Sunday, 24 August 2014

Icewind Dale: Legacy of the Crystal Shard 0 - Introduction

I have been preparing a second 4E heroic tier campaign based in Neverwinter but, aside from the opening adventure which I am really happy with, it just wasn't feeling like the sort of campaign I could use to introduce new players to tabletop RPGs, D&D4E, and the Realms.

One of the great things about a game set in Neverwinter is that the MMO that was released last year seems to be really well-supported and that means there are lots of screenshots and YouTube videos I can use to show the players what their characters are experiencing.

Old school DMs are probably wondering why I don't just describe things but, the simple fact is, I use English and that these prospective players' second language. If a picture is worth a thousand words normally, I think when you are cutting across language and cultural barriers then you can safely add one or more digits to that number.

However, something else occurred to me today: I bought The Crystal Shard as a graphic novel. 

But, before I talk about that, I thought I might address the question...

... Does the 4E Version of the Forgotten Realms Really Suck?

Mike Mearls recently announced in his patented damn-I-really-shouldn't-be-allow-to-make-public-statements-about-D&D-style that first came to our attention during the 5E playtest period (with Rodney Thompson riding to the rescue in almost every instance to actually explain what was really happening) that there were no plans for a 5E version of a campaign setting for the Forgotten Realms.

He then tried to clarify that statement by suggesting that the information might trickle out in other ways and also that maybe something might be coming but they all need a holiday first. Whatever the message was meant to be, it was garbled in a particularly Mearlsian way.

So, without a 5E version of the Realms beyond what is hinted at in the PHB and the adventures, what is a 5E DM who likes the Realms supposed to do? 

As someone who actively likes the 4E Realms I would suggest that the first question to ask is this: Does the 4E version of the Forgotten Realms really suck?

For Candlekeepers whose D&D-playing days are in the halcyon past, I can accept that it does. For RAS fans who think the Salvatorean vision of the Realms is pure and correct, I can accept that. But for DMs who are actually running games and want a familiar world to set those games in, I think the 4E version of FR is worth another look.

This probably deserves a post of its own but I just want to point to three games set in the 4E version of FR and posted on the forums involving a mini-campaign set in Icewind Dale:
I think reading those threads and looking at how the DM Acrozatarim mixed old and new Realmslore together should convince a lot of DMs that maybe the 4E version of FR is worth a second look.

Oh, and that's all a very long way of saying: this campaign is going to draw on a number of ideas that appear in Acrozatarim's games. And it's not plagiarism is you credit your source material. :)

The Crystal Shard

I have noted before on this blog and elsewhere that I am not a fan of R A Salvatore's books... except for The Crystal Shard.

There's a lot to love about The Crystal Shard, particularly the titular artefact itself. Crenshinibon itself is one of those artefacts that simply makes a DM's job easier. Forget how powerful it is: an artefact that drains power from the sun and creates a network of towers linked by portals is the sort of thing that inspires a campaign arc that almost writes itself. I must admit, running a campaign involving Crenshinibon - forget whether or not RAS's canon has destroyed it - remains on my gaming bucket list.

I must also admit, I like the basic set-up of Icewind Dale. It's remote. It's cold. It has an economy that largely makes sense. It's got a nice mix of normal creatures (crag cats, wolves), normal monsters (ogres, yeti), and plenty of room for dragons, remorhazes and similar magical beasts.

Sure, it has the horrible Salvatorean names but they are far less worse than those that appear in his later novels.

Legacy of the Crystal Shard

While I have no interest in 5E or the 5E Realms, per se, I am always interested in anything Realms-related that I can steal for my games. When WotC announced that The Sundering RSE was going to be played out in a series of five adventures (subsequently reduced to four), I was not confident that they were going to be anything but complete and utter duds.

WotC has rightly had a reputation for producing some of the worst adventures in the RPG world, in large part because 4E was launched with the edition-killing Keep on the Shadowfell and the even worse Pyramid of Shadow.

Further, the last time a major FR RSE was directly played out in the form of adventures was the Time of Troubles when the trilogy of Shadowdale, Tantras, and Waterdeep were published to show that PCs could play the part of bystanders and, um, enjoy it.

Fortunately, WotC did not screw the proverbial pooch with The Sundering adventures. In the first instance, you could almost say that they have nothing to do with The Sundering other than the logo appearing on their covers. Actually, that really is about it. 

Secondly, they're all quite good adventures but, IMO, Legacy of the Crystal Shard is the pick of the bunch.

My plan with this campaign is to use much of Legacy as the basic framework but also to include a few more direct nods to The Crystal Shard - primarily in the form of the presence of the balor Errtu - as well as chunks stolen from Acrozatarim's excellent session reports that I have linked to above. And then I plan to segue into the Demon Weave storyline from the Rise of the Underdark event. It just seems a shame to be so close to Menzoberranzan and then simply ignore the drow....

Some Background Thoughts

The Good Guys

Here Comes the Sun

I am thinking that the primary protagonist among the PCs is a cleric (or invoker) of Amaunator. While this idea is shamelessly inspired by a PC in Ice Station Zhentarim, it makes a lot of sense in the context of the campaign.

I had a lot of success a dozen or so years ago running a Netherese-era ruined monastery of Amaunator as a dungeon adventure in the mountains of the Silver Marches. It was one of the best dungeons I have ever run with a near-perfect mix of interaction, combat, and exploration and I still have my notes. It would work perfectly in Icewind Dale and I also love the basic idea of a cleric of the deity of the sun coming to a place that is so cold and trying to spread warmth.

Hopefully one of the players will jump at a chance to play such a character.

