Rime of the Frostmaiden is a new release from Wizards of the Coast promising an expansive frozen region bubbling with horror, humor, and adventure. Published during the Covid-19 pandemic and involving a huge swath of new names, voices, and perspectives from the greater community, it’s an important release in more ways than one. So lets take a look inside and find out what we can.
This needs to be said up front and clearly: I know many of the people involved with this book. People who were so excited to be brought into an official release they were sent reeling, SICK with nerves. I playtested aspects of the book early on, I’ve had long, meaningful conversations with some of the writers for this project specifically. The fear here, to me, isn’t that I will be partial to my peers, the fear is that my insights will be used as weapons against one or more of the writers brought on to this project. It is my job to be critical, to dissect as a dungeon master what may or may not be usable, useful, or important for the greater, wider audience. I am elated that so many awesome names are on this project’s credits page and cannot WAIT to see them write more. Full stop.
A Review of Threes
Much like the book itself, I’m going to splinter this review into three parts. The writing, the cohesion, and the execution. But first, we need to handle the TL;DR and after we’ll wrap up with my own personal thoughts in the Overview.
If you’re looking for a bird’s eye view of what’s in the book, go to POLYGON. If you’re looking for a branching narrative summation, go to FORBES.
There are thousands of reviews already, so I’ll stick to the minutia others tend to ignore. Good luck, have fun, let’s get started.
TL;DR – Is it good?
Yes, this book is good. It’s got a ton of interesting, useful, usable stuff in it for any DM. Some of the stat blocks are wonderful, the maps are cool as hell, a lot of the NPCs are great, and there’s at least fifty inspired, cool quests in here. Your main problem will be an almost pointless “main plot” and the entire book, cover to cover, is ice-themed: icy ice ice glacier ice snow ice. So if reskinning and retooling any of the frozen elements seems annoying or worthless for you, skip it.
Otherwise, it’s a great buy.
From the opening of chapter 1 to the closing of chapter 2 (over 150 pages) you will absolutely feel the spark of creativity that was brought onto this project by WotC. New voices work in opposition and in tandem to bring all of Ten Towns (actually 10 towns) to life.
Each of the towns has a unique flavor to it, a different presentation with overarching feelings to it far beyond what most WotC products offer. I compare this book a LOT to Storm King’s Thunder because of the huge expanse the book hopes to cover. Where SKT had like 60 locations with short quest seeds tied to each one, this book actually gives you places, people, quests, rewards, and enigmatic threads woven into each of the 10 towns in chapter 1.
Chapter 2 is an overview of Icewind Dale and is, again, PACKED with quests, adventure seeds, NPCs, locations, and happenings of the tundra that does not feel like any WotC product before it. There’s no feeling of homogenization here like you may find in Elemental Evil or Storm King’s Thunder. There’s a thrill in just how unique and different the next quest and encounter might be, and I say that knowing many of you might roll your eyes at the idea of being thrilled by something like that.
You can feel in the prose and even the mechanics of those early chapters that people were bringing their A-game. People wanted to impress with those words, and every choice had weight.
In chapters 3-7, a lot of that feeling is lost, but the writing is familiar and well done, regardless. You’re going to see echos of Arganvostholt (Curse of Strahd) when you read about Solstice. You’ll nod sagely at the Fortress in Chapter 3 – a very familiar blend of Out of the Abyss and Ironslag (Storm King’s Thunder). That’s just the kind of stuff you’ve gotta be prepare yourself for. The centerpiece of the entire book, the big reveal, the central location Ythryn’s Necropolis could very well be a level of Undermountain (Dungeon of the Mad Mage) and I’d have not questioned it one bit.
Is it a deal breaker? Absolutely not. As I said, it’s well written and there’s a ton here to play, but you’ll probably see the twists and turns coming in a way that you do not in the earlier chapters of the book.
The largest hang up people will have with this book, even if they cannot put their finger on it, is the cohesion of these varied and mixed voices throughout the adventure.
