I’m surprised it has taken me so long to get around to reading this. I’ve had a copy for a while, and Death Frost Doom is one of the best known and most talked about OSR modules. I know it has been used in many campaigns (just off the top of my head: Maliszewski’s Dwimmermount, Beedo’s Gothic Greyhawk, FrDave’s Lost Colonies). What can I say? I am overwhelmed by quality content, both new and old. Be warned, this post contains spoilers. I want to discuss the module in detail, and there is no way to do that without revealing some secrets.
Unlike many modules, this was a quick and engaging read. Everything feels like it belongs, and I already feel familiar enough with the map and framework to almost be able to referee DFD from memory after one read-through. The location, details, and monsters are that memorable.
I do have a number of concerns regarding the module though. I’m somewhat surprised about this actually. DFD seems to have more “problem” areas for me than other LotFP modules (even compared to the thematically much weaker Weird New World). I’m going to discuss what I don’t like (it might even end up being the bulk of the post) but I don’t want that to overshadow my final impression, which is that this is a fantastic scenario. It has one of the most compelling NPC antagonists (Cyrus the vampire) that I have seen in any module, and smart players will likely be forced to work with Cyrus to survive. PCs can truly leave their mark on the campaign world via the module endgame. How many modules playable by first level characters can make that claim? Because of the lack of reliance on simple fight encounters, this module should also be easily convertible to the rule set of your choice (even something dramatically different than traditional D&D). The only major changes needed would be stats for some of the monsters in zone 3. Many of the magic items that can be found in the module have both powers and drawbacks (without being just “screw you” cursed items). More magic items should be like this.
I’ve been in the process of seeding my current Nalfeshnee Hack campaign world (unfortunately, I don’t really have an evocative campaign name yet) with LotFP modules for a while now, and plan to use all of them, even Carcosa (I had previously placed a huge wasteland to the east called Urndach; this will use the Carcosa hex map). That’s right, all the Raggi modules and LotFP releases are going to be played (assuming we get to them) using a 4E-derived ruleset.
The PCs have already found a number of the Dwarven stone books from Hammers of the God (I created a set of 3 x 3 pages containing all the books so that I could shuffle them and give them as individual handouts) and a magically obscured treasure map leading to that module’s dungeon. I think foreshadowing in adventures is a valuable technique that really builds the sense of a living world, and there’s really no excuse not to do it in a sandbox world where you are likely to have a number of different locations prepared anyways. For another example, the PCs came across the fabled Pilz brew in a tavern, but the highly regarded beer was strangely flat and disappointing. (That one is not about a Raggi module, but you get the idea.)
On to Death Frost Doom. The first problem I noticed was a number of “site only” magic items. By site only, I mean items that might cause problems in a long-running campaign, either because they are too powerful or might otherwise upset some aspect of game balance. I detest this practice. It reminds me of using thieves to steal magic items back from PCs. One room in the cabin has two examples of this (page 8 in the print copy). The first is a mirror that doesn’t show chaotic (or evil) characters:
The mirror looses its magic if it is moved, but will regain its power if replaced in this spot.
The second is a clock that can stop time:
Removing the clock from the wall or damaging it in any way permanently removes its magic (even placing it back on the wall will not restore it).
There is not really any narrative grounding why either of these items work this way, and certainly nothing that the PCs could discover (without resorting to DM improvisation). If the mirror was used to detect spies, why would that only be useful in one location? If you’re going to put something interesting into a module, and PCs are creative enough to liberate it, they should be able to use it. If it is of a nature that would be problematic in a campaign, then it should not be included at all. There are much better ways to handle this, such having a limited number of uses. Or, in the case of the mirror, why not have a pond, or a fountain, that only reflects lawful and neutral characters? How do you move a pond? And yet, the restriction does not feel contrived (it doesn’t even feel like a restriction).
I plan to leave the mirror in, but it will work anywhere. The mirror itself will be a full size heavily gilded standing mirror, so it will be difficult to transport. This might end up becoming an interesting campaign item if the players are able to recover it. And it might also prompt me to think more about how alignment works in this particular campaign. I will probably just remove the magic properties from the clock. I need to think about this a bit more, because there may be ways that enterprising PCs could use the clock to forestall the the module endgame, and I don’t think there is any need to make this module harder.
The second problem that I noticed was the “read aloud curse” mechanic. Basically, the referee is instructed to write down an inscription on a piece of paper and hand it over to the person controlling the reading character. If the player reads the inscription out loud, bad things happen. (Generally, you go around the table making saving throws until someone fails and then the bad stuff happens.) This doesn’t work for me because I am not strict about in character and out of character speech. I suspect many campaigns are like this. Generally, if something is not clear, I will clarify: is your character saying that? I do this often enough that (I think) it is not a flag for the players (they certainly don’t seem to make wiser decisions). In this case, such clarification totally would not work. On top of the note it would give away the trap. I either need to work this mechanic in beforehand using less deadly situations, or redesign these traps.
Like other Raggi maps, the DFD dungeon consists of several zones (3) connected linearly by choke points. There are several different entrances from the surface to the different zones, but they are designed in a way that makes it highly unlikely that any other than the cabin trap door (which is obvious) will be used for anything other than exits. This is not a problem; I just want to make the structure clear.
There is a trick that must be figured out to move from zone 1 (temple quarters) to zone 2 (the crypts). Zone 2 is connected to zone 3 by secret doors. I am ambivalent about the secret door choke point design. It is also used in Hammers of the God. In a small dungeon, I think this has the potential to needlessly limit the play experience. These areas which are access-controlled by secret doors are not megadungeon sublevels or areas with special treasures. They are integral parts of the location. I’m not convinced that making access to core parts of the location a reward for exceptional play is good design. I will not change the secret doors in location 22, but I have decided to describe them in a way which will likely stand out and prompt further investigation. Specifically, they are going to be bricked-up archways that use bricks of a different color. In other words, I’m making them easy to locate secret doors. Players don’t always catch things that seem like obvious tells to me, so I don’t think this completely gives the secret doors away. This also seems to fit the location better.
Despite these issues, I’m greatly looking forward to running DFD. It fits nicely with a number of background elements that I have already worked into my campaign, specifically several dread lich gods which used to rule as sorcerer kings in the distant past. I’m curious to know whether others have adjusted any of the module aspects that I mentioned.