Lusus Naturae (Review, LotFP)

Three years ago today, I opened this nerdy little candy stand, averaging a post every five days. Cool.
Let’s celebrate by getting into Lusus Naturae, the first explicit (and boy is it..) Lamentations of the Flame Princess “monster manual”. It’s written by Rafael Chandler, best known in my circles for the Teratic Tome (a universal monster book that just leans heavily on LotFP). It’s serviceably, and occasionally beautifully, illustrated by Gennifer Bone. You can find the pdf here (link) for fifteen bucks. Print version’s expected soonish, but it needs to get shipped from Finland.

So, first, some pontificating, so you know where I’m coming from.
I define “Horror” as “The fear of impending, but uncertain violation”. The violation can be of your body, mind, or assumptions about the structure of the world (psyche?). The uncertainty isn’t just if it will happen, but also when, how, and in what manner. An important part of horror is that you feel, on some level, deprived of agency – usually by biological reactions or simply the apparent futility of action. To defeat it, you must reassert your ability not just to act, but act meaningfully.
Roleplaying games are celebrations of agency; therefore, you’ve got to balance seeming helplessness with the possibility of success. Mystery helps (adding uncertainty), as does things that screw with the rules of the game (see: assumptions about the structure of the world). Players should know that the characters can die, or be horribly affected. On the other hand, only shitty authors coughFatalcough see “violation” and think “RAPE ALL DAY EVERYDAY”. Parasites, mutation, loss of control over personal space, having secrets wrested from you.. all are unpleasant and (properly played) horrifying outcomes.
Lusus Naturae is one of the better horror gaming aids I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t need a Sanity mechanic to make the players start screaming and setting each other on fire..

Synopsis:
What it ain’t: This isn’t meant to be “all the monsters” for a campaign. It’s not really a source for wandering monsters, either – though a couple things would certainly be appropriate.
What it does: Adds/adapts a treasure system to Lamentations. Contains an assortment of horrifying, modular mini-Mythosoi with accompanying additions to to your campaign world. Fucks with players.

What’s it about?
Lusus Naturae is basically a dozen metal album covers made into a book. There are some truly Lovecraftian enemies that will alter your campaign world if they show up. The treasure and magic items are highly-portable, and several are quite interesting. You can use at least a couple things in the book at almost any level of play, and you can challenge a low-level party without instantly reducing them to a fine red mist (the main problem with the critters from the MMII, the Fiend Folio, and the assorted “Deities” books in 1e).
It’s also deliberately, sometimes extremely, offensive – and on pretty much every possible level. There was shit in there that skeeved me out, and I used to work as a search engine tester. Many things in the book alter or rewrite the rules; you have to pay attention while using it.

What’s new about it?:
There are several innovations I like, and some I’ve already incorporated into my own campaign. Specifically, several of the summoned monsters have ill omens or Harbingers associated with their appearance. I’m adding them onto the “Omens” section of my random encounter tables.
I’ve also spoken about Death Curses and Desecration penalties elsewhere. I think they’re an excellent, thematic way of adding a little unpredictability to the game. I’ll post more on my current mechanics later. That said, Chandler has expanded on the classic idea to include boons/banes/weird magical things that happen to the person who strikes a killing blow against some of the monsters. These range from small mechanical bonuses or maluses, to extremely specific magical abilities or information and tools. Not every monster has them, but they have an appropriate fairy-tale feel to them.

Overall Rating: 8.5/10
If you’re into horror, the book is almost certainly worth it. If you or your players are easily squicked, or you demand “SUPER SRS, ALL THE TIME” games, it’s not for you. It’s not quite as pretty as the usual Lamentations release, but it’s just as usable as any other.

Detailed breakdown after the jump.

 Utility: 8/10
Most monsters in this book were intended for semi-planned encounters, or as the centerpiece of a session (or campaign, in the case of some..). Some will require prep work before the monster is usable at the table-top, but frankly none of these should be on a random encounter table. There are a few minor speedbumps with monsters’ abilities causing other things to spawn/be created; you’ll probably want to roll up a few of each beforehand as well. Also, certain spells and magic items will require you to elaborate on a basic idea. Just be aware that you can’t literally flip to a random page and use whatever’s there instantly for about 10-20% of the book.
The pdf is well-formatted, with hyper-links added to help cross-reference monsters. Each critter takes up a single page or spread, with an accompanying illustration. The electronic version also includes an art-only document, so you can make “flashcards” of the beasties to show your players without having to whip out the book and awkwardly cover all the text – that’s a problem that I’ve been dealing with since pretty much ever.
Tables are simple and serviceable, and all are d20 or d100-based.

