Update: After receiving irate and whiskey-drenched feedback from one of my kind and eloquent readers I have added a smattering of relevant quotes to better illustrate my point.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess is one of the most visible and controversial publishers in the OSR, and with good reason. On the one hand, James Raggi IV, retroclone architect and shock jock extraordinaire, manages to assemble a colourful line-up of OSR talent that produces, if not always quality, then at least originality and distinctiveness on a regular basis.
On the other hand, some of the products are less then stellar, with a grindhouse focus on violence and titties for cheap shock value, a reputation for unfair difficulty and player torture or just downright bad quality and James Raggi IV is renowned for his perhaps dubious kickstarter/indigogo crowdfunding escapades (see promised Broodmother Skyfortress adventure).
I have already covered Red and Pleasant Land, which I found to be a very good product that was not to my taste, and Carcosa, an arguably terrible product that was very much to my taste, and of course Qelong, which was a colourful and overall solid take on the venerable hex crawl. Perhaps in lieu of reviewing more OSR I should consider therapy or something to fix my terrible taste in gaming. Perhaps I was made to like horrible shit. Who cares! Today we go back to where it all began (arguably).
Death Frost Doom, alongside Vornheim, formed the foundation of Raggi’s meteoric rise to OSR chieftainhood, and thus it deserves analysis at the very least. To some it is a work of genius, to others a thinly veiled ripoff of Lichway (a 3rd party dnd adventure published in White Dwarf Magazine in ye olden days of dnd) and also a death trap meant to torture players. Accusations of OSR plagiarism aside, DfD garnered some OSR buzz and with the revised version any similarities with Lichway have at least been given a courtesy paint-over. DfD is the brainchild of James Raggi IV himself, and for this revision he forms a tag-team with the no less controversial but arguably more talented Zak S. Is this the white-cop, jew-cop combo to clean up the streets or the Rob Schneider/Danny Devito matchup that no one has been waiting for? One leans towards the former whilst warily eyeing the latter.
There is a mountain that no-one climbs. It dominates the landscape like fear (???) and the memories of what once lived there. But memory recedes and rumor breeds— and the rumor is a rumor of gold. Someone will be the first to scale the white mountain: it will be someone who is greedy, stupid or fanatical— but also, perhaps, lucky.
Death Frost Doom is an adventure, a thematically very solid adventure and most certainly not horrible shit. It maintains a delicate balance of atmosphere, room for exploration, horror, challenge and novelty. It might also burn down your campaign if you run it, something that has become a bit of a staple for Loftp adventures over the long years. Illustrations are monochromatic horrors by Jez Gordon, who deserves special commendation for perfectly evoking the disturbing atmosphere of DfD.
Our adventure begins on a foreboding mountain, with rumours of gold and an evil death cult now long gone to draw in potential adventurers. On the way to the top our intrepid band of fortune seekers meets Old Man Zeke, who is clearly insane and seeks to make markers for every person that died on that mountain. He has been doing it for all his life.
“I know the fate that awaits the soul of he who would slay his fellow man. Do you?”
Nice one. Boxed text is almost entirely avoided and the NPC is given a list of dialogue options in response to certain questions.
Now probably thoroughly disturbed, our heroes continue on towards the top.
The adventure proper is nice. Shit starts out ominous and slow, there is a corpse in the snow, a cabin straight out of Evil Dead filled with cursed shit, and even some opportunity to find a second entrance to the tombs below. Once the party hits the tombs proper, the ominousness increases and takes a turn for the disturbing, going to so far as to increase the tension to hair-trigger levels by incorporating an actual in game timer (made, of course, of skulls). All this time, there has been no combat (but plenty of opportunity to get cursed or die). When (or if, there is a possibility you will be dead by this time) the actual tomb inhabitants start showing up, they are appropriately horrifying. I like the lore too, there is plenty of background to figure out within the catacombs if players are interested (which is of course the idea with a horror adventure such as this one). Raggi often speaks of attempting to evoke the old Weird Tales and there can be no question that, with DfD (Revised), he has succeeded admirably. Giants, Ancient Death Cults, albino tarantulas and slumbering undead hordes waiting to be released. Nice.
A second point in DfD’s favour is the exploration element. Many of the items in the cabin and catacomb can be fiddled with to one’s heart’s content, delivering the occasional extremely potent boon alongside several very unpleasant banes, varying from magical ageing, occasional permanent stat loss to old fashioned death. Relevant Examples include a collection of magical snowglobes containing parallel versions of DfD that may be consulted for information via divination magic, an organ that has different effects depending on what song you play on it and a water clock that stops time if you fiddle with it.
