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The House of Wisdom

I've been working on this project for Lamentations of the Flame Princess for some time, and it's finally jumped to the front of my working goals. Briefly, it shifts the location of the game to the Ottoman Empire, during the same canonical year, 1630.

Our scenario concerns the ruins of the House of Wisdom, a jewel of culture for centuries before it was destroyed by Mongol occupiers in the 13th century CE (400 years before our period). It also happens to be in Safavid-occupied Baghdad, which is an unstable and dangerous location just right for our purposes.

You see, historical Ottoman fantasy (literature, occult) is D&D. Ancient treasures that will be appreciated by people you return them to, a wide variety of politically-tolerated and not-tolerated religions, coinage that actually operates as money, magic that involves demon-binding and  paper bursting into flame, not to mention charging-up through receiving the divine. And if you want to know where the dragon was that St. George killed a thousand years ago, why, that was historical Syria, and he was a Turk.

Seeing the D&D tropes make actual historical, literary, and in-fiction justified sense is an incredible treat. All you have to take out are the Disney Middle Ages and Tolkien, and Jim got rid of both of those already. For this project, for the highly pragmatic, rationalist culture, his emphasis on non-naturalistic, reality-disruptive magic suits perfectly.

Here are the player handouts I used: one in general, one for the adventure. They're both pretty sketchy and rough, not developed text or pre-publication draft. For the ruins themselves, I used a mentally-edited version of Raven Downs Keep. I didn't have the image I used here for the lead at the time of play, but I wish I had, because it is perfect for the scenario and actually matches the map I used! (it is a Bosnian madrassah).

In this session, we did not get to see any player-character magic flying, which is too bad because I am really looking forward to my tentative rules tweaks hitting their limits, i.e., not working and providing me with the next design step. I've already seen the first stages in other sessions with other people, and my current rules now have a chance to work if they're any good, so I'm hoping to see if-and-how they aren't. As you'll see, the situation at the end of the session definitely begs for a couple spells and prayers, so here's my fingers crossed for it.

As with many, or even most Adept Play recordings, we're looking at an international range, from the locations Toronto, Atlanta, Brussels, (close to) Milan, Frankfurt, Istanbul, and me here in Norrköping. Combined with a couple of breaks due to dropped connections, that led to a number of comparisons of history and culture which I reluctantly edited out. I also snipped one bit about God & stuff and edited it for posting in the comments if anyone's interested.

I also have a number of "about play and players" notes that I'm reserving, and some of them are derived from material I edited out for time's sake. I plan to follow up with the group alone about them after we're done with the adventures, and since all the players are patrons, that might be a special post-play Lab.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Greg's picture

I'm Greg who plays the Cleric! This is a small wrap-up of some topics we talked about in our informal discussions after this session. Maybe this is not a really helpful about game design, but more about what this game evokes. This will be two comments, one about an important issue in my eyes, the other about the session itself.

I started playing RPGs in the end of the 80s/beginning of the 90s, and never been a DND player. We were young 10 years old fans of "you are the hero" books, played one time the adventure in the black box (I played "the cleric", which looked like a monk), then played AD&D.. for one, maybe two sessions, before kicking our 8-hours weekly sessions during years after buying call of Cthulhu. I only played two times at DND, once in a RPG club in a very bad one shot of ADD one year later, (which leds us to flee every RPG community after this), and another one of 3rd edition a few years later. I did not touch DND until this year, where I played a oneshot  on a one-on-one GM/player session. Nothing in my gaming history leads me to nostalgia, to find a specific experience of play, to "play dnd right", to "do osr", or anything My only assumption about DND is that it is boring, because "fights are too long".

I have so much more to say but let's cut the biographical babbling. Lamentations stands out and got my interest because of the following features: the "people wandering for lost treasures has something sociopathic in them" assumption, the xp-as-gold system, the summon spell, the alternate magic system seen in Vaginas are Magic and Eldritch Cock, the definition of the attributes, the way alignment is described, the absence of tolkienesque species, the root in the historical "real world" at interesting moment for this kind, and the uniqueness of each magical object or weird "monster", and the interesting design of the "Tales of the scarecrow" adventure (put the characters in this shit, and just see what happens without planning events). I’ve never gmed a dnd game before that, and I’m not into medieval fantasy stuffs, but here I wanted to give it a try. So, when Ron said he was designing an Ottoman Empire Lamentation supplement, I was hooked!

