Sunday, 26 July 2009

Death Frost Doom - Losing is Fun!

"You will die, but first, you will suffer."

Bleak, stark, unforgiving - this module is very, very much the product of a particular personal vision of what old school adventure is about. Death Frost Doom has some lighter moments, but it maintains an air of 'damned-if-you-do; damned-if-you-don't' pessimism that borders on the nihilistic.

DFD is absolutely and unapologetically not a 4E module: James E. Raggi's world is not a place in which 'status effects' disappear on a successful save or at the end of the encounter. This is a module where anything your players do will have consequences. Many of these consequences will be permanent, most of them will be negative. Remember, this was produced by the man who brought us the Green Devil Face collections: anything you touch can kill you... and your buddies... and everyone else in the area... DFD is old school as horror; it's D&D as Fantasy Feckin' Vietnam.

That caveat given, I have to say that this is one of the most immersive, thematically unified modules I've read in a long time. Many of the descriptions are richly evocative of the sort of creeping, 'in over our heads' horror that is rarely seen in D&D. The descriptions of the crypts had me almost smelling the musty scent of earth and corruption which would break lose as the PCs looted the sepulchres. The situations and some of the trappings would be right at home in a "Call of Cthulhu scenario".

Certain tropes of classic fantasy adventure make an appearence, either used straight (bottomless pit? check!) or with a particular twist (purple lotus powder random effects table), but the absence of other expected cliché elements can be used to disorient players and put them on their guard. JER helpfully makes a point of explicitly calling these aspects of the scenario out in what is almost a mini-masterclass in horror.

What? The loot? Yeah, there's loot. Some of it has strings attached, other parts are just uncanny in a cool way. Although, in a module with at least two ways of catastrophically reformating your campaign, and a number of other lesser (but still substantial) horrors on offer, I honestly think that even the most profit-motive driven players will be less interested in Greyhawking the place than they will be in just getting out alive.

The impressionistic monochrome artwork by artist Laura Jalo meshes well with the bleakness of the module. The cartography is clear and workmanlike. The writing clear and entertaining throughout. Heck, there's even an Elder Futhark easter egg for you to play with!

My one petty quibble is that some details - like the activity cycle of weird hermit Zeke - are overstated. Perhaps a simple table would have laid the information out more clearly than a couple of paragraphs of prose?

All-in-all, money well spent. Howls of anguish and curses will rain down on the name of James E. Raggi IV, and his laughter will echo about the icy northern wastes.

But wait! There's more!

DFD includes, as bonus feature and further evidence of the unrelenting blackness of JER's cold and twisted heart, the very Green Devil Face-ish trick/trap/locale The Tower (previously seen in Fight On! #4). This is a masterful deconstruction in three pages of the Arthurian/Disneyesque rescue the sleeping princess trope. It may not be to all tastes, having more in common with the bleaker Metal Hurlant strips than a traditional fairy tale, but it is an interesting exercise in 'give them enough rope' DMing.

So, Death Frost Doom. You get to support a hobbyist creator. Your players will whine and bitch. You will remember why you love this game all over again. Totally worth the money.

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