Review: The Punchline

The Punchline is a low level adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role Playing that has great villains and an evocative horror aesthetic. There are some elements, typical of LotFP adventures, that not everyone will enjoy.

Who’s it for?

Like all LotFP adventures, this is for mature fans of horror and weird fiction. The Punchline is a classic LotFP screw job. The best thing the players could do, if they want to get out of this whole, is to keep their distance and keep on moving. It’s a LotFP adventure. Getting involved in the situation is going to guarantee the death of one or more player characters. If your group is into fantasy horror and what it entails, this could be for you.

This adventure includes descriptions of murder, sex, incest, the harming of children, human sacrifice, anti-semitic NPC’s and the consumption of alcohol. The descriptions are not graphic though there are a few color illustrations with some mature content. If this sort of content is distressing to you, this book is not recommended.

Spoiler warning: If you want to play this adventure then you don’t want to read any more of this review. I give away key information that will ruin the experience if you are a player in the adventure. You have been warned.

What’s it for?

I used this as the opening adventure of a short LotFP campaign. I think it works well for that. You could throw this in as adventure for player characters traveling through a mountainous area. It would make a good one shot session for players who are enthusiastic about gruesome character deaths. The villains could become re-occuring villains in a longer campaign if the players don’t wipe them out.

It’s written for low level characters. My group is running 4th level characters. If they were a lower level, someone would have likely died in a fight but the character death came from the Red Death. Higher level characters, particularly if there is cleric above 5th level, might be able to handle this adventure without any casualties.

The aesthetics of the book also make it a nice collectable or display piece. The Punchline is evocatively illustrated. Jim had these books printed and bound to high quality standards. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it’s gorgeous. LotFP books can go for significant money on eBay when they are out of print. The Punchline is still in print so there’s no secondary market for it to speak of but who knows what the future holds.

What’s it like?

I ran this module with my weekly group this past Sunday. We’re in a transition period between longer campaigns and we decided to play LotFP to bridge the gap. The characters are travelling to a far off land and I decided to offer this as a first adventure for them to try out.

Along the way, the party encounters a village with a group of peasants gathered outside the inn looking like they are going to lynch somebody. There’s a girl missing in town and two children were approached by men dressed as clowns trying to lure them into the woods. This is the opening encounter of the adventure and it’s clunky. As a set up encounter I was left wondering why no one had gone looking for the girl yet and why the peasants weren’t gathering up to go find these clowns. That would seem like two reasonable questions the players might ask as they are interacting with this group. There’s nothing in the text to suggest they are doing either of these things. They have merely gathered to be grumpy and have a suspicious merchant detained in the inn.

There’s no separation in the lay out to communicate to the referee that this is an encounter at all. It was mixed into the text of the introduction. Personally, I like some sort of visual cue that the following information is what the players will see or experience in the encounter. I’m generally not a fan of boxed text but some indicator of “here is the encounter” followed by information the referee will need to run that encounter is helpful. The information each NPC has is spread out over several pages and the map with the locations where the events the NPC’s witnessed is toward the rear of the book. There is a handy reference in the end papers that will help the referee when they are running the encounter at the table but the first read through was a little confusing to me.

Each of the key NPCs gets a portrait illustration and a few paragraphs of text. The NPC’s were interesting enough for the players as written so I didn’t have to add anything to make those social encounters more engaging. One of the key NPC’s is a travelling merchant who has been detained. It is not actually made clear in the text until you get to the end of the adventure that he has the Red Death. This detail would have made the first read through less confusing and it seems like it is an important detail that should be in the character description but is not.

Based on their interview of the villager NPC’s, my players figured out where to go looking for the cult right off. There was one location that they didn’t bother with at all. It was the village that, presumably, the merchant came from and where he had caught the Red Death. There isn’t much reason for the party to go there based on the information the merchant provides them. If the party doesn’t go to the village or doesn’t press the merchant when/if they interview him, they have no clue at all that the Red Death is something they should worry about. I’m not sure whether the hook is weak, if my players didn’t ask the merchant the right questions or they just weren’t interested in going back to the village he had been at the day before. They may have decided that going there was a bad idea because they have some sort of plague and why go there if we know everyone is already dead.