I think one of the most important issue in the actual world is the predominance of the Clash of Civilization paradigm. It’s easy to contribute to what Edward Saïd’s defined as Orientalism (a representation of the Orient whose function is to assess the cultural superiority of the “Occident”, supporting its political imperialism) when playing RPG, and it is not easy to deconstruct it. I think it is a task of cultural and political importance to address non occidental cultures, and more importantly Arabic cultures without reproducing dominant misconceptions about it. Most of the dominant occidental propaganda that sustains war, either directly (Iraq, Mali), either by the instrumentation of local conflicts (Libya, Syria), is focused on a representation of Islam or the “Arabs” as an alien civilization with whom cohabitation on the planet will never be possible. We didn’t address those issues before playing, but I’m very attentive of these issues, as 80% of my life is dedicated to counter this Clash of Civilization paradigm, which is an inaccurate lie. When I talk about “the paradigm”, I just don’t mean Samuel Huntington’s book, but any potential unconscious discourse or policy that share the same assumptions. For instance, one of the main philosopher of the medieval 13th century comes from my region, Siger of Brabant, and was as widely known as Thomas Aquinas – but not even you never heard about him anywhere except very narrow historical scientific seminar of this story, but he is not even translated in any of the three national languages of the country of its own university, Leuven in Belgium (which was one of the biggest at that time). You can’t even hope to find funds to do a PhD who will translate its works. In fact, I’ve heard about him by my Arabic philosopher friends, who knew him because he wrote in Arabic. Against the clash of civilization paradigm, Siger of Brabant was a defender of Averroesian thesis, and an strong hypothesis about his murder is that he was killed for that (after being expelled from the country). I could talk a lot about it, but I’ll summarize my view. Today, we can find three paradigms in international diplomacy: the irreducible enemies paradigm (Robert Spencer, John Hagee, Oriana Fallaci) who insult Islam and treat it as Nazism, the clash of civilization paradigm (Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, Niall Ferguson) who influences deeply the occidental international policies, and the “dialogue of civilizations” paradigm (Karen Armstrong, John Louis Esposito, Edward Saïd, Kishore Mahbubani, Lord Lothian). The influence of the two first is dominant and did not help to improve the pacification of the world.

Of course, a RPG supplement should not be a PhD about geopolitics. But as a cultural product, I do not want to play occidental clichés of existing cultures. For instance, I was tempted to play Coriolis, but could not give it a try after reading it, even if I am pretty sure that the orientalist content of the game is totally unconscious by the author.  Ron has done an excellent job with Shahida and, even if I don’t agree with every thesis or assumption of the game, I was reassured that he could treat a culture, a specific context difficult in the paradigm of the dialogue.

We did not talk about that before the game, but I felt safe about this issue when I have read the players handouts.

Sean_RDP's picture

I do think this is an important part of game design. Making assumptions about culture and being lazy in research leads not only to boring repitition but also continues long held and incorrect assumptions. Our games can get better if we seek out more authentic sources.

A quick aside for Coriolis, I am looking at the various bits of Orientalism and doing removing what I see in terms of adventure design. We should discuss (off-list) as I am happy to hear your opinion on that. 

Ron Edwards's picture

We are certainly in agreement about the topic. I consider the so-called clash of civilizations (as referenced by you) to be a crowning expression of evil and stupidity, and this project is aimed like a yataghan strike directly at its heart - insofar as that heart beats strongly at the center of D&D fantasy, which it does.

Greg's picture

I am baffled to see how Ottoman Empire works so well with Lamentations, so well that I could believe the game was made specifically for this context.

More about the game itself. Lamentations has a reputation of a high mortality rate of player characters. In fact, all the “OSR movement” is taking this high mortality rate as a prominent feature of the game experience they design. I gmed 6 sessions of Lamentations and did not see any death. Once it is said, the players are cautious and clever, and it generally did not happen. On the 5 first minutes of the first game in Tales of the scarecrow, one of my player was not cautious and started to do something that could have led to a ST vs Poison, and maybe a death, but another one understood it, and wisely told him. I think this high mortality rate is a myth who functions as an idealized separation between “seasoned OSR players” who are clever and cautious with incautious “non OSR players” who expects “plot shield”

In my case, this discourse about mortality had an impact in how I played this game. I choose a cleric for three reasons: first, the attributes tended to show a Cleric, second, I’m eager to try the divination spell!, third,  I hate clerics and do not allow them in my own Lamentation games, but I wanted how Ron use the Lawful alignment as a GM Device and I wanted a revenge against my dislike of the Cleric I played in my first session of DND using the black box!

How this “lethality culture” impacted my playing?  First, I took Cure as a prepared Cleric spell, where I was eager to take and try divination spell right at the beginning! Actually, this Cure spell will be useful, as two fighters are already badly injured, and we didn’t even pass the introduction. But also, I was overtly cautious, entering the “House of Wisdom”, but also entering the “adventure” by expecting treacherous traps or I don’t know what, during the first seconds of the game. I do not know if it’s “good” or “bad”, I think it paced us into going further, but also created a climate of anxious danger.

Why did I shoot those arrows? I felt focused on a goal. I did not have the opportunity to say it, but once Ron described the premises, I thought “I’m a Cleric, I’m a Sufi, and we are in the House of Wisdom… So I’ll check for Wisdom, whatever it takes”.  And for some reasons, “Wisdom” could not appear as human, so I took humans as adversity, in doubt. I shot and I missed, and my reflex (it was not very explicit in my mind), is to take this miss for a sign as a sign of my god. That’s why I push the group to accelerate to the screams after this. Interestingly, the fact that the fighters slain the people felt weird to me, I was like “hmm those guys are crazy”, and I felt my relationship to them as clearly instrumental, “let’s seek this wisdom or what”.

I was afraid when the big guy calling me to wear the prophecy of following the “path of Mary”. That’s why I shot again. But the second miss was too obvious, I could not take it as a real sign right now, that’s why I totally shift after this. Ok we are in the house of wisdom, I’m looking for wisdom, I’m protecting myself, and this guy is claiming this thing but I know my God is everwhere. So for the moment, my reactions are results of how I interpret the dices.

I did not make a mental rule about “I interpret every rolls as signs of God” that I will not deviate, it just came up for these ones, and I’m really pleased about the dynamics of the group.

