By Curt Carbonell Self-published 5e Levels 5-8
It’s the dead of winter in the High North. People are going missing, rumors abound of savage creatures in the wilderness, and the outpost town of Jotnar’s Folly is teetering on the brink of starvation. You must travel to the frozen foothills of the Spine of the World and put a stop to whatever is causing this suffering. Will you be able to survive the freezing temperatures, solve the mystery, and defeat the threat in time to save the town from certain destruction?
This 22 page adventure has the party trekking through bitter cold (environmental hazards) and meeting some gnolls before hacking a frost giant and his pet remorhaz. Pruning back the writing and some tweaks to the organization/support information would go a long way to making this an inoffensive adventure. At its heart it’s just a boring old set-piece battle with the added complication of a gnoll parlay.
Set in a far northern town, the children don’t drink lemonade but they do get hacked down. You pick up a couple of quests in town, go to a farmstead to find some dead bodies, find some gnolls at a campsite that you might be able to roleplay with, and then fight a frost giant and his pet.
This adventure tries hard. You can see the designer trying to do the right thing and then kind of leaving out what they needed to succeed. I’m going to assume it’s because of a lack of exposure to good design principles.
The adventure is set in the frozen north and the environment is supposed to be a big part of the adventure. There’s a little section at the beginning on sights and sounds that tries to help the DM introduce some atmosphere. Crunching snow, glare off the snow, etc. It’s got some nice ideas in it. But, what the adventure needs, is reinforcement of those ideas. Including that section in front kind of sets the DM’s mood while they are doing their initial read through, setting up the lens by which the further encounters can be viewed through. The encounters, proper, though need this data reinforced. The data should be repeated, not word for word but elements of it, in the various encounters. When you reach the ruined homestead a few words, under the title, like [crunchy snow, glare off the featureless plain] would have done wonders to help the DM set the mood WHILE RUNNING IT. Remember, the adventure needs to be focused on running it at the table. So while the initial sights & sounds are ok, the DM needs that brief environmental data reinforced in the actual encounter that they are looking at. The DM’s attention is drawn a hundred different way while running the game, helping them recall is a good thing. But, you have to do it without getting in the way. Hence the suggestion of the “feelings” under the encounter title.
Likewise the adventure tries to set up a situation where travel between the various encounter sites has an element of the environment in it. Face a blizzard or hide in a cave? Go over a frozen lake or maybe go the other way to have a monster encounter? These little things have a number of problems. First, the table they are presented on only has three options, driven by a survival check. Given the multiple travel options it’s certainly possible that the same one could happen more than once. It would have been better to tweak this in to something else, like removing the check. This ISN’T messing with player agency because of my second point. It’s not always obvious what the consequences of the players decisions will be. For the decision to be meaningful the players must understand the nature of the decisions they are making. Going over the lack will reduce time but it looks treacherous. The other direction looks safer but maybe has monster spoor. Or you can see a blizzard in the distance, or something like that. They need to know that the blizzard is coming and/or that it will delay them. Otherwise the choice is random and you take the players agency away, things just happen to them. The adventure is not necessarily doing this on purpose but it doesn’t make it clear. Finally, the linkages between the hazards are weak. It mentions, for example in the “Rock and Hard Place” line on the survival table that the party might have to survive the weather and then has a section about a column away called Surviving the Weather. That’s generic, and could apply to the entire adventure when it’s MEANT to apply to this one line on the survival table. Rock & A hard place on the table could be called “Blizzard or Yeti?” and the blizzard referred to as “Event: Blizzard” or something like that. By being cute with the names you make the comprehension harder for the DM.
Read aloud is contained to just one entry per “major section” but can be long, and, as long time readers know long read-aloud, being more than 2-3 sentences are bad. Instead, rely on bullet points or other techniques to rely information to the DM so they can easily find it and convey it. Further, flowery read-aloud is almost always bad, in general, and is in this adventure as well. “Arrows stick out of the snow like frozen flowers.” is not good writing. Evocative writing is a good thing to strive for but metaphor is almost always a bad idea. In my experience it almost always comes off as groan & eye-rolling worthy.
It’s handles survival mostly through the 5e exhaustion check mechanism. This is a decent way to include it but not focus on the tedium of outdoor survival, like so many adventures do in the heat or cold. It would have been better, though, to include a brief summary of the exhaustion rules and maybe some modifiers, etc, in the adventure, maybe on the last page or something, to make the DM’s referencing it during play easy to find. I don’t want to go hunting in the PHB or leave the page open in the hardback during play. Remember, the designer should be focused on helping the DM run the adventure during play at the table.
But, to that end, a little travel table is provided between sites showing distances and typical number-of-days travel time. That’s the kind of helpful data I’m looking for, so well done!
It’s got a couple of other nice things it’s trying to do also. The mayor is being blackmailed by a protection racket, leading to some of the hooks, and provides better depth than usual to what would normally be a throw-away hook. That’s great. It’s exactly what I’m talking about when I ask people to think about their hooks just a little more He needs the lost protection money back, and it also leads to potential further adventure at the end of the adventure. Likewise, there’s a cowardly sheriff, a hero in his own tale, that has caused some trouble. This is a non-trivial element of the adventure, as he has killed a gnoll and they can be, potentially, allies of the party if the sheriff and gnoll tension can come to a end. The sheriff thinks he did the right thing. The gnolls are pissed he killed one of them. They are not necessarily hostile but potentially hostile. That can be a good encounter, with no enforced right or wrong to it. [The gnolls come off a little too do-gooder for me, like humans wearing gnoll costumes. There could be some more nuance there but its painfully easy to see where the designer is going.] The entire idea of the sheriff and gnoll group, with factions in the gnolls, is a great idea. It just needed some more work.
Folks will recall that Rients suggests shaking up the campaign, and the giant could very well fuck up the town. That could be GREAT!
It also tries to do something interesting with hooks. Four locations are described in town, each with a hook related to the adventure. This goes a long way to the concept of leaving out the shit don’t matter. Four ways in to the adventure, or further nuance to it, and thus four locations described in the town. That’s focus. The NPC’s are left to the appendix to describe, and I’d prefer a couple of keywords in the description to riff off of, but, at least they are short-ish.
The DM text tends to the medium and unfocused side of the spectrum, needing more whitespace/bullets/pruning back to enable focus on what matters when running it. Finally, it’s got a trigger warning at the start noting that some innocent people get killed as a part of the adventure. Uh … Seriously? If anything I’d say it doesn’t go far enough in this area. Showing why a bad guy is evil, instead of telling us, is a key way to motivate the party. I’m not looking for graphic depictions, but the current descriptions are abstracted enough that they don’t bring anything/much to the table.
Finally, This is really just a three encounter adventure. Go to homestead and find some bodies and the sheriff. Go to campsite and find more bodies and the gnolls and hack them and/or roleplay. Go find frost giant and his pet and kill them. Three encounters in 22 pages, for $4, is not exactly “Participation Award” worthy. Yeah yeah, environmental encounters between the main ones. Whatever. I don’t wandering monsters in OSR adventures and I’m not counting Wandering Environment encounters here. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that, if you hack the gnolls down, there’s any way to figure out there’s a giant involved or where he’s going. It’s assumed, I guess, that the gnoll roleplay works out. Strengthening the “ought oh! The giants the bad guy!” part could be better. Or, maybe not, and you just let the giant fuck up the town. But that smacks of the designer saying “you better talk to the gnolls or else!” and that’s NOT good design.
For 5e it’s decent. But most 5e adventures are dreck. If instead its looked on as the initial effort of a first-time designer then there’s maybe a little hope in the future that they improve and bring us good things in their coming products.
It looks like this was produced from an RPG writers workshop the designer attended. I can’t say that it was perfect, but this one did come out better than most first time efforts. Maybe next week we’ll take a look at the workshop runners adventures. In any event, I do hope a lot of these 5e/Pathfinder designers expand their horizons and get out of their echo chambers. There is so much GREAT design work going on outside of the mainstream, and so little within 5e/Pathfinder. Broadening their perspectives would be great for these folks, if they can buck the emulation echo chamber trends.
This is $4 at DMSguild. The preview a good one, eight pages. You get to see the town and how the plot hooks are integrated in to the locations. You get to see the first two encounters (most of them anyway) and their read-aloud. The lack of NPC personality (it being relegated to an appendix) and the more conversation style of DM text that comes off as unfocused and hiding the details the DM needs.