Final Boss



I read The Laughing Vampire and it didn't measure up to what I imagined after reading this post. Now I desperately want to make the comic I imagined. The final boss crew, waiting for death at the top of the tower as the heroes slaughter towards them.

The pacing and style would be inspired by Absurd Theatre. You know, Waiting for Godot. More specifically this play:



It starts with 2 whole minutes of silence, which of course in this quick-flash internet age means it forfeits all right to your attention immediately. Try to stay awake if you can, though: The silence and trivial banter serves to totally immerse you in a claustrophobic box of growing tension and hysteria.

I want to put that waiting into a hyper-dense world of exploding ideas in the style of Kill Six Billion Demons, following the maxim of "Maximum Good Ideas per Page". The first step would be to sit down with an artist and create a bizarre world and characters in intense detail.


I think this could add to the Theatre of the Absurd in the same way that Cowboy Bebop added to the Western. 


I love long slow shots of a desolate environment, instilling the sense that the characters are small and insignificant flickers of life in a dead land that cares nothing for them - in theory. In practice there's only so long I can look at still shots of the desert without losing my mind. The pacing and style of Westerns doesn't work for me in this dry environment.


When those slow shots show fantastic inventive sci-fi art, though, I'm all in. Cowboy Bebop keeps the spirit of a western, but saturating everything with imagination elevates it for me. This is the way I am, I guess - I need a dose of pulp and wild ideas to make the medicine go down.

None of these ideas will be explained through exposition. One of the principles of Absurdism: We never talk about the important things on our mind, just orbit around them with trivialities. The characters take everything interesting as trivial and are obsessed with meaningless details. The comic dips you straight into the situation like a cold bath. You have to piece the background together. It echoes with hollow spaces and half-said things.

I think it would work something like this. I'm not sure about it, and I've never written a comic before.


A woman picks the wings off a struggling dragonfly with tweezers, then places them on an intricate sculpture of inter-weaved insect parts. 

Man: "Have you seen my shoes?"

Woman: "Hmm?"

Holding the sculpture in place with one hand, she searches through her things with the other and picks up a small bottle of liqueur.

Man: "Shoes. The black ones, let me walk into people. Seen them?"

She tips the liqueur over the sculpture, then reaches out for a match.

Woman: "What do you want them for?"

Man: "Well, I want to look presentable, don't I? I'm not going out to meet them in my bloody pajamas."

The woman sets the sculpture on fire. It twitches, then moves to join a small parade of insect-things. She smiles.

Doomed Obsessions

Death Frost Doom (PDF)

Before I started Death Frost Doom, I took each player into another room and gave them a secret objective.

  1. Last year, you/your wife suffered a miscarriage. Of late you have been haunted by dreams of your child, crying out, tortured in the pits below Death Frost Mountain.
    Your child's soul is held prisoner by Eizethrat Nexx in area 24. If attacked, she will send your child against you.
  2. Your parents told you that you trace your heritage back to the ancient kings, but an ancient death cult stole the Noble Seal that proves your right to rule. Rumours and legends suggest the seal was offered as sacrement to one of the black altars on Death Frost Mountain.
    Your seal is on the altar in area 22. The back is engraved with the symbol of the Duvan'Ku. It's clear to anyone who sees it that your ancestors were a willing part of the death cult itself.
  3. Your ancestor was a great saint of Vorn who went crusading against the evil in Death Frost Mountain and never returned. His body could be used to make holy reliquaries of great power.
    Your ancestor was transformed into the Sacred Parasite in area 22. He was corrupt to the core. He no longer has a body.
  4. Your god has commanded you to root out and destroy the evil at the center of Death Frost Mountain. It whispers to you even now, reassuring you that you're on the right path.
    Your god is silent. You are being spoken to by the thing chained under the mountain in area 22. It wants you to awaken it.
  5. You had some bad habits, but you're shaking them off and getting your life in order. You quit your addictions, stopped the rampages - now you just need to repay your old debts using the acres of gold hidden under Death Frost Mountain.
    You were addicted to Purple Lotus Powder. There's some in Room J.
  6. You live in the village under Death Frost Mountain, a descendent of escaped slaves from the cult. You're tired of being sick and poor and afraid. You want to take the power of the mountain and use it to protect and help your village. Your ancestor's diary speaks of the Grimoire of New Flesh - that'd be a good start.
    The Grimoire of New Flesh is in room 12. The thing you create will destroy you.

There's nothing wrong with the simple greed that's meant to tempt players into Death Frost Doom, but I like my negadungeons to be a little personal, y'know? My all time favourite adventure hook is "You get a letter from your dead wife." In retrospect, I think giving one of the players an objective that worked against the others would have worked out well, but I wimped out and decided to just make them believe there was a traitor.