Sean_RDP's picture

Nostalgia is interesting. I Will talk more about my own experiences in a different comment but wanted to respond to the idea of the Lethalisty Culture. And from my experience it comes in two flavors.

But first I always like to talk about "the old days" when they come up. There is a notion among the rpg sphere that back in the day, players were tougher. We never complained about rolls or rules. We loved falling fifty feet to our deaths from traps that were impossible to see coming. That every game of D&D or Tunnels & Trolls or other, ended in a hail of steel much like the ending in The Wild Bunch. And that by compariosn, today's players were "whimps".

And this is simply not true. I know because I was there (from '81 on) and I can tell you that they whined, and complained, and wanted house rules for everything because no one likes to die. Yes it can be fun if everyone at the table buys into the paradigm of lethality, but over the years that paradigm of lethality, which I would say is more a paradigm of testing the player more than the character, has become a Cult of Lethality. And that cult maintains that high art = high lethality. Which is nonsense of course and it always was. I like Tomb of Horrors, but not because of its lethality, but because of the paranoia that sets in when playing it.

The second, and in my mind more positive aspect of Lethality Culture is all about that paranoia and expectation. And to be fair it can work both ways; it can turn people off who do not want to live that paradigm. But for those who enjoy the idea of being careful during play, of thinking hard about the challenges ahead, of not just making assumptions and expecting the GM to save your hide. And letting the dice fall where they may. Not pulling punches as a player or GM.

Greg's picture

A few words more about alignement.

I was very surprised that my name was not mumbled by the silhouettes at the entrance. I was baffled when I've seen the main NPC near the pit saying only my name.

I think it was a very good adaptation of the alignement system to the specific composition of our group! The only cleric being specifically targeted by the "prophecy". Here, alignment did not feel as the boring constraints of behavior it generally is take as, but it helped to create a sense of connectedness to the adventure. "What, me, My flesh? Gizzz". Also, the fact that the cleric is lawful does a jonction between "I have a set of belief" and "the universe has a plan for me", which are two different features (something I realize right now), which endorsed my own sens of connectivness to the story.

Sean_RDP's picture

I did not make a mental rule about “I interpret every rolls as signs of God” that I will not deviate, it just came up for these ones, and I’m really pleased about the dynamics of the group.

This was one of the best parts of the game; watching everyone react to the situation with our own interpretations of what was going on. I felt like there was a lot of genuine reaction, which makes games more pleasant for the player. 

Greg's picture

I'm answering to you Sean. I remember this particular session of Rogue Trader. I joined a campaign that was going on for 2 years. We were four players (the precedent gaming group was dissolved), and the Rogue Trader was my friend's character who started as a minion in a Dark Heresy campaign. He was now almost invincible. Immortal stuff etc.

I really liked the GM, who was a master of adapting the rules to the story. Let me explain how and why it's relevant.

I was playing an archmilitant leading the spaceship's army. After a few sessions, we are getting boarded by a rival ship. Rolls are made and the GM is fair to the results of the dice.  We get so screwed. I got very crappy rolled in all my damage rolls in the space battle, leading to successes with not so much consequences.

The cockpit is being invaded by the elite troops, we are there, my Rogue trader friend is annoyed but confident, then they shoot with plasma, target its face.. and my friend's face melted as much as his character's face. "This is the only way I can die". The best is never, never I felt the GM made it up.. it was an internal logic building through the rolls. I roll to shoot them and miss, and my friends shout at me, not roleplaying at all, "WTF ARE YOU DOING". I look at him, look at the dice, tell him "hey dude fuck off", then we laughed so much (but we are really good friends, and we understood right on the moment that he understood his own real tension when I answered). We really felt the tension of the possibility to die, just right now, because our characters were took in this spiraling process of bad decision and bad lucks. And I felt really connected to the game because of this tension, I really liked it. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Regarding lethality:

Lamentations has a reputation of a high mortality rate of player characters. In fact, all the “OSR movement” is taking this high mortality rate as a prominent feature of the game experience they design. ... I think this high mortality rate is a myth who functions as an idealized separation between “seasoned OSR players” who are clever and cautious with incautious “non OSR players” who expects “plot shield”

It's yet another example of D&D mythology as constructed publicly and rapidly in the 2000s. The reality of actually playing the game during its first decade of existence is informed by these factors:

  • Survival at lower levels relies strictly on the DM electing not to direct traps or attacks upon you (a given player), especially for thieves and wizards, leading to the game being dismissed as (accurately) broken, i.e., unplayable unless someone is massaging events and outcomes for you, the very "plot shield" that the mythology claims was absent
  • At higher levels, hit points are high enough to render any single non-magical strike or attack non-fatal, leading to the game being dismissed as unrealistic and often absurd, e.g., characters with 20 arrows sticking in them
  • The sweet spot between these for Advanced D&D (published 1977-1999) is placed quite firmly at 4th level, possibly a couple of levels beyond that. The game is not playable at all before that point, and it is a very different game afterward.

It is impossible to get across how disregarded D&D was by anyone not committed to it during the 1980s and early 1990s, with these factors typically cited as the problem.

Ron Edwards's picture

Regarding nostalgia, Lamentations, and the OSR:

When this game was being conceived and first published, the term "OSR" existed but was extremely various - obviously a powerful marketing device, but without much meaning besides waving furiously and claiming to be "old school." I've described in interviews how the anti-D20 ferment of Dragonsfoot Forum blended oddly with the D20 publishing glut, with Dungeon Crawl Classics publications using the AD&D module form factor for 3E and 4E modules, with indie enthusiasm as seen in Fight On!, and with (as a big influence) Hackmaster.

