Sunday, August 30, 2015

RPG Review: "Death Frost Doom"

James Edward Raggi IV is an ex-pat American RPG fan, horror movie nut, and heavy metal enthusiast who just so happens to live in Finland. Why Finland? Well, for one, it's one of the METAL-est places on the planet. And secondly, Finland is apparently blessed with an inordinate amount of impossibly hot women

Sorry, I digress.

An accomplished indie game designer, James started his career by developing supplements for Old School role-playing games. In order to broaden his creative and financial prospects, Raggi decided to parley the freedoms offered by the d20 Open Gaming License to come up with his own system. Heavily steeped in the earliest incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons but with an eye on updated mechanics and thematic maturity, he developed a framework that would resonate with nostalgic grognards and intrigue curious newbies.

But he still needed a flagship adventure to kick the whole thing off in style, so, on July 22'nd 2009, Death Frost Doom lurched kicking and screaming into our unsuspecting world. Informed by such diverse-yet-unifying interests as horror movies, Lovecraftian oddities, and death metal, the dark, twisted, and psychologically-troubling quest resonated big time with fans. It delivered on a silent promise to make fantasy role-playing games discordant, perverse, frightening and edgy again. Adults weaned on the now all-too-familiar D&D tropes felt gloriously off-kilter again. 

The adventure resonated big time with gamers and pretty soon Raggi's upstart little company was selling tens of thousands of box sets, hard covers, books and PDF's. And then, at the height of it all, Death Frost Doom vanished. The lean and mean introduction to LotFP's own unique brand of "weird fantasy role-playing" had drifted out of print, leaving newer fans desperate for a comeback. Eventually demand for the module became so rabid that Raggi was forced to ponder a return to the well.

Originally Raggi had hoped that his first print of Death Frost Doom would attain a mythical "(Un)holy Grail" status. As a music nut he states in the introduction that "the idea of an out of print 'album' appealed to me. Death Frost Doom was that cult rarity that you only physically had if you were there at the time, that out-of-print first album of a band that had gone on to greater success". In the same breath he also wisely concedes that it's "ridiculous" to have one of his most popular titles locked away in the vault like some sort of Disney-scale asshole.

His compromise: turn the whole thing kit-and-caboodle over to RPG-impresario and celebrated Vornheim author Zak Smith. This strategy was inspired genius; collectors could lord their original edition over people as proof of their indie cred while a slick new incarnation would be coveted by newcomers and veterans alike. The final product, in Smith's own words, maintains the "horror-short-story tone and structure" while replacing as many "handed down bits as possible...with more creepy magic".

