Interview with James Raggi IV

lamentations of the flame princess cover

@HellingsOnFilm interviews James Raggi IV on RPG, Finland and horror…

Imagine a Role Playing Game (RPG) created after a midnight meeting between HP Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, Robert W Chambers, Robert E Howard, and Dario Argento, and the result would surely be “Lamentations of the Flame Princess” (LotFP).

In the 1970s, world audiences became aware and attached to games such as “Dungeons and Dragons” – D&D – (quickly followed by the more expansive “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” (AD&D) and others, in which regular folks could take part in adventures playing Magic Users, Fighters, Clerics, Thieves, Assassins and others all derived from the work of writers such as JRR Tolkien. A fantasy gaming world in which all that was needed was a pen and paper, seven multi sided dice, pre written adventures (modules) and your imagination. It wouldn’t be long before players started writing their own, creating entire fantasy worlds and campaigns which they would still be playing with friends and family over thirty years later.

So popular was Dungeons and Dragons (although the right wing Christian conservative elements in the US denounced it, and still do, as the instrument of the Devil which would suck your unsuspecting children into the world of the occult – let’s just laugh at that one) that it spawned countless other games and even its own spinoff such as Ravenloft, which grew out of the highly successful 1983 module of the same name written by Tracy and Laura Hickman. Ravenloft was a world of gothic horror and vampires and still proves popular to this day.

As intriguing as Ravenloft is, it’s still an adventure setting that can be played with your kids. Lamentations of the Flame Princess certainly isn’t, and that’s one of the reasons it’s become successful and gained a passionate following.

The brainchild of James Raggi IV, an American now living in Finland, LotFP is a ‘weird fantasy’ game in which your characters are often more likely to get killed in horrific ways, rather than leave with their hands full of treasure after wiping out all of the monsters as can happen a lot of the time in D&D. LotFP is material that is regularly called dark and disturbing and that’s part of its strength and appeal.

You can see the influence of writers such as HP Lovecraft and Robert W Chambers in LotFP (the Cthulhu mythos is even included in the excellent release LotFP licensed “Carcosa”, a book that is a work of art in its creation: part rule book, part monster manual, part adventure, and is set on the planet of Carcosa). The world of LotFP is the world of unspeakable and unimaginable horror, hence its Explicit Content and 18+ labels. It’s an old school world for modern times and for players with experience who wish to hark back to the early days of Role Playing Gaming where it wasn’t just about going in for a slash fest and simply wiping everything out (although you can do that in LotFP, although it’s not always the wisest solution!), but can seek other more imaginative solutions to complete your adventure.

With certain releases funded by crowdfunding campaigns, and many of the key releases funded with no crowdfunding efforts at all, James Raggi IV has produced high quality books and adventures that seem more about delivering great ideas including excellent artwork in well constructed items than knocking out mass market junk that may fall apart in your hands within a short time. It’s a courageous business strategy and you can see why it’s gained such attention.

The LotFP business officially began in 2009 and operates out of Finland (James Raggi IV admits not to being able to speak the incredibly difficult to learn language, but survives due to most Finnish people being fluent in English) and it seems to be a country that has allowed him to flourish creatively. The ‘Flame Princess’ (the iconic, red haired, puritanical, Soloman Kane like adventureress that adorns the cover of the LotFP rule books and features throughout in a series of stunning artwork by a number of artists including Jason Rainville) was based on the profile of red haired young woman James Raggi saw online and clearly the image stayed with him, creating a character that is both strong and vulnerable in that she faces the kind of horrors that you’d never want your own characters to face in any game.
lamentations of the flame princess image

But, for more on that, and many other things, let’s talk to the man himself, James Raggi IV:

DPH (David Paul Hellings): James, before we talk about LotFP, I’d like to chat a little about you. Finland? That’s an interesting choice of destination. To a lot of the outside world, it’s famous for being the subject of a Monty Python song (including the lyrics “Finland, Finland, Finland/The country where I want to be/Pony trekking or camping/Or just watching TV/Finland, Finland, Finland/It’s the country for me”); it’s also famous for virtual air guitar, saunas, ice skates, and a Helsinki restaurant that serves only garlic. What took you to Finland and why did you stay?

