Tuesday, 29 Sep 2020

Icewind Dale: Rime Of The Frostmaiden Makes DMing Easier And Harder

It’s almost the end of 2020, and we’re still being urged to avoid gathering in groups. Many are also beyond done hearing about how we’re all in this together, how we’re united in staying at home. People will take any excuse to go for a walk or hit up Target just for actual human interaction. Meanwhile, others sling digital mud in heated us-vs-them political discourse. Amidst all this, what kind of Dungeons & Dragons adventure does Wizards of the Coast decide to release? Oh, just a tale of isolation and survival that encourages players to get paranoid.

Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden might not be the “game we need right now,” but the book does stand as a testament to how Wizards is evolving in D&D design. It’s the most streamlined hardcover adventure yet; its formatting is a Dungeon Master’s best friend. The story told, however, challenges DMs to entertain endless possibilities like no other adventure before it.

Instructions ARE Included

The goddess of winter suddenly decided that she doesn’t want the sun to shine. So every night, she takes to the sky to cast a spell that keeps night going over the land of Icewind Dale. It’s been like this for two years. The lakes that provide food remain frozen, blizzards keep the small towns from trading like they used to, and a dwarf zealot is plotting a takeover at a demon’s behest. Into this land of isolation and paranoia come our adventurers, and they’ve got their work cut out for them. So does the DM, but thankfully they have help.

Dungeon Masters have complained for years now that official D&D content just isn’t easy enough to read. Whether it’s hardcover campaigns or Adventurers League one-shots, they’re often written more like linear stories than games with branching possibilities. It’s frustrating at best and immersion-breaking at worst to run a game with such resources. No one is having fun when the DM has to flip around to remember what exactly that new piece of loot does. “What appendix was it in again? Wait, is it in the rewards section? There is no rewards section in the table of contents!”

The D&D team incorporated DM feedback into Rime of the Frostmaiden and it shows. Every chapter begins with a brief checklist of all important events and rewards. Every magic item or important location now has a page number attached for easy reference. This increased guidance also extends to predicting player actions. It’s impossible to account for everything roleplayers might do or say, but the writers planned for an impressive amount of choices big and small. What if players decide they want to rule a small town? How long should that story NPC stick around? What happens if the players lose to or ignore certain villains? Guidance is given for all of this, and it’s given at just the right time.

While some might deem this as handholding, it doesn’t put the adventure on rails. From the very beginning, players are given a choice of possible destinations and quests. As they learn more, they’re able to act on that information immediately. They might even take on the titular Frostmaiden, a literal goddess, before they even get their second Ability Score increase. Things only get weirder as the adventure goes on. Even D&D lore experts aren’t likely to guess what the finale has in store. This is one that’s sure to keep players, and therefore their DM, constantly guessing.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Depending on how one likes their D&D, the level of freedom granted by Rime of the Frostmaiden could be seen as both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes it feels more like a sourcebook than a full narrative – the writers even say that many locations and events could easily be taken piecemeal and transported to other campaign settings. DMs who love blank space to get creative and players that want to impact the world around them will be pleased with Frostmiaden’s offerings. That said, this adventure will test the DM’s mettle.

Rime of the Frostmaiden offers little in the way of new rules or mechanics. What it does is refine mechanics that don’t play a big role in the average campaign. Characters can have dark secrets that they’re urged to hide until the time is right for a dramatic reveal. Blizzards and avalanches are a constant threat, with expanded rules that could see characters get lost in the frozen wastes.

Both of these things sound great on paper. Those looking for roleplay intrigue or a gritty survival campaign could find it here. When overused, however, they threaten to bog the game down in minutiae. No one wants to be subjected to endless cryptic monologues from an edgy player or be forced to roll CON saves every five minutes because it’s cold. For DMs, Rime of the Frostmaiden is a test of precision. You have to walk that fine line between building tension while saving some of the good stuff for later. In this adventure, you’re directing a horror movie and not a Fast & Furious sequel.

Room For Improvement

If there’s one big missed opportunity in Rime of the Frostmaiden, it’s that it was designed for characters of levels 1-11. It seems like a huge misstep to have characters fighting a goddess while still being relatively average in terms of power level. The choice might be related to the fact that most games peter out before they even reach level 10. Perhaps the designers thought it best to just pack as much excitement into those early levels as possible rather than plan an epic. Still, it would have been nice to see where this story would go with high-level content, especially given what it introduces at the end.

On the more “meh” side of things is the way Rime of the Frostmaiden throws a little bone to diversity. This book releases after Wizards of the Coast took repeated flak for its treatment of people of color in the workplace and the way it represents various cultures in the game. Frostmaiden features one NPC who goes by they/them pronouns and several women who drive the story. It’s better than nothing, but it also feels like a baby step. Of course, DMs are free to customize as they wish. You could easily make any NPC you want go by they/them without changing the story. Still, those looking to hold Wizards accountable for its culture might find Frostmaiden’s efforts lacking.

Fortunately, we know that Wizards plans to re-release Curse of Strahd next month with updates to the cultural stereotypes. And Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything will offer options to go against racial archetypes. In fact, Frostmaiden releases alongside new organized play rules that tease Tasha’s new Character Origins options. So D&D is listening to the fans. It’s just taking a little while to make change happen. In the meantime, Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden offers a challenging adventure to both players and DMs alike. If you’re not sick of isolation already, you can have a good time digging into the depths of this frozen hellscape.

A physical copy of Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden was provided by Wizards of the Coast, and a digital version was provided by Roll20.

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