Interviews

An Interview with James Edward Raggi IV, Publisher, Lamentations of the Flame Princess

 

James Raggi IV wears many hats: as a game designer, he’s the author of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing game; as a publisher he creates and distributes not only his own material but that of like-minded gamers through his company, also named the Lamentations of the Flame Princess; as a blogger, he’s developed a reputation as something of a firebrand and iconoclast in the “Old School Renaissance” roleplaying community. Raggi recently spoke with me about heavy metal music, life in Finland and what “weird fantasy” means to him. Stick around after the interview and read my short review of Raggi’s flagship title: Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-playing: Grindhouse Edition.

I understand that you live in Finland, but you’re an American, right? What brought you there? What is an immigrant’s life like?

James RaggiI grew up outside New York City, but lived most of my adult life in and around Atlanta. I was a very boring, doing-nothing, going-nowhere kind of guy. I somehow ended up talking to a Finnish girl that was working in the States for a year, and after she went home we kept talking. That turned into visiting, and then phone bills and plane ticket costs were such that it just made sense for us to move in, but with the whole “from different continents” thing, marriage was kind of necessary. As it turns out girls in Finland are all kind of warm and inviting and friendly, so now I’m on wife #2 hoping that I’ve managed to calm down a bit.

Life in Finland is much easier than in the US. There’s less of a sense of panic about life I think. Most everyone speaks English, which is something of a curse since Finnish is a damn difficult language to learn and I’m absolutely crap at it, even after living here five years. But things aren’t much different. The same movies are in the theaters, the same shows are on the television, gamers are the same everywhere on Earth, metalheads are the same everywhere on Earth, there are convenience stores on the corner, Amazon delivers here, the stores sells A-Team DVDs, and I still can’t understand the tax forms. All just like the US. The only real differences are everyone uses this bizarre metric system, people speak funny on the street, and I can concentrate fully on the work I want to do instead of totally panicking and hating my situation in life. It’s a dreamland up here.

What exactly is the Old School Renaissance?

Millions of people grew up playing D&D in the 70s and 80s.

Over time, D&D changed.

And changed.

And changed again.

Not everyone liked these changes. They either kept with the earlier versions, or just stopped playing the game altogether. Because some people just like the old versions better. They did everything needed and wanted in ways that newer versions wrecked.

But along the way, one of those newer versions came with an Open Game License, which allowed unaffiliated publishers to recreate and republish certain open content… which was quite a lot of the system, actually.

Someone got the idea that this could be used not only to make supplements and offshoots of the then-current version, but it could also be used to recreate older versions and supplementary versions of it. For fun. For profit!

That’s the Old School Renaissance. We don’t have to shut up and be outdated and out of sight anymore. The game is ours now, and yours, and we’re playing the hell out of it, and changing it. And twisting it. Our way.

Now some will say that this is all about nostalgia, and maybe it is, for some. But for me personally, the games I played when I was 10, or 15, they really sucked. I was a kid! I didn’t know anything! Now I’m in my mid-30s, I play the game with adults, and the intense examination of the game and easier access to the designers over the years gives understanding that I didn’t have when I was a kid. I’m finally playing right instead of just goofing around thinking I knew what I was doing.

Some people say that the OSR is too short-sighted, too narrow. “What about other old school games?”

Well, what about them? We’ve all played a ton of other games. We know there are other options out there. And we like the options and the possibilities that this one gives us. If you want the game of your choice to get more attention, that’s up to you.

Are these just copies of older games under new names? What makes an Old School game “Old School”?

Some of these games are indeed “just” copies of the older games, others are not. It’s kind of weird, because one would think that there really isn’t a need for OSRIC or Labyrinth Lord. Used copies of the TSR games are still abundant and cheap through second-hand channels, and these games are small press affairs resulting in poor market penetration so those getting into them are going to be die-hards who know full well about the ease of original edition availability. But because a lot of gamers for some reason would never consider playing a “dead,” out of print game, these new recreations have a purpose. Because they have the advantage of hindsight when it comes to presentation and clarity, these new recreations have a purpose. Because it’s easier to create a sense of community where fans and players have direct contact with the publisher who allows fans to create material for free or for profit using their games, these recreations have a purpose. Because I can buy a brand new rulebook today instead of going on eBay and receiving an old AD&D hardcover that stinks of urine (actually happened), these recreations have a purpose. It’s pretty awesome, actually.

But not all are pure recreations. I think the more faithful clones are necessary, but people are starting to do new things with the old rules. We’re recreating the history of the hobby, up to and including the schisms, but I think we’re doing it more with our eyes open, being able to look at 35+ years of RPG history. We’re not grasping around in the dark, we’re picking and choosing the best tools for the job, and whether that means innovation or deciding that we don’t need to fix what ain’t broke, we’re making some damn fine games.

