LotFP Dark World Session 2: “An Audience with the Chthonic Empress”

[S1:E2], 16 Feb 2019

Session 1 recap: The adventurers are at Castle Figaryo for the prince’s birthday festival when the Empress shows up with a military escort. She is ticked that her daughter is missing. The adventurers get into some antics and escape the castle, with the prince Sabin.

Player Shuffle

Phoebe and Mark joined us again, reprising their roles as Zhavia, the abolitionist ork foot soldier, and Soren, the hornéd herald of Matka, Mother of Fiends. Jim, playing the magic-user Gecko, could not join us at the last minute.

We did have Lewis, playing the fighter, Prince Sabin of Figaryo. Lewis is a family friend in real life, 17 years old, and he has played with us in person before, plus several games on Discord that included me, Jim, and Phoebe.

Last year, Lewis was running AD&D 2nd edition, and now he runs 5th edition. This is his first time playing Lamentations of the Flame Princess. He rolled up a fighter character before our first session, and after we played I invited him to make his character Sabin, because Zhavia had worked so hard to help Sabin escape the Empress’s clutches. He liked the idea of playing someone with a bond to another player character, and with meaningful ties to the setting.

Session highlights

Sabin, Soren, and Zhavia meet at a temporary camp of the bedouin king Emir Bar Nasama after Castle Figaryo is siezed by the Empress and falls under the Shroud of living darkness.

The abolitionist Dom Ashur escapes from Castle Figaryo through one of the engine room tunnels, which collapsed behind her. She brings word that the prince Edgar and other nobles are taking refuge in the castle’s chapel.

Sabin asks Soren and Zhavia to join him on a mission to rescue his brother and the others from the keep. Castle Figaryo is built over a great aquifer, that provides its life-giving water. The castle has 7 turbine towers used to pump water up from the deeps below. Sabin tells them there are tunnels under some of the turbine towers that lead to an engine room under the keep.

They locate one of these tunnels and infiltrate the castle, snuffing their lanterns once they enter the castle’s keep.

They evade a patrol of orkish soldiers and make way to the throne room. There, they are greeted by Tsaritsa Una of Kobolstadt. Sabin identifies himself and Una announces that he will be her prisoner.

At the same time, Zhavia meets the orkish soldiers and convinces them that she has been promoted after bringing Sabin to the Empress. She orders them to turn back. While Sabin and Soren take positions to attack the Empress directly, Zhavia spends her time intercepting other enemies and preventing them from protecting the Empress.

When the Empress flees into a hallway, she finds herself hemmed in by Soren and Sabin on each side. That and unwittingly exploiting her vulnerability to light puts her at a surprising disadvantage.

Zhavia finds residents of the castle hiding in a tower adjoining the castelan’s room. She gives them her rope and tells them to use it to flee the castle from the top of the tower; then she tricks a second ork patrol and barricades them into another chamber.

Soren and Sabin trigger one of the Empress’s magical protections and she disappears momentarilly, giving them all a chance to escape.

Mechanics and Observations

Setting the Scene

Last time, I framed all the characters in scenes without any device to bring them together as a party. I expected that the events would bring them into some kind of collision, but I presumed the players would use their own wits to create bonds and motivations among the characters so they could work together. They all know LotFP is deadly and rewards teamwork.

The trouble was, Jim had to leave that session early, so they never crossed Gecko’s path.

“No problem,” thought I. They all escaped the castle a the end of Session 1, and I could simply frame the first scene of Session 2 at the bedouin camp where escapees of the castle have converged.

And now that I had an idea what the players want to accomplish, I could point out a proximate goal that gives everyone the opportunity to get something they want: Sabin, to rescue his brother and maybe win his crown; Zhavia, to win the favor of VIPs who might give her leverage in her endeavor to abolish slavery; and Gecko, to win the favor of VIPs who might give him leverage to unite the Steppankhazzi horde. My view of Soren’s goals was still a bit hazy, but I figured Mark would create motivation for Soren to join in, at least for the mayhem of it, and possibly for other rewards.

