The chill in the air means only one thing. No, not our inevitable deaths, although they seem a bit more inevitable this year. No, this is once again time for a Wizards of the Coast Hardcover D&D adventure. Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, is an adventure set in the far north of the Forgotten Realms, north of the Sword Coast where most of 5e’s adventures have been set. It advertises content for levels 1 through 13.
This has been a strange year. As Chris Perkins’s afterword in Rime says, it’s little weird to have this adventure with themes of horror, isolation, and death in a year where so many are horrified, isolated, or dead. It should go without saying, but I’m going to write it anyway, if you take joy in something or can get paid for something that makes someone else happy, continue to do that thing.
This is also a stranger than average time for me. Two years ago, I was lonely, depressed, and running three games a week seemed like a great antidote to that. These days, my preferences have shifted and I want more free time, more family time. Running one game every other week feels like plenty. This is also the first adventure book to come out post Descent Into Avernus and man I’m sick of bitching about that book.
I’m on a few discord servers talking about TTRPGs. We don’t really talk about Curse of Strahd beyond how great it was or Tomb of Annihilation beyond how deadly it gets. But we’re still talking about Avernus because none of us seem able to reckon with how much of a mess that book is. It really does have this Phantom Menace like quality where we can’t seem to look away and move on. I say this not because I want to talk about Avernus (ever again actually) but because Avernus is still front of mind for me and these two adventures have a lot in common.
Frostmaiden has 12 writers, 4 Rules Developers and 13 ‘world builders’ just like Avernus had a big team working on it. Both of these adventures are not nearly as tight as Dragon Heist, Tomb of Annihilation, or the other single story adventures. You can tell in the writing that there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen. But Frostmaiden does this better than Avernus. Maybe the Frostmaiden team was just better managed or received clearer instructions. Or maybe between the ragged edge of civilization (Saltmarsh, Curse of Strahd) is just easier to write an adventure for as opposed to an urban setting. The 5e team hasn’t quite licked the idea of the City Adventure between Dragon Heist and Baldur’s Gate.
Let’s get into this book. It starts with an outline of the setting and situation. The Ten Towns are the civilized part of Icewind Dale, the great northern frontier of the Sword Coast. Land of reindeer herds and giant trout. It’s been winter for more than two years which the people attribute to Auril, the goddess of winter. The net result is a lot like Barovia. You have a small bunch of communities cut off from the rest of the world, this time by blizzards rather than magic mist. As if that wasn’t enough there are also two other threats to contend with. A Duergar warlord is taking advantage of the lack of sunlight to emerge from the Underdark. He’s planning to build a dragon golem (or is that golem dragon?) and use it to wreck shit. Then he can conquer the land (of course!). There’s also the Arcane Brotherhood. They are very self-interested mercenary wizards interested in plundering things. The text literally refers to them as wild west gunslingers. And then you also have an ancient flying city called Ythryn under a glacier waiting to be discovered.
Right away these first few pages of setup raise my hackles. This is a lot of proper nouns for one adventure. The goddess Auril, the duergar tyrant Xardorok Sunblight, and four wandslingers of the Arcane Brotherhood, all of them are up to some shit. This shows us right away that there are a lot of writers working on this. In Descent, that meant that scenes didn’t connect to one another. One ended, the next one started without a lot of reason for one to follow the other. Fortunately, this book is in one location. In that way, it feels more like Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Sure Ghosts was a bunch of disconnected adventures but you could pretty easily tie the sauhugin and the Lovecraftian horrors together to make a cohesive campaign for the run of the book. More than anything else, that’s the quick take on Rime of the Frostmaiden. It’s a setting book with a bunch of things happening in Icewind Dale. People are desperate, other people are taking advantage of them. Stop the bad people and fix the problems.
We get some rules for wilderness survival, dogsledding, and ice fishing. Several of these rules say they are “reprinted from the DMG for your convenience.” Part of me feels guilty about calling Wizards of the Coast cheap fucks for not reprinting the ‘Running a Business’ tables or Madness rules in previous adventures. Let’s just agree that this is very convenient. Thanks WotC.
After those rules we get into Character Creation Tips for tying your characters to the setting. I love that this is at the front of the book. There are hooks to tie all the PHB backgrounds to the Icewind Dale setting. So the SCAG backgrounds can go screw I guess. One mistake I made with Descent was I suggested potential hooks to my players to tie them to Elturel. Which were then ignored or downplayed. What I should have said was, “you are from Elturel, tell me how.” In this adventure, tell your DM why you are in Icewind Dale. Are you a native or did you come here for a purpose? And if your character has no reason to be there then pick another fuckin’ character.
