What Raggi did was to re-imagine a D&D that rather than gradually downplaying and starving its weird elements, took the weird home, gave it a cozy place down in the basement to sleep, and fed the weird by luring the neighbouring kids home for it to eat. Now it is grown into something Lovecraft would be proud of...
Let's cut to the chase; Weird Fantasy Role-Playing is what the title tells you it is. "Weird fiction" as a term predates the modern "horror" and "fantasy" genres, and described stories that were macabre or unsettling. "Weird Fantasy" then pretty much explains that what you are getting here is a fantasy game with dark, surreal, unnerving elements. What Raggi did was to re-imagine a D&D that rather than gradually downplaying and starving its weird elements, took the weird home, gave it a cozy place down in the basement to sleep, and fed the weird by luring home the neighbouring kids for it to eat. Now it is grown into something Lovecraft would be proud of.
What is this "Weird?" Author James Raggi writes in the Referee Book;
Something it did borrow from old school D&D is the gritty, "fantasy Vietnam" aspect. Weird Fantasy Role-Playing is very much of the spirit of the original edition in that hit points are low, the world is lethal, and death comes very quickly. It brings to mind the now-famous "Calithena" post to an old school D&D forum on Dragonsfoot and quoted by Rob MacDougall;
This is very much the case in Weird Fantasy. In many of the post-Star Wars editions of D&D, you could feel confident that you were the "hero" and would survive to see the credits roll. Not so in Raggi's game. Going into a dungeon is Hell and there are no assurances everyone is coming out intact. Worse still, no-one is promising a good death, a heroic death, or even a meaningful death. A careless mistake, a lack of caution, an overabundance of curiosity can easily get your character killed.
Added to this old school lethality is a heavy layer of grim. Weird Fantasy uses the four standard old school character classes (Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric and thief-like "Specialist") plus the optional racial classes (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling), These are presented mechanically close to their D&D cousins, but considerably darkened. Fighters are those who have been "willing to slaughter at another's command" and "immersed in the worthlessness of life." They "have seen the cruelty of battle, have committed atrocities that in any just universe would damn them to Hell, and have survived." Screw "fantasy Vietnam," that reads like "fantasy Apocalypse Now."
Magic-Users, meanwhile, do not cower from the supernatural like sane and normal people, but instead "revel" in its "darkness." "They see the forces of magic as a new frontier to explore, a new tool for the attainment of power and knowledge. If it blackens the soul equal to that of any devil, is is but a small price to pay." Clerics are just as likely to be religious fanatics and witch hunters as beneficent healers, and Specialists (the rogues or thieves) are "inspired by greed, boredom," and "idle curiosity" to risk "life and limb simply because a less active life is distasteful to them."
The demihumans aren't treated with kid gloves either. Dwarves are a "dying race" incapable of change and adaptation. The world has moved on and their can't move with it. Elves are creatures of Chaos, the magical Fae, who like Dwarves are fading and no longer belong in the world.
Arguably none of this makes Weird Fantasy Role-Playing any different really from a game like Warhammer. This isn't bright and shiny "high fantasy," its more of gritty real-life mind-set stuck into a fantasy world. Where Raggi's game goes off on its own and really begins to (darkly) shine is its "weirdness."
...feelings of vulnerability and helplessness are important to Weird tales...knowledge equals power (and) familiarity equals boredom...destroy familiarity by not using, or subverting, cliche elements of game worlds or adventures...Players may show up expecting the usual six-ability-scores-with-classes game, with opponents taken out of a manual and treasure generated off a chart or a list. Don't give it to them!
One of the tools Weird Fantasy uses to achieve the uncertainty of the Weird is its utter lack of a bestiary. There are no lists of goblins, hippogriffs, and trolls here. Instead there are guidelines for creating your own, unique, monsters. These are meant to be used sparingly; Raggi actively discourages conjuring up comfortable hordes of orcs for players to kill and recommends replacing them with human adversaries instead. Humanoids are, after all, the safe and tidy "high fantasy" answer to giving the players something to fight while simultaneously skirting around the whole "murder" issue. Weird Fantasy rubs your face in it. Fighting animals can be used for spice, but monsters--real monsters--should be used sparingly. They are horrors and aberrations that challenge the nerve and sanity as much as battle prowess.
In addition to the adversaries, the supernatural wielded by player characters was made darker and weirder too. While the Cleric and Magic-User spell systems operate just like old school D&D, and many of the spell names read the same, they have been extensively rewritten to give them an eerie, eldritch feel. New spells have been added, like the spectacular "Summon," which allows the creation of a random horror right then and there. This is consistent with the game's overall approach to the supernatural as something alien, intrusive, and corrupting.
The overall effect is the creation of a gritty, old school D&D game suited perfectly to more surreal settings and horrifying adventures. This is a game of atmosphere and mood, more Call of Cthulhu than Dungeons & Dragons 3, 3.5, 4, or 5e. As we shall see in upcoming reviews, this has generated a lot of support for the game, with darker and more horrifying scenarios and supplements than we have seen for fantasy roleplaying in a long time. It gives Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing that freshness, that awe, that chill old school D&D delivered when we were kids first exposed to it, an manifests that "eldritch, primordial" D&D we imagined we had missed. If you are looking to feel twelve again, playing D&D in the darkened basement, heart pounding as your character turns every corner, this game might be for you.