When I first heard about Reign of Winter, I expected it to be what I suspect most other people expected it to be: an adventure path centred around the end of the 100-year rule of Irrisen’s current queen, Elvanna, and her attempts to avoid her mother replacing her. I expected it would deal heavily with Irrisen’s conflict with the Linnorm Kingdoms and probably involve PCs who begin in the Linnorm Kingdoms. I was only partially right. It is about the end of Elvanna’s rule. Shortly after it was announced, Paizo representatives started gently letting people on their messageboards know that this adventure path is not the Irrisen AP. Rather, it’s the Baba Yaga AP, and as Baba Yaga is about a lot more than Irrisen, so is this adventure path. This is an adventure path that will go to a lot of different, unusual, and very unexpected places.
After I got over my initial surprise that the Linnorm Kingdoms wouldn’t feature at all, I began to feel very intrigued by the possibilities of Reign of Winter. It’s an ambitious adventure path, full of creative, but crazy ideas, as the forthcoming fifth part can attest to (warning: potential spoilers in that link). It’s an adventure path that could turn out to be one of the most wonderful and memorable adventure paths so far. Of course, it remains to be seen whether it can live up to that potential, but the possibility is at least there. Unfortunately, it could also turn out to be a complete disaster.
The opening adventure, The Snows of Summer by Neil Spicer is fairly tame compared to what is to come. Indeed, it’s kind of a run-of-the-mill adventure in many ways, one that starts with only a touch of the unusual, much like many adventures will start. But it gradually reveals more and more snippets of information to the PCs, slowly making them realize that what starts as a rescue mission is really much, much more. Overall, The Snows of Summer is a very good adventure—not the greatest ever, but one that should sufficiently whet the PCs’ appetites for what is to come and make them eager to save the world.
The Snows of Summer begins with a straight-forward rescue mission. Lady Argentea, a local noble, has been kidnapped and it is up to the PCs to find and rescue her. The odd thing is, the kidnapping took place near a region of unnatural winter weather (it is currently the height of summer), so the PCs need to prepare for travelling over snow and through bitterly cold weather.
Readers of my reviews will know that I can be rather picky about the openings of adventures, particularly the opening of an adventure path. This is the moment that sets the scene and tone of an entire campaign, and should be something that is memorable and hooks the players into wanting to know what comes next. The Snows of Summer starts fairly generically and the only oddity is the unusual weather—except that the unusual weather isn’t even where the PCs currently are. There isn’t a great deal to hook the players in, other than the assumption that they will be interested in investigating Lady Argentea’s kidnapping and the strange weather. This is certainly a reasonable assumption—seeking adventure is why people play the game after all—but players can be a fickle lot sometimes. The opening is also not particularly memorable; there’s not much to make it stand out from other adventure openings. One thing that I particularly dislike is that the unusual weather is already there (just in a slightly different location to the PCs’ town) and has been for several days. It would have been far more interesting if the sudden arrival of winter in the middle of summer happened during the adventure, possibly even as the opening hook. Still, it’s not a terrible opening. The PCs are presented with an intriguing mystery that they will hopefully want to solve. This is definitely a better opening than the opening of Shattered Star.
Once the PCs are on the trail of Lady Argentea, however, the adventure starts to pick up quite nicely, as the PCs enter the wintry zone. It’s a very linear adventure, but one that keeps adding intrigue to draw the PCs on to the next location on the trail. Finding and rescuing Argentea is straight-forward and happens quite early in the adventure, but by then there are already other reasons for the PCs to continue on (after seeing Argentea to safety, of course)--namely, to find out where all the cold weather is coming from.
Eventually, the PCs reach the winter portal that is the source of the freezing cold. After they defeat its guardians, the portal activates and a horseman arrives through it. This horseman is the Black Rider, one of the harbingers of Baba Yaga. From him, the PCs learn that Baba Yaga has not returned when she was supposed to and that she has completely disappeared. Queen Elvanna of Irrisen has sent servants to kill the Black Rider and his fellow riders. Only he survives, and he is near death as he speaks to the PCs. He passes on to them two keys to Baba Yaga’s famed Dancing Hut, and in the process, transfers the mantle of Black Rider to the PCs, entrusting the PCs to seek out and free Baba Yaga from whatever imprisonment Elvanna has placed her in. The PCs gain some additional power through this transfer (a boost to one ability score and the ability to bypass certain glyphs and traps set by Baba Yaga).
While this is a very dramatic moment, it is also potentially the most problematic part of the adventure. Passing on the mantle of the Black Rider also places a geas effect on the PCs, compelling them to seek Baba Yaga. If they ever turn from their quest or delay it for too long, they will begin to suffer penalties. Placing a compulsion like this on PCs is risky, especially when it’s one that will last for an entire campaign. Short-term magical compulsions can add drama and fun to a game, and a lot of players will relish the opportunity to play it out, but in the long-run, players generally don’t want to be forced along pre-determined paths. Different players have different tolerances for “railroad” adventures (adventures with a set plot or series of events that deviate only a little based on player actions), but even those with the greatest tolerance tend to prefer the illusion of choice. Being guided along a path they want to follow is very different from being told they have no choice. On the whole, The Snows of Summer (which is definitely what one would call a railroad) handles this well, guiding the PCs on to the next stop by providing them with reasons that will make them choose to go there regardless. So it seems particularly strange that this geas effect is included along with an explanation that it is there “to ensure [the PCs’] cooperation in the effort to free Baba Yaga so she can stop Elvanna and save Golarion from a never-ending ice age” (p. 34). True, many people might not like the idea of rescuing Baba Yaga, who has a reputation for being quite evil, but they should also be interested in ending the unnatural winter that has enveloped their homeland. Surely a valid reason for going on would be to stop Elvanna’s plan without rescuing Baba Yaga, and perhaps later, the PCs can learn reasons that will make them also want to release Baba Yaga. The text goes on to say that GMs can ignore the geas if they feel their players will react negatively to it or if they can trust the PCs to continue the adventure path without it. Personally, I don’t think the geas should be in the book at all. Honestly, if GMs don’t trust their players or have their players’ trust, there’s a much bigger problem than a geas spell can fix.
