Previously: Planets Collide.
We played a Dungeon World campaign for 30+ sessions over about two years. We started with nothing but the playbooks, and I used Dungeon BINGO to generate some ideas at the table for the first session. Session after session, we developed a thrilling world and saw the characters repeatedly cheat death, undertake epic deeds, and even bend time. Two planets crashed into each other and even that didn't stop them. But last Fall players of two of the most pivotal long-standing characters had schedule changes, and we put the game on hiatus so they don't miss what might be the final showdown.
After playing a season of Twisted Tunnels, some of us decided to start a new campaign in the same setting as our Dungeon World game, taking place 20 years before the events in Planets Collide. I offered to run it using the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy RPG rules, because I wanted to see the setting from the perspective of more human-scale characters and action.
Planets Asunder: Dark World.
Here's the backdrop: Remember that heroic battle scene when the Last Alliance of Elves and Men met Sauron's forces and Elendil and Gilgalad defeated Sauron? Imagine that, only in this world the Bad Guy Team won. Thus began the "Years of Peace". The goblin queen Una of Kobolstadt marched her orks into a verdant valley where they met the armies of elves and men, and she turned her enemies into ash. Soon she utterly wiped out the elves, and subjugated nearly all the human kingdoms under the aegis of the Chthonic Imperium.
A federation of kingdoms on one continent fought her to a stalemate, but her overwhelming naval and military might forced them to enter a treaty: The Figaryo Federation could govern themselves in relative freedom, in exchange for an annual tribute, paid in human lives, who would enter the service of Kobolstadt as slaves. That was about 9 generations ago.
The so-called orks in this world are enslaved humans, not "monsters". The Imperium has systematized their utter domination, teaching them to endure harrowing pain, and turning them into ruthless killing machines. The Figaryo Federation typically sends its criminals and other unfavorables to the Imperium, but slave catchers operate with impunity in the frontiers and outlying areas, routinely making children disappear.
The Figaryo Federation includes a large veldt inhabited by nine clans called the Steppenkhazzim. At present, they are locked in continuous intermittent warfare among each other, with shifting alliances. We know that somewhere down the road the Nine Kaxhans will be united by a man called the Lizard King, who was a major and captivating NPC in our Dungeon World campaign. This is all stuff we knew before making our LotFP characters.
Session One: "Pilot" [S1:E1], 2 Feb 2019
Location: Castle Figaryo, surrounded by desert; Figaryo is "capital" of the Figaryo Federation—a loose alliance of human kingdoms where the people enjoy relative freedom from imperial domination.
Campaign date: 11 November YP 231
- Tsaritsa Una I of Kobostadt
- The Empress of the Chthonic Imperium
- An ork warrior in Una's retinue, who is secretly working with human abolitionists to end slavery in the Imperium
- Zhavia is played by Phoebe, my 18yo daughter and veteran of a decade of roleplaying, including T&T, Dungeon World, and a survivor of Death Frost Doom.
- Regent Villem
- The castellan of Figaryo until the princes are old enough to take the throne
- Sabin of Figaryo
- The older of two princes of Figaryo
- A human magic-user recently arrived in Figaryo; he previously traveled with an Imperial caravan to the Sea of Ash. When the caravan was overtaken by a sandstorm, he and his ally Jurek took the Tsaritsa's daughter. Gecko used his gifts to persuade Jurek to raise the child as his own, as a barbarian beyond the northern mountains, instead of killing her.
- Gecko is played by Jim, a 20-something student who joined us late in our Dungeon World campaign. Jim has experience with 5th edition D&D, Dungeon World, and a handful of other games; and he is currently working on his own hack of Twisted Tunnels.
- Soren Khan
- A herald of the witch Matka who conceals his short goat-like horns in long hair usually covered by a hood; she has sent him on a mission to the Shrine of the Living One to tell them there prayers will be answered.
- Soren is played by Mark, Phoebe's boyfriend who has no prior experience with role-playing.
Soren and Gecko reach Castle Figaryo in time for a festival in honor of the Prince Sabin. Sabin's 16th birthday was the occasion chosen to name him the crown prince—cementing his succession to King when he reaches adulthood.
Seeking information about the Shrine Matka has asked him to visit, Soren meets with a holy man named Beckwin. Beckwin testifies to the character of the shrinemaidens there and offers to introduce him to the Mother Superior in exchange for an errand: Free his associate Gordi from a grotto where the moneychanger Ron'ken Ferdinand is holding him prisoner. Soren accepts Beckwin's task and dines with him into the evening.
Gecko briefly meets Sabin and the son of a Kaxhan sparring in the castle courtyard, before having a private meeting with the Regent Villem. He tells the Regent that he is a covert agent of the Imperium and that he wants Figaryo's help in uniting the nine clans (and the Nine Kaxhans) of the Steppenkhazzi horde.
Just before sunset, Una's army arrives. Zhavia is marching with the Imperial retinue. Una's arrival sparks chaos at the festive castle, and Gecko slips away unnoticed before Una enters the fortress. As she goes into the castle keep to meet with Villem, she orders Zhavia to arrest Sabin.
