This adventure will kill you… and why that’s a good thing.
A few weeks ago I had the itch to do some tabletop gaming, so I invited a few of my friends and coworkers to a session. They all had been previously unexposed to the world of D&D and its ilk, aside from what can be gleaned from pop culture and pointed social commentary from the 1980’s, but they each had expressed an interest in giving it a shot. The problem was that I left most of my notes, books, dice sets, and files back in the states, so I was struck with a limited amount of options as far as pen and paper adventuring goes. Luckily however, I still had a few resources that I could use saved on my netbook, specifically the Lamentations of the Flame Princess ruleset and the ridiculously difficult, horrifying, and brutal module Death Frost Doom (More on that later).
LoTFP is a modern take on old school RPGs designed to be used for harrowing tabletop adventures that take no prisoners and that shies away from many of the player-empowering systems that have become commonplace in modern gaming, both digital and tabletop. In LoTFP, players are fragile and must rely soundly on their wits rather than on the roll of a die or a sheet of powerful abilities. It’s a great system that focuses on simplicity and allows the GM and players a lot of room to make decisions and judgement calls. In fact, if you want a great read on old-school sentimentality and tips on how to run a session based more on good roleplaying, observational skills, and decision making, check out this piece by Matthew Finch. The booklet is specifically for original D&D but its principles can be applied to pretty much any system, and can be useful to help prepare veteran and novice game masters (or players) alike in improving or beginning an old school session.
Looking back on it, an eclectic mix of old school gaming rules and a notoriously difficult module kind of sounds like a lot to dump on a set of new players with no tabletop RPG experience. However, I couldn’t have been happier with the results. My friends were immediately enthralled by how they could interact with the dangerous world, and what’s more, they treated the brutality of the dungeon with a level of respect and attention that is generally difficult to get a party to show. They even bought the 10 foot pole, and actually used it as much as they could. And for a group of new players way in over their heads delving one of the most challenging dungeons I’ve ever seen, they were so, so close to getting out of there just in time with limited curses upon them and a boatload of expensive loot. Of course, close doesn’t quite cut it sometimes, and a simple mistake led to a TPK (total party kill) and an undead horde being unleashed upon the world above. My initial reaction was to look for what I had done wrong as a GM, because generally everyone dying horrifically doesn’t really make for much fun. However, even with the consequences of their actions, the players were enthused and ready to roll another set of characters so they could jump back in as soon as possible. And what’s more, beginning their campaign with a party wipe sets a precedent for the rest of the sessions we will play: that if you want to gain power and wealth from the world around you, it is going to do it’s best to end you. I also feel like a good amount of their enthusiasm could be due to the party being taken in by tabletop gaming’s minimal boundaries and imaginative possibilities, but there absolutely is an undeniable extra spark that playing this old school adventure with an old school ruleset has brought.
Many times when beginning D&D campaigns or adventures, players will mill about the world in a bit of lackadaisical manner. I’m not downplaying the fun factor of this style or disparaging it in any way, but it does tend to lead to a more loosey-goosey, madcap style of play where the players and GM feel like anything goes. And while anything does indeed go in LoTFP and even in Death Frost Doom, the difference is that the consequences are very present, and very grave. The low HP, simple abilities, and general frailty of the players in LoTFP sets a very different kind of tone for player capability than the 4th or even 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons rules. The players that it spawns are not demi-gods who stride proud above the general masses, who can conquer dragons and fight ten enemies at once; they’re pretty much just people. They might be good at one thing or another, and might even know a little bit of magic, but when it comes down to it, they’re a speck on the map just like anyone else at the end of the day. This sounds like it would be kind of a drag, but it actually works to the advantage of the game and ends up creating what I feel is a greater level of engagement. This is because we, as tiny human beings ourselves, have an easier time identifying and empathizing with the struggles of characters who are maybe not as fast as a speeding bullet, and maybe are a little less wise then an ancient wizard, and who possibly cannot break through solid rock with their hands. Yet, in LoTFP the players still have plenty of potential to get to those levels of capability but not without a lot of work, a lot of struggle and no shortage of luck.
Yeah, power fantasies are fun and have value as parables of moral integrity and bravery in the face of inexorable darkness, but the difference between them and less forgiving interactive experiences lie in how the world is constructed. In the former, the world is generally just and benign at its core, but is threatened by an exterior source of darkness, which the players must defend against. In the latter the darkness is innate within the world itself, it’s not entirely understood or even comprehensible, and the players are just another part of it, frantically battling against the gnashing teeth of the strange and dangerous world outside. Once again, both of those can be valid and engaging ways to tell or play a story, and I do not feel like the tale of a band of intrepid adventurers banding together to overcome adversity and darkness is a bad or uninteresting story in the slightest. I would venture to say though, that most of us can empathize with the fear and wonder of being stuck in a wild world that we don’t fully understand more than the responsibility of standing as a capable and powerful hero against evil. Then again, I may not speak for everyone here, and we like the stories that we like, and we empathize with what resonates most. I have just found in my own experience that the more difficult a challenge, the more rewarding it is to succeed and the more tension is built in the pursuit of success.
Death Frost Doom hits this nail on the head and then goes even further. Not only is it a horrifying and dark crawl through some of the most disturbing and grotesque moments I’ve seen utilized in a game, but it also is a breeding ground for serious long-term consequences. To start a campaign off with this adventure is to set the players up for a series of incredibly difficult and interesting problems that they must solve. Some of which, the players won’t even become aware of until days or weeks after they walk out of the dungeon… on the off chance that they do walk out of it. Death Frost Doom, is a very different beast from modules I’ve run prior to this. But there’s honestly no sense in telling you all about its specifics and giving away all the twisted, cruel, surprises. Instead, I’m going to just leave a link here where you can purchase the adventure and suggest that you give it a read for yourself. If you prefer to be on the other side of the table, get it for your group’s GM as an early Halloween present and let them run it for you. To give a little perspective on the module, the first time I played it, about two hours in, one of our party members was turned into a heaping pile of squirming eyeballs.
10/10. Would delve again.
Good luck, and Good gaming.