I saw Looper yesterday. It was quite good.

Looper2

I say “quite good” because critics have gone apeshit over it, and I’m starting to wonder if I saw the same film. Angela Watercutter’s Wired review opines

“There are the moments where Looper truly excels at simultaneously being a sci-fi film, an action movie, and a thought-provoking drama”.

Peter Bradshaw calls it “very exciting and very confusing at the same time”. Henry Barnes calls it a “sharp, smart sci-fi thriller”. Total Film calls it “This Decades’ The Matrix“.

Philip French’s praise is faintly damning, ending with

“It’s one of those pictures that courts the adjective “thoughtful” but doesn’t stand up to much thinking about.”

For a spoiler free yet balanced view of the film, read this review: it pretty much sums up everthing I like and dislike.

Here’s what you can find out from the trailers: in the future time travel is illegal and used by organised crime to dispose of bodies by sending them back in time where they’re executed by a waiting assassin. Some times the older version of the assassin is sent back to be killed by himself. This is called “closing the loop”. Young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fails to kill old Joe (Bruce Willis) when he’s sent back. Plot ensues.

The premise is fantastic, the direction is very good and there are a couple of scenes that are truly inspired; but I wouldn’t give it an unreserved recommendation. On the other hand it’s worth watching if only to debate on what standards it should be accountable to.

Now for some spoilers

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p>Wattercutter opens her review with “Here’s the problem with most time-travel movies: They’re about time travel.” She goes on to say “so many time-travel stories have been told that it’s hard to make a new one”.

The problem with Looper is that it promises to be a time-travel story. Its whole setup is worthy of Philip K Dick; yet when it’s approaches the really hard questions about determinism, causality and multiple timelines, it flinches. We’re told early on that every minute Old Joe runs around in the past is “bad” (as in paradox-bad), but there are no obvious consequences to anyone other than the victims of his murder spree. Early on the mob take great pains not to kill Seth for his transgression, implying that to do so would be “dangerous”; yet when Young Joe kills himself at the end of the film, there are no obvious consequences.

We know there are (at least) two timelines; they never come into conflict, simply existing as two “possible futures”; nevertheless Old Joe is certain that his future is the one that will come to pass, even after admitting that the time-travel is making his memories unreliable.

The biggest issue is The Rainmaker, who in the future has supposedly taken over all organised crime single handed, and is closing everyone’s loops. But at the end we learn that The Rainmaker is a ten year old boy with monstrous telekinetic powers. Suddenly the film is not about time-travel, it’s about psionics. I don’t mind being surprised like this but it draws a great deal of attention away from what little time travel plot there is, and mostly robs the viewer of the needed confrontation between Old and Young Joe. Not to mention the fact that the Rainmaker as a threat to looping isn’t very credible; he’s a blunt instrument. Throughout the film the Rainmaker is touted as a mastermind with a definite purpose to closing loops, but at the end that premise is all but abandoned.

Overall the film promises big and fails to deliver; halfway through the pace slows to a crawl, only to pick up in one of the incongruous scenes of violence.

For a deeper, equally spoilerific analysis of the ending, go here.

VtM1e front

Here are two quotes I found recently relating to Vampire: The Masquerade. Firstly, Lenny Balsera’s quote taken from the responses to Ryan Macklin’s blog post What are your “must play” games for RPG designers?:

Vampire: The Masquerade – The lesson here is about making mechanics synergize with your narrative/genre premise, and what happens when they don’t match. There isn’t anything personal or horrifying in V:tM as a system, except what you bring from how hardcore you bought into all the delicious fiction-y bits, and God, can that go sideways in a hurry when you have different amounts of that buy-in among the participants.

Secondly, the rpgtalk page on Old School Roleplaying has this to say about V:tM:

Vampire:The Masquerade cast players as vampires, traditionally a monster adversary, and emphasized narrative structure over rolls or game mechanics, making it practically the last old school game and the first new school game.

One Glorious Whole

The adverts in the back of my copy of 1e say that

VampireTM is only the first of five games in the StorytellerTM game system, all of them based on the same mystical version of our own world, each of them a modern fable. The others are: WerewolfTM, MagusTM, FaerieTM, and GhostTM. Because of their compatibility, it is simple to use one with the other, and together they create an all-encompassing game system.”

