Six days a week I’m a regular nebbish, an average Joe, milquetoast through to my bones. This is not true when I’m running Dungeons and Dragons. My roleplaying game is hashtag lit. You can call me Christian Grey because I’m the dungeon master.
My preferred poison is Lamentations of the Flame Princess, one of the Old School Renaissance (OSR) RPGs. The OSR movement is a nebulous web of internet and IRL communities, united in the belief that there was something really great about RPGs in the 1970s that has gone missing in modern systems. Flame wars have been fought over exactly what that secret sauce is. Some think it was the ’70s games themselves, and play 0Edition Dungeons and Dragons or retro-clones like Swords and Wizardry and OSRIC. Others think it was one or other design principle that’s been abandoned by modernity, and build original games that emphasise that element: Dungeon Crawl Classics is a showground for the weird funhouse dungeons of ’70s DnD, while The Black Hack is an extremely lightweight rule-set designed to put as little space as possible between the players and the theater of the mind.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) is a tidy little rule-set, with neat ideas from both original DnD and the mind of its creator James Raggi that facilitate and gently encourage a particular style of running and playing the game that I find pure catnip – attitudes and objectives that help the dungeon master to create compelling adventures and run fast, fun sessions. The published adventures don’t pretend to present a “balanced” challenge for the players: they emphasise the horrible danger of an adventurer’s life, and provide enough wiggle room for players to circumvent a horrible death if they are clever, daring, lucky and occasionally immoral. Starting characters can easily die to a single flintlock shot or sword swipe: high level wizards are chaotic, massively powerful and potentially world ending. Fighters are the only class to improve their combat skills as they level up, turning them into the party’s designated murderer – they’re also otherwise fairly inept.
Power and progress is measured less by your character level than by how close you are to death, and pre-written adventures that gleefully hand out game-breaking artifacts and hideous curses take the attention away from the numbers game and plant it firmly in the world of affordances and the ability to affect the world. Characters gain almost no experience points from killing monsters, instead directly converting the monetary value of treasure they retrieve from dungeons, temples and tombs into XP. The amount of equipment you’re carrying matters, because the slowest person running away from a formless demon is the first one to get eaten. Characters are randomly generated and represented by very few stats – convenient, given the rate at which they die. Running LotFP I like to set up scenarios full of horrible peril and delicious treasure, then watch in glee as the players weigh off their avarice against their desire to keep all their limbs attached to their characters. Though it’s possible to run a series of adventures in which the players become the heroes of a narrative, it’s equally fun to let them be the protagonists of an adventure – to be Conan, not Bilbo.
“There’s enough wiggle room for players to circumvent a horrible death if they are clever, daring, lucky and occasionally immoral.”
LotFP is, except for a few clever tweaks, a modern reimplementation of the Moldvay and Mentzer “Basic / Expert” strand of Dungeons and Dragons (due to the weird quirks of DnD’s publishing history, from 1981 onwards publishers TSR maintained two, distinct flavours of the game side by side.) Though it shares a blood relative, it’s a very different beast from the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons family which has been the root stock of most DnD since the ’80s. This has ramifications in the videogame space. The vaunted Black Isle Studios isometric RPGs were based on 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, while 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons was the source material for Neverwinter Nights. This legacy has continued directly in the modern isometric RPGs of Obsidian Entertainment, and by the proliferation of ideas from Advanced DnD into most Western videogame RPGs.
Videogame RPGs rarely give me the LotFP vibe. You’re the hero of a narrative in a world that might be hostile, but is rarely indifferent and usually contains a path of level-appropriate resistance. Sainted Dark Souls comes the closest in the RPG field, with high-lethality, weird magic, and a narrative that’s all about cosmic indifference – but Dark Souls monsters exist to be killed and release their sumptuous souls, a very 2nd edition ADnD concept. The RPG-ification of the rest of the games industry draws heavily from this stock – the multitude of passive and active buffs and abilities that are the hallmark of an RPG skill-tree have more in common with 3rd edition DnD’s gamified feat system than classic DnD’s extremely idiosyncratic “Vancian” spellcasting system.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is the kind of Dungeons and Dragons videogame I want to play. Where most videogame RPGs foreground the game element, either with a tactical combat system or the longer-term character sculpting of a progress system, LotFP and PUBG situate you in a physical world, where weapons are tools rather than collections of stats, where the ground you choose to fight on is far more significant than the armour on your back. Both are highly lethal and both are quick to return you to the action after you die. They’re not strictly fair, and half of the fun comes from mitigating that unfairness and responding to the shitty hand fate has dealt you. Both share a purity of focus: you want to live, and to stay alive you need to accumulate power, and sometimes accumulating power will involve making other people dead – but not always, and fleeing without the loot is better than dying with it. You’re not the hero of PUBG, you’re an aspirant, an adventurer, in it for the thrills (and the chance to marginally improve your wardrobe.) PUBG and LotFP don’t have a scripted narrative flourish to reward your triumph, nor are they interested in helping you towards a conclusion – they’re confident that there’s enough sheer pleasure playing in their worlds you can jump in and out a hundred times and still want more.
What I’m getting at is that someone better start making a battle royale survival dungeon-crawler videogame, and my weekly DnD game is as good as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.