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Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden is the next Dungeons & Dragons storyline, taking adventurers and Dungeon Masters to the frigid north and one of the most notable locales in all of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It arrives September 15.
Wizards of the Coast revealed the new storyline during a press briefing Monday. By all measurements, D&D is bigger than it’s ever been before in its 45-year history. Franchise VP Nathan Stewart confirmed that this is the role-playing game’s best year yet, noting that it’s even more popular internationally than ever before. And earlier this year, StreamElements (a company that measures livestreaming and provides livestreaming products) told GamesBeat that D&D actual play shows had an aggregated 19.5 million hours over Twitch and YouTube in 2019, a 1,142% increase over 2018. With folks at home sheltering in place because of the coronavirus, we’ve seen huge upticks of play on virtual tabletops such as Fantasy Grounds and Roll20.
“It’s about secrets, so I can’t tell you anything,” D&D principal writer Chris Perkins said at the beginning of the briefing, to a round of laughs.
And then he went on to tell us some secrets. Rime of the Frostmaiden takes place in Icewind Dale, and it’s a story about horror and secrets. It takes characters from 1st level to about 12th level. The design team took inspiration from tales such as The Shining and The Thing. This isn’t the first 5th Edition D&D storyline to feature frights — 2016’s Curse of Strahd is a gothic-horror story. D&D’s last published adventure in Icewind Dale was 2013’s Legacy of the Crystal Shard, which was part of the playtest for the 5th Edition.
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“Unlike gothic horror, this story focuses more on mind horror,” Perkins said. “It’s got ice in the veins, adventure best served cold.”
Rime of the Frostmaiden features Ten-Towns (the group of communities that cluster around three lakes in Icewind Dale and play the role of “civilization” in the Frozen North), the Rehged barbarian tribes on the tundra, and the importance of all these beings (and more) coming together to solve the key mystery. Perkins said over email that this adventure can take place before or after Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, the current storyline.
“The problem is that winter doesn’t seem to be ending. It’s cold and dark, a cold, dark, frightening place, and someone needs to do something about it, or life as we know it in Icewind Dale will cease to exist,” Perkins said.
Which sounds dandy for the Frostmaiden.
Who is the Frostmaiden?
Though Perkins didn’t mention the being’s name during the presentation, the Frostmaiden is a “very, very powerful entity. Some would call her a god who essentially embodies nature’s wrath and cruelty. She has long been associated with Icewind Dale, and people both fear and revere her.” This sure sounds like Auril, the Forgotten Realms’ deity whose portfolio includes winter — in particular, the cruelty, power, and wrath of cold. And Perkins confirmed this in a followup email.
“After the Sundering helped reset the world of the Forgotten Realms, most of the gods took a step back, leaving mortals to control their own destinies. Auril is a bit different. She has broken away from the others and made her presence felt for reasons that are explained in the adventure,” Perkins said. “She’s a force to be reckoned with, and how the characters deal with her will determine Icewind Dale’s future.”
In her descriptions in previous editions of D&D, Auril has always been noted as a god people pray to more to appease her than through any love for her (though she does have her adherents, such as Lysan from the 2000’s Icewind Dale PC role-playing game). Auril’s most recent mention in 5E is in Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage — Halaster can summon her daughter.
These secrets factor into character creation as well. This adds some intrigue, mystery, and maybe even friction for the players, as they can decide to share their secrets or keep them to themselves. They can use print-out cards with these secrets.
“I think the most interesting part [of Rime of the Frostmaiden] is the character secrets,” Perkins said. “Characters can play it one of two ways. They can keep their secret close to their chest and not reveal it to the other players, fostering and breeding paranoia, or they can reveal it anytime they want to, and then wrestle with the consequences of it. That’s left entirely up to the players.”