Despite Mark Rein*Hagen’s ambitions to make Storyteller a softcore GURPS for the nineties, I always felt that Vampire was meant to be played in isolation. Look at the Wikipedia page for a definition of fable:

A fable is a succinct fictional story, inprose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities such as verbal communication), and that illustrates or leads to an interpretation of a moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be added explicitly in a pithy maxim.

The “modern fable” works if the lesson–in this case “personal horror”–remains coherent. The problem with homogenising the WoD is the individual perspectives, and therefore the moral lesson is lost.

There were other casualties of WoD globalisation. The system got fatter and less elegant, especially as power levels were increased. But the biggest casualty was the kindred’s perspective. Lupines stopped being scary and dangerous once they got their own game.

But at least I can look back at some of the VtM1e books and pretend that never happened.  No nasty glossy transparent paper with those ugly railing borders and unsubtle lenarin font.

And we should forgive Vampire for its gothic pretensions and screeds of prose on how to role-play. Yes, Rein*Hagan lays it on a bit thick at the end of the core book; but some of the essays do stand re-reading. It’s notable how much we take the “how to role-play” text for granted these days, when Vampire’s approach was nothing short of revoloutionary.

Miscellany

<

p>The core book has a very nice chapter on storytelling. In just a few pages it covers plot, theme, mood, ways to build suspense, 13 different kinds of conflict, and 15 ideas for a story. At this stage VtM isn’t mired in its own metaplot, so what you get is a nice, fairly universal vampire how-to.

WoD

A World of Darkness is the globe-trotting vampire’s guide to the legend; it’s not great. It does offer a comprehensive history of the UK but since I don’t really care for potted histories, I’ve tended to ignore it. Otherwise the authors have picked locations at random. Europe is glossed over in 16 pages (compared to UK’s 35); other areas are Jordan, Hong Kong and Haiti. Quality and utility is highly variable. Reading the middle east section is a peculiar sensation (pre 9/11, post Gulf War). Aside from a few footnotes I think anyone with a reasonable grasp of local history would make a better and more sympathetic treatment of the subject matter. The one area that is interesting is Hong Kong (gaki and cats).

HH

The Hunters Hunted is the first of many hunters books, and it’s very lean. I have three ofthe later Year of the Hunter books, and they’re nowhere near as good value for money: while The Inquisition gives you a lot of depth about the Society of Leopold that you’ll probably never use, and one measley page on campaign ideas. HH on the other hand gives you page after page of motives, methods and hunter campaign concepts; all the stuff you need to drive the campaign forward. Basically HH is about people who hunt vampires, including how and why; Inquisition is about yet another conspiracy.

St handbook

The Storyteller’s Handbook is another high value item. It has a ton of ideas on how to create a chronicle, a city, and a political structure. There’s some filler (I don’t care for additional bloodlines, and the extra antagonists add nothing that isn’t in the core books) but mostly it’s a solid offering. A nice collection of essays at the end, including a discography of Mark Rein*Hagen’s goth and post-punk collection.

I don’t think much of the Succubus Club, which I picked up secondhand recently. It still has some of the innocence of the early books, but it’s basically adventures–and not very good ones. I guess if I were a hipster storyteller running a 90s vampire game ironically then this would be the place to meet up, with its blood dolls and yuppies. But a club isn’t a dungeon; players will not be tearing through uncovering its secrets–so why bother having those secrets at all?

Succubus

I wanted to like Mummy a lot. It has a whif of Nephilim about it, with the nine parts of the soul and the eternal struggle against the Bane Mummies. But the book isn’t very useful; there’s some magic, but precious little advice on how a Mummy campaign works. An eternal war? Fancy that. Well, we’ve already got one, thanks.

So that’s it for my VtM1e collection. I’ve got core books, a player’s guide and several of the clan books and city books from later editions, but none of them have the charm of the first edition. Also I find the choice of border in later editions unsubtle to say the least. I don’t know how they did it, but somehow the later books are worse for readability.

When I compare 1e and 2e side by side, they’re not the same game. 1e is a neat little fringe game that I picked up on a whim and got some good ideas from. I don’t feel I need anything more than 1e to run a Vampire game. 2e on the other hand is the threshold to a vast conspiracy. Or to put it differently, VtM1e is all about being an outsider to humanity; VtM2e is about being an insider to a huge club of fanged supers.

