Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Review: Jim Raggi’s The Deck of Weird Things (LotFP)



In this article I review The Deck of Weird Things, an RPG supplement published under the Lamentations of the Flame Princess label written and produced by James Raggi. I am not affiliated with Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Jim. This review is un-sponsored.

**Note, this is a review of the PDF product. Physical product information will be updated as I receive and inspect the physical item.**


Table of Contents
1: History of the Decks
2: The Deck of Weird Things
3: Conclusion
4. Links to Many Things


1. HISTORY OF THE DECK


The Deck of Many Things is a high risk, high reward magic item that appeared in the Greyhawk supplement for Od&d and has enjoyed a long tenure in the various editions, mags, and zines that have followed since. While we have seen many iterations of this item, the basic concept has remained the same: commit to drawing x amount of cards in some stated fashion and pray that you make off with exp, wishes, magic items, or other powerful boons before the deck nukes your poor PC from orbit. The interesting decision for the player character is deciding whether or not to partake in the gamble in the first place; for if you commit to draw, you draw, and a good or bad effect will assuredly occur.

The original item was simple in design, taking up half a page of the original Greyhawk booklet, which was digest-sized, and contained one or two lines of text for each card in the deck. The table consisted of 18 entries in total. Most successive decks followed a 22 card format with similar effects to the original item, functioning in a similar way. Some notable departures from this format were the fourth edition deck, which acted as an artifact outside of its draw mechanic, the Ravenloft Tarokka deck, which functioned like fortune telling cards which could be manipulated by the dealer, and the Dragon Magazine deck, also known as the Tarot of Many Things, which had 78 cards, each containing at least two effects which changed depending on the direction of the card's orientation, normal or upside down.

To be honest, the item REALLY hasn't changed that much over the last several decades and elements that I think were improvements were often accompanied by issues or problems. There really hasn't been a perfect deck, or even a really great deck.. but there have been great building blocks scattered throughout the various individual takes on the item.

For those gold panning for best practices, lessons could be learned. A deck could exist that combined the favorable and iconic elements of all these successive iterations:

-The classic card types: retainers, death, mutation, lobotomization, exp gains, exp loses, magic items, treasure maps, wishes, petrification, etc
-Larger randomization with sub randomization, like what was seen in the Tarot of Many Things from Dragon 77.
-Cards that caused interesting narrative complications.
-Draw rules that allowed for maximization of gambling and stayed neutral, moving away from Tarokka's and 4th Ed's manipulation elements.
-Effects that harnessed the style of a setting, like we saw in the Ravenloft version of the deck.
-Cards that effect how other cards are drawn or how the deck functions (meta deck elements).
-A deck that might be incomplete, as it has been used before being found.

Surely, this has existed in many games of D&D for many years. This is the nature of DIY and a testament to the skill and dedication of the people in this hobby. After all, in its very first incarnation, Gygax suggests the reader modify the entries to their taste using the listings as a template. However, today I look at publications of the deck produced for consumption...

I hunger for something new and delightful...

Something weird...

Enter James Raggi and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.


2. THE DECK OF WEIRD THINGS


Jim has spent some time promoting his new books that hit this July, holding some really interesting talks on his Youtube channel, making posts about the products on his blog, and on the official facebook group (links in the link section). Among the various topics covered, he spoke a bit about his experience with the traditional iterations of the decks. To summarize, he was a fan, and more-so, seemed to have some really good insights into how the deck should be used in a campaign.

Jim’s game, LotFP, is a clone of the B/E rules written by Frank Mentzer. It has been cleaned up and has its own innovations, but under the hood, it is a recognizable take on classic era D&D. It does differ though, two of the ways being pertinent to this product review.

Firstly, LotFP draws on a much different appendix n, and therefore, has a different style and aesthetic. I will talk about this more at some point, but for simplification sake, we will call it ‘weird fantasy,’ as he does. If that is confusing, think of it as body horror, Lovecraft, H R Giger, and grindhouse cinema.

Secondly, Lamentations also has one of the strengths and weaknesses of its classic d&d counterparts: low mechanical customization. This is a perspective thing of course. I prefer the old school method. There are many though that see the lack of character options as a drawback.

So Jim brought some much needed perspective and ingredients to the table with his new product: a history of using the decks in the various iterations, a stylistic lens to look at the deck through, and an opportunity to add a tool that could double as a way to give individual characters defining mechanical characteristics.

This brings us to the question of the hour: did Jim succeed?

My answer is a big old "Fuck Yes!" Is it perfect? No. Duh. But it is, in my humble opinion, the best form the deck has seen so far and the level of improvement over its predecessors is substantial.

Let’s start off by looking at some of its qualities:

Randomization - The deck took the ideas of the dragon magazine tarot and pushed it even further. The dragon tarot deck had 78 cards in total. Each card had a randomization of 2 possible effects. Therefore, the dragon tarot could be viewed as having 156 deck entries. Raggi’s Deck of Weird Things has 52 cards and 2 jokers. Each card has a randomization of 4 possible effects, giving the deck a total of 216 entries. Instead of doing randomization based on the orientation of the card, up or down, the randomization is done by a second card draw from a normal deck of playing cards and using the suit: spades, clubs, hearts, and diamonds.