Secrets fit well into Icewind Dale. Most D&D fans’ first introduction to Icewind Dale is from the 1988 R.A. Salvatore novel The Crystal Shard, and it showed the role secrets play in that region. The Frozen North welcomes those folks running from trouble. Regis of The Companions of the Hall lives in Icewind Dale for this very reason. Many folks there have things to hide, some benign, some terrifying, and the secrets players get at the beginning reflect this.
When Perkins started talking about horror and secrets during the presentation, my mind first went to The Thing, the seminal John Carpenter horror flick from 1982. It’s a fitting inspiration for what Perkins and crew laid out.
“The Thing is a story about an isolated group of people dealing with a monster in their midst, and much of the movie takes place at night. If you take that idea and apply it to a D&D campaign, there’s lot of potential there,” he said over email. “When your setting is a cold, dark, isolated place, the horror comes easily. I was struck by the fact that our previous excursions to Icewind Dale didn’t really lean in that direction, so here was a chance to show Icewind Dale in a different light.”
Icewind Dale comes up frequently in D&D. It’s appeared in adventures, video games, and novels. The fandom has a great deal of affection for it. But some folks may be wanting to learn about a new part of the Realms, or at least someplace that doesn’t get as much attention. I asked Wizards why it decided to head back to the Frozen North.
Turns out part of the reason has to do with a video game.
“We weren’t planning to return to Icewind Dale so soon, but as Dark Alliance began to crystallize, we realized that there were interesting new stories we could tell in this setting,” Perkins said over email. “We wouldn’t have returned to Icewind Dale if we didn’t have what we thought was an exciting story to tell.”
I also asked how the design team reconciles the need to satisfy those who want to go to places they know and love from video games, board games, and stories with those who want new places to explore.
“Across our whole line of books, we try to give fans what they want,” Perkins said over email. “Certain books are more likely to tap into nostalgia and revisit old settings than others. We also know that we’re gaining tons of new fans who aren’t familiar with our settings. To them, it’s all new.”
We’re seeing more discussion online on how D&D, creators, and players approach humanoids such as orcs and goblins, who have been long portrayed as evil monsters and not people. In a recent Twitter thread, D&D principal rules designer Jeremy Crawford addressed the alignments and treatments of humanoids. He said in the thread: “The NPC appendix of the Monster Manual reflects our intent for all humanoids: they can be any alignment. We are making the rest of our stat blocks reflect that intent going forward.”
I asked Wizards over email if Rime of the Frostmaiden reflects this with orcs (and with drow), as we’ve seen in the most recent sourcebook, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.
“Orcs are not prevalent in the adventure, but Rime of the Frostmaiden does feature other creatures that are currently defined in the game as humanoids. Some cleave to a particular alignment, while others defy expectation. We’re of a mind that humanoid creatures, going forward, shouldn’t have prescribed alignments; alignment belongs to each individual. To that end, there’s a new kobold stat block in Rime of the Frostmaiden that identifies the creature as a humanoid of any alignment, which is a departure from the kobolds in the Monster Manual,” he said.
Yesterday, Wizards posted a message about this, reflecting what Perkins shared. “We present orcs and drow in a new light in two of our most recent books, Eberron: Rising from the Last War and Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. In those books, orcs and drow are just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples. We will continue that approach in future books, portraying all the peoples of D&D in relatable ways and making it clear that they are as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do,” the post reads.
A century later
Rime of the Frostmaiden will be similar to Curse of Strahd beyond the horror and secrets. Perkins said it should provide you with everything you need to run adventures and campaigns in this region, as Wizards of the Coast did with Curse of Strahd. It’ll have references to exploits of Drizzt Do’Urden — he said no one has forgotten about him — despite taking place a century after the exploits of the famed Companions of the Hall.
Of course, this adventure isn’t the only upcoming D&D product set in Icewind Dale. Tuque Games’ Dark Alliance is also set there, though it’s a century in the past. I wondered if there would be any ties with Dark Alliance and Rime of the Frostmaiden.