I think, for the most part, it’s handled fairly well. Each of the ten locations of Ten-Towns is tied back to one of the 3 central plots in a more-or-less direct way while also contributing their own quests, quirks, and commodities for the overall adventure.
The problem lies in the fact – the 3 central plots are more-or-less the weakest part of the entire book for me. I’m going to describe them, spoiler free below in a very direct, no frills kind of way so you can understand what I mean…
The first of the three plots involves a half-mad person and their family, twisted by a third party’s guidance, trying to destroy Icewind Dale and rule over the ashes.
There’s a place under the ice where a bunch of magic might be, so some shady spellcasters wanna get their fingies up in there for that sweet, sweet magic. So they need to figure out how from The Lady.
A demigod “could not stay away for long” and really likes it cold, so she’s been killing herself to make it eternally winter.
So, ah… Yeah, those are the simplified versions of things. I’ll append a section below (clearly marked SPOILERS) where I go into a little more detail, but those who have read the book will know – the above plots are kinda it.
Compared to mysterious figureheads driving citizens mad, factions of devil worshipers holding mayors hostage, unhinged druids awakening the wildlife to rebel and kill – they seem a bit flat and lack luster in a lot of ways. But the real question, for me, has been “Why?”
Why did the lady come back? Why does the third party want the despot to destroy everything? Why bother with the necropolis now? WHY do the characters stay amid all the insanity that’s befalling this dying place? Why do the CITIZENS stay and face starvation, giants, blizzards, unhappy gods, invisible assassins, and a plethora of other horrors? It’s very hard to codify a single reason for any of the plots, which sticks in my throat like a handful of popcorn kernel shells.
:::::: SPOILER PLOT DISCUSSION ::::::
The three plots, completely unconnected from each other, feel like they have been nailed together just enough to work and glued into one piece by talented writing.
Auril, the Frostmaiden, is not given a single reason why she has come to Icewind Dale, why she has weakened herself by blocking the sun every night, why she has taken up residence in the frost giant hall, why she would fight the party, or why the sacrifices in her name are going unheeded and uncared for. All HUGE questions that are just glossed over in the most superficial of ways.
The Netheril Necropolis was a huge selling point for this adventure “a space ship in the ice!” “Inspired by The Thing!” yet it’s just another quirky dungeon full of weird, peculiar characters. The entire plot (and why the party would travel to Auril’s sanctuary, travel to the necropolis, go inside, help the Arcane Brotherhood, the entire reason for EVERYTHING is… “maybe there’s magic in there that could save us.” Ye? Fak’n wut, mate?
The most cohesive and well presented plot of the main 3 is that of Xardorok and his family. But even that is predicated off of a notion that The Lord of the Nine Hells, Asmodeus himself, has wriggled into this dueregar’s mind and convinced him to go to the sunless surface and put his boot to the throat of Icewind Dale. WHHHHYYYYY??? “Devils are evil” I see floating in your brain – and? They’re self serving. They enjoy power and growing their influence. How is unleashing a crystal dragon (that cannot be avoided, btw) onto realm with HUNDREDS of people in it going to make one bit of difference? Wouldn’t it make sense for Levistus, the frozen devil, imprisoned in a block of ice for eternity, to want to intercede and ensure the people of Icewind Dale suffer?
Instead, his cult is more or less interested in the necropolis that can’t be gotten to unless someone risks crossing the Frostmaiden. What if instead, Levistus sent Xardorok to the surface to thwart anyone who would dare stop Auril from completing her spell to plunge the WORLD into eternal darkness so that EVERYTHING was locked in ice forever. And the only way, for sure, to bring down Xardorok’s FORTRESS OF CHARDALYN CRYSTAL was to use a Netherese scroll of THUNDER’S HOWL or some shit. A reason why A + B = C, not 2 + apple = Scholarly Green Slaad.
