If you’re like me, you got pretty excited when a new D&D campaign book came out, set in Icewind Dale. When I finally got my copy, I was simultaneously blown away by the staggering wonder that is this hardcover, and also pretty confused by some of the choices that were made.
Let’s make it quick: This book is great, but with a few hot-fixes, it could be amazing!
This is the first post in a series designed to explore Rime of the Frostmaiden, discuss how best to tackle it as a DM, and how to make the most of this vibrant campaign. (I know I’m not the first to comment on this, but hopefully you’ll still find it useful.)
First, let’s discuss both the awesome and the confusing
The art and flavor text: This book oozes flavor. It’s beautiful. It’s grand. It makes you want to visit. A+
The core hook: Eternal winter brought about by a renegade goddess. The only light to guide the way is provided by the aurora and the stars! That’s some serious MOOD.
Quests: This book is chock-full of cool quests that could be used, not only as part of this campaign, but potentially as one-shots, or to flesh out your existing cold-weather campaign.
The Sandbox: A huge open world gives the players (and DM!) tons of options and flexibility
Vivid and Dangerous Environment: This campaign promises an icy, dead-cold winterscape to explore.
The Monsters: There’s a 50 page library of cool new beasties in the back of the book ready for discovery and itching for a fight.
The Over-Plot: The concept of Auril’s eternal winter is awesome, but the campaign kinda fails to deliver on that promise. The backstory of the eternal winter is never fully explored (a missed opportunity!) and the campaign doesn’t ever really build to a dramatic climax in which you save Icewind Dale from that eternal winter. Instead, there are three main plotlines. None of them ever really takes pride in the place, and the connections between the plots are somewhat tenuous. It ends up being a meal made of side dishes.
The Starting Quests: The two options for starting quests have received a lot of criticism, but mostly for the wrong reasons. They’re accused of being too hard, but while you pick them up at 1st level, (and this is easy to miss) you aren’t supposed to finish them while still at 1st level. They are built to give the party motivation to travel around Ten Towns, picking up other quests and gaining levels, so you should be 2nd or 3rd by the time you get to the conclusion of the starting quest. However, they still are lacking in one important way; they fail to do what is possibly the most important job of a starting quest: hook the party on the Big Plot and give them a sense of direction and purpose that will carry through the duration of the campaign. This will leave many campaigns light on PC-motivation.
Sandbox without Direction: A sandbox is great in principle, but it works best when there is a main plotline that the PCs are deeply motivated to fulfill, and along the way they are also free to explore in exciting new directions. Yes, this campaign tantalizingly dangles Big Plot (the eternal winter) in front of the party, but they are given no meaningful opportunity to move on that plot, and it is likely to quickly be forgotten amid the tumult of side quests.
Auril’s Motivations: At the core of the story (as described on the tin), is Auril herself, the Goddess of Cruel Winter. She took up residence in Icewind Dale, she weaves the curse of eternal winter, and behind her icy exterior lie the secrets that fuel the story of the campaign… but the book never looks beneath the mask. She promises to be so cool, but in the end, she’s just… empty. There’s nothing there. Why did she do this? No explanation. What does she want? Nobody cares. The book never goes there, leaving the DM to either make it up themselves or… just hope the party doesn’t notice that there’s no actual explanation for everything that’s going on.
The Environment Rules: I hate to nitpick, but some of the vaunted new cold weather rules are pretty weird. In places where I think it should be tense, it’s no serious threat at all; in other places that shouldn’t be so intense, it’s unnecessarily deadly.
Some of these points, I've developed solutions for. I’m going to dive more in-depth into these in future posts (along with a bunch of other smaller points not worth mentioning here), but to kick this off, let’s talk about one more thing: Character Creation.
So, you’re sitting down to prep for your Session Zero for your new campaign, Rime of the Frostmaiden. Exciting! Awesome! What next?
There are a few pitfalls that you can get tripped up on in character creation, but they’re fairly easy to avoid if you are forewarned.
1) Warn your players that they should probably play good-aligned, altruistic characters to make the most of this campaign (or otherwise bring their own motivation to take quests.)
