Review of Death Frost Doom

Cover by Yannick Bouchard
Cover by Yannick Bouchard

Death Frost Doom is a newly revised edition of a horror adventure. The title very accurately sets the prevailing mood, that’s for sure. While written for OSR games such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess, it could easily be used with Dungeons & Dragons (any edition, really) or with your prefered d20/OSR game. With a bit of homework, it could be used with other games as well by tweaking the stat blocks and any of the prompts for saving throws.

It is a 66-page adventure written by James Raggi IV and Zak S. The cover art (in color) was done by Yannick Bouchard and the black and white interior illustrations, cartography and design were done by Jez Gordon. This is a review of the PDF edition.

The writing is conversational and clear. The layout, editing and typography are top-notch, making the text easy on the eyes despite the density of the content. The illustrations are wonderful and eerie: absolutely pitch-perfect for this module. Some of the full-page images slam you like sudden jump cuts in a horror film (the Referee gets an early preview of some of the terror that the players will encounter during the game). The maps are easy to understand and use. Overall an impressively well designed product.

The book begins with two maps: one for an exterior (and a small floorplan) and an interior dungeon map The former is keyed with letter, the latter with numbers (which was a nice idea for added clarity). As already mentioned, these are very well designed and easy to use.

There’s a concise table of contents with obvious section headers. While some have titles that are more flavorful than practical, their meaning is clear (eg: “Hell vomits its filth”, one of the last chapters before an Appendix of sorts, clearly implies a very messy, grim climax). The headers are each clickable and link to each section. Very nicely done.

We’re given a page of notes about this new edition by the two authors which includes some history of the adventure and insight into minds of its creators. Interesting stuff.

Then there’s a page on how the Referee can use this module (“The Approach”) which includes a few different possible options on how to get things started. After that, it jumps right into the first encounter with a very memorable NPC.

What I really liked about the structure of this first NPC encounter is that the author gives several options on how to use him (or her). There are roleplaying tips, a random table to dictate what he’s doing when the PCs arrive at his home and a full page of “ifs” to cover just about any possible interaction. This approach of handling an NPC is really, really fun and memorable besides being a great method to bring in some ominous foreboding. I’m a huge fan of modules taking a “do-it-yourself” approach. With this sort of tool, one can determine all of the details before or during the game, either randomly or by choice. I like this a lot and I’m very inspired already.

As an aside, the cool thing about this module is the author’s inclusion of suggested musical cues. That’s a nice touch; I appreciate putting effort into preparing good music for a game session. When I run this, I’ll follow this advice as closely as possible.

DFDThe first major location is the Graveyard. It is an open-ended and creepy place with all kinds of things that can happen to unsuspecting adventurers. There’s a strong hint that bad things once happened there (and are about to happen again). There’s lots to find or experience in this awful place: it is a great prelude to what comes next. The Cabin, which is totally an homage to a particular horror movie (three guesses which one), adds even further to the creepiness. There is a lot to find and interact with inside that weird place: players who like to tinker and prod at everything will be rewarded (and/or punished, depending on how you look at it). Really weird and neat encounters here: I would be sad if my players missed some of them. I’d probably include a hapless NPC ally or two as insurance (ie- to trigger some of these cool events if no one else takes the bait). These discoveries are not all negative: there are some beneficial things there too (or at the very worst: benignly WEIRD).

Next we get to the main dungeon, the Shrine, where the proverbial “shit” gets real. This is a very unique dungeon and it’s a delight to read, so I’ll omit any spoilers.

There are about thirty encounters in the Shrine (but more rooms than that number).

To start off, there’s some clear advice on how to run this location: it is not a typical dungeon crawl. First of all, there’s a time limit (that is measured in a really awesome and memorable way). A Referee really needs to keep track of this for maximum effectiveness. More on that later.

There are many things to explore and scrutinize here without referring to a character’s skills or abilities (except if something triggers a nasty trap or evil supernatural forces). Being careless or reckless will likely spell doom for a PC; being clever and methodical is by far the safer and more interesting way to go about it.

My favorite example of this sort of thing is the Organ. I won’t spoil it, but there are some really neat things built into this object. It ties into a feature of many of the other locations to a clever degree; the PCs will have reasons to return to it several times throughout the course of the dungeon. I’ll absolutely delight in presenting this device to the players and getting excited trying to anticipate what they’ll do. To me, that’s a trait of a well-written adventure, right there.

There are so many things to do and objects to experiment with that my mind reels with the possibilities. Admittedly there are a few “gotcha!” moments but they are never dull or straightforward and they always add to the weird horror mood.

Many of the rooms have ominous triggers such as “If the dead have risen” which modify the encounters quite a bit. In essence, the party could go through most of the dungeon, trigger this conditional event and then work their way back through the same rooms very differently. It’s a really effective technique.

