Into the Wintery Gale: Wrath of the Jötunn
This massive mega-adventure/sourcebook clocks in at 199 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages panorama/art-showcases of the front cover sans logo etc., 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, 2 page KS-thanks, 1 page encounter contributors, 1 page rune-design sheet (more on that later), 1 page back cover, leaving us with 187 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Okay, so this module takes place in the Vikmordere Valley on the planet of Aventyr – in case you’re not familiar with the culture, let me give you a brief run-down: Picture a blending of the cultures of Native Americans and Vikings. Sounds badass? It is! One of the biggest strengths of AAW Games’ early offerings is the establishment of this culture, of depicting it in a way that is plausible, that feels real and yet fantastic and different. It is, at this point, no secret that I adore the Vikmordere as a concept. In this book, we take a look at their home, the majestic Vikmordere valley around serpent lake. In fact, a significant part of this book can be considered to be a sourcebook of life and survival in this region – there are really cool rules for 3-step hypothermia and frostbite that add the survivalist aspect for groups that enjoy a challenge in that vein – they are simple, yet rewarding and make seeking shelter, exposure etc. a significant aspect of the game. Big plus for these tundra survival rules. In these, e.g. Vikmordere winter outfits (completely described and explained), rations, boneskates and frossenpine (a wooden pole used to catapult iceskaters along), bear paws – the basic set-up is great.
Beyond that, we get an amazing table that lists all traveling distances from place to place – really comfortable for the GM and something we only see rarely in modules for the more modern systems. Now, I called this both an adventure and a setting sourcebook – there is a reason for that. You see, there are two magical hazards that render this massive adventure more of a challenge – the ice fog and the wintery gale: Ammo is swept by the winds, teleportation is cursed and snow-blindness due to whiteouts is a deadly threat. On the lake, sentient icebergs (!!) make for a fantastic, yet amazing “trap” – more of a skill challenge than just a simple trap or haunt, but yeah – hunting icebergs? Come on, that is amazing and oozes fantastic North from every pore, right? The book also features MASSIVE random encounter tables, with full stats of the creatures included for your convenience.
And there are special events. 30, to be more precise. These were sourced from the contributing backers and are thoroughly creative and diverse: Stalking yetis, dazzling ice rifts, bridges across chasms, where the gale is funneled into the depths, wells inhabited by Brunnmigi, hobbled hunters, ice trolls in a feud with the Vikmordere who actually want the conflict resolved, strange shrooms that bury into the unconscious to animate them, white wyrm riders – the encounters are GOLD and feel, very much, like the notes that you can read in an old-school hexcrawl – not exactly lavishly detailed, but thoroughly inspiring.
Now, there is an issue that particularly inexperienced GMs running a hexcrawl will be all too familiar with: How many descriptions of a landscape can you create before it gets dull? How many different ways do you know to describe an icy tundra? New school modules tend to deal with the requirement for lavish descriptions via read-aloud text, but that usually only works within the context of a linear structure, not a sandbox. The rebuttal to this problem that this massive sandbox provides is glorious in its simplicity and something I honestly expect to see from comparable modules from this point onwards. The solution is, simply, descriptions. Grouped by area. Open tundra, mountain base, mountain pass, glacier – all types of arctic environments featured herein come with a TON of glorious prose-descriptions for the wilderness. More than 16 pages, to be more precise. These descriptions really help to maintain the atmosphere, are easily scavenged and make sense in a ton of ways.
Which brings me to my central thesis regarding the analysis of this adventure: This is a blending of both old-school and new-school design aesthetics; the wilderness sections behave like an easy to customize point-crawl, driven by plot, but lavish in its freedom within the traveling experience. At the same time, both highly detailed adventure hooks, read-aloud texts etc. provide an engaging plot.
Okay, at this point, I need to start going into the details of the plot, so from here on out, the SPOILERS reign. The wintery gale will take intrepid players that read any further! Skip to the conclusion or incur the icy wrath!
All right, only GMs around? Great! We begin with potent symbolism – the PCs are surprised by a horrible snowstorm, only to be visited by an ash-grey owl that tries to lead the PCs further; as the blizzard seems too potent, the owl suddenly is wreathed in flames and guides the PCs – for they are the ones chosen by the demi-goddess Ningatha. As they make their way through the relentless cold towards Völsfiheimr, she introduces the PCs to the Northern Fury Council of the Vikmordere clans. Honoring the request of the ancestral spirit, the PCs get to participate in the gathering of jarls. You see, the Ohjaslange has approached once more and a vast evil stirs – 400 years have passed since the Vikmordere last managed to defeat, by the skin of their teeth, the dread Jötunn – and now, they and the curse of their gale has returned. In order to stop the dreaded undead, immortal frost giants, the PCs will have to reclaim the ancient artifacts that once provided the tools of the downfall of the giants – the sword Vlfberht and the shield Skojold Rustning – both, however, have fallen into deep obscurity, the bloodline that once guarded them fallen into obscurity. While the PCs are celebrated if they take the richly-rewarded quest (and may certainly engage in Glima!), they will first have to pass the unsafe waters of Serpent lake to find the old witch Arurún – and bypass her giant bear.
