Recently, I've been watching through a BBC series, The Nazies and the Final Solution. It's fairly remarkable in that it adds considerable detail to a subject that I've always thought was treated cursively and repetitively by most documentaries. I suggest having a look at it. Overall, the subject tends to get under my skin and raises my anger, making it difficult to watch at times, but I concentrate on the knowledge gained. I don't wish to close my eyes to it.
With the close of the third episode, which I saw last night, my partner and I had a discussion about certain facets of the Nazi plan. She pointed out that she was interested in the policy they used of making everything appear very normal, of being polite to everyone who climbed off the trains. The standard trope of Nazis shouting at prisoners and German shepherds with sharp teeth barking just wasn't so. In fact, the soldiers were very gracious. "Please put your belongings here, please stand there, if we could please have the travellers from Warsaw move to the left side of the platform and those from Bialystok to the right ..." and so on.
The greater horror - and horror in terms of roleplay has been up for discussion of late - was that the participants did not see the horror coming, certainly not until they were inside the showers and it was too late to do anything. It did not take long for the camp guards to recognize that a calm, passive face encouraged everyone to move obediently in the direction wished for. It's often asked why the Jews were so complacent about walking into the gas chambers to be slaughtered by the millions.
They did it because the Nazis said, "Please."
And this allows me here to make a brief comment upon the loading up of terrifying elements at the beginnings of D&D modules. And it allows me to comment further upon why a module, even a polite one, wouldn't work on my players.
In a sandbox campaign, where everything is mostly calm and non-threatening as the party moves from town to town, or spends time steadily building up their domains, there's no reason to suspect that I have anything in particular up my sleeve. I could present a circumstance of peacefulness and comfort for the party, and walk them right into Treblinka without batting an eye ... and they'd never see it coming.
But the instant I pull out a module, that's all blown. Unless I want to try to memorize the module, so that I can speak it without having to look at notes, the party knows I have something planned, and they won't trust a damn thing I say.
In an ordinary sandbox campaign, the bartender can approach the party, offer a taste of the latest import that's just come in, suggest there are some unusual qualities in the wine that make it very satisfying, and there's a possibility the party will buy a bottle.
But if I have a module open on my table, and the bartender offers a bottle of wine, then the wine is poisoned, the bartender is a spy for an evil duke, the bar is the headquarters for the Hearteaters of the Flatulent Sphinx and so on and so forth. I have shown my hand and every player has their weapons out and their backs up.
It's no better for all those DMs who are carefully crafting their own adventures, complete with hooks and maps, which are sitting stacked with the books when the DM sits down to the table. Worse, the originating announcement at the start of the evening is usually, "I've just obtained a copy of ..." or "I've been working all weekend on this fellows, hope you like it."
You cannot hope to obtain the sort of terror that possesses a character in a Lovecraftian novel if the character knows from the outset that they are in a Lovecraftian novel! See, the reader knows it, he bought the book at the store in the real world, but the characters have no fucking clue ... they're just going about their daily lives, buying bottles of wine and visiting relatives, utterly oblivious that in the next 140 pages something awful is about to come to light.
It was suggested that my failing at Death Frost Doom stemmed from not properly merging the module with my campaign. It may not have occurred to some - but when reviewing a product, it does little good to make great changes to the product that others wouldn't be able to make if they were to purchase that product. As a reviewer, it is beholden upon me to present the product exactly as written. And as written, the party made it clear that, once presented with the dripping horror of the first few interactions, that they wanted nothing to do with the place. It wasn't Treblinka, you understand.
Railroading the party was the only way to obtain a more thorough review of the material, which is something my party understood. I had no reason to run the module at all except to obtain perspective through which I'd be able to write the review. I had no other agenda. From a personal point of view, no, I wouldn't have run the module at all. But I could hardly write my review about that.
As it happened, when the players did get inside the module, they found it wasn't very scary at all. If they had continued on past room 18, they would have found a series of rooms with various low-level undead, all of whom the party had fought before on previous occasions, ending in treasure. I read these rooms aloud to the party after the insurrection, and their feeling was, "Is that all?"
The trouble is that module-and-planned-adventure thinking has the process entirely backwards. You don't present the party with a nightmare scenario and then reduce the last few bits of it to poking through boxes and cleaning up critters. Bilbo does not walk out his door into a horrorscape. He steps onto a road and starts walking, with rather friendly companions. The first critical scene in the telling of Frodo's story starts with a Birthday Party.
Suppress every sign that the party is about to encounter anything. Hide your maps and your descriptions. Explain that you don't have an adventure planned this week, that we'll just 'wing it.' Try to present the first few aspects of your campaign from memory, and speak the words with an air of dispassion, that you don't care what the party does. Give no sign that anything you have to say has the least importance.
You smooth the feathers of the party down, you make it a nice bottle of wine, you demonstrate that they have nothing to fear by having the bartender sit down and tell them a sad story about how his wife is cheating on him ... and from there you build the story, bit by bit. Please put your things here. Please move to the side here. If I could just have everyone over sixty line up here ... yes, Ma'am, we will be serving dinner in the mess hall immediately after your shower. It's been a very difficult trip for everyone and we'll need to clean up before everyone can enter the camp ..."