Modularity: 9/10
As I referenced above, there are several factions within the book. These are associated with the crowd-sourced Narcosia setting (essentially, the Elemental Plane of Intoxication, and/or the Mushroom Kingdom), Hell, Chiroscuro (a domain of Law, purely black and white, and with morality the same), and assorted powerful gods, abominations, and extremely powerful or mad wizards. Few monsters act in total isolation, and including one faction will usually imply the existence of at least one other.
That said, the elements they add to your campaign world can be tweaked into the foreground or kept as an odd (and impenetrable) secret. Don’t like the idea of Narcosia? Ignore a couple of monsters and you’re basically done. Chiaroscuro? All the creatures from it are exiles. You can seal the dimensional wall and leave it at that.
The implied setting remains “Utterly magically fucked 17th-century Earth”, and is easy to drag-and drop into your own world.
All magic items are quickly and easily handled by the GM, and most will work even without any of the monsters involved in your campaign. There are also several new or implied spells to add to your campaign.

Weirdness/Flavor: 10/10
Drips with it. Vast Lovecraftian intelligences noodle around, mostly ignoring Humanity but wreaking havoc anyway. Wizards scheme against each other, deploying foul magics and twisted abominations across the millennia to thwart and humiliate each other – or just wave their dongs around to show how powerful they are. Demons plot and occasionally bargain with the players. Dead gods struggle to rise from the sleep of ages. Parasites and horrible spiritual entities feast on the harvest of misery and fear the PCs sow, or reap it from them directly. Extremely confused extra-dimensional entities attempt to apply the rules of their homes to Earth (hint: it doesn’t usually work).
What references there are (and there are several, ranging from Command and Conquer to goth metal bands) are subtle and don’t intrude too much on your suspension of disbelief.
Many of the critters have that classic Medieval Bestiary “what the shit is that?” feeling to them, which is always a plus in my book.

Depicted: A dragon before we made them all pusillanimous and lizardly.

Depicted: A dragon before we made them all pusillanimous and lizardly.

Some things are a little over-the-top, like the cathedral made out of dead babies, but you can work with them nonetheless.
Not all of the flavors are pleasant, but there are a lot of them, and they’re well-blended for the book’s purpose. If I could go to 11, I would.

Puzzles/Traps and Intellectual Engagement: 7/10
Few things use conventional attacks. Most monsters are in and of themselves puzzles, or create traps and puzzles as they operate. Most also have clues about their nature, although fewer than I usually prefer – and often nearly inaccessible. Thematic, certainly, but then again many of the things are very killable once you figure out that they’re actually supposed to be bad guys, and some of the “puzzles” are too easy to circumvent.

Character Engagement: 7/10
A few of the monsters are simply “oh shit, get out of here NOW” elemental forces, or things which will generally make the PCs lives unpleasant, but not require action. On the other hand, many of the creatures work through betrayal or by attacking the character’s reputation and power base. A few actively hunt characters. The first category will be hard to drive engagement with, unless the players go looking for trouble. The second require build-up and several sessions to properly use. The last? Well, let’s just quote Bill Paxton here.

Treasure Engagement: 9/10
While most things have coins, many also have some more or less unconventional alternate treasures (conditional stat improvements, lore or intel, magics that aren’t immediately obvious or spells per se) as well as the usual bodily fluids, eggs, and magic items. I particularly like the magic rings and a few of the weapons tucked into the monster entries, as well as the implied spells to create certain of the beasties. The “Found in the Monster’s Lair..” table adds even more variety.
There’s not much, however, in the way of tools, “trap” treasures (cumbersome or awkward things which require great effort on the PCs part to keep their value, but strongly reward careful play) or magical fancies.

Aesthetics: 6/10
The pdf version is much cleaner and simpler in design than other LotFP releases. Pages have blank backgrounds, and the fonts are serviceable but nothing special. Chandler has suggested that the print version will be a little more decorated. Since he’s using the same bookbinder as most LotFP releases, I’m going to go out on a limb and say the binding work will be as gorgeous and robust as ever.
Bone’s illustrations and style are consistent and flavorful, although she generally draws monsters and body parts better than she does people. Several of the illustrations are absolutely gorgeous (I’m especially fond of the Chiaroscurians and the Apparitions), though a few are hurt badly by having a realistic monster and an utterly cartoonish person in the same shot (notably the Abstruct and Dismal Scryer).

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent review!

    Reply

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