Thursday, March 15, 2012
Interview: James Edward Raggi IV
James Edward Raggi IV is author of Lamentations Of The Flame Princess roleplaying game, several successful adventures and publisher of roleplaying material. You can find James in his blog ( http://lotfp.blogspot.com/) and website (http://www.lotfp.com/RPG/). He also runs his own webstore of roleplaying games material ( http://www.lotfp.com/store/ ).
For me personally Lamentations Of The Flame Princess was the game what ignited the spark (more like
bonfire!) of OSR and andventure fantasy gaming. Naturally, I wanted to interview him. So here it is, my
questions for James Edward Raggi IV and his awesome answers.
Before we start, could you quickly repeat your roleplaying history?
I started gaming somewhere around my 9th or 10th birthday in 1983 with the Mentzer Red Box. My early
gaming was mostly TSR stuff like D&D, Marvel Super Heroes, Star Frontiers, etc. The next big phase of my RPG life was the "generic systems" and I was hugely into GURPS and HERO for a long while. Along the way I of course experimented with a lot of other games like Bureau 13, Justifiers, DC Heroes, TMNT, Robotech, MERP, Warhammer RPG, and more.
Just as important in those early days were computer RPGs, most notably Ultimas IV-VI, but also Wizard's
Crown/Eternal Dagger, Bard's Tale I and Dragon Wars, Zork and other Infocom stuff.
I guess I should note that I was never a wargamer, never into Vampire or Magic (in the early 90s I found it
difficult to play games I wanted to play because these games got so huge, so White Wolf and Wizards of the
Coast became "The Enemy"), missed Traveler, Tunnels & Trolls, and my brief experience with the Chaosium system (in Runequest III and Elfquest) didn't go so well back in the day.
In the 2000s I've gotten some key "indie" releases, most notably Sorcerer, Burning Wheel, and Dogs in the
Vineyard, (and the superhero trifecta of Truth & Justice, Capes, and With Great Power) but those were all pretty much for reading and I never played them beyond a couple sessions of Dogs. I am not so hot at such
"character motivation" style play. My thing is more "I make adventures without knowing/caring who the PCs will be" and let the dice fall where they may from there. Seeing how they interact with the adventure is the entire fun of it.
These days of course I'm all about things that get included under the Old School Renaissance banner, basically different things based on and tweaked from D&D circa 1974-1983. So easy to tweak and running games is easy since it's been in the blood for over a quarter century. A new coat of paint and a fresh approach (since I'm late 30s now instead of pre-teen as when I started) and the gaming is better than it's ever been.
What did inspire you to write your first gaming material and did you know back then that some day you would be a publisher?
I like writing and publishing - I did homemade comics when I was really really young, trying to sell them to
neighborhood kids, did my own metal zine for just about a decade (which I keep saying I'll revive...) so when I started doing RPG stuff, of course it was for publication!
My first abortive attempt at publishing RPG material started in the early 2000s before I even realized there were places on the internet where people talk about RPGs, but everything that I've "written" (which is an entirely different process than just prep for play) has been with publication in mind.
Did you know that Lamentations Of The Flame Princess would be as popular as it is now when you started to write it?
Nope. Since my interests tend to the obscure (my favorite bands are Hammers of Misfortune, Cathedral, and Reverend Bizarre, and I'll be going to Comus and Arcturus gigs this month, my latest DVD buys include movies like The Woman and I Sell the Dead, to give you some idea) and even within those scenes I don't feel I have a lot in common with other fans of things I like. Hell, I find my taste greatly differs from a lot of people in the OSR, so it is a very pleasant surprise to have a fanbase of my own.
Is the rumor true that you made LotFP rules mostly to publish your own adventures? There's
already Grindhouse edition which is improved but what was the case with original plan?
I want LotFP to be as large a company as possible, and just publishing adventures for other peoples' games,
especially in a scene that doesn't have a lot of retail presence, is not a good strategy for getting shelf space. The original idea was to publish a game under my own brand to get into shops so then all my other stuff would get picked up too.
