Thursday, August 18, 2022

The 72 cards and their uses





How can I tell about it now that I have lost my power of speech, words, perhaps also memory? How can I tell what was there outside, and, once I have remembered, how can I find the words to say it? How can I utter those words? We are all trying to explain something to the others with gestures, grimaces, all of us like monkeys. Thank God there are these cards here on the table, a deck of tarots. --Italo Calvino


Why Use Tarot?

My blog has featured a number of posts on using Tarot cards including the Magic Tree (the method I personally use most often these days), the Magic Wheel, and the Magic Square. Although these are some of my most popular posts, I have received a number of comments from people asking exactly how to “read” tarot cards. It’s a difficult question because the process is intuitive and individual—if you gave two readers the same spread of cards, they would come up with two very different responses. There’s also the question of why a person would even bother with tarot cards at all when other writing aids exist. While I would never say that every GM should be using tarot cards, I can say that tarot cards have worked well for me and share some tips on using them effectively for designing adventures. In this post, I’ll be explaining why you might choose to use tarot cards in your adventure writing and give a “beginner’s overview” on how I personally read the cards.


If you’ve never used a writing tool or prompt generator, it probably seems like an unnecessary step. When you’re running a game a sentence or two (and possibly a block of stats) for each room is all that is needed; it is quite possible to riff and improvise given a good starting point. Being a GM is a lot like being a jazz musician—once the musician understands the melody and the structure of the song, they can build impossibly complex structures from this foundation. That is where GM prep comes in, building a strong structure to riff out of during play. The tricky part about GM prep is not how much I need to write beforehand (since the “details” are easily improvised during play), but it’s coming up with a large number of quality ideas that all fit together–a dungeon adventure, for example, needs anywhere from 5-30 rooms plus a satisfying wandering encounter table. Racking your brain for such a volume of ideas or trying to improvise ideas mid session results in skimming only the “surface” of your mind. 


Getting into my personal beliefs for a moment, I believe that our day-to-day thoughts are only barely our own—consisting mostly of outside influences, the chemicals your body produces, advertisements, news stories, the TV show you watched last night, your upbringing, the worldview informed by your personal belief structure, etc. Like a film of oil on the surface of the water, it’s colorful, but thin and shallow. The base structure for an adventure has to come from a deeper place, and the use of tarot cards and meditation is (I’ve found) the single most effective way to break through the “film” of day-to-day thought and get to a place of deeper intuition.


Methods for generating writing prompts are not exactly in short order, so why bother with tarot in particular? The first advantage to Tarot is their flexibility. I love There’s a ton of great tables that can be found online tailor-made for various RPG situations, “oracles” designed for solo RPGs, or other writing tools such as Rory’s story cubes. However, compared to these other methods, tarot cards offer increased flexibility in the ways that they can be used and depth in the variety of interpretations they can generate. When you might need separate tables for spells, magic items, adventure hooks, NPCs, etc., a single tarot deck can be used for all of these. While the usefulness of a table decreases over time as you use up more and more of the entries, the symbols of a tarot deck take on an increased depth over repeated use that make the deck easier and more satisfying. It’s true that a random table is more useful during actual play when you don’t have time to sit and interpret esoteric artwork, but tarot decks can also help generate ideas during your prep time to populate the tables that you use during play. Another advantage tarot cards have over other writing tools is simply that tarot cards are just fun physical items to collect. If you’re at all like me, collecting cards and finding unique decks can be very satisfying and a good way to support artists. In my experience, D&D fans tend to be fantasy fans, and fantasy fans tend to own at least one deck of tarot cards tucked away in a game shelf somewhere. If you have a deck laying around, why not use it?




Reading the Tarot 

Most tarot decks come with a small pamphlet that informs a reader what each card means, a “little white book.” The first and most important thing you can do when you buy a deck of tarot cards is to throw this book away. There is a common misconception that reading tarot cards requires knowledge of what the cards mean. This is not true. The card doesn’t dictate a single meaning, rather it is a filter that allows the reader to focus more clearly on a specific aspect of a situation. White light contains all colors within it until a prism allows the viewer to see light of a specific wavelength—a tarot card is like a prism and you are the light.


There’s an old story about how when dreams escape the grasp of Morpheus, the false dreams pass through the gate of ivory and the true dreams pass through the gate of horn. When trying to read a tarot card, the analytical brain, the gate of ivory if you will, wants to make sense of all the symbols on the card. It wants to force the situation to match the card in a way that is logical and right. If you rely on the analytical brain, reading Tarot becomes frustrating. Your analytical brain will try to force the card to mean a certain way, even if the “correct” meaning of the card doesn’t match the situation you’re writing about or doesn’t feel natural. The intuitive brain (our gate of horn) will only speak up when the analytical brain has had a chance to quiet down. Ironically enough, the first step to reading a Tarot card is to look at the card without trying to read it. Don’t try to figure out how it applies to the situation you’re writing about. Don’t try to understand it. Just look at it. 


