Monday, June 17, 2013

Of Fathers and Monsters

Welp, it’s time to start gearing up for June. Yeah, I realize it’s a little late to start “getting ready for June” but just take that as an indication of how busy the last couple weeks have been. Hell, I even missed FREE RPG DAY (more on that in a minute) not because I was busy but because I didn’t even realize it was going on!

I did have a happy Father’s Day, and I hope other folks did, too. Not to rub it in anyone’s face, but mine was very enjoyable…the family let me sleep in (all told I got something like 25 or 26 hours of sleep since Friday night…including naps…which is about double plus my usual amount over that same span). The wife made me breakfast, the boy and I got a long walk and some play-time, another nap, then a looong, much-needed massage followed by Guinness and meat pie at the local English-style pub, before picking up the boy from Grandma’s house.

Oh, yeah…and a new electric toothbrush. It’s been months since my teeth felt so clean.

I also had time to reflect a bit on fatherhood and my relationship with my own father. I got pampered a bit thanks to my (relatively easy) siring of a child, but really Father’s Day is about remembering our own fathers, much as we dads might think it’s about getting a day to hit the golf course, free of the usual household chores. 

All of us have fathers – men that without whom we wouldn’t be walking around, breathing air and reading blogs. It’s an inescapable, biological fact. Even if our fathers disappeared from our lives years ago (or even before we were born), they are responsible for our existence…as responsible as our mothers…and regardless of what judgment we might have on their ability at being a PARENT, we can be appreciative of the role they had in bringing us into this world. I mean, unless you wish you’d never been born or something (I think most of us enjoy living most of the time).

And yet there is so often a melancholy association with our fathers…even those of us with the great fortune to have fathers who were loving and present and not prone to raging bouts of asshole-ism. It’s different from dealing with one’s mother who we often continue to feel a certain amount of tenderness, even into adulthood (not to mention a need to please and the guilt of “not being a good enough child”). With one’s father, to have “tenderness” or “compassion” is almost to feel like having condescension or pity for the man…and that would seem to undermine that traditional role of “strength” that the father is supposed to have in the family dynamic. Offering your father sentimentality can feel like you’re calling the man weak…and so we instead try to approach him with a degree of “respect for his manliness” and (in practice) a certain aloof indifference to his own emotional needs.

And woe-betide the poor man whose made tragic choices in his life…whether ones that affected himself or his family or (most likely) both. He may already feel like a shlub and our only choice of behavior is either to A) pile onto the shit he already feels or B) ignore any pain or regret or guilt he may be feeling for the sake of maintaining that illusion of “father as strong man.”

Because I think we want our fathers to be strong men. Children grow up thinking of their parents as godlike, perfect beings anyway, but mother is allowed to be the comforter and tender-loving care-giver and father is supposed to be a solid rock. And while we lose illusions of our parents’ infallibility as we grow older and wiser and see them as “normal human beings” we still want them (perhaps subconsciously) to meet our idealistic expectations. Because we are their offspring. With respect to our fathers we want to be descended from “strong men.” That doesn’t mean “warriors” necessarily, and certainly not “angry tyrants” but STRONG…in their convictions perhaps, certainly in their ability to endure. Whether we are their sons or daughters, their genetics are in our DNA, and I don’t think there is a single person, in their secret heart-of-hearts, that wants to say “my father was a weak man.” Even if he abandoned our mother…even if he abandoned his children…we want to be able to chalk it up to youth, or ignorance, or an indiscretion, or a lack of compatibility.  Or even just that the man was an asshole…at least saying a person is stubborn and pig-headed and self-centered shows a type of strength (even if it’s not a very nice, good, or effective one).

But no one wants to say: my father was weak. Because what does that say about us, his children?

And because we won’t (secretly) allow our fathers the luxury of weakness, we often prevent ourselves from having an intimacy and closeness we might otherwise have. Perhaps it’s easier for daughters to enjoy MORE closeness with their fathers but regardless, if only one party in a relationship is given the space to be vulnerable, it’s tough to achieve a true intimacy. Even for those of us who enjoy an otherwise “good relationship” with our dear old dads.

Now having written all this, I should point out this is simply a reflection on “the state of things,” not a manifesto on how we need to change the world. By the time a person is in their 30s (and probably before that) we intellectually understand that our fathers are “only human.”

[we also intellectually know that someday we are going to DIE and we hide that from ourselves as well, pushing it to the back of our minds as a “low priority” consideration]

It’s not incredibly necessary (or even appropriate) to suddenly start denigrating our fathers (at least not any more than we already do), but I think it’s okay to acknowledge not only their lack of perfection (or strength), but ALSO:

A)     Our personal need and desire for them to be unreasonably strong (an unreasonable desire), and
B)     Our debt of gratitude to them for our lives…regardless of whether or not they meet our ideals or not, regardless of how competent or powerful or righteous or “strong” they are…or not.

