Sunday, March 18, 2012

Our Date with Death Frost Doom

Something had changed, Pognex was certain.  The vague sense of unease he had been experiencing while his companions explored the silent valley beyond the ridge had been replaced with an anxious terror. Something was wrong.  The dwarven pack goats flared their nostrils and their eyes rolled madly in their heads.  It was all the ranger could do to prevent their fleeing down the bare mountain track.  His first instinct was to climb back up the several yards of mountainside to the ridge and peer into the queer, bowl-shaped vale beyond.  A meaningful glance from the enigmatic young girl the party now called "Ellie" rooted Pognex to this spot.  Both she and the goats refused to move closer and the ranger would not leave her alone.

There were now intelligible noises being carried upon the incessant wind which beat against the pair these past hours.  At first they were indistinct but filled with foreboding;  cracking and ripping sounds as if some great thing were being drug upon the bare, frozen ground beyond the ridge.  Now Pognex heard calls and shouts.  Peering once again up toward the ridge he was confronted with a confusing sight.  A silver form rose straight up from the vale and above the ridge, spectrally illuminated in the cold, starry night.  It was steadily moving up toward the patches of quick-moving clouds above.  Pogenx squinted and strained to make out the strange form that, once well above the valley, appeared to be taken up by the wind and pushed toward him.

In a flash the magical blade Nonar left its scabbard and found its home in the half-orc's callused hand.  It glowed and throbbed, anxious for the blood-letting which was its trade.  In a few brief seconds the bipedal nature of the flying thing became apparent.  Two arms and two legs swam clumsily though the autumn night's sky as if through clear, cold water.  It did not appear to be accustomed to movement through the sky.  His practiced eye deciphered the glint of mail and soon the double-bladed sword of his companion Gari Rools.  The fighter was inexplicably airborne, and his mouth moved in warning shouts as his arms and legs pushed through the current of icy cold wind that now propelled him down the mountainside.

"Ellie, get ready to run girl."  Pognex shouted above the scream of the wind.  He looked back over his shoulder to see her rooted to the spot, her mouth working in what appeared to be silent terror, but her words may have been eaten by the wind.  He would carry the child if it came to it.  Turning back in the direction of the vale he noted that Gari had cleared the ridge and was descending rapidly toward him.  He could make out only a few words the frantic, bloodied warrior cast down from the sky.  "Trap". "Dead". "Overwhelmed". "Flee".  As these registered new, dark forms crested the ridge on foot and rapidly made their way down the trail.  Pognex gripped his sword and strode forward to meet them, committed to seeing his friend upon the ground before he himself turned to flee.  The pack goats, now unrestrained by his practiced hand,  fled headlong down the mountain trail. 

The assassin Trabor, the wizard Dulac and Thrax, cleric of Thoth, stumbled toward him.  Trabor was barely afoot, his armor and cloak torn and frayed and his bare skin rent bright with red slashes and abrasions.  "Run!" Thrax boomed, his plate armor bent and bloodied, "they are right upon us."  Pognex sheathed his sword and gathered Ellie into his arms as Gari struck the nearby ground, completing his rapid descent.  The ranger cast one last look over his shoulder as he plowed through the snow-cloaked trail ahead of his companions, just in time to see a long line of moonlit corpses gain the ridge and shamble down the trail after the fleeing forms of the party.

That's where we left it a few weeks back when my party "completed" the module Death Frost Doom.   The player who runs Pognex the ranger missed both sessions that comprised our running of the adventure, so he got to star in the dramatization above.  In case you're curious, Gari Rools got himself aloft with the assistance of a potion of levitation when he had fallen behind the fleeing party and was being surrounded by the horde of recently animated dead.   I had forgotten he possessed it and thought, rather sadly, that the character was soon to die.  The player, however, was clearly on the ball.

What follows is neither a review of the module nor a recounting of my party's activity but rather an explanation of how I prepared and ran the adventure.  You'll probably have to already be familiar with it to get anything of value out of what follows.  This is a rather personal and subjective look at the work, where I try to explain what worked and didn't work for me or my party; what I changed and what I kept the same.  If you think you may play the adventure at some point, there are going to be spoilers ahead so stop now.  If you think you're going to run the adventure at some point, I hope this is of some use to you.

Some Background

I should begin by stating that my group is now comprised of five regulars each playing a character of 4th level.  We have a fighter, a ranger, a cleric, a magic user and an assassin and most nights that we set aside for playing 4 to 5 people will answer the call.  It's a very well-balanced party in terms of class and race abilities.  The players are all, by now, somewhat seasoned hands having played in my game off and on for 5 to 25 years in addition to their exposure to and participation in countless other RPG and geek-related stuff.  I would therefore classify them as a good group of veteran players.


In the interests of full disclosure I must say that my general feeling about published adventures is that on the whole,  they suck.  I have stacks of them, though.  I own or have borrowed and read through most of what's considered "classic" time and time again since I was 14 or so and I always come away feeling somewhat under served.  I have, therefore, almost never used a module in its entirety to any great effect.  I do steal ideas from them.  A trap, a hook, a character or circumstance or encounter... published modules are best used as a kit to bash and mangle for my own purposes, is my long-held view.  Death Frost Doom as-is, though, is presented and constructed well enough that I pretty much used it as intended with only a few significant changes to better suit my needs.  I think, in sum, it's a great module. 