Quieting down this analytical brain is easier said than done. More or less what I’m talking about here is meditation. Meditation is a huge, huge topic, there are a dizzying number of methods people use, and I’m not really going to go into it. When you are reading tarot cards, it doesn’t have to be a lengthy ordeal, just a couple of quick breaths to put your mind in the right space. My most reliable method for getting into this headspace is a technique called “four fold breathing” or “box breathing.” Breath in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breath out for four seconds, hold for four seconds. If you’re a musician, you’ve probably already had a lot of practice counting to four, so this method should feel quite familiar.


Once you feel confident that your analytical brain has quieted down to a dull simmer, you can allow yourself to visualize the situation. Visualization doesn’t necessarily mean trying to picture the situation in your head. Like a pointalist painting, you’re not trying to see every individual dot, you are trying to look at the painting as a whole. Maybe it’s different for you, but in my head, if I try to picture a whole image I can only “reconstruct” a bit at a time. Trying to hold a whole image in your mind is like trying to hold water in your hand—as soon as you’ve visualized one piece, you lose it as soon as you try to picture the next section of the image. Instead, when you visualize, don’t try to force yourself to see an image in exacting detail; rather you are trying to hold in your mind the overall mood of the situation you’re writing about. Sometimes a character will seem rather “blobby.” Sometimes multiple locations will overlap each other. Sometimes your visualization will feel quite vague and sketchy. All this is completely normal—desirable, even.


So your mind is in the right place, you're looking at the card, and you're visualizing the thing you want to write about in your mind. The last step is maybe the most important, but it’s the hardest to describe. I guess you could call it “interpreting” or “reading” but these words are a bit strong—they imply that you are going to be “doing” something, but that’s not quite the process. It’s more like filtering your visualization through the card. Overlaying the card onto your visualization to uncover something new.   As you are looking at the card and practicing this visualization, certain images on the card will gain more prominence and it changes how you perceive things in your mind until the meaning of the card reveals itself to you, often quite suddenly. Often there is a dream-logic to how I interpret the card. If someone asked me to describe how I arrived at the interpretation I did, I’m sometimes at a loss to explain exactly why the card means the thing it means. Sometimes this process takes a long time. Most of the time it only takes a few breaths.







Understanding the Tarot

Nothing about this process involves consulting little white books, initiating yourself in the Order of the Golden Dawn, or becoming a master of the occult. It does, however, require a little patience, a little practice, and a willingness to feel a little silly. That being said, the Tarot was designed with a certain worldview in mind—reading more about the Tarot can be helpful in understanding the logic behind the structure of the Tarot and its symbols. 


There have been books on books that go into much greater depth than I can. I really consider myself a “beginner” to all this, so this is a bit of a “blind leading the blind” situation. The Tarot that we use in the modern day for fortune telling is based heavily on the beliefs of The Order of the Golden Dawn, a now defunct group with an esoteric belief system more or less based on turn-of-the-century Spiritualism, Medieval alchemy and hermeticism, and Qabbalah. They would probably tell you that the Tarot was “received wisdom” and they had nothing to do with forming the Tarot. While it’s true that Tarot existed long before Golden Dawn as a card game, from what I can tell the idea of Tarot as an oracular device is really an attempt by the group to synthesize western astrology and Qabalah into a cohesive whole. I doubt that any modern reader would dig through the system and find that they 100% believe everything that the group believes (nor do I think a person should). Some of its practitioners back in the day were, to put it mildly, not nice people, and some of the beliefs are old and outdated. All that said, the advantage to the system is that it’s a “syncretic” belief system meaning that it’s a bit of a hodgepodge of other belief systems anyway. If you like something, throw it in the pot for dinner. If you don’t understand something, save it for later in the fridge. If it’s old and rotten, throw it on the compost heap. Personally, I find much of the system quite beautiful, which is why I find myself gravitating towards the classic Rider-Waite Tarot, the Hermetic Tarot, and the Toth tarot—all decks that are quite old and based heavily on the Golden Dawn system. If it’s not for you, that is perfectly alright as there are a huge number of decks based on other systems. You don’t even have to use Tarot cards—why not shuffle up some Magic the Gathering cards or Dixit cards to use as an oracle?


Here are the very basics as I understand them. Each of the four suits represents one of the four elements: fire for wands, air for swords, cups for water, and coins/pentacles for earth. The Ace represents the purest possible manifestation of that element. Unlike a regular pack of cards with three court cards per suit, the tarot deck as four court cards per suit, with each of the court cards representing an element themselves: Page/Princess for earth, Knight/Prince for Fire, Queen for Water, and King for Air. The spot cards each represent different aspects of the suit’s element.


If you take out all the trump cards and line them up in order, they form a bit of a story starting from 0: The Fool to XXI: The Universe. It’s sometimes called “the fool’s journey.” An eager seeker after knowledge (the fool) encounters different spiritual figures all of whom teach different things: contradictory, and yet somehow all true. There is a spiritual downfall and collapse before the fool can build themselves back up again, eventually culminating in enlightenment.


During meditation, one exercise that I find very powerful is to sit with a tarot deck, and when the time comes, look at one of the tarot cards. Meditate on the card without trying to interpret it. Sometimes you might come to a realization about the card. Sometimes you don’t and that’s okay too.


