Category Archives: Reviews

Death Frost Doom Review

Death Frost Doom is curious book with an interesting history. This adventure launched Lamentations of the Flame Princess back in 2009. Originally written by James Raggi, it was subsequently revised by Zak Smith/Sabbath. It is a clever, unique adventure, and unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Centered around a mountain from which a nefarious cult used to operate, Death Frost Doom quickly ratchets up the tension and refuses to let up. From the moment the players set foot near the peak of the mountain, littered with grave stones and on which a petrified and frozen cabin rests, they are confronted and challenged by a relentlessly bleak dungeon. This is a harrowing adventure, and one from which it is difficult to emerge while still calling yourself a hero.

I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible, because Death Frost Doom deserves to be experienced. It is a work of art, but not some still life of flowers or prosaic rendition of people merrily strolling in the park. This is a Hieronymus Bosch painting, full of detail and color and terrible ugliness and absolutely in your face. It is designed to challenge you as a player. As a dungeon master it is plain FUN to run.

Originally designed to be system agnostic, you will need to do some lifting to port Death Frost Doom into the rule set of your choice. I ran it as an adventure for 13th Age after being thoroughly dissatisfied with Shadows of Eldolan, an adventure supplement for that game dealing with the undead. I wanted something rough. Gritty and confrontational. I found that in Death Frost Doom.

Pros:

  • The setting is grim. Dark. Bleak. You are investigating a tomb and it is a terrible and somber affair. This books oozes with darkness and despair. From the moment the players hit the grave laden landscape near the summit to their entrance into the greater tombs containing the secrets of cult at the core of the adventure, they are forced to interact with a relentlessly vile environment and the creatures responsible for its creation.
  • This is a beautifully written book. It is simply an enjoyable read. Despite being short, it is incredibly dense.  I ran it for weeks, and feel like it could have gone on longer. Ultimately, I was operating under a time constraint, but I’m satisfied by the time I spent with it. This is all the more impressive given that Death Frost Doom is digest sized and weighs in at a scant 64 pages. The authors waste very little of their limited resources.
  • The art serves the book well. The interior illustrations are great. The cover, while not a masterpiece of technical showmanship, complements the interior and highlights the frozen and bleak nature of the setting. On reading the adventure you gain a real sense of appreciation for how it was executed.
  • The story within Death Frost Doom rewards you for peeling back its layers. It is harsh and sorrowful and evil. This is not a Dungeons & Dragons style stomp the evil into the ground adventure. You get dirty. You find out things you would rather not know. Magic is bloody and terrible and awful and powerful. This cult is a real face of profane evil and not some thinly veneered bad guy that you need to confront because the story says so. There are numerous Chekhov’s Gun moments in this adventure, where an earlier scene or item is called back to in a way that imparts deeper meaning. When the party meets the sacred parasite, several things they saw and interacted with in the chapel impart additional meaning and depth to the scene. The entire chapel is just a masterpiece in slowly building horror and ratcheting up tension. You can run entire sessions just in that one room.
  • The adversaries is Death Frost Doom are grotesque and horrific in all the right ways. By the time the party enters the Tombs of Greater Repugnancies, they have encountered so much of the handiwork of these foul undead creatures that seeing them in person imparts gravitas and revulsion at witnessing their corrupted flesh. These monsters did this to themselves, and they revel in their vile debasement.
  • Value. Despite how brief this book is, you could easily use it to launch an entire campaign. For under $20 hardcover or less than $10 for a pdf you get an adventure unlike any other. It is hard to understate the utility of this book.

Cons:

  • There are some traps in the game that are decidedly Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Deadly and random. At times punitive rather than encouraging careful exploration. While that is fine for a Lamentations game, for other game systems/groups, you may need to dial these down. I label this as a con from a personal standpoint. Other people enjoy meat grinder style dungeons, but it is worth calling out so that you know what you are getting into. I personally do not like when merely touching something causes a 50% chance for each member of the party in the room to die. It is simple enough to remedy, which is ultimately what I did for my play through.
  • There is very little combat, until there is ALL the combat. The first half of the dungeon is a tense and atmospheric exploration. Then you have an encounter and all hell breaks loose. The pandemonium is great, but the tonal shift can really throw people off. The enemies are clearly a major challenge for Lamentations PCs, but you need to port them to the system of your choice and potentially dial them back if you want the players to have a fighting chance. I was running this game for new players and people familiar with more heroic systems.  Ultimately, I did weaken the enemies, like the traps, but even in that state, I received several comments about how harsh these opponents were.
  • Jokes. There are jokes in this book, and for the most part they fall flat. They undercut the horror and make a mess of an otherwise masterful tome. Ignore them when you can, because they really bring nothing to the table. The most egregious example of this centers around the organ in the chapel. Entirely too much space is spent on what happens when different songs are played on it, and the inclusion of modern music really took me out of the moment while reading. While Inna Gadda Da Vida by Iron Butterfly is a great classic rock song with an incredibly indulgent organ solo, it is included solely so the authors can make a joke about moths pouring out of the organ and attacking you. The moment someone in my group starts talking about playing Hall and Oates You Make my Dreams like keyboard cat, I will stand up, walk into the bathroom, down two bottles of Xanax I keep for just such an occasion, and end it all.

I want to stress that Death Frost Doom is, at is core, a horror adventure. It will confront and challenge you. It is not pretty. It is not easy. But damn if it is not fun. I give this adventure my highest possible recommendation.

GenCon Vampire 5th Edition Alpha Playtest

Greetings, cultists and devotes. The Full Metal RPG ecclesiarchy  attended the most recent GenCon, the 50th Anniversary. Our merry company of rot and corruption answered the call of our good friends at the Wrecking Crew to assist in demoing the newest iteration of a game near to our black hearts – Vampire: The Masquerade

The alpha edition comes with a scenario to play through titled Rusted Veins, a coterie of characters for use in playing the scenario, and a new rule set. Written by Matt Dawkins, Rusted Veins takes you back to city of Gary, Indiana, used as the setting for the prior adventures “Ashes to Ashes” and “Dust to Dust”, and focuses on the machinations of the nominally Camarilla Prince Modius and his rival, the Anarch Baron Juggler.

Gary is an economically devastated city. It has passed through Late Stage Capitalism directly into Terminal Stage Capitalism. Situated firmly in the Midwestern Rust Belt, it is a town where there occurred a systemic breakdown at nearly every level: Governmental, economic, corporate, and social. Abandoned factories line the riverfront like tombstones denoting the death of the American heartland, and driving down any major street yields a view of decaying buildings stretching out before you like a mouth full of broken teeth. No one stays in Gary because they want to, they remain because they have to. For kindred it is much the same. Anyone with any skill or ambition left long ago for the more urbane destinations of Chicago or Milwaukee, leaving Modius and Juggler to their squabbles.

I will avoid discussing the plot in any detail, as I am almost certain they will make this play-kit publicly available at some point for you, dear reader, to experience. Suffice to say, it starts with a pretty basic fetch quest handed to the coterie from on high, and then things take a turn for the worse. Every group I ran through the scenario ended it differently. It was fascinating how people interpreted the characters and how they had them behave as they moved through the world. There are a couple obvious stand out characters with regard to the story, who are absolutely essential to have in the game, and two who suffer a bit in terms of agency and interaction with the main arc. You could easily not have them played at all and it would not affect how the scenario runs. The remaining two characters are what you make of them, and can either be along for the ride or a serious thorn in the side of others if they chose to be.

Rules Alterations

There are a couple key changes you notice right away when looking at one of the provided character sheets. First off, willpower is now rated 1-5, not 1-10. There is a new trait, Composure, that replaces Conscience, Courage, and Self Control. Finally, there is no more blood pool, only a series of check-boxes listed as Hunger. We will examine these topics in the subsections below.

Dice Pools and Success

Dice pools are assembled as usual, with an attribute + a skill giving you the total number of dice to roll. Different colored Hunger die are placed into the pool first, one a one to one basis with the characters current Hunger rating. More on Hunger below. You round out the pool with normal dice and roll. Anything showing a 6+ is a success, and difficulty is the total number of successes you need on a roll to achieve your goal.

A roll of two or more 10 results on your normal dice is considered an exceptional success. 10s no longer explode, and 1s do not cancel out 10s. The botch mechanic is gone.

If you come up one success short on a roll, you may Succeed at Cost. You accomplish your goal, but you generate a complication in doing so. It is up to the player and storyteller to determine what that means. For example, if you are breaking into a house, you may succeed, but you drop your wallet as you enter, leaving it behind.

