"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Monday, July 18, 2016


IF YOU WERE, like me, a second generation Dungeons & Dragons player (by which I mean you started with John Eric Holmes' 1977 blue boxed set rather than the original 1974 game), then you were probably one of the nerdy kids in the beginning of E.T. (or more recently Netflix's Stranger Things).  You were likely a boy (though my little 6th grade gaming group included *gasp* two girls), bookish--or worse comic bookish--with an overdose of imagination, and hovering right there on the precarious edge of adolescence.  To you, the original D&D was something the "big kids" or possibly even the adults did.  You snuck glimpses of Greyhawk and Eldritch Wizardry the same way you did your older brother's back issues of Heavy Metal under his bed or your dad's Playboys hidden in the closet.  They were something enticing and dangerous that you didn't fully understand.

Eldritch Wizardry

You see, the original 1974 game was written for adults; it was meant for wargamers with weird fiction leanings, not daydreaming eleven-year-olds.  It caught on first with the highly experimental 1970s college crowd, and in their hands took on heady overtones of sex and drugs and post-Vietnam PTSD before eventually trickling down to us.  But the '77 Blue Box began a long process of sanitising all that, making it safe for the kiddies.  Editor Holmes was a professor of neurology and a child psychologist, and in his capable hands D&D became something to stimulate developing imaginations.  That was where I first found it, in the Gifted and Talented Education classes my school stuck me in.  Unlike the early issues of Dragon magazine, there was no nudity, profanity, or adult elements in its pages.  Don't get me wrong, Blue Box was thrilling.  There were dragons and wraiths, goblins and pit traps, but the older edition had the scantily clad warrior ladies, the nude sacrifices, and demons that hinted at dangers of an altogether different kind.

The Child-Friendly Blue Box 

'77, of course, also happened to be the year geekdom was forever transformed by something called Star Wars, and this pretty much drove the stake through the heart of D&D's darker, weirder overtones.  From there on in every edition of D&D was going to be good versus evil, black against white, with epic heroes and lots of action scenes.  First it went more Tolkien than Howard, eventually jettisoning even Tolkien's moral complexity for Dragonlance.  And when the reactionary and deeply paranoid 80s rolled around, D&D was forced to get even more squeaky clean in response to witch hunters like Jack Chick and MADD who themselves were so incapable of separating fantasy from reality that they assumed D&D player's couldn't either.  In response, terms like "gods," "demons, and "devils" (anything that might offend the Inquisition) were changed to "powers," "tanar'ri," and "baatezu" respectively, and the 1989 Writer's Guidelines for Dragon magazine expressly forbade "profanity, graphic violence or sexual activity, or any other adult topics."  Any elements that could possibly have made D&D "weird" rather than "fantastic" was cast out into the void.

20 years later, an American expatriate living in Finland decided to go looking for them.   

Now before I set someone off (and Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing has a history of setting people off) I am not saying author James Raggi faithfully recreated old school D&D.  What I am saying is that he managed to capture the impression of it that existed in the minds of those of us who came to the game in the late 70s and 80s...that feeling that our Holmes and Moldvay sets were full of magic, but that the original set possessed a darker magic, a stronger sorcery that the adults had made forbidden to us.

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;

The main thing that separates a Weird Tale from a conventional horror story is the forces completely out of the control of those who encounter them. A thing that cannot be explained, cannot be defeated, cannot be solved.

He goes on to point out this is easy to achieve in a piece of fiction, where the author has complete control, but poison to a successful roleplaying game, where players must have freedom to act as they will.  The trick then is to take that sense of overwhelming alienness, of hopelessness, of incomprehensible powers and load them into the game...then letting the player's respond to them without railroading.  Much of what makes Weird Fantasy work is tone.  Mechanically, it is little different from any old school B/X edition; the Weird comes from the grim tone of the writing, the sensational and shocking artwork, and the willingness to deal head on with graphic violence, sexuality, and the surreal.

Some reviewers have classified it as a "retro-clone."  It isn't.  Retro-clones appeared when D&D became the property of new publisher Wizards of the Coast, and in a marketing strategy to popularise their new version of the game but of the game's content was made public property.  The idea was that third party publishers would capitalise on the brand name to produce a whole slew of content for the new edition. The flip side of this was that those who were not enamoured with the new version, or who longed for previous, out-of-print editions, could use the open content material and "wed" it back to the earlier mechanics (mechanics cannot be copyrighted, only their artistic presentation).  So independent designers created "retro-clones" like Swords & Wizardry (a close imitation of original D&D) or Labyrinth Lord (a clone of the 80s Moldvay/Cook edition).  These games felt like, and played like, the originals.  James Raggi took advantage of the same realities that made retro-clones possible, but Weird Fantasy Role-Playing doesn't actually recreate any older edition.  Mechanically it is very close to original D&D, but it is very much its own game.

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; 

“When you’re in an old-school dungeon you’re in @*%!ing VIETNAM. Check EVERYTHING. Clear out EVERYTHING. Don’t take ONE STEP MORE than you have to until you’re COMPLETELY SURE it’s clear. Check EVERYTHING for traps. Search EVERYTHING. … THE GM WILL USE IT TO @*%! YOU OVER. Be PROACTIVE: set traps and ambushes for the monsters before they do it to you. Find a position of tactical advantage and DUMP FIREBALLS, FLAMING OIL, AND BARRAGES OF ARROWS on your enemies. And even if you do everything right, you STILL might get screwed by wandering monsters.”

Be Careful What You Touch

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."

The Current Edition's "Rules & Magic" Book

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!
- James Raggi, "The Weird" 

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. 

From "The God That Crawls" Adventure

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.  

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