Review: Death Frost Doom

Cover photo
PS players don't read this if you don't want spoilers.

Death Frost Doom is a Negadungeon most famous for its terrible long-lasting consequences to your campaign. One half of the adventure slowly builds up tension with quiet exploration and tinkering with the artifacts of a death cult on a desolate mountain peak, then the second half explodes in an avalanche of ghouls and terror. It's just been re-made with new art by Jez Gordon and Yannick Bouchard, and writing by Zak Smith. If you bought the old pdf, you have the new version now (which I didn't realize 'till I'd bought it again). I ran it for my group back in the day, and after reading the new version I want to run it again.

Most of Zak's work here is to expand it, add options, and tie everything together into a mythology. In the first version, there were a lot disparate weird bits that didn't gel together into black magic for me. There was no connection, for instance, between the singing plant, the giant sleeping under the mountain and the skulls strung up on the chapel roof. When this stuff fucked you up, it did it violently out of nowhere, with no foreshadowing.
So when the shrine was built on top of a mountain-sized giant that can wake and destroy the entire place instantly - that's (dismissive hand gesture) ok. But Zak's added options where the cult's books and paintings darkly foreshadow the fact that the giant is, instead, a slumbering god which the cult has bound beneath the mountain, harvesting energy from it in order to make a new one, and it slowly wakes by pushing finger after finger through the rooms until a great hand pushes the entire place 20 feet in the air - that's amazing.

Pretty much everything has been expanded like this. In the old version, playing the Organ in the chapel would release deadly spores. Now it might still do that, but it also does about 20 other things based on how you play it, which all tie into other parts of the adventure. There are new ways to get past every monster without fighting, just through diplomacy, sneaking, exploration or cleverness. It's almost... nicer? (DFD veterans everywhere gasp in horror) I like it, though: the extra stuff rewards the exploration and tinkering at the heart of the adventure, and it's balanced out with new terrible evils. You can get around almost everything unscathed, but you're still going to have to face consequences if you want the prized McGuffin.

Jez Gordon's new black and white art is eye-cutting. On the Peak, he does everything in a sea of white. The ground's white, the sky's white, there's nothing but black shards of broken, dead things on this empty landscape.

Then he inverts it when you go underground. Your lantern-light gleams off flickers of twisted life in an immense, dead blackness.

The climax of this are the six Greater Repugnances that wait behind the terror-switch. There are some amazing potential fights here. Not in a "mmm yes what a well-balanced solo encounter" way - in a way that feels like a mythological struggle. To move in the presence of the Testifier, the party must swear unbreakable oaths. The writing and picture for this guy just electrified me. I imagine him motionless at the end of a long room, the party staggering towards him as invisible hands choke them and tear at their organs, swearing oath after oath about the way they will destroy him.

Death Frost Doom was never a traditional adventure, but this feels like the essence of D&D crushed into diamond. Overworld and Underworld. Pure myth. The ruler of the undead here may only be a general, but he still feels like The Lich King. I wouldn't say this is the best adventure in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but it feels like the most pure, concentrated dose of the black stuff that moves through those veins.

If you don't own Death Frost Doom:

Put the mountain in your campaign. Tell your players about the death cult, the unspeakable rituals, the fact that no-one climbs it and returns, then casually drop in a mention of the riches and whatever McGuffin they want most. If your players decide to go there, buy the adventure. Put the McGuffin in area 22.

Death Frost Doom needs your players to fuck with things. It needs them to be curious. And it needs this to be all their fault. If you slap it down and say "Here's what we're playing today", you need to be open to the possibility that they'll get spooked in the first room and flee the place. I think that's neat, but you might think you've wasted your 6 bucks. Whatever you do, don't force your players through it like this guy did.

The kind of players who want to explore a place named Death Mountain on their own impetus will be so richly rewarded by what they find here. DFD understands how fun and hilarious it is to lose and die. If your players are into that, go for it.

If you need advice on running it:

Use Hirelings. Just use these tables if you want, you don't need to give them stats or anything. Hirelings are crucial for high-lethality horror adventures, 'cos:

1. They let the players screw with stuff without putting their lives in danger.
Half of Death Frost Doom is about fiddling with things that might kill you. If the players can't order someone to risk the danger and do that for them, they might decide to avoid fiddling with anything at all and end up missing the best bits. Of course, if you're using my tables, being cruel to the Hirelings will have its own consequences down the line.