As far as what makes an Old School game Old School? Hell if I know, really. I don’t think you can say with any authority what is “old school” on a general scale, but when talking about a specific thing that’s changed over time it’s usually pretty clear. Old School Star Wars is pretty well delineated from New School Star Wars, right? Same thing with D&D, there’s a definite old school, a definite new school, and a fuzzy grey area between the two.

But it’s bad form to duck a question, so let’s go with this highly subjective dividing point: If the game is about exploring the game environment, it just might be an old school game. If the game is about your character, be it personality or stats, it just might be a new school game.

If you’re rolling your character randomly and deciding on options based on what you rolled, regardless of what you may have hoped for, that’s old school.

If you’re using point buy, or freely choosing character aspects that have mechanical effects in-game, that’s new school.

If your character abilities are broadly defined and there isn’t much differentiation between two characters of the same character type, that’s old school.

If you have customizeable powers lists, that’s new school.

Basically, stop worrying about whether you’re the iron or the hat and get on with the damn game!

If I like newer roleplaying systems, should I still consider an OSR game? What are some of the reasons that I might consider doing so?

That’s difficult to say. There are more complicated games out there, and simpler games. There are games out there that deal with a wider scope and attempt to do everything well, and games that are more tightly focused. There are probably thousands of games out there, various genres, various approaches. OSR games are really just part of all that. They’re not an isolated subset of the RPG hobby, they’re in the mix. No game exists that is a magic bullet that solves every need and every desire.

OSR games use as their skeleton a system that created this entire hobby, is easy to learn and play, and is part of the cultural memory of everyone in the hobby. It’s easy and accessible and lots of people actually play these games. But the true strength of the OSR is the passionate, creative, and involved fanbase producing a ton of great material. That’s the exciting part.

What does “Lamentations of the Flame Princess” mean? It’s an incredibly evocative game title and company name. How did you come up with it?

In 1997 I was online and surfing the web for the first time. Linked off of some band’s website (and not many bands had sites back then) was this Finnish girl’s personal website. Long red hair, dressed in period clothing and doing these cool photo shoots, I’d never seen anyone like that before. Of course the contact links were all dead, I couldn’t read anything on the site, so I created a story, a mythology, out of these images, and that’s where the idea of the Flame Princess came from. A little while later I hooked up with a girl in Atlanta that looked quite the same, with even longer redder hair, so the whole thing really stuck.

In 1998 I started a heavy metal fanzine. At the time I was into bands such as Opeth and My Dying Bride and Sculptured and Scholomance and others that used a lot of fluffy and pretentious titles like that, and I thought using a name along those lines would help “ally” my zine with the right kind of music. I released over 60 issues of that zine in print, with the last being in 2007 (it will return… someday…!).

When I started my RPG writing and publishing, I simply saw no reason to abandon the name I’d used for ten years. I’m creepyobsessive that way.

You’ve recently released Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing: Grindhouse Edition. How does the “Grindhouse Edition” differ from the previous edition of the rules? Also, would you mind defining “Weird Fantasy”? How does it differ from other kinds of fantasy? Can you give me an example?

The Grindhouse Edition is different from the previous Deluxe Edition in really only a few ways:

The first is presentation. The success of the Deluxe Edition allowed me to completely revamp the layout, commit to a much larger print run so I could have much higher quality physical books, and get loads of quality new art pieces. It’s much more enjoyable to hold, to look at, to read, and when they came off the presses they even smelled like real books, and because of the larger print run I was able to get this all done at a cheaper per-unit price than the Deluxe Edition, so the whole thing is less expensive to buy.

As far as rules changes, the spell list was heavily modified, with spells struck from the list, moved around, and new spells added. The rather lean skill system was further simplified to an even shorter list. Bits and bobs were changed around the game, but mostly trivial things that are so nitpicky as to bore your readers to death if I listed them.

I use Weird Fantasy to differentiate the game from heroic “let’s go on a quest and save the world” fantasy or sword & sorcery type fantasy or power fantasy, the main approaches in games of this type. It’s got a bit of horror, a bit of just plain strangeness. Traditionally these games are about gold and glory, but in my game there’s this atmosphere of inevitable disaster and doom that creeps in from the edges even if you’re not trying to do that.

The official definition of “Weird” is taken from HP Lovecraft’s Supernatural Fiction in Literature essay, and it’s reinforced as the interior box flaps take quotes from Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows story, but the game is not sharply focused on that, as I believe games that are that focused do not lend themselves to long term play, and I prefer games that are intended for longterm (multiple real-life years) campaigns.