Soren takes advantage of the distraction to steal a monastic habit from Beckwin's wardrobe and runs off to investigate Ferdinand's bank in the outer bailey. Ferdinand is away on business, and Soren executes the clerk there. He rummages through the property, looting a cache of coins, a ledger, and a pair of glasses. Soren slips out a window on the ground floor and escapes the castle.
Back in the inner bailey, Zhavia signals to Sabin to "go along with it", whispering to him the name of Dom Ashur, an abolitionist they both know in Figaryo. Sabin catches on and they spar for a few rounds, but the other orks get involved. Kanan son of Kothas Kaxhan, jumps in to help Sabin against the orks.
More and more orks join the fray every round, and things get bad. Kanan is struck down with a gruesome injury. Finally, Zhavia backstabs the ork captain just before he can kill Sabin, and they run for it! Sabin has to parkour over a battlement and they narrowly get out of the castle alive!
Una comes out of her meeting with the Regent and declares that she will be taking the Prince Sabin captive until her daughter is returned to her. From a distance, Zhavia and Soren see a billowing pillar of inky darkness surge up from the inner bailey and engulf the castle in living shadow.
Game Mechanics and Observations
Anyone who knows LotFP might wonder how we got an ork and a "tiefling" as player characters. These are re-skinned from the core classes Dwarf and Elf: An ork is mechanically identical to the LotFP Dwarf class except they replace their progression in the Architecture skill with Sneak Attack. The Herald of Matka is mechanically identical to the LotFP Elf class, except there is only one in the world.
Jim wants Gecko to become the Lizard King we knew in Planets Collide. That's awesome—it reminds me of the Destiny/C-A-B rules from Sorcerer and Sword. It also provides an additional Challenge to that player: Can he keep Gecko alive? Can he navigate the complex rivalries and unite the Steppenkhazzim? If he gets killed, fantasy logic allows the character to come back and accomplish it as a NPC, but that maintains death as a fail state for the player.
I knew LotFP lacks contest-of-will type mechanics at first brush, and I anticipated that Jim would be putting Gecko in a lot of situations that would call for the Parley move if we were playing Dungeon World. I told him I'd handle negotiations using the LotFP mechanics for hiring retainers (page 51), since those already include the idea of making an offer and determining whether the offer is accepted.
It still caught me off-guard when Gecko marched up to the Castellan and told a bald-faced lie about being an Imperial intelligence officer. LotFP also lacks a skill akin to bluffing or deception. Even though this didn't involve an offer or request like hiring retainers, changing Villem's belief would still have a drastic impact on the fiction!
In the moment, we just resolved it by Drama: I decided on the spot that Gecko was imperious enough, and Villem was unimaginative enough, that it would just work.
After the session, I decided I would adapt the retainer hiring roll—in which the player rolls 3d6 + Charisma modifier—if this happens again. Instead of having a static target number, I would use the mark's Charisma or Wisdom, maybe giving a bonus if it's something the mark wants to believe. In cases where the mark doesn't have ability scores, I would apply the rule from page 56 and roll their defense on the spot. This has worked pretty well in the sessions since.
Overall, this was the most thrilling time I've had with any D&D-like game. Besides a few one-shots of LotFP and Swords & Wizardry, I haven't run any D&D since 2011, when I was running 4th edition.
With 4e, we were frustrated with how long it took to resolve combat.
"Rolling for initiative" felt like a sharp break from role-playing, and the tactical combat options for each player made the turns pass slowly so that players often lost track of what had happened since their last turn.
We tried a bunch of tricks to speed up combat, but I looked at it as a fundamental flaw of the game.
But I was wrong. It wasn't a fundamental flaw in the game itself, as much as a major deficit in the culture of play that we couldn't figure out how to bypass.
LotFP is different than 4th edition in some big ways, and those differences definitely contribute to making combat faster and simpler to play. Fewer hit points makes every roll more consequential.
But what really made the difference in this session was that my brain has been rewired by years of playing Tunnels & Trolls and Dungeon World. Dungeon World makes it an inviolable rule to "begin and end with the fiction".
I didn't notice that I was doing anything different than my previous D&D experience until afterward—this principle has just become hard wired into our habits of play.
As a consequence "rolling for initiative" did not create a firewall between role-playing and combat. Beginning each move with the current fiction, and narrating every result into the fiction no matter what, created a drastically different experience than before.
A big example was the whiff factor. D&D, with the flat d20 probability curve, is inherently whiffy. In our 4th edition games, my impulse to speed up combat led us to basically ignore combat misses. When someone rolled a whiff, we just said "miss" and cut to the next character in the initiative, in order to keep things moving. If someone had a string of bad rolls, that might mean waiting a half hour or more to make any difference at all in the fiction.
LotFP is no different—it's just as whiffy. But making sure we narrated every result, even the whiffs, created a cascade of meaningful and interesting changes in the fiction. The missed attack rolls may have failed to deal damage, but they still altered the situation and set up new conditions. It felt so much more like a dynamic action sequence, instead of simply a numbers game.
In T&T, narrating the fictional positioning every round was a matter of life-and-death tactical necessity; and in Dungeon World, it's literally impossible to play without doing this. But I still feel silly that I missed this should-be-obvious aspect in my previous D&D experience, and it makes such an exhilarating difference in the game.