Monday, June 11, 2018

Review: Frostbitten & Mutilated

I haven't posted in a while or done a review in even longer, but here we are.

Despite unabashedly enjoying Zak S.'s work, I'll freely admit: I didn't love this book.  Not at first, anyway.

It took a bit to infect me and implant its wriggling parasites under my skin.  So this review is as much a description of that process as it is an actual review of the book.

First things first: the core stuff.  Size A4, 144 pages.  Written and illustrated by Zak Smith, published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  There's little wasted space: it starts with a short introduction to both the book and the setting, and then launches into the bestiary, which is about 44% of the book and forms most of the world-building.  (If you just want cool monsters to throw into a winter-themed hexcrawl like the Kraal, which I think is partially this book's spiritual ancestor, it's here.)  The next 15% of the book is the "plot," such as it is: featuring a map, a couple of dungeon maps, and a timeline of events, this is the structure your PCs will roam if you're using the book as written.  (If you want a ready-to-go sandbox campaign, that's where you'll find it.)  The next 14% of the book is new rules: new classes (Amazon and Witch, both set up in the random advancement system style that so many OSR people like to use), new spells (for Witches or maybe Magic-Users), new substances (a magical metal and two chemicals), and new survival rules for use with the Bushcraft skill (because you're traveling across inhospitable territory).  The rest of the book is rounded out with an essay on running sandbox games and then a host of random tables to assist that process.

All this stuff is presented in a straightforward and concise manner, and once you get your bearings, the book is very spatially oriented, so you can find stuff without consulting the Table of Contents or the Index.  Even if I don't remember something offhand, I can flip to it in a couple of seconds, because it's exactly where it's supposed to be.

Basically, he took his own advice (as he usually does), and instead of giving us some boring historical litany like some Tolkien reject, you just get stuff like, "Ovv was the ruler of the forgotten civilization that built the Dim Fortress in aeons so remote even the sister-witches recall it only as you remember the texture of the first carpet you crawled. His kingdom was awful, and he was a despot—the kind of man who inspired gods to invent death by old age. But he got in under the wire. All his subjects and enemies long dead, his stronghold entombed, he sits still atop the Darkthrone, ten feet tall, clutching his sword, waiting for someone to be a bastard to."

That's all we get about the king, and that's all we need.  He's a jerk.  His stats bear this out.

But as noted, I didn't love it at first.  (Don't get me wrong: I still liked it, but would have called it the weakest of his books.)  Despite having some great ideas and solid world-building, this initially fell flat for two reasons:

1) Of all of his books, it feels the most like his blog.  While there are some great products that are basically just gussied-up blog posts — Veins of the Earth comes to mind, although it's so jam-packed with extra stuff that you don't notice you already read half of it — this one basically just felt like throwing down Euros to re-read posts I'd previously read for free, only with fewer typos and prettier art.  For that matter, a small portion of the material here previously appeared in another form in the Vornheim book.

2) It also feels like a setting I might create.  Vornheim feels 50% like some setting I'd create: a drunken orgy of ideas from Borges and Leiber and Peake, formed into a sprawling, decadent pulp city.  Twisted spires and political masterminds are totally my jam, but I'd probably never invent brilliant bits of color like homunculus assassins that hide in human bodies, or the fact that the world was created by medusae using the lithified remains of demons.  Maze of the Blue Medusa and Red & Pleasant Land are 100% things I'd never create — tone-wise, they fit right in, but a baroque dungeon of ancient, sad ladies and a vampire Wonderland are probably outside my wheelhouse, and that's totally rad.  On the other hand, a mythic Scandinavia of eternal snows where beasts and women run free, unfettered by the chains of Man, sounds like an idea I could have, and if I did have it, it would probably look similar: all idiosyncratic beasts and weird magic and berserkers like Maenads.

The first thing that changed my mind about the whole thing was Rushputin's comment that F&M has an excellent layout and is very usable (as described above).  I hadn't noticed at first because that's just assumed.  LotFP books in general and Zak S. books in particular are going to be very usable at the table and easy to find what you need.  That's just assumed at this point.

