A familiar locale will bring with it spine-chilling unknowns in D&D's new adventure.

Inside Dungeons & Dragons' Chilling New Adventure, Rime of the Frostmaiden

A familiar locale will bring with it spine-chilling unknowns in D&D's new adventure.
Image: Tyler Jacobson (Wizards of the Coast)

Pack your bags with as many winter clothes and things to bludgeon giants with as you can, adventurers: Wizards of the Coast has unveiled the latest adventure module for Dungeons & Dragons’ fifth edition. We’re heading off to Icewind Dale to uncover grand mysteries and sinister secrets.

Announced as part of today’s Dungeons & Dragons Live event—taking place online this year thanks to the novel coronavirus pandemic—Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden is a new adventure for D&D heroes levels 1 through 12. Set in the titular region of the Forgotten Realms made popular by one of D&D’s most iconic heroes, R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden (or the Black Isle isometric computer RPGs of the early aughts), Rime of the Frostmaiden tasks adventurers with venturing to the frigid frontiers of Ten-Towns. That’s a coalition of settlements across Icewind Dale’s icy landscape where people come to brave the harsh climates and creatures to try and start new lives for themselves.

Thanks to some new mystery-themed mechanics, your party members might be among those looking to let go of their pasts in Ten-Towns or looking to uncover the secrets of those around them in a region where it’s hard to tell just who really is wrapped up beneath all those wintry clothes. But in the process, you’ll be facing unimaginable horrors and more creatures than you can roll any number of dice at: because it’s not just the cold air of Faerun’s frozen north that’ll chill any party playing Rime of the Frostmaiden to their core.

“Unlike Gothic horror, this story focuses more on kind of a more modern horror,” Chris Perkins, Dungeon Master and D&D story designer, told gathered press recently via a live-streamed call, alongside D&D Lead Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford and Ray Winninger, executive producer of the D&D studio. “It’s got ice in the veins. It’s an adventure best served cold.”

While D&D has dabbled in horror plenty of times before, Rime of the Frostmaiden is tapping into more contemporary vibes for its inspiration—including the sort of media that inspires it, from The X-Files and The Mountains of Madness to classic genre hits like The Shining and Alien. “One of [Perkins’] big inspirations for this adventure was John Carpenter’s The Thing,” Crawford added. “I think it would be good prep work for our [Dungeon Masters] to go watch that film to really get in the mood for the wintry horror of this story.”

But while Frostmaiden will feature plenty of creatures and locales to inspire the spooky minds of DMs and players alike, a major driving element of the adventure’s fear and paranoia is a theme of secrecy. Not only is that an idea suffusing the worldbuilding, it’s one that will actually be incorporated mechanically, too, via a new optional addition to character creation.

“There are secrets in the adventure that the characters have to uncover—one of the great mysteries of the adventure is, arguably, Icewind Dale’s greatest secret, which characters can uncover,” Perkins teased, before discussing character creation’s new “secrets” option.

“You can basically use a set of print-out-yourself cards that have secrets on them and every character gets one, and the only person who knows your character secret is you. The players can play it one of two ways: they can either keep their secret close to their chest and not reveal it to the other players, thereby fostering this party paranoia,” Perkins continued. “Or they can divulge their secret anytime they want to and then wrestle with the consequences of it. But it’s left entirely up to the players.”

Not only do secrets have an impact on how a party interacts within itself, providing motivations and tensions for each adventurer, but the latent paranoia of not knowing who your adventurers can really trust is also suffused into Frostmaiden’s setting. “The idea is that everyone you meet in Icewind Dale came here for a reason and a lot of those reasons are not necessarily good,” Perkins added. “They may have been escaping because they have a criminal past. They may be fleeing some terrible event, whatever, but they want to lose themselves here—and the characters are no different. Some of the secrets [players can choose] are benign, they don’t have any real consequence to the party. Others are terrifying.”

Secret or otherwise, one major hook for Rime of the Frostmaiden is a mystery that has gripped all of Icewind Dale. “The problem is that winter doesn’t seem to be ending, and it’s cold and dark,” Perkins said of the dilemma that brings your party to the titular region. “It’s a cold, dark, scary, frightening place. And somebody needs to do something about that, or life as we know it in Icewind Dale will cease to exist.”

That mystery will bring players to Icewind Dale’s intriguing civilizations: first and foremost there’s Ten-Towns, a loosely aligned nation of, well, 10 towns across the region, focusing around the frozen lakes that run through it. But while adventurers might find themselves dealing with the politics of Ten-Towns’ different factions, there’s another group at play in Frostmaiden’s narrative that exist outside of these particular pockets of life in the icy wastes.

