Monday, 30 September 2013

Hacking Death Frost Doom — A Compilation

I intend to run a "hacked" version of Death Frost Doom to make it suit my style of play and to customise it to my campaign world. I know several GMs have done a similar job before so I have started investigating on the 'net and found a lot of good input. I am certainly not going to use of all the following suggestions, especially since some of these ideas are mutually exclusive, but I think having them all in one place can be useful for future reference [I'm actually surprised no-one did this before].

Obviously, the following selection is CHOCK-FULL OF SPOILERS so please do not read it if you are going to be a player; that would definitely spoil your fun.

From the Dungeon of Signs:

1) Make the Crypt Map Less Linear – The actual crypts in Death Frost Doom are on a grid that shouts out “this is not the point of the adventure” – some looping sections, steps and oddly shaped rooms would help. This would also make mapping more interesting – and I think requiring the party to map would really help the end game rush as the adventurers attempt to find their way out. A map that provided a logical place to hold off the undead horde would be amusing as well, while it’s equally obvious that a party can’t hold off thousands of undead, some place with clear barricades and maybe a narrow causeway over a pit of even more undead would taunt players into trying and being forced to retreat.


4) Re-skin it All! – Perhaps a necessity for using Death Frost Doom for grognard OSR types. This adventure is easy to re-skin with all sorts of touches. Cultural glosses are the easiest. Viking style tombs shaped like dragon ships with knotwork and evil runes carved everywhere, Egypt flavoured dusty tombs beneath a graveyard of burning sand, a Qín Dynasty terracotta army (with non-historical skeletons inside of course) and monumental bronzes in Shāng style, or a perhaps a Meso-American gloss. All would be easy enough to add, and suggest ways to conceal the fact that this is Death Frost Doom from a group that is in the know. As a general idea I think a re-skinning Death Frost Doom to fit one’s own game world is important as the events at the end of the adventure will be campaign changing. Death Frost Doom’s best elements (the trapped doors and strange curses) can be slapped onto anything without losing any impact, so re-skinning makes a lot of sense.

5) Make the Undead more Interesting – When the party flees from the crypts and across the graveyard pursued by scrambling hordes of undead, it seems worthwhile to add a variety of strange dead to encounter. Yes there are child corpses and ghouls, but there isn’t much more here. It’s just boring “ewww a dead guy” – which in D&D is a monster that does not actually inspire fear or revulsion. A table of abominations (chanting lines of undead pilgrims stitched together like centipedes, ghost hounds, corpses with grafted on stone, animal or metal parts, spectral presences, scuttling skeletal hands etc, etc.) would be nice to help run the escape.

6) Change the “cult cabin” – There is much discussion within the module about an entire ancient evil nation, yet the cabin above ground is straight out of Evil Dead. This is a lovely homage to those haunted cabin movies, but really it doesn’t get with the underground shrine so well – unless one were to re-skin the whole shrine as some kind of hillbilly nightmare of crude mineshaft style construction and sacrificial victims in flour sack body bags. A cabin would be fine, but its accoutrements (while excellent) don’t really feel connected to the tombs below. It might be something as simple as making the cabin a new addition with some ancient stonework as its basis to give the idea that the evil but inconsequential cult that was run out by villagers a generation ago was connected to some kind of ancient evil. Anyway this connection would work better if it was more concrete as otherwise the descent into the tombs is a jarring switch.

From Necropraxis:

Necropraxis replaces the cabin with an abandoned tower. I will definitely use this modification.

From Fighting Fantasist:

Coopdevil suggests quite a critical hack by removing the susurrus-emitting monster and replacing it altogether with something else.


Now we have a wizened old immortal, perhaps one of the very first members of the cult back in Ye Olde Days. He sits in room 22 playing a bone flute. This can be heard everywhere in the dungeon that the original susurrus could. He has sat there since time immemorial playing his bone flute very badly, awaiting the day that a new Grandmaster of the cult will arrive and declare that is time for HELL TO VOMIT FORTH ITS FILTH. This has never happened in the past. But the eschatology of the cult says that it will one day. Maybe the Grandmaster doesn't know he's the Grandmaster. Maybe he was living the carefree life of a murder hobo dungeon bastard right up until the point where he made the music stop. Who knows? Duvan'Ku moves in mysterious ways.

If the PCs try to talk to him he will carry on playing his flute. Should they make moves to attack him he will stop, ask "Are you sure? Are you really sure?" and if they are sure he'll just shrug and let himself be hacked down (1hp which should shock and worry any player who thought that this was THE BIG END OF LAST LEVEL BOSS and was preparing accordingly).


