is, however, very WFRP-esque in tone, being set in an isolated little town full of self-righteous nobodies, brutal authority figures, weird customs, and dark secrets. Could be used almost as written as a refreshingly non-chaos-based interlude in an ongoing WFRP campaign.

Tower of the Stargazer (2010): This adventure is very D&D-ish in its assumption that 'the wizard's tower might have treasure in it, let's go and loot it' will be a sufficient hook to set the PCs into motion. It's a good wizard's tower, though: it could easily serve as the home of some batshit insane Celestial wizard in the depths of the Empire, and the emphasis on exploration and investigation rather than monster-hacking means that it would be much easier to translate into WFRP than most traditional D&D dungeons. Just put something the PCs need inside it and point them at the door...

The God That Crawls (2012): An anonymous commentator suggested this one in the comments thread. I felt that all the ultra-weird and world-destroying artifacts in the catacombs weren't a very good fit for WFRP, and that if you took them out then all you'd be left with was a blob in a labyrinth, but Anonymous points out that the basic set-up of a Sigmarite cult guarding a maze full of relics they'd rather keep hidden would be a perfectly viable basis for a WFRP adventure, even if none of those relics actually have the power to destroy the world. And I have to admit that getting chased around a maze by a giant slime-monster is a very WFRP-y concept for an adventure!

Death Love Doom (2012): Fair warning: the body horror in this adventure is more extreme than in any other Lamentations book, which is really saying something. It's much, much more horrible than anything that's ever appeared in a published WFRP adventure, and not at all recommended if you or your group are likely to be disturbed by scenes of appalling physical suffering inflicted upon innocent victims, including children. That said, the structure of this adventure is pure WFRP, with the house of a wealthy merchant declining into horror under the influence of a cursed artifact. Most of it could easily be adapted for use by any WFRP group with sufficiently strong stomachs.

Better Than Any Man (2013): This adventure is very WFRP-esque insofar as it's about cults and witches in the middle of the Thirty Years War, but as with Death Frost Doom the specifics are actually quite different: the anti-human omnivorousness of the insect cultists here is quite unlike that of any WFRP chaos god, and one important part of the storyline revolves around an ancient empire of evil halflings, who have no obvious WFRP equivalent. Still, a bit of work could probably turn this into an adventure about a witch re-establishing an ancient cult devoted to the worship of a bound demon prince of Nurgle who happens to be really, really fond of flies and maggots, against the backdrop of a civil war between two Imperial provinces. I'd probably remove the time travel elements if I was running it in WFRP - I'm fine with my level 1 magic-users getting bounced into the last ice age, but I prefer my artisan's apprentices to stay a bit more grounded in reality - but YMMV.

Scenic Dunnsmouth (2014): This isn't a traditional adventure: instead, it's a mechanism for using a deck of playing cards to randomly generate an awful little village in the swamps, complete with a lurking monster and an evil cult. The tone of wretched rural deprivation is very WFRP-esque, and whether you actually follow the instructions in the book or just go through picking out all the bits you like best you're pretty much guaranteed to end up with the kind of blighted, squalid little community that would fit perfectly into any backwater region of the Empire. Once again the cultists are death-worshippers rather than chaos-worshippers, but this would be an easy change to make.

Forgive Us (2014): I suspect this actually was a WFRP adventure, or at least an adventure by someone who had played an awful lot of WFRP. Thieves in an early modern city accidentally steal the wrong treasure, which ends up unleashing a magical disease that causes horrible mutations. Just add the word 'Nurgle' in a couple of places and you should be good to go.

The Idea From Space (2014): This adventure deals with an aristocrat whose ship is stranded on a remote island, where the passengers and crew swiftly fall under the sway of the feuding supernatural forces that reside there. I think this could be run in WFRP as easily as in D&D, and would resist the temptation to replace one or both of the supernatural beings on the island with chaos gods: they can just be weird things in a weird place. The New World is an under-utilised region in WFRP, and this adventure is the sort of thing that could easily fit into it.

A Single, Small Cut (2014): Theo suggested this one in the comments thread - I somehow hadn't read it before. A crazy wizard and his hired bandits murder a priest and his congregation in order to steal a demon-summoning artifact from the crypt, only to discover that they have no way of controlling the resulting beast. The PCs arrive just as the carnage starts. It's more of an encounter than an adventure, but would be very easy indeed to translate to WFRP.

