Adventure Review: Frostbitten and Mutilated
The Usual Disclaimer: This is a review of a pretty Edgy product that covers some pretty grim topics. And it is the center of a lot of controversy. Neither the book nor my review of it are recommended for children of any age.
Spoiler Warning: Do not read this if you are going to be a player in FB&M... it will spoil the fun!
Frostbitten and Mutilated is a Campaign written for Lamentations of the Flame Princess by Zak Sabbath (Zak Smith) that takes player characters into a grim subarctic wasteland full of hostile intelligent animals and where the forces of nature themselves are hostile to outsiders. There they get caught in a time loop that can only be broken in two equally difficult ways; one of which might bring about the Apocalypse.
It is about the most 'Metal take you can create if you were to take a chunk of Norse Mythology, the plot of the first Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser novel, a splash of 80s slasher flick, and a GWAR concert and mixed them together.
This is one of those rare "mega-adventures" I would love to run pretty much as written. And I have already pillaged material from it for my current ICRPG campaign.
What I Loved
The front matter of the book lists a lot of the author's inspirations, including music he would recommend to get a "feel" for the game, or to play during a session in this module. It also mentions a few books that were inspiration, including Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber, which is in my top ten favorite pieces of Appendix-N literature. Namely, he focuses on Fafhrd's origin story, "The Snow Women" about a culture of Nordic barbarians that has become ruled over by hateful and manipulative witches.
It also includes a meditation on the idea of a hostile environment meant to guide the GM in their story-telling and decision making, which has to be one of the strangest, most unique things I have seen offered in an adventure module.
The High Concept
The idea of the adventure is this: The PCs are outsiders freshly arrived in a land that has been placed in a time loop. A faction of witches and their Amazon allies nearly succeeded in bringing their demonic master into the world, where he could devour and destroy anything in his path. Their failure means that their master cannot attempt to return to the Earth for another thousand years. Rather than accept failure, they reversed time to a point just a few days before they discovered the way into the ancient dungeon where the summoning could be performed. Their hope is that outsiders who are not properly snared in the time loop will either prevent them from doing the ritual, or keep their enemies from interfering so it can be completed.
Enter the PCs: a group of people from beyond the edge of The Devoured Land who appear just moments after the latest iteration of the time loop begins. They are free to explore, learn, and interfere as they please. When the time loop resets, unlike all of the natives, their memories will not be erased; they will have a chance to learn more about what is going on, and possibly begin working towards breaking the loop.
It will likely take several passes through the time loop to break it, one way or another, allowing the characters to level up, learn the moves and tricks of their otherwise formidable enemies, and experiment.
Frostbitten and Mutilated is set in a massive cratered region called the Devoured Land that is shaped like a bite taken out of the Earth itself. It is a dark and primordial place that hates all things orderly and civilized. The animals can talk and are intelligent, but so hate and fear humans they will not usually "lower" themselves to communicate.
The only humans welcome in the land are wild women who have given up on the civilizations of men. Some are witches of the sort you might read about in Malleus Maleficarum, others are several tribes of vicious Amazons that are masters of poison and herbal medicine, whose societies are deeply cruel and brutal.
The monsters of the realm are true to Lamentations of the Flame Princess form: bizarre, corrupt, and hateful things that are designed to inspire intense revulsion and body horror. Often quite successfully. The trolls are revolting. The Liches are grotesque, and the Giants nightmarish. The servants of the immortal king in the dungeon are like something straight out of the Hellraiser movies.
The Amazon tribes in Frostbitten and Mutilated are a study in the darker side of the human psyche. They take some of the worst that people can be, and make it into a set of grim cultures. They that are well designed to make players bothe fear and respect them.
Amazon and Witch Classes
Frostbitten and Mutilated has two classes for play with Lamentations of the Flame Princess in the back of the book. The Amazon and the Witch. Both classes are strange and evocative.
The Amazon starts much like a fighter, but rather than improve her attack bonus, each level the Amazon rolls on a random d100 skill table to discover what new ability she has developed. These involve better critical hits, gaining bite attacks, saturating their body with poison so that they can deliver it with a touch, and the ability to cow the primal dire animals of the region. They are intense, elemental-feeling powers that would make for a terrifying and surprising character.
The Witch starts off essentially as a Magic-User, but has access to its own list of weird, often disturbing spells. Most of the spells borrow their names from heavy metal song titles. Most of the early Black Sabbath hits are in the list somewhere. On top of spellcsting, Witches gain random powers every level from a d100 roll, much like the amazon, but their powers are often creepy magical powers in line with that medievalesque witch craze vibe.
As they are written for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, they are fairly easy to port to another B/X-based TTRPG.
Sandbox Building Tool
The book also includes a tool for creating new adventure sites by throwing dice down on a page and using both the type of die and the number rolled to create a map that has a number of baked in possible encounters and challenges. This tool is sheer genius.
The map of the Devoured Land has an encounter for every hex. While only a few of these relate to the Time Loop or the war between the factions, every single encounter on the map helps build the setting of the Devoured Land. Often through the power of suggestion or seemingly inconsequential details we get to learn a lot about what the land is like. They are written equivalents of the visual stories you sometimes see in games like Fallout or sets of The Walking Dead.
One of the weirdest and creepiest encounters in the setting is with the Owls. The Owls are made into projections of an alien hive mind trying to understand the parameters of our reality well enough to figure out how to escape it. Which it does by stealing linguistic structures from victim's minds.
Each time PCs are attacked by owls they lose words that their character may no longer remember or use. Which is both an interesting role-playing challenge, and deeply surreal.