You may be interested to know that Jim did not brand Lamentations as OSR throughout its development and early publication. As late as the mid-20-teens, he limited the association to a blurb on his website which acknowledged that other people included the title in that designation. He also worked extensively with people who were emphatically not "OSR approved" as the term shrank and hardened into a form that could tout its ideological purity.

In the past five or six years, being no fool regarding an unavoidably useful marketing term, and given his work with one such purity-enforcing ideologue, he has effectively adopted the term as part of the Lamentations brand. But it took a long time and the reasons are clearly economic.

First, its design cannot be taken seriously as a celebration or expression of Mentzer's Dungeons & Dragons (1985). It uses those mechanics as pure subversion, even if Jim didn't or doesn't see it that way. It is culturally and content-wise anti-D&D, of the RPGA den-daddy adventure, family-friendly, mass-marketed, compliant to Satanic Panic form.

Second, it lays no claim to recovering or expressing any sense of Dungeons & Dragons or "old school" as first and best. It uses Mentzer's text, and only that text, with no gestalt or cultural sense of role-playing.

I am not surprised to have observed for a whole decade that almost no one has actually played it as designed but, per group, enters into some vague-ass blend that they've concocted and refer to as "OSR compatible." As I see it, the OSR as such (if it even is an "it" eligible for a "such") benefits from the game's inclusion more than the game is defined by or even makes any sense as a representative.

Greg's picture

The sweet spot between these for Advanced D&D (published 1977-1999) is placed quite firmly at 4th level, possibly a couple of levels beyond that. The game is not playable at all before that point, and it is a very different game afterward.

This is so interesting! Here what I remember in the local rpg culture of my region (Charleroi in Belgium) when I was a RPG teenager, from people playing around me :

  • Nobody played at low level. Generaly, you would do a character level 4 or 5. Gaining a level was very rare, and was not an expectations. You could gain one or two levels, maybe 3, but not much more. 
  • The only time I heard a campaign based on level 1 characters, it was meant to be a "long campaign", and the first levels were totally not about dungeons, or monsters, or combats, but about "living your life" or doing easy quests to gain levels.
  • Sometimes, campaign started directly at level 10, maybe 15. It was totally different campaigns, as you said, and even presented like another game. "We're going to play DND, but not as we know it, we'll play higher levels".

I don't think anybody analyzed it theoritecally at that time (I don't remember anybody doing this), but it was presented as "common sense".

 

Sean_RDP's picture

I play the magic user Ismael (Ismael-Carlos Luigov). This was my first time really playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess, although I started with the D&D Basic (Moldvay) as my first RPG. So I am familiar with the lineage of LotFP. There are rule differences between the two and I like what LotFP has to offer as a system. I rolled the dice and let the dice decide what sort of character was going to play. In this case the dice said magic-user pretty clearly. I have always enjoyed the "play what is in front fof you" style. 

In Ron's documents it is mentioned that magic-users are chaotic in terms of alignment. In this, chaos is not evil, but it embraces the otherworldy and as it says in the material, 

you draw otherworldly and anti-matter forces toward you

I knew I wanted to lean into this. Ismael has bounced around in his life, has experiences that would suggest his character is not the best, and finally found something close to passion when he learned about his ability with real magic. He keeps his spells in a copy of Nasimi's Persian Diwan and is writing his own book of laments (see what I did there) about his travels and journey.

Doing Magic

One of the interesting things about the system is that it limits the number of spells a MU can use in the beginning. By a significant amount. And by that I mean, it lets you prepare 1 spell at 1st level. The spell I picked was Bookspeak. It allows Ismael to ask a book 1 question about the contents of the book (at 1st level; other levels he can sk more).

And as you can see I did not choose to cast a spell in the combat against the lepers. Even though I think that was the expectation. In a game of D&D Basic, I never would have memorized a spell like that. But in LotFP, my character can use more weapons. I have more choices in combat than casting spells. OF course I am not nearly ass effective as a fighter would be, but I can hit stuff with my stick. In the video you will notice Ismael taking up a defensive position and reciting some poetry to try and drown out the words of the oncoming strangers. Did it do anything? No, but I did nto expect it to either. It seemed like the right move for Ismael though.

Currently I am considering how I can use Bookspeak to our advantage in the current situation. 

Sean_RDP's picture

A little about Now.

We are dropped right into the situation with little actual preamble. We discuss the situation and a great deal of cultural reflection, which was important I think. and very relevant. It gave some context as to why we were there. 

But the action opened up very quickly. We walked into a situation that was not a typical adventure and our decisions now have to be about what is there in front of us, whether to engage with it, go against it, or try and escape it. It feels more like a battle of wits and we, the players, are waking up to that idea. Don't get me wrong, I do not think this is is a player vs. GM situation; instead our assumptions and habits as players are being tested and the abilities of the characters themselves need to come into play to help us get out of this. 

If it is not evident, I am having a great time.

Ron Edwards's picture

Here it is, inside the same playlist.

We are still plagued by technical noise problems, although not as bad as last time.

What you'll see here first is some monster fighting, in which they do quite stunningly well, and at first I thought my nifty beastie was too weak - but then again, they are six player-characters and the dice favored them for sure. So no complaints there. You couldn't ask for a better result from the monster generator; that thing was cool.

