Sunday, 17 December 2017

Hacking LOTFP Classes Part 4: Gameplay Subsystems

This is the fourth part in an article series examining the LOTFP classes in order to design new ones. Part 3 is here.

Before I can proceed further in examining and designing new classes for LOTFP I think it is important to examine all the various subsystems that make up the gameplay of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. 

In an RPG you have a set of rules that governs play. Certain rules are grouped together based upon design and theme. I refer to these grouping as subsystems. Generally in order for a subsystem to be a subsystem it has to be modularized to the point where you can remove it from the game without affecting any of the other rules. 

The magic system is a good example of this. There are several rules pertaining to magic that can be grouped together: how many spells a magic-user can cast per level, how they regain them, how other characters can resist magic spells cast at them etc. These rules form a subsystem and, for the most part, can be removed from the game with little alteration of other rules. For example if you wanted to have a purely historical game, you could remove the magic system from play without affecting other subsystems in the game like combat. 

I think it is important to understand the subsystems of a game to build a good class, as classes tend to have a particular subsystem that they excel at or have unique access too. For example the Magic-User is the only class that access to arcane spells. This is a huge defining feature of it’s class. If classes don't have a particular subsystem of the rules that only they have access to they tend to be pretty generic or have circumstantial bonuses to things that make them very situational. 

It should be noted that I do not consider ‘Class’ as its own subsystem. This is because I find classes, in essence, touch upon many subsystems and are more of a container in this manner than a separate subsystem of their own. 

One of the easiest ways to identify the subsystems in a game is to look at it’s character sheet as different numerical scores are often grouped by subsystem. Looking at the LOTFP character sheet the following subsystems can be analyzed and identified:

Ability Scores: as previously mentioned, these six abilities are the bedrock of the character. All other scores are derived from these. These scores are supposed to numerically represent the range of all human ability. Any action not covered by any other rules is generally supposed to be able to be resolved through an ability check and they function as an important catch-all in this manner.

Saving Throws: most people are familiar with saving throws through play. Saving throws are dice rolls you make when your character is facing some heinous danger in an unexpected manner where something is being done to them, rather then them taking an action (which would be an ability check).  

Beyond this I find there is often a lot of confusion on exactly why saving throws are needed  from a design perspective or why they exist. You could make a strong argument for just using ability checks instead. After reading up on the development of Dungeons and Dragons I think (but may be wrong, if anyone really knows, comment) saving throws were originally introduced to enforce certain narrative tropes in regards to certain classes facing danger. For example, the deft and nimble thief always being good at dodging traps no matter how good or poor their dexterity is. In this way certain literary tropes are enforced. Where you don’t have a brawny fighter being better at resisting magic simply due to an equal intelligence score as the wizard, or the old and wizened wizard being better at dodging traps than the thief because his dexterity happens to be higher.

The second design rationale I have read for saving throws, and which pertains especially to LOTFP is what I read James Raggi state in a reddit AMA

“As far as levels go, I don't dislike the idea at all. As a campaign progresses a party becomes ever more capable and durable and can have more confidence facing larger challenges (and more easily overcome challenges that were once existential crises). But I don't much like the way the flavor of an entire game fundamentally changes over levels.”

“So the idea of saving throws being a static value rather than yet another way characters toughen over time is attractive. "Yeah, you're a monster at swordfighting, but poison is poison." "Magic cuts through your mortal accumulation of skill and fortitude!" etc.” -- James Raggi

While he is talking more about the playtesting for his new version of the game. I find this design rationale for saving throws to be very interesting. Where they aren't meant to enforce certain literary tropes, they are simply dangers that no matter how great and powerful your characters becomes, are still incredibly threatening as your character is only human.

Combat: combat is probably the subsystem with the most rules belonging to it. I find this can often be misleading in LOTFP and OSR games in general. They tend to devote a lot of pages to combat in the rule book and so there is a bit of an assumption that combat is a big part of the game. I find this tends to be the opposite in reality. The general style of OSR play I find tends to be planning to avoid combat, this is especially true in LOTFP in which combat is especially deadly.  

Beyond this, I have mixed thoughts about he combat system in LOTFP. On one hand the basics of it are incredibly simple and easy to use. On the other, if you actually read the rules, and play them exactly as written, combat in LOTFP is pretty crunchy with a lot of little modifiers and special rules for things that I find most groups just overlook, forget about, or don't bother with, or house rule to make simpler. Like the four different types of armour class. In a year of playing I don't think I've used, or had the Referee call for the without shield armour class and most of the time it's the same as your normal armour class. Or the specialized rules for some weapons like rapiers where they suffer a -2 penelty to hit opponents with an unadjusted AC of 15 or better. I feel like LOTFP has a really nice and elegant combat system as long as you scrape off all this crunchy crust of +/- rules that you pretty have memorize the core rulebook to really remember in play.

Skills: skills tend to be specific actions the player can take in which a dice roll determining success. Additionally in LOTFP the specialist is the only class to get better in skills and several skills pertain to activities that a thief/specialist type generally carries out in the associated fiction. There is some push back against skill systems where many think it opens up the game to endless bloat with endless skills for everything. I do think this is a valid criticism and also think that if you really wanted you could probably fold skills into ability checks, and simply use ability checks for all skill like activities. 