Whether or not YOU are a good person or not (by which I mean “make positive choices in your action” or not), has nothing to do with your father…you have free will to make whatever choice of action you wish. On the other hand, without your father, you would not have been given the opportunity to make ANY choice AT ALL…because you owe your existence to him, like it or not.

*ahem* And that’s the extent of my Father’s Day reflections for this year.

[by the way…I could have waxed on for a few more pages about my own father’s foibles and fuck-ups and my on-going relationship with him, but I’ve decided to spare folks THAT, not out of embarrassment or shame but under the realization that my own father is far more interesting to ME than it is to my readers]

So...I missed Free RPG Day on Saturday which is just…ugh…now THAT is embarrassing. Usually, I’m there when the store opens and taking first swipe at any and all goodies on display. This year, I had no idea it was even this weekend…I haven’t been spending a lot o time on the internets the last week or so and it just wasn’t even on my radar. Sunday, I walked into Gary’s Games and saw a copy of LotFP’s adventure, Better Than Any Man, on display and was like, wow, you guys got THAT in stock? And I was told: No, it was part of the offerings for Free RPG Day the day before…the copy on display was the only one left over.


Of course, I immediately picked it up, as well as Hall of Bones, a free adventure scenario for S&W. Other than these, the only thing left from Saturday was the Cosmic Patrol quickstart that I picked up (and blogged about) last year, which means my total haul for this years ended with a pair of OSR-generated adventures. Seeing as how it was Father’s Day and my family gave me time to lay on the couch and read uninterrupted (another infrequent luxury at my house) I can offer a couple thoughts on these two products:

“Hall of Bones” (for Swords & Wizardry): a fairly basic, low-level adventure. For me, the best part is the smooth inclusion of a basic rules overview (plus pre-gen characters) making this a fairly standalone game-adventure (just add dice and players).

I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of S&W. I know a LOT of OSR-types like to ride that pony, but despite the art, layout, and modern sensibilities of game design, I prefer the original LBBs. And not just the romanticism of having brown-covered books…I mean I prefer the original scope and content of the rules. S&W over-steps (for my taste) in certain blanks...but those blanks are part  of the charm of the original game. Hmmm…I don’t mean this post to turn into a referendum/review of S&W so I’ll leave it at that.

The simplicity of S&W means that rules for “how to play” can be included in a 20 page adventure book making for a complete game, which is a pretty sweet feat. That being said, I found the adventure itself underwhelming. Yes, I realize it is an introductory adventure for 1st level characters. It still felt a bit of “challenge lacking” for my taste, and the new monsters…well, I’ve created “intro scenarios” with unusual variations that I thought were better, so I guess that’s what I’m judging on. I’m a jerk…sue me.

“Better Than Any Man” (for Lamentations of the Flame Princess): I was truly surprised that this was even available a day later, though I’ve seen commenters on other blogs stating they’d choose to wait for a PDF rather than pick up a print-version. I guess their shelves are more crowded than my own (though the idea would seem crazy to anyone who’s actually seen my “game room” – my wife compares me to those hoarders you see on TV).

Better Than Any Man is an impressive piece of work. Not impressive in the quality of the art and production for a free offering on Free RPG Day…I think Raggi’s earned enough credit over the years that he can get such products funded via KickStarter with (comparatively) minimal effort. Even if I was NOT phobic of KS on general, technophobic principle, I don’t think my following would be enough to do what he does (plus, my following is a bit less focused than fans of LotFP). But, no, I don’t think an ambitious, free product like this is out of the scope of his ability.

No, what’s impressive is the adventure itself. I’ll be honest: I haven’t kept up with everything Raggi’s published. The last thing I actually paid for was Death Frost Doom…I came close to getting Vornheim, harcover Carcosa, and Grindhouse Edition LotFP when I ran across them at the game shop but two main considerations stopped me:

-        My funds have been tight enough of late to keep me from getting every impulsive want, and
-        LotFP is a version of D&D that I will probably never play.

Not because it’s not well done or doesn’t have great potential as a fantastic setting or even that LotFP’s house rules “tweaks” are bad. Most of ‘em are to the good. No, it’s just that B/X (or Holmes or OD&D) work good and are readily customizable, and I don’t need a “weird-horror” version of D&D seeing as that’s not my usual genre of fantasy adventuring.

[that being said, if I ever wanted to do a 15th – 17th century fantasy adventure game of the type typified in White Wolf “historical” WoD settings or even the more recent WITCH HUNTER of which I’ve blogged, I’d probably pick up SOME version of LotFP to use for the system. Right now I’ve been a little too busy with my own play-testing to try to entice my players into this type of game/setting]

However, lacking Raggi’s actual books, I lose the overall view of Raggi’s gradual development over time and numerous products. Reading an adventure like Better Than Any Man compared to Death Frost Doom just shows (to me anyway) a marked change in growth and maturity. DFD is special because it was waaaaay outside the box as far as adventures go and wasn’t afraid to plunge one’s campaign setting into an undead Armageddon by allowing the thing to run its (most natural) course. But even so, it felt much less like a “D&D” adventure and much more like Call of Cthulhu (or a CofC-style “investigation”) in a pseudo-fantasy-medieval setting. Which, as said, was pretty different, but somewhat unplayable depending on your average player’s expectation of game play.

