Winter Eternal (OSR) (Patreon Request)
So, this adventure clocks in at 20 pages, with the first page also containing some basics and the editorial.
This was moved up in my reviewing queue due to a patreon supporter requesting that I cover it. This review is based on the full-color, saddle-stitched softcover of the adventure. I do not own the pdf-version.
First of all: The name is used with the express permission of the copyright holders of the setting of the same name. Rules-wise, this is designated as an adventure for 3-6 characters of 3rd to 4th level, using the OSRIC rules as the default. As often with OSR-supplements, conversion to other rules systems is relatively painless, particularly so in this instance.
It should also be noted that this is a Lands of Lunacy adventure – in case you don’t own that supplement, let me give you a brief run down: There is the primeval chaos, and from it, there spawn small domains, not unlike Ravenloft, in which entities feast upon the sanity of those trapped within. In many ways, this is a fantasy-focused notion of the Ravenloft-concept, and it is a clever one – I genuinely like the whole Lands of Lunacy angle, as its focus on the fantastic, instead of gothic horror, means that sudden intrusion upon the usual campaign setting, stints in said domains, ultimately feel organic and painless. The Lands of Lunacy provide carte blanche for the GM to insert different themes at a moment’s notice. Is the player missing, for whom you wrote this amazing bit of story? Just insert one of these adventures. So yeah, you can insert this at a moment’s notice without disrupting the flow of the game.
In the case of Winter Eternal, I recommend that you group should have at least one cleric or similar character carrying a holy symbol – while this is no requirement per se, the module feels more personal if such a character is present. There is another important note for the purpose of this review: While this is structurally and even thematically akin to Ravenloft adventures in a certain way, it is bereft of the whole ironic punishment angle; it does not seek to portray a story of tragic character flaws undoing the adversaries, and there is no symbolic charging of the leitmotifs here. If you expect that sort of thing, or have been conditioned to expect the like, like I was, you might be disappointed by the pretty straightforward villain and narrative. Then again, my love for Ravenloft stems from the latter offerings for the setting, particularly the material penned by the Arthaus team, the Kargatane and the Fraternity of Shadows, who have been doing a tremendous job keeping the spirit alive – in flavor, if not in mechanics, which have traditionally been capital letters BAD for Ravenloft. Neither the early offerings, not the imho despicable “Escape from Castle Ravenloft” and similar books really understood the motifs of the setting. As such, this could be likened to early offerings such as “Ship of Horrors” or “Feast of Goblyns”, which, while featuring tangentially creepy themes and tragedies, had not yet established a firm hold on the principles of sadistic irony that make the setting so exceedingly compelling for me. Why include this tangent? Because I won’t rate this as a Ravenloft-esque adventure, instead trying to rate this as the fantasy adventure it is – it is important to approach this with the proper mindset.
The module does come with a 9-entry table of afflictions for the domain featured within, as well as a character sheet that sports means to fill in sanity etc. – though it should be noted once more that you can easily ignore the whole Lands of Lunacy angle and instead make magic the culprit for this module. The sanity mechanics are explained in brief, and the module sports Wall of Fog as a new illusionist spell. As a nitpick – this does not sport the further classification regarding school – you won’t find e.g. phantasmal conjuration under the sepll’s name, but this does not impede the functionality of the adventure. Additionally, we have two magic items – boots of the northlands make traversal of the snow-choked landscapes easier, while the bow of shards generates ice arrows. Both of these items are not exactly mind-blowing, but solidly-executed as a whole.
On a formatting level, it should be noted that the module does not adhere to OSRIC’s formatting conventions, in that magic items or spells are not put in italics in the text; you might not be bothered by “Stinking Cloud Spell” in the text, but the OCD guy in me (and plenty of my readers) might be bothered by this. The presentation of the new monsters does something right, though: It takes a cue out of the playbook of 5e and e.g. Gavin Norman’s excellent Old-School Essentials revival of the B/X-rules and codifies the abilities of the monsters and adversaries by first putting a bold header, then listing the ability in question. This makes parsing them much more comfortable – so kudos there. Alas, the movement rates are off big time for OSRIC: There seems to be a zero missing, as OSRIC has an unencumbered base movement standard of 120 ft./round (OSRIC SRD, pg 123), and the statblocks of the module note e.g. “12” here (for 12 10 x10 ft. squares, indubitably) – it’s not a dealbreaker, but less experienced GMs might end up being confused by that. OSRIC also spells out the size (e.g. “Large”) whereas the module e.g. uses the shorthands like “M” for Medium. These are not grand issues, mind you, but I still consider them to be minor hiccups that might have been avoided easily. Interesting: One monster uses the grapple rules (Correctly, I might add!), and there are a couple of instances of roll-under ability score checks – unlike in some of the bad OSRIC modules out there, these make sense in their implementation.