Mummy

NewImage

This post is submitted as part of the September Blog Carnival, hosted by Dicemonkey, who asks:

Why do we play in settings others have created? What are your favorite? Why is it that we are continually drawn to them? Are they a crutch? Do you modify your established setting to match your game?

I’m going to digress a bit.

On the recent foray to the states we hooked up with friends, and discussed the literary merits of Fifty Shades of Grey. The central argument is whether it’s a work in isolation; if it is, then it deserves to be compared to classic erotica such as Delta of Venus.

But FSoG is arguably not an isolated work: it originated as Twilight fanfic. Even thought the serial numbers have been filed off it should be judged by the measure of fanfiction, not literature; it’s consciously derivative.

From the Wikipedia page on fan fiction:

Fan fiction, therefore, is defined by being both related to its subject’s canonical fictional universe and simultaneously existing outside the canon of that universe.

This is exactly what we do when we use someone elses’ setting in a game: a fairly obvious statement when we’re talking about gaming in fictional properties like the Buffyverse or Dresden Files, but could equally apply to RPG-originated worlds like Greyhawk or the World of Darkness.

Motivators

I can think of three reasons I would use someone else’s setting:

Familiarity: the world includes tropes and customs that enable quick integration of players into the world – both for setting and system. For example, D&D or CoC modules usually deliver a consistent experience (though not one I always care for).

Utility: using a commercial setting means less work defining the world (and system) and more time to focus on plot and characters.

Resonance: the gaming group has a connection with the setting; they all “get it”. If it’s a commercial property like the Buffyverse then they are fans of the original work; otherwise they “get” settings that are similar to established settings they already know and enjoy. The GM may “sell” their game on this premise (“It’s like The Naked Lunch mashed up with Sesame Street“).

Familiarity and Utility are convenience factors: they speak to the head. But Resonance speaks to the heart, and will trump the other two every time. Resonance is the keenness of feeling a fan fiction writer has for the characters and environment of their chosen fic; it’s a powerful motivating force.

Besides, I don’t think the other two are all they’re cracked up to be. Candlewick has taught me that no matter how many NPCs and hooks a setting provides, the GM needs to invest time to untangle the mess. Products that can be picked up and “just run” are rare.

Canon

Resonance motivates GMs and fanfic authors alike to create within a particular body of fiction. But since fan fiction authors consciously work outside canon, you could argue that resonance also encourages us to go beyond the boundaries of the canon as much as remain within them.

Let’s consider the components of RPG canon:

1. Environment

This is the atmosphere of the world and the boundaries imposed on the players. This can include geography, religion and politics, boundaries on what the players can do, and so forth. This is the mainstay of simulationist, free-roaming or sandbox games. Environment also includes people. It’s the potential for the game to exert pressure on the players. 

2. Backstory

A rich backstory is prized by some; I value quality over quantity. If you can write the salient points on a postcard and let the players mentally join the dots, that works for me. Besides, I lack the patience to wade through screeds of “fluff”, something which is stopping me getting to grips with Eclipse Phase right now. I find many over-developed commercial settings too restrictive; too much definition is as bad as not enough for game planning.

3. Formula

This is what makes a setting worth playing: it is the modus operandi of the players. Buffy doesn’t just have a great party unit (heroes and white hats in high school), it has the excellent detective/martial arts monster of the week formula. I regard this as the single most important element of a game, because it gives the players purpose.

4. System

A game isn’t just a setting, it’s a toolkit; and like it or not, the system is canon to some players (especially munchkins). The more energy a GM has to expend on understanding and ruling on the system, the less time they have to do plot. Ron Edwards tells us that system does matter, and it resonates too.

5. The Answers

So, you want to create a gaming franchise with a loyal fanbase. Once you’ve written your core book, how do you convince your fans that they should buy the player’s guide, modules, weapons handbook, guide to Meanwhile City? One way to do this is to deliberately leave out crucial information in the core book. A/State features a backstory event known as The Shift, a mystery not only to the players but to the GM. Some GMs and players will consider this a challenge, others a betrayal. The availability of Answers (capital “A”) makes or breaks a TV show (hello, Lost).

