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Subject: When a clever adventure becomes a five-star dungeon rss

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Thanks to IndyRick for the image!


Death Frost Doom, in its original form, was a damn clever adventure. But it wasn't much more than a clever premise: while it had some nice detail, there were only couple parts of the adventure you were likely to remember.

Still, that central cleverness was so strong that it has already become a classic amongst modern fantasy adventures. So, after being out of print for a time, the original author, James Edward Raggi, IV, got some help from a friend, Zak S., to revise and expand the adventure for a new release. This wasn't an outward expansion or a re-implementation; rather, it revisits the original place, fleshing it out while preserving the central tension, and adds more details and options to elevate the presentation.

The result is a very strong adventure. You may still not like running it, but it does a great many things very, very well.

NOTE: I’ve already reviewed the original version here. But I won’t assume you’ve read that one already. If you have, that means you’ll find some repetition; you may want to skip to What’s Changed? for the new bits.

SERIOUS Warning: I won’t hesitate to spoil the adventure in the following. Heed this warning! Spoilers are particularly important in this adventure; you won’t enjoy playing it if you know the central idea, or at least not in the same way.

The Product

Death Frost Doom is now available in either print or pdf form. I have the pdf and will be reviewing that (note that all previous purchasers of the original version should have this new one available now).

It arrives as a 66-page pdf nominally in a digest-sized format. It follows the recent LOtFP standards, with a very nice, readable layout, a color cover and black-and-white interior, and a generous amount of art. The editing is top-notch.

The book does spend some time describing the update, with forewords from both James Edward Raggi, IV and Zak Smith. They both emphasize that this is a major revision. The last few pages of the book also include a “retrospective on the earlier version, showing the original maps and art spreads. (The new maps are identical in content but have much better presentation; the new art is in an entirely different style.)

I find the adventure very well-presented in terms of usability. One of the fun parts about Death Frost Doom is that many of the areas have phenomenal details with which the PCs can interact. The adventure addresses the many choices PCs have by having sections about each significant detail and then, within each section, beginning paragraphs with bold-faced descriptions of potential actions, like If the book is perused: – a simple trick that goes a long way toward helping the GM navigate all the rich detail.

The Adventure

Death Frost Doom has a simple and classic setup. There used to be cult up the mountain. They were cleared half of a century ago, but there treasure was never recovered. Go get it! That simple setup conceals exceptional depth.

The adventure has four parts. First, the PCs meet a “crazy” old man who lives partway up the mountain. His life’s mission is to offer some succor to those killed by the cult by building them gravestones. Zeke is a well-meaning pacifist who can give the PCs a glimpse of what to expect and fill in some backstory. But they may also come into conflict with him, as he’ll try to restrain them from going up the mountain. Because, you know, it really is a bad idea….

When the PCs arrive at the cult’s home, they can first explore the massive graveyard Zeke has built over the decades (though it still only represents a small fraction of those the cult has killed). There are a few hints here about the sort of stuff the PCs will find farther on, such as another explorer’s corpse, but it’s mostly just ambiance.

The cult’s headquarters begin in a “cabin,” which is a rather modern word for a fantasy outpost (and a strange “cover story” for the cult), but it fairly accurately describes the contents. There are five rooms up here, and they are wonderfully detailed and creepy. There’s nothing to actually fight, but there are lots of details with which the PCs can interact, all of which provide more explicit clues to the weirdness (though, honestly, it’s strange and complicated enough that they certainly won’t catchon here). There’s a clock that manipulates time, a painting with the PCs on it (not an illusion), and a creepy harpsichord. The organization, outlining potential actions, really helps the GM sift through all the possibilities (and present them to the players).

This being an LotFP product, there’s a drug randomly sitting here as well, which has a d100 table of random (but often major) effects, good or bad. Using it is a little bit like pulling from the Deck of Many Things, with the “bonus” of possible crippling addiction.

The adventure really begins when the PCs go through the cabin’s trapdoor and enter the cult’s shrine. Here is a moderately-sized dungeon level with 31 individually keyed entries. (However, several of these keyed entries apply to multiple rooms, so there are actually 54 areas on the map.)

