Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dying a Cold Death with Death Frost Doom and the Old School Plus

Four of us played Death Frost Doom (DFD) a couple hours ago on a snowy night in Chicago. It was either that, or continue a long dormant Planescape campaign. But I downloaded DFD today, and it seemed fitting, so we went with it as a one shot.

As with some others who have discussed DFD, I won't review it in whole (though I will include some SPOILER details), because others such as Grognardia have done this well. But I will give some overall impressions and some broader thoughts about Old School Gaming (or whatever).

Bottom line: DFD was fine. But the hanging out with friends was the best part, and I think we should've resurrected our Planescape campaign instead.

DFD is very atmospheric - it's a creepy, location based scenario at a shrine with no active monsters and a bunch of ways for PCs to hurt themselves if they do the wrong things at places like water basins. There are a lot of old, creepy rooms with things like dried blood, torture instruments, and endless crypts. There are a lot of weird magical things, like a cuckoo clock that warps time. Again, there are lots and lots of crypts. And there's a way to make all the corpses in the crypts wake up. This is an endless horde of undead that pc's will likely run from or get killed by eventually.

One character (out of 6, because the 3 players had 2 characters each) escaped after waking up the horde of the dead. This was only because all the 5 surviving characters that ran from a zombie horde locked a door to a creepy chapel and snorted trippy purple dust that they found way earlier. One of the characters went deaf. Another went blind. The one that was best off rolled a 70 on a huge percentile table and was "Safe from Harm!"

In the end, there was a lot of wandering around empty, weird, creepy rooms. And frantic running at the end from a zombie horde and then through a horde of ghouls. There was little for the PCs to figure out, and the scenario naturally ran toward what strongly seems is this intended conclusion. The one where the undead horde spreads out over the fantasy globe causing DOOM! Except to the tripped out magic user who was Safe from Harm!

I think we all felt disappointed. I rate my GMing as average at best, but conjuring up a creepy atmosphere certainly doesn't play to my strengths (for example, I tend to laugh with my players a lot about stupid RPG stuff, like when the Halfling found a ring that turned her invisible). We especially laughed about how the randomly generated characters were all female except for the Dwarf. Because we're all guys and haven't gamed with females for a while. Probably like most of you reading this.

The players were frustrated that there wasn't much for them to do (I found myself saying a lot of things like "ok, you bash the cuckoo clock"). And then they died because of an event that didn't absolutely need to happen if the players didn't trigger it. But c'mon, the scenario seriously pushed the characters in that direction.

So, is this Old School Gaming, as many seem to perceive it to be? My first impression is NO: It has many trapping of the old school. There's a sandboxy dungeon, and players aren't forced to do anything. But there is a one big story trigger looming over the whole thing. I generally like "story" in my games, but I like it when character decisions are much more meaningful - when the odds aren't so heavily stacked to trigger one event, and where there isn't such an emphasis on DMing as just atmosphere for a couple hours - I really like the unpredictability of character decisions that have impact in a more wide open area.

Maybe DFD is Old School Plus. Old School on steroids, where the decision to explore a dungeon for an evening is stupid in itself. Because you're probably going to die in one of the fairly limited ways the writer intends, and perhaps exactly the way the writer sets up as by falling on, by far, the most impressive and overwhelming chopping block. I don't know. But I'm kind of disappointed. I read so much about this scenario on the blogosphere and there is some legitimate excitement. Maybe I just couldn't bring the scenario to life. There's definitely truth to this, and it is a well written book with lots of creepy content.

But I also think the scenario just wasn't right for our group. Which is ironic, given that we've been playing through the Planescape module Dead Gods (a wacky and heavily scripted adventure that I've really had to alter significantly on the fly due to player decisions). DFD is supposed to be wide open. But even compared to scripted modules, it feels surprisingly narrow.

So, Death Frost Doom is good fun for an evening. It got us together around the table on a snowy night that 4 people couldn't get to. But DFD is just not set up to enable player choice or impact in a way that I think was very meaningful to any of us.


the Reverend said...

It wasn't that I thought the mod was bad. I did like it, my only problem with it was there was a lack of warning for the "trigger" that basically doomed us all. It at first seemed like the least creepy thing we had run into. (After smashing cuckoo clocks and getting freaked out by furniture)

I don't feel like there was really a fair chance for a "good" outcome.

Patrick W. Rollens said...

Fascinating review! I wish I'd been there to smash cuckoo clocks with y'all. I'm glad you wrote up your reaction, because I know this module has received a ton of rather slavish praise from the blogosphere.

Chad Thorson said...

Interesting perspective. I've got a copy of Death Frost Doom but haven't run it yet. I'm planning on converting it to use for Chill. I thought it would fit better with a horror game rather than a fantasy game. My fantasy world has a lot of bad puns and tongue in cheek humor.

CaptPoco said...

Very cool review! I actually had more or less exactly the same reaction from my players when I tried to run an old school adventure (White Plume Mountain in this case) for them. It's supposedly the best old school adventure ever, and it flopped for the same reasons you stated. Unfortunately, it seems like the whole "Old School Renaissance" thing is just born of nostalgia. The good news is that many famous 1e modules have found there way into 4e (Vault of the Drow, for example, has been reimagined as Demon Queen's Enclave).