I challenge anyone to name a game that resonates on all 5 levels at once – I can’t. But once you’re aware of those elements you’re free to choose which parts of the canon you stay within, and which you go outside.

What resonates for me? Foremost, it’s Formula. It used to be Environment; two decades ago when I was running Vampire it was all about style and ambiance. (Although since I have no tolerance for fluff, I never got around to reading the Vampire metaplot.) In fact the whole WoD game suite is about Environment; it’s what attracted a generation of goths to the hobby.

But Formula is what drives player characters to do what they do. A good formula provides everything you need to run the game; it tells the players what sort of characters to play, and what risks they can expect. It gives the GM a framework for sessions.

I don’t put a high value on back story and I don’t much care about The Answer–that’s something I will always manipulate to make the setting my own. As for System, I will pick the best tool for the job. Every time I have been inclined to run a game because of a system, I have had to make compromises; one day I will learn that system does not come first.

So, to answer the questions: I play games set in a particular world because they resonate; I am drawn back to a world because of this resonance, be it nostalgia, or an affinity for the fiction, or just the people I happened to be with when I first played.

I am not a brand loyal game consumer1. My loyalty is to the genre–and if I were forced to pin that down I’d say modern fantasy and magical realism. So I dig the Dresden Files and Mage and the formulaic shows like Grimm and Lost Girl, but I wouldn’t use those settings verbatim.

Distance 

Do you modify your established setting to match your game?

Always.

When a setting resonates with players, it makes everything easier: the GM can do a bare minimum of window-dressing and the players will colour everything in.

But an established setting is a double-edged sword: a player’s interpretation will never be the same as your own before the game starts. I ran Mallville a few years ago, which I touted as something between Smallville and Mallrats. But since I lack both Kevin Smith’s sense of humour and the ability to run a four-colour superhero game, it became something entirely different. The game worked, but it went against the players’ expectations.

I’m happy to rip off settings but I wouldn’t use established characters or locations, because I know I wouldn’t do them justice. So before the game starts I need to be clear on what tropes will be identifiable, and where the game will depart from expectations. Doing so lets the GM establish some control while still benefitting from resonance. Here are some ideas: 

1. Take an established setting with a Formula, and move the PCs far away from the original Environment. At some point I’ll run a Buffyverse game in the UK, which (aside from the Watcher’s Council and Willow’s post-apocalypse convalescence) is pretty much outside the canon. The formula of white-hats, heroes and mentors remains.

2. Take a familiar Environment and change the Formula. This was Department V: old-WoD supernatural hunting with a UK government mandate, so they could run around London doing this:  

That also worked because none of us had grown up with The Sweeney (I would have been around 3 at the time) but we knew the tropes, thanks to Nissan. Since Regan and Carter were just caricatures we were free to imprint their idiosyncratic behaviour on what was otherwise just a supernatural conspiracy game.

3. Take a known Backstory and break it. You have to break something obvious, of course. Everything else stays the same – don’t break too much or you’ll end up rewriting the whole setting:

  • Break history: Queen Elizabeth I is the Faerie Queen and has held court in the UK for five centuries
  • Break setting element: the Masquerade failed, and Vampires are now integrated into society (I know, I know)
  • Flip sides: Hogwarts is a Technocrat military academy for training fascist shock troops in the Ascension War

And so on. Placing an incongruous system in a familiar setting is also a valid tactic (if I run Vampire again, I may use the One Roll Engine) although I don’t think it’s disruptive enough on its own.

Final Words

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p>I have a lot of respect for All Flesh Must Be Eaten because it encourages mashing up genres, and that’s what I like to do.

The nature of resonance is that we all have safe, familiar places we go to with fiction. For me, it’s contemporary fantasy–I get the benefit of cool spells and metaphysics without needing to design social customs or national borders. Is it a crutch? Maybe. It’s a starting point, and it’s somewhere I can go back to when I get unstuck.


1. But I am a game consumer with OCD, which is probably worse. I collect titles based on how cool I think the title is at the time. At least I’m learning to spot quality; I’m no longer buying Mongoose stuff and I’m really liking the Unisystem. On the other hand my disposable income is greater now. I guess that’s RPG consumerist karma, or something.