The average D&D player may be quite confused by this dungeon, as there’s nothing to fight (at first). Instead, details are layered together to build up tension, just as in a horror movie. There are certainly lots of ways for the PCs to screw themselves over. Death Frost Doom walks a very fine line between elements designed to screw the players over and those that demonstrate the consequences of careless exploration. For example, one of the first rooms has an organ (made out of human fingerbones and giant thighbones, how great is that?) that sprays deadly mold if you play it randomly.

As another example, there are several inscriptions about the place that can compel those who read them to inflict harm upon themselves or others. The mechanics behind this are interesting, but repeating the basic structure – all with the same trick – smells of waiting for the players to be careless, rather than really encouraging smart play. Nevertheless, as everywhere else in the dungeon, these details add up to create a truly horrifying atmosphere within the complex.

While the first part of the dungeon has several particularly interesting areas, much of it consists of rooms full of dead bodies with various sorts of treasure sprinkled about. Still, some of the rooms have rich details, like the cabin above, that brings the place to life. Particularly notable is the outer chapel, which has creepy ice skulls – which act as a timer, pushing the PCs to move quickly as they explore – and the aforementioned organ. There are lots of ways to interact with these features, and the adventure does a particularly good job of connecting them to other parts of the complex by seeding clues (like music that can be played on the organ) throughout the complex. There’s enough detail here that the GM won’t have to improvise much, and for the most part it’s very interesting detail.

Nevertheless, that’s all a distraction from the main event: before too long, they’ll encounter a room with a massive singing jelly creature, the “sacred parasite”. They’ve heard the disturbing song throughout their exploration, and the jelly thing completely blocks the chamber (and hence passage to the rest of the shrine). And here’s the trick: the parasite is actually the only thing keeping all of the thousands of bodies within the crypt from animating as an undead army! So the players are confronted with a choice: destroy the parasite in order to explore more, and because it might seem like a good idea, or else retreat and leave things that you don’t fully understand alone.

What will your players do? The smart choice is obviously the second one: take what you can and get the hell out of Dodge. But is that a fun adventure? To a certain OSR sensibility, it is. To a gamer raised on “modern” versions of D&D (by which I mean anything after 1983), it probably isn’t. To them – to me – the fun part is the exploration, the monster killing, the learning about the story. Death Frost Doom is designed, I think, to demonstrate the “natural” consequences of the murder hobo and/or narrative-focused mentalities.

This is the key point about the adventure: if you find those consequences interesting, it’s a near-perfect adventure. If you would rather see the gung-ho mentality of most gamers rewarded, this may frustrate you to no end. More importantly, it could come off as a rat-bastard GM trick.

Still, I think that even in this sort of game Death Frost Doom has a very interesting role: in generating the central conflict of a campaign. How much fun would it be for your adventurers to be directly responsible for unleashing an apocalyptic army of undead in their world? And then to spend the rest of their adventuring careers atoning for their errors? That could make for an absolutely wonderful campaign – if your players trust you enough to avoid the obvious screwage.

If they do unleash the army, the adventure probably becomes a mad flight away from the horde of undead. There aren’t any substantial rules on how this should play out, but we do get some detail on exactly how the dead rise up that provides some pacing to the whole thing.

It’s worth noting that particularly clever players can find ways past the parasite without killing it; there are a couple of hidden methods that aren’t entirely impossible to guess. Still, it will take clever players who are on their toes to find these paths. None of my beer-and-pretzels groups would stand a chance.

On the other hand, it turns out there’s another way to screw yourselves if you kill the singing parasite: its body covers a shaft which leads to the sleeping giant/god who might wake up and destroy everyone. This thing apparently has a lot to do with the magic keeping all these souls in such discomfort, but it’s left to the GM to detail exactly what’s going on (with a few specific options presented). It’s an interesting touch but still feels extraneous to me – sort of muddying the simple elegance of the potential apocalypse.

