Monday, October 25, 2010

Insurrection At Death Frost Doom

Death Frost Doom is a module produced by James Raggi, which was provided for me a little more than a week ago. This is my second review for a work of his. The first was written last week and can be read here.

Unlike that review, some of this writing will include very moderate spoilers, none of which will be genuinely understood by those who have not read or seen the module. However, the gentle reader should be able to obtain a sense for how the module runs, and how I and my party viewed it.

I ran this module, for my party, two days ago on Saturday. The reason I must allow for some spoilers is because my main purpose for writing this review is not only to give my impression of the module, but more specifically the party's impression. From the title of the post, you should be able to guess that the party did not take it well.

I decided to run this module of the other three I had available because a portion of my players characters is at present wandering its way westward through central Europe in late November, so an ice-cold, snowy adventure was in order. In order to 'encourage' my players to actually play the module - it was understood up front that I would be presenting it - I knew that there would have to be a certain degree of railroading the party into playing it. This is definitely not my style. However, it was done lightheartedly, and the players went along with it, with the understanding that this would not be typical.

Without getting at all deep into it, the 'hook' of the module is that there is a crypt/cult temple on top of a mountain that promises treasure. Player involvement is expected to be voluntary ... but for my party I whipped up a great two day blizzard that stranded them at Zeke's cabin, and used elements of the module to compel them to investigate the crypt or else suffer consequences.

The hook is delivered by a hermit Zeke Duncaster, who talks about how evil the crypt is, and how evil the area is around the crypt, and how many people were killed, and how horrific things are up around the cabin up the mountain, and so on. When I read the module, I found all of this terrifically interesting, and my first impressions of the module were very positive. I looked forward to sitting down and playing up the horror, of the various elements that would bring on the creepiness of the adventure. I considered the elements as they were laid out - at least above ground - to be creative, distracting and legitimately profound.

The party, however, did not think so.

When they learned that the hermit had been setting up grave markers for the thousands of dead, and that he'd been doing this for some time, living for decades nearby the site, the party answered, "Well, Zeke seems to have everything under control. Let's get the fuck out of here."

They wanted nothing to do with the site, with its treasure, or with any investigations thereof. It seemed like the stupidest idea in the world to go anywhere near the place, and they only did because I railroaded them. In any ordinary circumstance they would have moved on. But they doggedly turned to invest themselves in the module, without much complaining.

We talked it over at that point and the party's sentiments was that the horror played for the module was thing upon thing upon thing - to the point of stupidity. The party explained that they were not stupid teenagers in a slasher flick, but rather people who actually appreciated their lives and were smart enough to stay the fuck away from a place like that. "Why don't we just go to the next big city, tell a bunch of high level clerics that this thing is here and have them fix it?"

Which is, as I said in my previous review, the equivalent of pulling off the planet and nuking the place from orbit. As I encouraged them to go ahead anyway, they wanted to know, "If it is inside the borders of a powerful empire (and it is), then how is it our problem?"

Thus, the railroading.

Arriving on site with the initial part of the adventure, that which happens above ground, I discovered problem #2 with the module.

Virtually all of it is fiddling-dependent. By that, I mean that the description for virtually everything the players encounter depends upon player-motivated interaction. The module spends pages describing all these things, mostly saying, "If the players ..." do or touch or move or sleep or rest or try or whatever else. Here's the clock, here's the book, here's the tree, here's the well, here's the cabin, here's the painting, and if the players play with the stuff, it does this or that or the other thing.

Problem is, if the players don't do a goddamn thing, because their mammas didn't raise no stupid children, it takes about thirty fucking minutes to go through the entire first part of the adventure. And most of that is me reading descriptions. Describing the clock and describing the tree and describing the well and the cabin and what the hell else, while the players went "That's interesting." and then walked away without doing anything. I could talk about all the things they didn't do, but that would spoilers throughout ... what I can say is that if the players don't fiddle with all the interesting compelling features in the adventure, NOTHING HAPPENS.

Now, maybe I missed something. Maybe I didn't describe the wondrous detail of the objects enough to encourage people to get interested in things ... except that I know from the party that it's more likely that I described things too well. I described the tree in detail, and so the party didn't want to go anywhere near the thing. I described the book in detail, and the party treated it like a dangerously fragile explosive device. They didn't rearrange the furniture because they were scared out of their fucking wits ... and they wanted to get the hell away from the place for the same reason. Except they couldn't, because I was forcing them to stay.

