Check for Traps
Learning from the Masters

Alexander Macris | 17 Aug 2010 17:00
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When I kicked off my survey of world-building with the article "Let There Be Law" back in June, I discussed the importance of choosing a set of rules tailored to the genre and setting you want to run. I gave some recommendations of rules for different genres - RECON for Vietnam, Hard Nova II for space opera, and so on. I also mentioned that it's possible to hack a rules set to support different genre conventions and settings, but didn't go into much detail. Since that column, I've received a fair number of private messages asking further questions about modifying rules, and have been sent some really interesting rules and supplements that "hack" some popular games. This column, as we wrap up our survey of world-building, I thought I'd discuss some of these products and use them to illustrate how to hack the game rules to your taste. This article is going to assume familiarity with baseline Dungeons & Dragons and use that as a stepping off point.

The Weirding Way

The first product we'll review is Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing by James Edward Raggi IV. LotFP is a retro-clone of the classic Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game designed to simulate the "weird tale" of supernatural horror, associated with masters like H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and R.E. Howard. Supernatural horror is not a style commonly associated with classic D&D, but Lamentations makes it work beautifully - and is exceptionally illustrative of how one can adapt the game mechanics of a game to suit a particular theme or style of play.

LotFP is filled with subtle changes that transform D&D into something spookier. For instance, in Lamentations only fighters gain improved attack rolls as they level. The other classes get better skills and spells, but they never improve their odds in fighting. This deepens the specialized nature of each class, such that only by working together can the party survive. "Never split the party!" Moreover it changes the archetype of what each class represents - a cleric becomes more of a learned priest than mace-slugger, a magic-user becomes more akin to a sorcerer in a Conan story than Gandalf. And fighters are the war-hardened souls who learn from blood-letting.

LotFP also shines in its treatment of magic items. In LotFP, "all magic items are artifacts, and not mere tools or trinkets." There are no magic items that merely improve game mechanics, and most, if not all, have drawbacks. An example (from one of LotFP's adventures) is the ring of vanishing, which when worn makes the wearer invisible to everything except undead while attracting undead wandering monsters if any are nearby. This represents a subtle change that may not be immediately apparent in play, but over time implicates an entirely different setting and style - magic items change from "power ups" to items used at risk to life and soul.

Spells, too, receive subtle changes. For instance, Animate Dead has, in every version of D&D, created mindless skeleton and zombie servants. In LotFP, "the creatures retain faint memories of what life used to be, and their jealousy makes them destructive. They will always interpret any instructions in the most violent and destructive manner possible." The clerical power to turn undead is itself a spell in LotfP and while the mechanic remains the same, it forces the cleric to actually choose between healing and turning, suggesting a more desperate setting where the powers of good and light are scarce.

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