I always loved the R.A. Salvatore stories of Bruenor and Drizzt in Icewind Dale. At the game store one day, I saw a new campaign module for Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. It was at that moment that I knew that I would run this campaign. It was time to get back into the DM’s chair.
It’s been several years since I have played Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). I started playing the game as a teenager and continued as a young adult, so slipping back into the comfortable chair of being the Dungeon Master (DM) for a game did not seem too daunting. Then I opened the book and found a massively open ended campaign with 12 starting quests, 10 starting locations, and a leveling system that I have never considered. Getting this thing started was going to be harder then I anticipated.
Let’s dive into the decisions I made to help kick off this D&D campaign!
Open World with Many Choices for a Beginning
Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden features so many possibilities on how to start the campaign. The campaign starts your adventurers in one of the Ten Towns, a small rural group of ten frontier settlements in a frigid northern setting. Each of these towns has their own, included, starting quest. Adding to that, there are two starting quests that you can use and launch from any starting locations. This gives you many options for kicking off the campaign.
Reviewing the various starting quests, you begin to realize that some of the towns quests are more difficult than others. Difficult to the point that you could have a Total Party Kill (TPK) on your hands with your Level 1 Player Characters (PCs). In fact, one of the starting quests that is intended for an alternate starting quest, Cold Hearted Killer, has some serious risk for TPK.
Given so many options, I chose to start my characters in Bryn Shander. This works very well from a narrative point of view. Bryn Shander is the sole settlement that does border on a lake, is the trade center, and is as the largest settlement in the area. In addition, the Bryn Shander starting quest, Foaming Mugs, is a fairly light quest that is easy to scale. making it perfect for Level 1 characters.
Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden does an excellent job of giving you some key locations in each of the Ten Towns. What’s even better is that they leave you plenty of room to be creative and give things your own flavor to fit the narrative you are tellingl. In Bryn Shander, there is an inn with a talking fish called The Northlook. This is where I choose to have our PCs start their quest and gather.
Now of course, this gave me a classic start to D&D. There’s nothing wrong with starting your players in a tavern, but I had wanted to try something different and just didn’t pull it off. During our planning session, referred to as Session 0, we broke the party into two groups. By putting them at the same establishment, then offering the first quest to the larger group, I was pretty sure that I could bring the two groups together and encourage them to form a party.
This decision left me in a position of needing to flesh out The Northlook a bit more. First thing to go, at least in my narrative description, was the talking fish on the wall. Besides feeling a bit silly, I also did not feel it went well with the narrative. Nothing in my description to the players cut it out completely, so it’s easy to add back in the future.
Next thing to flesh out was the proprietor and the staff of The Northlook. I don’t know for sure, but I can see this location becoming a place where the PCs spend quite a bit of time so I wanted to give it some more meaning. An easy technique for fleshing out your NPCs (non-player characters) is to theme them after pop culture characters. It provides you a reference point that helps improvise behavior and motivation.
The Proprietor and Barmaid
For the proprietor, a human former adventurer called Scramsax, I chose to embody Mac, the bartender from McAlley’s bar in the The Dresden Files books. Mac is a man of few words who makes a great steak sandwich and brews his own beer (that should be served warm). His background stays a mystery and is not talked about unless there is a significant trust and the need arises. Using this as the basis of his character, I chose to drop the food and beer choices, as neither would be plentiful in Icewind Dale. Additionally, keeping the mystery about him allows me to change the character as needed and tie him into future adventures as I need.
Since Scramsax was going to be a character that the players would not interact with much, I needed to give the tavern an NPC that the players could interact with. I imagined a character like Tika Waylan from the Dragonlance books. Thus was born Molly, a bubbly scrawny teenage girl that was taken in by Scramsax and works as a barmaid. She loves the idea of adventuring and idolizes those who take up the life. As The Northlook has a large number of adventurers stop and stay at it, she is the perfect counter character to the proprietor.
