The new hardback adventure from Wizards of the Coast is here, sending PCs where the sun don’t shine. No, really, that’s the plot! Auril, the Frostmaiden, has blocked out the sun over Icewind Dale, save for four hours of twilight each day. It’s a story about climate catastrophe, but going down the thermometer, set in the Forgotten Realms.
I’ve also been part of a first-look review of Rime on the Tome Show, along with Enrique “NewbieDM” Bertran and Jeff Greiner. In writing this review, the one you’re reading now, hi!, I’ll be paying extra attention to the things we discussed in the podcast but that I hadn’t read deeply enough to discuss, such as the connective tissue between adventures and chapters. Secondly, there’s been a lot of Twitter and Reddit discourse around one of the early encounters, and since this is my soapbox, I’ll get into my thoughts on that.
Spoilers Ahead, friends.
The adventure’s format attempts something new: the setting and the action are interleaved to a greater degree than we’ve seen before. The clearest points of comparison that I’ve read (which, in fairness, excludes several of the hardback adventures) are Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus and Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Descent into Avernus has a fully separate chapter on the city of Baldur’s Gate, which I praised at the time for its strong writing. Dragon Heist gives us Chapter 9: Volo’s Waterdeep Enchiridion, a similar presentation of the City of Splendors.
This book, then, handles it differently. Chapter 1 gives us Ten-Towns, the settlements of Icewind Dale. Chapter 2 is the wilderness and everything you find there, while the mechanics of survival are part of the Introduction. While I’m getting into this – 75 pages of this book’s 320 are unnumbered chapters, 45 of which are descriptions and stat blocks of creatures – both individuals from the story and new monsters.
Introduction: Welcome to the Far North
In addition to the adventure summary and general guidance on how to use the book that you’d expect, this chapter also recapitulates and expands the rules for wilderness survival in cold climates. Some of the interesting new additions include rules for using dogsleds and snowshoes to improve overland travel, and rules for ice-fishing for knucklehead trout – which include a pretty good chance of exploring the Frigid Water rules. With your face.
One of the problems with any kind of extended adventuring in cold climates is that they’re mechanics-intensive. On one level this makes sense: the climate is as hostile as any monster, and we need to see how you get through that. On another, it’s a lot of checks that amount to saving throws against frustration. If combat felt like making a dozen rolls to maintain the status quo and move to the next scene, it would be boring, right? The rules for Extreme Cold are kinda like that: a “saving throw at the end of each hour, or gain one level of exhaustion.” Of course, you can ignore this if you’re wearing cold-weather clothing, and there’s no excuse for not wearing cold-weather clothing here unless you’re cold-resistant or immune. So, you know, annoying rules averted in a single non-decision, unless something in the narrative causes you to be denied your gear.
I think the solution to this is to lean into descriptions, putting effort into keeping those descriptions fresh. It’s not easy to describe trudging through endless snowfields or white-out blizzard conditions in new and different ways, but you’ve got to try. The other solution might be to keep a list of pre-rolled numbers for each character, to resolve things quickly. Since you probably can’t rescue the tension of each die roll, you might as well reduce the table time it takes as far as possible.
There are also a few character creation notes for this adventure. I always like notes for tying backgrounds into the story. The Character Secrets in Descent into Avernus were great, and it’s cool to see a new set of them for this adventure. These lack some of the punch of the Avernus secrets. Those were about shared guilt or fear of discovery and tying the characters together, while these don’t interconnect to speak of. There’s a huge range of emotional heft here, from “Drizzt Fan” (literally that) to “Slaad Host” (you’ve got two months to live, unless you can get a lesser restoration or 5 points of a paladin’s Lay on Hands feature, which in fairness should be trivial).
Chapter 1: Ten-Towns
The narrative goal of this chapter is to be a starter zone that gets you toughened up to the point that you can handle later chapters. The one part of the whole chapter that troubles me – and reading the milestone advancement guidelines sharpens this – is the sense that you’re completing quests for the sake of advancement, not for what those quests mean in the narrative. I think this is probably unfair of me, though. There’s nothing actually wrong in an adventure showing the DM the wireframes.
So there are these towns, right, and each one has an at-a-glance description, as well as more detailed NPCs, locations, and one quest each. There are also two quests in this chapter that aren’t tied to any one town: Cold-Hearted Killer and Nature Spirits. Cold-Hearted Killer is the one that you may have seen a lot of conversation about on Twitter.