So, here then are my observations about Death Frost Doom 2.0:
  • The maps are very clear and the iconography used to depict The Shrine is particularly helpful. Those mini monster portraits provide great at-a-glance reminders as to where every arch-fiend is located. 
  • The production kicks off with two jet black title pages before the stark declaration of DEATH FROST DOOM pops up. Wow. So scare. Very mood. Much atmosfear.  
  • I'm delighted that the main motivator that drives the adventures to THE SCARY-ASS CABIN ON THE HILL is good, old-fashioned filthy lucre. Smith and Raggi provide plenty of suggestions as to how you can incorporate Death Frost Doom into an existing campaign if you don't want to run it as a one-shot. 
  • Throughout the entire adventure there's plenty of informal humor to help offset the unrelentingly grim subject matter. I'm particularly fond of: "if time's really short or your players hate your NPC's, start at the Graveyard".
  • I really appreciate all the branching options available to the players in tackling their ascent on the mountain.
  • Being a major huge sucker for random tables I was thoroughly amused by the whole "Where Is Zeke?" chart. Things like this really spice up the game for both players and game masters alike, especially if they've run it before. One minor quibble: the last time I checked "Crying" isn't a place. 
  • Another nice touch: Smith and Raggi provide no less than four different incarnations for Zeke, who is essentially Death Frost Doom's answer to Crazy Ralph from Friday the 13'th. Each one has its own appeal but personally I'm a fan of the William Faulkner / Nick Cave option which should be served up with a mandatory shot of bourbon. Whatever option you pick there's plenty of conversational grist for your PC's to chew on.
  • I really dig the eerie, slow-burn build up to The Peak, which even comes with a thoughtful accompanying musical suggestion. Hoary settings like the Graveyard and spooky trappings like the tree all help contribute to the foreboding mood. Once the adventurers get inside the Cabin, the wiggins get cranked up to "11" thanks to some Seven-style magical runes on the wall and a Necronomicon-style tome just lying around like a particularly-unholy copy of InStyle
  • Between the ominous-looking trap door and the stag head mounted on the living room wall, Raggi should probably mail a couple of royalty bucks to Sam Raimi. 
  • Speaking of, I'm almost 100% sure that Smith and Raggi deliberately left these early horror movie tropes lying around just to lull PC's into a false sense of security. As soon as they walk inside that Cabin most players will probably expect the same ol' "ooga-booga" they've seen a million times before. Little do they know that Death Frost Doom's secret goal is to annihilate every one of those expectations by shattering the collective minds, hearts and souls of all who are foolish enough to venture inside.
  • Raggi and Smith hint at what's to come with some early "WTF?!?" moments like the painting in the Cabin's sitting room and the globes in the High Priest's quarters.
  • Did I mention that I loves me some random percentage die charts? The one for "Lotus Powder" is particularly good and can actually be used in a bunch of different situations.
  • Things quickly get hella-punishing in the Crypt. In case you haven't already figured this out, it's probably a good idea to have a ream of pre-made character sheets lying close by. 
  • Several things in the adventure can only be triggered by a seemingly-random combination of player actions, some of which are so unrelated that they'll never be discovered. Two examples of this are the eyes and the marbles of the clock or the hands in the table chamber. Thankfully most of the puzzles have enough clues for observant and wily PC's to pick up on. For example, not only does the organ in the chapel call back to previous discoveries it also rewards players with a cheeky sense of humor.
  • By the time your PC's are finished running rampant in the adventure like ADD-stricken toddlers who've been gobbling chocolate-covered coffee beans like Pez, the game master is gonna have a lot of side notes to contend with. Personally I love this but all of the conditional things triggered during the adventure are going to have a lingering effect on both your PC's and your campaign. As such, Death Frost Doom wouldn't be my first suggestion for neophyte game masters to run but veteran campaigners are gonna have a blast with this consistently-surprising living nightmare. 
  • I really dig the skull-themed timing mechanism. Not only is it creepy enough to unnerve the most jaded dungeon crawler it also forces game masters to brush up on their time-keeping rules. Minor demerit: it forces game masters to brush up on their time-keeping rules, which, IMHO also makes Death Frost Doom a less-than-idyllic pick for inexperienced Dee-Ehms.  
  • In a refreshing bit of design candor The Crypt comes complete with not one but two indoor terlets!
  • Raggi and Smith provide some great rules for raiding a library. The books themselves are gruesomely sadistic and hideously creative.
  • Puzzles and traps like the The Eye of Many Eyes and the various Fountains exhibit an unrestrained level of imaginative cruelty.
  • Raggi and Smith pull no punches when it comes to the subject matter, tapping into some supremely disturbing shit including, but not limited to, a museum of dead children and the charming female inquisitor Eizethrat Nexx.
  • What I like most about the adventure is that it's not all about incessant combat. There aren't a ton of monsters but the ones you do encounter are baffling, memorable and psychologically troubling. Plus each one seems to have their own unique powers and motivations which is pretty impressive. And even though I'm not particularly fond of monsters that steal experience points, it actually feels kinda apropos here. Besides, you can always tweak this if you find it a bit too punishing.
  • In terms of nuts-n'-bolts writing, Death Frost Doom contains some fantastically-vivid passages. I challenge anyone to find a description like cool in any other RPG product: "the streaks of discolored liquid will be seen sliding along the walls and ceiling and seeping into the stone like rain against a car window in high wind." Anachronistic, maybe. Evocative, absolutely.
  • The central secret at the heart of the adventure is gleefully subversive. Once again Raggi and Smith give us no less than four different ways game masters can manifest this.
  • The kooky effects produced by translating the various manuscripts found lying around the Crypt are darkly amusing and patently evil.
  • Under the "Why-Hasn't-Someone-Thought-Of-This-Already" category, the "Internet image search" suggestion for some of the monsters is another great idea. After all, what self-respecting DM hasn't Googled up an image for the express purpose of scaring the fertilizer out of your players?
  • It was a nice touch for Raggi to include Laura Jalo's original oddball artwork. Having said that the cosmetic face-lift is greatly appreciate since the new interior art by Jez Gordon and cover art by Yannick Bouchard are all top-notch.

As a Tomb of Horrors for the modern age, Death Frost Doom is a fantastic addition to any game master's pantheon of fantasy RPG torture devices. And while the mental agility required to contend with all of the time-keeping and persistent, world-altering actions makes it an intimidating choice for tenderfoot game masters, old grognards like me will find a lot to like here. If you've been gleefully murdering player characters for decades, Death Frost Doom is the perfect nightmare fuel with which to torture your players. My advice: pick up a copy and run it as a one-shot around Halloween!

For being well-written, innovative, consistently smart, darkly humorous, well-organized, heartlessly vicious and impossibly imaginative, Death Frost Doom scores six pips outta six.


Looking to turn your friends into drooling, mentally enfeebled shadows of Tom Hanks in Mazes & Monsters? Then click on the following image to learn more about Death Frost Doom and help this blog become a Great Old One.

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