If you find yourself interested in this stuff and want to seek out more, my personal recommendation would be to start with Italo Calvino's Castle of Crossed Destinies, the film The Holy Mountain directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky, and the poetry of the Williams Blake and Yeats. It’s a bit dense, but Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah is also a very interesting read. Her novels aren’t bad either.






Designing Layouts


You should just use the layouts I made. Visit my blog many many times and give me lots of views and comments and attention.


Ach, okay fine, I’ll talk about what I think makes a good layout. Here’s the thing. I just spent a long time talking up the tarot and how to read the cards and how to get in touch with your feelings and your spirituality and a bunch of other new-agey nonsense, but the trick with a layout is breaking up a topic into a bunch of discrete subjects that are good to think about anyway. For example, in the monster generator layout The Magic Pyramid, my philosophy was that a monster is really a twisted version of humanity, our funny way of thinking about the horrible parts of ourselves. To that end, the layout is designed to make the reader think about what makes the monster human and exaggerate an aspect of humanity’s monstrosity into something supernatural. In The Magic Tree, my philosophy was that a dungeon location should include a balance of rooms including empty rooms, treasures, traps, and encounters, so the rolling of dice ensure a balance of room types.


A good layout is like a form or checklist—if you took away the tarot cards and just had readers fill out a form involving all the elements you included in your checklist they should still come away with something usable.


I like to read groups of tarot cards three at a time. This is not really normal in a lot of other layouts I’ve seen, but I find that in a good Tarot deck, the cards “talk” to each in other in interesting ways that is difficult to achieve by reading just one card at a time. The other advantage to these groups of cards is that you can create intersections of cards—again not really normal in other layouts I’ve seen. This is an idea I stole for The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and I love it because a card that means one thing in one group can mean something totally different in another group. It’s helpful for the purpose of creative writing for which I use the tarot because a card can become a recurring character if it is used in multiple groups.




Thank you so much for reading this very different type of blogpost. Please consider reducing your meat consumption. If you like, you can follow me on twitter @PhillipLoe2. 



Thursday, May 19, 2022

A Fairy Tale Concerning Mosquitos


 Authors note: I promise that I’m working on blog posts and hopefully a new adventure module that should be coming soon, but things are still in development. In the meantime, please enjoy this little story I wrote in the style of a fairy-tale.


Listen; I will tell you from whence mosquitoes come. Once, in a kingdom next to ours, a prince reigned. His table was nightly piled with succulent meats, fine fermented cheeses, wine as plentiful as water, fruits that you or I will never taste, and other such finery. In this prince’s court, every night was a dream of pleasure and each day was spent hunting or other such refined sports. One of these nights, over the laughter of the court, the prince’s fool jested that, on the day the prince died, the rest of the court would also perish as they would be unable to procure these fine victuals themselves.


On hearing this, the prince was disturbed as he had not realized his life would end. He ordered the fool to be nailed to a tree where she quickly withered and died. The prince then called together wise ones from this kingdom, that kingdom, and many more kingdoms of which I have no knowledge. I was not invited—a shame, since, if I had been there, this whole affair could have concluded before dinner.


He asked these wise ones, “Is it true that I will die?” The wise ones dared not openly affirm the statement, but had to admit that the evidence would tend to show this to be the case. 


He asked them, “what then will become of me? Am I to become the mere feast of worms like those not born a prince?” The wise ones firmly denied this, saying that he would live in the memories of the people for ever. Some of the wise ones advised him to study the rhythm of the stars, since they are immortal. Others advised him to send prayers and sacrifices to the gods, ensuring a place among their ceaseless court.


This answer did not satisfy the prince, and so he ejected the wise ones from his court, asking them to spew their falsehoods, thin as watered-down broth, elsewhere.  As these ones left, the goddess known as Mother of Lions entered. Her teeth are sharp and her hair is black like polished obsidian. Her feet stink and her hands are clawed. She held out a stone for the prince, translucent and red, glowing dimly like the eye of a cat, and said, “Truly death is a thing for fools. It does not belong to a great prince such as yourself. I tell you the truth, some miles from here is a pool of brackish, black water. You will know the place as it is marked by a cairn of stones. Travel to this pool, let its water cover your body, and place this stone I give you on the altar at the pool’s bottom. Do this, and you will know no death. Bring no one with you or the magic will fail. Go now. If not, bother me no more.”


The prince set out at once, traveling night and day. His horse whispered “stop,” but the prince did not stop. The next day, the horse whispered, “please sir, let us stop to feed me oats and grain.” The prince had no oats or grain, and so he did not stop. The next day, the horse whispered, “please sir, let us stop by this brook so that I can drink water.” Finally, the prince stopped. The water; however, was tainted. The horse became sick and quickly died. The prince completed the rest of the journey on foot.


The prince walked in this way until he had to discard his fine shoes. His clothes became soiled with dirt and sweat. His hands and feet were scratched by the tall plants the held no respect for the prince’s birthright. Show me these plants and I would cut them down. I would burn them for showing such disrespect to the prince. But I can’t find them. Out from one of the prince’s wounds crawled the first mosquito. The prince had not seen such a creature since one had until then never been born; still, the prince batted it with his mighty hand and killed it. Such is the privilege and obligation of royalty.