Willpower

Willpower is no longer spent for extra dice on a roll. Instead willpower is spent to re-roll any dice you would like to on a roll. You can keep any dice that show a success and only re-roll the failures. Given how powerful this mechanic is, it makes sense the willpower pool is now smaller. It can have a huge impact on the game when employed correctly.

Hunger

Hunger is an abstract representation of the current state of the kindred you are playing. As you employ disciplines and heal, you make hunger rolls to do so. A roll of 4+ and you are fine. The power activates or you heal a point of superficial damage. On 1-3 result, you active your power or heal, but you first increase your Hunger by 1. This increases the number of Hunger Dice in your dice pool.

Hunger dice have a couple of mechanical ticks. A roll of 1 or 2 is called a Fang result. Roll two fangs, and you have generated a Compulsion. Compulsions represent your vampiric nature coming to the fore, and are aptly named. They represent a complication for your character and how that character interacts with others and the world.

In practice, complications either need to occur more frequently, or have their severity increased to have any meaningful impact on the game. I only had two complications show up in all five games I ran, and they had no real impact on how the characters worked beyond one of the Brujah being slightly more punch happy, and said Brujah was already pretty punch happy.

A roll of one or more 10 results on your hunger dice represents a Messy Critical. A Messy Critical is as close as the new system comes to a botch. You succeed at what you were trying to do, but at great cost to yourself. In one of my games I had a character generate a messy critical when attacking a police officer with feral claws. I ruled he killed the man, but in so doing got his hands stuck in the officers body armor and was going to have to spend time and take damage extricating himself from the situation. A messy situation when you are surrounded by his armed, angry friends and wearing him as a bracelet. An exceptional success always overrides a Messy Critical.

As a final note, having Hunger rolls, a Hunger meter, and Hunger dice all having similar names but representing functionally different things caused a lot of confusion among the players. I eventually went back to calling Hunger rolls Rousing the Blood from the pre-alpha rule-set, and that helped a lot. Hunger and Hunger dice are linked enough that keeping their names the same worked out well.

Composure

Composure is rolled to resist frenzy and spent to avoid compulsions. The compulsions encountered in my play-throughs were never bothersome enough to warrant spending composure to resist them. For frenzy, you roll your current composure, seeking to roll under your humanity for the die to be considered a success. Thematically, this works well, as it represents less humane vampires being closer to their beast, and thus more likely to frenzy. From a rules perspective, this is an inversion of the usual process and caused a great deal of confusion for my players when we encountered it.

Humanity

Humanity has has significant alterations. It is still rated 1-10, but gone are the Hierarchy of Sins. Instead you have Touchstones, which are three mortals who hold special meaning to your characters. Having a touchstone be damaged causes you to lose a humanity. Having a touchstone destroyed loses two. If you are responsible for the injury or death, you lose more. Embracing a human causes you to lose an additional humanity. The worst case scenario, then, is to embrace your own touchstone. That will set you back quite a ways on your humanity track. Effectively you can kill humans when feeding or in combat without any effect. It is up to the Storyteller to decide when your character does something so heinous that she wishes to impose a humanity loss for the action.

Other Rules

There are changes to Initiative and Combat, but I don’t want to bog down too deeply into those, as I consider them ancillary to a Horror game. Necessary, but not the primary focus. Suffice to say, combat is fast and deadly. Vampires can destroy humans easily. All is right in the world for people who want to rip off someone’s jaw bone and beat them to death with it. Celerity level 1 is almost comically broken in a gunfight. I am hoping someone takes a look at it and either addresses it with regard to multiple combatants or changes the wording entirely.

Final Thoughts

The new vampire promises to be very good, even exceptional provided they continue their strong writing and focus on noir urban horror. As the global jyhad rescinds into the background, a more personal struggle for survival in the final nights takes center stage. The world is relentlessly bleak and the future is anything but certain. Welcome to YOUR World of Darkness.

Episode 28 – Beneath – The Inverted Church Kickstarter Review

In this episode Brendan and Ben keep it short and sweet with an in depth discussion of what’s new with gaming followed by a review of Justin Sirois’ Beneath: The Inverted Church currently gathering pledges on Kickstarter. And homie, let me tell you, it’s a doozey! So check out the episode and consider hitting up Kickstarter and maybe grabbing yourself a copy. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll barf up chunks. Is this Wayne’s World? Did you read to the bottom? Congratulations! No listen to the episode.

Music by Legion and a couple tracks from the latest Ghost album. Enjoy, striplings!