Well they knew I was, didn't they? It's not hard to tell when a DM wants you to walk into a pre-written adventure ... suddenly it’s snowing or there's an army parked over the hill or someone gets kidnapped and the party has to go get him or whatever else forces you to stay. That's the whole thing with a DM. You know it's the DM ... and not a random, disconnected chance. So the truth about the module is PDC: the Party Doesn't Care.

And so, they wouldn't play with anything, and we zipped through this part. We had another discussion about that, i.e., does anyone want to investigate further, and the party explained that no, they saw no real value in doing that, it seemed a stupid thing to do and no way were they going to 'try' things they found. I guess they must love their characters.

So we had a break, and began part two, underground.

Well, here the module lapses into an age-old module formula: put the players to sleep. Have the players stagger around in empty room after empty room, until they are so goddamn tired of walking into rooms and searching around and finding nothing, they get careless and do something stupid, getting themselves killed.

Holy shit did the party complain.

Continuous cries of "What the fuck!" and "Give me a fucking break!" and "Of course it’s another fucking empty room!" went on for quite some time. Between mapping and problem solving and reading descriptions, and trying to give any semblance of mystery and time and place, we spent an hour and a half staggering around rooms, most of them steeped in anciently spilled blood. Once again, the party refused to fiddle with anything. They made quite a few references to video game mechanics - which work off the same basic formula - and taking note of the various stages with the battle cry, "Congratulations, you have solved the puzzle that allows you to enter the Main Puzzle!"

They were bored out of their ever-loving minds, and so was I.

It isn't much fun as a DM to just describe and describe shit, with none of it being interactive. There was no chance for dialogue, no chance for a freaking mouse to attack the party, just nothing. Whatever creepiness and sense of doom that was at least hinted at on the surface died an ugly death in the subterranean. For those who have the module, and thus the map, consider that the party repeatedly chose 'left' at every crossroads, that being the principle that they employed towards mapping the place out. And because they went left, left, left, they missed the other big horror in the module that would have made them want to do exactly what they had wanted to do from the very first event: leave. But I won't spoil what that is for those who don't know. Ask your friends.

The final blow was Room 18. I won't go into detail, but the room requires the DM to pull a rather cheap trick on the player characters, with - in an opinion that was held by everyone present - completely stupid results. I wondered how the party was going to respond to it. The overall effect is that it’s supposed to create a moment of panic for everyone, as they try to control one member of the party doing something completely insane. It might have worked, if the motivator for the event hadn't been quite so lame (sorry, no other word for it) ... but after the sheer boredom the party had been tolerating up to that point, an insurrection was staged.

And I mean the party literally rose from the table and refused to play any further. So I called the session closed and bought everyone off with some experience points - in spite of no combat, and hardly any dice rolling, having occurred at any point in the session. This mitigated their ill feelings towards the module and towards ME somewhat.

So the rest of the night, about another two hours, included:

• Me explaining everything they missed (not particularly helpful in making them appreciate the module).

• Everyone bitching about why modules suck and why they will always suck.

• And a refusal to play another module again, period.

So I won't be fulfilling the plan I had to run in one of Mr. Raggi's modules, simply because at this point I have no DM in my acquaintance willing to run it. I feel that overall I would have been more patient with the empty rooms than my party was, but that's mostly because I'm more familiar with modules, I would be well aware of the module's intentions and because, well, I'm older and used to coping with boredom. That's what happens when you get older - you spend so much time dealing with unfilled time, you get better at amusing yourself.

It makes me wonder about the positive feelings I had about the first module I reviewed. Does it play as well as it reads? Mr. Raggi claims to play-test his modules, and I do not doubt him, but I think I need to add a rejoinder that if your party is used to being in control of their activities, question whether or not this, or any module, is for them.

38 comments:

JimLotFP said...

Isn't it a bit obvious that if you chuck down a module in the middle of an ongoing campaign, don't give them a reasonable motivation to go there (the treasure thing is just a "standard FRPG" default) and basically say to them "we're playing this module, suck it up," that no module can possibly work?

The "motivation" part of the module (of all my modules, really) is intentionally vague, because the point of a module is to be integrated into the whole of a campaign, not stick out like a sore thumb (as opposed to many old TSR modules which pretty much saddle the whole thing with a ready-made quest without a care if it makes sense in a campaign).

cyclopeatron said...

Thanks for this very interesting review. Like you, I read through DFD and was impressed by its creative aspects. After reading about your experience, however, I can definitely see how the problems you mentioned would almost surely manifest in my own gaming group as well.

It is very interesting to note that ze bulette had identical problems when he tried to run Raggi's Tower of the Stargazer (READ HERE) - the party just turned around and left The Tower behind.

I think it's a bit pretentious for Raggi to criticize you for not generating a strong enough motivating plot for your party to go through his module. I feel that a module's author should make some attempt to help DMs with this. A good adventure should make players excited and curious, in my opinion.

ChicagoWiz said...

Ironically, Raggi's 3 Brides does a better job of providing the motivation/plots than his other modules. You have to work really hard to integrate his modules, almost rewriting them in terms of plot/story to make them work. Which is fine, if that's your thing with modules.

Raggi, I'm a bit surprised at your comments - just as someone can work to integrate a plotless module, so to can the classic TSR modules be worked to integrate - not stick out like "sore thumbs".

JimLotFP said...

I find the best TSR adventures are the more open-ended, effectively "plotless" adventures. "There's the location, have fun."

The ones with hammy quests (or worse yet, strong-arm tactics to get you in, like Against the Giant's "Do this or we'll execute you name-level people!" or Desert of Desolation's "You committed a crime, were captured, and thrown into the desert!") are a lot more difficult for me to actually get into my campaign if I'm so inclined.

kelvingreen said...

When I ran Death Frost Doom, it was very clear that the location was Bad News, to the extent that it had been quarantined.

The players still went there, and although I modified things somewhat -- dumping the map for one thing -- all the big highlights of the adventure happened as written.

So I'd guess what I'm getting at is that enjoyment of the adventure may depend on the dispositions of the players.

Alexis said...

Jim, your responses are reasonable.

However, if you produce a 'horror adventure' you must surely realize that most people who have experience with horror media have the opinion that people who go anywhere near the place are STUPID.

The principal problem with the module was not that I slammed it into my pre-existing campaign, but that the party simply didn't want to go there once they spoke to Zeke. Period. And once they were inside, they were Bored. Period.

I can't help that. I told you, I would have been more patient. I am sure that people who regularly play modules would be more patient. But perhaps you haven't considered the fact that some players find the process of opening doors and choosing hallways to be deadly dull.

Personally, I've never found anything 'plotless' to have any interest whatsoever. I like plot. I feel that, as an artform, it's proved its worth over the last 26 centuries.

I feel bloody awful that you've sent me these things for free, and that I've given you one bad review. But them's the breaks, buster. I've been to a lot of films and plays, listened to a lot of albums and read a lot of books that were sent FREE to magazines I've worked for, and I have delivered both good and bad reviews. And guess what. NOBODY likes the bad ones.

Nobody. Not even me. It was my six hours that got wasted, not yours.

Matt Finch said...

I have sooooo had this happen to me before as a DM (not with this module, it was a homebrew of mine). I wrote a great adventure with lots of scary atmosphere leading up to a lair (that wasn't actually very hard). But of all the players, it was the paladin who said, "I don't know about you guys, but I'm gettin' the hell out of Dodge."

johnarendt said...

The lack of plot hooks in a site-based adventure is typically a feature, not a bug. The failure of the DM here to provide a credible reason for the party to delve these ruins is just that... the DM's failure. When the party chose to nuke the site from orbit, the DM should have let them do that and leave. When has obviating the party's free will ever worked out?

Thanks for the interesting review - DFD may indeed suck when ran at the table. The way I see it working is to have the significant campaign MacGuffin (or similar reward) placed there - but you absolutely must give the group free will to give the site the finger and march down the mountain. Otherwise it's just a screw job. The review was a useful reminder on how not to integrate a module into a campaign - by forcing a module at 'gun point'.

Alexis said...

I so agree, Johnarendt. It is a good thing that my party loves me, or else they would not have let me exploit them for this experiment.