I choose to get this campaign started by putting choices in my players hands. I figured they would take up the quests as I gave them, but there was no way to be sure. Giving player characters the option for choices, they feel more engaged and in control of their destiny. Something that, particularly with low level games, can be difficult to do!
While at The Northlook, the dwarf Hlin Trollbane introduced herself to the larger group of PCs. She offers them the Cold Hearted Killer quest to stop a serial killer in Icewind Dale. This killer has already killed three and will certainly kill more. For a large sum of cash, the players were certain to take up the offer of work. It is the first campaign hook. The idea here is that you need to set the location of the killer outside of Bryn Shander. This allows you to make the next adventure hook work. For this, I had Hlin provide them an idea of where to look.
The players did take some time exploring a few locations in Bryn Shander to try to find more information. Once they had explored their options, they encountered a group of three dwarfs who look a bit rattled. The dwarfs hail the PCs and offer the quest, Foaming Mugs, the Bryn Shander starting quest. This is the quest I would hope they would take and it certainly was presented as if the PCs needed to take action quickly. The pay wasn’t as much as the first quest, so it was a choice for them.
The Foaming Mugs Quest
The beauty with this quest is that it takes the players into the wilderness of Icewind Dale. Rather then exposing them to a number of combat encounters and challenges, it focuses on the environment. It really helps you as the DM set the stage for the environment. One that is in perpetual night with only a few hours of twilight, near constant bitter cold and winds, as well as a blizzard that tests their survival skills/ Adding to all that is an encounter with some goblins that could go many different ways.
For us, the PCs took up the quest, seeing it as more urgent. However, if your players don’t take up the quest, then you should play out some negative consequence that they hear about the next time they are at Bryn Shander. Perhaps the cost of new weapons and armor goes up 10% because the blacksmiths can’t get armor, perhaps the group that the dwarfs hired were slain by unknown means. Or maybe the dwarfs hired competitive adventurers that become adversaries the PCs need to compete against. There are a number of options for you as the DM. Options for you to take the narrative is a real blessing.
Setting the Scene
Since the players took this adventure, here’s how I set them up. The blizzard is important to try to set up a little bit with a few survival checks for the PCs to notice that the weather is changing. Let the PCs try to determine what they will do to deal with it, but do not be too harsh if you separate the group. They are only Level 1 and the final encounter is what you are building to.
The campaign itself is intended to convey a bit of a horror feeling. This feel of being alone with horrible things to be encountered reminds me of scenes from some of my favorite horror movies. The next scene in the quest will have the PCs find where the dwarfs were ambushed. The ore has been stolen, but set the scene up with the gruesome aspect of the dwarf that had been tore into by the tundra yeti. Setting this scene should make the PCs concerned when they first encounter a tundra yeti as they travel outside. Not to mention, this should make them nervous about overland travel.
The final sequence is a challenging encounter with the goblins that recovered the ore. These goblins are scavengers and aren’t necessarily willing to give their lives for this valuable treasure. Keeping this in mind, you can leverage it as a way to run the encounter. Challenge your Level 1 PCs with it, but if a goblin or two drops the goblins can easily fall back and retreat, rather than fighting a massive prolonged combat that would result in potential character deaths.
As a Dungeon Master, I am falling in love with Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. It’s open ended nature is full of possibility. Indeed, I feel that though I run these players through this campaign, I can easily change a few aspects, such as the initial quest, starting location, or some other factors and explore new possibilities.
I will give those of you who are new Dungeon Masters that this wildly open campaign is going to be a challenge to run. You have to make a number of decisions and encounters are not necessarily balanced. Locations that PCs are going to explore such as Bryn Shander, Targos, and the other Ten Towns are only lightly described. You will want to do some work to flesh these areas out. For Bryn Shander, in particular, I recommend the description in The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore in the chapter Bryn Shander. In fact, I recommend you read that book. It does a great job of helping you set the backdrop and feel for the Ten Towns.
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