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5E Less Epic Adventures - Rime of the Frostmaiden

jedijon

Explorer
A tale of two pitches.


  1. You are on the hunt for an ancient secret, delving deep into the frozen wastes to find answers in the Caves of Hunger. But you’re not the only one on the trail. Can you best the maddened wizards of the Arcane Brotherhood, triumph over the blasts of winter, and foil the plans of a scheming Goddess to save the Ten-Towns, nearby Icewind Dale, and the Realms beyond from the terrors of an Eternal Freeze?

  1. It used to be hard to make a living, but you didn’t mind. The snow-covered peaks with their bracing air were home. But now days are shorter than ever, and colder. Something’s changed, and you knew whatever Bjorn brought back from the glacier was trouble. People are being found frozen in their homes. You are starting to worry about making it through this winter alive.


It’s probably obvious that the first pitch is a shortened version of advertising copy released by Wizards of the Coast for the upcoming adventure ‘Rime of the Frostmaiden’. It’s probably equally obvious that the second pitch is my own attempt to remix the same elements into a new story that’s not about saving the world.

The tidbits floating around the internet for this product include which movies inspired the designers, how it has more monsters than any other official 5E adventure released to date, and that the structure will be “small bite-sized quests” as in the Essentials Kit.

All these puzzle pieces indicate that an accurate adventure summary could be even shorter than the pitch above. Something along the lines of:

Unskilled folks with a penchant for glory show up in town to fix problems, square off against an evil organization, fight stuff to get treasure, discover grandiose plans—then foil them, thus saving the planet.

I’m more interested in a long cold night, with no rescue. I want the characters in the story to be personally vested in, maybe even by being to blame for, what’s happening. I want them to know that if they can’t fix this, they’re going to freeze to death. The short version:

Something’s gone wrong—and you think you know why. Can you fix it and get out alive?


Which pitch do you prefer?

Is it cold that makes you shiver, or the thought that the world needs saving again?


Ladder pegs – building a story arc


Every story has an arc. There’s the opening, the increasing action, the resolution. While it’s not yet clear which story-beats are being used in the published adventure, it’s helpful to stop and work out what the MUST HAVE elements to tell the desired story. In fact, it’s probably easier to do that now before getting too familiar with the published material. We’re going to need to define those basic requirements. How will the stage will be set? What are those key milestones? Most importantly, what is a satisfying ending? How do we get from realizing winter isn’t leaving to returning to normal and escaping with our lives?


Setting the stage


We’re going to want the characters to recognize that something is happening to the environment around them. There’ll be a preference for showing vs. telling. But we’ll also need to deal with WHY this is happening.

Immediate drama can be generated with something like “you went to visit some acquaintances and find all their food gone and they’re frozen like popsicles”. This isn’t ‘Game of Thrones’ and we’re no Starks—winter isn’t coming…it’s HERE. If we take this approach, it’s flexible as to whether these people succumbed to the environment [food eaten] or some supernatural freezing event [popsicle bodies]. But while it’s flexible, it’s also potentially ambiguous. Once the adventure is published it will be more clear whether we want to tip off players to the magical nature of the threat or the environmental—it may not be possible to go wrong either way.

Some less dramatic openings are; “we haven’t seen any of the white-petal-flowers this year—is it too cold”, or “it just froze yesterday and all these farmers lost their crops, that almost never happens”, or “wow the is river frozen already”, or even “look mom, the mammoths are migrating”.

A key part of setting the stage is providing a framework for why all this is happening. This more than anything is going to color the adventure. Did the adventurers know something was going to happen? Did they cause it to happen?

First to take a cue from the movie ‘Taken’, a girl gets an offer to party in a foreign country that’s too good to be true, lies to her dad, he instructs her what sensible precautions to take, she ignores them and gets kidnapped, and he must rescue her. In this version, a character was aware of a possible situation and verbally told someone else not to do something—which of course they ignored and now there’s consequences. It’s a classic “I told you so”.

Or, the characters could be well intentioned, it could be that the night were just getting longer—they rush in to fix it and make the bad stuff happen in a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a bit like Prince of Persia. It could also be that they were magically lengthened but that their intervention was the key to allowing some evil entity loose. Like a more recent version of Prince of Persia. Either way, here the characters will have every reason to be down on themselves.

A wonderfully dramatic middle ground is that it’s someone they’re associated with who did the actual actions. They started out with an innocent intention to make life better in this hard land—but it backfired and now they’ve disappeared. We’ll learn more about why, and their attempts to cover this up, as the story unfolds.


Milestones


We know there’s some secret artifacts, lots of fighting, another group that wants the goods, and competing factions in the Ten-Towns. The hope is that the published material can be made to serve the modified story arc.

Based on how the adventure is presented, a plucky group of heroes goes out to find an artifact. It shouldn’t be mechanically impossible to change that to someone [preferably someone related to the adventurers] went out to get it and brought it to town, where it’s now hidden. The reasonably anticipated burden would be how to substitute the standard “this guy in a bar gave me a map to the glacier” for a “where would they have put it” mystery. A quick and dirty solve is that some other people known to the party have more information about that person’s secret and a reason to share (or no reason not to – such as Person X hurt Person Y’s feelings). Since we’re supposed to be fighting off a rival group, it probably works to have them making incursions into town to be repelled by the adventurers.