There is no way I would ever require them to do anything in this manner seriously. All effects from the module were wiped clean, and as I said I bought them off with X.P. to make their time worthwhile.

It was all a bad dream.

JimLotFP said...

I've had plenty of adventure hooks set out (with prepared adventures behind them) that my home group has pulled the "Nope, not going for it." Pisses me off sometimes (I have this REALLY COOL STUFF ready, dammit!), but as soon as the players feel forced, they disengage.

Not much to do about it, really, but to have something ready for what they actually do choose to do.

runjikol said...

This confirms for me that modules could be better presented in a more sandbox fashion.

"Here's the main bits. Here's the detailed bits. Here's how it connects. Go at it, huzzah."

cyclopeatron said...

The way I see it working is to have the significant campaign MacGuffin (or similar reward) placed there.

To be fair to Raggi, I think I recall that DFD does point out some spots where the DM can insert special items to help make the module relevant to an ongoing campaign.

However, this still wouldn't fix the problem of your players simply finding this to be a boring dungeon. Aside from the whole "who's responsible for the plot" discussion, this sounds like the main problem you had, right?

Alexis said...

Oh, yes.

Geoffrey said...

I've read accounts of groups taking 5 minutes to go through the Shrine of the Kuo-Toa because they do not have the souls of explorers. They just blow right past it.

migellito said...

As a DM I've had this happen before as well. It's an especially bitter pill to swallow when it's not a module, but rather something you've spent a week designing yourself. One thing it made me consider was "why would the players decide to do that?"

The fact is that the players know full well that you've got something prepared for them in this direction.. unless you're in the habit of giving them false leads that end up with no action and no rewards. With a less mature group, I've most often see this result from one simple thing - they've decided to screw with the DM. It's all about power dynamics and control issues, but in the end they NEED to be shown that all they really did was screw themselves out of a good time.

A very simple fact needs to be faced. If their goal is developing their character into some badass alter-ego, rather than their goal being having a fun adventure, they're not going to develop their character into a damn thing. Without risks there are NO rewards. At least there shouldn't be. None of the heroes in any of the books, whether it's Frodo, Conan, Randolph Carter, or some Ohlmsford(sp?) doofus never got anywhere by saying 'ooh, that looks dangerous.. forget it.'

kelvingreen said...

The way I see it working is to have the significant campaign MacGuffin (or similar reward) placed there

This may not be relevant, but in my aforementioned running of the adventure, there was no such concrete incentive provided. All the players had was the mystery of why this place had been sealed off, and that was enough for them. Curiosity, cats, and so on.

cyclopeatron said...

@kelvingreen: I am curious, did you work the module into a mature campaign, or did you run it as a one-shot?

Alexis said...

migellito,

Your arguments are well founded, and probably apply to some parties somewhere, but I'm afraid not mine. This is a party that has A) fought in defense of a city during seige after defying the blockage to get in; reinstating an Amazon Queen to her rightful throne on an alternate plane of existence; travelled (with some help) to the first plane of hell in order to re-acquire two players who both drew the same card from a deck of many things; and recently fought an army of 400 orcs, goblins, ghouls, ogres and drow elves.

These guys are not chickenshit. However, all of those other events occurred because they chose to make them happen ... by not stupidly walking into set-ups.

Alexis said...

Sorry, I should stop commenting on this post, but ... after I go to hell and back, I'm not going to fucking die because the stuff on the table looks interesting enough to eat.

kelvingreen said...

cyclopeatron I wouldn't say "mature" exactly, as the campaign lasted about a year, but DFD was placed on the players' map from the beginning, and they were aware of its dire reputation from the start too.

They did avoid it at first, but there were plenty of locations available for them to explore at that point in the campaign, and they did choose to go there, with no promise of a reward.

So the "don't go in there!" issue didn't come up, although I did change the dungeon itself quite a bit, as I don't have much taste for the poke-this-prod-that approach to dungeon design.

Scott said...

I don't have much taste for the poke-this-prod-that approach to dungeon design

My only real issue with this sort of thing occurs when a) all of the interesting things in the module are keyed to poking and prodding, and b) poking and prodding things gets you killed or unleashes something godawful.

