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.