*takes a few breaths* If you read my spoiler section above, you already know I’m less than pleased with the execution of this adventure as a whole. The idea of bringing in sparkling new talent to flesh out Ten Towns and Icewind Dale is fantastic and worthy of praise, but I dare you to read any one location and not spot a thing that seems remarkably out of place compared to what is around it.
There’s a feeling here that every part of the recipe is there: fresh bread, lovely cured meat, home grown vegetables, amazing sauces, but someone put them together incorrectly: a bread bowl salad? It’s still GOOD, but just… weird.
As with most WotC products, there’s an ever-present need for “dad jokes.” They’ve been in every 5e publication so far, and Rime is no different. You’ll go from watching a wizard be burned alive at the stake, commonfolk gathered around the fire for warmth and licking their lips at the smell of fresh roasting flesh, to a singing trout mounted on a plaque. There’s hundreds of those “not really funny but kinda fun” moments, spaced every few pages throughout the book that pulls all the wind out of the sails of any horror or tension that might have been building for that location.
That’s not to say there’s isn’t wonderful humor in here. The first introductory quests are a PHENOMENAL showcase of the duality that is this book: one pits the party against a deadly enemy whose story is even more dark and sinister than the murders they’re guilty of, and the other is about stumbling onto elementals pretending to be humans in the snow. Despite the whiplash, it’s cute and funny and leveraged to HIGHLIGHT the depressing, oppressive, frozen wasteland that is Icewind Dale – but it makes sense. Many other jokes (they’re very easy to spot in the book) feel less funny than if they had stuck googly eyes on some of the portraits.
A Marketing Misstep
I’m going to briefly say: this adventure was not marketed fairly to Wizards of the Coast fans and faithfuls. Every marketing campaign I saw painted this adventure to be the most gut-punching, horror filled, frozen ruin that a party could ever play. In actuality, it’s a standard lighthearted romp through the snow with some seeds sprinkled throughout that, if tended to, could grow to be a forest of macabre horror.
This is absolutely not what I expected it to be, even from early playtests of the material within. And many people will be justly upset at that, no matter how well written it is.
This is a worthwhile book. I think you should buy it, if you enjoy D&D 5e and plan to run any adventures in a snowy landscape. If reflavoring the icy aspects of the book strikes you as tedious or annoying, skip this release and turn your attention to the DMs guild instead.
It’s hard, because I love the writing in most of this book. Chapters 1 and 2 are fantastic, chapter 3 and 6 are good, if a little lean. Chapter 5 is alright, but leaves a little to be desired (primarily motivation and player agency), and Chapter 7 has great writing but is a jumbled up mess for the most part. The whole affair leaves me feeling torn and worried.
This is not the kind of book you can buy and start running for your players. You have to read 170 pages before you fully understand how the adventure even works. It’s a tale that demands you track food and roll for weather and warmth, which many parties HATE. The random encounters are more fleshed out and fun than many of the planned ones, and if your party doesn’t want to trudge 3 days through the snow, rolling every few miles for what happens, this whole adventure could fall flat on its face as soon as the novelty of a frozen tundra wears off – much like Tomb of Annihilation but without the added novelty of dinosaurs.
Fledgling DMs will be overwhelmed by the amount of work needed to tie this story together and new players will feel completely lost if ran as-is without any shoring up on the part of the DM (or DMs guild publisher guides). And if horror was what you are looking for, this will not scratch that Curse of Strahd itch – though it does give you plenty of starting places to make your own horrific tales.
IF YOU ARE INTERESTED in seeing my reaction/review of the swag that came along with my advance copy of Rime of the Frostmaiden, check out the twitter thread here: https://twitter.com/DropTheDie/status/1303470659184390145
Let me know what you think of it and of this review below or on twitter. I’m very interested in what you have to say.
I don’t always advocate rolling, but when I do… be sure you have to Drop the Die.
Review by JB Little, Follow me on twitter for more “useful” information.