Review – Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden

Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden (releasing September 15 in a standard edition and a special edition only available from game shops) is the latest official “adventure” for the fifth edition of the world’s greatest roleplaying game (more popularly known as Dungeons & Dragons). I air-quote the word adventure because I’m not really sure what distinguishes Rime of the Frostmaiden from a campaign. It’s quite expansive, potentially taking characters from levels 1-11. And it’s physically expansive too, packing in 50+ more pages than some of the earlier D&D 5E campaigns. Regardless of the label applied, however, Rime of the Frostmaiden is a great sojourn through Icewind Dale, starting with a solid series of early quests and then culminating in a series of larger, sure-to-be-classic delves into the dark and bone-cold secrets of the north, combining classic exploration with more than a tinge of horror.

As one might expect from the title, the setting for Rime of the Frostmaiden is Icewind Dale, which sits at the northernmost reaches of the Sword Coast. Popularized by R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt novels and the eponymous Icewind Dale cRPG, Icewind Dale is always more than a bit chilly. But in Rime of the Frostmaiden, things have gotten downright frigid, as Auril (the Frostmaiden, Icedawn, goddess of cold indifference and winter’s cruelty) has retreated to Icewind Dale and plunged the region into eternal night. It is against this backdrop that the characters will adventure.

Given that backdrop, there’s some emphasis in Rime of the Frostmaiden on the perils of winter, so players should need to expect to need to gear up, dodge avalanches, survive blizzards, and just plain old stay warm (cold and wet is, in particular, a bad combination). Plus lots and lots of torches (or enhanced vision; silly humans and their lack of low-light vision or darkvision). In addition to the suggestions for tying character backgrounds into the area, the GM may choose to use some provided secrets, with each character getting a hidden aspect that might aid (or hinder) them at specified points during the adventure. The playable Goliath ancestry is also reprinted in Rime of the Frostmaiden, as they are native to Icewind Dale.

Rime of the Frostmaiden can be divided into two primary sections. The characters’ early adventures will start off in Ten-Towns, engaging in a variety of quests to aid the people of that area. Each town gets a nice write-up for the DM and their local maps are reprinted on the pull-out poster map that’s included in the book. Things then expand out further to encompass a broader swath of Icewind Dale (both the bigger towns and Reghed nomads). These early adventures let the characters come to know some of the people of the area and their troubles, become intertwined with their factions, and also be introduced to the members of the Arcane Brotherhood who have each come to Icewind Dale for their own purposes . The earliest stages use milestone experience and are only loosely connected, allowing the characters to advance after completing a certain number of the smaller quests, which allows either the players to go for what seems of the most interest to them or for the DM to curate the list for what they think will play the best for the group. This section of Rime of the Frostmaiden is capped off with an epic battle against a foe who might well lay waste to all of those Ten-Towners the players have come to know.

You may have noticed a distinct lack of Frostmaiden so far, which is where the second section of Rime of the Frostmaiden kicks in. Having (hopefully) dealt with the matters above, the characters (now 7th level) are in a position to try to do something about the eternal night that has fallen over Icewind Dale. In this section, the characters must learn the secrets of the Rime, uncover and brave the Caves of Hunger, and then unlock the secrets of what lies beyond them. Oh, and probably also deal with the Frostmaiden herself at some point. These ventures are where Rime of the Icemaiden really shines, combining traditional adventuring with horror concepts from sources like The Thing and At The Mountains of Madness, ratcheting up elements of paranoia and isolation that have been present in some way from the very start. Which NPCs can they trust (or at least work with)? Can they even trust each other? What perils await those who dig too deeply? Let’s just say that Rime of the Frostmaiden has a bunch of references to the rules on “indefinite madness” for a reason. If your group doesn’t have the time or inclination to play through the full scope of Rime of the Frostmaiden, you will still be able to have an amazing time starting at 7th level and just playing through these latter stages.

You’ll face a relative lot of custom enemies in this adventure, with about 45 pages of frostbitten foes included for the GM’s use.

I’ve got some more GM-focused thoughts, which are stored down below the spoiler bar, but for players my main takeaway is that Rime of the Frostmaiden is one of the best 5E adventures/campaigns published, the second half is great, and the final segment – which I have not detailed in this section for spoiler reasons – is in particular is not to be missed. It’s a rising crescendo of greatness.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

Players, you might be ruining things for yourselves if you keep on reading, so shoo!

With regard to the secrets, they are a cool idea, but I would probably curate the list instead of using them all. Some of the secrets can make a real difference in certain aspects of the adventure. Some of them are meaningless fluff (e.g., owning a piece of Drizzt’s cloak). Some of them matter, but I’m not sure if it’s in an enjoyable way (I get that starting with a red slaad egg implanted inside you is an homage to Alien, but there are a lot of players who would not be happy about starting on a doomsday clock). I would want to give every player something that’s going to matter, at least a little bit (yes, rules as written the player can ask for another if they really don’t like the first, but I would rather skip that part).

In the first quest section, in Ten-Towns, you’ll find ten different options, and as written your players only need to conquer five, giving you a lot of leeway on how to present them … or, you know, you can just make your players go through all of them that you find interesting. Some of them are short and entirely non-combat. Even the longest tend to involve exploration of a small ‘dungeon’ with only a single major combat encounter. Options include chatting up a Loch Ness monster stand-in (one of several possible quests leading up to a confrontation with a frost druid who’s freely using the awaken spell in support of Auril), recovering stolen iron from goblins, placating nature spirits, driving off the expanding tendrils of Duerger presence, ensuring that the mead keeps flowing, interrupting a budding giant romance, hidden creatures that may or may not end up possessing NPCs, and finding out how many different things in Icewind Dale are happy to eat people. A weakness of this part of the adventure is transitions – there are sometimes, but not often, good reasons to go move on to another town (and, therefore, the next quest). On the bright side, this makes it easy for the DM to control the flow, as you can drop a hint to send the PCs onto the town that happens to include the quest you want to run.

The broader Icewind Dale section is similar, with the stakes just getting upped a bit. This section does not provide as thorough a geographical coverage, with the quests being a more driving organizational force. Again, not all of the quests need be tackled, giving the DM the option of what to include or leave out, as they so choose. The characters might attempt to secure whale oil to heat the local towns (protip: probably don’t mention this to the sentient whale), helping a ghost who was trying to stop Auril (ghosts who need to be laid to rest and possession are recurring themes), killing gnolls, stealing rum from canibal pirates, investigating a strange illithid ship, negotiating with goblins, and negotiating tensions between goliath tribes.

The capstone of the first section of the adventure is the main structural issue I have with Rime of the Frostmaiden. The characters will be sent out to a duergar fortress for the purposes of stopping a dragon construct. Upon arriving, they will see the construct leaving to go obliterate Ten-Towns. If they don’t chase after the construct, it will do just that, slaughtering everyone the players have come to care about. The “correct” thing to do is to turn around and run back to Ten-Towns. Even with the best efforts from the players, it’s likely that half of the towns will be pillaged. Even easy errors might result in most of the towns getting wrecked. Combine that with the extreme difficulty of combat against the construct, and the DM will need to be very, very careful to ensure that the adventure does not go off the rails. But that’s a challenge, not a problem. The problem is that the characters need to be at least level 6 to deal with the construct, while the fortress the characters were originally heading to is designed for characters of level 4-5. The adventure presents these as something of an either/or – but most parties will want to do both. Defeat the construct, then go trash the people who created the construct and pointed it at Ten-Towns. This will result in the theoretically-now-7th-level characters just waltzing through a fort that’s supposed to be workable for 4th-level characters. I don’t have a good answer for this one. I think maybe just let the characters get up to level 6 first, make sure they chase the construct, don’t give the characters the milestone after they defeat the construct, and then have them trash the fort only slightly over-leveled.

As referenced above, there’s a real dividing line between the first and second halves of Rime of the Frostmaiden. The first half, up until the big climax, has the characters wandering around Icewind Dale completing an assortment of small quests. The second half has a definite progression through three major locations – Auril’s isle, the Caves of Hunger, and the crashed remains of one of the floating cities of ancient Nether. The ultimate goal here is to find a way to reverse the eternal night imposed by Auril. The characters will likely have a member of the Arcane Brotherhood along for the ride, adding constant questions about trustworthiness.

The trip to the isle of the Frostmaiden is, essentially, to obtain a McGuffin (the words of the Rime of the Frostmaiden) that will crack open a glacier and allow them into the Caves of Hunger. It’s possible for Auril to be confronted directly here, but I would avoid that for two reasons. First, if the characters defeat Auril directly that ends the goal of the campaign, and I would want that goal still out there has they pressed onward. Second, they’ll probably die if they try. As drastically weakened as she is, Auril is still an epic multi-stage boss battle, with each stage a deadly threat for a party of 7th level characters. The real highlight of the isle, I think, is for the characters to attempt the tests of the Frostmaiden (cruelty, endurance, isolation, preservation). One of these is a simple matter of combat, but the others force the characters to face more psychological threats. The test of isolation sees the party vanish one-by-one, while the test of cruelty … well, let’s just say it takes a tough choice to pass that one.

The icy Caves of Hunger are pitch black, psychically haunted, and plagued by a wandering vampire. In addition to wrecked bits of ancient Nether and various undead, characters will be cursed with hunger, discover more than one frozen corpse, speak with a lonely dryad, and deal with the “thing in the ice.”

When you’re into the last part of the adventure, definitely make sure to absorb the rules on arcane blight, which infect the characters with magical paranoia. The party is exploring an ancient city, that’s buried under the ice, that was built by ancient powers, and contains aspects where meddling with the ancient stuff might go horribly awry (“we summon the tarrasque and it kills us all” levels of awry). The Lovecraftian foundation is laid there, but it’s the development of those symptoms of paranoia as the party explores the city that really ratchets up the mythos level. There’s a lot going on here. There’s a great vibe as the characters explore the ruins, learn something about how Nether worked, and deal with a series of puzzles in order to learn how to unlock their way to the potent magic item that will reverse Auril’s curse.

As noted above, the first half of Rime of the Frost Maiden is good, and the second half is great. But the final exploration of Ythryn is spectacular.

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