D&D 5E Rime of the Frostmaiden Post-Mortem (Spoilers)

Retreater

Legend
Thanks for this write-up. I was given RotFM as a gift last year. I think I only ever intended to use it as a resource for Ice Wind Dale and adventuring in an arctic/subarctic environment. You would think that the people responsible for designing the game would know better than to publish an adventure that requires a particular class or spell. Throwing the challenge at the party before they would even have access to the spell is even more heinous.
I'm glad you found my write-up helpful. Certainly not everyone agrees with my (and my group's) assessment [as has been stated in this thread], so you should make your own decisions.
As a freelance RPG author myself, I can say that the people writing adventures aren't usually the same as those who design the game engine. Usually they are freelancers who work for hire, hobbyists who design in their spare time. I'm trying to be more forgiving of their work, but to do that, I can't take an adventure module as gospel. It's going to be flawed, but by analyzing what the flaws are, I can be better prepared when running the game for my group.
 

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jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
I knew that this was a sandbox campaign, and I wanted to be well prepared. In addition to purchasing the module on Roll20 (since we play online), I also purchased the hardcover adventure for reading away from the computer, read numerous guides, watched videos on YouTube, and downloaded a DMs Guide on DriveThru. The DMs guide ended up being very helpful as it provided additional encounter maps that aren’t included in the hardcover (or on Roll20).
Which DM's Guide was this? I just did a quick search on DriveThruRPG and couldn't find it.

Also, were there any particular YouTube videos that you found particularly helpful? I've always liked the content created by Lunch Break Heroes:
 



lluewhyn

Explorer
Sorry to hear that your campaign went so poorly. I think having the start of a near-TPK probably put a damper on things that made it hard to recover from.

I've ran three sessions so far, and the PCs are having a blast. However, it's because I read a number of reviews, scrolled through the number of common complaints, and also noticed some things I wanted to change myself.

First off, the PCs started at level 2. Lot of complaints about poorly balanced encounters, but I think a large part of this problem is that the adventure is poorly balanced for level 1 characters. My PCs likewise started with Foaming Mugs and had a reasonable challenge. At level 2, they had double the HP, the Ranger was able to cast Speak with Animals on the Polar Bears, and the Fighter had Action Surge. Even still, the they probably collectively took about 40-50 points of damage from the encounter despite some optimal tactics.

The adventure as a whole has a lot of neat little parts, but there's little connective tissue between them, which is probably one area where the DM will have to put in the most work. I've discovered that most 5E modules tend to have poor frameworks that will give PCs a bad experience unless the GM polishes them a bit.

What I've done:
1. Instead of the adventure starting two YEARS into the Rime, I've started it two MONTHS, which is where it's been long enough that people are starting to lose hope but not so long that virtually all wildlife should be dead and any humans long since fled to the south (yeah, there are snow-covered passes but compared to the alternative hellscape that the IWD would be with this weather AND monthly sacrifices by your neighbors it's worth the risk).
2. Auril's going to have a little more purpose. Trying to lick her wounds after her conflict with the other Deities of Fury, she is planning on building her power back up to take on the challenges of the lost city of Ythryn so she can gain access to the magical secrets there. Since she gains satisfaction from cruelty to others, the purpose of her Rime is to force all of the Ten-Towns folk to suffer and even turn on each other in hopes of appeasing her, not knowing that her ultimate purpose is to see them suffer which powers up her god juice batteries which will eventually grant her the power to pursue her next step of goals. Any appeasement is thus just a false hope, a cruel jape to prolong the misery and increase the pain of those caught up in her spell.
3. The sacrifices are thus being encouraged by Auril's followers to the Ten Towns as opposed to originating from the town leaders themselves. Unlike the text, the sacrifices might actually grant a reprieve from the Rime.....for a time. And next time, the sacrifices required will be greater, because Auril (through her followers) wants to make the towns more and more desperate and willing to commit all kinds of atrocities in hopes of appeasing her, which will ultimately fail because their suffering is the goal. This is where the serial killer quest is coming in. Rather than killing people bribing their way out of the lottery (which hasn't happened yet), he's there to off a few selected individuals who might interfere with this plan. For example, when the Zhentarim speaker of Targos didn't immediately reject the suggestions made by one of Auril's Druids, a couple of townsfolk plotted to warn the Speaker of Bryn Shander and some of the other towns know about this development. The result was that the PCs found the messenger with an ice dagger in his heart as they were passing by Targos with a convenient letter in his possession that the killer missed. The PCs are already heavily discussing the events going down in the various towns and what the larger schemes are. Before they leave Targos, they'll run into the group of adventurers heading up to Kelvin's Cairn for the climb in case I want to use that plot hook later, and they're also going to encounter Torg's merchant caravan in hopes of them realizing that the murders are taking place at the same places where the caravan is visiting.

