By William Fischer Sneak Attack press 5e level 1
In generations past, the villagers of Widderspire marked the eve of the winter solstice by leaving out gifts for a fey creature named Ember John. After the Aruandans conquered the Runewild, Aldric Widderspire, the village’s new lord, became determined to end this practice. He trapped Ember John in an iron cage and sunk the fey to the bottom of Widderspire Pond. Today, the inhabitants of Widderspire commemorate Ember John’s defeat by gathering around Widderspire Pond each winter solstice to exchange gifts, drink warm cider, and skate on the pond’s frozen surface. Though banished from the mortal realm, Ember John is still alive. Recently, one of John’s sprites, the icy-hearted Jack-o’-Frost, located John in a frozen corner of the Fey Realm. Instead of setting free his master, Jack stole John’s magical staff and proclaimed himself the “Lord of the Long, Dark Night.” Jack and the other sprites now head to Widderspire to seek vengeance against the mortals who defeated them nearly a century ago.
This thirteen page adventure presents a winter-festival gone wrong and a journey in to the fey realm with a couple of combats and a decent number of skill checks. It’s got a coherent plot that is fresher than most, without pandering to the “gimmicky christmas special” components that ruin so many seasonal adventures. I can take exception with the skill check mechanism and the DM text length, but overall it’s not a disaster and provides a compelling vision of a fey centered campaign world without going over the edge.
Yeah! Solstice Winterfest! Cider, ice skating, roasted acorns, gifts, maybe a mistletoes kiss! And then the frozen pond cracks and some icy fey come out, killing some villagers and freezing others in a block of ice. Rumor has it that Ember John the fey is imprisoned under the ice, and his bag of embers can warm anything up! Down in to the pond you go to find Ember Johns Prison and get the bag of embers. All of which means fighting three ice mephits and a giant toad, as well as a bunch of skill checks.
The theming here is very good. I am quite fond of a fey adventure, or, more specifically, a folklore-like adventure. Done well they summon up those half remembered tales from childhood and books and become more than the sum of their parts. The winter fest in this, with its ice skating, mistletoe, roasted acorns, and the like, helps sets the idyllic mood. It’s seasonal without pandering to a certain holiday, being more solstice party and without any overtones that would lead the party to believe that something evil is going on. Its well done. And, then, the journey in to the icy pond through the crack, the ice toads cave under the pond, with great icicles hanging from the ceiling and swirling vortex of snow that’s a gate to the fey realm. A powerful blizzard to fight through to reach a peaceful winter glade, and Ember John in a cage made of iron to keep him contained … his only responses being grins and smiles. And, of course, a bag of embers. This all feels wintery and folklorish without it going overboard. I like the elements and I like how they fit together, which is something I seldom say. I take it this is a part of a series of adventures and an campaign setting, and it’s something I want to know more about based on just this adventure. Quite the compliment indeed!
I’m not a big fan of the skill checks in this adventure. Some of it is preference, some of it is tuning, and some of it it just badly done. DC 8 to ice skate or fall. DC 8 to puck an acorn out of the fire without taking 1 HP of fire damage. DC8 to blah blahblah. DC 8, 10, 12, 15 to remember something about the legend of Ember John. This feels either like rolling for the sake of rolling dice or guarding certain information behind dice rolls. Just tell the players what they need to know about Ember John or make them talk to the villagers, without a skill check, to get the information. This is really, I guess, a personal preference. I don’t do skill checks for mundane things in my games and I don’t like hiding information behind a skill check. If it’s going to enrich the game and/or experience I like it to just be out there, or behind talking to an NPC or something. Rolling the dice is to gain and advantage or not die.
Speaking of not dying. Make those skill checks! Roll 3 times to dive down in the icy pond to the cave underneath. (Frozen over pond on the coldest day of the year … I would have made the pond unnaturally warm also so as to hint the party could dive in it.) Anyway, fail your roll and take damage. There’s a lot of that. Endure X by making a skill check or take damage. When you’re lost in the blizzard after entering the fey realm you need to roll a 15 multiple times, each failure meaning 3 damage. There’s some real death possibilities there, from just BS skill checks that the designer has forced on you to complete the adventure. If the skill check is a blocker in the adventure, its a gate that must be passed through, then the skill check shouldn’t be open ended. Don’t roll until you succeed. Instead apply some sort of penalty to failure, if you must include the mechanism
DM text doesn’t get to the point, instead it is the usual long and drawn out affair full of random trivia and unfocused sentences that make it hard to pull of the information you need. There’s a knack to writing good DM text, text that is terse, clear, easy to scan and find information … and there’s some mental block in most adventures, especially 5e/Pathfinder, that seems to be endemic to the writing. Emulation of what others are writing? I don’t know. But it’s a pain to work with.
There’s also a certain sort of aggressive genericism present, especially in the winter solstice festival part. The villagers can relate details to the party about folklore, but it’s not really spelled out, or good examples given. Villagers proper don’t get a decent summary, instead the adventure pointing to a campaign supplement. What NPC summary there is is more like an … index? The details are not really adventure focused. It seems afraid to get specific. A snowball fight instead of the specifics of a snowball fight. This is the time to build specificity in; bully John, or sweet girl Clara. And yet, it’s just not there and is a poorer adventure for it.
But, not bad. I do like folklore adventures and this is one of them. It tries, as best it can, to offer multiple solutions to some problems and decent dynamic combat situations with elements for the party to take adventure of.
This is $3 at DriveThru. There is no real preview, just one of those flip-book ones. Bad designer! Put in a real preview that shows some examples of the actual encounters!