What inspired you to offer a “Grindhouse Edition” anyway?

When it was clear the Deluxe Edition wasn’t going to last long, I decided I couldn’t just do a simple reprint. That would be boring. I also decided that it needed a better title than “2nd Edition” or “Revised Edition.” Those two would be boring. I needed something that was in and of itself cool. Being exciting and interesting and cool is the only justification commercial RPGs have to exist these days, what with computer games and freely offered games and all the usual competing reasons people give for a decline in some entertainment form. The real reason for decline is usually market leaders producing safe, predictable, boring, uninspiring rot that forces people to dig into the obscure small press to find something interesting in the field, and most people can’t be arsed to do that, so they do something else altogether instead.

I’m a fan of directors like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Herschell Gordon Lewis, I love Hammer movies (Captain Kronos!), and I love “old tyme” horror, “speculative fiction,” and weird tale authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, HG Wells, Jules Verne, the usual “holy trinity” of Lovecraft, CAS, and Howard, just tons of stuff. I love heavy metal imagery, including the more gory and blasphemous stuff. I think mainstream entertainment is being sanitized these days (I just watched True Lies the other night, and for a “humorous” spoofy action movie there sure was a lot of violence and blood and F-bombs, I miss than in big blockbuster action movies) and I like pissing people off a little, so…

Grindhouse!

I decided to just go for it, and not be afraid to show blood and guts and full frontal nudity in places that I wanted to show it. The Grindhouse Edition has got to be breaking some sort of record for visible penises in a role-playing publication. Most of it is in good fun and is supposed to be tastelessly amusing (is it juvenile and puerile? Maybe, but so what? If I can’t have my fun, what’s the point?), but I really went for the throat in a few places. And it fits in with the theme of the game, since I think these classic fantasy RPGs are perfectly suited for horror anyway (not-as-powerful characters braving the unknown and fighting vicious bizarre creatures sounds pretty freaky to me) and I wanted to highlight that part of the experience in my game.

So yeah, the Grindhouse Edition is my vision of role-playing, with no compromises anywhere inside. It rocks!

I’m quite taken that you’re actually selling a boxed role-playing game, complete with dice. You don’t see much of that these days. Why is that so, and why did you choose to go in this direction?

I think box sets got a negative reputation when TSR was bought out. There was a very depressing article written about a Wizards of the Coast rep who visited the TSR offices and went into some of the total failures of TSR as a business. One of the items was that they were selling some of their box sets for less money than it cost to manufacture them.

Somehow, instead of “TSR should have charged more for their box sets” or “TSR should have comtrolled their runaway spending” or “TSR should have kept better accounting records” or anything sane like that, the message received by the RPG community was “boxed sets cost too much to make.”

Which is obviously BS, as LotFP’s Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, Brave Halfling’s White Box, Cubicle 7’s Dr Who, Fantasy Flight’s Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, WotC’s D&D box sets, the upcoming Pathfinder intro set, and more prove. Seems like a lot of people figured out that boxed sets are viable and worthwhile right about the same time.

I decided to do a boxed set because I think they’re useful and cool. I think the traditional “multiple book” format of games is valid (why should the rulebook referenced by players at the table have all the GM information in it?), but it’s kind of BS to actually require multiple purchases to get into a game. A box allows a game to have all of these different parts at the same time included together and separate.

I’d like to talk with you about some design choices that I found interesting. The first is the matter of the “Specialist” class that seems to take the place of the traditional Thief. How did you develop it? Why not go with the Thief class instead? The second is the lack of a standard list of monsters. Instead of including the usual bog-standard creatures, instead you offer a way of developing your own unique horrors. In the rules you mention that gamemasters shouldn’t be in a hurry to use monsters at all. Can you talk a bit more about this?

I try not to say that my version of the game improves upon the original versions, but rather twists it around in order to achieve a different atmosphere. I like the old game just fine, the system is good (obviously!), but a lot of the trappings just don’t fit how I run a campaign world, so I just changed them.

However, when it comes to the Thief class, I will say I improved the hell out of the whole idea.

Oh, how I hate the thief as a hard-coded in-game archetype. Think of every core D&D style class. They have the same game function as their in-world roles.

“Hi, I’m Bob the Fighter.” Cool. Adventuring parties need fighters.

“Hi, I’m George, the Magic-User.” Cool. Adventuring parties need people who can use magic.

“Hi, I’m Ernie, the Cleric.” Ah, yeah, religious guys who cast divine magic are useful.