Eventually, they'll find a town that will start off with one of the weaker sacrifices, such as going a few hours without fire in the night, and the PCs can make their own judgments about what's going to happen next. I'll also be having more obvious links to the Duergar stealing, the Zhentarim taking advantage of the circumstances to try to strengthen their grip, and haven't decided what I'm doing about the Arcane Brotherhood.

As written, the OP is right about the adventure feeling disconnected, but you can overcome that with some tweaks to the plot, some foreshadowing, and some inserted plot to connect the disparate elements.
 
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Retreater

Legend
As written, the OP is right about the adventure feeling disconnected, but you can overcome that with some tweaks to the plot, some foreshadowing, and some inserted plot to connect the disparate elements.
Sounds like you're doing a good job making it your own and providing a fun time for your players. For me, I just expect more work to be done by the designers to make the story come together, balance fights/puzzles/situations for the intended level, make logical choices for the setting, and present villains and factions with clear motivations. Without these elements, all you have are disjointed wilderness adventure sites and some very poorly fleshed out settlements.
It seems to me they put together two different adventures to fit the Procrustean bed of WotC mega-adventure design.
 

The OP may be overstating things. Only two of the 1st-2nd level quests involve doors which require knock spells to open. One is the main gates to a keep, into which the PCs are freely invited under certain circumstances, or can get into by other means (which the book specifies) if not.

The other is a barrow whose front entrance is locked, but that's of no consequence since part of the wall has crumbled away. Its inner chambers are similarly locked, but open under specific phases of the moon, and gaining immediate entrance to them is not necessary in order to complete the quest.
Indeed. And the "unkillable guy" can also be killed by getting him outside the cave, although my players dealt with him by stringing him up from his own meathooks and leaving him there.

But it's a philosophical point - none of these obstacles are on the critical path, or even required to complete a sidequest, and I'm fine with the existence of failable quests and hidden boss fights etc. If the PCs always win, no matter what dumb decisions they make, then what's the point?

As for the other, I would never run a published adventure "out the box". I always muck about with it to suit my own and my player's preferences.

A couple of suggestions: Use a Group Patron (Tasha's) & replace insanity with stress from VGR.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
As for the other, I would never run a published adventure "out the box". I always muck about with it to suit my own and my player's preferences.

Running a single adventure out of the box might be possible, but this is a campaign, albeit not a too long one, and expecting to run a campaign out of the box without at least a bit of tinkering is a bit naive, especially if it's the least bit open-ended. Linear adventure path might be able to do this because they are a succession of scenario which might be run out of the box, but these day people expect something a bit more sandboxy which in turn requires more tinkering by the DM.
 

TheSword

Legend
As is my new tradition, each time a campaign ends, I'm trying to learn from it. This will be about my Rime of the Frostmaiden campaign.

About the Group and Selection of the Campaign

The group contains a “seasoned” casual player who’ve I’ve been gaming with for over 20 years. I put seasoned in quotes because he regularly confuses 5e with rules from Pathfinder 1e and 2e (though he only played a handful of sessions with that system over a year ago), and he’s been playing 5e twice a week for over two years now.
The three other players include another casual player who is starting to DM for his family, and another two players who watch online power-build tutorials to come up with some brutal combos.
We had put on hold an OSR game that ended in a TPK, and at their request, went back to 5e after having completed Curse of Strahd around 4 months prior. They wanted to do an official WotC mega adventure (along the lines of Curse of Strahd) but avoiding ones that none of the players have previously read or played (even in part), which left the following choices: Descent into Avernus, Tyranny of Dragons, Tomb of Annihilation, and Rime of the Frost Maiden.
After a little debate RotFM won.

Preparation

I knew that this was a sandbox campaign, and I wanted to be well prepared. In addition to purchasing the module on Roll20 (since we play online), I also purchased the hardcover adventure for reading away from the computer, read numerous guides, watched videos on YouTube, and downloaded a DMs Guide on DriveThru. The DMs guide ended up being very helpful as it provided additional encounter maps that aren’t included in the hardcover (or on Roll20).
Using the various resources, I followed the advice for presenting the best starting quest and Ten Towns quests from the beginning.

A Rocky Start

The first session the party went after the goblins from Bryn Shander. Using ranged guerilla tactics, the goblins killed most of the party (effectively a TPK). This set a grim tone for the rest of the campaign. The players had invested those characters in the setting and as a party, only to be cut down in their first fight. (In hindsight, it was largely the blame of players’ forgetting their abilities and one of the players making some terrible tactical blunders.)

The Pointless Sandbox

The bulk of the adventure is a sandbox that isn’t connected to the main story. Going from town to town without any direction or purpose got very boring. On top of it, the players didn’t want to focus on travel or survival in our limited, short sessions (about 2 hours per week). So, it became “you find your way to town X and have to do Y.” It was repetitious, and often the challenges were well beyond what the party should’ve been able to defeat. One example I previously ranted about on these boards was being assigned to clear out a cave of an opponent who had to have a Dispel Magic cast to keep him from regenerating – when the party was too low of level to have access to the spell. Another insurmountable challenge was a 1st-2nd level adventure that required a Knock spell to get past a door.

Adding Content

Realizing that much of the content wasn’t linked, I decided to add an overarching plot to the locations to give the party a reason to explore other than “go here, kill everything there.” I added an NPC that directed the party to find a Macguffin that could be used to defeat the Frost Maiden. It would need to be assembled, scattered across the remaining Ice Wind Dale adventure sites. This added purpose and gave new life to the campaign. Unfortunately, after finding the four pieces, the party was dismayed that they inadvertently destroyed the Macguffin with a cursed magic item (essentially putting them in a bag of devouring).

Climax-Change

RotFM has no lead-up to any climax other than taking out the Frost Maiden and ending the curse, so along with the rest of the players, we decided that would be a good place to end the campaign after 6 months of play. So, the party decided to end the campaign (for better or worse) with a direct frontal assault on the Frost Maiden’s palace. Amazingly, the place is pretty much empty, so they walked right into her throne room to defeat the deity.

Lessons Learned

Many readers consider RotFM a top-tier campaign adventure. To me, it is far below “Curse of Strahd” or “Tomb of Annihilation” (two that I’ve run to completion). I have run nearly all the official WotC adventures [at least in part]: Strahd, Tomb of Annihilation, Phandelver, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Dragon Heist, Undermountain, Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss, Tales of the Yawning Portal, and Storm King’s Thunder. Of the ones I’ve run, I consider only three of them to be “good” (Strahd, Tomb, and Phandelver).
I think it’s (finally) time to consider that the mega-adventures just aren’t for me.

What’s Next?

Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve been largely running modules since 3rd edition. When I started in 2e I wrote my own material mostly. Since that time, as life has gotten busier and the games more complex (and on top of it, I’m also running games for more groups than ever), it’s difficult to make the time to curate custom experiences for my players. When you run for a group that is comprised mostly of casual players, you often don’t get the feedback you need to tailor an adventure to their interests. They are there to go on quests, kill monsters, loot treasures, etc.
None of the official adventures seem appealing to me – and the players have shot down all of them last time they were presented. It seems like doing a few one-shots until we find something that sticks is the way to go.
Thanks for the write up. Frankly I’m amazed you made it to the end! Well done. I got a few levels in and ditched it because the players clearly weren’t feeling it.

We did much better with Tomb of Annihilation and I really enjoyed it.