Moreover, the behaviour of the owls, when they are encountered, and in what number is triggered not by the dice, but by banter at the game table. Players using banned words or mentioning Owls triggers off their owl encounters. It is strange and adds a fun twist to play.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess products are sold in part on their quality, and Frostbitten and Mutilated is no exception. The book itself is gorgeous, with a faux leatherette cover and silver leaf lettering and art. The paper is semi-glossy and extremely tough. The art and text is beautifully laid out and deeply evocative. The end-pages are used to put valuable tables where they can be easily accessed. The binding is stitched. It is a thing of beauty to hold and browse, and will probably be around for my grandkids to use.
Timeline Mechanics Need some Development
What happens when we reach the end of the loop? Do we teleport back to the starting hex with memories of what happened but fresh, healthy bodies? Do our dead come back to life, or are our new characters recruited from the local population somehow freed from the loop enough to start remembering? If we have a TPK, do we just start at the beginning of the loop a little wiser? Do we just witness time rewinding from our current place, like the narrator in The Time Machine?
We have very little guidance on how this works, but being able to answer these questions is critical to knowing how you are going to run the module. Even just these questions themselves might have helped,
Groundhog Day Gag
One of the ways to get the time loop to end is to have Ratatoskr see his own shadow.
In Norse myth, Ratatoskr is a primordial squirrel that carries gossip and insults between Nidhoggr, the serpent that is trying to destroy the world by gnawing on the roots of the World Tree, and the all-seeing eagle at its peak. But in Forstbitten and Mutilated he is depicted as a marmot.
In other words, he's a groundhog. And the eternal winter, and the time-loop ends when he sees his shadow. So, in other words, the whole high concept is borrowed from the 1980s Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day, and Zak Sabbath is cheekily putting a lampshade on it for those who are paying attention.
The groan this elicited when I saw it was soul deep...
Pushing All the Buttons
Frostbitten and mutilated pushes a lot of buttons in its readers. It tries damned hard to toe the reader's lines. Or to cross it. You will find in its pages references to abortion, baby-eating, rape, human sacrifice, gay-bashing, genital mutilation, and torture. You have to be able to find your inner unshockable Gen. X slacker not to find something in this book that will squick you out,
For me, it is baby eating. Ugh. But as an original Gen X. slacker, I can hang, realize the problem is mine, and edit it the hell out of my game.
Simple Main Dungeon
There is a hell of a lot to do in The Devoured Land, but only two dungeons. The plot-critical one is straightforward, fairly linear, and mostly just a creature feature of Hellraiser-esque nightmares. Compared to the Hex-crawl that makes up most of the rest of this book, it feels incomplete. There was so much focus on making the monsters horrible, that the usual cleverness that went into so ma y of the other aspects of the game just didn't come through.
Frostbitten and Mutilated is a brilliant design. It mixes incredible artistic flourishes, a complicated plotline that will take dozens of adventures to complete, and a black-metal aesthetic into a pleasing whole that begs to be pillaged for ideas if not played straight as written. And it includes quite a toolkit for the pillaging.
Where it falls flat is where a lot of really clever work falls flat: in executing its main ideas. We know there is a time loop, and that it gives the PCs the opportunity to learn everything and break it by trying multiple paths, but we are not told how the time-loop works.
PCs are ultimately trying to beat the villains to a dungeon where a demon-god will be released and then either let them do it to escape the loop, after which the only thing they can do is set loose another kaiju-grade monster to fight it... or they have to put together the clues and stop the timeline within a few hours of the beginning on a very tight schedule... But the Dungeon design shows only a little of the amazing thought that went into just about everything else in the book.
Of course, its the "getting there" that is the fun.
If you want a bleak, evocative journey into an arctic waste full of evil people and vicious animals, want solve a bizarre magical mystery, or want play with time travel this may just be the perfect book for you. Just expect a little mental work to figure out how to make it all work.
If You Care: A Note on the Controversies...
I am going to start with a note on the author: Zak Sabbath is a guy who is really good at making himself controversial. He had, until a year ago or so a rock star persona in the OSR.
Around 2009-2010 Zak started a program called "I Hit it With My Axe," a stream where he played D&D with several porn stars from the Suicide Girls website where he himself did some porn, along with some strippers and other L.A. color. He eventually decoupled the campaign from Suicide Girls, but continued to feature it through his website D&D With Porn Stars, which also became one of the most read OSR blogs for its theory and design.
Zak has an incredible talent for designing intense OSR modules, which he has mostly done through Lamentations of the Flame Princess. His writing credits include
- Death Frost Doom
- A Red and Pleasant Land
- Maze of the Blue Medusa (with Patrick Stuart, not an LotFP product)
- Frostbitten and Mutilated
These are books that have changed the game in the OSR multiple times. His influence and his design skills got him a gig consulting on the design of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. Many of his books include his artwork, which is also, stunning work.
Last year, however, he was accused of IPV and sexual assault by girlfriend Mandy Morbid, which triggered of a torrent of other accusations. Which Zak Sabbath has denied, and over which he has ongoing defamation lawsuits. The fallout of the accusations in the court of public opinion have been ugly. His name has been stricken from future prints of the D&D5e sourcebooks. His coauthors on a couple of products have repudiated their work, and in one case no longer accepts money for their collaboration. James Raggi IV over at Lamentations' refused to drop him until he had all the facts, for which he and his company received a sustained public attack.
Its ugly, and it may rule out this book for you. Use your own discretion and reason.
I carry out this review solely based on the artistic and technical merit of a book I bought because of the rave reviews I have heard of it. What I, or anyone else thinks of Zak Sabbath is immaterial here.