The Set Up

When I first read through the adventure, I was impressed with how the author was able to establish and maintain tension right up until the climax.  What concerned me, though, was that it may have been overdone a bit.  That is, the wise party familiar with horror tropes could investigate the cabin that constitutes the module's opening "level", possibly experiencing the outer temple below, and then decide to leave.  These are smart players that I run, and while they're up for adventure because that's what adventurers do they have faced enough significant setbacks when taking their explorations too lightly, or simply when bad luck has intervened, to take their risks with calculation.  Being given no sufficient motivation for further exploration in Death Frost Doom, they would possibly decide that the implied risks of the subterranean temple outweighed the possible rewards and move on.  The experience described here reinforced my fears and was probably the most helpful review of all that I had read to aid me when prepping the adventure.

So in setting the party up to play Death Frost Doom I knew I couldn't just drop it onto the map and let them stumble across it somehow, sandbox style; or worse yet simply say, "here is tonight's adventure."  They needed a reason to go.  This is no hard feat, however, for the ongoing and well-established campaign.  I waited for a time when the party wanted to know something... something big and important to them.  I placed a learned wizard and sage in their path who had this information and would exchange it for a sought-after McGuffin that was conveniently placed in an area Raggi prepared for this very circumstance, upon the altar in room 22.  That the wizard was a member of my party magic user's order and that the order had an ancient connection to the cult housed below the cabin on the mountainside made the quest that much more personal, at least for one player. Viola, the party is selling off their horses and tack for dwarven pack goats and cold weather gear. 

The only possible downside to this approach is that it virtually ensures that the party will spring the biggest trap ever unless they are particularly clever and resourceful in avoiding it while capturing the McGuffin and leaving.  I happen to think, though, that the whole point of Death Frost Doom is in the springing of this trap and to not do so would be something of a let down.  As a DM familiar with the module, wouldn't you feel compelled to explain to the party the hell they avoided should they not spring the trap?  Should they rather leave the temple relatively unscathed save a curse or two, with armloads of treasure, the McGuffin in hand and an almost half-apologetic dismissal of "that wasn't so bad after all that build up, now, was it?" regarding the night's gaming... wouldn't you want to drop an "oh, yeah" on them and push the curtain aside to show them what they barely missed?  I would have.  Certainly.Thankfully, I didn't have to.

The possibly hackneyed fictionalized account I endeavored to regale you with above reeks of the sort of things that make up a satisfying adventure to me.  The party is  resource strained, far from any hope of aid or security with a slathering horde of brain-starved zombies on their heels.  They feel the terror, right now.  The players, I mean.  I hope they'll be sweating the next running.  I am.

Here's the thing about Death Frost Doom: aside from being an excellent little adventure in it's own right, it's greatest strength may be in its ability to set up even more opportunity for adventure or campaign-altering situations after its primary action has been conducted.  It can be something of a game changer for you.

My Changes

For starters the opening encounter with Zeke Duncaster I found to be somewhat unnecessary.  Its not that the idea of some crazy old coot chiseling away at headstones in the shadow of the valley of doom didn't appeal to me; its that Zeke Duncaster trying to first convince and then physically restrain the party from exploring the cabin worked at cross-purposes to what was hopefully going to happen when I ran it.  I loved everything about Zeke except what Zeke would reasonably and logically endeavor to do should the party show up and mention heading up to the cabin.  Raggi suggests that Zeke could not be home when the party finds his lean-to, but still makes it likely that the old codger would eventually show if they hung around.  The author seemed to really enjoy this character and wanted him there to help establish the tone.  I did too, only Zeke served me better as a corpse.

That's right, the party never got to hear Zeke's warnings because they discovered him cold and stiff amongst his bed-things, such as they were.  He died of natural causes, however, so went in relative dignity.  They found his craftwork, and the animal skins and the nearby pile of guts and even some strange writing in the characters of the Duvan' Ku.   In this manner Zeke presented a puzzle to solve while still establishing the tone and beginning the building of tension.   No wild eyed prophesies of certain doom.  Just subtle hints at it.  Death suited him.

Perhaps more shocking is that I also deep-sixed the entire Greater Tombs area including any mention or appearence of Cyrus Maximus.   You might be saying to yourself, "Well hell, that changes everything then." and in a way I suppose you're right.  I felt like the entire encounter was not only unnecessary but actually detracted from what I considered to be a nearly perfectly constructed situation up until that point.

The whole adventure is something of a trap.  You can lead your players into it like I chose to, by placing the much sought after item in the bad, bad mojo room or you can let them hang themselves by giving them no reason whatsoever to explore the place and see what they can manage to smash and grab before they leave.  In either event if they make it to room 22 and manage to silence the enigmatic and alien creature keeping all hell from breaking loose you should let them live with the consequences, but give them a way out of their own devising.  Meeting Cyrus and striking the bargain to me was a total cop-out.  At that point the party has no real choice at all, do they?