There’s a big section on character secrets. I think every adventure has had this kind of character modifying handout they’ve used to varying degrees of success. The point here is, again, tying characters to setting. These also get mentioned a few times throughout the adventure. In an adventure that’s made up of dozens of small adventures this can be a reason to pick five of those adventures for the party. The secrets also can help foster paranoia which is good in a horror themed adventure. The tone of the writing here and in these DM oriented setting sections in very conversational, candid, and helpful. This sections even says, “Hey this secret is mechanically powerful.” Or, “This secret is a pop-culture reference.”
The way this works, you draw these like cards at the start. This is not meant to be mandatory or handcuffs. If you don’t like your secret or it doesn’t fit your character pick another one. One of these even lets your PC play as a Doppelganger. If someone gets that you might want to ask them if they want to play an Eberron Changeling because the Doppelganger listed is more powerful than normal PC races as it can cast Detect Thoughts at will. Obviously that’s a mechanically powerful one. The Midwinter Child gains resistance to Cold Damage so that’s kind of the ace in this deck. A lot of these are a reason for an assassin to kick in the door randomly like if you’re fleeing some enemy and hiding out in Icewind Dale. A PC with the Slaad Host secret has two months to get a disease curing spell before they die. If no one gets them or you don’t want to give them out, I’d say give Doppelganger and Slaad Host to an NPC at some point and you can do your own version of The Thing or Alien which is what these secrets are clearly referencing.
The Ring Hunter secret is kind of played for a joke in the adventure. This isn’t really a secret, the character with this…problem needs a signet ring to claim their inheritance except a fish bit off their parent’s finger and they have to find the fish. The adventure suggests that maybe the ring is in the fish mounted on the wall of the first tavern the PCs visit or in the fish the PC is served at the end of the campaign when they triumph. This is funny but I’d take it out of the deck before sticking someone with it for months.
After Character Creation the book gets into Ten Towns. This is about 90 pages of setting and level 1-3 adventures combined. I keep wanting to call these ‘The Ten Towns’ but they’re just named ‘Ten Towns’ in the text. There’s a discussion of overall life here, two quest hooks to start the book, and then each town gets a section and a short adventure. The idea is do one adventure, level up to 2, then every two adventures after that, you level up. After doing five of the twelve adventures the players move on to the next chapter which gets them out of civilization and into the wild.
This section is getting a lot of attention online. I usually try not to get influenced by twitter chatter before writing about an adventure. But the commentary is out there. With varying degrees of anger, the consensus is that virtually all of these quests are far too deadly for a level 1-2 party. Particular ire is directed at the starting quest, ‘Cold-Hearted Killer.’
Rime of the Frostmaiden has these two opening quests. One is a very cute, all RP, no combat quest about the PCs trying to capture a Chwinga, the tiny elementals from Tomb of Annihilation that proved extremely popular.
The controversial quest is about the PCs chasing a serial killer. The reason people are upset is that the killer is a CR 3 enemy with 75 HP who swings for an average of 24 damage per round. He also pals around with some bandits and a bandit captain. This NPC monster is almost on par with Auril, the Goddess on the cover which is a whole other discussion. Confronting this serial killer is obviously not a level 1 adventure. But it’s become a proxy war for people, myself included, who feel that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t really understand how 5th Edition D&D works at level 1.
The short answer is that it doesn’t. 1st level characters have such low hit points they are constantly at risk of permanent death. If you write an adventure with more than one combat at level 1 for 5e you have fucked up. Dragon Heist has an entire dungeon after a warehouse fight for level 1 characters. They fucked up. Descent into Avernus wisely has just one bandit fight for 1st level but even there, you should dial back the CR 2 Bandit Captain. Then Descent into Avernus fucked up by putting level 2 pcs in a giant dungeon with a person who can cast Fireball.
The design intent here in Rime seems clear that the PCs get this hook and then travel around to find it. While they travel, they get other hooks and theoretically you don’t have the party fight this CR 3 badass until they’re ready. The problem is that almost none of the other hooks except for the Chiwinga RP party are easy enough for the lowest level characters.
I don’t think this is a hard problem to solve. Don’t make your punk ass low level party fight the CR 3 Teleporting Assassin and all his friends at level 1, you idiot. Bring them up to level 2 after they fight some random ass wolves on the way to find the CR 3 Teleporting Assassin. Better yet, start ‘em at level 3. Who gives a shit? Level 1 & 2 in 5th Edition are bullshit anyways.