JRIV: (James Raggi IV) Women brought me to Finland, women kept me in Finland. I’ve even married a couple of them. If you’ve seen Finnish women, you’ll understand. In addition, the healthy heavy metal and gaming scenes keep things interesting and there’s a bunch of music and movie shops and film festivals and everything anybody needs to be happy.

DPH: Has the country energized you creatively?

JRIV: I wouldn’t say it’s this country that has energized me, since everything that goes into LotFP was already in my life before I came here. That there are certain financial benefits (not needing to worry about health insurance, for one, plus the small stipend I received for a short time as a foreigner starting a business here) that allowed me to make a proper go of it, but that’s not unique to Finland.

DPH: How would you describe “Lamentations of the Flame Princess” to somebody who knows nothing about RPGs?

JRIV: Lamentations of the Flame Princess is all about facing the really fucked up shit they sing about in the most underground heavy metal songs or show in only the horror movies made overseas. Anything goes, wild as hell.

DPH: What was the RPG situation like where you lived growing up? What were your influences that led you to create LotFP?

JRIV: I wasn’t aware of the greater RPG scene when I was growing up, as I got into RPGs in isolation and was aware of some other groups but really did my own recruiting for players. Dragon magazine was just a source of Marvel character stats at the time…

The inspiration for LotFP is the basic belief that the life of an adventure is a hellish thing that nobody sane would want – full of danger and violence with no real home, no real family, no certainty, ever. Think of the classic RPG adventure form: You’re going into some dark hole with a sinister history, fully expecting to encounter death traps and supernatural monsters and all sorts of things that want nothing more to kill you and probably eat you, and you’re doing it for some money. Or “glory.” In real life we get pissed and dream of quitting our jobs when our bosses want us to sit at a desk for an extra hour and our “glorious heroes” are the people that are victims of the most and worst gossip and bloody hell this is all terrible.
So let’s drop the pretense of being noble heroes doing things for noble reasons and just spotlight the fact that “adventures” are really terrible, life-ruining traumatic experiences and my love of heavy metal and horror movies provide wonderful inspiration for making them so.
That’s LotFP.

DPH: You’ve used the term ‘Old School Renaissance’ (OSR) in other interviews. What is that?

JRIV: In a nutshell, with the release of D&D 3rd Edition in 2000, many people, myself included, thought the game had very much changed from what it used to be. Using the Open Game License that allowed third-party products, some people reverse-engineered classic D&D and opened the floodgates to new products to be released on a hobby and professional basis. The (very) loose community that sprung up around that is known as the Old School Renaissance, which ironically happens to right now be releasing the most creative, state of the art content in the industry right now. Funny how that happens.

DPH: You also describe LotFP as ‘weird fantasy’. What do you mean by that?

Lamentations of the Flame Princess image
JRIV: It was at first my code word for “horror fantasy,” but horror means different things to different people, and this isn’t about the wolf-man or surviving a morality play involving a madman with a knife, so I mean a fantasy game (“has magic in it”) that is largely about forces from beyond our awareness interfering and causing great distress as a result.
Put it this way, I don’t read a lot of fantasy novels and I haven’t really for a very long time.

DPH: So, for the uninitiated, what is the difference between LotFP and something like AD&D or even Warhammer? (I mention Warhammer only because places like Games Workshop in the UK basically now stock only Warhammer).

JRIV: LotFP is far more “facing unknown horrors” than official versions of D&D which are more about heroics or presenting gamey challenges. I’d say that LotFP has a lot in common with Warhammer, with the caveats that I really don’t like the Warhammer system or much of the setting. A lot of the attitude, the writing, and the inspirations they took from, I’m on board with all that.

DPH: Was it a conscious decision from the start to make LotFP adult material? If so, why?

JRIV: From the start I was just intending a darker, more these-dungeons-really-are-horrific-hostile-environments style of releases. After some trial and error it occurred to me that by accentuating the differences and pushing my particular tastes front and center I could do (or at least attempt; the results are for the audience to decide) something really unique.

DPH: I’ve read comments on forums by horrified parents that have seemingly missed the warnings on the cover and played LotFP modules claiming that they’d never play it again because it was so dark and horrific. Even going so far to describe it as “sick”. Does that bring a smile to your face when you read that kind of response?

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JRIV: A lot of it is supposed to be sick, so mission accomplished. Bothering people who are just dying to be bothered is a hobby of mine. Some links to these forum posts would bring amusement for my audience and yours…

DPH: I’ve mentioned briefly in the introduction about where the meaning of the ‘Flame Princess’ came from, but what’s the full story?

