Saturday, January 16, 2010

Review: Death Frost Doom (Part 2)

Some Disclaimers:
- 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 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.


  1. I haven't had a chance to look at Death Frost Doom, but I wanted to comment on the OSR artwork point you made.

    I think a lot of OSR products intentionally set out to have a DIY/Indie Comix/Zine aesthetic rather than the glossy and sometimes over produced artwork of more recent and mass produced gaming products. (Compare small press OSR with small press d20 publishers from a few years ago)

    There definitely seems to be a preference for traditional media over digital tools and coloring. I think those things are separate from "quality" of the art though. I've seen stuff I like and stuff I don't.

    I think some of the covers and interior illustrations from classic RPG books (Nicholson, Tampier, etc) hold up very well to any contemporary comparisons. Similarly there have been a few modern examples of RPG artwork that weren't all that hot. The cover of the 4e PHB is not very good to be honest, and I've seen much MUCH better work from that artist.

  2. Whatever mistakes he may have made, Mr. Raggi's concern for production values, is quite evident in the print version of DFD. I haven't seen the pdf.

  3. I don't think OSR stuff needs to ape circa 1982 TSR stuff (in fact, I hope it wouldn't), but I, fo one, am sick of the slick WOTC aesthetic which seems to have permeated the entire industry.
    I like pictures that tell a story, or might just be plain weird --- and I freely admit that is purely MY TASTE. Thus, Erol Otus and Trampier and Darlene are a better pedigree of artist in my eyes than Lockwood or Elmore.

    I think the OSR products are a niche product -- they are attempting to appeal to a small subset of player/gamer who might not feel like they are in the target audience of the Anime/Video Game 3.5e and 4e style D&D.

    Seing as I first picked up my dice ~30 years ago, a sense of nostalgia is inevitable for me. If that doesn't appeal to everyone, big deal. Given that this is what I think of as MY hobby, any artist who sucks up to my aesthetic is OK by me. Besides, why is a 'nostalgia' aesthetic less valid than trying to copy the big mass-market product? D&D started out as an indie product that was put together in Gary Gygax's basement. The current license holder of D&D is doing their damndest to divorce themselves from that old school aesthetic. Since with each additional iteration I feel that WOTC has stripped more and more of the stuff I like out of the game and replaced it with more and more stuff that I just don't get, I'm OK with the OSR going it's own, "retro" way.
    And, in his defense, I'm sure that Mr. Raggi can't afford to hire Lockwood... much like Gygax & Co. took what they could get for art in the original edition.

  4. I personally despise most (nearly all) of the art on recently released Paizo and WotC products; and, as my introduction to the game came through 2nd ed. - which was dominated artistically by other figures, like Elmore - I do not approach those early artists with the rose colored glasses of nostalgia you mentioned. That said, I honestly believe that Erol Otus and many of his contemporaries were and are 50 to 60 thousand times as talented (and much more original and unique) as the artists currently doing the work for WotC and Paizo. It's completely subjective, of course, but I just thought you should know that just because you think it's a given that the art is substandard does not mean that everyone else does. Just my 2 cents.

  5. Good review. You brought up some valid points and I enjoyed the read. I echo the comments here on the subject of art, it's an incredibly subjective subject. One man's abstract masterpiece is another man's talentless crap. Personally, for rpg books, I find the current Wotc/Paizo art style a massive turn off. Very wanky.

    For old school products, the audience is first and foremost the old school crowd. It would be pointless to alienate the majority of them with artwork that wasn't to their taste. From a marketing perspective though, along with the desire/need to grow the OSR niche, yes we need to attract a younger crowd.

    The answer I guess would be for publishers to release two versions, one with old school art, and another with popular art. Unfortunately, given that most old school publishers are actually just one person (don't be fooled by the company names), the budget needed to buy art from two groups of artists may simply be out of reach. And I'm sure more "professional" looking artwork is priced accordingly.

    The point about the maps is a good one, and one which I see James has acknowledged on his blog. With so many free mapping programmes out there, not to mention people who are happy to just pump out maps for others, there's no reason why any amateur rpg product can't have decent maps.

    My group is currently playing The Grinding Gear and will be playing DFD next, so reading reviews like this one is interesting, thanks.

  6. @ Stuart: I agree. I believe that the artistic choices are intentional. My question is why? Does it have to be that way?