I might be the wrong person to weigh in on this. After years of 5e, we are deep into the development cycle and man do I not want to play anything less than 5th level anymore. I think I’ve earned the high level content. There’s a whole angle to this conversation about new DMs and new players that I don’t have strong opinions about so I’m not going to comment on that part. It feels weird that I’ve complained for years about too much low level content and now the problem is too much bad low level content when the truth is I just want to skip the low level content. The hunger to play some high level 5e gives me vibes of “Dad, I’d like the keys to the car tonight.”
Let’s get into The Towns themselves. Each one of these has a ‘rating’ for the town’s friendliness, services, and comfort level. I was initially worried this would be complicated but it’s not bad. This is not nearly as granular or arbitrary as the rating system for Drow Houses in 4e’s ‘Menzoberranzan’ book. Very simply, is the town good, bad, or usually bad at this thing. Each description has a list of travel time to the next settlement which is something that Legacy of the Crystal Shard from the 5e playtest also had. There are points of interest, the politics of each town, and an official Quest.
I like the insistence on referring to these as Quests. It feels very tropey. Descent into Avernus offers you the hook. “Hey maybe you want to go to the Elfsong Tavern, or the bath house.” But then if you don’t pickup the hook…oh shit the book has nothing else planned. Then the Flaming Fist comes and drags your ass onto the hook. Frostmaiden goes so far in the other direction it feels like a pointed Rian Johnson-style rebuttal. Avernus has one path and it’s not always clear what it is. Frostmaiden has ten paths but the first tavern you go into there’s an old dwarf with an exclamation point over her head. “Hello ADVENTURER. Would you like a QUEST?” I appreciate the clarity of NPCs who are tripping over themselves to offer the PCs paying jobs. You always want the PCs to feel like they have too much to do instead of no clue what they should be doing other than hanging around a tavern waiting for the plot to show up.
In Bremen, there’s a lake monster to find for a non-binary researcher NPC. The goal is just to find it, not even to attack it. In Bryn Shander, the largest village, the PCs are tasked with bringing back a stolen shipment of iron ingots. The goblins who stole them might be willing to negotiate after a brief combat or the PCs could outsmart them. People were bitching online that the reward for returning the ingots is actually higher than their value. Man I do not care, just change the goods, change the value, change the rewards. That error in the text is not a lot of work to fix.
In Caer-Konig the PCs find a ring of Duergar thieves. To succeed, they need to find their hideout, stopping them or getting people’s shit back is just gravy. In Easthaven the PCs can track missing townsfolk back to a cave where there’s a sea hag. Kicking in the door is going to get a low level party killed but the goal is just to figure out what happened. Lonelywood is being attacked by a moose. In Targos the PCs can climb a mountain, fight a yeti, and reunite two husbands with each other, yay representation. Termalaine is beset by kobolds in the town’s haunted mine.
Good Mead has a longer dungeon that’s too dangerous for low level PCs. Good Mead is also called out as being settled by Chultans which is a change from Legacy of the Crystal Shard. This will probably not shut up anyone who wants to complain about people of color in their Norse/Canadian winter land adventure but fuck those people.
In the smallest town with the unfortunate name of Dougan’s Hole, the PCs are tasked with recovering some kidnapped children. This one is also not good for low level PCs, the kids are in a frost giant stronghold and while the giants aren’t home there is still a CR 8 encounter if the PCs fight or blow a stealth check. But there’s treasure in a set of Boots that confer Resistance to Cold, so the risk comes with proportional reward.
Caer-Dineval is a weird one. This is less of a straightforward objective. The town’s castle has been taken over by cultists. It doesn’t work for level 1 characters if your characters plan to kick in the door and kill all the cultists. But the cultists don’t murder the PCs on sight either. It’s a situation, not a set of perfectly balanced encounters. Do the PCs try to free the hostages right away or do they come back when they can kill all the cultists? I dropped my fudge on this one when I read that Avarice, a tiefling wizard and member of the Arcane Brotherhood, resides in this castle. She’s one of the most powerful NPCs in the adventure and quite possibly the final boss you fight. She’s also toting around two gargoyle bodyguards. So she is meant to be untouchable for low level characters. The adventure says that if she doesn’t feel safe, like if the PCs start attacking, she will just leave.
Most of these have fairly broad or deceptively simple conditions for success. These are not all going to result in an inevitable TPK. They are situations and not necessarily combat delves. Most if not all of them have hooks or foreshadowing for future locations and scenes. Three of these quests revolve around awakened animals and the Druid who is doing that might make for a cool boss fight. You know, after that CR 3 serial killer. I like these quests overall. The ones I like less are the more traditional kick in the door and fight the duergar/kobolds/Firbolg guy and even those quests aren’t just fights. There’s enough thought put into all of these that I think your PCs are going to want to hit all Ten Towns and see what’s going on.