In the prince’s travels, he came on the tree whereon his fool had been nailed. Her skin had sloughed off the bone and worms had conquered her meat. The worms lifted their heads and spoke as one.


“Prince, mighty one, I know for which crimes I was punished, but what called you to punish this tree so. He has become a great friend to me and complains bitterly at night of the nails that penetrate his skin, disturbing his slumber.”


The prince replied,” My friend, it is good that you still jest. The court has been absent of laughter for some time.”


“I have heard that you are seeking an answer to the riddle I posed you some time prior.”


“This is true,” the prince said.


“This is good fortune, then,” spoke the fool, “as I have contemplated the question and have uncovered the answer. Give me that stone, the glowing red one given to you by the Mother of Lions, and I will share with you the secret.”


“My friend, this I cannot do. I need the stone to complete an errand and I will not be deterred.” At that, the prince took up a switch and hacked the fool’s corpse off the tree in pieces. The fool only cackled in merriment at her joke.


If the prince had asked me, I would have directed him to the sacred pool in only a few hours. I was, however, not there, and so the prince spent many days in wandering until he found the place. The smell of the place was so strong that the prince feared to approach. The Mother of Lions was there, smiling a sharp smile from behind the cairn. With her clawed finger, she beckoned the prince to enter the water. He disrobed and obeyed her command. The mosquitos had been festering under his skin for some time, and, as he entered the water, they flew out like juice squeezed out of an overripe tomato. Stil, the prince allowed the water to flow over him. The stone escaped the prince’s hand and settled on the water at the pool’s bottom, but all that remained of the prince was his skin, like the sheddings of a snake, floating in the water. Above the pool was the first cloud of mosquitoes.


I swear all this happened just as I tell it and is the true origin of the mosquito. I do not recall the prince’s name. Sleep now; there is much work tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Reviewing All Eight New Lamentations of the Flame Princess Books: Part 3

 



Review #3 The Staffortonshire Trading Company Works of John Williams


I recently decided to go ahead and review all eight of the new Lamentations of the Flame Princess in order starting from my most favorite to my least favorite. These first three books (The Book of Antitheses, Terror in the Streets, and The Staffortonshire Trading Company Works of John Williams) are the three that I consider the absolute best must-haves of the release set. I hope you enjoy the review!

Summary: There is a framing mechanism for this book. It presents itself as the work of an architect and cartographer by the name of John Williams who is traveling around the world, drawing maps and presenting them to his company for their reference. The frame isn’t really important, though—the bulk of the book is in its maps.


The forward mentions 128 maps over 114 pages? I didn’t count, but that sounds about right. The maps are listed in the order that the fictional compiler took around the world. The maps presented vary quite a bit in form and function, ranging from simple dwellings, to ships, to palaces, to prisons, to mosques, and so much more. Each map is well detailed. If it’s a fort, there’s a description of its defenses. If it’s a building, it labels what each room is used for. If it’s a windmill, the important pieces of the mill are labeled. Some of the maps have short notes on why the building has a particular feature or a historical aside. There is quite a wide selection of different geographies as well—not just Europe, but North America, the Middle East, and India.


After the maps, there a short page of adventure hooks, a glossary of terms (pretty useful, since there are quite a few architectural terms I hadn’t run into before sprinkled throughout the maps), and huge bibliography of the author’s historical sources.


“Adult Content” Spice Level: Mild. If this book were a hot sauce it would be chill, sweet, and mellow.

 

Art and Presentation: Overall, Staffortonshire is an attractive book. Hardcover, two ribbons, and nice thick paper that’s got a bit of tooth to it. The cover is a brown print meant to look like a leather-bound book with stitch binding. There’s a gold-colored foil inlay, but the gold on top of the brown is kinda hard to read, to be honest.


Since the majority of the book is in its maps, the art has to be clear, straight-forward and readable. The art in the book is all these things, but not without style. Most of the maps are simple room layouts, but others are side views showing off the architecture, some are overhead views, and some are cross-sections. Flipping through the book, there are so many different types of maps that they don’t really feel repetitive.


Review:

There’s a great illustration in the beginning of the book of the fictional compiler, John Williams. He is drawn with inquisitive eyes and a subtle, but cheeky grin that underscores the type of person this guy is—he has an eye for selecting the buildings that reflect the culture he’s surrounded himself in. Everything from the brutality of a bear-baiting ring to the complex layout of a hospital. He loves normal people and their work just as much as grand palaces. Flipping through the book in order, a bit of a story emerges. Here’s where he went to a surgical theater. Here’s where he got captured by pirates. The inside covers of the book even map out his progress around the world. It’s subtle, but it’s a lovely touch.


It's tough to find historical materials on the 30 Years War that describe the lives of ordinary, normal people, but that's what I'm interested if I'm trying to run a historical game. Part of what makes this book so great is that each map tells a story about the people that people that live there and what their lives were like. This book was very obviously a labor of love given how meticulously each map is researched. Because each map is based on a real building, they have a tangible verisimilitude that makes running the game and the people in it that much easier.


