Sometimes it can be a bit daunting to review one of the classics, don’t we all except a review of something commonly accepted as one of the greats to either beat us over the head with further panegyric praise or tear it down in an iconoclastic frenzy? But giving your unsolicited opinion about a commonly agreed upon masterpiece is a hallmark of the pretentious amateur critic, and I am anything if not a amateur critic.
Fortunately I’m not sure if Dungeon Crawl Classics #79: Frozen in Time is a classic, so perhaps I am saved from pretentiousness for the moment. I saw an online commenter call it the “Classic DCC Science Fiction Module” which I guess makes it something of a sort-of-classic, an Expedition to the Barrier Peaks for the gonzo world of DCC. And for all my talk of the daunting prospect of reviewing a classic I hope do not deflate your interest to much by saying I found the module to be fine, so-so, okay, and just alright. I may even venture so far as to say I found it disappointing given the promise of its gonzo sci-fi premise..
The Pitch: Frozen in Time is a science-fantasy dungeon crawl that centers around the ice-encased home base/pleasure palace/museum of a time-traveler named Zepes Null-Eleven. Zepes spent many centuries collecting creatures and do-dads in his time hopping adventures, all of which he stored in his underground base on a primitive world. Old age eventually did him in however, and after centuries of neglect, a cracking glacier has exposed part of his old home to the outside world. The players, hearing of this strange new cave that has opened up near their village, go forth to plunder it of its riches! Instead of finding piles of gold they will find strange magic (technology), bizarre creatures (dinosaurs and robots), and an icy floor they will slip on repeatedly to the amusement of their peers (and the dinosaur!).
I believe that the intention of the adventure is that you play as a party of stone-age primitives, discovering this strange technological world as you bash robots with rocks. And the modules many pieces of art and the “primitive occupations” table for stone age zero-level characters at the end of the module are what lead me to this conclusion. Although I don’t think it would make much of a difference. The party I ran this module with were all adventures for medieval England, although I admit that “Caveman beats up a robot” has a slightly more compelling edge to me than “Farmer John beats up a robot”.
Barrier Peaks presents an obvious comparison to Frozen, complete with a system of palm-reader locked doors and an infested greenhouse, Frozen differs in a major way. and that is instead of being a combat-guantlet against dozens and dozens of alien beasties, it is a rather enemy-light affair. By my reckoning there are maybe 5 or 6 chances to go sword to sword with enemies in Frozen and my stalwart players only got into two fights before deciding to hightail it out of the facility. Both I and my players enjoy a decent amount of combat, so this was a bit disappointing.
They did however get a kick out of their interactions with the sci-fi whats-itz littered throughout the facility. Zepes was something of a rouge and thief during his life. And he has filled his halls with strange creatures, artifacts and peculiar objects. One of my players gleefully pocketed all of the kitchens stainless steel utensils. Another gained his weapon for the whole rest of the campaign, a magical black katana, from Zepes weapon collection. Yet another player got quite a laugh when they realized the strange painting they were examining was a stolen “Mona Lisa”. Such hijinks were amusing, but do little to provide substance. After all, it is basically the same joke repeated again and again.
The adventure itself is a manageable 14 pages in length, with three pages of maps at the end. The maps are easily readable while having that anarchic DCC style to them. I do enjoy all the art of the various beasties from the adventure packed in at the margins, but it would have been nice to have them on a standalone page so I could more easily show my players what they are looking at. Also, as one GM to another, print out the maps separately! This module has quite a bit of vertical travel, and you wont want to be flipping back and forth constantly to reference what goes where and which room is stacked on top of which elevator shaft.
Those elevator shafts and the open layout of the complex led me to believe that this module would be a bit open, or maybe a bit of a puzzle as the confused players try to navigate an alien world. Unfortunately that is not the case, and in the playing of the module we found it to be quite linear, and quite empty in many ways.
Here, Ill show you what I mean, take a look at this map of the facilities main level.
Looks cool right? There are multiple tubes to move to other levels, doors locked by palm disk readers, inlcuding a speical gold one that the players will have to find, and a picture of a hulking ape-man to do battle with. However there really is not much to do on this entire level of the dungeon. For example, room 3-1 is an overgrown greenhouse with mildly poisonous plants. 3-2, is an icy room that forces an easy reflex save or else you slip and fall, which exists only to slip players as the T-Rex chases them out of the door at the end of the module. 3-4 is a kitchen with no enemies and no further description. and 3-5 is a museum where the players can gawk at stolen works of art like “The Thinker” and marvel at the stasis-trapped T-Rex that will wake up when the facility enters emergency power later in the module. 3-3 contains the only encounter against a wounded snow-ape, and the only way to exit the dungeon.
While it appears you have many options, in truth the four rooms of the level are quite sparse in reality, one of them is basically empty, 3-1 and 3-2 have poison plants and a single enemy respectively, and you have no meaningful way to interact with anything in room 3-4. The rooms only really serve as ways to access the elevators to other levels. The upper and lower levels are equally linear, with each being a hallway with two rooms on each end. The upper level contains a robot to fight (which I made a Dalek, but could be any pop-culture robot of your choice) in an artifact room, and Zepes bed chamber where the players can drink his brandy and take his gold palm disk. This treasure of the facilities creator is used to unlock the previously inaccessible Tube D and the lower level which leads them to a menagerie of strange creatures, and then to a time travelling pad that my players never encountered but is basically an excuse to show them some time-travel vignettes and maybe strand a PC or two in the roman times or the far future if they are particularly obstinate about messing with the control panel.
This linearity dampens the end somewhat as well. It is quite easy to tell what the “intended” way for the module to end is, and that is by fleeing from the T-Rex and the failing facility. My players, although they enjoyed this, felt it was too obvious of a set up. There is exactly one way into the facility, and exactly one way out through the icy crack in area 3-2, since the original entrance is now at the bottom of a fatal elevator shaft and escaping with the time machine is essentially a death unless the whole party does so. So they ran from the T-Rex over the ice, producing a nail biting moment as they avoided slipping, and then ran up the icy crack just in time before the whole place self-destructed.
Oh yes, the facility self destructs. Does it self destruct because of the actions of the players? Are the baited into breaking something important by the promise of powerful tech? Does the facility computer detect the removal of Zepes’s golden disc-reader and issue a self destruct order in 3d10 dungeon turns? No, it simply begins self destructing whenever the Gm decides it would be most appropriate. I find this a bit of a letdown, I would love the self-destruction of the place to be tied to the actions of the players in a concrete way that they could detect and potentially avoid (or run right into if they were trying to, oh I dunno, blow up a T-Rex trying to devour them). Leaving the self destruction up to GM fiat works fine, and certainly it gave my players a fright when I saw a perfect moment to light a fire under their buts by blaring an alarm and turning the lights red, but I would much prefer something more concrete, even if it was more obscure.
Phew! That’s quite a bit of complaining for something I described as “fine” earlier in the review. But I suppose that’s just the issue. The dungeon is perfectly fine. You wander through some rooms, have a couple laughs at the anachronistic jokes, bash a few baddies and then escape in the nick of time. All of that is fine, but there is a reason that at the conclusion of my year-long DCC campaign my players singled this module out as their least favorite. The promise of the modules awesome cover, weird maps and intriguing premise are basically squandered on a hum-ho dungeon that teases some intrigue and openness but quickly closes back up again.
And none of this is to be held against the author Michael Curtis who is the writer behind The DCC Lankhmar box set, literally my favorite DCC product of all time, as well as the stellar DCC #83 The Chained Coffin (The star of a forthcoming review/retrospective!). Part of the reason I like those other works are their relative openness and invitation to make your own way within their intriguing settings.
Speaking of settings, the mini-setting included in the back of the module is a real treat, and I see Frozen in Time‘s place within it as a relatively linear introductory adventure within a small sandbox as quite fitting. It takes players to a frigid and primitive land called the “Forlorn North”. A realm of great pine forests, icy seas and towering glaciers. Where players can hunt mammoths, do battle with the tusk-faced Odobenmen and get into all sorts of trouble plundering the ancient ruins of the Hyperboreans. It is a brisk three pages, with a decent amount of information, adventure hooks and a half-page hexmap. A fine piece of work that could easily see you through a half-dozen adventures and a few in-game months of travel before your now hardened tribal heroes strike out southward to trod the jeweled thrones of the earth beneath their feet.
Conclusion: Frozen in Time is a decent, linear, adventure, nothing about it offends or will make your players miserable. But despite the promises of it’s science-fantasy premise, I found it to be a relatively standard dungeon crawl with a cool idea or two to set it apart. If an adventure where primitive tribesmen contend with the forces of ancient technology sounds fun to you then you certainly can’t go wrong by picking it up (especially for only ten dollars). But you’ll find not much special underneath its sci-fi coat of paint.