Since some of the hostages at the castle were worth a lot of leverage, I assigned an appropriate value in silver coins for bringing them out alive, with a higher value for those we know took part in future events of our Dungeon World game. Any unnamed subjects of the keep that they rescue would be worth a weregild price equal to the XP value of slaying a zero HD monster—5sp each. This is not a strict reading of the XP rules of LotFP, but my intention was to count any hostages that they rescue as “valuable objects recovered from uncivilized or abandoned areas”, which they are.

I chatted with the players before the session to see if this interested them, and the feedback was enthusiastic. It probably would have got them working as a party too, if Jim didn’t have to bail just before game time.

This session highlighted a significant difference between the way I do scene framing in LotFP during ”dungeon mode” versus Dungeon World. In Dungeon World, I typically frame every scene in a situation where there is something significant at stake, something that puts a pivotal choice before the players. That’s the way I ran the 1st session of this LotFP game too.

But the LotFP mechanics offer an intimate focus on more procedural exploration: Rules for encumbrance and movement rates give extra weight to equipment choice. Rules for light resource management interlace with the movement rate to make time a more precious commodity while exploring; and so on. Instead of producing a sequence of discrete scenes where the players face weighty choices, these rules sketch out a continuous trickle of minute choices that may be revealed to be consequential in their totality. (Any given choice may not.)

Exploring the castle in this session was a perfect example of this. This time, I used Dyson’s version of the castle map from B2 Keep on the Borderlands, with some additions I made to show the position of the castle’s turbine towers. Their movement rates and torches created crucial bits of fictional positioning—especially in the fight with Una, where they used the concretely defined space to maximum advantage, deftly surviving a brush with near-certain death.

They Picked a Fight with the Boss… and Survived?!

When I told a player from our Dungeon World game about this, he asked me, “Would you give the Empress plot armor?”

The issue is that we know she existed in the future.

In game mechanics, I did not treat her differently than any other monster or NPC: I gave her Hit Dice and an Armor Class befitting her station, and defined her powers in delimited terms. The act of setting an Armor Class and definite Hit Points implies they can in principle kill her, excluding any dishonest GM behavior. On top of that, she was clearly unprepared for the encounter, and they found a crucial weakness.

As it happened, they did not come close to killing her. But if they had, I would roll with it. We know she existed in the future, so eventually she would have to come back, somehow. Since this is a fantasy game, that would not be too hard.

What I would not do is fudge the dice or invent a new power at the end of the encounter to let her get away. That would rob the players of their victory, and the skill they exercised in defeating her.

Jim had a similar thought after Session 1, pointing out the tension this creates, knowing that there are things that are supposed to happen:

An OSR game would not have us anywhere near the Empress; it would not have us anywhere near Lizard King. We’d be simple lowlifes struggling by and hearing about the big things happening from rumours and bards.

There are things that are supposed to happen in the future of this fiction. That is part of the conceit of playing an adventure situated prior to events that we know about.

It is a fantasy, though, so we have some leeway in how we get there. The question is whether everyone is interested in that conceit and willing to cooperate.

Dungeon bashing has conceits that we coordinate to: For example, the game assumes you are part of a party who mostly sticks together for cooperative endeavors. When that isn’t the case for any number of characters, we might retire them temporarily from active play and change the party line-up. If you decide to build your own competing dungeons, charge NPCs for admission, and spend the whole of each session on literal accounting, contract disputes, and marketing efforts to determine whose dungeon kills the most NPCs, that’s possible—but it’s not cooperating with the standard conceit of play.

Likewise, if they deliberately assassinate all the characters we met in the future, that would be uncooperative with the conceit of this adventure. I guess we’ll see!