One suggestion a bit out of the box is to try the 3pp Odyssey of the Dragonlords. It’s a 1 - 15 level Greek-ish campaign and my players are really enjoying it. They are up to level 7 now and frankly it’s been an absolute pleasure to DM. I’ve barely changed anything which is very unusual for me. My players are part way through a fantasy Olympic Games sidequest that was a fun interlude. I would say the main story is very compelling - as strong as Curse of Strahd and I would put the series on par with it. Worth a look.
 

Running a single adventure out of the box might be possible
It might be possible to run a whole campaign out of the box, but that's irrelevant to me, I would never choose to do it.
I got a few levels in and ditched it because the players clearly weren’t feeling it.
That's why I suggest a group patron. The players need motivation and an objective. They might be able to find that on their own, but I wouldn't count on it.
 
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Azuresun

Adventurer
Sorry to hear that your campaign went so poorly. I think having the start of a near-TPK probably put a damper on things that made it hard to recover from.

I've ran three sessions so far, and the PCs are having a blast. However, it's because I read a number of reviews, scrolled through the number of common complaints, and also noticed some things I wanted to change myself.

I'm doing much the same. There are some great set-pieces in the campaign, but they're not tied together very well, and it's entirely possible for the players to miss certain plot threads entirely and potentially end the driving force of the adventure two chapters early! There are some things that get a lot of attention, but which don't really GO anywhere. Notably the prison, which gets a tremendous amount of detail, but an actual reason for the PC's to go there kind of gets left out.

But if you're like me and you love tinkering with premade adventures, this is a dream come true. Much like you, I changed the initial premise--winters have been getting worse over the last two years, but people still hope it's going to get better naturally, and don't know who's actually behind it. Lessening the urgency lets the players engage in small-scale quests without feeling like schmucks, and allows for some escalation later on as things get worse and the PC's can see the towns getting more desperate as the winter intensifies. Further details spoilered just in case my players read this:

The main difference is that Auril isn't present at the start, she's masterminding things through her druids (manipulating the duergar king, sowing despair in the towns to get them to worship and sacrifice to her, recruiting berserkers from the Reghed, etc), whose leader is the one conducting the winter ritual and who fights the party in Chapter 5--after their defeat, Auril appears to take care of things personally and force the quest to Ythryn. Early on, this is intended to introduce a mystery about who's really responsible, one that'll be hinted at through encounters with the druids, the devil cult and a coven of hags, rather than have everyone know right from the start that it's Auril who's behind the whole thing. Having a fake "final boss" handily avoids the whole "whoops, we solved the adventure two chapters early" risk, where the PC's can kill Auril in her fortress and then have no real reason to go to Ythryn other than "dunno, treasure?".

I also wanted to come up with uses for those bits of the adventure that don't seem to go anywhere, by tying them into one of the greater plots. For example, the ghost in the mine adventure might possess someone and escape into the town, where it will....do what, exactly? It's never explained. Ditto for the prison, it's a lot of detail just to have a callback to Legacy of the Crystal Shard. So I'll have the cult of Levistus arrange a jailbreak, which the PC's might be on either side of.

Generally, I want to foreshadow things earlier. Vellayne pops up out of nowhere, delivers a big exposition dump and demands the PC's work for her....so drop her in earlier, looking for her stolen artifact, or employing them to keep tabs on her her rivals.


A couple of suggestions: Use a Group Patron (Tasha's) & replace insanity with stress from VGR.

For the first arc, I just had them employed by the overworked Speaker of Bryn Shandar, who offered them a weekly payment if they helped her deal with all the problems coming across her desk. Simple, and gives them a reason to wander around the towns doing stuff.
 
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For the first arc, I just had them employed by the overworked Speaker of Bryn Shandar, who offered them a weekly payment if they helped her deal with all the problems coming across her desk. Simple, and gives them a reason to wander around the towns doing stuff.
Yeah, I would say there are three obvious options for patrons - the speaker/council, the Arcane Brotherhood, and the Harpers. Although something like the Zents is also possible. The Duergar or Knights of the Black Sword could be a wild card entries.