Chapter 2 gets the game out of Ten Towns and into the frontier of Icewind Dale. Rime of the Frostmaiden comes with a big ass poster map of Icewind Dale and maps of all ten towns. When I saw this I said, these towns look good but this regional map is two-thirds empty. Well that’s because the other locations are on the DM’s map on page 113. These are twelve location based adventures out on the frontier a good long way away from any town. I’m not sure how much travel is required for these . There isn’t really any guidance on that. And your PCs kind of need to know which location they’re going to. Otherwise how do they get there or why do they go in the first place? There isn’t a hexcrawl map and with the eternal winter outside there needs to be a pretty damn good incentive to get your PCs through blizzards to any of these twelve locations.
This chapter makes me realize that part of the brilliance in Curse of Strahd was having all the locations, all the terrible places the PCs might go, all along the Old Svalich Road. It was like a haunted house ride. The PCs just kept following that terrible road to its conclusion. You can and should probably do the same thing here. Does it really matter that the Frost Giant Throne is on one side of the map and the cannibal barbarians are on the other if you want to use them both? You might want to put something in like the old Svalich Road to give the PCs some kind of track to follow.
These locations really dial up the horror elements that the adventure was marketed as. You have the Black Cabin, a haunted cabin with numerous references to The Thing. Cave strongholds for cannibal gnolls and crazed culty barbarians. There’s a frozen pirate shipwreck and an illithid space shipwreck. The Illithid encounter is a little silly, should it be more horrifying? It’s basically Alien except…cute. There’s some frost giant ruins with frost giant undead.
The Frost Giant location, a bunch of haunted thrones, apparently only works when the moon is full. There is another mention of the moon with the concept of the sacrifices in Ten-Towns. On the night of the new moon each town makes a sacrifice to Auril. The big towns sacrifice a person which seems a little extreme for a nice place like Bryn Shandar. The smaller towns sacrifice either all the fish they caught that day or they sacrifice warmth and no one builds a fire that night. You want the PCs to encounter these but how do they do that with a month in between? Maybe Auril starts demanding more sacrifices. Again, don’t be a dick to your players, don’t make them hang out for a month to see this one location.
It’s not all horror in chapter 2. There’s an awakened whale that feels a little hippie-ish. I can imagine a musical montage of the whale taking the PCs underwater talking about love and friendship. There are descriptions for what a typical human barbarian camp looks like. These tribes got a shitload of page coverage in Storm King’s Thunder, obviously they’re back. There are also two descriptions of local Goliath tribes that are feuding with a great funny piece of art.
One location that sounds like a hoot, a goblin tribe that’s been taken over by a gnome who’s been pretending to be a goblin…for five years. The suggestion here that either the PCs kick in the door and the gnome-goblin is a twist or the PCs are diplomats to the goblins. Again, this sounds like an interesting situation more than a tactical encounter. There is a typo in this section, the leader of the goblins, the gnome, has something from the Mind Flayer Spaceship. The password to open it is given as 8 random digits in one paragraph and 9 random digits in the next. It doesn’t matter though, the point is that the PCs can’t open it and need to cast or ask someone to cast the knock spell for them.
The two locations that get the most page space are the two locations connected to Netheril. This is going to be important later. It’s not really important now though. Again, the adventure has many authors and you can feel it here. This is the most foreshadowing you’re going to get about Netheril, which is where the adventure ends, which isn’t great. ‘Cause it ain’t Netheril making life difficult for Icewind Dale, it’s Auril, the lady on the cover of the book. Very briefly, in the Forgotten Realms, Netheril was an ancient civilization. Very high magic bordering on science fiction. There’s a lot of shadow themes, not like intrigue but literally blades and stuff made of shadows.
The more important, interesting, and horrifying of these two Netheril tied locations is a tower that used to be connected to a flying city. This was Netheril’s thing, shadow magic and flying cities. This location’s cool, it’s an upside down tower. The PCs can find the corpse of a Thri-Kreen here, which I interpret as the writer saying – Dark Sun still exists! There’s a lot of shit in the Netherese language. No PC should speak Netherese, it adds to the sense of alienation and it’s a several thousand year old dead language. The plot relevant highlight here seems to be the implication that if this thing broke off a larger structure. Also one of the Arcane Brotherhood simulacrums is hanging out here. They want to use the magic in this place to make themselves into a real person since the wizard who cast them gets publicly executed in Chapter 1. This is supposed to have a 10% chance of success, I don’t know maybe it’s cooler if they succeed? It’s definitely a 10% chance of success if the PCs use it.