BTAM, on the other hand, is definitely D&D. It is D&D with a setting and context, but it is still D&D. People may say it has a WHFRPG feel to it…from my point of view, WHFRPG was simply someone’s D&D heartbreaker set in a pseudo-historic setting. BTAM does away with the “pseudo” and works with actual historic events (like the 30 Year War), which is hip ‘cause…well, ‘cause I like that approach (it’s similar to what I’m doing with my 5AK setting, though Raggi doesn’t bother changing the names of countries and historic personas). BTAM actually provides several different types of adventure for exploration: a wilderness fraught by war (and including many random encounters) a couple dungeons (restrained in scope while still being interesting and carrying the signature creepiness of LotFP) and a political conflict of heroic proportions with the potential to save thousands of at-risk individuals from that most despicable of monsters, the human war machine. Nice.

Nice Familiar!
I only skimmed over the tentacled monsters (of which the one on the cover is but a single example), but drank deeply of the rest of the adventure. I found The Seven to be deep and well-written. and a fantastic, challenging puzzle for the PCs. I found the Mound to be the kind of adventure Hall of Bones wanted to be but wasn’t (sorry…). I found Goblin Hill to be the weakest part of the adventure, not because it’s not a suitable adventure, but because it feels a little cliché, both due to the over-the-top grisly horror and the insect-type villain that conjures to mind everything from Shadowrun’s  Queen Euphoria and District Nine to Naked Lunch and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I found the wilderness encounters (like the Baroness) and the descriptions of towns caught in the throes of war and witch hysteria to be excellent.

There’s a LOT of good stuff in Better Than Any Man…it’s a nice little setting for a mini-campaign, and certainly one that can be expanded into major, year-spanning campaign involving the Swedish invasion, the 30 Year War, the horrors of organized religion unleashed by unscrupulous (or ignorant) zealots, and the underground cults of daemonic religions and eldritch horrors. In many ways, BTAM feels like the kind of game that WHFRPG always wanted to be, but never could be due to its failure to create adequate small-scale adventuring rules (especially with regard to magic) and its cumbersome career mechanic.

[oh, yeah…and the simple firearms mechanics Raggi includes are just about perfect, by the way…if I use firearms in my future B/X games, I’ll probably just steal these, assuming I’m not using LotFP as my base system. If Gygax/Arneson had used a simple system like this in OD&D, it might have saved decades of debate down the line]

If you didn’t have the chance to pick up Better Than Any Man at Free RPG Day, you might try finding it, if only as an example of what can be done to create a small campaign setting that provides a lot of meat for players without a shit-ton of dross. In some ways, it reminds me of my old Goblin-Wars campaign, but much more thoughtful and better organized. I’m not sure I’m terribly enthused about Raggi’s game world and themes, but the quality of the material is damn fine, and well worth looking at and possibly emulating.

ALL RIGHT…now that I’ve written up all that, I can get back to my planning of the month of June. Got a lot of stuff that needs “gearing up,” as I said.
: )


  1. I did my Free RPG Day Shopping through Noble Knight as I was out and about and not near any participating stores.

    They can't ship soon enough - I really want to sit down with this.

  2. If your interested in the actual LotFP rules they are available to download without art for free at:

    Although an art-free "grindhouse" edit seems like it's missing a lot.

  3. I picked up both BTAM and the DCC module, and the former was absolutely the winner in terms of content, quality etc.
    In fact, I hadn't quite liked any of Raggi's previous offerings, but BTAM is, simply put, brilliant. I don't play LotFP RPG as it doesn't do anything special or better than B/X; the game is pretty much setting-agnostic anyway (the tweaks to the classes and rules are not enough to change the substance of a D&D clone IMO;) and the rules themselves do not support horror in any way, shape or form (I'd at least implement a sanity mechanic like Call of Cthulhu.)

    This said, I'd probably run BTAM as a Warhammer FRP 1e scenario, since I think it does an excellent job at describing, rules-wise, a "realistic" setting, and much better than any version of D&D. Right from character creation, to the combat system, and magic.

  4. @ Antonio: I am a WHFRPG fan from waaaay back (prior to Hogshead taking the thing) and while I prefer it's original incarnation to the current version, I think it's fair to say it's magic system is about as crappy and "tacked on" as you'll find in any fantasy RPG.

    Okay...maybe that's NOT "fair" to say. But that's the main thing that keeps me from playing it.
    ; )

  5. That was a fine piece about fathers, and I'm glad you wrote it. Best Father's Day post this year.