Reviews

Frostbitten & Mutilated

A not-so-terrible take.

The gods froze sound — making words — and set the creatures working, to cut languages from the ice. A troll was set to grinding and was resentful, despising all improvement. The grinding troll worked, but poisoned tweny-one words in every tongue — so they would work a mischief in the mouths of men and bring them to ruin.


Unless you’re Jack London, it can be very difficult to make an area who’s defining characteristics are ice, death, and stagnation feel alive. In the scope of fiction, these places are almost always personified as an active adversary, which they can certainly be; however, the standard D&D setting generally holds that everywhere outside of a very narrow band of civilization is hostile to the player characters (there’s a reason why the board game Outdoor Survival was listed as recommended equipment in the first OD&D book).

Frostbitten & Mutilated revels in this hostility. It begins with two pages of meditations on death and the sometimes-adversarial nature of the DM/Player relationship, followed by a three-quarter column on why the PCs might want to be here in the first place. Your PCs should know long before their feet touch snow that the Devoured Lands is unconquerable. It is the grave at the end of time, the last gasp of kindness and humanity. It is Room 101, and what’s inside it are the worst things in the world.

The Breakdown


  • 131 pages of game content
  • 3 new locations (1 square-crawl map and 2 dungeons)
  • 36 new foes and monsters
  • 2 new character classes (The Witch and The Amazon)
  • 22 pages of random generators, magic items, and quest hooks

Zak Smith’s Frostbitten & Mutilated is the latest in a long line of publisher Lamentations of the Flame Princess’s location supplements, and has several direct connections (both thematic and geographic) to one of their first: Vornheim. In fact, the city of Vornheim can serve as a potential starting point for excursions into the Devoured Lands, as it’s pretty much one of the three places where player characters can expect to get a decent night’s rest without getting their eyes pecked out by crows. If you want to get an idea as to the overall tone of the Devoured Land, think about how F&M manages to turns Vornheim — a stone labyrinth who’s major deity is the god of rust and rain — into something approaching a sanctuary.

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The world of Frostbitten and Mutilated. The square area known as the Devoured Land is probably where the bulk of the adventure will take place.

The other two cities aren’t given much detail, as I imagine Zak’s intent was for the GM to use the systems within Vornheim to flesh them out to the desired degree. Nornrik to the West is a typical fantasy city and takes up no more than a single paragraph telling you as much. To the East, Rotting Crowns serves as your port town/local hive of scum and villainy. The settlements are purposefully minimalist, because their only real purpose is to give the PCs something to dream of when they’re hopelessly lost and being hunted by wolves in the unending white wastes. More on that later.

The two dungeons — the Dim Fortress and the Sevenfold Tower — are almost equally vestigial. The Dim Fortress is (and narratively must be) very difficult to find, and features your usual dungeon fare of oppressive darkness, flesh-rending monstrosities, and vast hoards of treasure. The Sevenfold Tower is a bit more interesting: it’s a narrative puzzle that splits the party and tempts each PC individually. This sounds like a disaster to run when described so simply, but it’s handled in a very elegant way. It scales with the party’s power level, and can have a variety of very strange outcomes should the players give in to their vices.

The Devoured Lands as a whole is an area divorced from the usual flow of time, forced to repeat the same month over and over again by Thorn, Frost, and Dread, the three witches we first met in Vornheim. The witches are still trying to summon the demon Belphegor, but being stuck in their own time loop means that, unless the PCs or some other outside party enters the Devoured Lands and mucks things up sufficiently, they will never be able to.

Thus, every time the PCs enter the area, it will be the start of the cycle. If they don’t find a way to either help or hinder the witches, after 23 days have passed the cycle will reset, and nobody but the PCs will realize this. There is a logical progression of events for every day of the cycle, but as long as the cycle is unbroken nothing of lasting importance can be had.

This will probably happen a few times before the players start to understand why. The Devoured Lands is a 48 square mile area, with unique encounters and landmarks for each 6 mile square. Crossing a six mile square takes two hours, and searching a square entirely takes four, with encounter checks rolled every 2 hours. What this means is that PCs will probably spend the vast majority of their time fighting for their lives. It won’t be easy.