“There are people who live outside of [Ten-Towns], the Reghed nomads,” Perkins noted. “[They’ve] lived here since long before Ten-Towns was created back before, even when they were just camps of mountaineers and loggers. The Reghed gather in clans and move across the tundra following the reindeer herds for food, and basically eked out this kind of a wilderness lifestyle for years and years and years and years. There used to be many, many tribes of them, but now they sort of been culled to four—and they represent the those who’ve cast off the shackles of civilization [in Icewind Dale] and just want to live free.”

A party gathers, and ventures forth.
A party gathers, and ventures forth.
Image: Livia Prima (Wizards of the Coast)

As well as exploring these civilizations, players will find an Icewind Dale very different to the one they might be familiar with. After all, players have been exploring Icewind Dale in D&D’s lore for decades at this point, whether it’s in the beloved game series named after the region, or the aforementioned and equally beloved books Frostmaiden actually takes place in, in the future of all those stories. “There are kind of nods and winks to the Drizzt adventures that in terms of the timeline, happened about a century ago,” Perkins explained. “This is Icewind Dale, a century after the adventures of the Companions of the Hall [Drizzt’s legendary traveling companions], and how they kind of helped shape it. But nobody in Icewind Dale has forgotten about Drizzt Do’Urden, he is a figure of legend.”

That also means that, in terms of contemporaneous links, Frostmaiden won’t directly cross over with the upcoming revival of the action-RPG video game series Dark Alliance, which will also be set in Icewind Dale. “We sat down, myself and the narrative designers Dark Alliance, and we talked—we basically opened up a toy box together, pulled out all the toys and figured out how we’re all going to play with the same toys,” Perkins said of a potential crossover. “There are creatures and elements and places that appear in Rime, and if you play Dark Alliance, you will see echoes of similarities, too.

What Perkins hopes is that players who are familiar with the region’s past in other works will come into the “future” of Frostmaiden and find a world that already feels fleshed out and lived-in. “You sort of get a sense of there’s a real history to this place,” Perkins continued, “and that that scary mountain there, which you went up in Rime of the Frostmaiden, maybe you can actually go under that mountain in Dark Alliance. When you take the two things combined, you get an even bigger painting of Icewind Dale, and what it’s like to live there.”

What it seems like is very dangerous. As with all new D&D adventures, Rime of the Frostmaiden will bring with it a litany of new creatures, both specific to the region and that can be transposed into any other setting. Likewise, according to Crawford, there will also be mechanics related to traversing the climate of Icewind Dale that DMs can use beyond its cold borders. Although these kinds of rules for natural disasters and extreme climates have appeared elsewhere in Dungeons & Dragons’ fifth edition, Frostmaiden will expand on them in detail, especially for suitably wintry events like snowstorms, battling on ice, and avalanches. “In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, we had some rules on extreme cold, high altitude,” Crawford noted. “What we do with Rime of the Frostmaiden is take those rules and we build on them—we tell you what’s going to happen if you’re trapped in a blizzard, what happens if, heaven forbid, the mountain collapses behind you and you are trying to outrun an avalanche? Spoiler: You’re probably not going to outrun it!”

It’s not just the big-picture ideas of adventuring in a frozen landscape that Rime of the Frost Maiden details in its new rules, but right down to the very act of survival and living, not just for the denizens of Ten-Towns or the Reghed Nomads, but your adventurers as well. “We have rules on fishing for knucklehead trout, you know, because while you’re out there with the wind howling and the snow battering you, you still need food,” Crawford continued. “So we tell you how you can try hoping against hope to fish up some knucklehead trout through what is most likely a hole in the ice. So that kind of rule is in the very beginning of this book, but then also sprinkled throughout [as well] because throughout the adventure, you come up against dangers which often are not monsters, but they are the environment itself.”

“This adventure, over and over, presses the adventurers to try to beat an encounter that is the weather, that mountain collapsing, or this ice underneath our feet.”

What unknowns lie out in Icewind Dale’s blizzards?
What unknowns lie out in Icewind Dale’s blizzards?
Image: David René Christensen (Wizards of the Coast)

Of course, it’s not just dangerous environments that players will find themselves interacting with in Frostmaiden, but dangerous beings too—like the Goliaths that call Icewind Dale’s mountains home. Not only will there be plenty of them to battle, the story will delve into their society in ways no other D&D adventure has before, giving DMs rules for the Goliaths’ cultural sports and games for adventurers to participate in, but also reprinting the rules to let adventures play as them, too.

“The Goliaths are an important part of certain sections of this adventure,” Crawford teased. “We’ve even reprinted in this book everything you need to know to play a Goliath, because we feature Goliath as a playable option several times in the fifth edition, and again, because you get to visit them, you get to play their sports as well, [it was] important to also make it easy for you to make a Goliath character.”