The longest location is a weird one. Revel’s End is a prison run by the Lords’ Alliance. With 75 guards (Veteran stat block), 10-20 non guard admins, and 4d12 prisoners, this place is bigger than some of the villages in Ten-Towns. There’s a table with six options for possible prisoners. There’s a council that runs the place with reps from the Lords’ Alliance, so thank god Jarlaxle didn’t get Luskan into the Alliance. Or maybe he did in your game. It’s also the furthest north location in the book. There’s kind of a Night’s Watch feel to it.
The entire point of this location is to let the PCs have a conversation about the Arcane Brotherhood with Vaelish Gant, one of the bad guys from the adventure, Legacy of the Crystal Shard. He might have some info on Netheril Stuff. This NPC is a great callback…but what the fuck is this location? Why the fuck is this seven going onto eight pages long? Why the fuck does this location get so much detail when its value to the story is so low and from the PCs’ perspective, this is the hardest location to get to? Someone spent a lot of effort on this location. It takes up many pages. And I am not saying it is bad at all. It’s well thought out! It’s good! But the amount of effort seems like massive overkill for not much story. You don’t need this much location for a short conversation with an NPC. I don’t get it. This location is not like the others, this location just doesn’t belong.
That does it for Chapter 2. This should be content for levels 4-7. I’m wondering if PCs will get Dragon Heist Chapter 2 vibes where they’re kind of sitting around asking, ‘what are we doing?’ There isn’t really any foreshadowing or plot directed at stopping Auril or the eternal winter. The PCs are kind of just bopping around these creepy locations. They’re helping Icewind Dale but not really fixing Icewind Dale. I get no sense from these quests that Auril’s plans are being foiled. There are also no Duergar in chapter 2 which is weird since chapter 3 is all Duergar. This is faint praise but I didn’t hate any of this. We’re 169 pages (nice) into this book, about halfway, and this is fine. If you want to just send your PCs to Icewind Dale and make up your own story, the book up to this point is easily worth 35 bucks on Amazon.
Chapter 3 really kicks off “The Plot” in Rime of the Frostmaiden. Kind of. Not really. Chapters 3 is all about Sunblight, the Duergar fortress. After getting the hook and heading to Sunblight the adventure throws the PCs a twist. The Duergar plan is to destroy Ten Towns with a Dragon Construct made from evil crystals. The twist is that when the PCs arrive at the fortress the Dragon is unleashed. I think the writers wanted to recreate that moment from the second Hobbit movie (or the goddamn book) where the last shot is Smaug heading off to destroy Lake Town. The PCs are faced with a choice, stop the Duergar or save the Towns.
…But is that REALLY a choice? The adventure kind of assumes the PCs turn around. And there’s no disincentive to do that. The Fortress doesn’t crank out another dragon if the PCs head back to Ten Towns. Do the Duergar dig in? Do the Duergar get reinforcements? It’s a choice with one bad option and one option that has no clear consequences. I think the PCs at the table are going to be their own worst enemies here and assume that there will be an equally dire repercussion if they don’t enter the fortress immediately. But why isn’t there? Maybe they assume there is something that will help them fight the dragon inside and if there isn’t there should be.
Sunblight is a dungeon and I always find dungeons hard to write about. They say no plan survives contact with the enemy, well a dungeon is kind of like no recipe survives contact with the chef. The adventure makes a point of saying that the Duergar Big Bad thinks he is following the will of the god Deep Duerra but he’s actually following Asmodeus pretending to be Deep Duerra. Who gives a shit which evil god this dude worships? As John Constantine said, fire’s fire, does it matter who burns you? It’s a hook. If you can make hay out of it great. Otherwise it’s forgettable background. One thing I noticed is that there doesn’t seem to be any way into the fortress other than the front door which doesn’t open unless the PCs can cast the ‘knock’ spell. God I hate spells as plot coupons. At least it isn’t Greater Restoration.
So Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 will likely occur in reverse order. Chapter 3 gives us a dungeon while chapter 4 is all about the dragon. The text in Chapter 4 lays out exactly what the dragon does. It flies from town to town, starting with Dougan’s Hole and ending with Bryn Shandar. The text lists the Dragon’s travel time, how long it spends at each settlement, and the amount of the destruction it inflicts. If the PCs do nothing, then within a matter of hours Ten Towns is lain to waste.
The one thing missing though is the PC’s travel time from Sunblight if they turn around. Doing some rough math here, Bryn Shandar is about ten miles from Sunblight. That’s 10 hours by dogsled, which means everyone needs a long rest too. Using the map and speed presented in the book, the PCs don’t really have a way to get anywhere except Bryn Shandar in time. I can’t tell if that’s intentional or bad math from the writers. For all the methodical plotting of how long it takes to get to each village in chapter 1, the absence of distance in chapter 2 onward is a weird choice. Now I’m googling goddamn dogsled speeds which put a realistic speed at 6-10 miles per hour, rather than the book’s conservative 1 mph. I think this is the same kind of shit as the Undead Serial Killer in Chapter 1 – The Writers Fucked Up, don’t be an asshole to your players.
This comes with the caveat that this is a much more important oversight. Someone at WotC really screwed up communicating the intent here. With the information in evidence, Bryn Shandar is the only town the PCs can get back to in time. But is that the best story? Look at the Dragon’s flight times, think about where your PCs made connections in Chapter 1, and come up with something reasonable. The worst possible thing that could happen to your game here is that the PCs could decide there’s no consequence for turning around at Sunblight and no benefit to actually trying to save the towns. That kind of hopelessness might work for a horror movie but it would be poison to a D&D game. This section requires the DM to do some work that the book should’ve done for them. This is not “add a zero to the value of iron ingots” no this should not have gotten past an editor or playtesting.
After all of this, a Member of the Arcane Brotherhood approaches the PCs with a hook for chapters 5-7. This hook SUCKS. This is giving me serious flashbacks of Descent into Avernus where the PCs are at Candlekeep and go into Hell. In both situations a Sage the PCs have never met gives the party this fucking impossible task. In Descent that task was, go to hell and save Elturel. In Frostmaiden that task is, steal this thing from the Goddess Auril and then find a ruined city. How does this NPC know this? Because it’s Chapter 5. Why does this NPC think we, the PCs, can accomplish this impossible sounding task? Do you want to play Rime of the Frostmaiden or not? The CRs will probably be on your level, the NPC assumes.
It literally comes across as – Ten Towns is in ruins. The Dragon is defeated, smote. Then this wizard rolls up on the scene in her dogsled, “well this sucks. Hey do you want to go on a quest for me?”
The NPC’s pitch should include the idea these Netheril cities could fly and control the weather. Because otherwise the quest seems pretty mercenary for a WOTC book. “Hey who wants to loot a city for its coin and +3 magic shit?” To date all of these books have encouraged the PCs to pursue a noble goal and just happen to find riches along the way. Even in Dragon Heist, the PCs don’t really keep the money. But there’s a catch. You can’t just head off to the lost city. First, the PCs need a book called ‘The Codicil of White.’ This book apparently has the magic to cut through the glacier the city is buried in. Of course, your NPC friend just happens to know where the fuck it is. This seems like finding it should be a quest in itself. I would put this as some rambling NPC the PCs can find at one of the chapter 2 locations or stick the location in chapter 3. Give them just enough info that they still need this Arcane Brotherhood NPC.
The Arcane Brotherhood in this book seems to be something that one person came up with and no one on the writing team knew exactly how to implement. The opening of the book says that the Arcane Brotherhood members are like Wild West Gunslingers. But…they’re not. That’s not how they’re portrayed at all. Two of them are dead before the PCs ever get on the scene, one of them is an older lady helping the PCs for selfish ends, one of them wants nothing to do with the PCs when they meet her at Caer-Dineval, and then there’s a simulacrum trying to become a real person. There is no part of this book where the portrayal of these NPCs could be compared with any Wild West Gunslinger character that I can think of. The Arcane Brotherhood wizards don’t even work together!
To recap, there are four active Arcane Brotherhood wizards. There’s also one simulacrum running loose and Vaelish Gant, the prisoner in Revel’s End. Dzann the Illusionist is burned at the stake in a cutscene as the PCs enter the town of Easthaven. Nass Lantomir is a Diviner, the PCs find her body and maybe her vengeful ghost on Auril’s Island in Chapter 5. Avarice the Evoker is kind of the book’s final boss. She avoids the PCs until Chapter 7. Then you have Vellynne Harpwell, a necromancer who can show up with a well-timed dogsled in Chapter 4 when the dragon is unleashed on Ten Towns. She gives the PCs dogsleds and the quest hook for chapter 5. BUT HER NAME IS LITERALLY VELLYNNE. Let’s say there’s a good chance the PCs don’t trust this person. But there’s kind of a plot bottleneck around her.