The quest hook for this is suggested as potentially the opening monologue of your first session. The PCs are hired to track down a man named Sephek Kaltro on suspicion of murder, and the town they start the game in is the one place he definitely isn’t. One of the narrative goals of the quest is to make the PCs travel to at least one other town, and preferably more. Going back to the Character Advancement guidelines: “The characters advance to 2nd level after completing their first quest in this chapter.” It’s possible, then, that the PCs would prioritize Cold-Hearted Killer over everything else and track Sephek before anything else can happen, but even the mildest of DM nudging should help them recognize low-hanging fruit when they see it.
The issue is that Sephek Kaltro is a very dangerous person. More than a few people took a look at that stat block and had visions of 1st-level TPKs dance in their heads. That can happen, though with some luck, tactics, and/or balanced party makeup, even 1st-level PCs can pull out a win, as Jared Rascher explores here. The NPC has a lot of hit points and does buckets of damage, but his AC and attack bonus are quite modest. In 4e terms, we’d call him a Brute that also has some Skirmisher going on.
There are further things to understand here. First off, even for novice DMs (a lot of conversation revolved around whether this adventure was inappropriate for first-time DMs), nothing in the book lets them off the hook for using their best judgment about what’s going to be fun at the time. Not even spending a lot of money on a packaged adventure experience. The DM’s goal is to provide the possibility of fun in a fair environment. If everyone enjoys challenge, then make that “a challenging, fair environment.”
Second, if 1st-level – maybe even 2nd-level – PCs charge in without learning anything about their target or making any other preparation, they might get butchered. If that happens and they don’t retreat once it’s obvious that they’re in the poop, that is an important lesson. If they survive – maybe because Sephek is killing people with a specific purpose, and the PCs aren’t it – they’ll probably learn something from it. I’ve played in all sorts of games where PCs assume – often correctly – that every fight is statted to make sure they kill everything that moves without too much fuss. This kind of encounter, early in a campaign, establishes for everyone that we don’t do that here. Lose badly enough, and it turns out that those PCs were the cold open. (That’s also the section header in the adventure, so… fair warning.)
Setbacks. Are Good. For Narrative. They tell the audience that the threat or bad outcome of any given situation could happen, that there isn’t Plot Armor to make sure everything goes smoothly all the time.
Okay, I think I’ve said my peace on this.
The other inter-settlement quest, Nature Spirits, establishes one of the other major trends of this book: noncombat conflicts or tests, resolved with a mix of character roleplay and ability checks. That’s a really big thing here, wildly more than I think I’ve seen in any other adventure, and I love it.
Taken together, the quests in this chapter offer a mix of tones, which is just what you want in the first two Acts of a five-act horror story. Some seeds get planted that are going to come up much later in the story. The PCs won’t complete everything, so there’s replay value here. If you wanted to run Icewind Dale but not Rime of the Frostmaiden, you’re still on pretty good footing to use a lot of this content.
Chapter 2: Icewind Dale
This chapter opens with twelve more quests. The text is aware of needing to motivate PCs to take any kind of risk in the high-danger environment of Icewind Dale. Next up, 20 wilderness encounters – and here it’s incredibly important that PCs have learned not to attack everything and expect to win. The ancient white dragon does not care about fighting you! I also like that a lot of the encounters have at least two modes, often “blizzard/no blizzard,” which make a big difference in the flow.
The rest of the chapter is 13 encounter locations. Variety is the spice of life here, but I keep coming back to the Black Cabin as a favorite. It’s a skill challenge with good stakes, some unconventional stat/skill pairing, and no combat until you successfully complete it. You can definitely die here, though death may be a useful step forward.
Rime of the Frostmaiden has been heavily promoted as a horror adventure, but by the end of this chapter there isn’t a lot that is obviously intended to be horror rather than within the tonal range of standard adventuring fare. The encounters themselves aren’t standard, but the emotional pitch is, if you see what I mean. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if horror is the goal, I think a lot of DMs – okay, me – could use pointers on how to get there from here.
In terms of information flow and player motivation, these encounters are doing a phenomenal amount of work. For character and lore exposition that will matter further down the line, do not skip Revel’s End or the Lost Spire of Netheril. I don’t know about you, but after seeing the Baldur’s Gate 3 trailer, I’m going to be real mad if there’s a nautiloid in an adventure and I don’t get to see it, so don’t skip that either.