Second is our first pass at Divination, which is very rocky in system as my first-time mechanics typically are, but it was just what I needed to know what to write more solidly for next time. If there is a next time: just as I hoped, the players now fear hard-core cleric action much more than they fear magical chaos.

This topic ties in well with some things Sean and I are discussing in Chaos Marches (D&D 5E): Skills in (are) actions, so I'll follow up there.

Sean_RDP's picture

It does feel like a paradigm shift in a way. Traditionally the arcane magics, unfettered by the will of God, are seens are more powerful and more flexible. But the Divination alters.. reality? Is that too big a phrase? Maybe it reveals more reality or more connections than we thought. It puts the cleric in a position to be able to play the role of fate, at least for the other lawful characters. 

And so far we have seen only minor magic and an abomination. Chaos may have its moment.

Ron Edwards's picture

Here are some of the things I posted in the Discord chat in the conversation the day after we played.

I found that my mechanism for escalating dangers (forcing the cleric player either to stop at a price or accumulate many dangers through an increasing chance to stop) wasn't all that great, so I'm revising it immediately. I also like the "lesson" that if you're going to cast Divination, do it early in the adventure so you can replace the DM's prep instead of adding a whole new crisis when you're already battered and probably disturbed and terrified. I also like the idea of Lawful non-clerics not being all that happy with someone knowing God's will regarding them, as that typically does not turn out well for anyone. I'm also considering rules for what happens to/how to DM these characters without a cleric present.

I also clarified that the spell always works, so that the path we followed was only one of two ways the spell could go based on the initial saving roll. Furthermore, although the damage taken by the casting cleric, if they succeed in saving, is only 1d4, in the unlikely event that it kills the cleric, the spell still works. If they fail in saving, they take no damage, they collapse and can’t do much, the spell works, and it follows a somewhat different path regarding the treasure. (Incidentally I’ve given up using the term “spell” for clerical effects although I’m typing it here for convenience.)

The spell overrides the DM. The DM has to take what you say. Sometimes it adapts his or her preparation, and sometimes it simply replaces it. Unless, of course, you do what they just did and go through most of the DM's preparation and cast Divination later, meaning, you now have a fully-charged adventure to cope with on top of this one. Also, if you don't cast Divination, the party has to accept the relatively small amount of treasure that was prepared - not nothing, but not a big windfall either. (There is something very Ottoman in assuming that getting rich easily is only by the will of God ...)

Obviously for this to work, it has to act upon an already-existing preparation, so I’m also coming up with the rubric for how to do that. The idea is to prepare a nice little reliable hybrid between Call of Cthulhu (dark! weird! monster!) and one of the old D&D modules (“in the jar, you find 112 sp and a 10-gp gem”) ... which is just fine, essentially safe ol’ fantasy adventure with some teenfic-dark atmosphere ... until the clerics and magic-users get their game on.

I’ll take some discussion to the Patreon about why playing anything socially tagged as “D&D” makes people play strangely.

Sean_RDP's picture

One of the most talked about concepts of the D&D lineage is alignment. I am a fan of the Law - Neutral - Chaos version, but the nine-grid is fine too. But I think it is safe to say the alignment has hardly every mattered, really, in terms of design. In terms of individual Play, sure, it might be part of the group paradigm. But for the system, it was window dressing.

What Ron is doing in Lamentations is making alignment matter. A lot. To the point where one might choose to be Neutral, at least so far, just as a way to keep out of sight of the divine and chaotic. And I have to say it improves play. At least for me.

Ron Edwards's picture

Monday Lab: My character features some of my points about D&D alignment.

I appreciate your point in general, in that I'm making alignment more mechanically important, but I will quibble with your specifics.

I don't agree with you about the historical window dressing. First, the universal mis-use of the alignment rules (in every version of the game) was deeply systemic, in the terms we talked about in the Lab: what you are literally allowed to say your character does. You can't get more systemic than that.

Second, you brought up a textual D&D systemic feature yourself during play, regarding alignment languages, and the same thing is mechanically present in D&D's complicated specifications across the spells regarding Good/Evil.

Lamentations as a core text is clearly struggling out of the morass, and steps way further out than any other version of D&D that I know, with the notion that alignment is external to the character, and is essentially a DM rule and not a player rule at all. You have chosen to play your magic-user as interested in chaos stuff, but that's a choice; you don't have to and he could regard himself as entirely within the parameters of scholarship and religion - it's just that the universe disagrees.

Anyway, I say "struggling out" because the text isn't fully edited to get rid of the details that had crept or embedded themselves into D&D between 1975 and 1985. Some are gone and some are still there. E.g., the alignment languages aren't in there, which makes sense, but the Good/Evil is still scattered through the spells, which doesn't.

 

Greg's picture

Hi!

I observed too that you seemed to induce the "chaotic" alignement into your character's subjectivity. I took it as an opportunity to  reflect as how I play my own character. It's always difficult because generally, we tend to justify the way we act by posterious theories that we ourselves believes to be the original meaning of our actions (as ethmethodology has shown). I'll try anyway and being aware of this limit.