My last word on the Arcane Brotherhood is that I think it’s a cool idea to have these wizards running around Icewind Dale as the villainous counterbalance to the PCs. They’re the wild card. PCs make things better, Arcane Brotherhood make things worse. That feels very much like the Big Coffin Hunters from The Dark Tower. That’s how you’d do wild west gunslinger wizards. But that’s not what the authors wrote in this adventure. To change these NPCs around you have to do something entirely different with the adventure. That sounds like a lot of work.
In Chapter 5 the PCs can go to the island fortress of the Goddess Auril. The Island is called Solstice, the fortress is called Grimskalle. Again, the goal here is to find the Codicil of White to get through the glacier and then to get to the city beneath the Glacier. The adventure seems to expect the PCs will kill Auril here. I guess we have to talk about Auril, she’s nowhere as difficult as I was expecting in terms of being a Goddess. Auril has three forms, the kind of snowy owlbear creature on the cover, a lady made of ice, and a very yonic teardrop. I don’t know how this fight would go over at the table. Especially the first form, which is barely tougher in terms of HP or damage than the Chapter 1 villain Sephek.
There’s a longer conversation about this boss fight that I’m going to pass on. There’s no discussion of tactics or fantastic locations in the book. The fight seems to take place in a featureless bedroom like the PCs stumbled in on Auril as she’s making breakfast.
I don’t think you should actually have the full Auril boss fight here in Chapter 5. Because if the PCs kill Auril…the adventure’s kind of over. Auril’s magic is what’s keeping Icewind Dale in an eternal winter. Sure the PCs CAN go to the lost city with its weather changing magic but they don’t need to.
If you want to get the Codicil of White the PCs need to pass the tests of Auril. These are situations requiring the PCs to do something evil. Maybe they defend someone, or allow something ruthless to happen. I am leery of putting the PCs in a situation where they need to be evil to proceed. Especially this one where the PCs either succeed or fail. The PCs might fail these tests by being Good. If Descent into Avernus taught me anything it’s that putting the PCs into a situation where they have to choice between immoral options doesn’t work in D&D. The PCs can just leave. Then the players cross their arms and say, “Now what?”
The writers of the book clearly are sweating bullets that the PCs might fuck this up. If the PCs fail the tests…uhh…some druids who already passed these tests show up. They can open the door to the book! This is weak shit. That is classic DM Panic Syndrome where the DM makes up bullshit to keep the game going. Maybe the Arcane Brotherhood strikes while the PCs are busy fighting Auril. I think your best options is to have the PCs do the tests before they find Auril. Then she fights them if they fail and defied her teachings. If they beat her, the door opens. Open the door by fighting her or passing the tests.
Chapter 6 is a lot like a Dungeon of the Mad Mage Chapter. The PCs are now trying to get through a glacier to get to the lost city. It’s a transitional place more than a dungeon to explore. Fortunately, the PCs are hunted through this by a gnoll vampire. That’s a clever trick. But I don’t really have a lot to say about this chapter. It’s a fine dungeon with a few neat encounters and the hook of being stalked by a vampire through it is a good gimmick to keep the PCs from getting comfortable. There’s an encounter at the end where the PCs can get access to casting a spell a few times and that’s the magic item you find in this chapter. I’m curious how powerful WOTC thinks being able to cast a spell three times is. Mike Shea of Sly Flourish has this idea of Relics that can cast a spell once and throws them in games a lot. I think if you asked a player, which is more powerful, casting chain lightning 3 times or a +1 sword, they would choose the +1 sword.
Chapter 7, final chapter of the book. The PCs enter a city from the ancient Netheril Empire buried under a glacier. This is a weird one. There’s a chart of 1d20 Lore Facts…great? There are proper nouns and sidebars about the history of Netheril…do we care? This is the finale of the adventure but it reads like the second act of the story. I don’t get why they’re introducing all this dense lore at what should be Rime of the Frostmaiden’s dramatic conclusion. I don’t care about any of this shit. Where’s the action? What’s the story?
It almost seems like this is foreshadowing for a future product. Is this bootstrapping for a Netheril themed adventure? There’s a sidebar that mentions black obelisks the PCs find in other adventures like Tomb of Annihilation are actually connected to Vecna. This feels like it’s building up something.
I’m not saying this chapter is bad. I’m saying this feels like they cut and pasted a level from Dungeon of the Mad Mage. I think they wrote this independently, had in their archive and then put it here. It wasn’t written to be the Final Act of This Published Adventure. If you gave me this thing to edit I’d say “good dungeon but you don’t need all this detail, it’s not relevant.” It fits The Thing motif to have this alien place buried in the ice but it has almost no connection to the previous chapters.
This city is functionally a dungeon. There’s a night hag coven because every D&D hardcover adventure is contractually obligated to have one. I worry we’ve demystified Hags. Every player at this point has killed at least six night hags. One cool idea is that mages slowly become Nothics in this city from its corruption. That’s a good lootable idea. There’s a Demi-Lich floating around that might be your final boss. Auril or Avarice from the Arcane Brotherhood might attack if they’re not dead already. Avarice hasn’t been in the adventure up to this point. She’s kind of like the DM’s wild card in this adventure, she can show up anytime with her gargoyles and evocation spells if the PCs ever feel too safe.
There’s some good thought put into the endings. It lays out that Icewind Dale is basically fucked if the PCs don’t defeat Auril. It’s possible the PCs could go back in time to the height of Netheril if they do something specific here with no way back. The most important thing the PCs can do is use the city’s magic to change the weather of Icewind Dale. Defeating Auril makes things normal but this magic fixes things fast and forever. Wouldn’t making it summer forever destroy the climate and the permafrost of this place and cause massive flooding? Ah fuck it. The PCs also get the chance to Summon The Tarrasque for no apparent reason. Man, don’t Summon The Tarrasque.
And that’s the book. The PCs may have saved Icewind Dale. Sure a dragon destroyed the Towns after Auril stuck them in winter for two years. But it can get better now! The highlight of Rime for me are chapters 1 – 4. In chapter 5, I guess you kind of have to confront Auril. But chapters 6 and 7 are from another book. This book starts with Icewind Dale then stops being about that 2/3rds of the way through. The Frostmaiden is kind of background of her own adventure. This is like if you defeated Strahd and then you still had The Wizard of Wines/Yester Hill plot and the Amber Temple to do. What if in Storm King’s Thunder you rescued the Storm King, slew the Blue Dragon, and then…went to the Fire Giant stronghold. What if in Tomb of Annihilation you finish the Tomb of the Nine Gods, defeat Acererak, and then hey what if the finale of the book was at the Kobold Mine?
Zariel and Auril both seem like attempts to recreate Strahd. This reminds me of how after Wrath of Khan every Star Trek movie is about a bad guy who wants revenge. They’re all on the cover of their adventures and they loom over the PCs at all times. But they’re both so much more distant and less personal than Strahd.
There are a few fixes I can recommend if you want to use Chapter 6 and 7 to make them more relevant. For starters and probably easiest, make the Netheril City the source for Duergar Dragon Building. These evil assholes built one dragon but the city has the capacity to build twenty. Ruh roh. There’s also an obvious one, killing Auril in chapter 5 ends her control of Icewind Dale’s weather. Great! But that’s going to take months or maybe years to make things better. People in three of (the) Ten Towns are still killing someone once a month. They need help now. Sure, rapidly shifting the climate like that is probably going to cause some kind of ecological catastrophe but that sounds like a problem for another adventuring party. Lastly, you have the hunt for El Dorado. The lost city is a potential gold rush and only one person gets to claim it first. These make the messy adventure cleaner.
Something’s different at Wizards post 2018. The way they manage projects, the way they make their books, something is different. Something about the way that their yearly adventures are better as settings than stories. I don’t know if it started with or after Dragon Heist but this book and Descent into Avernus are both messy. They both feel like they were written by teams who didn’t talk to each other. Or marketing came in and meddled with the writing team. We could title this book, “Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden and also Netheril for some reason.” In the same way that the last adventure should’ve been titled, “Elturel: Descent into Avernus.”
Overall, I liked this book. Quality low-level content. Sure, maybe 6 years into the product life they could try to sell some high level content. “But most games don’t get to high levels.” Okay WotC that sounds like a problem doesn’t it? It sure does seem like something is being foreshadowed about Vecna and Netheril.
I don’t think I would ever finish this adventure. I could see looting it though. This is very intentionally built to be lootable. If you want a dragon to go full Smaug on a town, loot chapter 4. If you need any isolated locations, loot chapter 2. Need a band of outlaws? Use the Arcane Brotherhood. Small towns are a bitch to come up with, this book gives you ten of them. It’s messy but it’s not a mess. They leaned into making a setting instead of Telling A Story. Ultimately it’s each user, each group, that has to decide what they find useful. I’m buying all the books because $35-50 every 3-6 months is affordable. I can envision ways to use this product.
This is also one of the most diverse casts of writers WotC has put together for one of these. I’m focused on the content but they do deserve credit for hiring more women, more people of color, for the last few books and especially this one.