2. They let you be unfair. 
You can do whatever you want to Hirelings. Kill and curse them at random, don't even bother rolling. They're red-shirts, you use them to show how serious the situation is. Secretly, though, having hirelings as a meat-shield helps you to make sure all misfortune that happens to the player characters is fair and just.

3. They keep people in the game.
Whenever someone dies, they can swap to play a hireling. When I played years ago we used to talk about the "Paladin in a barrel" problem. The party paladin kept dying, and miraculously we'd find another paladin in a barrel in the next room. Playing with hirelings, you can get the horror-movie slow degradation as the party dwindles while keeping the same amount of player-controlled characters.

"Not a game"

Quick rant about videogames here.

There's a long-simmering Cold War over the definition of Game. The lines are split between "That's not a game" and "Yes it is", and if you're on the opposite side people will get angry at you. It flares up in comment sections across the internet. People won't talk to each other over this.

The origin story, as far as I can tell: One day, someone made a weird interactive thing. It was featured on a gaming website. Some loser came along and said "That's not even a game." Everyone who likes weird interactive things collectively responded to this with "Yes it is!" Some well-meaning academics bumbled in trying to get clear definitions, and are now eternal enemies with these people.

There's two statements in the phrase "That's not a game", as used by an internet asshole.

1. Games are the only worthwhile thing (to talk about on this website, to make, to care about, whatever).

2. You are not in that category, games.

In defending yourselves from the second statement, you've ignored the first. It's as if a bully said "What are you, gay?" and you tried to defend yourself by saying "No, of course not!". Both contain two statements:

1. Being in category X is bad.
2. You are in category X.

Defending yourself from statement 2 means accepting this value system, where category X is bad. And everyone has accepted this! It seems like most of the weird interactive thing enthusiasts now accept that if you say something is a game, you're praising it, and if you say it's not a game you're attacking it. Game dev Anna Anthropy won't talk to academic Raph Coster because he doesn't agree that dys4ia is a game. If anyone makes statement 2 (You are in category X) everyone assumes they've made statement 1, that they're talking about the value of the thing.  That's why anyone who's interested in definitions has gotten caught up in a blood feud.
Talk about an appeal to emotion. Isn't it fucked up that the weird kids, the people making the craziest stuff out there, have accepted the value system of the anonymous internet gamer bro they hate? That their bizarre, boundary-stretching thing is only worthwhile if you call it a game, of all things, instead of a poem or a story or a sculpture?

We need to go back to the root of statement 1: Should non-games be talked about on gaming websites, submitted to game jams, and awarded trophies at game events? This is the issue at hand. The definition of game is irrelevant.

I believe the answer is yes. No-one is going to talk about this shit except us. Check out this article. This guy made a hypertext story. He didn't think of it as a game: he posted it to the literature community.

"I think the most pages I saw any one person view was in the teens. Hardly anyone stayed with it for longer than a few minutes."

Then the gaming community found it.

In June, when the issue launched, and the literary announcements went out, the file that is my story was loaded n times.
In July, as of yesterday, the file was loaded 10*n times. 

But the really cool part is how much more time people who approached it as a “game” spent than people who approached it as “literature”. The game community page numbers were consistently in the 50-70 page range, and the highest individual number I saw was 104, by a person with a Munich IP address who spent 4 hours with it. There are some people who haven’t left it. They have simply kept it open in their browsers and once a day for the past week they add a couple of pages to their total count.

Whatever category this thing falls into, we need to be talking about it. Nobody else will.

Watch the Skies!

Just a heads up for anyone who follows this blog. I'm running a Megagame called Watch the Skies! As seen on Shut Up and Sit Down. You can sign up for it here. 


I've started a blog where you can read more about it here. I haven't had time to post much besides the map, but hopefully in the days to come I'll have a chance to post some more of the cool stuff that's going into making it, and the kind of theoretical game wafflings I normally push.

Brimhold, Level 2

The river is clotted with ash from the Megavolcano at its source. The Ash Quarry filters it. The ash itself is prized for its mystical qualities.

There was once a great god who ruled over everything. He was burnt into cinders and destroyed. Each cinder became a tiny god. They thrive in ramshackle shrines in the Cinder House.

Who is Malarkus?  I guess he's a ghost the size of a building.

The Moon Pool is the place of my goddess. You chuck pebbles into the pool, and divine her advice from the shape the moon makes in the ripples.


