The 320-page Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden is the latest adventure book for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. And let’s get this out of the way up front: It is also one the the very best.
The book opens with as clear an outline of the upcoming adventure as you’ll ever get in a roleplaying product. It is immediately engaging and provides a dungeon master (DM) with a
crystal chardalyn clear picture of the story that lies ahead.
“A duergar despot forging a dragon out of chardalyn. A lost city of magic entombed in a glacier. A frozen wilderness trapped in Auril’s grip. These three plot elements, woven together, form this adventure.”
Those interwoven adventures are set a northern region of the Forgotten Realms called Ten-Towns. The frigid Ten-Towns is famed due to the Icewind Dale video game and Drizzt, the popular character of RA Salvatore’s D&D novels, and is populated by outcasts, refugees, and ne’re-do-wells who find themselves among the lichen and reindeer, eeking out a living through hunting, trapping, and fishing for knucklehead trout.
Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden Contents
Chapter 1: Ten-Towns – The introduction does an excellent job summarizing the adventure. Chapter 1 does an excellent job of summarizing Ten-Towns.
Each of the…er, 10 towns is introduced with a “Snowflake” system that is sure to generate jokes at the table. Ranked 0-3 snowflakes on “friendliness,” “services,” and “comfort,” each settlement is summarized, a map given, and important NPCs and locales established.
Plus, each town has a quest!
The quests range from a conversation with the Loch Ness monster to clearing an outpost of cultists to a public execution. If that latter quest sounds grizzly to you, don’t fret. The tone of the book certainly conveys the dark foreboding associated with a long, hard winter, but it rarely drifts into the deeply macabre or savage.
Overall, Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden has a “chilly” tone of isolation and foreboding. I thought more than once about John Carpenter’s horror classic The Thing as I was reading through the book, so I was thrilled when got to the Afterword and saw that exact movie listed as an inspiration for the adventure.
However, my primary gaming group is my middle school daughter and my young nephews. To fit a group like that, Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden has some locales, NPCs, and encounters that will need to be dialed back, but it won’t be hard for an enterprising DM to easily rejigger the book to give it more of a Goosebumps feel for young players. It would be equally easy to dial up the grimness for an even grittier experience to satisfy fans of DC comic book movies.
Chapter 2 – Wheras the previous chapter zoomed in on Ten Towns and their associated quests, chapter 2 zooms out provide a white wyrm’s eye view of the far reaches of Icewind Dale.
There is a lot of overland travel in this adventure and chapter 2 does an excellent job of detailing the ecology. What if adventurers run across a yeti or an ice troll? What if they endeavor on a whale hunt to source the whale oil that keeps the lanterns of the frozen tundra lit?
The Intro and first two chapters total 170 pages and do several things. First, they level adventurers to at least level 4, getting them ready for what’s ahead. Second, they seed the adventure hooks. Thirdly, those 170 pages serve as an incredible setting guide that opens the dungeon door to whatever frigid adventures a DM can imagine. [More on Icewind Dale as a settling guide here.]
Chapters 3-7 consist of 90 pages that represent the bulk of the adventure for character levels roughly 5-11. Although I want to gush, I’m hesitant to share too much here for fear of spoiling the story beats for you.
I will say this: Many D&D players reflexively use the word “rails” as a pejorative. In their thinking, any adventure hook takes away player freedom, so anything other than a wide open sandbox is restrictive.
But just like every sports fan sitting in an armchair thinks they are a game-winning quarterback, most D&D players over-estimate their own creativity and problem solving abilities. Indeed, the quality gap between home-brew material and professionally produced roleplaying adventurers is striking and Perkins takes adventure writing to a whole new level.
The storyline that Perkins crafted is incredibly engaging and filled with the things D&D fans love: creative crawls, arresting adventure, mesmerizing mysteries, and creepy creatures.
But even though it consists of the three interwoven plot threads, it is in no way an adventure that is nailed to rails. In fact, inattentive players very well may find themselves in way over their heads by pulling a LeeRoy Jenkins into a challenge rating the party can’t handle. DMs will need to stay on their toes and serve as benevolent shepherds in order for Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden to work.
It’s a difficult adventure, but one full of exciting and creative encounters. Advancement won’t come easily, nor along a linear line, just as survival doesn’t come easily in the harsh, unforgiving climates of the north.
But if players do well, they are spurred on by hopeful words: Summer is coming.
The book is full of interesting characters. No XP in this book. It uses advancement leveling. I’m sure this isn’t a portent for anything bad. Good luck jousting with this guy.
Icewind Dale: Miscellany
Appendix B: Icewind Dale introduces a Character Secrets sub-system that is optional to use, the conceit being that each character harbors a secret that may or may not be at odds with party goals.
Sub-Systems: There are also a variety of other sub-systems introduced, such as blizzard rules, frigid water rules, and recommendations regarding overland travel via dog sled or domesticated Axe Beak, a tauntaun-esque homage that I can’t believe wasn’t renamed Ice Beaks.
These sub-systems are well done. And they are also very welcome, as they add some heft to the otherwise really rules lite D&D 5e.
You’ll go fishing: No doubt inspired by Stardew Valley, fishing is a thing that players can do in Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. Knucklehead trout are a vital food source for the people of Ten Towns.
In fact, Ol’ Bitey is famed for having pulled many adventurers into the ice waters of Icewind Dale, yet now hangs stuffed on a tavern wall as an adventure hook.
Fishing in D&D isn’t exactly Bassmasters™, nor are the accommodations of Ten Towns on par with Bass Pro Shop™, complete with a fishing pond, climbing wall, and archery range. Ol’ Bitey is more like Big Mouth Billy Bass™, is all I’m saying.
Bass jokes. Who knew there were so many? Rural standup comedians, most likely.
Boxed Text: Praise Lord Gygax, there is boxed text in this book.
Maps: Interior maps are in color. Welcome back to 5e, Mike Schley! An excellent removable foldout map of Ten Towns is tucked inside the back cover. It’s fantastic. I make a motion that maps like this be included in every D&D 5e product. Who seconds my motion?
Appendix C: There are 45 pages of monsters and NPCs in Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, another reason why this makes an excellent setting book in addition to being an excellently written adventure.
Sweets: John Francis Daley of Bones and Freaks & Geeks fame is listed in the credits of the book. This is significant because Daley is the co-writer / co-director of the upcoming D&D movie. Could this mean that he and Chris Perkins are plotting to have a portion of the movie take place in Icewind Dale?
Merriam-Webster: Rime – noun: an accumulation of granular ice tufts on the windward sides of exposed objects that is formed from supercooled fog or cloud and built out directly against the wind. Synonyms: frost, hoar, hoarfrost.
Icewind Dale: Rime of the Forstmaiden is breezingly and engagingly-written. It captures the foreboding struggle for survival in a harsh environment. Like a good marvel movie, it includes moments of levity and humor. And it weaves a three-cord strand of adventuring that will challenge, but also thrill players.
Listen, I’m a red-bearded Minnesotan who loves the Vikings. If anyone is predestined to love this book, it’s me. And I do love this book. I give it the Nerds on Earth Seal of Awesomeness, as it is among the very best products created for D&D 5e.
Icewind Dale: Afterward
The book contains an afterward, which is unusual for a D&D product. Even more unusual, the afterward “breaks the fourth wall,” allowing Chris Perkins to speak to readers about current events.
Perkins acknowledges the isolation we are all feeling in 2020 and expresses hope that the stories of D&D can provide relief and connection. Within a book that provides rules for surviving the cold, it was a wonderful moment of warmth expressed by Perkins, and Nerds on Earth thanks him for it.