Writer: Zak Smith
Art: Zak Smith
Design: Luka Rejec
Editor: Joshua Blackketter
Publisher: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Length: Approx. 144pp
First Edition, First Printing 2018
ISBN: 978-952-7238-02-8 (PRINT) / 978-952-7238-03-5 (PDF)
Let’s talk about Frostbitten and Mutilated and the avalanche of ENnies it’s up for this year. Let’s talk about what it is, what it can do for you and your game, and who it is perfect for. Let’s talk about what you’re getting for your money and why it might clean up at GenCon this year – and what that might mean going forward for RPG creators.
Frostbitten and Mutilated is Zak Smith’s latest work for James Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess system, a hardcover (or PDF) clocking in around 144 gorgeous pages. For those of you already versed in the products produced by Raggi and his contributors, there’s very little about the production value and quality to surprise you here: this book is absolutely gorgeous, cover to cover. It is well-made, with crisp printing and the characteristic layout excellence exemplified by LotFP books. Half of the credit goes immediately to Zak himself; as both author and artist – like he commonly is on his projects – he deserves acclaim for the stellar, evocative black and white art in this book. His paintings and drawings are on point throughout this book, and it’s absolutely no wonder why he stands nominated for so many of the 2018 ENnies in art categories alone. This artwork varies from ethereal, foggy, indistinct pieces that perfectly capture the essence of frosty breath and the haze of a whiteout blizzard; to sharp-edged line art with the contrast of a silhouette amongst reflective white snowdrifts. Throughout all of his art for this book, Zak keeps a visceral sense of vitriol present; a foreboding and ominous or even overtly threatening tone is clear in every single insert. That’s no mean feat considering the sheer volume of art in Frostbitten and Mutilated. The other half of the design credit belongs firmly to Luka Rejec, who is an incredible illustrator in his own right and a tremendous graphic designer. His work on projects like Hydra Cooperative’s Fever Dreaming Marlinko and Misty Isles of the Eld is superb, and there’s no less coming from him on this LotFP project. Here, the layout, the borders, the negative space – all of these elements come together flawlessly. The hard contrast between black and white, used wholly differently from the comparatively plain black and white old school books of our yesteryears, is outstanding. Luka sets the tone of every page and section expertly with the alternating use of white-on-black and black-on-white. The layout took those excellent paintings and drawings in a vacuum and gave them incredible visual context. It is sharp and dynamic when it needs to be and claustrophobic and still when it needs to be. I can’t overstate how lovely this book is; it truly sets the bar for black and white works so high as to be ridiculous.
Enough about the art and production, though. What is the content? What is the value there? What does Frostbitten and Mutilated promise, what does it deliver, and what is it not trying to be at all?
Let’s start at the top there: Zak Smith is the writer from front to back, and the content is what you’ve come to expect from him. It’s dark, it’s violent, it’s imaginative. The book is a window into a self-described death metal tundra; it’s not an adventure, though it explicitly contains a hub, a huge gridded & populated map, and two major encounter-type locations with their own maps and enough hooks and tools to turn both into full-fledged adventures of their own in essentially no time whatsoever. It’s a little bit more than just a setting, too, because it has so many such tools; while other setting books are often content to give you the tools and the maps and incredible-if-dubiously-useful minutiae, Zak took a different route and gave us a very clear setting in detail coast to coast and then gave us the tools and the maps and then skipped some of the minutiae to give us actually-gameable content. Additionally, rather than coming across as a textbook about the land or a guidebook to the land like other setting books, it comes across as a warning about the land, and almost like a hesitant manual for how to close your eyes and travel there. It has an artistic introduction that compels you to truly absorb the concept of the environment as a foe; to genuinely understand the idea that one of the most dead environments you can imagine is in fact itself alive and outright malicious. I’ve lived in a frozen northern hellscape where winter lasts seven months and alternates between 8′ snowdrifts and blizzards that can be quickly deadly and sunburn-bright clear days with hoarfrost and 5′ icicles and -65F temperatures that make going outside a question of when, not if, your exposed skin will freeze. You get a week or two off school every February because cars don’t start and engine blocks crack. It sucks, and it hates you. Zak captures that from the outset. Much of the book repeats these themes; that the setting, known as the Devoured Land, despises you as much as its inhabitants despise you (and each other). It makes you feel isolated before your party even ends up frozen to death beneath a bridge after you really tick off a witch three sessions in. It’s well-written, in Zak’s characteristic style, and never struggles to find its voice. It reinforces its own themes and tenets with grace and ease. The factions, the characters, the places – all of these easily fit together and support each other naturally.
Between the extensive section on the many peoples and persons of the Devoured Land, the maps large and small, the grid population, the event charts, and the numerous random tables, Frostbitten and Mutilated promises and delivers an exceptional toolkit for running harsh arctic adventures and campaigns. Zak goes into some detail on the campaign side of things in this book, with a section on how to start and how to maintain a wilderness game, which is a valuable resource unto itself as the outdoor sandbox is easily one of the most enthusiastically-indulged types of games that run the risk of becoming unwieldy quickly if not for a DM with a steady understanding of the style. Though the section is not long-winded, it gets a lot across and tackles some aspects of the idea that are commonly misunderstood or easy pitfalls. Behind this is a very substantial section entirely for the aforementioned random tables – which are varied enough in subject matter and scale to keep you going in the Devoured Land for a long time.