Matt Rundle and Matt Groves made this map for Matt's campaign. Click to make it bigger.

Grisby's Great Terrarium: Top left, in the walled-off goblin district. The goblins are making it. No-one knows why.

Lord Jub: Near royal keep. The first king who settled the town released his pet goldfish into the river. The fish has grown with the town. Legends say it cannot die while the town stands - or the town cannot be destroyed while it lives - one or the other.

Somerset Arena: Cheapside and Uptown unite around this boundary-spanning blood bowl. Uptown folks have box seats up their end, while the Cheapside mob set up ladders and ramshackle shanty seats around the other. In the center of the arena grows the Blood Oak. It looks normal, except that its roots have long been dyed deep red. They say some terrible disaster while strike the town if the Blood Oak ever goes unfed.

Don't reward your players for role-playing.

In old RPG's, there's no reason to role-play. It doesn't give you any kind of in-game advantage or mechanical bonus. Many new-school RPG's have tried to fix this by giving out Checks,* Action Points, or - in 5th edition - Inspiration Points as a mechanical reward for role-playing. I think this is a bad idea, because extrinsic rewards destroy the intrinsic fun of role-playing.

Mario's jump is Intrinsically fun. This means you don't need to be rewarded for it: the activity is rewarding in itself. You could put Mario in an empty room, and leaping three times his body height with a "Broing!" would still be fun.  It's so great that we ended up putting it into almost every video game ever made. Whether you're playing a robot or a detective or a badger, if you can't press a button to leap at least half their height it feels like you've lost a limb.

This is just like Role-playing. There's no reason why you can't play original D&D as an abstract tactics game without ever pretending to be your character. Role-playing is still so intrinsically fun that everybody did it and we named the whole genre after it.

Now, imagine if Mario's jump was shitty. He just floats up and down with a sad "Bworp". To compensate, we give you a gold coin every time you jump. We've just made it Extrinsically fun. The fun now comes from the reward you get for performing the activity, not the inherent fun of the activity itself. You no longer jump just for the joy of it: you are jumping for the reward. When you give people points for role-playing, you're hoping to motivate them with an extrinsic reward.

I have an intrinsic dislike of extrinsic rewards. The game should be inherently fun: you shouldn't have to convince me to keep playing by giving me in-game lollies. I don't need to play games to get the experience of completing a boring activity for the reward, I get enough of that in real life. If you play video games, though, I'm sure you can think of plenty of games where you do just that. External rewards are so powerful that they've even made deliberately bad games like Cow Clicker successful.

Of course you may be thinking - what if we keep Mario's jump as the fun and exciting mechanic it is, but ALSO give you a gold coin every time you do it? This is the reasoning behind giving players points when they role-play. Intrinsic fun AND extrinsic fun, that must combine to make the game more fun than ever, right? 

Well, research has found that's not quite true. In the words of this literature review: "...expected tangible rewards made contingent upon doing, completing, or excelling at an interesting activity undermine intrinsic motivation for that activity." Giving out an extrinsic reward destroys the intrinsic fun. When you're rewarded for performing an activity you enjoy, you lose interest in performing it for it's own sake. You stop jumping for joy and start jumping only for the reward.

Also, check out this summation of the effect of extrinsic motivations on children. If you take an activity that children enjoy, reward them for it, then take that reward away, they may stop doing it altogether. External rewards are so powerful that they lead kids to lose track of what they enjoyed about the activity in the first place. Parents take note.

Now, I don't believe external rewards are evil. Most of us give out XP for going on adventures, and even Mario gives you points for jumping on Goombas. The difference is that these mechanics are there to give a sense of progression, while rewarding people for roleplaying is intended as a way to change player behavior.

In D&D, you start as a scrawny guy killing rats, and playing that way makes you into a king killing dragons. In Call of Cthulhu, you start as a rich, sane and well-adjusted guy and play until you become homeless and insane. They move in opposite directions, but both mechanics aren't so much there to reward you as they are to make sure that the game you play tomorrow is different from the game you played today. Neither exists to make the players do anything they weren't already going to do. You could still undermine the intrinsic fun of adventuring if you overdo it with constant rewards and treasure, but I don't think it's an inherent problem with XP.

In comparison, I always see role-playing reward mechanics recommended as a way to change how people play. You do it to make them role-play more. It's a type of behavioral conditioning, a skinner box made to get your friends to behave the way you want. You shouldn't need this. If you have a player who's shy and doesn't role-play much, why use a passive-aggressive rewards system to punish them for playing that way? If you dislike the way someone plays, why not just talk to them about it? Extrinsic rewards are just going to make them enjoy role-playing even less than they did in the first place.

An interesting part of that first literature review is that verbal rewards actually enhanced intrinsic motivation. Do you laugh at your players jokes? Do you say "Well done," when they carry out a clever plan? Do you say "That was awesome," when they perform some dramatic role-playing? Then congratulations, you're already externally rewarding their behavior in the best way possible.** You don't need to give them imaginary points to try and control how they act at the table.

Role-playing is one of the most intrinsically fun things you can do at a table. If your players don't want to do it for whatever reason, I think the last thing you should do about that is layer an extrinsic rewards system over it.

*This used to say "awesome points" instead of "checks". I edited it because I realized that I don't have a problem with the awesome point mechanic from Old School Hack. It's a mechanic that lets anyone give a player XP for any reason, rather than an attempt to encourage role-playing. The Check mechanic from Torchbearer - where you need to role-play your character's flaws in order to make camp - is more like what I'm talking about.

**The paper seemed to suggest that controlling verbal feedback still diminished intrinsic motivation. That is, saying things that attempted to control their behavior (eg, "You should keep up the good work,") - were worse than things that just gave information on how well they were doing (eg, "Nice one."). What I've taken from all this is that you should just chill out and avoid trying to control your players.

The research I've done is of course haphazard. If anyone has an issue with the conclusions I've drawn, bring it up.


Uzumaki Chapter 19 Page 1
If you play in my games, don't read this.

Well, my old post about The Negadungeon blew up for no reason this weekend. There's praise, criticism and some charming folks who came to appreciate the concept even though they'd never run one. People are talking about the post in polish and german. Who knows what they're saying? Not google translate, that's for sure. The concept has grown bigger than me, and ancient. I see people who assume they've missed the long history of the term, and speak like it crawled out of the primordial soup in the 80's as a leech on D&D's back.

A few people seem to read the thing as a glowing review of James Raggi's LOTFP adventures. That's not quite accurate: This is what I believe these adventures aspire to, the reason why James Raggi does things like curse the PC's as soon as they look at the dungeon. It's an ideal, not a documentary, in the same way that the Old School Primer isn't a literal description of how people played in the 80's. The adventures themselves often fall short of the mark for me.

The most obvious problem with the concept: the DM prepares a Negadungeon, and the players sensibly take one look at the thing and decide to run for the hills. As in this review of Death Frost Doom, where the DM forces an unwilling set of players to complete the module, or this session report where the players flee Tower of the Stargazer and the DM has to improv the rest of the session.

                              Uzumaki Chapter 19 Page 13

The interesting thing is that I haven't heard this complaint of horror modules for Call of Cthulhu et. al. Any sensible PC would take one look at any horror adventure, call the police, and fly out of the country. They don't do it because they know what they're here for. The DM has made a horrorshow, they've made PC's for it, everybody's gathered around the table with the understanding that the PC's will fling themselves into the terrible situation at hand like the characters in a horror movie.

I think this is the greatest problem with Negadungeons, but also the greatest source of potential. The obvious thing to do in making this killer dungeon would be to force the players to do it, right? Lock the door behind them, or put it on the table and say "We're running Death Frost Doom tonight, everybody get ready to die." - the approach that makes Call of Cthulhu work. But the approach Raggi takes - where the players have to actively seek out the place, often in the middle of a campaign, and push past the people trying to stop them - has the potential to make the players responsible for their own doom. They weren't forced into it.

I'll give an example. Spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.

The Line is a video game that pretends to be a Call-of-Duty power fantasy. It's a trap. As the game goes on, it slowly turns into a Negadungeon. The turning point is a scene half-way where the player commits an atrocity. After that, you start dying, going insane, flying down the slippery slope to the point where you find out it was all for nothing. The player is meant to feel horrified and guilty for all this. Loading screen tips start saying "This is all your fault."

The problem with this guilt-trip is that it isn't the players fault: If you want to play the game, you need to commit the atrocity. (The game's writers claim your choice here is to turn off the game and walk away: this is the good ending.) This is analogous to playing a horror module: You force yourself to make the bad decision because you've paid for this game/your DM has paid for this module. You're making a meta-game decision that leaves you immune to shame and horror. Of course this isn't your fault: You just wanted to play the game you paid for.