“Hi, I’m Charlie, the Thief.”

Who the hell is going to bring a THIEF along with them to some dungeon hellhole and depend on him to find AND SHARE the treasure therein?

And really, even getting past that (“I’m the one trustworthy thief in this area! Trust me!”), what part of “Thief” says “Adventurer” to anyone? Bilbo may have been called a “burglar,” but, ah… he wasn’t.

I liked playing the thief class through the years. I didn’t see it as a literal “thief,” but no matter what I’d call myself. I saw the skill-based adventuring character as Indiana Jones. You know, exploring ancient ruins, grabbing treasure, it’s a perfect fit. But as soon as anyone found out my character had skills to pick locks and climb walls, they treat me like a criminal.

This is friendly player tomfoolery I’m talking about, not serious game-stopping moronity, but that’s kind of encouraged by the game itself and what it calls the class.

So I decided I wasn’t calling anybody a “thief.” What exactly to call the guy was a bit of a conundrum, as “Adventurer” would have been perfect, but that’s what everyone is, really. “Skill-User” would have been funny yet fitting, but that would be distracting. Specialist was the best that I came up with.

The other part of “fixing” the class was adopting the 2e approach and allowing the character’s abilities to be customized. Frankly, the class is rather crap in the old school editions, with little chance to do anything successfully except climb walls. Talk about an anchor weighing the party down. The Specialist in my game can decide what specific things are important and be good in those things instead of following a predetermined improvement scheme.

The whole issue with monsters has to do with the Player vs. Character knowledge issue. I hate dealing with it. Frankly, asking players to pretend to not know things about the game they’ve been playing their whole lives is just nuts. When a party encounters a troll, everyone’s going to grab their torches because everyone knows fire is their weakness. If you have a bunch of new players, this can be frightening (“Nothing seems to hurt it for long! We’re doomed!”) and effective. However, if there’s a veteran, it’s neither. It’s Stock Monster #46225. It becomes a boring monster. The situation is made worse if you make the veteran player pretend to not know the monster’s weakness. You’re asking him to intentionally play badly and endanger everyone in a game where the whole point is to learn to be a clever player and use that knowledge to succeed. What is the point?

So what’s the solution? In an adventure, a new fully-statted monster works well enough, because it’s a single environment and it just has to work there. In a game, simply coming up with lists of new monsters doesn’t work, because no matter how strange and unusual and different it might be, it just becomes that game’s canon and no different than a troll is to regular D&D. You can’t fix the problem that way.

And nevermind classic monsters, “weird fantasy” depends on the unknown. Sure, you can make a bestiary based on the monsters in certain authors’ works, but as soon as you stat them, you destroy all their mystique. Using Lovecraft as an example, as soon as you stat up Cthulhu in an official book, it becomes just another thing with stats. Nothing special.

So the key is to encourage the right atmosphere and give the tools to do the job, and I think my approach to monsters in the game is, if not perfect, at least perfectly adequate.

Not that a GM should be in a great hurry to use monsters. Yes, everyone knows there should be monsters and will expect there to be monsters and will be disappointed if there are no monsters. But loading up an adventure with 50 kinds of monsters (typical in classic gaming) just turns a game into a safari. “Oh look, monster X! KILL IT!” next room: “Oh look, monster Y, KILL IT!”

If you position monsters as special, they will be. Think of a werewolf. Talk about a well-known, ordinary type of monster that everyone’s familiar with. If you have a werewolf in an adventure as just one of a dozen different supernatural foes, then it’s boring. One of a bunch. Nobody cares. If the werewolf is going to be the only monster present in an adventure, you’ve got to take a lot more care in presenting it, deciding what it does, under what circumstances the players are going to encounter it. You’re not only going to make the werewolf itself more important and memorable, you’re going to make your adventure in general better with a variety of different types of challenges as you need to fill the game with more than just a succession of fights with various oddities.

You’re a heavy metal fan. Has your musical taste influenced your tastes in gaming? What about the other way around?

I don’t think my tastes in music and gaming have much to do with each other, really. I got into RPGs almost ten years before getting into metal, and it was more years still before I listened to any metal with a literary or fantasy flavor.

However, in the past decade the two have really been standing side by side. I listen to music that has the same atmosphere as the gaming I enjoy – Candlemass, Reverend Bizarre, Briton Rites, Lord Vicar, Blood Ceremony, Orchid, Ghost, etc. 70s-inspired, doomy, occult flavored, obviously with a lot of the same books on their shelves as I have on mine.

What’s next for you?