Either you act rationally, don't randomly fiddle with things, and finish the module quickly without much happening, -or- you figure "well, guess I better fiddle with things, it's clearly the point of the module" and do so for metagame reasons only to find yourself punished for doing so.

I *don't* think this is an issue with, say, Tomb of Horrors because you're there for a reason (to get to the treasure), you know walking in that it's a deathtrap, and random fiddling has a purpose (to get you to the treasure).

But if you key all the interesting stuff to screwing around, provide no real reason or prospect of reward for screwing around, and then punish people and laugh when they get bored, say fuck it, and screw around ... that just seems kind of messed up and irrational.

Zak S said...

I can see both sides.

Mandy ran this as a solo adventure and, even though nothing happened (pretty much) since she didn't go for any of the bait, she was kind of proud of how she didn't go for the bait and had fun and said it was one of her favorite adventures even though all her heavy metal and video-game experiences made it easy to see the wires.

As a DM, I think I was more disappointed that she didn't fuck around more and make it go a little haywire.

Basically, I think: if your players are an efficient and practical-minded bunch the module will go nowhere (and James even says something to that effect in the book at one point). You need at least one "Pippin" for DFD to be real fun.

migellito said...

"probably apply to some parties somewhere, but I'm afraid not mine."

Excellent, because that's a rough hurdle to get past when it happens :)

Kent said...

This is an interesting review and it is somewhat refreshing to hear the case against modules made from another DM who has no use for them.

However you say Raggi writes well and enjoyed *reading* his other work, so do you think there might be some other format for printed work where one DM could communicate novel ideas to another, which is not so explicit as an adventure module, but transfers content and atmosphere more diffusely from one table to another conveying something of the author DM's style of gaming. In your case attention to plot, realism, detail and your manner of DMing. There should be some way good DMs can present their campaign ideas and manner of gaming to each other. Some of the Judges Guild material was like that.

James C. said...

Kent, I'd say adventure modules are the medium. I've got stacks of them that I've never played, but like a lot of DMs I've used many of them for ideas or just for a map and a name in a pinch. Are you just saying you want a more efficient means of disseminating the bits and pieces? If so, perhaps the database Alexis has spoken of here.

Kent said...

Are you just saying you want a more efficient means of disseminating the bits and pieces?

No. Modules are presented in a limited formal template, the least interesting part of which is explicit room by room descriptions. The idea was 'we can share our ideas if we follow these constraints'. The constraints are too binding for me and the results too similar.

But for me the interesting thing an author can convey is insight into what is going on in his head as a DM at his table. What would I see through his God's eye? The experience at Raggi's, Tao, my and others tables is substantially different. Im wondering if there is a better way to structure or layer campaign/adventure/plot/character ideas in the disciplined form of the printed word.

Blaise said...

I'm a little late to this thread, but I found that I had the same experience with The Grinding Gear. The party took one look at situation and wanted to keep on trucking.
That's not to say there are some good ideas and some lessons in creating ambience. I agree with what James C said, that modules are the medium from which we as DM's can steal ideas.
As far as the God's Eye viewpoint (cool idea), isn't that what Alexis is doing here?

Cheers,
Blaise

Gamer Dude said...

It's occurred to me that if there's a "reason" for the party to head into DFD, and they don't mess w/ things then it's metagaming. But if they don't have any type of stimuli to get them heading in the correct direction, and they DO mess w/ things then THAT'S metagaming.

Seems that the common element here is the "plot", "driver", "stimuli"...or what have you. Isn't that generally the job of the DM?

Even w/ all of the old school modules that we've all come to love / hate, nearly every one of those was run w/ some kind of modified plot. In other words, what DM doesn't add his or her influence / artistic panache to the provided plot?

It just rings false to plop a module down on a table and say "We're playing THIS!" and expect to get a reasonable response from any group of seasoned players. Unless they put on the blinders and play dumb...And IF they do, they need to play 100% dumb. Not, "Oh, OK we'll go along w/ this...but to hell with touching that, or prodding this. We know what it's going to do!"

They need to "pretend" they've got a reason for being there...

Mark said...

Your "review" reads like a Republican write up of a speech by a Democratic candidate. Or if you prefer another analogy, like a parent, who doesn't like vegetables himself, forcing his kids to eat vegetables that they also have stated up front that they don't like. With that kind of approach, I'm not sure what you expected. In the laboratory we call it "confirmation bias."