Frostmaiden actually gave Crawford a design conundrum that didn’t just lead to those Goliath rules getting reprinted here, but actually updated: it took venturing to their chilly home for him and his team to realize Goliaths didn’t have any rules around resisting the cold. “In [Frostmaiden] we introduce that Goliaths have resistance to cold damage,” Crawford continued. “We realized that in finalizing this book that that actually was a key missing piece of Goliaths! We’ve always said that they are adapted to living in high elevations, and we suddenly realized that they are, you know, in their ancient roots. [They] grew up at the top of mountains, they need some way to not perish because of the cold weather.”

Although Rime of the Frostmaiden won’t release until later this year, to be discussing its unveiling and all this frosty setting as we get right into the sweltering summer months makes for something of a peculiarity. But its themes of isolation, fear of the unknown, and worry for the world around you found themselves resonating with Perkins and Crawford far more than they anticipated thanks to the world outside their window.

D&D Live isn’t happening as planned this year because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, an international tragedy that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and sent nations shuttering themselves indoors, isolating to try and mitigate the spread. An isolation that has seen many people turn to D&D and other roleplaying games to not just find a distraction in its fantasy, but to reach out to their distant friends even as they were all locked down indoors. “I did not foresee or have any oracular knowledge that a pandemic was going to strike and we would all be in our own self-imposed isolation,” Perkins reflected. “But I think that we are sort of dealing now with a problem that Icewind Dalers deal with every day, which is that we are isolated. How do we get by? How do we keep our sanity? And I think that’s serendipity is going to resonate [with players] on a level that was unexpected.”

But he and Crawford believe that Frostmaiden also shows players how isolated communities like those of Ten-Towns and the Regheds thrive in times of crisis with unity, even as they find themselves cut off from each other. “Unlike some of our horror inspirations [in Frostmaiden], like any great D&D adventures this one is ultimately about people coming together and working together,” Crawford added. “Because that is the lifeblood of D&D, that even when a party might have competing goals, secrets, or different motivations, at the end of the day, to overcome what’s ahead of them, they must unite.”

This sense of unity and commitment to those around you—even if, at first, you can’t particularly trust them—underlies another important theme the team behind Frostmaiden wanted to bring to the fore: a more diverse Forgotten Realms, a setting that represents the community that adventures in it more than it ever has done so before. The book deals with that in multiple ways, some more geared towards its mystery, horror-tinged themes.

“I think one of the more sort of undercurrent themes [in Frostmaiden] is the idea of loss of identity or the shedding of identity,” Perkins said. “And so a lot of the art and a lot of the descriptions [in the book] when you encounter people, if you encounter them outside, you can’t tell who they are. They’re bundled up, it could be three kobolds in a trench coat, for all you know. And what that does is it adds to the paranoia and the mystery of the setting. It’s like, ‘I don’t know what that shape is walking toward me’—it might be just a person or it might be something else like [a person].”

They weren’t kidding about those kobolds.
They weren’t kidding about those kobolds.
Image: Scott Murphy (Wizards of the Coast)

But that unknown also can be used to extol Dungeons & Dragons’ sense of community and solidarity. “One of the key things about Icewind Dale that I really gravitated toward, was this idea that many of the occupants there are immigrants,” Perkins said of Frostmaiden’s inclusionary approach to worldbuilding. “They came from all over the realms, and so there is no one type of person that has gathered there. We delve into the fact that the Reghed Nomads are an adopted family—they are this nomadic folk that includes peoples from all over the world, and people who have decided that this now is our family, and we’re going to stand together in the face of this hostile environment.”

Crawford was likewise quick to note that the art and setting details found in Rime’s adventure also underline Icewind Dale’s heart of diverse communities and peoples facing a shared trial. “As people have grown accustomed to seeing in our books, you’re going to get to see the art people of all sorts from many different backgrounds,” Crawford, himself not just an openly gay man, but a champion for diversity and LGBTQ representation at Wizards, concluded. “And then also in the story, you’re going to get to meet people and help people who reflect the wonderful diversity of people in our world.”

“One example I love that Chris put in and he basically it was a pleasant, pleasant surprise when I came through [Frostmaiden], is you get to help a scrimshander [someone, typically a sailor, who whittles handicrafts using materials gathered on their voyages] and his husband for one of those as standalone quests,” Crawford said. “We now consider this to be a core, non-optional part of our work. And I love that, basically, if you come to one of our adventures, you’re going to see a wonderful spectrum of humanity represented there.”

That spectrum of humanity’s going to need to stand together if they want to brave the cold unknowns of Icewind Dale. Rime of the Frostmaiden is set to release on September 15. To find out more about this year’s D&D Live and how you can take part in its charitable efforts with Comic Relief, check out the official D&D website.


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James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

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DISCUSSION

northernowlbear
Northern_Owlbear

Oooh that alt-cover!

Love the mystery elements.  This is going to be fun.