We’re considering giving up terrestrial TV, and thinking of the different strategies we’d use to get our content. One of them is to buy everything we watch today on DVD or iTunes. This brought the stark realisation that if a lot of the stuff we were watching wasn’t free with subscription, we wouldn’t be paying for it.

Game of Thrones fits that definition. As I said before it’s a soap opera, and deserves to be picked up and dropped like one.

I did however find a rather interesting review in The New Yorker by Emily Nussbaum who places it not in the context of fantasy, but of modern premium cable series.

“Game of Thrones” is the latest entry in television’s most esteemed category: the sophisticated cable drama about a patriarchal subculture. This phenomenon launched with “The Sopranos,” but it now includes shows such as “Deadwood,” “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Big Love.” Each of these acclaimed series is a sprawling, multi-character exploration of a closed, often violent hierarchical system.

It’s an astute comment, though I’m not sure it legitimises GoT. Nussbaum also notes that

Fantasy—like television itself, really—has long been burdened with audience condescension: the assumption that it’s trash, or juvenile, something intrinsically icky and low.

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p>If fantasy wants to elevate itself above such assumptions then portraying it as yet another eye on the patriarchy for the premium subscribers is not the way to do it.

I’ll probably continue to watch GoT while it costs nothing, but I doubt I’d miss it much – other than for the title sequence, which is the best thing about it.

Man, I said I was done with dice pool systems after ORE.

Dryh

Don’t Rest Your Head is a game about insomniac superheroes in the Mad City. For some reason your PC has stayed awake too long, and something has gone click… suddenly they notice all the strange things that the sleep-deprived see, like an extra door or alley somewhere, or how the children have the heads of ants, or the zeppelins flying overhead…

And the establishment of the Mad City has noticed them too, and wants to kill them. Don’t fall asleep, ever again.

Dark City is naturally an influence:

“[DRYH] tries very hard not to be Dark City: The Role-Playing Game, but it was definitely hard work to avoid it, if only due to the large tracts of cognitive real-estate this movie owns in my brain”

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p>There are a bunch of other worthy sources such as Doom Patrol, Neverwhere and several fringe RPGs including Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer (still don’t have my copy, dammit).

If that were all there was to DRYH I’d say “meh”. I could run that game with Mage, or Over The Edge, or Call of Cthulhu. Stories with characters jerked out of their comfortable setting into a violent and surreal characature of the real world are not uncommon in these parts.

But the setting isn’t the star feature, by a long shot. DRYH is a metagame of “dice management”. The only way you get things done and get power is via extra dice, and the only way the GM can “hurt” your PC is through her dice. Contests are won with opposing dice pools, but the GM doesn’t really do anything other than hinder or direct the players when things go her way. No hit points to cross off. It’s all about forcing the PCs to either crash (fall asleep from exhaustion) or snap (go mad by running out of fight/flight responses). It’s so pure in the adversarial way the GM is supposed to treat their players, I can’t think of anything to compare it to.

Here’s the summary:

Each player needs at least 3 white, 6 black and 6 red dice signifying discipline, exhaustion and madness respectively. The GM then has their own pain dice, in whatever colour they like (I choose purple). The dice are d6, and successes happen when you roll low. However you also check which attribute is dominant when you roll – that’s the colour of die with the highest number on it. If the black dice dominate then the player gets exhausted, if the red dice dominate they go insane, and if pain dominates then the GM gets a despair token that they can spend to add or remove 6s to any pool they see fit on any future roll (i.e. to cause a particular colour to dominate). Only when discipline (white) dominates does anything good happen (removal of exhaustion or madness marker). Zathras can never have anything nice.

Here’s the twist: players always roll their nice white discipline dice, and start out with no exhaustion dice. Once they get the exhaustion dice they can’t get rid of them (unless discipline dominates); and every time exhaustion dominates, they get another black die until they get six – at which time the next time they’re exhausted, it’s nap time. So the more exhaustion dice they have the bigger the chance that they will succeed against the GM, but also the bigger the chance they will become exhausted doing anything.

Madness dice are the same except their use is temporary – once you’ve finished with your madness powers, you can put the red dice away again. It’s only when you’re rolling buckets of red dice that madness is a risk. If madness dominates you tick off a fight or flight response. If you’ve no more responses to tick, you get a permanent point of madness (i.e. you always roll a red die) and lose a discipline point. Lose all three disciplines and you’re a Nightmare and no longer in play.

Character generation is very simple. Players are led through a set of questions including how they appear to outsiders, what they’re like inside, what path their life is on, and so forth. The only crunch is an exhaustion talent (a mundane skill that the character can do almost superhumanly well) and a madness talent (a supernatural power that defies normal science). Apart from that they have to decide whether their Madness responses are fight or flight. And that’s it.

The game is going to be a slow spiral into exhaustion (and possibly madness) – that much is obvious. The interesting part comes from players realising when to spend those madness dice to protect against exhaustion, and can they juggle the numbers long enough to finish the game. Not a lot of campaign opportunities there, unless you refresh exhaustion between sessions.

There are some games where you think “that’s a nice mechanic, I’ll lift that”. DRYH is the complete game; I don’t think you can play any one element in isolation. On the other hand, I can think of lifting this system wholesale for use in another game. But that’s for another post.

This documentary would have you believe that D&D is the most influential game in history. Whether you believe that or not, petitioning Wizards of the Coast for art with better gender and racial balance in D&D 5e is a good thing. The nice folks at Black Armada started the petition, I’ve signed it, and other friends of mine have blogged about it.

The chainmail bikini did not begin with D&D. Frank Frazetta did his fair share of drawing more flesh than chainmail (though to be fair, Conan was also nearly naked). But if D&D wants to take the credit for the success of the videogame industry, for treating PTSD, and for “lite roleplaying activities like Facebook” (really?) then it can also take the blame for Game of Thrones‘ disproportionate female to male naked bottom ratio.

I didn’t like GoT when I read it more than 10 years ago. I thought it was forgettable fantasy trash remarkable only for the number of bland characters and gratuitous body count. Watching the first episode of the series this week brought all of that back. My first instinct was “it’s Downton Abbey with swords” but it’s not even a soap opera. GoT fails the Bechdel test miserably; its women exist to be raped, and its men exist to be murdered in graphic fashion. It’s George R R Martin’s perogative to kill his characters as he sees fit, but of the 15 best deaths in the first series only one is female (and arguably not a sympathetic character). Perhaps Martin was reluctant to kill female characters in the way he kills males. Still, I subscribe to my partner’s view – it’s OK to have death, prostitution, and people married against their will – as long as the gender balance is equal. 

GoT probably likes to think it’s edgy but it does nothing to distance itself from the fantasy gender (im)balance tropes. In fact I think Sinbad does marginally better in that respect; it’s plotting may leave a lot to be desired but it has a female fighter and thief, and the most vulnerable character is male.

“You see, most blokes, you know, will be fighting with two hands. You’re on two here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, two hands on your axe. Where can you go from there? Where?”

Following a brief look at Lamentations of the Flame Princess I’ve now noticed Zweihänder: a Grim and Perilous RPG. The author has pimped his work over a few game forums and has hinted that he may release an art-free version gratis in the same manner as LotFP. Jolly good!

Comparisons are inevitable. LotFP is a refined BECMI D&D; Zweihänder is a “love-letter” to WFRP 1e. Both purport to be “game X, done right”.

But there’s a substantial difference. Raggi (author of LotFP) created his game because he had a very clear vision for an existing property. Mechanically it’s not much different from my D&D sets; there are four human and three demihuman classes, and the spells largely remain the same (with some omissions and description changes). He’s added value in the smallest of tweaks, like rolling d6 for non-combat “specialist” actions and having a nice list for equipment. That’s all you need for your dungeon crawl. It’s not meant to be exhaustive for play outside the dungeon, but inside the dungeon it does the job very nicely.

Zweihänder on the other hand looks like a total rewrite. The careers are different (with career-only skills), magic is different, there are action points. All of these sound like excellent house rules that address shortcomings in WFRP. But recall that WFRP was a third generation fantasy RPG after D&D and Runequest. Yes, it inherited its own peculiar stats from the WFB but it was consciously different from its forebears in both rules and flavour (i.e. it had some). It doesn’t need the sort of seasoning that LotFP provides for BECMI D&D. 

The stated intention is to go beyond WRFP‘s Old World make a “world-agnostic” fantasy RPG – but given the promotional art, you could have fooled me:

Zweihander

Eh, right. Play to your strengths, chaps.

So far I’ve glanced at a few spells and career lists (provided in this thread on theRPGSite), and while I think this will turn into a tight rpg a lot of it seems to be change for change’s sake. Raggi’s amendments to BD&D were subtle, these are not. For that reason I question the “world-agnostic” claim. Seeing the skill descriptions, and the designers’ influences (WFRP, The Witcher, Song of Ice and Fire) I wonder how it could be anything other than WFRP‘s Old World turned up to 11.

(All I can hope is the designers steer clear of the misogynistic tropes in their primary influences).

I’ve seen a few comparisons with The Riddle of Steel which ring a few alarm bells; and some of the career-specific skills are strongly combat oriented – raising concerns that it will be simulationist and abstractive, which is the way of “accurate” fantasy combat games. Still, as long as your players want a combat-heavy game and it plays quickly, so much the better.

On a final note, you’ve got to wonder how this fits the OSR model. Is OSR about adhering to “golden age rpg” values like simulationism and strong central narrative, or is it about taking golden age designs and playing ironically or anachronistically? I can’t see this game doing either of those. Still, WFRP 1e is a fine game to pick as a base and if the designers can tidy it up while restraining their urge to tweak it into something unrecognisable, Zweihänder could be something very special indeed.

Not everthing has to be new to be useful. Adding value can be simply a matter of repackaging an old product; but usually your repackaged product has been targeted at a specific market.

I am not the target market for Old School Renaissance (OSR) games. I may be nostalgic at times but I don’t anticipate dusting off my BECMI D&D set anytime soon.

1e WFRP, on the other hand, does appeal. It’s mechanistically simple yet flavourful. Of course it has the wealth of the Old World background, but that’s not what does it for me.
WFRP feels “dichotomous”. It has a whole load of social interaction skills and stats, but as soon that become irrelevent as soon as the fighting starts. Suddenly the focus is entirely on WS and Toughness, and your Fellowship stat and Carouse skills become irrelevent. They’re different worlds.

Ah, you say, but surely that’s what all games with an over-emphasis on combat do? Well, yes and no. Sure, any game can become needlessly bogged down in combat to the point that it overwhelms the game. But the trend in games is towards homogeneity; combat skills get mixed in with everything else, as if fighting is mechanistically the same as Spot Hidden. BRP does this. Storyteller games take it to the extreme with physical, social and mental traits as three classes of analagous activities. Which they are in an abstract sense, but contextually they are different–the stakes are not the same. The homogenous character sheet where all skills appear to be measured against the same baseline appeals to game designer OCD but it’s not as useful or elegant for running games as we’d like to think.

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p>Aside from the way Lamentations Of The Flame Princess has been hailed as a spiritual cousin to WFRP–thanks no doubt to Jason Rainville’s 17c-style art–the system not only captures the gritty feel of low fantasy combat, it also re-establishes the combat/non-combat dichotomy. It’s impressively self-aware in that aspect. It’s a superb repackaging of a particular kind of game for a particular kind of player: a few house rules for encumbrance and non-combat actions have been applied brilliantly, and the spells have been tweaked, but otherwise it’s BECMI D&D.

Don’t let the “weird fantasy” label distract you. LotFP shows us is that setting can be up to date even for a 30+ year old system with the right attitude; but the setting is irrelevant. There’s a lot of hype about the baby eating and virgin sacrifice (mostly you can blame Carcosa for that) that distracts from the game’s true value: the way the system focuses on the dungeon. Character advancement is solely based on ability to dungeon crawl, and XP are rewarded on that basis alone–either through defeating monsters or aquiring treasure, the latter being specifically from a monster’s hoard or otherwise “recovered from uncivilized or abandoned areas”. PCs will have lives outside the dungeon, but the dungeon is where the action is.

You can get the “Grindhouse Edition”, sans art, for free. If you want to know what the art looks like, Something Awful has a preview–be warned, while much of it’s good, it’s also very distasteful in places. I think that’s a shame, because the game stands on its own merits without needing to be shocking. It’s good enough to make me think about an Arx Fatalis game. Well, almost.