England Upturn'd (2016): Stephen and Jon suggested this one in the comments thread. It's set in a seventeenth-century marshland region, complete with witch-hunters and swamp-monsters, which could very easily be used as the backdrop to a WFRP adventure. I initially left it off the list because the main story is a bit big - flipping a whole chunk of the world upside down, creating a massive tidal wave in the process, in order to unleash the evil elves of the Hollow Earth just isn't the sort of thing that happens in WFRP. But a scaled-down version, built around (say) flipping over a single hill in order to release some medium-sized threat from the underworld, could probably work pretty well.

The Cursed Chateau (2016): Stuart suggested this one in the comments thread. This adventure depicts a haunted mansion, complete with undead servants and hidden sacrificial chambers in the caves below, all of which could easily be adapted for use in WFRP. The only way out, however, is to sufficiently entertain the ghost of the sadistic aristocrat who once lived there, which seems to me to cut directly against WFRP's themes of class struggle. Add some way for the PCs to turn the tables and send the fucker straight to hell and you should be fine.

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Sunday 20 January 2019

Echoes and Reverberations part 3: Shadow of the Demon Lord

Happy new year, everyone! The last of the Christmas brandy has now been drunk, so I guess it's time I got back into the habit of blogging...

This is the third in a series of posts about what happened to WFRP after the demise of 2nd edition. The first two covered the official third edition. The next few will deal with the various other systems which, directly or indirectly, tried to carry on the WFRP legacy.

In the case of Shadow of the Demon Lord, the connection was a pretty direct one. Robert Schwalb had been the developer for WFRP 2nd edition, and was one of its lead writers, but seems to have had nothing to do with 3rd edition. (Possibly there was some bitterness between him and FFG over their decision to kill off 'his' edition of the game.) He spent the 3rd edition years (2009-13) writing D&D books for WOTC: but in early 2014, perhaps as a response to the final decline of WFRP 3rd edition, he began work on a game of his own, called Shadow of the Demon Lord, which went on to be successfully funded via Kickstarter in 2015. Schwalb has always been pretty open about the fact that Shadow was, effectively, his own personal 'WFRP 2.5', and the game has never made much effort to conceal its Warhammer influences. But by stepping away from the actual Games Workshop brand, Schwalb gained the freedom to develop the same core concept in some rather interesting ways.

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In many ways, I think that Shadow is WFRP 3 done right. Like WFRP 3, it aimed to marry together the old-school low-fantasy grimness of WFRP with both storygame-inspired mechanics and D&D-style fantasy heroics: but, unlike WFRP 3, the resulting mix actually worked. Let me explain:
  • From WFRP, Shadow took its early modern setting, its fantasy-horror themes and aesthetics, its focus upon cults, demons, and beast-men as the default antagonists, and its preoccupation with physical, mental, and magical corruption. 
  • From D&D - more specifically D&D 3rd edition - Shadow took its class-and-level based system and its emphasis on PCs whose rapidly increasing power was modelled via a la carte multiclassing.
  • From storygames, Shadow took the idea of the campaign as a scripted arc lasting a determinate number of sessions.
That third one looks small, but it's a real game-changer. For those of you unfamiliar with Shadow, this is how it works: a Shadow campaign lasts exactly 11 sessions. At the start of session 1, you pick an 'ancestry' (i.e. a race) and pick or roll for one or two 'professions' (i.e. a job): the professions are pretty WFRP-esque, so you might find yourself playing a human agitator, or an orc prostitute, or a goblin constable, or whatever. The titular Shadow of the Demon Lord is just starting to fall across the land, so you find yourself caught up in some kind of horrific one-session adventure, and hopefully survive. At the start of session 2, you advance to level 1 and pick a 'novice path' (i.e. a basic character class): there are four of these, and the choice of Magician, Priest, Rogue or Warrior should be familiar to anyone who has ever played any version of D&D. You're a bit tougher, now, a bit more of a D&D character and a bit less of a WFRP character - but the shadow is growing darker and the world is becoming more threatening, so your next one-session adventure will be more dangerous than the last one, and the one after that will be even worse.