Another tiny problem I have is that there is a chimney up from room 22 clearly intended to be an emergency exit from, basically, the shitstorm that the PCs have just caused. This is claimed to be difficult to find from the surface (i.e., you must use DM's fiat to stop them finding it or the scenario will be fucked) but as we know, what is intended purely as an exit sometimes get used as an entrance as well. The chimney is partly blocked by susurrus brambles but the scenario is quiet on what exactly it would take to clear this and what, if any, this effect would have upon the susurussy noise. It strikes me that this was put in more in hope than expectation that the PCs don't find it. A bit scruffy.

Also why would you have a secret door in room 22 that requires a human sacrifice to open (this is good), alongside another secret door that, err, doesn't require a human sacrifice to open and leads to exactly the same corridor? I would cut out the linking N/S 10' of tunnel that links room 23 to the likes of rooms 24, 25 etc. or have the ritual open both.

From Untimately:

The first problem I noticed was a number of "site only" magic items. By site only, I mean items that might cause problems in a long-running campaign, either because they are too powerful or might otherwise upset some aspect of game balance. I detest this practice. It reminds me of using thieves to steal magic items back from PCs. One room in the cabin has two examples of this (page 8 in the print copy). The first is a mirror that doesn't show chaotic (or evil) characters:

    The mirror looses its magic if it is moved, but will regain its power if replaced in this spot.

The second is a clock that can stop time:

    Removing the clock from the wall or damaging it in any way permanently removes its magic (even placing it back on the wall will not restore it).

There is not really any narrative grounding why either of these items work this way, and certainly nothing that the PCs could discover (without resorting to DM improvisation). If the mirror was used to detect spies, why would that only be useful in one location? If you're going to put something interesting into a module, and PCs are creative enough to liberate it, they should be able to use it. If it is of a nature that would be problematic in a campaign, then it should not be included at all. There are much better ways to handle this, such having a limited number of uses. Or, in the case of the mirror, why not have a pond, or a fountain, that only reflects lawful and neutral characters? How do you move a pond? And yet, the restriction does not feel contrived (it doesn't even feel like a restriction).

I plan to leave the mirror in, but it will work anywhere. The mirror itself will be a full size heavily gilded standing mirror, so it will be difficult to transport. This might end up becoming an interesting campaign item if the players are able to recover it. And it might also prompt me to think more about how alignment works in this particular campaign. I will probably just remove the magic properties from the clock. I need to think about this a bit more, because there may be ways that enterprising PCs could use the clock to forestall the the module endgame, and I don't think there is any need to make this module harder.

Tales of the Grotesque and the Dungeonesque didn't like the clock either. Here is the suggested solution:

What I find problematic about the clock, especially if it is adjusted forward, is that it effectively splits the party and creates a headache for the GM who now must run two adventures along two divergent time-lines.

My hack for this is simple: moving the hands on the clock causes the room to suddenly go dark... an outline of a door appears against a wall in fearful luminescence... and out of that unholy portal steps... THE CHRONO-CRONE!

Please refer to the original post for details on how to use this new creature with the adventure.

From A Dungeon Master's Tale:

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 prophecies of certain doom.  Just subtle hints at it.  Death suited him.

I also deep-sixed the entire Greater Tombs area including any mention or appearence of Cyris 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.
So instead 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.

[Personal note: while I can understand this, I think the presence of Cyris can add heaps of role-playing potential to the adventure, see for instance James Maliszewski's play report here]

Also, TPK is all well and good for an OSR adventure, but sometimes crippling characters is more fun than killing them. Several blogs, comments, etc. have suggested inflicting random mut[il]ations instead of outright killing the characters.

Added on 1 October 2013: Death Frost Doom has also been covered by Claytonian JP on his Kill It With Fire! blog, with a beautiful isometric map:

and with also a flute-playing chap in lieu of the susurrus-emitting plant monster:
I still had a plant hanging down blocking the way to the giant skeleton room, but it does not susurrate. Instead, there is an ancient old man that ceaselessly pipes away on a flute in 21. He has an extra flute in his coat and will offer it while still playing. Any player that takes it up is cursed to play until a new flautist comes.

Added on 10 August 2014: Billy Goes to Mordor has added a roster of various undead monsters to add diversity to the undead horde.


  1. Great sum up. I reckon you have them all. Really nice how you have linked and summarised them.

  2. Nice compilation.

    I agree with the point about the cabin being inconsistent in tone with... everything else.

    You might argue the same thing about the whole cult vs. ancient civilization mash-up. I would consider splitting them into two different dungeon levels

    1. Well, the cult could be the latter-day remnant of the ancient civilisation. This is how I intend to run it.