However, I do think there is value in having a basic skill system. It allows for certain classes or characters to get better at certain actions as they level up without having to raise ability scores which might have wider consequences on other game subsystems. For example if you want a class to get better at picking locks as they level, raising dexterity, the base ability often associated with it, would also make them better at ranged attacks which might be something you don’t want. In this manner skills allow the improvement of the character in specific actions without other actions being affected. In essence the person is becoming better at a skilled task like how playing a musical instrument makes you better at it. 

Magic: Ive kind of circled cleric and magic-user magic as two different subsystems but have labeled them as one. There are some differences between them but I find by on large they are copies of each other. I’m not going to go into depth about the magic subsystems in LOTFP. It’s pretty easy to understand how they work and their intended purpose.

Levels: pretty self-explanatory. Characters grow in level as they gain experience. They get better at doing things pertaining to their class. 

Alignment: pretty self-explanatory. Used a little bit, but often not systematized or utilized that much in a meaningful way, a bit of a holdover I find in LOTFP. As most of the time the characters are going to be chaotic to some degree or another, it's hard to be an adventurer without being chaotic. I do like the idea of having something keep track or define a characters moral inclinations but feel alignment doesn't do a great job of it. 

Retainers: pretty self-explanatory. I feel like hiring retainers in LOTFP is a bit more crunchy than it needs to be. Where every time someone wants to hire them you have to crack open the rule book and start flipping through and referring to multiple pages. Even after doing it several times the process doesn't seem to get faster. This said, it's not a huge problem as the opportunity or need to hire retainers only comes up every couple of sessions so it’s not as big of a deal to have to take a bit of time to look things up. This is in contrast to the combat system which is generally used every session at least and pretty crunchy if you really play it as written. I feel like this is a good rule for designing gameplay subsystems. Not everything needs to be super streamlined, you can have some more complex rules where the players are probably going to have to refer to the rulebook. Just do so for gaemplay subsystems that the players are going to use very frequently as it will bog down the game to the point of frustration. 

Items and Encumbrance: LOTFP does it in a bit of a novel way with it’s ‘slot’ based system. It’s a really elegant solution to handling items that makes inventory management a lot easier. Easily one of my favourite aspects of LOTFP.

Languages: another subsystem that LOTFP handles a bit differently from most OSR games in a much more elegant way. 

Money, Property, and Investments: all kind of loosely related. Properties and Investments are kind of crunchy. I have mixed thoughts on this also and find these aspects of the game are kind of at odds a bit with the adventures and core concept of the game as being a weird or horror roleplaying game. 

I find traditional D&D is very much a 'frontier' rags to riches story. The characters start off as penniless layabouts who seek their fortune in adventuring in some uncivilized frontier be it an actual wilderness or a chaotic urban environment. They're main goal is to gain enough money, power, and prestige, to tame some aspect of the 'frontier' and act as agents of civilization. As they grow in level they become the ones in charge of some area and gain increased responsibilities because of this. 

I find this clashes a bit with Lamentations of the Flame Princess because, while the characters do start off as penniless layabouts, the main goal of the game (at least to me) tends to be the exploration and investigation of the weird and strange. They players are still trying to find some means of profiting off of it but to me more as a means of survival or in a very Dr. Frankenstein or Faustian like manner where they aren't so interested in the possible ethical consequences.

Despite it's rules for establishing a laboratory or castle or something like this I find LOTFP ins't well suited towards the players acting as civilizing agents. If the players become established as civilizing forces, involved in the political structure, or owing and responsible for a large tract of land or housing, it kind of destroys the weird and horrific elements of the game. Where the game begins to shift from one of pure exploration of the weird and horrific to more of a civilization v.s nature where the weird stuff is intruding upon the civilized world and the players are there to stop it and ensure that civilizations advances and conquers the untamed chaotic wilderness. This is a trope of classic D&D that I find is really mismatched with LOTFP as it tends to make the game very black and white morally and make the horrific elements less horrific. 

This said I find the money, property, and investment rules aren't used all that much partially because you have to be a high level and few characters ever get that high. But I do kind of like the idea of 'end game' type rules that allow the players do do something with all the money they accumulate, and kind of gain power and or prestige in the world of the story. I just think that the end game goals of LOTFP are fundamentally different than classic D&D where the entire progression and end game tends to be about conquering and civilizing the wilderness, and so the 'end game' rules of LOTFP need to be adjusted or rewritten accordingly.

In addition to the game subsystems on the character sheet there are several which are in the rulebook but not immediately obvious from the character sheet:

Firearms: while firearms are part of combat, they are so different from the rules regarding other weapons and fighting, and are written in a very modular fashion, that they form a subsystem of their own. Just like my criticisms of the combat system I find the firearms to be almost needlessly crunchy. Most groups I know house rule it with rules like you can only use them once in combat instead of keeping track of the turns since they were last used and figuring out exactly how long it's going to take to reload. 

Light, food and mapping: kind of loosely related I have categorized these as a subsystem as they often are intertwined. They are often limitations on how much and how well you can explore. A lack of any of them can become a problem for the players forcing them to either stop and address the situation or face increasing risk of death.

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