    @ limpey: No where did I say that nostalgia was a bad thing. But I have a question, and I am truly interested in your answer: If James put out another fantastic old school product next month that was filled with art that looked as though it fell out of a WOTC product, would you comment to James that the art is crap?

    @ nextautumn: If I didn’t state it in my review, I’ll state it now: My opinion of the art is purely subjective. I am 100% sure that there are lots of people who really like it. James obviously does, or he wouldn’t have included it.

    @ David: You bring up an interesting point. But my question is this (which is basically the same question that I asked limpey above): Would “new-looking” art in an otherwise old-school masterpiece really alienate the majority of the old school crowd? Really? If so, what does that say about the old school crowd?

  7. @Nick

    I see your line of thinking here but honestly I believe the questions about what if James utilized WotC art are moot. There's a stylistic difference between old school and new, and trust me, you're not going to see Jalo's art on the next 4e book either. What does that say about the new school? Only what we already know - that form and function are often artistically married to produce a certain effect.

  8. what does that say about the old school crowd?

    Perhaps it says we largely a bunch of people who share similar tastes and preferences. You infer it's a negative thing. Your preference = good, our preference = bad. This right after you said "My opinion of the art is purely subjective". Yes, well so is the opinion of many old schoolers. I don't see the difference here.

    Would “new-looking” art in an otherwise old-school masterpiece really alienate the majority of the old school crowd?

    That I don't know. I would doubt it. The cover of James Maliszewski's The Cursed Chateau is very un-old school and personally I don't like it much, but it didn't stop me buying the product. And it won't make any difference to the enjoyment I'll get when I use it. I think it's very easy and unfair to confuse people's tastes and preferences, with their actions and opinions towards others.

    Sometimes it seems to me that we old school types are in a lose-lose situation. Some people seem to think that if a person likes something old, they're a pathetically nostalgic, an out-of-touch fundamentalist. But if another person likes something new, they are open-minded, easy-going folk. This throws all talk of subjectiveness and personal preference out the window, besides the fact that it lacks any real logic. It's sad or funny that often the very people accusing the old fuddy duddies of intolerance, are actually being intolerant themselves (and I'm NOT levelling an accusation here at any individual).

    The only logic in the subject of artwork is the marketing side of things - what style will help to sell the most product to the widest audience? And to be honest, for some people, especially within a small niche, that might not be something they're actually interested in or care about.

    I know some people can't grasp this, as they think that happiness comes from success, which comes from making as much money as possible. "You don't care if more than 30 or 50 people buy your product? What a loser, you must be insane. Why bother then?" And perhaps people like that will never understand passion. And to clarify once again, I'm not suggesting old school publishers won't or shouldn't try to increase their market. There is no right or wrong when it comes to personal preference.

  9. @ nextautumn: I guess my view of old school is slightly different, and since I am a relative newcomer to the movement, that is quite possible. These discussions have also given me much to think about, and if I fail to adequately articulate my thoughts, I apologize.

    When I use the term “old school” to describe products (or parts or aspects thereof) or aesthetics to differentiate those from “new school” products or aesthetics, that adjective implies a certain look to products, a certain feel, a very definite style of play, and an emphasis on rules-lite games where the DM/GM is allowed more freedom to adjudicate situations at the table. It is typically an adjective that I use, for instance, to describe the types of gaming maps that I prefer to what is seen in products today. My maps are typically black and white line drawings that often have elements in them that appear hand-drawn. Contrast those with maps in products today that are obviously computer generated, full-color, often photo-realistic affairs.

    There is obviously an aesthetic aspect, but for me, the appeal and true strength of the “Old School Movement” is less the aesthetics and more about the game play differences. I prefer the rules-lite, DM-fiat style of play that old school is all about. I LOVE the fact that I could easily roll up characters and, with some dice and a few sheets of paper, play a whole session of (what I personally consider) D&D without having any rulebooks. (I don’t think that 3.X or 4E players could do that, but I think that most, if not all, AD&D and earlier edition players could.)

    I suppose that most people do not split their thoughts on matters old school into those two halves (aesthetic and play style), but I do, and, of the two, play style is the much more important aspect.

    I guess, for me, that form and function do not have to be artistically married to achieve the benefits that I look for in old school gaming.

    @ David: I think that by quoting me out of order (and somewhat out of context) in your response, you have come to some conclusions about what I believe or not. Quoting my “what does that say about the old school crowd” without including the “that” that I am referring to is a bit disingenuous.