Some of the key monsters provide fun possibilities for social interaction. None of them, as far as I can tell, are just there only to fight and kill. While interactions with the PCs may indeed lead to battle, this is not a certainty. Again, what a great idea: many undead monsters are not just mindless automatons, after all, but personalities with motivations (usually twisted). Several of these NPCs have had relationships, good or bad, with others of their kind, and if the conditions are right, encounters with them will be greatly affected by the PCs actions.

Art by Jez Gordon
Art by Jez Gordon

At last, near the end is the main event: what happens if certain conditions are met and how quickly (depending on that timer mentioned earlier). This is a BIG DEAL, tapping into the third word of the adventure’s title (Doom). Potentially, this event could have a huge impact on your campaign whether or not it completely wipes out the party.

There is no happy ending for characters involved with this adventure, really. Even if they do survive, their world will be quite affected. With a bit of tweaking, the Referee could build a really cool post-apocalyptic setting on top of the previous one, though. If I run this with well-liked pre-established character, I may indeed go that route. I’d run it as-is with newly created PCs, though, as a one-shot.

At the end of the book there’s a nice retrospective in which the original author (Raggi) talks about the first edition of Death Frost Doom and even includes some of the original artwork and maps.

Lastly there are a few player handouts, which are always nice to include.

Summary

This is an extremely well-written and fascinating adventure, even though it is quite grim and dangerous. Say what you will about the potentially lethal ending or the horrific themes: Death Frost Doom is the antithesis of boring or mundane. This is a very memorable adventure that oozes atmosphere.

I definitely recommend this adventure: even if you never run it (which would be a shame), you will be greatly inspired by the style and game-writing techniques. It is also a really fun read and the artwork is incredible.

You can purchase this on the LotFP store or on DriveThruRPG.

Review of A Red and Pleasant Land

A Red and Pleasant Land is… a great deal many things. It’s an art-book, with gorgeous illustrations throughout. It’s an art-piece, with beautiful binding, paper texture, rich colour and even has a silky ribbon-bookmark. It is a campaign setting for a role-playing game, with a unique, bizarre and yet familiar environments full of unique characters. It is a sandbox, with countless places to explore, strange characters to interact with and frightfully dangerous (and usually insane) antagonists to meet (or avoid). It is a resource for Game Masters, full of fascinating random tables to create endless locations, dungeons, creatures and people. It’s also immensely fun to simply pick up and flip to a random page to read or gaze at the illustrations.

This product is a great example of how a gaming supplement can be more than just its text content. The book itself reflects its material and setting: it has an elegant yet slightly mad look and feel, just like a Victorian novel about high society vampires or bloodthirsty queens. In other words, handling the book and reading the pages immersed me into the world that its author created.

Zak_Smith_A_Red_Pleasant_Land_2326_412

The author, Zak Smith, is an incredibly imaginative and creative person. While he is seen as a controversial or confrontational figure within the gaming community, his contributions are, without a doubt, worthy to the hobby. Regardless of one’s opinions of this author, I’d strongly recommend that folks give this book a chance.

The material is roughly split into two halves: descriptions of the setting’s locations, creatures and characters and then many pages of richly detailed random tables and tools for GMs to invent and create wonders.

There are some very witty things in this work. While many of the standard Wonderland tropes are included, they’re handled in really clever ways. I won’t go into detail, because I feel that these are to be discovered by the reader: it’s part of the charming experience of reading this book.

A Red and Pleasant Land is one part Through the Looking Glass and one part Hungarian/Romanian vampires. This happened to be a happy coincidence to this reviewer, as I happen to be in the process of writing a campaign set in a location that is based on 17th century Transylvania. This work just happened to be right up my alley, but I’ve read and reviewed several rpg campaigns lately and so I feel that I can attempt to be critical of elements that I dislike or that I feel are “off”.

While this is officially a supplement for Lamentations of the Flame Princess and is, by default, compatible with OSR games such as Labyrinth Lord, I felt that this could easily be used with any edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Any rules or stat blocks are minimalistic and easy to adapt. I actually look forward to running it myself in the recent fifth edition of D&D and maybe, someday, in Dungeon World.

When I GM this, I plan of covering the gaming table is a feverish mess of props including: a deck of cards, a set of Tarot, chess pieces and, of course a chess board for any combat encounters. I’ll perhaps serve blood-red tea…

I’ll have to keep this brief as it is the day after Christmas and I wish to be with my family and away from my computer. Once again, I whole-heartedly recommend a Red and Pleasant Land for any enthusiast of role-playing games, Lewis Carroll, vampires, old-fashioned books or even simply art lovers.

The author’s blog (sometimes NSFW)

You can go buy it here!

