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

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

More is less

In 2009 James Raggi IV launched Lamentations of the Flame Princess with a very singular calling card—Death Frost Doom. Inspired by the dark imagery of his musical tastes and the horror he liked to read, Raggi’s scenario was unlike anything that the Old School Renaissance had seen, although in the five years since, he has brought numerous weird horror scenarios to the hobby—many of which I have had the pleasure to edit or review. Death Frost Doom was remarkable for its atmosphere, for it was a scenario in which almost nothing happened. Further it could be dropped into almost any setting. It consisted of lonely, snow bound and wind swept mountain, one with a dark, unspoken reputation that means that the local populace of the valleys below avoid it. This is despite their believing that the halls within the mountain are said to hide a great treasure, though one protected by an ancient, slumbering evil.

If the player characters ascended the mountain what they found was a lonely, mad old man, a strangely furnished cabin, and below it an oddly empty dungeon containing almost nothing and no-one to fight. Unfortunately, the locals are correct—the mountain does harbour an ancient evil and if the player characters are too curious, they will let loose not just the ‘Doom’ upon themselves, but upon everyone in the valleys below and beyond.If all goes well, the scenario is designed to end with the ‘heroes’ fleeing down the snowy slopes with an army of the undead hard on their heels, knowing that it is entirely their curiosity that has got them there. Also notable, was what replaced the things to fight and the things to kill of any other Dungeons & Dragons-style scenario were details that added atmosphere and a sense of the weird to the exploration before the ‘Doom’. Death Frost Doom remains a classic scenario, arguably one of the best published as part of the Old School Renaissance.

Arguably though, Death Frost Doom was not perfect. Its elements were disjointed and the only thing that would bring about its deadly denouement was player curiosity. The primary motivation for the players in the scenario—unless the GM added more—was to find out if there was more to the dungeon than was readily apparent. To answer the question, “Is there more to it than this?” It is some of these issues that the new, fifth anniversary edition of Death  Frost Doom addresses as well as answering that question. Co-authored with Zak Smith—best known for Vornheim: The Complete City Kit and A Red & Pleasant Land—the new edition comes as a handsome little hardback, complete with new artwork and new maps. This is a major revision of the scenario, one that does not violate either the scenario’s structure or its story, but adds detail and pacing that makes it much more of a coherent whole.

In fact, this new edition comes with a wealth of detail, begun in the cabin atop the mountain and here continued into the dungeon below. Here every room is fully detailed and many more of the rooms have a purpose, typically to hint at the secrets that lie at the heart of the dungeon. The stand-out room here is the Chapel, which in true grand guignol style includes a giant organ with human finger bones as its keys and human thigh bones as its pipes. The effect of this detail is to intrigue the players and thus push them to investigate further.  This process is also eased by the pacing—there is a timing mechanism, a countdown, that moves events in the dungeon onto its intended  denouement and the secrets themselves are ever so slightly easy to decipher.

Where the original dungeon had almost nothing in the way of NPCs, the dungeon now has a several of them, a set of vile creations that will have the players rueing that they ever encountered them.  They are though, evidence that the new edition there comes with a marked change in tone—twice. The first of these is in the horror, which as the scenario progresses becomes more physical  and sanguinary in nature. The second is Zak Smith’s writing style, which is lighter in tone than that of James Raggi IV and in places does suffer for it, descending as it does into silliness. Fortunately, enough of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess trademark ‘screw the players’ elements are present to keep the tone on track.

Lastly, what has been replaced in this anniversary edition is the secondary adventure, ‘The Tower’. To be honest, it is no great loss, and anyway, the inclusion of James Raggi’s retrospective of the original Death Frost Doom and its art is far more appropriate.

The new edition of Death Frost Doom is physically a far superior book. It comes as a handy little hardback, with better maps and much more oppressive artwork. Its contents are better organised and easier to spot on the page with pertinent facts highlighted in almost bullet point fashion.

There is no doubt that the original Death Frost Doom was a great dungeon. Seeing it back in print was always going to be welcome, but some of the changes in the anniversary are perhaps not so. The addition of the blood and the gore take away from the subtlety of the original, but the wealth of new detail more than makes up for that.  Death Frost Doom was, and still is, a great scenario, strong on atmosphere and rich in detail.