The potential with allowing the players to walk away is that it is their fault if they commit the atrocity. Having a genuine choice means the PC's can feel genuine guilt, knowing that they were sent down this spiral because of their own greed and doomed obsessions - not because you wrote "You have a doomed obsession" on their character sheet. You haven't shot them in the head: You've just given them the gun and allowed them to shoot themselves.

Of course, pulling that off is going to be difficult. In practice, Death Frost Doom relies on a cheap trick to get the players to orchestrate their own doom. It should be their greed that bought them down here - but it's more likely that they just felt like they had to play the adventure their DM prepped. They'll fall for the trick either way, and they probably won't feel like it was their fault.

If I made a Negadungeon, I would make the one discussed in this thread. The trick: it's a normal dungeon that can become a Negadungeon if the players make the wrong choices. If they don't take the bait, you still have a fun adventure to run through for the evening. Because you have that fallback, the players don't feel forced to make decisions for meta-game reasons, and you haven't wasted your time prepping a dungeon they'll never play.

The Finder haunts/ These twisting hallways/ His sightless eyes/ Can see you always

I've realized not everyone can read the thread I linked. Here it is.

Cédric Plante originally shared:
I have sketched a Demon Horse Tower. Now I am looking for stuff to put inside to post it on my blog. 
Arnold K.
26 May 2014
I want to write up rooms and monsters for it.  You only have to make eye contact once to realize how fucked up horses are.
Arnold K.
26 May 2014
I would fill it with horses.

Slaughterhouse architecture: gently curving hallways, so the cows in the back can't see what's in front.

Railings that keep a gentle pressure on the side of the animals, so they remain calm.  Soothed.

Good drainage in every room.

Stairs for the animals to walk up, so they enter the process at the top of the building.  After their deaths, their body weight makes it easier for the meat to slide down/onwards.

You wouldn't even need to make the dungeon a slaughterhouse.  Just use the slaughterhouse as a unifying theme.  Put drains and rails and chains in every room, and eventually players will realize exactly what they are going to find at the bottom.
Cédric Plante
26 May 2014
I am taking notes, I will post some rooms soon. 
Jack Mack
26 May 2014
+Arnold K.  I agree that you don't want to go crazy with pig guts on all the walls and the like. Use the slaughterhouse stuff as a subtle omen, like the movie Chinatown.

Maybe people call the place The Slaughterhouse or Meat City - then you go there, and there's no meat, no reference to it. As you go up the tower all this stuff creeps in around the edges. People start making vague references to it, places are only described as "The Brain", "The Heart".

Also have an NPC who says "This world is a Machine. A Machine for Pigs. Fit only for the slaughtering of Pigs."
Arnold K.
26 May 2014
+Jack Mack You just referenced, like, two of my favorite things, and one thing that I intend to play.

NPCs should just refer to it as The Machine.

The bottom floor needs to be meat, though.  Like Death Frost Doom, except the final act needs to be fountains of gore and swinging meat hooks, etc.  And purple worms rising from the vats of ground beef.

Can you imagine being trapped in a small room with some pigs, and then the doors open and the pigs are running from ambulatory pig grinder machines?  You better run, too.

Maybe the trick to the dungeon is figuring out how to avoid turning it on.  Like, if you can get through the whole thing without activating it, it's pretty mild.  But once the Machine is on, every room becomes a death trap.  Every floor drain begins vomiting up blood and indian burial grounds.

And the further down you are when the machine activates, the more fucked you are, because you need to go all the way back out.  Unless you think you can make it out of the Meat Exit at the bottom.
Trent B
26 May 2014
Jack Mack
27 May 2014
+Arnold K. yes, yesss.

I like the Death Frost Doom "no-one's getting out of here unscarred" thing, but you definitely need the doom be triggered by the player's decisions, and the central DFD trick is a little cheap.

I guess the whole place is ruined, and the more you turn on the machine the more you summon the old ghosts and bring back the gory days. The bottom floor has a few settings, from easy to horrific. Pulling levers on the way down opens up the place and disgorges ultra-valuable parts from long-extinct animals, but makes the meat god at the bottom worse and worse.

Maybe if you get too greedy, at the highest setting when the machine is coming fully to life with apocalyptic consequences, all those valuable animal bits start coming alive in your packs and joining together.