There is more to explore beyond the singing parasite, as the most powerful of the undead (and most important of the crypts) are behind it. There are a lot of really nice touches here, with some unique undead to fight (finally!) and even a potential “savior” from the undead horde – if the PCs are willing to become even more complicit in unleashing an apocalypse. Once again, the details both add flavor to the dungeon but also reinforce the idea that it’s a single place, with lots of connections between the creatures and the shrine. This is great stuff that the PCs may very well never see…if they turn back at the singing parasite, or else flee away from the horde!

What’s Changed?

If you’ve seen the original Death Frost Doom, you won’t be disappointed by this one. The central premise, and its execution, are largely unchanged, and all the familiar elements will be there. There are lots of changes, though, as you can guess from the increased page count:

The original version took a rather formal approach to presentation. There weren’t any jokes or asides: just the facts. Zak S. has a much more conversational writing style, speaking directly to the GM to explain options and how to run the game.

The biggest improvement is in the level of detail. Not only is there a lot more here – rooms that get only a single line in the original get two page spreads in this one! – but it makes the dungeon qualitatively better, as it provides the PCs reasons to interact with the features and creatures in interesting ways (like providing music to play on the organ, or explicit connections between the undead creatures).

There are some jokes here, and in particular some moments that break the “fourth wall” between this one and the real world. Like, for example, what happens if you play certain well-known songs on the organ. These are easy enough to ignore but might grate if you’re a purist.

There are some fairly significant changes to the trappings. The singing plant becomes a sacred parasite here, which seems like a good change to me. But there’s the addition of “liquid time” that fuels all the magical weirdness, and I don’t really get that. Overall, there’s more depth, which is a good thing.

The pacing is much better in this one. In the original, one can spend infinite time looting the outer areas without any fear of danger. In this one, there’s a very graphic timer looming over the exploration, pushing the PCs on even if they don’t understand why the timer is important. Moreover, the endgame is much more clearly described here, making it much more playable.

The secrets here are more accessible. While the original had a way to bypass the great danger, it was very, very deeply hidden. The revised version gives the PCs more of a chance to slip by. It’s by no means easy, but it feels like a reward for smart play, rather than a reward for combing every square inch of the place over days.

Finally, the original version included a bonus adventure, The Tower, absent from the revised version. (I didn’t like it much at all, so I don’t think you’re missing anything there.)

The only downside for me was that the revisions ratchet up the gore and disgusting horror. The original is fairly understated in that regard; this one makes everything more graphic and eeeeeevil. That’s not to my tastes.

The Bottom Line

Death Frost Doom is a wonderfully evocative adventure with a richly painted shrine of evil. It uses pacing (where are all those monsters???) and ambiance to generate horror. It has richly layered details that turn it into an interactive environment. It also contains some of the creepiest set-pieces I’ve ever seen in D&D adventures. Death Frost Doom exceeds even the iconic masterpiece of D&D horror, I6: Ravenloft, in constructing an atmosphere of dread. That older adventure is all quiet gothic atmosphere; Death Frost Doom dials it up to modern horror movie expectations.

It’s also a very unusual dungeon that requires a very particular sort of play style to enjoy fully. It walks the fine line between encouraging careful exploration and introducing arbitrary deathtraps. For me it generally keeps itself on the good side of that divide, but every group has a different tolerance, of course. Still, those are just prelude to the real decision, one that is very deliberately designed to “trick” players into doing the Wrong Thing (though, to be fair, if they adopt the mindset the rest of the dungeon has been teaching, they should understand!). Used properly, as a World Shaking Event triggered by the players, this could be a lot of fun – it’s a fabulous way to kick off the campaign. But that requires that the players trust their GM.

There also aren’t any monsters for a very long stretch of the adventure, or even any “skill challenge” type obstacles. This is for players who love to think, not roll dice. If your group really enjoys combat or cinematic action, the first half of this adventure could be extremely dull.

Overall, I think Death Frost Doom is an adventure very much worth reading. It requires very careful thought to use, but it skillfully pushes the boundaries of D&D adventures, the fantasy genre, and your campaign. It’s also a darn good dungeon, with lots of clever details and connections between features and the inhabitants (this is the most significant improvement in this new version). By reading it, you’ll learn something about how to run a better game, even if you never use the adventure itself.
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