Interview with James Raggi, designer of Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Say hi, and tell everyone a little about yourself.
My name is James Edward Raggi IV and I am an American living in Finland. I run Lamentations of the Flame Princess, publishing RPG books since July 2009.
Could you tell me a bit about the steps you go through when designing a game?
That's tough, since I don't consider myself a game designer, really. More like a terraformer. I would have been happy just doing adventures and supplements except you can't really get a lot of coverage and market penetration just doing 3rd party supplements for small-press games, so I was sort of obligated to create my own game... but since it's a variation of an old game via the OGL, it's more a matter of switching the dials to give the proper flavor and, as always, "fixing" those annoying bits that everyone always has concerning even their very favorite game.
That’s funny! So you actually designed your own game so that you could tell the story you wanted to tell to a wider audience?
Not really a "story". I consider the meat of my adventure work just a series of really fucked up situations I want to see players in, with all the justification required to get them there and then thinking how the greater environment around that would look and generally fleshing it out so it all makes sense and hangs together.
Speaking of fucked up situations... Where do you draw your inspiration from? If I read the start of Death Love Doom correctly – some of your work almost seems like a catharsis to me.
Catharsis is certainly one part of it, but it's also a receptacle for all the weird shit that goes through my mind, both unbidden dark shit but also a celebration and result of all the "dark" music and movies and things that I like. Pure catharsis would be more brute force I think, whereas I get playful with things after coming up with the basic concepts.
There is a lot of dark in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but also (in my opinion) a lot of good! One thing that struck me is that no matter what people say about Lamentations of the Flame Princess, they always have a strong reaction. Were you expecting this when you first wrote the game?
It's not so much that I was expecting it, but I don't know any other way to do it. I didn't want to do milquetoast general-masses material; I wanted to do something different and idiosyncratic. And bad reactions in a lot of ways direct attention just as well as good reactions.
But if you look at the history of LotFP, you'll see the more explicit nudity and gore didn't come until later on, when I just said fuck it there's no reason to filter anything. It's a gradual learning experience all around.
No reason to filter anything? What brought you to that conclusion? Or were you just ready to put out material that you totally wanted to do without worrying about anyone?
Well, early on I was still in a more orthodox "I'm writing things for D&D, just a bit dark" frame of mind when writing the early adventures. And people took notice of the stuff that was different, not so much the things that fit in with what already existed. And then I got to the point where I realized I needed to do my own game, and the first printing wasn't all that different from the other clones out there, I decided I needed to go further to really make LotFP its own distinct entity and stand up on its own.
That's when I started spending ridiculous amounts of money on artwork and got gore-drenched and decided that I fucking love horror movies and heavy metal and that inspiration was more important than RPG material from the 70s and early 80s.
It was also convenient that there was this rising tide of, how do I say, morality police in RPGs. I could buy Lucio Fulci DVDs and see people's' eyes get impaled in great detail, I could buy Clive Barker novels and get all the sex and death I could handle, and buy Cannibal Corpse CDs and get that, but somehow it's taboo in RPGs to go to those same places?
So I not only went in that direction, but decided to head straight for the cliff and I was either going to crash and burn or fly off to victory, then and there.
That seems to happen a lot when people talk about your work XD.
Now, let’s talk about OSR. This is a term, I quite naively, only heard about when I joined the internet role play community. It basically encompasses all “traditional” role play games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Basic Fantasy, and also LotFP. To many people it means very little role play and a lot of combat. How have you tried to break away from this? Did you even want to? Your setting is definitely new, but is the formula for the games?
I disagree with the premise there, because even if you go back to my most orthodox D&D-like work, there isn't a lot of combat at all. Combat is deadly in OSR games, and there are several ways to deal with that, and my way is not setting up an adventure as a series of combats in the first place.
Basically you’re saying that, for you, OSR games present mechanics for how the world works in order to support playing out a story not playing out fighting?