It’s impossible to write this review without talking about Dyson Logos, whose work I absolutely adore. He makes literally hundreds of maps absolutely free to use with many more given a commercial license so that anyone can use one of his maps in a commercial product. With the wide availability of free maps from great artists like Dyson, what makes this book worth the purchase? The answer here is that while the form of a book like this and your average dungeon map is similar, the function is totally different. A dungeon map is a blank slate that serves to house your creativity. A map from this book already has a function that actively inspires your creativity.


Because each map is so well detailed, it’s incredibly easy to focus on a detail and put a weird spin on it. Take a detailed map of an ironworks. What if the waterwheel was replaced by a more outrĂ© mechanism? What about the spirits of the forest that is getting chopped down for charcoal? What if they were smelting something more strange than just iron? Each and every map in this book inspires creativity. Every time I flip through, I get the urge to start writing and creating. The secret here is in the details—each map points out a detail that you can riff an adventure from.


There’s plenty of maps for every occasion, so they’re easy to use during play if your party wanders off to an un-planned area. While the book pays great attention to historical 17th century accuracy, the book could easily be used in any fantasy game—while fantasy games pretend to be inspired by the medieval period, most fantasy settings use technology that’s closer to the early modern period anyway.


A good dungeon map needs a few things to be fun. It needs loops and twisting paths. Secret corridors and dead ends. An actual building where people live needs to be functional. This book describes locations that are functional, but still contain enough of a maze-like quality that you can shove a monster or a trap in there without breaking too much verisimilitude.

There are a few books that I always take with me to a gaming session. This is one of them.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Reviewing All Eight New Lamentations of the Flame Princess Books: Part 2


Review #2: Terror in the Streets by Kelvin Green

I recently decided I would go ahead and review all eight of the new Lamentations of the Flame Princess books in order from my most favorite to my least. This is the second review in the series. I hope you enjoy!

Brief Summary (WARNING--Spoilers Ahead): 

Terror in the Streets is a murder mystery investigation set in 17th century Paris. I’m serious about those spoilers, so please please skip past this if there’s any chance you might play this one.


Cardinal Richlieu has a secret brother who works as a tailor. The tailor believes that he has been receiving messages from god that he needs to construct a suit out of human skin in order to avoid an earthquake that will level Paris. After the murders get noticed, the party is brought in to investigate and the adventure starts. The adventure is really a series of locations that the party can visit in any order, the last known locations of the victims, a taxi-cab company, a thieves' guild, etc. There are a few charming little side-jaunts including an investigation into werewolf sightings in a small village outside of Paris and a wizard’s tower. 


Once the true murderer is discovered, the straight-forward murder investigation has the potential to become an adventure of political intrigue, as the powerful Cardinal Richlieu would rather not become implicated in the sordid affair.


The boxed set also includes a supplementary book of bonus adventures including:

  • A brief jaunt on the moon and an escape from the insane aliens that live there (You could say that they’re… lunatics?)

  • an encounter with time-travelling Satanists

  • the tomb of ancient druids (who liked puzzles apparently)

  • A gourmand ghost… OF DOOM

  • An adventure that answers the question: what if the three musketeers' heads were replaced by dog heads?


"Adult Content" Spice Level: Mild–if this one were a hot sauce, it would be a tasty Pico de Gallo. Get it? Gallo? Gaul? France? I assure you, this pun is hilarious.


Art and Design:

I splurged a bit to get the box set of this game. The boxed set comes with some nice goodies–the previously mentioned book of supplemental adventures, a large yellow die (used to indicate citizen unrest), a nice large map, some handouts, a little build-it-yourself building, and a few sheets of paper cut-out minis. The box itself is really nice and sturdy. If you’re a wargamer, the box is very similar to the ones used by GMT games (they’re so similar in fact that I have to wonder if they come from the same factory). The large yellow unrest die is both large and yellow. So, so yellow. I love it! The paper used for the cut-out minis is okay, but I wish it was a bit sturdier cardstock and/or printed a little larger. As it is, I don’t know if the minis would survive much playtime. It probably would have been too expensive, but I kind of wish the minis had been printed on perforated cardboard like a boardgame piece. Despite my moaning, I am really happy with the set and I think it’s worth the extra cost if you feel like treating yo’ self. I realize the logistics of putting the thing together was probably a nightmare, but I love my boxed set so much and I hope LotFP does more like this in the future!


The art (with the exception of the cover by Yannick Bouchard) is all done by Kelvin Green. Kelvin has an evocative, clean line art style with bright, pure colors that feels like it could be panels from a professionally produced graphic novel—there’s an economy of lines, but so much character, personality, and humor gets infused in each one. If the module was taken at face value, the mood of the module would be quite dark just based on the subject matter, but the module doesn’t really feel dark because the art communicates the tone so well.


For the most part, the book is organized by individual “themes,” for lack of a better word. For example, all the information about the wizard tower, including tables, author sidenotes, NPCs statblocks, etc. is all grouped together. This means that each page has to contain a lot of different types of information, all of which is laid out quite well on the page so that it’s easy to tell at a glance where to find the information you’re looking for. In some cases, I do wish that each individual section could be separated a bit better. For example, the individual adventures in the supplementary Huguenauts and Other Distractions book are not really separated at all, flowing one after the other with little to help your brain distinguish them. Please keep in mind, though that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Overall, it’s a very well done layout again by Alex Mayo (who’s name is gonna come up a lot in these reviews).