One of my strengths as a GM is being able to run a game with limited prep time, as long as I’m in a good frame of mind for the medium of role-playing: conversation. Keeping the prep-to-play ratio low is necessary because of the pressure of my current schedule with work and family, which doesn’t offer scope for elaborate prep.

I love having elaborate and compelling spaces in my games, and I have made stuff before that is up to my standards, but under my current regime it’s a weak point. Unfortunately, my schedule doesn't give me time for creating convincing and interesting spatial environments that are ideal for the procedural exploration that LotFP emphasizes. So I rely a lot on briliant cartographers like Dyson, and Web searches for interesting floor plans when I need them.

4 responses to “LotFP Dark World Session 2: “An Audience with the Chthonic Empress””

  1. Future past

    Of the many important things you're bringing up with this series of posts, I wanted to focus a little on the "knowing the future" issue.

    The odd thing about such knowledge is that it's a common feature of audience-experience in all forms of fiction, and it's also central to creating fiction. People don't have any problem or "hitch" with knowing some feature of the current moment's future; not only is it easy to process, but it can also be a major factor in enjoyment.

    Saying, "But why would I watch this movie, I know the ship's going to sink," is snarky bullshit, and it's not even clever. It's profoundly stupid. Knowing the ship will sink provides edge, context, relevance, and most important, uncertainty about other things – without it, the fiction of the moment (e.g. 10, 20, or 30 minutes into the movie) is less interesting or engaging.

    So, why "odd?" Because it seems to be a cognitive difficulty with role-playing. I proposed all the way back in Sorcerer (1996, first published version) that a group could play entirely backwards, i.e., each successively-played session occurs chronologically before the session first played. Seth Ben Ezra's Showdown demonstrates quite beautifully how well it works: playing a climactic fight scene forward, but punctuated by information-rich flashbacks that go earlier and earlier, so that the fight concludes at the same time we find out "how it all began." But I think it's more widely applicable than that, i.e., it works fine with less necessary or imposed structure.

    I would even go so far as to suggest that knowing some aspect of "what happens later" is no different, in terms of the creative process of announcing a current action, from knowing some aspect of "what has gone before." That's a pretty intense claim.

    I anticipate no problems or difficulties with playing "the past" as your group is currently doing. What interests me is why we, speaking collectively for the hobby, haven't been doing it or any version of it (details or whole scenarios) all along the hobby's history.

    • Thank you for this! This

      Thank you for this! This affirms my past experience and articulates what appealed to me about framing the campaign like this better than I could. I've shared the link to your comment among some of the players involved in both campaigns and the conversations it fostered have been enriching.

      It seems like most of my role-playing experience has included some out-of-sequence action, but usually on a smaller scale.

      The mildest examples are when a player announces a past action based on knew player knowledge ("If I had know that I would have…"), or to set up what they want to do right now.

      Sometimes it's not feasible, but often enough it is: "Sure, we can say you notified the police before you came here." or "Of course you brought your family's signet ring with you—can you tell us what moved you to pocket it before you left home?" If it's iffy, some games have a skill or score you can roll on to find out. ("Yeah, you have collected a lot of books over the years. Roll Lore to see if you have a book about this.")

      Sometimes, this spontaneously causes us to frame a new scene in the past to resolve how something happened. This isn't usually a big deal.

      More frequently, when the players are in scenes at different locations, it's easy to leave the sequence of events relative to each other somewhat up in the air.

      For example, Player A in Scene 1 might be involved in action that takes 10 minutes in the fiction, and Player B and C in Scene 2 might cover hours of time in the fiction. But because the relative start times of those Scenes is fuzzy, we can have them all arrive at Scene 3 simultaneously, and immediately following Scenes 1 and 2 in the fiction. Doing this frequently creates both out-of-sequence play AND players announcing actions with both future knowledge (or just thematically interesting knowledge) about the content of other scenes.

      I can't think of any time that this breach of sequence led to any confusion or cognitive dissonance, or even any comment, at the table. And I can think of several times that it created rich and rewarding play.