BONUS LINKS: Alice Character class conversions for other games:

 

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The Balaur

Primordial Hydra -click to visit the artists deviantart gallery
Primordial Hydra -click to visit the artist's deviantart gallery
Primordial Hydra by Chasestone (click to view artist’s gallery)

This is a preview of one of the beasts featured in my upcoming module: The Warlock’s Curse. What follows may change a bit between now and when the product is playtested and completed.

The Balaur is a mythical creature made real by the dark powers plaguing the land of Morminte. It rampages across the countryside killing and taking livestock and people back to its lair. A foreign monster-hunter has been on its trail for over a week and can’t seem to find it, to the frustration of the locals.

This creature from Romanian folklore is, for all intents and purposes, a Hydra. The key difference is that its spittle can create precious gemstones.

Despite that, this creature is unique and even more terrifying than the usual beastie from Monster Manuals.

Rumors

(gradually goes from 1, which is false, to 6 which is true)

  1. It fears and is warded off by the color yellow.
  2. It is completely immortal unless you slay it on a Holy Day.
  3. It seeks out only one kind of victim (1-males, 2-females, 3-infants, 4-red-heads, 5-clergy, 6-bastards)
  4. It leaves a trail of precious gemstones in its wake
  5. Remove one head and another grows back to replace it
  6. Fire prevents it from growing new heads.

Appearance and Abilities

The Balaur is a bizarre creature. Use the following lists to give it a truly weird and frightening set of features and abilities. Some are purely cosmetic, others grant additional abilities (update the stat blocks accordingly).

Terrible Torso

  1. A scaly toad with vestigial bat wings: can make gigantic leaps into or out of combat
  2. A fat, black lizard with 2d3 tails: can attack that many times at its rear
  3. A white goat with 3d8 legs: Speed increased to 180′
  4. An oozing, slimy slug tail: impossible to grapple, adjacent terrain is difficult
  5. A bloated, spiky fly: can fly at a speed of 90′
  6. A flame-colored lion: can make an extra claw attack at 1d6 damage

Horrible Heads

Extending from its torso are 1d8+5 long, snake-like (or tentacle-like) necks, each one ending in a monstrous head. Choose or randomly determine their overall appearance:

  1. Snakes
  2. Wolves
  3. Goats
  4. Eels
  5. Humans
  6. Vultures
  7. Cockroaches
  8. Caterpillar

Malevolent Maw

Between all of its necks, on its body, is a single, huge mouth. Choose what kind or roll 1d8 to determine the type (mix two or more results for a very memorable encounter):

  1. Angler Fish: huge sword-like teeth, armor-piercing
  2. Squid: huge parrot-like beak, extra 1d6 damage
  3. Lamprey: circular, with many rings of pointy teeth, vampiric drain
  4. Shark: powerful, with rows of teeth, bite does maximum damage
  5. Sea-slug: grotesque, muscular sphincter, suffocating
  6. Machine: rotating blades and a serrated grinder, destroys armor and items
  7. Wolf: a giant, fanged canine snapping jaw: frightening
  8. Giant face: huge human face, Balaur has Intelligence 18

Other Strangeness

Enchanted Spittle: After a battle with the Balaur one can find 3d10 gemstones encrusted into any stone on the surrounding walls, floor or statues (which must be chiselled or broken out). Each is worth 10gp.

Wakefulness: One of the Balaur’s heads is always awake while it sleeps.

Stat Blocks

OSR

(Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess)

The Balaur

Armor 15/5, Move 120′, 10 Hit Dice, 170hp, 1d10 bite for each of its heads. Anyone bitten must save vs Paralysis/Petrify or be paralyzed for a number of hours equal to the number of heads that it has left. Morale 9. One of the heads will die if the Balaur takes 10 or more points of damage from a single hit. If all its heads die, the Balaur dies. At the end of its turn, two heads regenerate for each one that has died since its last turn (regaining 10hp in the process), unless it has taken fire damage in that time.

The Balaur’s Young

Armor 10/10, Move 60′, 2 Hit Dice, 50hp, 1d6 bite for each of its heads (starts with 1d3+1). Morale 5. When the Balaur’s Young take 6 hit points of damage in a single hit, 1 head dies. If all of its heads die, the Balaur dies. These Young do not have their magical spittle nor their regenerative abilities yet (this appears in about 20 years, but not in captivity).

Dungeon World

The Balaur

Solitary, Large
Bite (d10+3 damage); 16 HP; 2 Armor
Close, Reach
Special Qualities: Many heads (1d8+5), Petrifying Bite, Regeneration

Instinct: To feed and protect its young.

  • Attack many enemies at once
  • Regenerate two heads when one is cut off
  • Leave precious gems in its wake

The Balaur’s Young

Group, Small
Bite (d8 damage); 6 HP; 0 Armor
Close
Special Qualities: Several heads (1d3+1)

Instinct: To feed.

  • Cower and look pathetic
  • Lash out and bite a non-threatening target