Review:

The inside back cover of this book features an illustration of a square in Paris done in a busy, Where’s Waldo-esque type of style. You’ve got a three people openly brawling in the square, some kids throw tomatoes at a guy in the stocks, a woman is in the process of emptying out the chamber pot, a woman sells bread, a cat crawls around on the rooftops ignoring the yapping dog in the street below, the peg-legged flame princess stares at something off-screen… and amongst the swirling hum and drum of every life, off in a corner so tiny you don’t notice it at first glance, the murderer stalks in an alley wearing a blue cloak and his suit of human leather. And that’s what it feels like to read Terror in the Streets.


Both the adventure in this book and the adventure in The Book of Antitheses are investigative, mysterious adventures—a challenging type of adventure to write because the temptation to lead the players down a railroad is difficult to avoid. Both of these books solve the problem of running a mystery in different ways. Antitheses sidesteps the issue entirely by giving the GM tools to improvise the thing themselves. Terror in the Streets has a more traditional approach, giving the GM a serious of interconnected locations, events, and side-quests from which the adventure emerges. Then, like a wheel spun by the push of a hand, the whole thing is set into motion by a timeline to give the adventure a sense of urgency.


Each of the locations is given a lot of life by Kelvin’s excellent NPCs. These NPCs are, in my opinion where Kelvin really shines as a writer. A wizard’s tower is one thing, but a wizard’s tower populated by an Alan Moore look-alike, his dejected manservant, and the (very small) possibility of an annoyed vampire is much more interesting! Each location has something going on and someone to talk to.


As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a bad artist, but I try my best. Cut me some slack, it’s hard to learn a new skill as an adult! Something I’ve learned in my journey in trying to be an artist is that when you’re trying to draw a complex subject, say, a tree, there’s a temptation to get way too bogged down in the detail of individual leaves and branches—a path that only leads to frustration. All you really need is the illusion of depth and complexity. A tree doesn’t look like a tree, it looks like a stick with a series of shaggy spheres on top. The artist tricks the eye into thinking there’s a lot of depth and detail where there isn’t any. It’s not a shortcut; it’s not a trick; it’s how art is made. What I’m trying to say here is that city adventures are notoriously tricky—like drawing a tree, it’s tempting to get bogged down in alleyways and streets, districts and building. Details that don’t matter. Kelvin gives the city the illusion of depth by stuffing it full of weird little encounters. Help this guy find his prized chicken? Sure! Some rich guy wants to get a ring back from his friend Geoff in prison? Bring it on! These things aren’t necessarily related to the main adventure, but they give the city depth and complexity. It feels like the party could go down any alley-way and find something there. Of course, that’s not really true and no party is going to start systematically opening all doors in Paris—but the adventure gives the illusion that they could. Yes, it’s an illusion, but all art is illusory.


The sidebook that comes with the boxed set is proof of what a great setting Kelvin has created. The little side adventures having nothing to do with the rest of adventure, but they live in the Terror in the Streets universe and couldn’t really live anywhere else. My favorite of these adventures is the one on the moon (since it reminds me a bit of the film The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen which was one of my childhood favorites) and the time-traveling Satanists. A big part of the reason why I put this one as my second favorite of the release set is because of what a great setting this is. I would be ECSTATIC if Lamentations of the Flame Princess released more in the Terror in the Streets setting. There is so much potential for fun and shenanigans in the crooked streets of Paris. If I was going to run one adventure amongst all of these products, this would be the one I would run.


Monday, March 7, 2022

Reviewing All Eight New Lamentations of the Flame Princess Books: Part 1




Review #1: The Book of Antitheses

I recently decided to go through and review all eight of the new Lamentations of the Flame Princess books in order, starting from my most favorite and ending in my least favorite. This first review is for my absolute favorite book of the release set, The Book of Antitheses.


Brief Summary (WARNING—Spoilers):

The first half of the book is a series of essays about using occult techniques for running your games:

  • The book starts with a very thought-provoking essay about the Satanic Panic, magick, the concept of play, and D&D from the host of the excellent Weird Studies podcast.

  • Next follows a section on Astral Projection (essentially meditation) using some guided meditation and tarot. In this section, Jobe insists that the game world (called shadow earth in the book) is as real as anything else you encounter in your daily life—the purpose of the astral projection and meditation is to serve as a sort of conduit or bridge from our world to the game world.

  • There’s a few descriptions of various rituals—an initiation ritual (for devoting yourself to magickal precepts), a banishing ritual (for removing the influence of malevolent demons), and a binding ritual (for evoking right before a game with your players).

  • There’s an interesting section on generating encounters on the fly using tokens or “bones.”

  • There’s a section on a simplified version of gematria (turning words into number). Interestingly, Jobe uses gematria to tie Gygax’s name to the same three entities that he uses for the banishing ritual.