After gaining the mantle of the Black Rider, the PCs pass through the portal and find themselves in Irrisen where they meet a travelling merchant, Nadya Petska, who becomes a major NPC for the remainder of the adventure (and the next). They travel with her to the village of Waldsby. From there, they eventually head to the Pale Tower of the witch, Nazhena Vasilliovna, where they can close the portal between Irrisen and their home. Unfortunately, doing so also traps the PCs in Irrisen, but by this point, the PCs should want to continue after the Dancing Hut (the basis of the next adventure) and not yet be worried about returning home.
One of the things that I really like about The Snows of Summer is the diverse NPCs. The villains all have very distinct characters—and there’s quite a few of them, all working together (and some plotting against each other) against the PCs. There are very few generic monster encounters in the adventure. There are a few generic raiders early on and an encounter with a giant mantis that found its way through the portal into Irrisen, but otherwise, the vast majority of encounters are with named characters with individual personalities, from the raider Rohkar Cindren to the atomie Hommelstab and the swamp troll Teb Knotten. The characters of the Pale Tower, from guard sergeants and captains to Radosek Pavril, the final villain of the adventure, have intricate, detailed relationships. Even the guardian doll that watches over the hut near the winter portal has a fully fleshed out personality and history (powered by the soul of Thora Petska, Nadya’s young daughter). Although PCs may not get a whole lot of time to chat with these villains and learn about them, the fact that the information is there allows GMs to present characters that feel real.
The Pale Tower is also a well designed and imaginative “dungeon”. After the endless dungeons of Shattered Star, it’s really nice to have one that’s only the final step of the adventure. It’s a location where people actually live and carry out day-to-day jobs, and it’s laid out believably like such a place. But it also holds many challenges for the PC invaders. The mirror teleporters that provide access to the different levels are a particularly nice touch. These mirrors can be activated either by password or a special key, and the residents of the Pale Tower only know the passwords (or have the keys) to the areas they are individually allowed access to. I like that Radosek’s tactics very smartly have him de-activate the password to the mirror that provides access to the Ritual Chamber (where the portal can be closed). Yet not all is lost to the PCs since Radosek has also forgotten that he once gave a key to Jairess Sonn (a sylph cleric who trains the Tower’s ravens) in an unsuccessful attempt to woo her. By gaining that key, the PCs can still reach the ritual chamber and face Radosek.
Another nice touch is that the Pale Tower’s owner, Nazhena Vasilliovna is mentioned numerous times, but doesn’t actually show up in the adventure. She is away when the PCs reach the tower, so instead, they must face her apprentice (and sometimes lover), Radosek. Despite her absence, her presence is felt very strongly during the adventure, setting her up nicely as a longer-term villain to be encountered in the next adventure. And even though the PCs don’t encounter her yet, their actions in the Pale Tower create a history between them and her, and ensure that when they finally do catch up with her, Nazhena will not be pleased to see them.
The adventure’s starting location is also quite customizable. Although the PCs’ home village of Heldren has a default location in Taldor, it is made generic enough that GMs can choose to place it anywhere in the world (except Irrisen). This pretty much allows players to create PCs that are from anywhere without having to worry too much about how to fit them into the AP. It’s a nice little touch. Another fun addition is that Heldren (wherever it happens to be located) and Waldsby are connected by a ley line (thus why the portal near Waldsby opens near Heldren) and, as a result, the two towns are strangely similar. They have the same basic layout and even many of the residents of one city bear resemblances to residents of the other city. It adds just a touch of eeriness to the adventure as PCs encounter people and places who remind them of other people they know.
Following the main adventure, there are two short articles on the villages of Heldren and Waldsby. These are primarily gazetteers of the locations in each village, and don’t spend any time on describing the societies there. In the case of Heldren, this helps to let GMs place it anywhere they want. In the case of Waldsby, the adventure itself does a good job of showing what life there is like and so it doesn’t need to be repeated in the gazetteer. I found it great fun comparing the maps of the two villages and looking for the similarities and differences in the layouts.
The gazetteers are followed by the “Reign of Winter Toolkit”. This article provides background information useful to running the adventure path. For the most part, this is abbreviated information that can be found in other sources such as Irrisen, Land of Eternal Winter and People of the North, but will prove valuable for people who don’t have access to those books.
As well as the usual Bestiary and instalment of the Pathfinder Journal, there is also a two-page overview of the entire Reign of Winter adventure path, which looks to be both bizarre and unique. I hope it lives up to its promise.
Overall, I really like The Snows of Summer. The opening could be a little more memorable and I’m a little disturbed that anyone thought the geas effect was necessary to force players to comply with the plot, but otherwise this is a very good adventure. The compelling cast of NPCs allow it to grow beyond its fairly linear, railroaded plot. I look forward to the remaining instalments of Reign of Winter with great anticipation.