A mistake that I made as referee was not to play up that the “Red Death” as something that ought to terrify everyone.

The Red Death is Ebola in effect. Through magic and threat of bodily harm, the party learned from the merchant that he had been exposed to the Red Death. I should have told the players that their characters knew what that was, that it was deadly and being anywhere near the guy was bad news. I implied it but didn’t make a big deal out of it and I feel like it is an important enough bit of information that it should have been emphasised.

The mechanisms for the disease are not absolutely clear in the text. What is clear is that if the PC’s stay to help the villagers and fight the clown cultists, the party is going to get the Red Death and someone is going to die of it. In this run through, two henchman and one PC ended up dying from the disease after surviving three different fights. Another PC lost half his Constitution points, permanently. Another had significant but temporary Constitution loss. The players were aware that LotFP was a horror game but the non-verbal communication I got from them when we resolved the disease was clearly, “Eh, we just got fucked.” Nobody said anything but it was clear to me the mood was not a happy one.

The Red Death makes the adventure a “gotcha” trap. In the section marked “outcomes” it declares that no matter what the players do, the majority of the villagers will die. This is a horror game/adventure. There’s going to be a body count that the players will not be able prevent from happening. This is the only place it is mentioned that the merchant has the Red Death, which I feel like should have been mentioned in the NPC’s description earlier in the adventure text.

I thought the villains were wonderful. They were creepy, weird and horrifying in their presentation. They definitely achieved the emotional effect I wanted to get from them. Their backstory is interesting but it’s there to amuse the referee reading the adventure. A lot of it is immaterial to the players and they would never have any way of figuring out some of the more icky parts of it through play. Some referees like getting backstory that makes them excited to run an adventure module but it is superfluous to me. The villager NPC’s and villains were fun to play after I had a grasp on who they were. I was able to emphasize and exaggerate the particular elements that I wanted the players to experience.

The book’s organization made preparing the adventure a little awkward for me. That is maybe just a personal experience and you may grasp it better than I did on my first pass. I had to take notes as I read through to make sure I understood the decision points the players would face. There are handy notes and references in the end papers. The front had the villagers NPC’s and the back were the troupe with their combat stats, and that made them easier to run. That was good. I would like to see more of that in RPG books.

My Opinion: Recommended but not for everyone.

I liked the villains. They’re super creepy. The emotional experience of an adventure is the biggest concern I have and if I am looking to generate disgust or horror in players then this one has what it needs to do that. On that basis, I recommend the adventure as being worth picking up. You can get at a reasonable price in both print and PDF through the both the LotFP online stores (EU and US).

The graphic design and illustrations are evocative. It’s an aesthetically pleasing book. I do get pleasure from the physical presence of books on the shelf and I like taking them down from time to time to just look at the illustrations. Once I run a module, the book will act as stimulus to recall the memory of running it. Physical books are artifacts of play. In that way, I find The Punchline to be quite enjoyable.

However, the graphic design and layout decisions make the adventure a little difficult to read and run without having copied or printed out some of the material. I recommend you write up notes to reference and book marks to get to the maps if you use the print version. The NPC blurbs and stat blocks in the end papers were very handy and that made it less of a hassle to run the fights, once the fight got started. When I was setting the scene of the encounter, I found myself flipping back and forth from the encounter location back to the end papers to look at stat blocks. The PDF version might make things easier if you have the maps and end papers printed up seperately or bookmarked on a PDF reader.

You will definitely want to think carefully about how you want to run the opening encounter when the party shows up. Make sure you read the Red Death mechanisms closely and decide exactly how you want to adjudicate infection and death because it wasn’t clear to me exactly how that was intended.

Where I come down on this module: The Punchline is a solid adventure with some problems that are manageable if you have a few hours to prepare. If you don’t like horror, this isn’t for you. If you and your group like horror, this will suit you fine.

One thought on “Review: The Punchline

  1. Pingback: The Best Thing LotFP Did for RPG’s – Grumpy Wizard

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