JRIV: Back in the 90s when I first got on the web and few bands had websites and they’d link to every single online fan’s sites they could find, I ran across the site of this one Finnish woman, and, well, she was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. The email link was already dead, so I created an imaginary character to go with the pictures on the site. (Fictional-world imaginary, not trying-to-imagine-who-this-person-really-is imaginary.) When I finally figured out how to get in touch years later she thought I was creepy. Imagine that. The woman who serves as the reference model for the Flame Princess character these days is a completely different person, someone who has waist-length flame-red hair that I came across when I moved to Helsinki.

DPH: I’ve seen people in forums say: “well, that explains the ‘Flame Princess’ bit, but what about the rest of it?” The definition of lamentation is “the passionate expression of grief or sorrow; weeping”. It’s a very cool name for the world you’ve created, but how does it all fit? What’s the full meaning, if you can tell us that?

JRIV: I originally used the Lamentations of the Flame Princess name for my metal zine which started in 1998. I was big into downer European metal like Opeth and Katatonia and My Dying Bride at the time, and I needed a name to match up with my musical preferences so it would stand out from all the brutal death metal and black metal zines popular at the time. When it was time to start publishing role-playing stuff, it didn’t even occur to me to use a different name.

DPH: You’re very big into collaboration, both with writers and artists. Could you tell us about some of the people you work with and how these collaborations came to being?

JRIV: I just don’t have the personal capability to write a large enough amount of material that is sufficiently different from project to project to sustain a company. Just don’t. And other people have great ideas but don’t have the interest in doing the whole publishing thing themselves and our interests align…
My most successful collaborations to date have been with Zak S, author/artist on Vornheim and A Red & Pleasant Land, and Geoffrey McKinney, author of Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown. We were in contact for awhile before ever deciding to work together, and that just grew from a “wouldn’t it be cool to do something?” and that’s that.

DPH: In a video game age, does it surprise you at all that RPGs are still so popular?

JRIV: err, no? I play video SimCity and Civilization type video games but not a lot else. I don’t see the appeal, and I’m more surprised when people don’t share my tastes than when they do.
I’m surprised an awful lot.

DPH: What would be the starting point for somebody new to LotFP? Is there a particular module that would be good for a newcomer? If so, what is about that one that makes it so?

JRIV: Are they to role-playing or just new to LotFP? If they’re an experienced gamer I’d point them to Better Than Any Man, that’s got all the elements that I consider LotFP. Scenic Dunnsmouth and A Red & Pleasant Land are also utterly unique settings with lots of details of a sort you just don’t see anywhere else.
If you’re dipping into gaming for the first time, I’d say Tower of the Stargazer. Small setting, simple setup, extra explanatory text.

DPH: You fund most of your releases by way of crowd funding, particularly Indiegogo. People have mixed success with these (I’m thinking of Uwe Boll’s infamous and spectacular recent fail with “Rampage 3” and then Lloyd Kaufman’s amusing exploitation of that in his own successful campaign to raise the money for “Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Volume 2”). You’ve had great success with crowdfunding. Your recent Indiegogo campaign for the LotFP Hardcover Referee Book sought €2000.00 and you managed to raise €29,453 from 488 backers in a month. That’s impressive. There’s a lot of people out there, especially younger people trying to raise cash for their first horror film or book or whatever. In your experience, how have you managed to succeed with crowdfunding where so many others have failed? Are there any tips you can pass on?

JRIV: I haven’t funded most of my releases by crowdfunding, but there have been several that I have funded that way.
I wouldn’t say I’ve succeeded with crowdfunding, since I have several such projects which are overdue and over budget, but those are getting sorted. Like already delivered crowdfunding projects, they’ll be much more than backers expected at the time the campaign ended… which is why they’re overbudget. For example, Broodmother Skyfortress is over two years late, but where they were promised a 32 page softcover adventure, what they’ll be getting is a 160 page hardcover with dozens of art pieces, many in color. I’m a horrible businessman that way, but when the projects are (finally) all in hand, I can’t imagine people saying “I wish I’d gotten a much shorter and cheaper version earlier!” I think I’ll be doing crowdfunding a lot less for this reason though.
My tips for success? You need to build an audience before you ever try asking for money. For RPG projects, have the text completely 100% finished before you go near a crowdfunding site, and the layout and a cool-ass cover piece ready for the campaign too. You have to spend a decent amount of money before your campaign is ready…

DPH: Your approach to your releases seems very much to be about style and substance. Your books and modules are a handy A5 size, often hardback and in colour, with amazing artwork and well bound. They shout quality. I have the expanded edition of “Carcosa” which is a work of art. Is this all a wise business approach? Is it profitable or is it not just about that for you?