I’m working with Stephan Poag to release a second edition of his Exquisite Corpses book and working with Geoffrey McKinney to get Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown released in hardcover. I’m also working on my own Death Ferox Doom project, plus a half dozen irons in the fire waiting to turn into real projects.

Where can we find you online, and how can we buy Lamentations of the Flame Princess products?

www.lotfp.com and http://lotfp.blogspot.com

LotFP products can be purchased from the LotFP Webstore (We ship to any place with a post office!), through a variety of webstores around the world (check the left sidebar of the LotFP blog for a full list), and we are distributed to retail in the US through Warpath Games and Indie Press Revolution.

Review: Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-playing: Grindhouse Edition:

LOTFP GH EDLamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Grindhouse Edition is somewhat paradoxical. On one hand, it’s a user friendly, solidly written take on the classic Dungeons & Dragons game that begins with a familiar formula and then takes it in a new direction, drawing inspiration from the dark fantasy of authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Algernon Blackwood. It’s well-organized, with the rules divided into three easily digested books. It’s also one of the most beginner-friendly rules sets I’ve seen in a long time: one of the three books is a tutorial that reads like choose-your-own-adventure story, painlessly instructing the neophyte in the basic elements of fantasy roleplaying. Heck, it even comes with dice, a stack of character sheets and comes packaged in a self-contained box.  It’s elegant and simple, and above all, stylish.

On other hand, it’s the stylistic element that may turn off a lot of newcomers, and maybe a few old hands, as well. All three books – Referee, Rules and Magic and Tutorial are lavishly illustrated with scenes of over-the-top gore, sex, bloody violence and sometimes all three.  To be sure, like every other element in this product, these are technically solid pieces of illustration created by artists of obvious skill, but with a strong leaning toward the outre, decadent and possibly offensive, depending on how you feel about an aesthetic apparently inspired by death metal and Italian horormeister Lucio Fulci. (I should also note that there seems to be a disturbing amount of violence toward women here. I found it very distasteful, but to be sure, there’s a disturbing amount of violence toward everyone.)

All of that being said, none of this should come as a surprise to the prospective buyer. I mean, “Grindhouse” is in the title of the game. It’s not like Raggi hasn’t warned you of what you’re getting, and the box itself is clearly marked as being appropriate for ages 18 plus. If you judge the product in the context of what Raggi was trying to accomplish, then it’s an unqualified success, albeit not a success that will be to everyone’s taste. Then again, what is?

As previously mentioned, Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing Grindhouse Edition‘s rules are presented in three different volumes:

The Tutorial volume introduce all of the basics of the game and guides the reader through two separate solo adventures, both book-ended by rules and advice on what to expect in an actual roleplaying game. It ends with a transcript of actual play and a discussion of literary influences and recommended reading: Clive Barker, Jack Vance and others receive high praise here. I really think that more games should include this kind of primer, providing as it does a shared foundation for new gamers as well as effectively communicating the game’s mood and expectations of play. Were it not for the artwork, I’d feel comfortable putting this book in the hands of  any new gamer.

The Rules and Magic volume contains the real meat of the game, and it’s here that Raggi’s imaginative genius really shines. Classic character types like Elves, Dwarves, Fighters and all the rest are subtly tweaked and introduced with flavorful descriptions that better integrate them into the dark world of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Magic-Users draw their powers from darkness. Dwarves are a spiritually broken, dying race. The Cleric looks more like Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General than a holy warrior. The spells are great, too. Of particular interest to me was a random creature generation system for creating summoned monsters – no generic horned imps here.

Like the Tutorial, the Referee book introduces some new rules and expectations of play, albeit this volume focuses on the gamemaster than the player. One area that experienced gamemasters may find controversial is Raggi’s choice to not include a standard bestiary of fantasy monsters, but his choice to do so is based around his contention that monsters should never actually be “standard” or common. The appearance of a supernatural creature should be shocking; the climax of an adventure rather than an obstacle on the way. Raggi provides guidelines for monster creation, though, and an example. This should probably be enough to get an imaginative gamer started. That being said, a handful of creatures would not have been unwelcome. Beyond the rules of the game, the Referee book really shines when it comes to Raggi’s advice on common gaming issues like finding new players (don’t limit yourself to just gamers; introduce new people to the hobby) and running an effective adventure. Even experienced gamers will probably find food for thought here.

In short, Lamentations of the Flame Princess Grindhouse Edition isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea – or maybe even most people’s – but those who can appreciate (or simply stomach) Raggi’s fully realized, fully gruesome aesthetic will probably find that there’s a gem of a game here. Whether the twinkle of this gem will be lost in all the blood and ichor remains to be seen.