Here’s where I stumble into a poor attempt at “criticism”: If I were to criticize Zak or take umbrage with any of his writing on this book, it’s that I found some bits a little too brief sometimes; while he has an extremely vivid mind, sometimes I wish the fiery-hot ideas he is excited to share were a little longer than an elevator pitch. There is no doubt that his sometimes staccato delivery excites the reader and gets our own imaginations going instantly – an obvious plus in this hobby – but for all the value of brevity, there’s a few times I wanted a few more words or just a few more seconds of a window into his imagination just to really anchor an image in my mind. It’s a petty, minor concern, and one I hesitate to voice because I am a long-winded moron with no particular credentials to be making serious criticisms in the first place and I’m not sure I’d actually want Zak to change his style… But there you have it nonetheless.
Frostbitten and Mutilated is not supposed to be your next pre-packaged adventure path. It’s not specifically a module or a how-to on hexcrawls. It’s very clearly a mood, an image, a place, an assortment of people, and a packet of connecting tools and tables to combine those primary pieces into your own Devoured Land. It is a setting book, and it happens to include the vast majority of the raw materials for at least two supported adventures; but there is much more than just those two if you read through the book and take heed of the hooks all over the place – the results you can develop from the supplied pieces are as broad and open (and almost certainly hostile) as the Devoured Land itself. Characteristic of his writing style to the point that he should probably find some way to trademark it at this point, Zak includes so many (seriously, so, so many) events, clues, hooks, and implications all over this book that even cursory reading will keep you flush with plans and plots for a long, long time if you want to stay in the Devoured Land. It’s patently ridiculous how dense the little hooks are on nearly every page. You will get way more than your money’s worth out of this setting book because of this; as I’ve said, this book has so much more than just being a setting book when it comes to actually being explicitly useful for gaming, and keeping the game going with constant new events and directions to adventure.
Frostbitten and Mutilated is for you if you:
- Want a huge frozen wasteland toolkit
- Want to make your players fear the world itself again
- Want a gorgeous, compact art book
- Want more stuff to bolt onto your game alongside Vornheim
- Are squeamish about pregnancy (or bonesaws)
- Are afraid of freezing to death
- Need color to enjoy art
- Want an explicit A-to-B-to-C adventure path
As for the Ennies? I believe the sum total of nominations for Frostbitten and Mutilated this year is as follows:
Best Interior Artwork: Frostbitten & Mutilated
Best Monster/Adversary: Frostbitten & Mutilated
Best Setting: Frostbitten & Mutilated
Best Writing: Frostbitten & Mutilated
Product of the Year: Frostbitten & Mutilated
This book has earned every single one of its accolades. Luka and Zak delivered absolutely incredible artwork. Truly. Luka Rejec has earned a following as a designer on books for a reason – he does just incredible work making books readable, digestible, and completely gorgeous. Meanwhile, Zak smashed it out of the park on the vision of the Devoured Land and especially its inhabitants, and then he went ahead and wrote such a strong book from cover to cover that he managed to make the vision real and cogent and concrete for the rest of us. This book deserves the awards. This team deserves the awards. They deserve your votes and your money. Buy the book here (not an affiliate link) and vote for the book here once you’ve read it.
The success of LotFP year in, year out at the ENnies lately, and especially the success of Zak Smith in particular, can be divisive for those with an axe to grind. What I see, though, is a lot of transparency from James and Zak, a lot of success being spread around an ever-increasing number of creators from all walks of life, and a ton of recognition going to indie projects. We’re repeatedly seeing LotFP and Zak Smith products nominated for and/or winning awards in an industry that has been dominated by titanic publishers for decades – and James and Zak aren’t alone up there on stage to represent the small press anymore. We’re seeing greater attention given to small creators, visions outside the norm, and best of all, games and books that fit firmly in the DIY D&D/OSR camp. And so far what we’re also seeing, thanks to that transparency (and that of other creators, like Daniel Fox of Zweihander, for example) is that with the attention comes money, jobs, and opportunities for more and more new creators and partners, as more books get published and more products are made accessible to a growing public. That is good news for everybody.
Rating System Changes:
Update 20 Mar 2019: A new n/10 rating system has been instituted to more clearly express my feelings. The legacy n/5 system was always supposed to represent the top half of the n/10 system as I really only review books I really enjoyed in the first place (so they’d all be 6/10 or better) but under that n/5 system, a 1/5 is actually still a very good book, but this is not clear to casual observers. For this reason, the new n/10 system is being used going forward, and is being ported backwards to old reviews. The corrected n/10 value for this review is immediately below this update text. Following that, the original review text is unaltered. A detailed post on this subject is forthcoming.
FROSTBITTEN & MUTILATED: 10/10
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows: