A spoiler-filled review of D&D’s Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden
Welcome back to the Icewind Dale.
It’s a familiar location for many Dungeons & Dragons fans whether you’ve adventured there yourself or read the classic novels featuring everyone’s favorite drow, Drizzt Do’Urden.
And now we find ourselves with Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, the latest official 5th edition D&D adventure hardcover from Wizards of the Coast.
(Warning: Yar! There be spoilers ahead! This is one of our “spoiler-filled reviews” after all…)
The 320-page adventure is filled with things to do in the familiar frostbitten north of the Forgotten Realms. But it’s important to know the adventure takes place more than 100 years after The Crystal Shard. While the setting will be familiar to fans of the Icewind Dale trilogy, don’t expect a 5th edition retelling of your favorite novel series.
You won’t run into Drizzt.
That said, elements of those books exist in this adventure. The tower created by the Crystal Shard itself was destroyed and its material bonded to the ice to create the substance chardalyn. It’s a strong material but also imbued with demonic magic.
The adventure is structured around three things: a god who has caused Icewind Dale to descend into neverending darkness and winter, a duergar warlock looking to conquer the overworld and a lost city of magic now trapped in a glacier.
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The adventure’s overall plot weaves from one portion to the next, but my readthrough made me feel like things were not as smooth as they could be. Nothing to connects directly except for NPCs that direct you from one portion to the next, though things do seem to gel a bit after the defeat of the duergar when an adventuring party would finally approach Auril the Frostmaiden.
That’s not to say this adventure isn’t fun. There’s so much to enjoy here: The invasion of a duergar fortress and a duergar leader that can enlarge to the size of an ogre to protect his home. A goddess of cold with three separate forms to defeat. (Combined, they have a CR of 30. Good luck with that!) An ancient city that literally fell from the sky. A maze of tunnels inside a glacier. Just traversing the Sea of Moving Ice itself is exciting.
But Rime of the Frostmaiden feels like a collection of adventures set in once place rather than an epic campaign. And that’s not a criticism necessarily.
It begins with a series of quests that lead the adventurers to Ten Towns. The hardcover will take adventures from level 1 to 9 and above, and it also includes a poster map of Icewind Dale and individual maps of Ten Towns. Each town has their own additional quests as well, and that lets the adventurers get the lay of the land.
Each town has extremely detailed descriptions that makes them feel like living, real places with leaders, local traditions, symbols and available services. The chapter is robust, clocking in at more than 80 pages.
Rumors or additional quests could lead them elsewhere around Icewind Dale, and the chapter that describes the region is absolutely epic. The 70-page chapter has entries for every single spot on the map. (Or tells you what chapter to find them in). There’s a giant sperm whale that’ll take you on its back like a magic submarine. There are gnolls living in deep chasms. There are ships trapped in the ice. There are ghosts of frozen frost giants. There’s a remote prison housing dangerous criminals. There’s even a spire that broke off of an ancient city and is now submerged upside down under snow and ice. (That spire, no surprise, connects to the lost city found later in the book.)
But the adventure really kicks off around level 4 or 5 when the adventures go after Xardorok Sunblight, the duergar tyrant seeking to build a dragon from chardalyn, the material made from the now-destroyed Crystal Shard.
My favorite chapter of the adventure is the one where they pursue the chardalyn dragon, but it’s not the dragon fight itself that’s interesting. It’s that the characters’ choices earlier in the adventure determine how much destruction the dragon has wrought by the time they pursue it. Spend too much time on other things, the dragon could destroy several of the Ten Towns settlements before they arrive to stop it. Giving the characters’ choices that kind of weight will get players invested in the adventure.
Later, the characters head to a frozen island in search of artifacts and Auril the Frostmaiden herself. The foreboding skull-shaped fortress in which she hides is something to behold. Surpassing the tests (and skeletons) there is not easy. And defeating Auril in her new home will be even more difficult.
There are plenty of ways to continue the adventure without confronting Auril, and that’s probably for the best at the level that they’ll first head to her fortress. Once they’ve leveled up, and picked up artifacts in later chapters they can head back and put a stop to the endless winter once and for all.