This is because many of the quests offer the party little to no reward. The people of Ten Towns are broke af, and often try to give things like cookies, or a free stay at the inn, as quest rewards. If the party isn’t inherently altruistic, they’re going to need to find other reasons to take quests, because a mercenary band that’s just in it for the cold hard cash will probably pass on a good 2/3 of this campaign—including much of the main plot!
That said, I actually think it’s kinda cool to bring a party to this campaign who do it for no reason other than the goodness of their hearts, because it follows in the tradition of the region’s most famous hero, Drizzt Do’Urden. But you do you.
2) Beware the Secrets
The Character Secrets are an awesome idea. If you haven’t read this section yet, the premise is that each character starts with a randomized “secret,” which can build suspicion and mistrust between the party members, as well as a sense that everyone has something to hide.
In practice… there are some flaws in execution. A few of these are indeed what’s promised: little secrets that can be tacked on to an existing character. But others are entire character backstories. If you roll up a random secret for a character that someone has already created, chances are it won’t fit. You’re looking at things like, “you were raised by yetis,” or “you are the lost heir to a Reghed Tribe” or “you are actually a doppelganger.” You can see how these might not fit with a given backstory. But it’s the inconsistency that really gets me, because there are a few that are like, “you kind of think Drizzt is cool,” or “owlbears like you for some reason.” They are so different that they can’t all be used in the same way.
In short, I don’t think the practice of randomizing a secret for each PC is a good approach, or even giving them a choice of 2 or 3. When I did that with my group, almost no one liked and kept any of the secret options, and the ones that did… it felt forced and added very little.
Here’s what I recommend instead. Don’t give them one of these secrets after they’ve made a character. Choose (don’t randomize) three for each player and hand them out before they make characters. Give them the option to work one of these into the backstory of their character as they make that character. This way they have the opportunity to incorporate a secret into the character from conception, and they still don’t know what options other people got offered.
Many of these “secrets” could never work tacked on to an existing character, but they could provide a great seed concept to build a character around. If you present them that way, it might be a little more successful.
3) Seriously consider starting outside the Dale
One of my complaints with the opening is that the characters start in Icewind Dale. This may not seem like a big deal, but hear me out: if they start in Icewind Dale, then the characters are all familiar with the situation. You, as DM, describe the everlasting winter to them, the players, and then they start the game knowing this is the situation. There’s never a moment of reveal; they don’t get to roleplay their characters discovering this cool and terrifying circumstance. They just know. It just is the way it is.
On the other hand, if they start outside the Dale, then they first need to get in, which is an exciting challenge in its own right. But more importantly, once they get there they have the opportunity to discover the endless night and winter. And I think that finding it, in game, in character, could be a lot more powerful than just starting with the knowledge.
Imagine the confusion when you get across the mountains, or disembark from the ship, and you’re sure it should still be daytime, but it’s twilight instead. Imagine the sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach when dawn doesn’t come the next morning. Imagine talking to the locals and finding out it’s been like this for two years.
If you start your players outside the dale, they get the chance to discover the crisis, rather than start the game already knowing it, and I think that’s more awesome. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
That about wraps up this post. Next time I’m going to dive into the question of Story. To me, a cohesive, interesting story is just about the most interesting part of this hobby, and there are huge holes in that department in the campaign as written. There’s not any super-easy fix, but I can present a few ideas and suggestions, my own solution, and a process by which you can develop your own solutions.
After that, I’ll discuss the Sandbox that is Chapter One, and give some tips on how to navigate it. Then in the fourth (and probably final) installment, we’ll move on to discussing the weather and environment rules and giving them a few quick fixes.
If you like this analysis and you want to see more of my proposals, I’ve actually already written this all up really nicely in a DMs Guild release called, “Caul of Winter.” That presents the polished, final version of my ideas, whereas I intend this series to present more of the analysis and the reasoning behind proposed changes, with more of a focus on helping you find your own solutions.
If you decide to check it out, you can find fifty pages chock-full of all of my fully-developed solutions, content-adds, and hotfixes, ready for play at your table. I think it’s a great resource for anyone running Rime. Let me know what you think! About the Author: Ashton MacSaylor is a game book writer and game designer based in southern California. Check out his titles on DMs Guild under Sun Sailor Productions