That said, it’s significantly likely that the designer’s statement that the adventure is broken up into multiple small modules means that the story is unfolding like a wild-goose chase. If it’s the case that the written material is a string of “go here, beat up some guys, get part of an artifact / +1 clue”, then an explanation is needed why when the bad thing was unleashed it can’t simply be resolved right away.

Here’s 4 ways to slice it.

  1. The initial “go into the glacier to get the goods thing” is not about the original repository of the artifact but rather about where it was hidden by your buddy who took it and finding it launches a series of attempts to try to fix the situation and undo what was done with each location making it worse but pointing to the next location that’s “sure” be the right one and cause things to be fixed.
  2. The initial glacier dungeon only yields a portion of the artifact and finding it launches a series of adventures to get the rest—whoever originally found it more paranoid than you thought. They’re positively out to lunch and split the thing up in hopes of stopping it—but you need to collect it and repair it, something you hope will ultimately allow you to destroy it.
  3. You begin the attempt to recover the artifact and quickly realize you’re no longer after a thing at all—after battling into the required spot (glacier dungeon) you realize that you’re really after an embodiment of the bad power…and it’s on the run with you a step behind. Some of the encounters don’t even involve them, they’ve already escaped to the next location, but have left behind an aftermath of what they’re doing which you need to address.
  4. You were able to get the thing – but to undo what’s happening you need to put it back…but where? If only that frozen corpse next to the pulsing heart of winter could talk
I have a suspicion that the 3rd way will be the most compatible with the printed material. A story-beat like “go to Ten-Town #2 and see what shenanigans are happening there” seems well within the wheelhouse of a printed adventure. Luckily it’s just one step to the left to get to “he’s headed over there—aww look what he’s up to now!”.

There will be more happening in the published material than simply “go here, fight this”, and it’s those elements that are influenced by the geography of the adventure. Mostly likely the published adventure will have encounters happening at all points on the map. It likely won’t matter how this is handled, but it fits the story well to describe locations as closely spaced and made up of small populations. This keeps the setting intimate and encourages players to assume their characters know all these people.

To the extent there’s competing agendas and factions within the overall populace, there’s a number of ways to handle that even if everyone is located in the same town. Think factions squabbling over how to react to the threat of increased winter. Much like when everyone is on the same spaceship in ‘Battlestar Galactica’ season 3, or the whole “should we really work with these aliens” thing in ‘Falling Skies’ season 2 when pretty much the whole human race is gathered in Charleston. Since the adventure supposedly has blizzard and avalanche rules, electing to place all the events within one spot requires either ditching avalanches or setting the adventure in a mountain location. The location should allow for a character to be bored stiff while snowed-in, stranded and hungry, unable to get where they’d like, temporarily left for dead, or surrounded by wolves.


Finale


The capstone of the published adventure will be a showdown with a powerful being. These milestone options can deliver the adventure to that point. Each one needs to refer back to the opening “boy it’s cold” as well as look ahead to the final “we can fix this”. Within that framework the ending will serve two emotional payoffs; “well, now things are back to normal” and “wow – we didn’t die!”

To pull off a campaign that revolves around “hey it sure is dark out” and ends with “yay we didn’t freeze solid” will require bending and tweaking of the published materials. What will be in the book? How useful will it be? More importantly, what will be the most harmonious way to use these materials in a new arc which is not story about saving the world—but rather one that’s about saving yourself.
 

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I like both pitches, but the first one is definitely the more evocative one. That being said, I think that it's important to have adventures that aren't just about stopping the end of the world. I'm eventually going to be running Dragon of Icespire Peak for that very reason. Not every campaign has to be long, or has to be about saving Faerun. Yes, stakes are important, but there's a gradient between clearing the rats out of the basement and stopping Demogorgon.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Is it cold that makes you shiver, or the thought that the world needs saving again?
Sounds like you should go find a game without levels to mix it up. You can always return to D&D when you're no longer burned out on the idea of saving the world.
 

Sounds like you should go find a game without levels to mix it up. You can always return to D&D when you're no longer burned out on the idea of saving the world.
I wouldn't say it was a game without levels you wanted so much as without D&D's almost consequence free hit points, and without D&D's incredibly consequence free magic.

Under the D&D hit point system it doesn't matter how much of a battering you have taken - you are still exactly as capable of action at 1hp as you are at full health. Unless you die those fights are basically consequence free. For all some in the OSR claim otherwise D&D is really not good at characters struggling and has minimal mechanical support for them suffering.

Under the D&D magic system magic is 100% reliable and normally very useful for adventurers. You might not have enough, but there's no chance it will cause side effects, unexpectedly blow up in your face, or accidentally summon a demon. It's completely safe to use, unlike, for example, in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. And there isn't even a non-financial cost to using the magic.

Further with the expected length of a D&D campaign, and with how simple (and for that matter reversable) the death rules are you can't have true deaths that regularly because if you were planning on running every week for a year it would get tiresome. You also are going to out-level these threats.

On the other hand D&D is very suitable for Superheroes Save The World power fantasies for all those reasons. If you, @jedijon, want the type of game you are asking for I'm going to recomment Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Apocalypse World, or Blades in the Dark as all serving your needs better than D&D.
 


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