Thursday, July 16, 2009

REVIEW: Death Frost Doom

Side by side with what I generally call "pulp fantasy," there existed another type of fantasy -- the "weird tale." Weird tales both blend and transcend fantasy and horror, expressing, in the famous words of H.P. Lovecraft, "A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces ..." There's no doubt in my mind that weird tales inspired many of the hobby's earliest designers and players, since we know that these stories and their authors -- Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, and many others -- were read and enjoyed by them.

Nevertheless, it's difficult to point to any single element or concept from D&D and say "This is from E.R. Eddison" or "That is from Walter de la Mare." Partly that's because what makes the best weird tales so memorable is hard to extract and replicate in a roleplaying setting. While "the weird" is not literally ineffable, it does defy easy categorization. You can't just put it in a box and pull it out whenever you have need for it. "Weirdness" is a fleeting, emergent property whose ethereal existence depends largely on context and context takes effort to provide, which may explain why so few roleplaying game products have ever really managed to emulate the weird tale effectively.

Consequently, when James Raggi refers to the weird tale in his introduction to his Death Frost Doom, going so far as to thank many of the authors cited above -- "for inspir[ing] me to think in dark colors and minor chords" -- I can't deny that I was very intrigued. Even if he failed in emulating the weird tale, I had to admire the man's chutzpah for trying something comparatively few adventure writers ever have. What's truly remarkable is that he didn't fail, or at least he didn't fail in producing an adventure that genuinely conjures up that atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of which Lovecraft spoke.

Death Frost Doom is a 28-page booklet, with an outer cover that includes the map for an evil shrine where the bulk of the adventure's action takes place. The booklet is roughly the same size as OD&D's little brown books, but the text density is much higher, thanks to a clean, easy-to-read two-column format. The maps are simple and serviceable -- nothing noteworthy but then I don't think they're supposed to be. The artwork, by Laura Jalo and Aino Purhonen, however, is uniformly excellent, possessing a fevered dream quality that complements the text perfectly. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that the text would not have been quite as effective had it not been for the accompanying illustrations.

Death Frost Doom consists of two parts, the first being the largest and most elaborate. The adventure is not explicitly written for any particular level of character; Raggi notes that he has always run it for levels 3 and below, but opines that it would work well for characters up to 6th level. That rather broad range of levels should give you some indication of the looseness of the adventure's design, whose challenges are not primarily about armor class and hit dice but psychological and moral resolve as the characters investigate a graveyard, cabin, and shrine, all of which share terrible secrets. Death Frost Doom's first part is thus a location-based scenario, with the "plot" arising out the characters' interactions with what they encounter rather than anything more pre-planned. Indeed, with the exception of a single NPC at the start -- the genuinely unnerving Zeke Duncaster -- the adventure is largely directionless and open-ended, allowing referees and, more importantly, players to make of it what they will.

I find it very hard to describe either the specific contents of the adventure or the feelings they engendered in me. I can only say that, simply on reading the text and looking at the illustrations, I was mildly unsettled, much as I might be after reading some of the better weird tales Death Frost Doom seeks to emulate. That's not the same thing as saying I was frightened, let alone shaken to my core, because I wasn't. Rather, I felt peculiar emotions that I can't quite name -- a kind of déjà vu, as if I'd read this adventure before even as I was certain I had not. I don't wish to be repetitive, but "dream-like" is the best way to describe my feelings and that's probably as good evidence as I can offer that Raggi has written something pretty amazing here, although I can easily imagine many not finding it nearly as unsettling as I did -- but then that's the nature of the weird tale in my experience.

The second part of Death Frost Doom is more or less a sketch of a location, lacking even a map. Called "The Tower," it's a revised version of something that first appeared in Fight On! #4 and I'm honestly at a loss to say how it differs form the original beyond the lack of an NPC to get the player characters interested in exploring the eponymous tower. Like the first part, the second is very atmospheric and unsettling. In some ways, I actually think it's the better of the two, simply because of its comparative brevity. There's less explanation of the hows and whys of its creepiness and that opens up the dark recesses of my imagination far more readily. At the same time, "The Tower" is much less "ready-to-run" than the first part of Death Frost Doom. It's more of an outline of an idea, even if it's a wonderfully dreadful outline.

Death Frost Doom is, quite simply, an inspiring product, managing to combine an old school agnosticism toward "story" with the kind of atmosphere and ambience one tends to associate with newer understandings of roleplaying. That the whole thing is so well grounded in the literary forebears of the hobby only impresses me more. Only the recent People of the Pit comes even close to being as perfectly evocative of its subject matter and it falls short of what James Raggi has achieved here. Death Frost Doom is almost certainly an acquired taste and I imagine even some gamers who appreciate the weird tale may find it difficult to use with every group of players. That doesn't lessen its virtues, though. If anything, it only highlights how difficult it is to create a cookie cutter, paint-by-numbers adventuring experience that's guaranteed to work for all groups. I'd much rather see writers risk producing adventures that succeed brilliantly for only a small sub-set of players than cranking out modules that provide the same bland experience for everyone.

Here's hoping Death Frost Doom is the first of many adventures that dare to be different.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 10 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You love weird tales and/or are looking for adventures that are inspired by them.
Don't Buy This If: You don't like weird tales or prefer your adventures to be much more straightforward and/or "heroic" in nature.

10 comments:

  1. Thank you for the kind review. :)

    I hope you don't mind me mentioning that while boring reasons prevent me from offering this direct at the moment (but any day now), thanks to the quicker-than-expected Finnish postal service, Noble Knight has it for sale here.

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  2. This sounds like exactly what I've been looking for, for quite a long time. Just made it my 1st OSR money purchase. Thanks, guys.

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  3. I remember some products back in the day, especially Arduin Grimoire and some Judges Guild adventures, had a sort of "weird tale" and horror elements.

    I had a JG high level adventure called "Inferno" that had a sort of weird, otherwordly description to it (more from the Dante influence than the designers originality). You really felt like you were gaming on another world.

    I also thought that City State of The Invincible Overlord was so weird, that it had a strange, fever-dream quality to it.

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  4. Now that sounds excellent, and of course what I have seen of the art is definitely superior to the usual pablum in this hobby. I will buy a copy once it becomes available from James (I could go NKG, but overseas shipping's bound to be quite high for a single item).

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  5. It's only proper that a JimLotFP product should sound have a title a Dethklok song. :)

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  6. Seems excellent! Any plans for shipping to the UK?

    Cheers,
    Antonio

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  7. Antonio:
    Noble Knight ships to the UK. It should be a bit cheaper to order it direct from me, but I'm waiting on some official paperwork to clear (that I was told should have happened this week... grrrr) before I should really be selling anything. Any (week)day now, I hope.

    Will:
    Much closer to a Candlemass album title, as I remembered only after announcing it...

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  8. Death Frost Doom is listed in the "Most Popular" sales charts at Noble Knight! Thanks everyone!

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  9. The chill factor sightly, and reference to "peculiar emotions I can't quite name" and a "dreamlike" quality very much, puts me in mind of The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs.

    The weird does seem a bit neglected in the field of published RPG scenarios, so this is quite intriguing. Thanks for bringing it to attention!

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  10. I picked this up based on this review, and I did find it marvelously atmospheric. However I also had the odd realization that this is in many ways an essentially systemless module.

    What I mean by that is that all the early challenges are the form, "puzzle this out, and if you make a wrong choice, you'll likely die", and all the later challenges are "if you engage with this directly, you'll die, so figure out a way to avoid it".

    So you could pretty much play this module with almost no reference to any particular ruleset at all. Not saying that is good or bad, just saying.

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