    My point was that IF new-looking art WOULD alienate the old school crowd, then, yes, I believe that that is a definite negative thing. Nowhere do I say or mean to imply, as you seem to believe I do, that “My preference = good while yours = bad.”

    With respect to the intolerance issue, I agree with you regarding the irony of people liking old things or new things and others’ opinion of that. I will say, however, that I have already been targeted by a certain amount of intolerance by an ‘old-schooler’ in the comments at LotFP simply because I said that I don’t care much for DFD’s art. Now, to his credit, that individual has since apologized Actually, that reminds me—I need to go and thank him for his apology.

  10. Quoting my “what does that say about the old school crowd” without including the “that” that I am referring to is a bit disingenuous.

    Yes it was, but it wasn't intentional and I didn't realise I'd done it until later re-reading my comment, by which time it was already posted. Sorry about that.

    OK, so let me put it another way. Rightly, or wrongly, there is a kind of double standard here. We are told that most young gamers wouldn't pick up an old school product because of its poor quality arwork (subjective comparison to WotC's offerings) - and that apparently is both ok and understandable. But for old schoolers to do the same, to judge a product on its cover art, well, that is a contemptible thing, a crime almost, or at least indicative of small-mindedness. Throwing the logic of marketing out the window, surely this is a two-way street?

    Not that I personally think it's as big an issue as people make it. Like my example above of James Maliszewki's The Cursed Chateau, the cover art isn't to my taste, but I bought it based on my readings of his blog and the fact that it's a product aimed at my game of preference. I actually believe most fairly intelligent people will purchase an item because it's suitable for the game they play, more than the physical looks of the product. Although maybe this is more true for those playing out-of-print games.

    Anyway Nick, don't be disheartend by the responses to your review. Criticising sacred cows will always elicit a strong response. As I said in my original post, I enjoyed your review and felt it raised some valid points. I look forward to more of your reviews in the future.

  11. @Nick

    Before I reply to your reply to my last post, let me say two things:

    1.Thank you for taking the time to do what is obviously a seriously thought out review of a product I am still considering buying - I appreciate you taking the time to express your opinion with honesty and eloquence.

    2.Thank you for remaining civil and reasonable, even in the face of some criticism. I salute you.

    That said, I must take issue with your response to my last post. You say that "...form and function do not have to be artistically married to achieve the benefits that I look for in old school gaming." But then, when you talk about what old school does mean to you, you say, "It is typically an adjective that I use, for instance, to describe the type of gaming maps that I prefer...typically black and white line drawings that often have elements in them that appear hand drawn..." So...while I will admit that old-school products do not necessarily have to have old-school art to be worthwhile or good (I also bought the Cursed Chateau), you yourself, when you talk about what you look for in an old school product, unconsciously started talking aesthetics. Furthermore, my point was never really that old school products HAD to have old school art - merely that they often did for the same reason that what, for lack of a better term, I'll call new-school products have new school art: namely, because it is customary and usually pleasant and beneficial to marry form and function artistically. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that - whereas I got the impression (perhaps unjustified?) that you felt like there WAS something wrong with old school authors using primarily old school art.

    Thanks again for your honestly, civility and insight. Cheers.

  12. Good review. I was very disappointed in the quality of the map on the .PDF copy I bought, but I loved the adventure.

    I do totally disagree about the artwork, but that is subjective as you readily admit.

    Personally, I was really turned off by the artwork in the 4e player's handbook and DM's guide. I didn't start playing until 2d edition, so this is not nostalgia speaking, but I really had to overcome my dislike for the artwork when I started playing 4e.

  13. @ nextautumn:

    Of course, you caught me in the very conundrum that I experienced while writing the reply, which was the reason that I apologized up front for my inability to articulate my thoughts properly.

    While I use "old school" as an adjective to describe products, especially when comparing them to newer products, I use that phrase because people can immediately understand what I am talking about--especially the aesthetics.

    But when it comes to the "Old School" movement, the most important factor, to me, is the differences in play style and not the aesthetics.

    I guess what I am saying is that I use "Old School" as a shortcut that people readily understand--but for me the biggest benefit of old school gaming is the style of play and NOT the look of the products.

    I hope that this clarifies my response in some way. If it doesn't, I can always try again.