"OSR" mechanics are loose resolution techniques. You'll notice every OSR game replaces some subsystem or another, and you could piece together a complete OSR game containing no mechanics ever found in any old game, just from new and original replacement subsystems in OSR games.
But OSR mechanics don't *do* anything on their own. They just help tell you whether or not the things you're already doing in the game work or not.
If you look at an OSR game and think it's about combat because it has a lot of combat rules, you're missing the point. It might have a lot of combat rules because in combat there would be many points of contention between Referee and player that need resolution, and since combat is something that can take a character out of the game, it's important to have sufficiently robust mechanics to resolve combat impartially.
LotFP, even in its very name, has a lot of the drama and action of the game focused on women. What this intentional? Or did the story simply develop that way?
I originally used the name for my metal zine which ran from 1998-2007 or whenever it was. The name was just originally to signify that my zine wasn't all about brutal death metal or blasphemous black metal, but the more "sensitive" European metal that wasn't very big in my neck of the woods up to that time. Opeth, My Dying Bride, that sort of thing. My title fit right in with their song titles.
When it came time for RPG stuff, in deciding to use the "Flame Princess" as a character for artwork, I sort of knew this one girl who had the exact hair I'd always imagined for the character so getting her involved as a reference model was a way to stay in touch with this good looking person 15 years younger than me that I otherwise had no real reason to be in contact with.
The character had already been in my head for ages, and when I found her online it was just absolutely insane how she looked like this thing in my head, but she was real.
That is crazy and kind of hilarious.
I'd already had some art of the character made before finding this person, the character definitely came first.
Could you tell us more about the character of Flame Princess for people who don't know? Cause, like I am doing right now, some people might only be focusing on the fact that there is a real person with hair that epic.
When I started using the character for art starting in 2010, the idea was she's a female version of Solomon Kane.
Because I was trying to get away from the more normal medieval sword-and-sorcery, so I came up with the "Solomon Kane is cooler than Conan" slogan, which isn't exactly accurate but gets the point across, so why mess around? Just make a woman Puritan adventurer as a mascot.
Of course things got messy from there, especially when I commissioned the art of her getting melted by the slime, it was supposed to be saying "If I'll do this to the mascot of the game, what do you think is going to happen to your character in the game, hmmmm?"
And then the character started appearing in art with half a leg and no fingers on one hand.
Basically, you are daring GMs to one up you :P.
These days I have all the personalities of the regular characters in the art straight in my head and they have adventures and get into hijinks not related to the RPG, but I have no idea how to make movies or write graphic novels so for now there's just hints in the RPG artwork.
Do you have any upcoming projects you could tell us about?
Oh bloody hell there are over a dozen projects ongoing right now. It's ridiculous and they're all taking much longer than they should, but the next thing out should be the reprint of Vornheim.
Okay! Tell us about that!
Vornheim was originally released in 2011, LotFP's first hardcover, and it won all sorts of awards (including a technology award at a mostly video games convention!) and has been out of print for too long, but I did the original layout in a crap program and it was a technical mess. Getting someone with knowhow to update it so the PDF works like a modern PDF has been a nightmare, but that's nearing the end stages I think so then it'll go back to press soon. Crossing fingers.
For better or for worse, Lamentations of the Flame Princess has made a large impact on the role play community. Through the history of this game you’ve dealt with a lot of attention, both positive and negative. Do you have any advice for people wanting to make their own game and adventures?
Do exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it. Spare no expense, cut no corners you do not absolutely have to. Make it reflect what you want, not what you think a customer might want. Be proud of it. And when you get criticism, remember there are two kinds. There is the criticism that helps you improve what you want to do, and there is criticism that does not help you do what you want to do. That second group of critics, you want to run at them naked, middle fingers extended screaming FUUUCCKKKK YYYOOOUUU because their rage will behave as beacons that are better than any marketing for letting people know that you even exist in the first place. Remember, hugely successful musical acts like Justin Bieber and Nickelback have their own hordes of professional haters, so worrying about it or trying to avoid it is not only foolish, but impossible.