The adventure went great! I had 8 players, including three women totally new to D&D, and they all walked away indoctrinated into roleplaying. The highlights were a conversation with a dead child, FINALLY getting to use my hireling table (which lead to a duel with a glovemaker in the middle of a fight with the Sacred Parasite which was flooding the room with ice - a PC trapped underneath a frozen corpse as the glovemaker rose above her with a knife), and the climax where one PC sacrificed another on a black altar as the dead closed in.

Review: Death Frost Doom

Cover photo
PS players don't read this if you don't want spoilers.

Death Frost Doom is a Negadungeon most famous for its terrible long-lasting consequences to your campaign. One half of the adventure slowly builds up tension with quiet exploration and tinkering with the artifacts of a death cult on a desolate mountain peak, then the second half explodes in an avalanche of ghouls and terror. It's just been re-made with new art by Jez Gordon and Yannick Bouchard, and writing by Zak Smith. If you bought the old pdf, you have the new version now (which I didn't realize 'till I'd bought it again). I ran it for my group back in the day, and after reading the new version I want to run it again.

Most of Zak's work here is to expand it, add options, and tie everything together into a mythology. In the first version, there were a lot disparate weird bits that didn't gel together into black magic for me. There was no connection, for instance, between the singing plant, the giant sleeping under the mountain and the skulls strung up on the chapel roof. When this stuff fucked you up, it did it violently out of nowhere, with no foreshadowing.
So when the shrine was built on top of a mountain-sized giant that can wake and destroy the entire place instantly - that's (dismissive hand gesture) ok. But Zak's added options where the cult's books and paintings darkly foreshadow the fact that the giant is, instead, a slumbering god which the cult has bound beneath the mountain, harvesting energy from it in order to make a new one, and it slowly wakes by pushing finger after finger through the rooms until a great hand pushes the entire place 20 feet in the air - that's amazing.

Pretty much everything has been expanded like this. In the old version, playing the Organ in the chapel would release deadly spores. Now it might still do that, but it also does about 20 other things based on how you play it, which all tie into other parts of the adventure. There are new ways to get past every monster without fighting, just through diplomacy, sneaking, exploration or cleverness. It's almost... nicer? (DFD veterans everywhere gasp in horror) I like it, though: the extra stuff rewards the exploration and tinkering at the heart of the adventure, and it's balanced out with new terrible evils. You can get around almost everything unscathed, but you're still going to have to face consequences if you want the prized McGuffin.

Jez Gordon's new black and white art is eye-cutting. On the Peak, he does everything in a sea of white. The ground's white, the sky's white, there's nothing but black shards of broken, dead things on this empty landscape.


Then he inverts it when you go underground. Your lantern-light gleams off flickers of twisted life in an immense, dead blackness.


The climax of this are the six Greater Repugnances that wait behind the terror-switch. There are some amazing potential fights here. Not in a "mmm yes what a well-balanced solo encounter" way - in a way that feels like a mythological struggle. To move in the presence of the Testifier, the party must swear unbreakable oaths. The writing and picture for this guy just electrified me. I imagine him motionless at the end of a long room, the party staggering towards him as invisible hands choke them and tear at their organs, swearing oath after oath about the way they will destroy him.

Death Frost Doom was never a traditional adventure, but this feels like the essence of D&D crushed into diamond. Overworld and Underworld. Pure myth. The ruler of the undead here may only be a general, but he still feels like The Lich King. I wouldn't say this is the best adventure in Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but it feels like the most pure, concentrated dose of the black stuff that moves through those veins.

If you don't own Death Frost Doom:

Put the mountain in your campaign. Tell your players about the death cult, the unspeakable rituals, the fact that no-one climbs it and returns, then casually drop in a mention of the riches and whatever McGuffin they want most. If your players decide to go there, buy the adventure. Put the McGuffin in area 22.

Death Frost Doom needs your players to fuck with things. It needs them to be curious. And it needs this to be all their fault. If you slap it down and say "Here's what we're playing today", you need to be open to the possibility that they'll get spooked in the first room and flee the place. I think that's neat, but you might think you've wasted your 6 bucks. Whatever you do, don't force your players through it like this guy did.

The kind of players who want to explore a place named Death Mountain on their own impetus will be so richly rewarded by what they find here. DFD understands how fun and hilarious it is to lose and die. If your players are into that, go for it.

If you need advice on running it:

Use Hirelings. Just use these tables if you want, you don't need to give them stats or anything. Hirelings are crucial for high-lethality horror adventures, 'cos:

1. They let the players screw with stuff without putting their lives in danger.
Half of Death Frost Doom is about fiddling with things that might kill you. If the players can't order someone to risk the danger and do that for them, they might decide to avoid fiddling with anything at all and end up missing the best bits. Of course, if you're using my tables, being cruel to the Hirelings will have its own consequences down the line.

2. They let you be unfair. 
You can do whatever you want to Hirelings. Kill and curse them at random, don't even bother rolling. They're red-shirts, you use them to show how serious the situation is. Secretly, though, having hirelings as a meat-shield helps you to make sure all misfortune that happens to the player characters is fair and just.