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Survive three one-session adventures and you can pick an 'expert path' like Ranger or Assassin. Survive seven and you can pick a 'master path' like Beastmaster or Inquisitor. All the ancestries, professions, and paths stack with one another, so that by level 7 you might be a Dwarf Charlatan Priest Scout Engineer, or a Changeling Murderer Warrior Witch Technomancer, or whatever. (The D&D 3rd edition influence is very clear, here.) One session = one adventure, surviving one adventure earns you one level, and gaining one level earns you exactly one new ability, so the power and complexity of the characters increases in a very straightforward and predictable way, and you only have one new thing to remember in each session. As the characters grow in power, however, so does the Shadow of the Demon Lord, so that in session 1 they are ordinary people in a world where some spooky things are starting to happen, but by session 10 they are full-blown fantasy heroes in a world rapidly collapsing into a full-scale apocalypse. At the start of session 11 the PCs unlock their final and most powerful abilities, the Shadow of the Demon Lord reaches its fullest extent, and the stage is set for one final, epic showdown with the forces of darkness. Then you turn the clock back to session 1 and do it all over again.

This is a very clever bit of design, for a number of reasons. It acknowledges that while gamers love daydreaming about epic, years-long campaigns, they seldom manage to actually play them, and so condensing your entire arc into 11 sessions means that you have a much better chance of creating a campaign which functions as one massive crescendo and goes out with a bang, rather than one that just kind of wanders around for a while and then peters out. It means that the adventures have to be punchy, tightly-designed affairs, a few pages long at most, because every adventure has to be something that can be played through in a single session. (This protects Shadow adventures from the bloat that plagued WFRP 2 and 3.) It means that you can invoke apocalyptic threats and actually follow through, trashing your whole campaign setting every eleven sessions and allowing the PCs to play roles of world-historical importance - unlike in, say, WFRP 2, where the big threat has already been and gone, and all the really important stuff was done offstage by NPCs. And it means that you can have the 'shopping list' mentality of a crunch-heavy game like D&D3, where players can spend hours thinking about how this ability from this class could be combined with that ability from that race to do something spectacular... except, unlike D&D3, you can actually put your ideas into practise. Getting the combination of abilities you want will only ever take a few sessions at most, and you get to try out a different 'build' every eleven weeks, rather than being stuck with the same one for years on end. 

As with most storygame-inspired design, however, its specificity is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. There's no room here for the kind of picaresque meandering that formed such an important part of both WFRP 1 and old-school D&D, for stories about mercenary adventurers exploring the wilderness in search of treasure, or about semi-criminal vagabonds roaming around the Empire on a barge. There isn't even room for big adventures like B4 The Lost City or Power Behind the Throne, neither of which could possibly be run in a single session. The hardwired zero-to-hero character progression means that campaigns will move swiftly from grimy low fantasy to something far more heroic and high-powered, which is great if you like both of those equally, but might be a turn-off if you'd prefer to linger at one end of the scale rather than having the system force-march you through it and out the other side. Players looking for a more traditional fantasy RPG experience, with longer campaigns, slower level progression, and large, sprawling adventures rather than a staccato rattle of one-shots, would probably be better off house-ruling advancement to one level every 3-4 sessions and slowing the spread of the Shadow to match.

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The setting is a combination of WFRP and modern D&D fantasy. The main setting is a grimy early modern empire full of crime and corruption, very much in the vein of WFRP, with beastmen lurking in the woods and cults gathering in the shadows - but magic is commonplace, and orcs and goblins and changelings and clockwork robots are all playable races. There's less leftover Tolkien material than in Warhammer: Shadow uses creepy fae changelings instead of Tolkien-style elves, while its goblins are a disgusting race of fallen faeries rather than comedy cannon-fodder, and its orcs are a race of magically-created slave-soldiers who have just rebelled and deposed the emperor. (This last bit is a good example of the way that Shadow places the PCs right at the moment of crisis, rather than before it, as in WFRP 3, or after it, as in WFRP 2.) The titular Demon Lord is a bit of a let-down, being little more than a cosmic force of destruction who wrecks everything for no real reason. It's obviously Shadow's stand-in for WFRP's Chaos, but it feels rather flat and impersonal compared to the florid weirdness of the chaos gods.

The setting is very lightly sketched in, and large chunks of the map are given over to an evil desert full of undead, a frozen wasteland full of frost giants, an archipelago full of pirates, and other cliched CRPG-style adventure zones. In a nice OSR-style touch, however, Shadow communicates a lot of information about the tone of its setting via random tables in character generation. The fact that the dice can inform you that your changeling's current legal identity is that of someone they have murdered and replaced, for example, or that the soul animating your clockwork robot came from hell, or that your dwarf pounds nails into his own skull, or that your goblin has 'all the warts' and saves their bodily secretions in small bottles to give to people as gifts, tells you a lot about the the kind of world in which the game is set.