To be fair, I’m enough of a Magnus Archives and White Vault fan that Revel’s End – a panopticon prison in the frozen north – plays on things I already strongly associate with horror.
Chapter 3: Sunblight
The adventure takes a turn here, moving away from open exploration and into a more linear narrative – except that the very first thing that happens here pushes PCs to set aside the rest of this chapter, resolve Chapter 4, then come back to Chapter 3. If you don’t do that, the adventure has a whole lot of guilt to put on you, since you should be emotionally invested in Ten-Towns by now. (Tip to all players and DMs: this story is not for characters who refuse to care about Ten-Towns.)
This is a dungeon crawl, in the form of a raid on a duergar fortress that is on high alert. Other than defending Ten-Towns, it explores the idea that more forces than just Auril and her followers want to keep Icewind Dale frozen forever. The big question of this whole area, though, is whether PCs come back here (or remember to) after dealing with Chapter 4. Which, to be clear, they definitely need to do. DMs may need to put extra energy into convincing the players that they’re high enough level, at the time of this adventure, to make all the difference in how Chapter 4 goes, and the people of Ten-Towns absolutely can’t do it alone.
Chapter 4: Destruction’s Light
And then a dragon attacks! But it’s not a normal dragon, it’s a dragon construct made out of metal that turns you evil! This is a strongly event-driven chapter. To run it, remember Gygax’s immortal, if grammatically tortured, words: “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.” — Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e) Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 37. The time we’re tracking is the dragon’s movement as it (this is a technical term, try to keep up) roflstomps the towns.
There is one substantial problem that, if it’s solved in the text, I’m not seeing it:
- Serious Spoiler Warning.
- The PCs see the dragon leave the fortress in Chapter 3.
- They need to go somewhere faster than it can, to get there before or during an attack.
- The way you’re supposed to learn where it’s going is to find a particular room in the fortress…
- …which means that both “leaving immediately after you see it emerge” and “staying to explore the fortress” are mostly-wrong decisions.
Mainly I’m curious to hear how this plays out in actual use.
The dragon is a crucial piece of plot, of course. The other important thing here is Vellynne Harpell meeting the PCs and trying to get them on her side. This is crucial to the longer-term story – Chapter 5 is okay without her (but better with her), while Chapters 6 and 7 might lose all of their character motivation without her. My advice to DMs is to put some extra prep time and energy into how you’re going to present Vellynne Harpell, get a sense of what would help them like her, and do that (without going overboard into suspicion).
The Spoilers Shall Continue Apace. You Have Been Warned.
Chapter 5: Auril’s Abode
In this chapter, the PCs take the fight directly to Auril, potentially solving the whole plot of the adventure. They can also get in, steal a key plot widget, and get out. I’m going to say that I think she needs more hit points – it’s one of the fundamental truths of 5e that PCs kick out just shocking amounts of damage when they put their minds to it. I could be wrong (but I don’t think I am) that if Auril loses initiative, she could be in her second form before her first action, especially if a paladin has some Divine Smites to dump into her.
Vellynne wants the characters to get the Codicil of White and use it to get into the dungeon of Chapter 7. That’s very cool, but it is pretty irrelevant to the PCs motives up to this point, until and unless Auril goes there. In short, the rest of the adventure doesn’t have anything to do with the emotional goal of protecting Ten-Towns that Chapters 1 and 2 worked so hard to sell.
The horror does legitimately ramp up in this chapter, as you’re stalked by a giant monster and Auril has all the teleporting and skirmishing ability you could want. She can teleport in the moment you start – or finish – another fight. There’s also a multi-part skill challenge sequence to obtain the Codicil of White, which is densely-packed with horror themes of a different kind. I like what’s going on here, but this is a very good time to make sure your group has re-read the sidebar on safety and consent in this book.
Oh, and beware the Load-Bearing Boss trope. You can absolutely have a post-victory party wipe as the end to your campaign.
Chapter 6: Caves of Hunger
The horror ramps up here, to be sure. I love this chapter as a place to explore, but within the Rime narrative, it’s too much of a gatehouse just to get into Chapter 7, which also doesn’t have a strong enough player motivation that I’m seeing. What the players don’t have a way to know is that if they didn’t defeat Auril in Chapter 5, they get another shot at her in 7. Signaling that in some way would be a huge boon.
This chapter looks like it’s a lot more combat-intensive than most other chapters up to this point. There’s still important and useful information going to the players, but… less, I think. In a lot of ways it looks like a closer-to-standard D&D dungeon – transplanting this to Undermountain would be low-effort.