As far as rewards go, DfD has something of a bad reputation. It is true that a lot of the stuff you find is cursed and will bring horror and death to your much loathed players, but there are some sheckles to be earned along the way. The treasure in this adventure is neat too, in lieu of the magic items we have been conditioned to expect there are old tomes with hideous secrets some of which are literally plot hooks or means to gain information about the situation (invaluable) or even the wider campaign (neat). It should come as no suprise at this point that a lot of the stuff you find is cursed or has serious drawbacks associated with its use.
There are some concerns to be adressed. As is no more then expected of a Loftp adventure, it is deadly, sometimes arbitrarily so, and incautious players will probably find themselves dying before they even get to the payoff.
The central concept of Death Frost Doom is that it is a Death Trap. A Death Trap that can unleash a terrifying horde of undead upon your campaign world if you trigger it, which, given the suggestion to load it with a quest item suited to your campaign, is more then likely to happen at some point. If that were not suficient, it is possible to release a second, even more terrible horror upon your campaign world, and possibly even a third. Why can’t we have both after all? Bypassing this hideous doom unleashed upon an unsuspecting campaign world will require quick thinking and dealing with various colourful undead horrors, each one more disgusting and unsettling then the last. Railroading is, fortunately, avoided, as the end of the adventure is at least somewhat open ended, albeit it with multiple Bad endings. Everything is fucked everybody sucks.
Then there is of course the matter of the Lichway rip-offing. Upon a short perusal of the Lichway adventure in White Dwarf Issue 009, the resemblance becomes undeniable, going so far as to include not only the central concept, a tomb filled with the undead held in check by the strange song of some weird creature placed enticingly in a room filled with treasure (in both Lichway and the original DfD this was essentially a Sussurus, a sort of plant monster, it has since been changed to bizarre transfigured undead-parasite thing) but also a series of quarters containing powerful npcs beyond (admittedly a very tenuous overlap between the two). and both have a spider (again, a stretch). In the words of Raggi himself;
LotFP’s standards of writing, presentation, and “borrowing” classic bits (accidentally, incidentally, coincidentally, or on purpose) are much different now. I didn’t want to release a throwback, and I didn’t want this new edition to be a celebration of past glories, I wanted something fresh. Something as striking for 2014 as the first printing had been in 2009.
And of course.
The result is somewhere between a revision of the text and a complete rewrite of the adventure. It’s more of a collaboration now, with a different perspective and five years of hindsight creating something that can now stand as wholly unique.
I’d say that, finger wagging and tsking aside, with this re-write, whatever fault can be laid at Raggi’s original take has now been thoroughly and properly expunged, leaving a new take on an old concept, with the OSR the better for it. But credit where it is due next time old bean. Stealing is what they do in Uruguay.
There can be no question that DfD is a Death Trap. It is, however, a very atmospheric and nice death trap. If you like death traps you could do worse then this one is what I am saying. If you think your players are up for an evening of terror that will most likely leave their characters permanently scarred if not dead and your campaign permanently altered in none too subtle fashion, I can heartily recommend it.
Mr Zak proclaims in the introduction that it is the only useful adventure he had ever encountered, and it formed the kickoff for his campaign, and this makes sense. One would have to be prepared to build a campaign around DfD, for its effects are likely to throw a serious monkey wrench in any pre-made game. If that is to M’lady’s fancy, I predict you will have some serious fun and multiple sessions in dealing with the aftermath.
If you are looking for a few nights of consequenceless fun or something you can just throw in your elfgame, this will not be to your taste.
One other problem is that much of the power of the module is derived from delayed or long-standing effects, thus making it far less suitable for 1-shots or only loosely connected session play.
Final Verdict; A well-crafted atmospheric work that will not be to everyone’s taste, which demands much in the manner of implementation. And there is the matter of being busted and gracefully admitting guilt. Nevertheless, a flagship for Loftp and James Raggi’s writing and GMing style, for better or for worse. 7 out of 10.
P.S Would it kill people to put a level recommendation on these things? The original cites levels 1-3 but I suspect 2-4 might be more appropriate, as the few antagonists are bound to be far too deadly to 1st level characters (although with preparation, 6 1st level characters can do a lot of damage).