In short: As far as formal criteria are concerned, this is the most refined of the Fail Squad Games-modules I’ve covered so far; while it could have used an editing pass to make the formal criteria more refined, there are no issues regarding how the material actually works. The module provides boxed read-aloud text, but e.g. NPC-interactions sometimes sport quotes in the regular text. As for difficulty, I consider this to be an adventure of medium difficulty: If the environmental rules are concisely implemented, it can be a pretty challenging experience, particularly if the party is used to muderhoboing everything, which is a bad idea here.
All right, and this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Great! So, the angle is simple – the PCs find a snowglobe, and are sucked into it – it is a gate to the Lands of Lunacy. Since time etc. is fluid and chaotic, the module could happen in the blink of an eye, making it possible to insert this pretty much anywhere. The area of play, thus, is the snow globe’s wintry inside – a cold and desolate, circular area, ringed by massive trees. In the middle of the area, there is a lavishly-illustrated tower of ice in the midst of a field of ice.
Immediately upon arriving in this area, the master of the domain, a winter wight named Maldin, is made aware of the party, and sends forth unseen servants to attempt to steal a holy symbol from the group, and indeed, from ice mephitis to circling crows, a sense of harsh cold suffuses everything. At one point, Maldin might well manifest as an illusion, commanding the bearer of the symbol to swim through the icy cold….a rather fatal proposal. Crossing the unstable ice is btw. done via 3 Dexterity checks – or, as explicitly noted, via clever problem-solving, which was something I enjoyed seeing.
Considering how lethal temperatures and cold water are, there is a decent chance that the party will need to find shelter – and indeed, there is a hidden sanctuary haunted by spirits and undead, where Maldin’s victims remain. This entire little dungeon is optional, and one of the strongest aspects of the module: It sports its own random encounter table, which focuses on atmosphere, and from a steam elemental to undead sentries, clever and respectful PCs can not only find a healing pool of life-giving warmth, they can also avoid combat by being smart. This humble little dungeon oozes atmosphere – also thanks to the copious amounts of illustrations.
The main goal is simple – reach the spire of ice, confront Maldin, destroy his version of the snowglobe, and leave; Maldin, for his part, seeks to use a holy symbol to execute a special ritual to return his deceased love back to life – a lifelike statue of the fair lady may be found inside the tower. Maldin, alas, is doomed to fail – should he succeed, he’ll instead make her a horrid winter wight like himself, which will ultimately prove to be his undoing. Either way, in order to escape, the party will need to defeat all winter wights and destroy Maldin’s version of the snowglobe – preferably without freezing to death or being buried alive in the spire, for eliminating the realms’ master or globe will initiate the time-honored collapse.
Editing and formatting are okay on a formal and rules-language level; there are several formal deviations here, but for the most part, the rules-relevant aspects remain consistent and don’t negatively impact the ability to run this adventure. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard, with white-blue trees at the bottom and top of the page; in particular, the artworks deserve special mention: All but one page of the main module herein sport at least one gorgeous, original full-color artwork by Lloyd Metcalf and Raven Winter Metcalf – this is a gorgeous module, and the artworks really add to the experience – I’d have loved to have 1-page handout versions, though. As for the maps, both the overall area and the optional complex are a top-down full-color maps, and the spire is an isometric full-color map. I really enjoyed these as well, though the lack of player-friendly maps is a strike against the module. I can’t comment on the merits or lack thereof of the electronic version. The print version is, as noted, a rather nice booklet.
Lloyd Metcalf’s “Winter Eternal” is an interesting adventure, in that is makes for a very smooth and streamlined sidetrek that manages to achieve a surprisingly well-crafted atmosphere of cold; it plays more like a survival module than many comparable adventures – and, paradoxically, it works better for people not as immersed in Ravenloft’s aesthetics as I am. I couldn’t help but search for symbolism, direct or indirect correlations between NPCs and area, for this sense of cruel, cosmic irony. Their absence here, are not a bug, but a feature – a conscious decision bred from the Lands of Lunacy simply being something else. So yeah, in spite of the POTENTIAL for being used in a Ravenloft-esque manner, this module does go another way, .
If you can find it in you to judge this module for what it is, and not for what you might want it to be, you’re left with a well-crafted fantasy yarn of survival in a hostile environment, with a focus that rests more on player skill than just good rolls. It is the most refined of the Fail Squad Games modules I’ve reviewed so far, and an adventure that I can recommend, provided you can live with the aforementioned minor formatting snafus. My final verdict will hence clock in at 3.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.
You can purchase this module here in print on Fail Squad Games’ shop!
The pdf-version may be found here on Fail Squad Games’ shop!
If you’ve missed the cool Lands of Lunacy book, you can find it here!
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