Vellynne’s argument here runs into some modest fridge-logic problems. She says the PCs have to hurry through the caves to win a race against other Arcane Brotherhood mages… well, Avarice, the rest are one kind of dead or another… but the PCs have the key. The Codicil of White has been stated as necessary to get through the ice into Ythryn. “Why did we get this key if it didn’t also give us an exclusive lead?” is something I or my players would ask. It’s one of the most common module logic issues – the story needs Avarice to have her own key. What winds up happening is no race at all – Avarice shows up 12 hours after the PCs enter, and that’s that. The fix for this is simple: change Vellynne’s argument for why they should press on.
Chapter 7: Doom of Ythryn
The finale takes place in the crashed ruins of what was once a flying city. This is a big, dramatic idea, and in some places I get a very appealing BioShock vibe. (Nothing wrong with adding Big Daddy constructs to this adventure, either.) Horror tropes aren’t gone, but they aren’t hit quite as hard as in Chapter 6. A lot of interesting, weird, highly varied ideas show up here. It was a city that included research, magical industry, and high culture, and the locations reflect that.
The revelations and things that can happen in this chapter are awesome, and some of them do take on a kind of gothic creepiness that I love. There’s also a solution to the core problem of the adventure that doesn’t involve fighting Auril. Unless you’re a low-combat-power or undersized party, Auril’s three-phase stat block seems like a fun fight that I wouldn’t want to miss. Oh, and you have a chance to make some astoundingly bad decisions! So that’s fun.
By this point, you’ve either solved the questions of giving PCs a good reason to stay on-track and explore, or they’ve tapped out. The chapter in itself doesn’t have problems that I’m seeing.
My one lingering concern with Chapters 6 and 7 together – since they’re meant to be played with 6 leading immediately into 7 – is dungeon fatigue. It’s a lot of adventuring that might not have a palate-cleansing return to safety or a home base. Starting at 9th level, PCs might hope to find a teleportation circle both here and back in Ten-Towns, if only to stay in contact with the characters and events outside the dungeon that the adventure worked so hard to get them to care about. Once you can go that far, maybe you also find a way to go to Waterdeep for downtime, magic item trading, and so on. That’s not the writers’ intent, though, so it’s not supported as far as I’ve seen.
I absolutely don’t want to dig into these. There are three endings imagined for the adventure: the good one, the interesting bad one, and the best one that I so wish were WotC’s “canonical” ending. It’s so cool.
Here’s a couple of helpful links for that third ending. No reason.
I don’t think these bear a lot of detailed discussion for review purposes. New trinkets, the player-facing version of the character secrets thing, 45 pages of new creature writeups and stat blocks (personal favorites: magen and living blade of disaster (editor’s note: Magen and the Living Blade of Disaster is either an awesome new trans-positive YA series rebuking JKR, or it’s a heckin’ great death metal band)).
Great new magic items, ranging from common to legendary. Three new spells, including blade of disaster, the 5e update of 2e’s black blade of disaster spell that I remember loving. It’s a 9th-level Mordenkainen’s sword, but much less bad. I’m also delighted with create magen, because these are so very similar to homunculi and the Praxis of the Hand of Creation from Dust to Dust LARP. I love seeing independent invention produce an idea that I’m already bone-deep invested in.
If you’re looking for a perfect, pre-packaged experience that requires as little mental load on the DM as possible, this adventure is probably not for you. Probably no long adventure is going to suit you – and that’s okay, that’s a totally valid thing to need or want. You will probably get more joy out of a true adventure-anthology book like Tales from the Yawning Portal or Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of Grendleroot.
Conversely, if you’re willing to put in some work, this book is hugely rewarding. There are tons of cool ideas all over the place, a lot of different ways things can go, and a good amount of support for how those paths might play out. Your players are going to choose something still different, of course, but adventures shouldn’t try to support every single possible outcome. If they did, there’s probably not enough player agency.
Is it for newbies? Well, it’s not as much for newbies as “The Sunless Citadel,” because it’s not hand-holding you into learning basic dungeon presentation. Lost Mine of Phandelver and the Essentials Kit exist and absolutely are for that. Every book is going to be someone’s first experience, but I think it’s okay to assume some knowledge. If this is the first adventure you run, you’re going to have some slightly rocky spots, but by the end of the adventure, you won’t be a newbie anymore.