James C. said...

Mark, I rather think it more like a Whig scree decrying a Democratic pamphlet. No, no, no... a base Optimate dismissal of Populare populism. In the smithy we call that an axe to grind.

To be fair to Alexis, he stated up front that he and his group didn't like vegetables. That the party did not have sufficient motivation to enter the cabin and what was below probably was a set-up for a bad night. It doesn't change the fact, however, that once they got there they were bored and/ or incredulous.

Personally, I enjoyed reading the adventure and should I ever decide to run it, the above review will be helpful in preparing for it.

Alexis said...

I love that people are rushing to the defence of the module, making excuses and explanations for why I don’t have the stuff to play the module, or what’s possibly wrong with me, or how I have Republican issues. That such an attitude precludes the possibility of there being any fault in the module should be obvious to anyone. That such arguments are based on absolutely no personal information about me, no experience with me as a Dungeon Master, and postulated by people who were not there at the table that night is hilarious.

Keep it coming, boys. Whenever I’m at work I need a good laugh.

shimrod said...

Good, conscientious review! There is some nice discussion here. I do think the criticism of how the players were bored poking around the largely-empty dungeon is fair. It does come down to preference, too. I believe some other reviewers/players have said that the dungeon gave them an increasing sense of suspense, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Alexis letting us know that his group was bored by it is a useful reminder to GMs that they really need to consider whether this kind of exploration is something their group is into or not.

A related but larger bit I'm picking up is that DFD (and Grinding Gear, and likely other LotFP stuff) has a specific Horror genre appeal. The situation presented lets the players know they are walking into something that is Bad News. And if your players are not the sorts who enjoy walking into a Bad News situation and fiddling with it, there is a high likelihood that they will appreciate the setup only enough to say "Wow, that is some well-presented Bad News; let's GTF out of here." In the case of Alexis' group, their characters are not the sort to get into trouble for the pure thrill of it. They are pragmatic enough to not mess with something obviously dangerous unless there is some compelling reason to do so. Players who personally enjoy Horror situations and creating trouble for their characters are more likely to enjoy Raggi's stuff.

Oddbit said...

To me it sounds like most people are missing the point of a review. A review is not a depiction of the point of view of the masses. It's a depiction of the reviewer's point of view when interacting with the reviewed subject.

The first thing to consider when reading the review, is the reviewer. Honestly, I wouldn't send a module to someone who repeatedly and vehemently speaks out against them. Just sounds like bad business and marketing. Why force a bad review? I was surprised about the first review myself.

The second thing to consider, is perhaps not the conclusion of the reviewer themselves, but the specific elements. Sometimes you can gain a lot more information you give a damn about. I found the perfect webcam for my remote DnD needs by finding the one everyone was complaining about because it picked up ALL the noise in the room.

Maybe you all know this and feel like you need to tell Alexis how wrong they are to speak about their experience, but honestly I think you'll be hard pressed to find a good enough argument to change their opinion. This isn't an opinion based on conjecture, it's based on a real world experiment.

-C said...

It's a trick really.

In my games, when players screw around with things, they do so because (often) it leads to rewards and (occasionally) leads to consequences.

Dropping an adventure in that only has consequences? Funny, but pretty much a one-off. If there's no wishes, stat bumps, ancient tomes, or piles of gems, then there's no gambling reflex to continue to mess with things.

Gamer Dude said...

Well said Oddbit...

In light of that specific statement / point of view, I recant my previous post.

Well, maybe not all of it.

Greg Christopher said...

I commented on your review here, Alexis.

http://synapserpg.com/blog/?p=901

faustusnotes said...

Regardless of the final opinion, I really like the idea of doing reviews of modules only after you've run them.

You should get one of your players to write a review too. Raggi would really appreciate the feedback, I think.

Thrawn said...

Doing a back of the envelope calculation, the pit trap is on the order of one astronomical unit deep. So either magic/weird topology is involved (a reasonable assumption, and I'm guessing the first because it fits with fantasy more than the second which seems like the domain of lovecraft's aliens), or Death Frost Doom is set on Ringworld with an additional ring further out to be the bottom of the pit.