  • A section on the magickal properties of dice and how to charge them.

  • A section describing player characters as spiritual entities and how to use character sheets to summon these spirits.

  • A section on sigil magick using gaming miniatures.

  • A large, encrypted section. I feel like Lamentations of the Flame Princess might be the only publisher on earth that would publish a book with huge sections that are encoded! Even if you don't get a chance to decode this middle section, it still looks aesthetically very cool. Beyond this encoded section, there are a number of other codes sprinkled throughout. I don’t want to spoil the coded stuff too much, but I will say that some of the most challenging (and interesting) content in the book is encrypted. The two primary codes aren’t particularly hard to crack (I found it a pleasant way to spend an evening), but if you give it a go, keep in mind that you’re choosing to read something the author felt was best left hidden. There are a few other codes only used for a sentence or two that are much harder to crack and do require a bit of research. I won’t talk about the encrypted content in this review since I feel that it’s something that the reader has to come to on their own, but I will say that, months after decoding it, I still think about these coded sections and discover new things about them.


The other half is an adventure set in early 17th century Hanau about rescuing a young girl from the clutches of Satan himself. The plot seems very much inspired by The Book of Enoch—as the party investigates, they find that demons are trying to create a race of human-angel hybrids called “Nephilim.” Meanwhile, Swedish forces are pillaging the village. The party has to uncover The Book of Antitheses to act as a portal to hell to confront Satan. The book describes an old church abandoned to evil and a mine stuffed with demons.


Once The Book of Antitheses has been discovered in-game, players can use the circular hole on the cover of the physical book to pass items to their player characters in-game! I'm sure players would have a great time with that.


There are some great NPCs along the way, including a witch (who uses neo-pronouns! Leave it to Lamentations of the Flame Princess to have a non-binary NPC using ze/zer pronouns and NOT advertise the fact), a completely badass rabbi, and a demon prince.


"Adult Content" Spice Level: Extra Hot--if this were a hot sauce, it would be an artisanal ghost pepper sauce. Tasty, but very spicy.


The Art and Design:

The book is wonderfully illustrated throughout in stunning, high contrast black and white by Benjamin Marra. Marra’s figures tend towards stiff poses and exaggerated features, giving the characters a dreamlike, Jungian feel. In fact, when a figure is meant to represent an archetype rather than a specific character, the art indicates this by darkening the figure’s eyes—such a cool, dramatic touch. Marra uses harsh lighting and little shading, so the work feels quite expressionistic.


The art is also functional. Rather than traditional dungeons or random encounter tables, Jobe uses something he calls “resonances''. The resonances are flowing, surrealist art pieces that take up the left side of the page with a list of possible encounters on the opposite page. The idea is that the GM reads the encounter ideas before the session, but during the session they only look at the art (like reading a tarot card), using a pendulum to guide the encounter if necessary. Each image is filled with different ideas and figures, but they flow together and cohere in an organic, dreamlike way—like an accretion of coral. I really love this idea, and I hope that more adventures try out this format.


The last section of the book is just demon body parts, with the idea being that you can make your own demon by jamming the parts together. I have a feeling that Marra had a lot of fun with section, since the designs are weird and kind of Bosch-ian in character.


The layout by Alex Mayo is well done. The typefaces, especially for the encrypted sections, had to be tricky to wrangle. The middle, encrypted section especially looks very cool—even if you never get a chance to decode the section, it still looks cool. It has this aura of danger that is hard to describe. Layout for a book is a bit like editing in a film—if it’s done well, you don’t notice. The layout flows smoothly and never draws undue attention to itself.


Review:

If the world is fair, this book will become the Next Big Thing in the RPG sphere.


I was raised in a very religious church. Even in the mid 90’s, the last vestiges of the Satanic Panic still held sway in my small religious community of my childhood. If any of my pastors from back then could read this book they’d probably parade it around as proof that they knew D&D was satanic all along. It’s everything that they thought D&D was—a gateway to the occult and a (literal?) portal to hell. In my earlier interview with Jobe, he mentioned Damien Echols—since then, I’ve read Damien’s book High Magick and watched the HBO Documentary series Paradise Lost. I thought that I had experienced a taste of the Satanic Panic in my childhood, but after watching the documentary, I fully grasp that what I experienced was a mere fraction of the utter insanity of the period. TSR at the time over-corrected, banishing demons, devils, and boobs from their books—to this day, the RPG community is a little erm,... resistant to anything more "adult" than, say, your average blockbuster film. Vestiges of the panic still echo in the RPG community. The Book of Antitheses does not hide its edgy content away—it wants the reader to engage with it and it wants the reader to feel a little uncomfortable.


Jobe writes, “It may be simultaneously true and false that we exist.” To adapt his sentiment, it may be that The Book of Antithesis is simultaneously sincere and satirical. Jobe’s prose style in the book is heightened in a way that I have to feel is exaggerated, satirizing the absurdity of the Satanic Panic of the 80’s. Calling miniatures “idols” and inscribing them with sigils, using gematria to give the six character attributes new occult names, casting spells on dice to achieve petty revenge—it’s completely absurd and absolutely the type of logic I recognize from my time in Christian schools. There are parts where I feel that Jobe is deliberately being deliberately misleading with the intention of luring the reader down an occult rabbit-hole.