So insetad of the greater tombs area and the danger awaiting them there a single secret door from area 22 led instead to an escape tunnel that led out the sheer side of the mountain.  The party with enough rope, enough balls and enough luck might make it out alive that way.  The other way would be to have shut all of the tomb doors and left the temple area as soon as the coral-plant creature was slain and the McGuffin attained... then run and fight your way through the throng of undead on the surface.  My party chose the latter course.

Actual Play

The adventure specifies a rather broad range of levels (1 through 6) and allows for quite a few players.  I'd say Raggi has this about right, even if you were to modify nothing and run it as-is.  That said, a clever party leaning closer to 6th level with an array of magic items and spells at their disposal might make an easy night of a running.  My 4th level party had their hands full, though, so even with me cutting out the worst of the baddies in the greater tomb it worked out rather nicely.

The modified Zeke encounter came off beautifully and the rest of the adventure pretty much followed suit.  Here and all throughout the running the experience was compared favorably to some of the best in horror and suspense, and for that Raggi must be congratulated.  Aliens... Living Dead, Walking Dead & Evil Dead... Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Lovecraft were all brought up at one point or another.  I'm probably missing a few other references.  It seems clear to me these things were on James Raggi's mind (or in his subconscious) when he wrote this thing, and that shined through as we played it. 

The issue of whether or not to leave once the cabin and temple were breached came up more than once.  I only once allowed a brief, suggestive smile to crack my stoic facade while they struggled with the ideas of staying or going.  Otherwise, while they debated leaving or not I remained mostly passive, shuffling papers and pretending disinterest.    They each time decided to press on, but it was close once or twice.

The party was at all times on edge, often confused and more than a little freaked out.  They deduced correctly at one point that having faced no resistance to their foray into the temple there was something significantly bad awaiting them by adventure's end.   Thrax's player also correctly suspected that the silent, dead-filled tombs would factor into the badness and was careful to prop open the door leading into the tomb area but close all doors leading to actual tombs.  His foresight probably saved all of their character's lives.

Much of the adventure played out as you might expect, but as some effects have yet to be revealed to my players I'll refrain from too much detail.  I changed little else of importance aside from what I described above.  In the end, the coral plant creature was child's play to master, lobbing magic from a distance before closing in to hack it to pieces.  Of course, killing the creature was not the end of their terror, only the beginning.

The party very quickly deduced that ending the creature, and the noise, was a bad sign.  As they quickly made it out of the tomb areas, McGuffin and loot in hand, the dead were just rising but still safely locked away.  Some of the great bronze doors shook and the wheels which opened them were worked by unpracticed hands on the other side.  Here the players began to fully appreciate just what they had done and the adventure really sang.  They ran and climbed up the shaft until their arms, legs and lungs burned with the effort.  Breaking forth from the cabin into a valley filling with the rising dead was an in-game moment I think we'll all have burned into our memories for all of our playing lives to come.  It was that awesome. 

I suspect giving the party a chance at fighting their way out of the valley might be considered something of a cop-out to some, but I argue that the vampire body-guard is a bigger one.  They had no easy time of it, let me assure you... I made it hard on them and only their quick thinking, resourcefulness and a little bit of luck saw all members of the expedition still alive as they gained the ridge as described at the start of this post.  When next we resume play they will be struggling to survive their descent down the mountain and return to civilization.  The tension, terror and memorable times ahead are worth anything I may have lost with the changes I made to the adventure.

But it's not really my changes that made the two nights we spent playing memorable.  Raggi himself provided most of the ingredients even if I did shuffle them around a bit.  Aside from what credit is always due the DM and players for making the material come alive, there is the credit due the author. In this case its James Raggi, who may have penned my very favorite adventure module.  Thanks James, for a great couple of nights of gaming.







5 comments:

  1. I love the fact you have the role players equivalent of a subs bench for your games :)

    Though I don't know how I'd feel about being in that list and never getting a call to play?

    Nice post - well done :)

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    1. Everybody on the list gets the call each time, how many we get has to do with what's going on in the real wolrd for us. I've recently been laying out a playing schedule months in advance so I can make sure to plan around having at least bi-weekly games. This also gives my players, all of them adults with jobs and family commitments, time to hopefully do likwise. Things come up, though, obviously.

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  2. This was a great adventure and a great post!

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  3. We made some mistakes, but we made it out alive... for now. We have yet to discover the true damage we may have caused. The funny thing is, we did contemplate the noise and its effect on the dead/graves... we just didn't connect it all and follow through with carefulness.

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    1. Robert, I actually felt that you guys handled the adventure beautifully. Almost everybody shone at one time or another, its been a real pleasure for me to run games for the crew again since we started back up.

      Not least of all those shining was you in producing that potion of levitation when you were encircled by zombies and going down like a non-speaking role on "Walking Dead". Talk about an "oh shit, what do I have on my character sheet that can help me" moment.

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