I was tempted to play "a character who's following the universe's plan". I avoided to make a plan before play (my only idea was: "let's play a character who is looking for signs of gods in weird patterns and in the weirdest places", in fact when you Sean talked about how your character was attracted to chaotic things, I felt "oh cool that's my way too!"), so I think this came during play, when I've heard the big plague NPC makings is call about me. During the sessions, I reflected and noted a few answers I would want from it (and phrased them as questions, the one I ask in the beginning of the session). I took great importance into this guy at the last session and was absolutly going to protect him and know more. When I realized he wouldn't have or share any answers, I discarded him from this plan, because he would not show me any sign I expected to see. I thought about the assumptions, "you're a socially dysfunctional character who can't make a living through a proper profession", and thought about pushing the guy out of my way. Didn't think about pushing into the well until Ron asked me "Do you push him in a specific direction". In fact it's a bit trickier: I misunderstood Ron's question, what I thought Ron told me was "In which direction are you going?", and I said "the well", then when Ron asked me for a roll, I understood that I misunderstood, but I thought the option of pushing the guy in the well was cooler, because it was spiking my idea of totally discarding him as non functional to my own plan.

Not a lesson or anything here, I'm just thinking loudly how I  made my choices!

Ron Edwards's picture

I think there's a lesson, based on my previous play of the game as well as this one. It is that the term "alignment" is so baked into the hobby culture that people simply must incorporate into their characters' psychologies and motivations. I can say it over and over, "the character does not know their alignment" and "alignment has nothing to do with personal views or ethics," and point you to the rules text again and again, and everyone can nod their heads, but when you're sitting at the table and looking at the sheet, the big word LAWFUL stares back at you, and cultural "D&D-ness" kicks in hard.

It's not everyone all the time, but it's someone at any time.

I considered replacing the word "alignment" with kismet, but that word has beome a kitschy pop culture or New Age item and would probably not help. At this point, the only constructive mechanical thing I can consider is to remove it from the sheet entirely.

Shoot, I'd even consider never telling the players the rule exists, and say, "there's no alignment, your character may act and believe exactly as you want whenever you want." Then privately assign aligments with magic-users as Chaotic, clerics as Lawful, and everyone else determined randomly using a table that heavily favors Neutral (at least 75%, maybe 90%). Then play it exactly as written in the rules.

Ron Edwards's picture

One more thing:

What Ron is doing in Lamentations is making alignment matter. A lot.

The credit here goes to Jim. I am doing absolutely nothing except what his rules text says to do. All of my changes to the magic rules are minimally bringing them into consistency with those instructions, just as he had already done with Summon.

Greg's picture

Something I wonder when I gm Lamentations. In some way, I feel it's "the GM adventure of the week". I was wondering how to make something where players could have a bit more of agency. Sometimes, I give players play for "downtime" and so they can think about what their next move. Giving them a region map with a few locations, such as the Better than Any Man do, is interesting, but needs a lot of prep if we want to have "sandbox".

The divination spell striked me as an interesting way to give player agency on that, by having a choice of telling more about a next adventure, within its our narrow framework (ie. you must succeed the roll, & you must choose the cosmic hint, and it only depends on one player - again no critic, just description here).

I wonder about this "the adventure of the week" possibility : is it a problem at all? how to give the players agency to choose the next game without having to say "I didn't prep" this? Etc. 

Ron Edwards's picture

We need to get past hobby fake-ass language. Sandbox and adventure of the week are shorthand, but they are vague and careless - they are shorthand to nothing. I go even farther by saying that their reliance on tropes or standards for other media instantly disqualifies them from any serious discussion of what we do.

What sort of actual play phenomena are you talking about? What real variables are at work here: what procedures, what real-life metrics, what aesthetic goals, and what demonstrable experiences of play?

We should really dig into that. No cheap, fast, or familiar responses.

Once that's made clear, why is any such thing, or blend, or alternative, or really, anything at all necessarily associated with Lamentations of the Flame Princess? And why is that either a good or bad thing? Unlike the above paragraphs, these are rhetorical questions. I am not interested in their answer but in reflecting upon why we would even consider them in the first place.

The game does have some structural features which suggest, or at least makes most easy, a certain focus on "out there in the wild" rather than naturalistic, in town, what-do-we-do-today play. At its most extreme, you'd see play similar to Tunnels & Trolls, which (in text anyway) abstracts everything about play except for the first step into and the last step out of a dungeon. I'm not saying this extreme degree is required or "right" but it does fly quite functionally, more so than one might think.

I've got my preferences. I submit that staying with the "start adventure here" focus is perfectly functional and doesn't require any fixing or jiggling to make play more day-to-day, and that the in-town activities should be focused on very mechanical rules like spell research.

I also suggest - again, violating a dozen sacred bovines in one sentence - that the Gygaxian standard of long-form naturalistic play is an idealized myth without much archeological evidence to back it up, maybe even none ... so instead of seeking it, we just look at in-character between-adventure play that arises directly, necessarily, and enjoyably from what happens at the table.

Greg's picture

Ok! Thank you for unpacking my simplistic phrasing.  Not sure if I understanding everything and answering everything, but I'm humbly trying to adress the first phase of your answer, so please stay kind with me :

What sort of actual play phenomena are you talking about? What real variables are at work here: what procedures, what real-life metrics, what aesthetic goals, and what demonstrable experiences of play?

What I was meaning the blurry phrasing "adventure of the week", involved those two things (all of them, not just one). 

  1.  once the adventure is over, we step into the next one. 
  2. The next one has nothing to do with any of the previous one, it's just the new one the DM has prepared, downloaded, bought, anything, without any connexion with the previous one. For instance, playing different modules of LotFP (Hey Guys Let's play Better than any man, ok it's over, now everybody begins "tales from the scarecrow"). 