What RotFM lacks is Episode One: The Team Assembles.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
One suggestion a bit out of the box is to try the 3pp Odyssey of the Dragonlords. It’s a 1 - 15 level Greek-ish campaign and my players are really enjoying it. They are up to level 7 now and frankly it’s been an absolute pleasure to DM. I’ve barely changed anything which is very unusual for me. My players are part way through a fantasy Olympic Games sidequest that was a fun interlude. I would say the main story is very compelling - as strong as Curse of Strahd and I would put the series on par with it. Worth a look.

I can only second that, playing this one, 7th level now, and it's an absolute blast. That being said, there are tons of add-ons available on the web, and our DM is using them a lot, so I can't attest to what an unmodified campaign would be like, but from what I hear it's still pretty good.
 

Retreater

Legend
Thanks for the write up. Frankly I’m amazed you made it to the end! Well done. I got a few levels in and ditched it because the players clearly weren’t feeling it.
It was work to customize it to our needs, and in the end I think we'd all have had a better time with another adventure. But my players are stubborn sometimes and really want to finish what they start - evidenced by how The Enemy Within in WFRP 4E is going currently.

We did much better with Tomb of Annihilation and I really enjoyed it.
I ran this to completion with another group. The only things I did was to drop a few hints about where they are going and to trim the hex crawl portion after a few months of actual play.
ToA is a solid adventure. If I were to run it again, I'd make some changes to bring out what I think are the best parts. (For example, I'd probably give them an ancient, rough map of the area early on. And then incentivise them to visit side locations, maybe by hiding some keys there to get into the Tomb. I'd also make the yuan-ti figure into it more.)
 

lluewhyn

Explorer
I also wanted to come up with uses for those bits of the adventure that don't seem to go anywhere, by tying them into one of the greater plots. For example, the ghost in the mine adventure might possess someone and escape into the town, where it will....do what, exactly? It's never explained. Ditto for the prison, it's a lot of detail just to have a callback to Legacy of the Crystal Shard.
I didn't know where the prison was from, but me reading through that section got a strong "Nope, not going to include this one when I run the adventure." It has almost nothing to do with anything, and actually undercuts the rest of the adventure because despite the rest of the towns being at the edge of desperation, the prison seems just fine.

I haven't fully decided what I'm doing with the Duergar yet. One thing that I know that I'll be doing is changing the Dragon to leave after they're in the fortress itself and at least have had an opportunity to see the map of its path along with getting confirmation of its mission. Plus, I think it works more dramatically to have "We have intruders in the fortress, send the dragon to destroy the town NOW" as opposed to "What an amazing coincidence that the dragon starts just as you get there". As it is written, the PCs don't know that it's headed towards the Ten Towns to destroy them, and even if they come to that conclusion there's nothing remotely logical about why the PCs should try to catch it as it moves so much faster than they can. I imagine a lot of PCs would be thinking "Maybe there's something in the fortress to stop the dragon remotely" like killing the spellcaster controlling it.

I'm also thinking about doing a little bit more with the devil influence where they might try to work with the PCs. Right now, I really hate his motivation which is simply "Utterly destroy the Ten Towns because I'm evil", which is really lame. You brought your people out of the Underdark to this fortress and committed their efforts to collecting Chardalyn just so you can destroy some podunk settlements that in no way affect you? Besides, destroying the Ten Towns doesn't seem like a very Devilish thing to do. So, I'm thinking about having it where Asmodeus was encouraging him to go through these plans to conquer the Ten Towns and rule them with an iron fist, but the exposure to all of that Chardalyn has driven the Duergar king insane and warped the plan, which has led him into more destructive goals. Or, I might just leave it at him intending to conquer the Ten Towns with the dragon using strategic strikes and the PCs invading his fortress forces his hand to where he sets the dragon setting to "Raze All" instead. Either way, the usage of the dragon seems like it's a perfect element to limit Short and Long Rests when exploring the fortress, so I'm not sure why it's not used to that effect.
 

lluewhyn

Explorer
What RotFM lacks is Episode One: The Team Assembles.
Most of my first session was done in a loose role-play that leads up to "How did you find yourselves up in Icewind Dale?". Interestingly, the Orc Fighter and Elven Ranger had suggested they met up fighting an undead in the south in the previous Session Zero, so we role-played that battle through narration (and OMG, it was bonkers!). The Cleric is actually a Duergar (this will be interesting later on, lol) who described his way up from the Underdark where he popped out in IWD. They were all hanging out in the Northlook Inn when the bloodied and battered dwarves staggered in and threw themselves down by the fire, and the four PCs were the ones who inquired what was going on and met the rest of each other that way.
 