It’s all part of a quest to find an ancient city that fell from the heavens. And the next part of the quest will be to break the glacial ice in which it is encased using power discovered in Auril’s abode and investigating the caves of hunger, basically a maze of ice. It’s massive and very, very cool. Watch out for frost monsters and the kind of creatures that evolve when wizards are stuck in ice for generations.
Also watch out for the thing in area H31. Scary stuff.
Navigating the dungeon leads to Ythryn, a long-lost Netherese city filled with magic. (And nothics!)
The city, a disc that sits on the ice, is basically a tomb, and exploring its secrets will take quite some time. But doing so successfully will yield loads of treasure, magic items and lore about the city itself.
Unless the adventurers wait until the end to confront Auril, the adventure’s end doesn’t come with a giant battle against a high CR boss. But the secrets used in character creation could come to light as the characters explore. They could get involved with a demilich. They could confront the Arcane Brotherhood, the wizards seeking the secrets of Ythryn.
And the open ending is actually something I like because it leads to further adventure. Taking the fight to the Arcane Brotherhood could be fun. If the nonstop winter can’t be stopped, helping the people of Ten Towns escape would be exciting.
There is also a possibility of resetting the entire world to a time before the fall of Ythryn, and the book sets the scene but then advises DMs seek previously published (3e and 4e or perhaps even earlier) materials to flesh out that adventure. If I were DMing, that might be my preferred way to go.
On that note, I should mention the book contains a suggested flow, but it’s an open world. Players could go visit any and every one of Ten Towns and go wandering around the tundra until they bump into a frost troll or a pack of giant walruses. They could confront the duergar and then leave for elsewhere in the Forgotten Realms.
The adventure is also pretty well segmented. Each chapter is more or less self-contained, so you could take any one of the Ten Towns or any of the dungeons and drop them into another world or another adventure. Your adventuring party could also swing into Icewind Dale to fight the duergar and then head off on another adventure.
I may actually take Auril’s fortress and place it into my homebrew game because it’s such an intriguing location.
Speaking of that Castle Grayskull-like fortress, the art in the book is absolutely gorgeous. My favorite pieces included the animals from Icewind Dale, a crag cat eating a knucklehead trout, a goblin fortress, a dragon construct, hungry nothics and Auril the Frostmaiden taking to the sky on the back of a roc.
The maps — by Stacey Allen, Will Doyle and MIke Schley (one of my favorite cartographers ever) — are also amazing. There are little caves and coves and small buildings as well as epic dungeons.
I appreciated a few elements of this book including the adventure flowchart (how the adventure is supposed to go plus suggested levels) as well as a “Horror in the Far North” factbox. This adventure features some horror elements, and the factbox explains that it’s up to you, a responsible DM, to know how to play those things. It recommends a candid conversation with players about their phobias and triggers as well as anything that would make them feel unsafe or nervous.
There’s also a great chart in the dragon attack chapter about what happens to a city in chaos that can be used anywhere. There’s a sport, chain lightning, that players can play against each other for fun.
The bestiary section includes 51 stat blocks for monsters and NPCs, some of them specific to the adventure (such as the three stat blocks for Auril or the chardalyn dragon), some classic monsters new to 5e (brain in a jar) and a few republished monsters and animals. There are also several monsters and NPCs distributed throughout the book.
Especially useful are variants on existing monsters such as the spitting mimic (can be larger dungeon objects such as a pillar or wall), gnoll vampires (scary, scary), duergar hammerers and mind masters and kobolds of various forms (including zombie kobolds!).
I especially like the baby versions of other monsters such as a yeti tyke and a gnome ceremorph (technically a gnome turned into a mind flayer, but it looks and works just like an adorable yet powerful young illithid).
Like other recent official D&D 5e adventures, Rime of the Frostmaiden provides a load of character creation tools including character secrets, character hooks and an entry on the goliath race. (Icewind Dale is just the right place to play one, I think.)
I have to give credit to the page layout and design of this book. Past adventure books could be frustrating because information for one location could be in three chapters, but new books including this one drop important NPCs on the page where they’re introduced, maps with specific adventure locations (and the chapter where you’ll find them) marked specifically.
Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden is a different kind of D&D book. The adventure is not as linear as others. There is a plot througline, but it’s not as solid. But that does offer the opportunity to explore the Icewind Dale for an entire adventure or perhaps just a shorter excursion.
It’s a book I’ll definitely be using in future campaigns.