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Monsters run the gamut from the tried and true — wolves, amazons, the aforementioned witches — to the bizarre, like the bone-stealing Noctambulist or even the snow itself. Each is fully illustrated, though the intricacies of the art will be detailed further on. Most striking is the way in which even old classics are made novel in the Devoured Lands. Crows always go for the eyes, specifically when their targets are sleeping. Owls covet words and will always appear if the world “owl” is spoken, in-character or out. Everyone who sees a wolf must drink a toast to it that night, or more will come.

The real stars of the show, the amazons, are split into four different tribes. The Frostbitten Moons cover themselves in vicious poisons. The Maggot Sisterhood hunt priests, and never leave a battle without decapitating every foe. The Thirteen are actually has 25 members who attack with a variety of hallucinogenic powders. The leader of the Ulvenbrigad is actually two people, each split in two and sewn to the other vertically by witchcraft. If these read like the kind of myths that would gather around vicious hordes that don’t leave survivors, well, maybe they are. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Devoured Lands willing to help you take on an amazon enclave.

All of these designs seem to serve a singular purpose: this book wants you to run. Run from the crows that want you to leave you blinded in the dark. Run from the roving bands of amazons that shoot first and ask questions never. Run, run, from point to point and encounter to encounter, and never stop in a place you’re not prepared to die in. In the Devoured Lands, stagnation is suicide, and coupled with the Majora’s Mask-like calendar system it manages to give an entire area the feeling of an old-school dungeon crawl: get in, get what you need, and get out before anyone knows you’re there.

IF THESE READ LIKE THE KIND OF MYTHS THAT WOULD GATHER AROUND VICIOUS HORDES THAT DON’T LEAVE SURVIVORS, WELL, MAYBE THEY ARE

Art and Design


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Of all the sections in this article, this is probably the most superfluous. You can probably guess that the combined efforts of Zak Smith and Luka Rejec — two brilliant and renowned artists in their own right — are stunning. You would be right.

When described, the layout sounds like a design and readability nightmare: high-contrast black and white with a poorly-Xeroxed/celluloid burn aesthetic, broken up by chunky blackletter headers and intermittent page borders. And yet it all works. If Maze of the Blue Medusa was “D&D as coffee table book,” Frostbitten & Mutilated is “D&D as illuminated manuscript.” At no point do the art and text fight for space or threaten to overwhelm the page. Nor does Luka Rejec fall into the common designers’ trap of cranking up the image size to fill a blank page (something even I’m guilty of on occasion); the white space is used to admirable purpose to aid in the sense of desolation, in harmony with everything else on the page.

Capture

As layout and graphic design are the components of RPG production I feel most comfortable speaking on, this would be the place to hem and haw about how sometimes the page numbers are obscured by the borders or how the blackletter ‘k’ is a nigh-unreadable glyph that more resembles a stylized ‘t’ or ‘r’. Such objections are untenable, however, in the face of all that this book does to present a tabletop RPG supplement using actual principles of artistic composition. It is simply beautiful to look at, and everyone I’ve shown it to (many who do not play RPGs, some who cannot read English) have said as much.

This is aided by the fact that at no point does F&M presume that you don’t know how to run a good game of D&D. There’s no long-winded explanations of how to convert AC or why this monster saves as it does in this particular system. The spartan descriptions serve to keep the book accessible at-a-glance, in spite of any visual busyness. As an example, compare the previous spread on Giants to the following page for Boars:

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Not a word wasted, nor another word needed.

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As for the illustrations proper, those who are familiar with Smith’s body of work — particularly, his work on bodies — will likely still find themselves pleasantly surprised. Yes, the I Hit It With My Axe girls are here, in chainmail bikinis and Ronan the Accuser eye makeup. But even just among the amazons, Zak showcases a surprising array of styles. From the high-contrast, death-metal-album-insert shown above, to the quicksilver sheen of her fellow Frostbitten Moon:

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to the cratered daguerreotype of this Ulvenbrigad and her companion,

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there’s the cohesion that you get by having a single artist, unmarred by any staidness that would be otherwise inevitable if you asked someone to illustrate nearly 150 pages of ice murder. There is noise to it; not merely visual noise but something nearly audible, a persistent trill that forces your eyes open with every turn of the page.