What I tried to mean by "sandbox" (let's read of those terms, but I started with them so let's deconstruct them), was not so much "let's play what's between two dungeons", but : could/should an adventure have a link with a previous one, with some fictionnal continuity, or not totally dependant from the DM choice (for instance: the next module he bought).  Let's forget the idea of "in between adventures" as possible moments of play for the moment.

I like that in the Divinity spell, the cleric have the authority to say something about elements of the next adventure (even at a cost). Nothing stops him to give to these elements a continuity, but there's a step beyond "the dm bought a new module and will dm next time".

I'm not adressing any of this as a problem, just really reflecting on it. Does it adresses what just you asked, or should I try deeper? 

Ron Edwards's picture

I think you're still dealing with strange constructions rather than real play phenomena.

Let's look at this "adventures of the week" thing. Could it even be imagined that - to use our game as an example - that our characters, in this historical cultural setting, with direct gains from their previous adventure, would lead to anyone not having some opinion about what to do next? Both players and GM?

I can't imagine that. Even with the hardest possible framing - "well, you're looking at the walls of Mecca ..." "wait, how did we get there? why?" "I'll tell you now if you'd shut up" - I have no doubt that every player would put some personal spin about what happened last time and why their characters are out on another adventure now, and that I as GM would provide some information on what is happening in the setting as a whole, and specifically here in this place. My infomation ,in fact, would obviously be composed of both the events (consequences) of the previous sessions and the historical content as well.

I suggest that almost any group which played this game from Level 1-3 to start, with a dedicated historical location to start from, playing continuously and without reference to any other game, would do the same. It is even tailor-made for long-term NPC relationships, business ventures, social status (which they have to entrust to more socially competent assistants), and setting politics to become established and important to what gets prepared next.

I also suggest that people don't play it that way. I have seen absolutely zero examples or reports of it. Instead, they "taste" Lamentations, and many other games besides, in effective short-term dives, usually with new characters, usually with some published module to "follow." They tell themselves lies about sandboxing or kid themselves that they're using the rules as written as opposed to some blend they've formed by intermittently doing the same brief play with Dungeon Crawl Classics and The Black Hack and who knows what else.

So, I call bullshit. Let's stop making stuff up. Never mind "adventure of the week" construction; let's talk about what this game (i) favors, (ii) conceivably permits with no violation of rules, and (iii) is ill-suited for unless you kick a few rules aside.

I haven't watched/listened to the second session yet, but I found the first session to be very interesting and I'm looking forward to watching more. One moment did jump out at me as perhaps a point for discussion (some of the comments above have already alluded to it):

The second time that Greg had his character almost immediately let loose with an arrow on encountering the leper struck me as a moment that was particularly tense, from a social point of view, and potentially a problem. My read on it from an outside perspective, and please correct and clarify me as needed: (1) Greg announces his action to fire an arrow at the leper; (2) some of the other players do not think this is an optimal move; (3) Greg rolls and misses; (4) everyone else is relieved at the miss; (5) the fiction continues for a moment as if the miss represents the action not having happened at all, the attempt to kill the leper is not, at first, integrated into the fiction (i.e., there is no mention of the leper continuing on with his interaction with the party DESPITE having just had an arrow shot at him), which is to say that the missed roll is initially interpreted as "this didn't happen at all"; (6) Greg makes a point to pull that action into the fiction, specifically using it as way to express something about his character.

I may be reading into this or projecting my own biases/issues, so, again, please correct me if I have misread this in any way, but I think this was a fascinating bit of play. There are a lot of potential questions/issues for discussion raised. A couple that come to mind:

-Are there differences among the payers in understanding of the goals here (playing to express character vs. playing as a squad to greatest tactical advantage)?

-There is no IIEE Gatekeeper here, i.e., someone (usually the GM, but often a player with a lot of social status -- sometimes the role is formalized as "the caller") saying "wait, are you sure you want to do that?" to keep rogue actions out of the fiction. Ron seems to be consciously NOT doing this in his GMing, and I wonder if it is unsettling to be playing without that kind of safety net.

-The phenomenon of a "miss" of an action that no one really wanted being interpreted as "nothing happened at all" vs. being interpreted as an action that has consequences regardless of missing. (I just started running Legendary Lives now, and one of the interesting things is that the results on the table strongly integrated misses/failures into the fiction in a way that makes them harder to ignore than in a game like LotFP with a binary hit/miss mechanic).
 

Ron Edwards's picture

You've misread a few things, but I think the players are also a little bit weird about this and related matters, so I want to clarify as well as develop.

I treated Hesna's arrow-shot as a fixed reality in the game, as stated, resolved, and implemented. The leper did not respond because he was insane, and willing to do or endure or whatever in order to get his infected flesh next to hers, in the same way that the horde was willing to bury the swordsmen with their bodies if necessary. There was no "ignore it and pretend it didn't happen" in the GM's seat.

I agree with you that the players, or some of them, may have interpreted the arrow-shot as you describe, or rather, were convinced that I was treating it that way.

Similarly, there was and is no "how to approach the scenario" baked into the situation. They were (and are) not required to guess what I'm thinking, to choose the right path or tactic, or to figure anything out. But I'm sure you can see some signs that at least some of the players, some of the time, were either certain or at least concerned that they should do those things.