Schwalb Entertainment has adopted an interesting hybrid strategy in relation to supplements for Shadow of the Demon Lord. The game has seven traditional supplements which are available as physical books, as follows:
  • The Demon Lord's Companion: introduces new races, monsters, items, paths, etc.
  • Tombs of the Desolation: details the setting's 'undead desert' region. Includes rules for undead PCs, if you like that sort of thing.
  • Terrible Beauty: describes the setting's horrible, amoral faeries. Includes rules for fae PCs other than changelings. 
  • Exquisite Agony: details the setting's version of hell. (The twist here is that hell may be evil, but it's just as committed to fighting the Demon Lord as everyone else, because the Demon Lord brings not wickedness but annihilation.) 
  • Uncertain Faith: describes the setting's religions. Contains some good, weird cults and sects that could easily be adapted for use in other dark fantasy games. 
  • A Glorious Death: details the setting's 'ice waste of the frost giant vikings' region. 
  • Hunger in the Void: describes the cults and beastmen that serve the demon lord, although my favourite bit in this book was actually the discussion of the various mostly-but-not-quite-annihilated worlds which have continued to drift around in the Void after being eaten by the Demon Lord, and the weird things that inhabit them. 
Each book introduces new player options, which became increasingly eccentric as the line went on, allowing player character fauns, pixies, jotuns, vampires, and so on - not exactly traditional WFRP fare, although pretty tame by the standards of late 3rd edition D&D. They're all pretty short - 40-60 pages each, apart from Hunger, which was 80 - and a lot of the page-count of each book is given over to new monsters, races, adventures, etc, which means that they mostly cover their topics in a fairly cursory fashion. Their take on faeries, hell, cults, beastmen, and religion are all solidly horrible dark fantasy fare, but there's nothing here which is likely to especially surprise or impress anyone who's already familiar with WFRP and its ilk.

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Shadow also has three 'campaign books':
  • Tales of the Demon Lord: A book containing 11 short adventures, intended for use as a complete 11-session SotDL campaign. 
  • Queen of Gold: Another 11-adventure book. 
  • Tales of the Desolation: Only 4 adventures in this one. You'll have to get the other seven from somewhere else.
In addition to these ten physical books, however, Schwalb Entertainment has released no less than ninety-two short pdf-only supplements for the game, most of which are just a few pages long and sell for a dollar or two on Drivethrurpg. Each of these mini-supplements provides one short adventure, or one new playable race, or new rules on one topic, or information on one more area of the setting. A decade ago these would probably have been bundled up and released as another nine or ten physical books, which is exactly the kind of bloat that helped to kill off WFRP 2: keeping them all as pdf-only releases seems a much more sensible option. I've only read the core book, the seven supplements, and the first campaign book, but in terms of sheer word-count, the total amount of material released for Shadow must now rival that of WFRP 2.

Taken on its own terms, I think Shadow is a fine and functional dark fantasy RPG. The system looks much better-designed than that of either WFRP 2 or D&D 3, and I'm sure I'd enjoy running or playing it. For me, however, it never quite managed to have the same bite as WFRP: it all just felt a bit too placeholderish, a bit too generic. It's not that it's sanitised, exactly: indeed, coming loose from the Warhammer franchise has allowed Schwalb to fill his game with all the sex and shit and horribleness that Games Workshop would never want to have associated with their IP. It's more that it feels... sort of... assembled by checklist, I guess? It felt to me as though it featured torture-demons and amoral faeries and murder-cultists because those are the sorts of things that you're supposed to have in a dark fantasy RPG, rather than because the authors had any especially compelling ideas about how to make their demons and faeries and cultists different from everyone else's. It's the opposite of the early GW approach, where they mostly seem to have started from art and ideas - 'Evil Assyrian dwarves with blunderbusses!' - and worked backwards from there. I read nine books worth of material for Shadow, looking for stuff worth borrowing for my own games, and at the end of the day all I'd come away with was one monster, a couple of ideas for cults, and a few set-pieces from the adventures in Tales of the Demon Lord. The rest is all just one big sub-WFRP blur.

If you're looking for something midway between modern D&D and WFRP (but more logically designed than either of them), or if you like the sound of its 'eleven sessions and done' campaign structure, then Shadow is probably the game for you. If neither of those applies, though, you might be better off just getting Tales of the Demon Lord and adapting the adventures for use in WFRP 1/2 instead.

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