The usual Lamentations production values are here as well: sewn binding, heavy paper, beautiful endpages, and a silver-foil stamped hardcover give this the same luxurious feel of any fine-press novel. I’m not usually one to spring for physical copies of modules and supplements, but LotFP is quickly making a name for themselves as the gold standard in physical RPG books.

The Witch and The Amazon


Like A Red and Pleasant Land before it, Frostbitten & Mutilated introduces new character classes to brave the wastes with. Also like in A Red and Pleasant Land, both The Amazon and The Witch rely heavily on d100 random-advancement tables upon level up, which means that an all-Amazon team could conceivably cover a lot of your average adventuring party duties.

The Amazon is, for most purposes, a fighter. Players can choose their clan from the four introduced, or work with the DM to make their own. Their random advancement table has a strong focus on combat, but some fun stuff sneaks in: for example, rolling an 80-82 gives you “Frazetta armor,” allowing you to add your CHA and STR bonus to AC when not wearing armor. Is it appreciably better than the natural armor afforded to Dwarves or Barbarians? Probably not. Is it immeasurably cooler? Hell yes.

I rolled up an Amazon (a Maggot Sister) and, through random advancements, by level three she is as a fighter with:

 

  • A trained warpig companion
  • A resistance to cold (-2 damage)
  • +1 CON
  • +2 Intimidation, -1 to charm or lie to fancy folk
  • +1 to any three saves

All in all, pretty cool. I’m particularly fond of the decreased chance to reliably fool nobles; gods know I wouldn’t trust anyone who looked or acted like my imaginary Amazon does.

Fans of Zak’s blog will probably recognize The Witch, which is to the magic-user what The Amazon is to the fighter. With a focus on demonic pacts and arcane rites, The Witch has her own spell list, and rolls on both a “Random Trait” and “Magical Ability” table upon level up.

 

For example, a level three Witch may have:

  • Sharp teeth, which lets her bite for d4 damage
  • An additional spell from the Witch or Cleric list
  • The urge to steal an animal after failing a save
  • An immunity to fear, gained by glimpsing beyond the veil of the natural world

These tables segue directly into the last section of the book, which is devoted to new substances, skills, and random tables for everything from Amazon divination games to rival NPCs adventuring parties. In particular, there’s a good part on designing and running a wilderness sandbox, which is incredibly useful for anyone who wants to expand the adventure past the boundaries of the Devoured Land.

Frostbitten, Ice-Shy


There are times when I have the humbling pleasure of seeing something that makes me want to be a better writer, or game designer, or artist. When I first read Whitehack, I thought it was the platonic ideal of what my perfect game system would be, unmarred by any of my own failures of expression.

Were the perfect version of me to write and design their perfect game supplement, it would be Frostbitten & Mutilated. Everything — from the setting, to the art, to the ideas and themes so elegantly expressed — is so deep in my wheelhouse that I almost felt there would be a conflict of interest in me writing this review. I had already decided to start my next campaign in Vornheim, and the two products go together like RPG chocolate and peanut butter. To heavily paraphrase Zak’s own referee tips:

Introduce your players to the Devoured Lands as the quietest, darkest place in the world. Show them the empty landscape where the white sky meets the white earth, where the silhouettes are always there and always hating. In the sound and the dark let them feel this hatred at their trespass, and let them know that they are despised for no other reason but because they are alive and they are there. When the entire cold world sets to seething for their downfall they might — and rightly should — turn to run, and you can close this book and return to the relative safety of your city or dungeon.

But when they return (and they always will), you will know you hold the heart of the storm in your cracked and jagged claws and that you will bring it upon them with the immortal fury of everything they were too afraid to face before.

Frostbitten & Mutilated can be purchased as a standalone PDF from DriveThruRPG or as a combination Print+PDF from the Lamentations of the Flame Princess store. It has been nominated for Best Interior Art, Best Monster/Adversary, Best Setting, Best Writing, and Product of the Year in the 2018 Ennies.

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