That idea got muddled when I went for broke and made a dream box set instead of a more sensible and safe
presentation. "If I don't do it now, when will I?"
And that first box sold like hotcakes. Even the diehards, who already have 4234 or so OGL-enabled more-or-less similar variants of The Game, bought it by the hundreds. I didn't expect that. And it helped get me into an ever increasing amount of stores, so mission accomplished there.
I understood that you use Basic Fantasy (please correct if I remembered it wrong) a lot for your OSR gaming. But how about LotFP. Do you play your own game like it's no tomorrow?
I played Basic Fantasy from late 2007 - early 2010, then I did a few sessions of Labyrinth Lord, but of course once I made my own game I switched everything over to that.
In LotFP Grindhouse what do you like the most? Simple characters what focus on what they are
doing instead of what they can do (your thought) or elegant encumbrance system or something else?
What I like most is the response it's gotten: people use it, talk about it, come up with their own house rules for it, there's another publisher who releases material for it... As a writer and a publisher, the system, the details, the flavor, all of that is secondary - I have ideas for madcap sci-fi, modern zombie holocaust, and superhero games that all have different flavors that would use their own systems. The important thing is that what I have done - no matter what it happens to be right now - has made a connection with people. That's how you know you did good.
As a Referee, what are your best three and worst three qualities?
Best quality: I come up with some righteously heinous shit to throw at the players. :D That's basically it, I'm an idea man.
Worst qualities: I do my best improv work when there's already a framework in place. Give me a module and I can handle whatever the players want to do within the context of that module, but when it comes to pure improv without anything in place, I'm not so great. I see my role in the game as a referee, and if the playing field and the opposing players aren't pre-determined, it's a bit difficult to be an impartial ref at the same time I'm coming up with things for them to do. Much better to have the "adventure writer" hat on in prep and "Referee" during play... but doing that proper preparation is something I'm a bit lazy about.
You are a Referee but do you play as a player character? Ever?
It's difficult in Finland. When I run a game, I'm in charge, so I can say "This game will be in English." My Finnish is crap for boring reasons, I can read a bit but can't really follow a spoken conversation, so joining someone else's group is difficult. I don't want to be rude and demand these other people to run games in English for my benefit.
It's also difficult for me to wrap my head around the concept of "one-shots" for RPGs so when I do get to play other things they tend to be board or card games.
What are best and worst things for both roleplaying gamer and publisher in Finland? Were there
any problems with LotFP and later with LotFP store because of your location?
The worst thing about being a publisher in Finland is that 95% of the customers are not in the country, and in
my case the majority are across an ocean. Selling role-playing material is hard enough without those shipping
What about Finnish gaming community? In your opinion is there any and how good is it?
I don't really interact with the community as much as others (I'm constantly surprised how everyone seems to
know everyone else since I just have contact with a few people at a time), but I think it's a nice big healthy
community based on three things: Fantasiapelit is a well-stocked store so there's a local point to get new
material, Ropecon is a good-sized convention with lots of gaming and plenty of people hitting the vendor room, and most importantly it's never ever a problem to find new players if need be. Even before I ran a publishing company it was easy to find more players than I knew what to do with both in Vaasa and Helsinki.
What about other Finnish game publishers? Past few years there's been many new products.
I really don't keep up on too much new stuff whether from Finland or elsewhere. Even the OSR stuff I carry in my shop are for the most part just for sale and they aren't things I'm personally interested in. I think it's great that people have ideas and follow through and make games and it's awesome that people buy them and play them, I like talking to other designers at conventions and hearing the ideas, but at the end of the day I'm most interested in what I'm doing. And it's damned difficult to try to get any of these people with ideas of their own to write something for me...
Thank you for your time mr. Raggi. One last question. If I could buy only three items from your
Lamentations of the Flame Princess store (link) what would you suggest me to get?
The businessman in me says Grindhouse box, Carcosa, and Isle of the Unknown, because those are the most expensive.
The gamer in me says Carcosa, Isle of the Unknown, and Vornheim, since those aren't game-specific so you'll be able to get inspiration for whatever it is you're playing.