Rules - The deck comes with guidelines for how it should be found and operated. These draw upon the better principles of how the deck has been used in past publications. The deck is a long term item, but when a card is drawn and its effect granted, the card disappears. There is a minimum amount of people who must draw and they must agree on how many cards to draw up front. There is a procedure for when the effects occur. Like we see in some previous iterations of the item, Raggi implemented cards that have meta effects, though I will keep the particulars a surprise. The deck also is suppose to be found in a used state, with guidelines for removing cards.

Effects - The Deck of Weird Things includes pretty much all of the classic archetypes mentioned in this article, in their more punitive and glorious forms, and really pushes some interesting narrative effects along with them. There is also an abundant amount of card effects with limited durations, which makes for an interesting middle ground in the range of how much the deck effects the game. The deck does, in my opinion, offer sprawling effects that make characters more unique, and based on some preliminary conversations with people I know who referee the game, it is likely to be used by some as a character creation tool and not a deck at all.

Style - The deck undeniably feels weird and has that certain quality Raggi is known for. I won't ruin the surprises, but expect it to feel like many of the iconic modules and their shenanigans. The art, however, is quite limited. There are a handful of card plates in the book, most depicting iconic characters, and of course, the wonderful cover illustration of the deck. Yannick Bouchard created all the art present and I have to say, it is a shame we didn't get to see him do something with body horror because his photo-realistic style is a home run and easily an industry standout.

Layout - The obvious observation here is that, well, it isn’t a deck but a book! I actually prefer that to be honest, though I have seen many people asking for an actual deck to use in their games. The book has a pretty functional way of presenting its information. Firstly, each page has a title at the top which tells what the theme of the card is. For example, "Mutations!" or "Hitpoints." Secondly, some cards have a short paragraph of text next to the title that gives the referee instructions or information that will apply to every result in the sub randomization. This preps the referee to know if they will be hiding some of the information from the player or giving it all up front. Lastly, each sub randomization occurs in a 2 by 2 grid with the suit nested behind the description transparently.The pages are numbered at the top corners and on the bottom center, showing a traditional page number at the bottom and a card numbering on the top. This will make it easy to flip to the desired card section without consulting an index. Speaking of which, the back of the book also has a nice card index, which will be beneficial for PDFs and people that prefer a traditional format. Overall, the layout is quite effective.


6. CONCLUSION


So, where does this leave my overall impression? Somewhere around a 9 out of 10. This is a product I expect will be an early attachment for people who buy the game. Additionally, I suspect it will get heavy play across other versions of D&D, as it is hands down the best iteration of the deck to emerge yet. I have already experienced the deck as a player in a Blueholme game ran by Ignacio Bergkamp, who also has an awesome blog and youtube channel (links you know where). The results were deliciously game altering. Three characters agreed to three draws. We ended up with half the deck burnt from a meta effect, an adversary who had become immortal, and a halfling who has a pocketed ability to duplicate any single item he can see, a single time. Yikes.

The only thing really holding this book back from a 9.5 is the lack of art. This is a utility item, but LotFP has such an impressive stable of talent that it is a shame we didnt get to see some unique horror pieces plastered about this thing. We can still hope though. Maybe Jim will put out a set of tarot sized cards at some point with full art. That I would kill for. I also have a creeping suspicion that the art cost was kept down because the physical copy of the book was meant to act as a fundraiser to save the operation.

Which brings me to an important point. The price is going to be contentious for people who want the physical edition of the book. It currently sits at 110 Euro (100 Euro without VAT) on the EU store. Jim readily admits the book isn't worth this amount, but LotFP needs a fundraiser to recover from recent financial and controversial woes and this is the flagship publication he has chosen to do it with. If you order it now, you can get free shipping on your order with the code WEIRD, which is really valuable if you have other books you want to purchase (I can recommend several if you want to talk). For those of you that are put off by the price tag or concept, Jim is also releasing a PDF only version later this week (confirmed).

Circumstances aside, Jim made an excellent product here and contributed to a storied piece of D&D history. For LoFP fans and old school adjacents, I recommend this as a must buy. For 5th edition D&D fans, throw out the generic deck and bring in this third party item. I suspect there will be a lot of "draws" in the future.


7. LINKS OF MANY THINGS


Buy the Deck of Weird Things:

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Euro Store:

Lamentations of the Flame Princess US Store:

Jim's Blog:

Jim's Youtube:

The Official LotFP Facebook:

Ignacio's Blog:

Ignacio's Youtube:




3 comments:

  1. I cannot wait to see how beautifully messy this will make my campaigns!! Great Review!

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    2. I am going to take Jim's advice and introduce it around session 3 or so in this next big sandbox I want to run. Can't wait for the mayhem and intrigue!

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