JRIV: I’ll put it this way, I’m planning on publishing less of the short black and white softcovers. All of my top-selling releases are either hardcovers or boxed sets. They are more of a gamble but a higher cover price means a lot more profit per book if they actually sell.I’d very much like to win the lottery and just hi-fi but dirt-cheap releases but that’s not the world I live in, so I do have to make money. At this point retreating back into low budget type stuff just isn’t an option anymore.

DPH: What element of LotFP are you most proud of?

JRIV: I’ve been doing this for six years now and my rent is up to date.Creatively, I think I’ve made it a little easier for people with odd ideas to get out there and find an audience without running into problems and that’s a big thing.

DPH: In some of your releases you mention such giants of the weird fantasy world as Lovecraft, Bierce, Chambers, and Howard. Are you a fan? If so, what is it about their work you are drawn to?

JRIV: I’m a fan of the ideas of a lot of authors, but actually enjoy reading the works of only a few. Howard for sure, since everything is full of energy and things happen and happen and happen and it’s good. Lovecraft is another one, since he was a bit off as a human being and his writing is not in the modern fashion creates this atmosphere where his stories make sense and there’s a reason why he’s become so influential.

DPH: You also reference Dario Argento. Were you a big fan? (If so, what was it about his work that made you so?) What would be your top three Argento films and why?

JRIV: Argento’s early work is just over-the-top brutal and at the same time dreamlike. My top three Argento films are Phenomena, Tenebrae, and Deep Red. Phenomena is like a superhero origin story gone very, very wrong, with a fun soundtrack, Tenebrae is just a great and brutal murder mystery, and Deep Red is one of the bravest mystery movies I’ve ever seen but of course I can’t say why without ruining it for people who haven’t seen it.

DPH: Were there any other horror directors that influenced you?

JRIV: John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi.

DPH: How would you describe the usual LotFP fan?

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JRIV: I have no real idea, as most of my sales are through distribution or through the web store to people I never interact with. The answer I’d end up giving is either a pandering “oh they’re so bright and imaginative and looking for something different from the herd!” or something pissy and insulting because I just finished a three conventions in four weeks stretch and I’m mentally exhausted and sick to death of the sight of people at the moment. Paaaassssss…

DPH: What are your future plans and releases and when are we likely to see them? Are there any ongoing crowd funding campaigns? If so, where can people contribute?

JRIV: In the works right now are the Vornheim reprint, Broodmother Sky Fortress, Towers Two, England Upturn’d, the third printing of the LotFP Referee book, second edition of The Cursed Chateau, the second Carcosa volume, Veins of the Earth, plus a bunch of smaller projects… just a lot of really cool stuff and I may have overloaded myself but I’m working with some cool people and we’ll get it all done. No new crowdfunding.

DPH: Penultimate question: your top three LotFP modules and why?

JRIV: Death Frost Doom, because it started everything and is still a crowd favorite. It’s a modern-day classic of adventure modules, if I do say so myself. The Monolith from beyond Space and Time, because it really is the fiercest example of “the weird” in my catalog, and Better Than Any Man, because it is the best example of my focus on historical horror.

DPH: Where’s the best place to get hold of LotFP products?

JRIV: Your local game shop should stock LotFP products, and if they don’t they can order them for you. If not, you can order books direct from (we ship worldwide!) or PDF versions from RPGNow.

DPH: James, many thanks for your time. I look forward to the ongoing work and the very best in the “Lamentations of the Flame Princess” world.

JRIV: Thanks for having me!

James Raggi IV is the creator of Lamentations of the Flame Princess and is based in Helsinki, Finland.

David Paul Hellings

Twitter: @HellingsOnFilm

First and third pic: Cynthia Sheppard
Second pic: Vincent Locke
Fourth pic: Ian MacLean
Fifth pic: Jason Rainville

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