TheSword

Legend
I started off with an airship crash of people travelling to Icewind dale because of the barrier around the dale. Auril effectively crashed the ship. They came across various survivors in the first session including some of the other party that were linked in through their backgrounds that had seen the airship crash. I’d just finished reading Alive!

They scavenged the ship and then tracked through the snow to the rear of the ship that was balanced on a cliff edge. Quite good fun them trying to scavenge the aft castle before it toppled over with their weight.

The rest of the adventure never quite lived up to the start 😂😂😂
 

Azuresun

Adventurer
I haven't fully decided what I'm doing with the Duergar yet. One thing that I know that I'll be doing is changing the Dragon to leave after they're in the fortress itself and at least have had an opportunity to see the map of its path along with getting confirmation of its mission. Plus, I think it works more dramatically to have "We have intruders in the fortress, send the dragon to destroy the town NOW" as opposed to "What an amazing coincidence that the dragon starts just as you get there". As it is written, the PCs don't know that it's headed towards the Ten Towns to destroy them, and even if they come to that conclusion there's nothing remotely logical about why the PCs should try to catch it as it moves so much faster than they can. I imagine a lot of PCs would be thinking "Maybe there's something in the fortress to stop the dragon remotely" like killing the spellcaster controlling it.

I'm also thinking about doing a little bit more with the devil influence where they might try to work with the PCs. Right now, I really hate his motivation which is simply "Utterly destroy the Ten Towns because I'm evil", which is really lame. You brought your people out of the Underdark to this fortress and committed their efforts to collecting Chardalyn just so you can destroy some podunk settlements that in no way affect you? Besides, destroying the Ten Towns doesn't seem like a very Devilish thing to do.

Yes, that's my inclination too. Fight through the fort to reach the dragon, and then see it leaving.

When I get there, I'll probably make it so that Auril's worshippers are influencing Xardarok--they pointed him towards the tainted chardalyn in the first place, like with the berserkers, and now they're guiding his madness towards "make a glorious display of your power and claim this land for your own".

One thing I do plan on using the Duergar for is to liven up the mind flayer quest, if only because it seems a bit funny that this psychic beacon is blasting away right next door to this fortress of psionic dwarves (seriously, check the map) and none of them have caught it. Could make for a fun "enemy of my enemy" dilemma if they send out a hunting party just after the PC's discover the nautiloid. Also keeps the duergar as a presence in the story when the otherwise vanish for most of the Icewind Dale arc.
 

lluewhyn

Explorer
For me, I just expect more work to be done by the designers to make the story come together
I feel your pain on this. Virtually every module I've read by WotC tends to have poor writing in one way or another which requires the DM to have to put in extra work. Oddly enough, Lost Mines of Phandelver, the very first module released for 5E, is the best written one where a DM can pretty much run it straight out of the box. I'm not sure of the cause, but my guess is that there are so many different people writing different parts of the adventures without enough oversight to make sure things are internally consistent which leads to a "too many cooks in the kitchen" feel. One funny thing that stuck out to me reading RotF is that despite the setting establishing there's poor visibility for four hours a day and pretty much no visibility the rest of the time, most of the areas and encounters describe things in visual terms that the PCs would be seeing from far away, which implies a certain lack of QC oversight from someone in charge. Based upon some of the other modules I've read, it seems to be a regular practice.

So, I went in with expectations of balancing and consistency problems from the get-go knowing that I would have to tweak things to not make it a slog. This helped give me a more positive outlook on the adventure. It also helps that the adventure is overstuffed with things to do and explicitly tells you that you're not supposed to do all of it, just pick and choose what you like best. This is something that I really appreciated as I don't have to worry about problems with any particular quest since I can just ignore it and do something else instead.
 

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