- I've only read Death Frost Doom and have not had a chance to play it.
- I've read some other reviews of Death Frost Doom, but, as much as I am able, I am going to write this review as if I haven't. I may rehash or comment on issues that have been made elsewhere, however, I will strive to write a useful review even for those who have read others.
- While I will attempt to make objective comments and support them with my reasoning, reviews will ultimately always be subjective. Deal with it.
- Parts of this review may delve into areas beyond what a normal product review would do. This is purposeful.
- I will try, even when it becomes difficult to do so, to avoid any spoilers. Because of this, some of my comments might not make complete sense if you are reading this review before purchasing the product.
I purchased DFD from RPGNow.com for $5.00. The download included four files: a three page cover, credits, and map file and a 37 page adventure file in both Letter and A4 formatting.
The cover appears to be a pencil, ink, and charcoal drawing on paper. Several pieces by the artist, Laura Jalo, appear throughout DFD. I'll start off by saying that her art has a distinct style, and it fits very well with the DFD's tone. But, frankly, I don't care very much for it. I feel that it appears somewhat amateurish. (Personal opinion.) It is a little disappointing, because I visited her deviant art page (linked at her name) and I really like some of her other pieces.
Begin Tangent: To be honest, I've not purchased many products with "OSR cred," but the art that I have seen typically puts me off. I've read lots of OSR blogs over the past six months, and art is a topic that comes up occasionally. Let me dip my toe in. Erol Otus, Darlene, and many others were the collective 'face' of gaming when we were young. Their works are interesting, evocative (in their own way), and hold a special place in many of our hearts. But I have a question: If Erol Otus wasn't on the cover of all of those products when we were young, and we didn't so strongly associate his works with "good rpg art", and we saw his stuff in or on products today, would we love it as much as we all seem to now? Spoken another way: Is his art that great or do we look at it through nostalgia-tinted glasses? I, personally, believe that there is some nostalgia in it. Why does that matter? Perhaps it doesn't. But I would LOVE to see a product born of the OSR that looks knock-your-socks-off fantastic.
Someone please show me an OSR product that has the same quality of art that a just-released WotC or Paizo product does. Another common topic in these circles is trying to bring new gamers into this little niche. If we had some products that LOOKED GOOD, perhaps we could attract some of them. Whether you like it or not, bells and whistles can help drive sales, and interest.
Does a product have to look like it was published in 1979 for it to be well-received? Must we take pains to use the same style sheets (including the same fonts, etc) that were used 30 years ago? I hope not. End Tangent.
The second page of this first file is a map of the dungeon. According to the credits, James himself did the cartography. The quality of the map is pretty low. (Again, bells and whistles, people.) Now I fully understand that people don't buy a product from LotFP for the maps, but this is the best that he could get? There are people out there who will do maps for free--really, really good maps; I talk about one such place right here. Frankly, I'd do a map for him for free--if he would be willing to use it after reading this review.
Begin Tangent: Based upon all of the hoopla, I would consider DFD to be one of the premier products to have come out of the OSR--in terms of originality, style, the conviction to write a very specific type of adventure--and I find it disappointing that the map is of the quality that it is. Did James just not care? End Tangent.
The final page of this initial file was the credits. Not much to say there, although the untranslated inscription across the top was a nice touch.
Last thought on the initial file: If James were to sell DFD in retail, on a shelf in a store somewhere, would he bother to put the title or any other writing on the cover? I believe he would, so why not here? Obviously, he made a conscious decision to do it this way; I'm just not sure why.
On to the second file:
37 pages broken down as follows:
- 1 page of Author's Notes. A nice little glimpse into James' mind regarding DFD.
- 30 pages of adventure, including notes on fitting it into the DM's own campaign, two pages describing the adventure's lone NPC, and 27 pages of dungeon description and art:
- There are 4 full-page illustrations, three of them by Laura Jalo and all in the same style as the cover. There are also approximately 2.5 other pages (total) of half-page or smaller pieces.
- Two more maps, of the area around the dungeon and the cabin that sits atop it. (My comments regarding the map above hold for these as well.)
- The file closes out with a small, four page mini-adventure, another full-page illustration, and a full-page table that serves as an appendix to material presented earlier.
The adventure: It is everything for which one could hope. It is challenging, deadly, will punish the unwary, and will reward (in a way) intelligent and cautious exploration. More importantly from my perspective, it does everything that James himself said an adventure should do. (It's one thing to talk-the-talk regarding adventure design; it is quite another to walk-the-walk. James does for the most part--I have one nit-picky thought below where I feel that he dropped the ball.)
From the beginning, it is a scenario that relies on mood. The mood is paramount, and James' writing gives the DM many little hints to heighten it. This adventure would be a blast to DM, but to do it really well, and take full advantage of the mood would require a lot of effort. (BTW, this is not a complaint. I view it as a strength.)
If you don't like 'Save or Die,' you probably won't like this adventure. BUT the cases where that saving throw is needed are all based upon player choice. There are no "You just entered the death room so make a saving throw or you die" situations. And as long as the players can choose to try to kill themselves or choose to be cautious, I am happy.
Now to my one nit-picky comment on the adventure itself: A common complaint in poorly created dungeons are those traps that can easily be set off by adventurers yet not be set off by the hordes of wandering monsters that pass by it every day. While wandering monsters will probably not be an issue in DFD, a similar problem does exist for the previous denizens of these caves in the High Priest’s Temple. Surely in all the years that the Duvan’Ku used this temple, one of the three triggers associated with the pit would have already occurred.
And my one negative comment on the adventure: (I am almost positive that) James has said in his writings that he is not a believer in the Mythic Underworld as espoused by Philotomy Jurament. James prefers the more concrete, naturalistic dungeons. Unfortunately, to me, the object in the High Priest's Temple (around which so much of the drama of this scenario revolves) is purely from a mythic underworld. I say this as a reader who believes that every single other element in this adventure has a reason to be where it is and makes sense within the history that is presented. However, the item that I am referring to makes no sense except as a means for James to spring a possible campaign-changing event on the players. Is the item a common thing in nature? Was it something else that was warped by the incredible evil that took place here into what it is today? Was it placed there specifically by the former inhabitants of the dungeon to do what it is doing today? No explanation whatsoever. If one is happy with the mythic underworld, no explanation is needed. However, with no mythic underworld that I can find, the lack of explanation bothered me.
The layout: I've already discussed the art. I've already discussed the maps. I have one more comment on the maps. The fact that North is in two different directions in the three maps is jarring. And while it is a minor issue, the fact that it would have been so easy to make them all consistent bothers even more.
While some my accuse me of being overly critical, I feel that this, my last comment, is valid: Does James have something against two columns in his layout? There must be some reason that 99.9% of all published material on Letter or A4 sized paper and above splits the text into two or more columns. I think that columns make large blocks of text easier to read--I know that it does for me personally. Would it have been hard for James to do the same here? I don't think so. Perhaps in a future printing, he will.
So what is the verdict? Overall, I really liked the adventure. If you want a interesting, challenging, "old-school" style, dungeon-crawling adventure, this is the one for you.
However, I think that production values are just as important as content if I am going to shell out money for something. I wish that James had put a little more into the production values.