The second thing was that a friend of mine requested I run it, so I had to start working with the text to prepare the module.  And that's usually a chore, but this was super-easy.  I don't have a full hexcrawl of the entire map prepared yet, but I have some adventures around Rottingkroner prepared, and then some other stuff out in the wilds.  Random encounters can handle the rest until I have to stock hexes.

So, you ultimately get a highly-usable sandbox setting full of black metal Scandinavian goodness.  It deviates from the facts of Norse myth, instead drawing its inspiration from the feel of Norse myth, as well as fairy tales and pop culture.  And plus there are marauding Amazons that might try to kill or recruit you for intruding upon their lands.  It's a solid book, although it seems more restrained than his other work.  On the other hand, perhaps that makes it more accessible to readers from more traditional fantasy RPG backgrounds.  If you're looking for an Arctic/winter-themed sandbox setting, or you want to put some mythic flavor in your games, this is a solid pick.

(As for the weird things I want to inject directly into my veins, there are a couple of gems in here.  Of course, I love the bleak setting, the mythic feel of the animals, and the weird spells, but special mention goes to the owls.  Owls are weird in the Devoured Land, possibly in a way that refers back to Ken Hite's "The Owls' Service" from The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time.  If you are familiar with how snakes work in Vornheim, owls are anti-snakes.  Definitely worth a look.)

One last thing: We still haven't started the campaign.  We were supposed to start Friday, but one of our players had to cancel at the last minute.  Since I was ready to go, though, I did run a one shot set in the Devoured Land.  It was beyond stupid, but we had so much fun that it led me to write this post in the first place.  As with so many things, RPGs are meant to be played, and are probably only best measured in light of that activity.  After all, using the Devoured Land at the table is where Frostbitten & Mutilated truly shines.

I started the first party in square H7 on the Devoured Land map (pages 82-83).  Having taken the road from Rottingkroner and camped for the night, they set out first thing in the morning, traveling upriver along the River Slith.  A light snow is falling.  A couple of hours upriver, I roll the first random encounter, a lost traveler.  I consult one of my own random charts and determine she is a lost noblewoman.  That suggests her backstory: she was clearly traveling these lands to seek the Amazons in the hopes they could perform an embryoctony, and she was separated from the adventurers who escorted her out here.  She seems frightened and starved, and very wary of this party of three strange men before her.  They're not heading back to Rottingkroner as that would blow their profit margin, but she's welcome to travel with them as they explore this land.  Perhaps they can help her find her companions?  Another two hours, another random encounter, and they find a twisted tree, big enough to provide shelter.  Since they have another mouth to feed, the halfling decides to hunt; he finds nothing, but that takes up the rest of the day, so they make camp.  As the party begins to bed down and take watches, I roll another encounter and get fucking Blasphemer and his rat swarm.  I flip to his page, read, "Blasphemer may utter an Unholy Word (as the spell) once per week. So be careful out there," and then flip to the Holy Word spell and read that.  There is a short pause as I re-read it several times to ensure I'm reading it correctly.  It... instantly slays characters with fewer than 4 HD?  Just like that?  Based on my read of the spell, I rule it doesn't affect the wizard, but with everyone else dead the rat swarm finishes him off.  Total Party Kill #1.

Since that was very short, and I have more pregens, I give them a second chance.  The second party also starts in square H7, but this party of pregens has the Summon spell.  One player convinces the wizard she should cast it the night before they head into the Devoured Land, so that if she binds the demon long-term, they have a servant.  She agrees.  She rolls — the demon is more powerful than expected, and she blows the binding roll.  It possesses her.  The PCs go to bed.  She pretends to sleep.  On her watch, she massacres the rest of the party, then goes off into the wastes to do whatever permanently-incarnated demons do.  They never even leave the road.  Total Party Kill #2.

I've been laughing about this all weekend.  On the one hand, my players are aware there might be a small fortune in noblewoman's jewelry only a few miles upriver from the road in the Devoured Land; on the other hand, there's now a demon-possessed wizard somewhere out there.

A++, would run again.

2 comments:

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    1. That's without even getting into the stupid names my players picked. In the first party, my friend's girlfriend named her magic-user Dean Koontz, and my wife named her halfling Li'l James Patterson, the latter of whom resembled Mascarita Sagrada.

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