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Friday 14 April 2023

Friday Fantasy: Frozen in Time

Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time
is a scenario for Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, the Dungeons & Dragons-style retroclone inspired by ‘Appendix N’ of the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. Published by Goodman Games, scenarios for Dungeon Crawl Classics tend be darker, gimmer, and even pulpier than traditional Dungeons & Dragons scenarios, even veering close to the Swords & Sorcery subgenre. One of the signature features of Dungeon Crawl Classics and its post-apocalyptic counterpart, Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, is the ‘Character Funnel’. This is a scenario specifically designed for Zero Level Player Characters in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time is designed for a party of six First Level Player Characters and thus is not a Character Funnel. However, it includes notes on how to run it as a Character Funnel, suggestions on how to use it as a campaign starter, and although predating the publication of the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game by five years, the scenario could easily be run as part of a campaign for that post-apocalyptic roleplaying game, with some adaptation, since it veers heavily into the realms of Science Fiction.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time is set in the Forlorn North, home to various barbarian tribes where there stands a mighty and deadly glacier known as Ghost Ice, infamous for the number of tribesmen who have perished on its frigid reaches, ripped apart by the claws and teeth of the ice demons known to live there. The Elders of the tribe have long forbidden exploration of Ghost Ice, declaring it to be taboo, but now Ghost Ice has shattered, leaving two holes in the face of the glacier from which green smoke emanates. The Elders of the tribe have decided to send their best champions to investigate and determine if the breaking of the glacier means that the ice demons have gone. The set-up is simple—a group of humble tribesmen, a nearby mystery or taboo to be revealed or examined due to a circumstantial change or cataclysm, and the need for it to be investigated for the safety of the tribe. It is a formula which has been well tread in previous releases for both the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, which means that the scenario needs to be inventive and interesting to make it other than formulaic.

This however is only the default set-up and the scenario suggests several others. One is still as standard Player Characters approached by barbarian envoys wanting ‘great champions of the southlands’ who could explore and investigate the Ghost Ice glacier when taboo prevents them from doing so. Another is to use the scenario as the start of a campaign with the Player Characters all members of a primitive tribe who know the legends of the Ghost Ice. This can still be with First Level Player Characters or it can be with Zero Level Player Characters who sent out to investigate the Ghost Ice as part of their ‘Rites of Passage’. The latter would thus mean running the scenario as a ‘Character Funnel’. Appendix A of the scenario includes a ‘Primitive Occupations Table’ to determine the starting occupations of such Zero Level tribesmen. All together, this gives Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time a pleasing degree of flexibility when it comes to running the scenario.

It should be noted that later printings of
Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time go further than this by including a guide to the Forlorn North. This is a mini-campaign setting which provides a history and gazetteer of the region as well as several scenario hooks. The history of the scenario ties in with Dungeon Crawl Classics 2013 Holiday Module: The Old God’s Return, but otherwise this provides the Judge with the basis upon which to develop further adventures in the Forlorn North once the Player Characters have finished playing through Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time.

Once the Player Characters have ascended Ghost Ice and find their way through the tunnels, they discover a strange complex of objects covered in blinking lights, objects and creatures held perfectly immobile in stasis, pools of ice and slush, and empty columns which connect areas with no obvious explanation for how they work. The dichotomy at the heart of the scenario is that the players will quickly realise what their Player Characters are exploring, but their Player Characters will not. This is because they will recognise many of the features of the ‘dungeon’ as machinery and devices, the
‘dungeon’ itself as some kind of technological habitat, and many of the items being held in stasis, including a tyrannosaurus rex, the Mona Lisa, and more. In fact, the Judge is encouraged to add his own preferred artefacts and pieces of artwork here as well. There is also a lone human held here as well. He could easily be a replacement Player Character, but who is not say that this could be Jimmy Hoffa, Elvis Presley, or anyone interesting that the Judge chooses. There is also an amusing encounter with a very Robby the Robot-like robot much like that of Lost in Space—as depicted on the cover of the scenario.

The location is in fact, ‘The Vault of Zepes Null-Eleven’. This the secret hideout and last resting place of a time traveller from the far future who rode the timestream looting art and artefacts for both himself and to order. The vault is where kept everything far from the prying eyes of his fellow, but more law-abiding time travellers. What this sets up is an obvious nod to S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, but the scenario feels like Gamma World too. Either way the scenario embraces Arthur C. Clarke’s Third law that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

The play of
Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time primarily focuses on exploration of Zepes Null-Eleven’s complex, the Player Characters prodding and poking at buttons and not always getting a very interesting response. The scenario involves relatively little combat, although it has its moments. The scenario does end on an exciting, action driven climax though. Where the scenario is weakest is roleplaying as there are few opportunities for it written into the scenario. The scenario also misses opportunities for further adventure, primarily because it is limited by length. The scenario includes a time machine and artefacts and persons from across time and space, including a Mark III blaster rifle from the Android Wars, a katana dating from the Eternal Shogunate of the Lich, and more. The question is, how exactly are the Player Characters expected to find these details out? There are some cases where the Wizard in the party can cast Comprehend Languages, but that does not apply to every situation and will definitely not if the scenario is being run as a ‘Character Funnel’. Other than that, they remain amusing little Easter Eggs for the Judge’s eyes only.

There is an opportunity to use the time machine in the scenario, but really only to trap a Player Character or two in the primordial past. Besides wanting to keep time travel out of the hands of the players and their characters, this misses opportunities in not allowing the Player Characters to visit these epochs mentioned in the artefact descriptions and adventure there, if only temporarily. Or indeed to have the colleagues of Zepes Null-Eleven turn up and deal with the mess he left behind as well as interact with the Player Characters. Another issue is that whatever the Player Characters do and do not do, the complex explodes, which undercuts their agency and makes the scenario rather linear.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time is well presented. The artwork is excellent and the scenario is clearly written and easy to understand. The maps are as decent as you would expect.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time was the first Science Fiction crossover scenario for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. It can be played through in a single session or two, in the main because it is exploration rather than combat or roleplaying driven. As written, it is a fun adventure, with lots of detail, but as much as the scenario is written to present a Science Fiction experience for a fantasy roleplaying scenario, it also wants to reign those elements in, to never let the players and their characters explore them fully despite their throwaway mention in the text.
Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time is a fun if linear Science Fiction scenario for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, which is never fully allowed to play with all of its ideas. If it had, it could have been an even more fun and fantastic adventure for ‘Appendix N’ style gaming.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, and I agree on the lack of role playing and info. It feels like the adventure needs an AI curator for the museum, something like you'd find in an MCC game that could both let PCs find out about the artifacts and give them something to interact with.