But we need to get through the adventure before looking back on these or related topics. Players, especially! Do not develop this yet. Afterwards, we will examine the players' occasional but collective strangeness, without defense or deconstruction.

Briefly, however: this strangeness isn't really theirs or unique to them, far from it. I've been observing it more and more carefully when playing anything associated with D&D, TSR-published or otherwise, starting six or seven years ago when I played a session of Holmes '77 at Forge Midwest and saw people I knew well as players behave ... differently. I've realized that it's not any single person or single group, but a constant "drizzle" of odd actions or words, which are now taking shape only because I've been attentive across so many people and sessions.

Thanks for the clarification. I will eagerly await further discussion after the game wraps. 

"Briefly, however: this strangeness isn't really theirs or unique to them, far from it. I've been observing it more and more carefully when playing anything associated with D&D, TSR-published or otherwise, starting six or seven years ago when I played a session of Holmes '77 at Forge Midwest and saw people I knew well as players behave ... differently. I've realized that it's not any single person or single group, but a constant "drizzle" of odd actions or words, which are now taking shape only because I've been attentive across so many people and sessions."

And this makes complete sense to me. I think I noticed it this time in part because it IS something I've seen before.

Ron Edwards's picture

As a playtest, this met my needs really well. I can move into writing up the clerical magic (well, for starters, it's not magic!) and I'm very satisfied with the setting's spookily perfect match with the system.

Here's the direct link, into the playtest.

Given that the fight with the wolves was quite riveting and exciting, for me as well as the players, I didn't enjoy playing this session as much as I'd wanted. Exactly why should remain for a private group discussion among us, but for public discourse, you can see in the video how tired I became, and how fast, much more so than I realized at the time.

The main effect was how completely I spaced out regarding shooting into melee. The rules are perfectly clear about it and I didn't use them or even remember that they existed.

You may also see that I ended the scenario by giving everyone the solution and finishing it off. The good reason for doing so is that we were playtesting and had accomplished what I needed from it, but I was also exhausted.

I'll organize a group discussion among us to go one level deeper into how people played, to examine the concept of I'm playing D&D.

My next playtest, after some writing, will concern higher-level characters and focus a bit on how to play NPCs, which weren't present to speak of in this round.

I really enjoyed watching this and am definitely interested in seeing what you end up with (especially with regard to playing around with the cleric rules).

I'm also interested in what comes out of any discussion examining the "I'm playing D&D" concept. Currently, I'm finding myself in the mood to play a couple of different games where the general concept is "explore weird fantasy locations, face challenges, and defeat/run away from monsters", from Tunnels & Trolls to Lamentations to D&D4E, and, yet, am not at all in the mood to deal with the baggage that seems to come from "playing D&D". Meanwhile, the people I regularly game with aren't interested in "playing D&D" either, and do not believe me when I tell them that that's not what I'm suggesting when I'm suggesting we play, for instance, Lamentations.

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm glad you liked it!

My current plan is to organize a discussion solely for the participants in this game and to present whatever pieces everyone is comfortable with making public, then to move on to a discussion that may include a Monday Lab.

However, I may be a little high-expectation in that I'd like people to review my Finding D&D series too.

The Finding D&D series is terrific. I just recommended them to a friend of mine, and then started rewatching them myself.

A I reflected back on my prior comment, I realize I left out the question (maybe rhetorical) or the concern (genuine), which is that I'm struggling with communicating to two separate groups of people (and not theoretical groups, but two groups who I'd potentially be playing these games with). On the one hand, trying to figure out how to explain to people who don't want to "play D&D" (usually for good reasons) that games like Lamentations and D&D4E offer their own specific pleasures, such that lumping them together under the category of "D&D" is meaningless at best (and more likely is a violent distortion). And on the other, trying to figure out how to diplomatically explain the same thing to people who say they WANT to "play D&D" (with most of their sense of what that means coming from contemporary actual play podcasts of the "playing to the audience" sort).

The best way would be to have them all watch the Finding D&D series, of course, but that also falls into the category of being too high of an expectation.

Ron Edwards's picture

That is very complicated. I think we clearly need to get this out of its current place deep inside this post, and to move into a more formal discussion with its own location. If you can, let's record a conversation. It's obvious that your enthusiasm (urgency? agony?) is not going to wait for our post-Lamentations reflections.

I would definitely be up for talking more. I was going to say "agony" is too strong a word, but, on reflection, may be closer than I'd like it to be.

Ron Edwards's picture

Here's how I conducted The wolf fight. I forgot to mention something that's probably obvious if you watched the session video, but should have been stated here for context: although I had the little map I show in the video, we did not use a battle-map or minis/tokens of any kind.

Sean_RDP's picture

How well did things go? Very well from my perspective (Ismael). I even had to go silent during the second round of combat and came back in with very little disruption.  We worked our way through a few rules (stances, holding actions, and firing into melee) and the actions of the wolves, to us, were not entirely clear. That is, we knew they were going to attack but how and in what fashion was a mystery. I feel Ron did a fantastic job of creating tension in the situation.

Near the end of the video Ron talks about narration vs. outcome. In my experience, even though I know when I am designing or playing a game, that narration and outcome are different animals, I will sometimes conflate or confuse the two when speaking or when designing. Its a great point, IMHO, and one to really pay attention to.

I do have questions about the nature of the wolves, but that may be outside the scope of this video. Likely better asked when we do a roundup.

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