“The Dark Alliance game takes place in the past in terms to its relationship to this story, Rime of the Frostmaiden. That said, we sat down with narrative designers for Dark Alliance, and we basically opened up a toy box, pulled out all the toys, and figured out how we were going to play with same toys. And so, there are places and foes and places that appear in Rime of the Frostmaiden that if you play Dark Alliance, see echoes of/similarities to,” Perkins said. “Each story is separate — the story of Rime of the Frost Maiden is completely separate from Dark Alliance, just using same locations. You get a sense of real history to this place, and that scary mountain there, you went up in Rime of the Frostmaiden, you can actually go under that mountain in Dark Alliance. We didn’t tread on each other too much. Together, when you take the two things combined, you get bigger painting of Icewind Dale.
“It was a good process for us because it didn’t narratively hamstring either of us. … The narrative designers didn’t have any problems playing with the characters they thought were important to the story. I thought that process worked out very well.”
In a followup email, I asked if it’s important for the design team to create campaigns that go along with video games, such as Dark Alliance or Baldur’s Gate III.
“It’s more important to some folks than others. On the one hand, it fosters unity between Wizards and its outside partners, and that unity gives fans a chance to experience our campaigns across multiple platforms,” Perkins said. “On the other hand, it’s a bit like putting all our eggs in one basket. What’s important to me is that the collaboration works and is handled thoughtfully, and that no one feels creatively hamstrung by the parallel development.”
Executive producer for Dungeons & Dragons Ray Winninger said that Rime of the Frostmaiden would also contain Easter eggs from past books, like the work he did on giants in the Forgotten Realms years ago (such as the 1995 book Giantcraft).
Another major force that’s shaped recent Icewind Dale history is Crenshinibon, the Crystal Shard. It was the major villain in the first set of novels that Salvatore set in the region, and it’s popped up since then as well. It gets a mention here, too.
“Our Icewind Dale adventure takes place more than a century after the events of The Crystal Shard, and although Crenshinibon doesn’t figure prominently in our story, its presence is felt throughout,” Perkins said. “One of the villains in the adventure collects fragments of the Crystal Shard, which, of course, Crenshinibon created.”
The Companions of the Hall appear more as historical figures in this story.
Rime of the Frostmaiden also reflects feedback fans have given Wizards of the Coast when it comes to the design of their campaign books. This will incorporate lessons learned from 2019’s Essentials Kit, which makes running adventures and campaigns easier for Dungeon Masters, with less advance preparation needed.
“One of the things I love about the structure of this adventure and also in how it represents Icewind Dale is that it uses a very clear quest structure,” Crawford said. “Anyone who’s seen the Essentials Kit, where we give you a number of quests that the adventuring group can choose to go on, each of those quests can then stand as a mini-adventure. That structure we have in the Essentials Kit is present here.”
What does this mean?
“Unlike some of our other large, epic stories, if you’d like to kind of shave it up into smaller adventures, it is super-easy to do that with this book,” Crawford said. You’ll be able to take one of these smaller quests, play it, and then see if you want to play more or do something else before coming back to Icewind Dale.
“It also lets you experience bits of the Icewind Dale setting … in very manageable chunks. Rather than us firehosing you — here we are, firehosing you with water that would instantly turn you into ice — with information, instead we invite you to step into each of these quests and experience what’s going on in this far-flung part of the Forgotten Realms.”
Creating adventures in this manner seems like a way for the D&D design team to open up how it approaches these big campaign books and make them more approachable. I asked over email if this signifies a change going forward.
“Hard to say. Once the new adventure is released and people start playing it, we’ll let their experiences and feedback guide us as we work on future campaigns,” Perkins said. “We know fans liked the substance and structure of the D&D Essentials Kit. If they feel the same way about Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, we’ll probably see similar structures underlying our campaigns in the future.”
And in addition to having a bunch of monsters — how about a snow-themed owlbear? — Crawford noted that Rime of the Frostmaiden will also include rules for running avalanches, survival in a brutal climate, fishing for knucklehead trout (it’ll be one of the mini-games), and more.
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