3. They keep people in the game.
Whenever someone dies, they can swap to play a hireling. When I played years ago we used to talk about the "Paladin in a barrel" problem. The party paladin kept dying, and miraculously we'd find another paladin in a barrel in the next room. Playing with hirelings, you can get the horror-movie slow degradation as the party dwindles while keeping the same amount of player-controlled characters.

"Not a game"



Quick rant about videogames here.

There's a long-simmering Cold War over the definition of Game. The lines are split between "That's not a game" and "Yes it is", and if you're on the opposite side people will get angry at you. It flares up in comment sections across the internet. People won't talk to each other over this.

The origin story, as far as I can tell: One day, someone made a weird interactive thing. It was featured on a gaming website. Some loser came along and said "That's not even a game." Everyone who likes weird interactive things collectively responded to this with "Yes it is!" Some well-meaning academics bumbled in trying to get clear definitions, and are now eternal enemies with these people.

There's two statements in the phrase "That's not a game", as used by an internet asshole.

1. Games are the only worthwhile thing (to talk about on this website, to make, to care about, whatever).

2. You are not in that category, games.

In defending yourselves from the second statement, you've ignored the first. It's as if a bully said "What are you, gay?" and you tried to defend yourself by saying "No, of course not!". Both contain two statements:

1. Being in category X is bad.
2. You are in category X.

Defending yourself from statement 2 means accepting this value system, where category X is bad. And everyone has accepted this! It seems like most of the weird interactive thing enthusiasts now accept that if you say something is a game, you're praising it, and if you say it's not a game you're attacking it. Game dev Anna Anthropy won't talk to academic Raph Coster because he doesn't agree that dys4ia is a game. If anyone makes statement 2 (You are in category X) everyone assumes they've made statement 1, that they're talking about the value of the thing.  That's why anyone who's interested in definitions has gotten caught up in a blood feud.
Talk about an appeal to emotion. Isn't it fucked up that the weird kids, the people making the craziest stuff out there, have accepted the value system of the anonymous internet gamer bro they hate? That their bizarre, boundary-stretching thing is only worthwhile if you call it a game, of all things, instead of a poem or a story or a sculpture?

We need to go back to the root of statement 1: Should non-games be talked about on gaming websites, submitted to game jams, and awarded trophies at game events? This is the issue at hand. The definition of game is irrelevant.

I believe the answer is yes. No-one is going to talk about this shit except us. Check out this article. This guy made a hypertext story. He didn't think of it as a game: he posted it to the literature community.

"I think the most pages I saw any one person view was in the teens. Hardly anyone stayed with it for longer than a few minutes."

Then the gaming community found it.

In June, when the issue launched, and the literary announcements went out, the file that is my story was loaded n times.
In July, as of yesterday, the file was loaded 10*n times. 

But the really cool part is how much more time people who approached it as a “game” spent than people who approached it as “literature”. The game community page numbers were consistently in the 50-70 page range, and the highest individual number I saw was 104, by a person with a Munich IP address who spent 4 hours with it. There are some people who haven’t left it. They have simply kept it open in their browsers and once a day for the past week they add a couple of pages to their total count.

Whatever category this thing falls into, we need to be talking about it. Nobody else will.

Watch the Skies!


Just a heads up for anyone who follows this blog. I'm running a Megagame called Watch the Skies! As seen on Shut Up and Sit Down. You can sign up for it here. 

Leviathan

I've started a blog where you can read more about it here. I haven't had time to post much besides the map, but hopefully in the days to come I'll have a chance to post some more of the cool stuff that's going into making it, and the kind of theoretical game wafflings I normally push.

Brimhold, Level 2


The river is clotted with ash from the Megavolcano at its source. The Ash Quarry filters it. The ash itself is prized for its mystical qualities.

There was once a great god who ruled over everything. He was burnt into cinders and destroyed. Each cinder became a tiny god. They thrive in ramshackle shrines in the Cinder House.

Who is Malarkus?  I guess he's a ghost the size of a building.

The Moon Pool is the place of my goddess. You chuck pebbles into the pool, and divine her advice from the shape the moon makes in the ripples.


Brimhold


Matt Rundle and Matt Groves made this map for Matt's campaign. Click to make it bigger.

Grisby's Great Terrarium: Top left, in the walled-off goblin district. The goblins are making it. No-one knows why.

Lord Jub: Near royal keep. The first king who settled the town released his pet goldfish into the river. The fish has grown with the town. Legends say it cannot die while the town stands - or the town cannot be destroyed while it lives - one or the other.

Somerset Arena: Cheapside and Uptown unite around this boundary-spanning blood bowl. Uptown folks have box seats up their end, while the Cheapside mob set up ladders and ramshackle shanty seats around the other. In the center of the arena grows the Blood Oak. It looks normal, except that its roots have long been dyed deep red. They say some terrible disaster while strike the town if the Blood Oak ever goes unfed.