I had read Grognardia‘s Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 review of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but passed on buying it at GenCon. However, after reading more of James Edward Raggi IV, and posts on the LotFP forum, and most importantly, the FREE no-art PDF rules of the game, I decided to order the Grindhouse Edition.
Why Did I Order the Game When the Rules are Already Free?
Ultimately, it was Grognardia's review of the Referee book and other, sadly now forgotten, mentions of the Referee book that tipped the scale. Not to mention a ridiculously good deal at Troll and Toad. In many ways, it sounded like the Referee book is to Old School Gaming what the Adventure Burner is to Burning Wheel. And I'm all kinds of I'm ga-ga for the Adventure Burner.
Then It Arrived…And It IS Beautiful
Since I'd already read most of the Rules and Magic book, I began reading the Referee book. And I love it. James Raggi, in a very conversational tone, convincingly explains his understanding of Fantasy Role-Playing.
It is a veritable treasure trove of information regarding old school gaming and distilled into the very simple advice of keep things magical and mysterious and keep asking the players what they do. Orcs and +1 swords don't exist in weird fantasy. They are the anathema to weird fantasy, as once something is named, it looses its mystery.
Another key piece of advice is that the Referee should set most combats to be easy. This serves two purposes. First to make sure that players aren't blowing all of their resources in each combat, and thus requiring lots of 5-minute work days. Second, make sure those “boss fights” are terrifyingly difficult, in fact perhaps so difficult that retreat may very well be the best option.
I would say that the underlying design philosophy of Lamentations is that success and failure should both be possible and probable. Spun another way, without failure as an option, success is hollow.
Cheap Shot at the Once 800 Pound Gorilla
This design ethos of success and failure is found not only in Lamentations but also other old school simulacra and runs in stark contrast to the feel of 4th Edition. In 4th Edition, characters are mighty and nigh indestructible, success is only a matter of enough intestinal fortitude to grind out another round of combat against a statistically neutered enemy.