At the same time, Jobe is so earnest in his writing that I can’t help but feel taken into the world he describes. His prose is direct and fierce, with great imagery and a lot of power behind his words. The essays in the beginning are truly helpful—even if you don’t believe in astral travel, meditation genuinely is the best and most consistent way to get writing ideas; even if you don’t believe in demons or banishing rituals, setting aside a few minutes of your day to acknowledge there are things in your life holding you back is truly helpful; even if you don’t believe in the divinitory power of throwing bones, the method Jobe describes is truly useful and interesting way to get quick ideas. I have to admit that this book was the start of something of a spiritual journey for me in the past few months since I read it—a journey worth undertaking.


If the first part is revolutionary, the second half of the book describing an adventure is similarly so. Jobe does not give the GM a complete layout of how the adventure should go. It starts by describing the NPCs and gives a rough guideline of possible events, but after setting everything up, Jobe gives very little guidance. The “resonances” are the meat of the adventure, but each resonance page only gives a list of possible encounters—the idea being that the GM will use only the accompanying art and improvise encounters based on the image and their memory the text. The module focuses more on imagery and mood rather than laying out a plot. There are no maps, no timelines, nothing like a typical adventure would have. If I ran this module for you, it would be totally different than if you ran this adventure for me, even though characters, locations, and concepts would be the same. Investigative modules are often accused of being railroads—The Book of Antithises sidesteps this whole problem by giving the GM bits and pieces of the adventure, leaving it to the GM to weave them together at the table. The module relies a lot on improvisation, but leaves the GM with a lot of material to work from. I love this approach, but I have to admit that it would require a GM of some skill to pull off this adventure.


This is not just my favorite book of this release. It's not just one of my favorite RPG books. The Book of Antitheses is one of my favorite books of all time—I suspect that I will be coming to this book again and again for inspiration.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Reviewing All Eight New Lamentations of the Flame Princess Books: Part 0

Lamentations of the Flame Princess recently released eight new products in their latest "wave" of material. I don't really want my blog to be a "review" blog, but, after sitting with these books for a few months now, there is just so much to say about them that I feel like I will probably explode Arnold-Schwarzenegger-at-the-end-of-Total-Recall style unless I push out some kind of review. After going back and forth on how I want to do this, I thought the best way would be to push out a different post for each book going in order from my most favorite of the books to my least favorite.—the intent here is to release these posts rather quickly, but considering what a slow writer I am, we'll see how that goes.

There is quite a variety to these books, with some being the very best that LotFP has ever put out and some er... less so. Digging through the strata of LotFP releases, I've noticed three distinct "periods" of materials. Let’s call the early stuff the “grindhouse period” with adventures like Death Frost Doom—still generic fantasy, but several degrees darker than the mainstream. Next, there’s the “auteur period” with its bold, idiosyncratic books from major OSR creators such as Veins of the Earth, Broodmother Skyfortress, and Scenic Dunnsmouth. The previous release cycle with Big Puppet and Fermentum and this new release cycle represent the beginning of what I’m calling LotFP’s “Baroque period.” Baroque in the sense of its emphasis on the Baroque era setting and Baroque as in the original meaning of the word—a misshapen pearl.


These new books really embrace the default 17th century setting, carefully wrapping themselves around the events of the 30 Years War. While the books do give plenty enough historical information to run the adventure, I found that being familiar with the 30 Years War to be helpful in understanding the mindset of the period—I’d really recommend the wonderful book 30 Years War by C. V. Wedgewood. The pointlessness of the war hangs over the adventures. All too human horrors are metamorphosed through the alchemy of game design to the merely supernatural.


These books are significantly more Weird in the H. P. Lovecraft/Clark Ashton Smith/Ron E. Howard/Arthur Machen sense than anything else the OSR is currently producing (gonzo is not the same thing as weird, folks). The 17th century is a great setting for the Weird—there is a built-in tension between true numinous spirituality (and/or the bleakness of God’s absence) with the quotidian politics of those who use religion for political leverage. The Weird manifests as a product of this tension.


Overall, the books don’t really feel very “OSR-ish,” tending more towards free-form investigative-type adventures rather than the usual OSR dungeon crawls. The adventures very pointedly do not have much in the way of treasure or magic items. There’s no hex crawls, no point crawls, no distractingly flashy graphic design, no unnecessary bullet points. A great example of how LotFP is willing to buck trends in favor what actually works for the book—as far as I’m aware,  Lamentations of the Flame Princess was the company that popularized the OSR practice including important information on the endpapers. A great glut of books have blindly followed suit, but even this trend is bucked with this latest release cycle–instead opting for simpler patterned endpapers. Rather than relying on the standard OSR stylistic shortcuts, these books lean purely on the strengths of writing, art, and presentation. Some succeed quite well, others less so. There’s no experience points for your players here, only the ecstasy and the horror of uncovering something that was hidden.


These aren’t OSR books, they’re post-OSR.


Let’s review some books, shall we? First review is coming soon!