Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 4 December 2009

Less is More...

One of the trends over the last few years has been “Edition Zero” gaming. Titles such as Elf Lair Games’ Spellcraft & Swordplay, The First Edition Society’s OSRIC, Goblin Games’ Labyrinth Lord, and RetroRoleplaying’s Microlite 74 are what is known as “Retro Clones,” games that turn back the clock and do back to basics roleplaying like it was 1974 and the only game in town was Dungeons & Dragons. Part of this “old school renaissance” can be seen as a reaction to the pushing forward of Dungeons & Dragons into its third and fourth editions, but the primary reason for them has to be a sense of nostalgia, a yearning for the games and campaigns played in the youth of the “Edition Zero” devotee. With the appearance of these games has come a flurry of supplements and scenarios that pay homage to that early style of the game (and gaming), and one such scenario is Death Frost Doom.

Published by the Finnish based Lamentations of the Flame Princes, Death Frost Doom is a scenario designed for a standard party of characters and suitable for levels one through six. More importantly it can be run using any version of Dungeons & Dragons. So that is First, Second, and Third Editions, Paizo Publishing’s new Pathfinder RPG, Troll Lord’s Castles & Crusades, and even Basic Dungeons & Dragons. It comes as an A5-sized, 28-page black & white booklet with a separate card cover with a map of the dungeon on the inside of this cover. The book is illustrated with heavy greyscale artwork that adds to the atmosphere of the adventure, something that this adventure is all about. If there is a physical problem with the book, there is a lack of a scale for the dungeon – but an erratum is included, although as a tiny separate piece of paper, it is going to get lost. Perhaps the rest of the second printings could come packaged in a ziplock bag? Doubtless, this will be fixed come the third printing.

The other thing that I would suggest the author does for a third printing is give the scenario a back cover blurb. Now it is traditional for “old school” style products to not have such a blurb, but this is 2009 (almost 2010) and Death Frost Doom should sell itself to the casual browser who picks it up at one of the few stores it is available from. Whether that is merely a description of the scenario itself or includes quotes from some of the very good press that Death Frost Doom has been receiving, there should be something that at the very least. In the meantime, it appears that the scenario is doing very well by word of mouth alone.

Death Frost Doom is set on a mountain with a dark, unspoken reputation that the local populace avoids. An ancient evil still slumbers high on its treacherous slopes, awaiting the time when someone is foolish enough to awaken it, while still hiding, according to the rumours, great treasure and wealth. There is no effort to describe what lies around the mountain, it and the dungeon below are designed to be placed in a campaign with almost no effect upon that campaign, except of course, if everything goes wrong and the “Doom” of the title is unleashed. This also makes the scenario suitable for use in “Sand Box” style campaigns, the type wherein the player characters have free reign to wander as is their wont, their travels fuelled by rumour, hearsay, and so on. The author suggests the dungeon be used as part of a quest with a piece of information or an item be placed within its depths.

It begins with the party having scaled the mountain only to encounter the scenario’s very singular NPC. Zeke Duncaster is described as a “nutty old coot” who has been living on the mountain for decades quite literally carving the names of the many thousands who died at the hands of the death cult that made the mountain its shrine. The likelihood is that the players will find their encounter with Zeke to be a frustrating one, given his oblique manner. Make of him what they will though, Zeke is there to provide a warning as much as he is to provide colour.

Further up the mountain lies a mass graveyard and a weirdly petrified cabin, the trip upwards being accompanied by a strange wind that could be music or could be a moan. Below that is the shrine, most of which is made up of thousands and thousands of crypts. Although the map itself only provides the base layout of the shrine, the accompanying text goes into some detail about each location. In the absence of monsters, the description is what the DM has to work with, and what he should be doing with the description is helping to create atmosphere, starting with the wind that is stronger within the shrine than it was outside of it. On the flipside, it does mean that the player characters are going to wandering from one location to the next, eventually putting their noses into something that they shouldn’t – and that is where the adventure gets interesting.

If Death Frost Doom has a theme, it is that it has two themes. The first is that things are best left alone. All of the traps in the adventure are set off by the characters, and not through random circumstance. The second is that curiosity and greed will kill the dungeon delver, because while both will pull the characters further in, it likely that they will find (and set off) more traps and dangers. The primary effect of wandering the empty halls of the shrine should be to help build the eeriness...

...And then BANG!

An apocalypse is unleashed. One that will march down the mountain and remind everyone who lives nearby of the ancient evil that they had forgotten. This is not a genie that can be easily put back into the lamp, and if this happens, it will probably push the campaign in another direction. The central “trap” to Death Frost Doom feels similar to the one at the core of an old and classic Dungeons & Dragons scenario from White Dwarf #9, “The Lichway,” designed by the late Albie Fiore. Given the fact that I suspect that the author of Death Frost Doom, James Edward Raggi IV is barely if at all older than “The Lichway,” this is probably mere coincidence rather than plagiarism.

During his introduction, the author writes how he was inspired by the “Weird Tales” of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and others. This comes over very much in the writing and the staging of the story, which can be summed up in a single word – sparse. Sparse in the sense that this is not a dungeon populated in traditional Dungeons & Dragons style, with room after room filled with creatures, traps, and puzzles, but it is far from sparse in terms of description and atmosphere – musty, funereal, even oppressive and disquieting.

Rounding out is a second dungeon, or rather, “The Tower,” which previously appeared in the magazine, Fight on! #4. It has the feeling of a sketch more than a fully fledged dungeon, but makes for a worthwhile addition to the book.

Death Frost Doom runs against the continuing trend in both dungeon design and in the design of fantasy adventures with its de-emphasis of the dungeon bash and emphasis of atmospheric horror elements. While there will be many a player and many a GM alike who will not appreciate this emphasis, those that do will discover that Death Frost Doom is a poisoned chalice, a work of a stark horror that the player characters are going to remember for a long time.