      So, why "odd?" Because it seems to be a cognitive difficulty with role-playing.

      My first thought was, it's because of the roots of role-playing in wargaming. How can you have future knowledge about the circumstances of the next battle before we play this one? But it occurs to me that wargaming included exactly that, whenever players used their game to model or reenact battles from actual history. Not only did they know how the battle turned out in real life, I gather that there was a culture of play that favored reaching the same outcome through the game.

      I think future knowledge can possibly chafe against play oriented toward Step On Up, especially for those players motivated to creatively exploit quirks of the rules, the fictional situation, and player knowledge for a win. My hunch is the only ways to address that chafing are 1) to talk about it, and invite everyone to share in the aesthetic conceit; and 2) to embrace it, giving players commensurate challenges. Whatever we think we know, there's always infinitely more that we don't.

    • I’m glad it helped, or made

      I'm glad it helped, or made sense, or whatever. I totally agree about the casual, probably common use of "quick retcon," "flashback," "clarifying" moments, and now that I think about it, going into a situation with just a little grey time-zone preceding it is pretty common throughout my history of play. It allows people to "reach" into that zone as a momentary device that doesn't violate any sense of plausibility, or "rule of fiction" I guess they're called.

      Hey, that reminds me of something. You've seen Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the original film, I bet, so consider the famous time-travel duel, effectively a combat, when our heroes keep revealing what they'd "gone back" and done in order to provide some ridiculous opportunity or item that they could now really make use of, like, ten times or something. But you know what? That same confrontation has been part of stories forever, just without the time-travel. Our heroes were crazy prepared and set up this and set up that and did this or made use of that, but revealing each one in flashback (or implied flashback) only when they actually benefit from it, as the current fight/confrontation proceeds.

      Robbie has a current post here about playing The Snowball (a Pool variant) with backwards-play in the system. I need to comment on that one, probably pirating my own example from above, and maybe you could too, to compare thoughts. It's more like scenes-backward, Showdown-style (or Memento for a film reference), then session-backwards like I had been thinking about, or adventures-backwards like you're doing here and like I've done with Sorcerer & Sword.

      Please extend an invitation to anyone you were talking about this with to join us, because I think Robbie is breaking all kinds of new ground (especially because it's students and a class) and there's a rich discussion waiting to happen that I'd rather sit in for and not lead.

      Anyway, because this is the internet, I have to quibble with something in your comment – jokes aside, it's a modifying nuance, not a disagreement. One of the big goals in wargaming was/is to compare the historical outcome with whatever might happen on the table. From an actual real-Pentagon point of view, the idea was to discover what contingencies might actually have influenced the outcome, by seeing what "could" happen such that it would turn out differently, with the contingencies being both leadership decision-making (player choices) and probabilistic things no one can fully control in reality (how much damage is precisely taken from a barrage, whether the troops break morale and run, et cetera).

      Um, to say it more clearly, I hope, the notion isn't to arrive at the precise historical outcome, but knowing what that historical outcome was does factor directly into every choice you make (did I do the same, am I doing it differently, both being legal), and also into reflecting upon every roll (so, that battalion didn't break and flee like they did historically, so does that matter to the outcome). I think this is why wargamers dislike being identified directly with board-gamers who play games that happen to use history as flavor text. They care about the history and how the outcomes of each played campaign shed light on it, as they consider it to do.

    • Thanks for that clarification

      Thanks for that clarification, re: wargaming. That makes a lot of sense from the angle of using a game as a strategic learning exercise.

      I think I picked up the bit about trying to reach the same outcomes from something Dave Wesely said in his interview with Clyde Rhoer here. It's been a long time since I listened to it though, and I might be misremembering. Thinking back, he might have been talking about individual players—if he said anything like that at all.

      I will check out that thread about The Pool and the Snowball, as soon as I can. We're having Session 5 this Saturday, and my thoughts right now are bent toward prepping for the snowballing action the players have in store for me!

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