On the Run

Various source material makes reference to the fact that Icewind Dale is the sort of place that people who are running away from their past are likely to go: it's far enough away that their pasts are unlikely to catch up with them there.

And, as I am beginning the campaign in that wretched hive of scum and villainy called Luskan, I have a likely and logical origin point for such characters.

I have a few race and class combinations in mind already: half-orc slayer, changeling rogue, halfling thief, and even a pixie enchanter that is held prisoner in a cold iron birdcage by some crime lord who likes the light the tiny fey produces. (The pixie is also on the run from his royal obligations in the Feywild. It's a bit of an odd character idea for my games but it's the sort of thing that might appeal to my new players.)

The Bad Guys

In view of the banner I have created for this campaign, I am basically required to have this Chosen of Auril from Legacy of the Crystal Shard as a fairly important BBEG. And, to begin with at least, the Chosen of Auril has control, more or less, of the balor Errtu.

Beyond her, I definitely want to have orcs as the most common humanoid foe, as well as frost giants. One of the major set-piece adventures I want to run in this campaign is a 4E version of G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, probably as the capstone of the Heroic Tier. (I have noted elsewhere before on this blog that I reduce the levels of monsters in my 4E games to match their 1E hit dice. As a result, my frost giants are level 10 brutes so they are eminently suitable for an end of Heroic Tier adventure.)

And, finally, the drow are going to be involved.

A Very Rough Synopsis


The Accursed Tower is one of my favourite 2E adventures for the clever way it turns a castle into a dungeon and also for the wilderness adventure - the journey between Luskan and Icewind Dale - that precedes the dungeon crawl (and see the next section for the wilderness adventure).

Rather than simply handwaving away the start of the journey in Luskan, I thought I would use the time the PCs spend in Luskan as an opportunity to run three or so encounters so that the players can learn how combat, skills, and other facets of the game work... and maybe to emphasis to some of the players why their characters who have Luskan in their background are so desperate to leave.

I suppose it's more typical to introduce new players to D&D with a dungeon but, frankly, I prefer non-dungeon adventures in the main. That said, Luskan includes a lot of ruins, old sewers, and decrepit cemeteries so there are still opportunities to put together some small dungeon-like adventures.

I imagine I will probably begin with a press gang encounter so that the PCs can fight a group that is fairly normal and I am not yet sure where to proceed from there. I will cover that in a later post.

Into the North

Starting in Luskan is really just an excuse to justify this next part of the campaign. I have already noted that this is inspired by the journey in the The Accursed Tower adventure and I suspect I will steal several of the encounters directly from there.

One of the other things I like about running this journey as an adventure is that it allows the players to experience the mechanical changes that go along with the increasingly colder weather which is going to be good experience for the balance of the campaign in Icewind Dale when the mechnical impact of weather is going to be an important part of the game.

I have also done a little bit of research about the locations en route. FR1 Waterdeep & The North reveals this about the Iceflow River:

This, chilling, fast-rushing river thunders down out of the icy interior of the northern arm of the Sword Coast. It is not navigable by any normal means. Its waters are just above freezing, and travel at terrifying speed down through a great ice gorge.

In spring and high summer, great slabs of ice break off the gorge walls and fall into the waters, shattering with the force of a triple-strength ice storm as they spray the vicinity with boulders of broken ice. These chunks of ice are then swept down the gorge and out to sea, to drift south amid the great icebergs from the Sea of Moving Ice.

Remorhaz are known to lair in the vicinity, and great horrors known as “ice spiders” or snow spiders have also been encountered here. Human prospectors who made it back found no rich ores in what they could reach of the walls, but there are persistent rumours of ancient ruins and buried riches in secret places in the gorge.
I really want to do this description justice and make sure that whatever happens during the course of crossing of the Iceflow River is a major set-piece battle ideally including combat on fast-moving floating slabs of ice.

Also, in the course of passing through the Spine of the World and entering Icewind Dale itself, I am thinking that an encounter with a level-appropriate white dragon would be ideal. Story-wise, this dragon will have been menacing trade and so, if the PCs turn up in Brym Shander with evidence of slaying the dragon, they may begin their time in Icewind Dale as heroes and celebrated dragon-slayers!
Into the Sandbox

I really want Icewind Dale itself to feel very much like a sandbox.

The basic plot will revolve around black ice (this is the magical residue of the collapsed towers created by Crenshinibon mixed with normal ice and forms a key part of the published Legacy of the Crystal Shard adventure) and how it can be used to power certain rituals.

My initial thoughts are that the Chosen of Auril is behind this but the ritual itself is being performed by the frost giants. Because of its connection to the Crystal Shard, black ice has a powerful effect on the balor Errtu and the Chosen of Auril (she has no name yet as I am still mulling over some backstory for her) has used black ice to fuel the summoning and binding of the balor.

She has forced the balor to unite bands of orc renegades from the Kingdom of Many-Arrows to gather black ice and generally make a nuisance of themselves across the Dale. They also deliver the black ice to the frost giants (probably on Reghed Glacier) where they perform a grand ritual to unleash a Fimbulwinter firstly across Icewind Dale and then across all of Faerûn.

Unfortunately for the Chosen of Auril, her bindings don't negate the control that Lolth has over the balor and Errtu has been corrupting the Fimbulwinter ritual so that it actually serves to help create the Demon Weave. And that becomes the logical segue into the presence of the drow and a possible Paragon Tier mini-campaign that concludes in Menzoberranzan.

TL;DR: Black ice is being used to fuel a ritual to create eternal winter. Uncover the plot. Stop the ritual. Slay the giants in the glacial rift. Defeat the Chosen of Auril. Oh no, what are the drow doing here?

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