The PCs will have a chance to learn a unique spell from the witch and even the runepaining magic of the Vikmordere – the engine is pretty solid, if not too spectacular; as a supplement for an adventure, it is solid enough and adds some serious local flavor to the proceedings. More important would be that the witch provides an amulet that helps the PCs find the resting places of the artifacts long lost – here, I should comment on something thoroughly impressive: We get GORGEOUS top-down AND isometric maps of the dungeons – and yes, player-friendly versions included. The cartography provided for this module is masterclass – Tommi Salama at his best. Beyond the aesthetic component, it is in the dungeons that contain the artifacts that the design-aesthetics become pretty old-school: We have indirect story-telling; understanding the culture and values of the Vikmordere will make the exploration easier; similarly, the dungeons themselves feel like they have been taken straight out of the good examples of the heyday of RPGs – they ooze flavor, reward smart players and the dungeons also sport puzzles – while brute-forcing them is an option, as a person, I suggest trying them out – most groups like, at least once in a while, using their brain.
Returning with legendary Vlfbehrt to the witch, the PCs will witness a grim scene – the Jötunn are on their heels, the witch slain – and now, the deadly, undying Jötunn remain – though, at this point, the PCs may not yet know about the truth behind the undying nature of the Jötunn. Without a guidance, it is a benevolent haunt, a manifestation of the guarding ancestral spirits, that the PCs will be brought to the vault wherein Skjold Rustning lies – the dungeon will once again demand that the players use both brain and brawn to survive…And yes, the Jötunn are still on their trail…
That being said, the PCs have the artifacts – so it’s time to face the Jötunn and end this! This is where the module sports one of its weaker aspects: There is a traitor in the Vikmordere’s ranks and the wielder of the artifacts is slain; in spite of the presence of mass combat rules for PFRPG, we don’t get the like – instead, we get some regular encounters before Ningatha intervenes…as, while the Vikmordere seem to win, the Jötunn’s immortality kicks in – and the vanquished giants rise. The result is a horrible rout, one that the PCs and Vikmordere only survive due to Ningatha expending almost all of her divine powers.
All seems lost, as the evil ice maidens lend their powers to the forces of the Jötunn – and the PCs will have but one final chance to stop them: Within the tomb of the ancestors, there lies the only way to reach the isle of the maidens – the magic ship called Sorrow’s Snekkja. En route, the PCs will be shipwrecked by a mighty sea serpent…and that is not where it ends. However, it takes the sacrifice of both Ningatha and the guiding Vikmordere spirit to open the doors, as the erstwhile lovers are once again united, their love a symbolic sacrifice and hope for the PCs to claim. With the stakes that high, the exploration of the tomb makes the dungeons so far look like child’s play – the PCs will have to activate the well of lost souls in this legendary complex and sail the magic ship out of the complex!
After the deadly dungeon, the PCs will finally be able to arrive at the island – where the mighty ice queen and her wyrms remain – and where the PCs will have to destroy the Wintyrsyrd, breaking the potent magics of the dread lady. If they manage to survive this ordeal, there will be but one final task that remains. Rendezvous with the Vikmordere, then lead one final, desperate assault, wherein the forces of the noble Vikmordere will cleave a path through the Jötunn forces, allowing the PCs to make their way to the dread keep of King Krumma – if they can defeat the mighty lord of the Jötunn, they may yet stop the relentless, seemingly unstoppable horde of undead giants. He’s btw. CR 24. Yeah, good luck…the PCs will damn well need it…
Editing and formatting are good, almost very good – there are a couple of instances where blank spaces etc. are missing, but not unduly many; as a whole, this book is pretty well-made in that regard. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard that is absolutely glorious – BJ Hensley and Daniel Marshall did amazing work here. The book sports a metric TON of glorious, original artwork with a uniform style – Mates Laurentiu really rocked this book; the cover by Jason rainville is similarly amazing. Cartography by Tommi Salama is AMAZING. Even better: We actually get VTT-friendly high-res versions of the maps. Master-class in the cartography department. I mean it. The electronic version comes fully bookmarked with nested, detailed bookmarks. I won the hardcover version of the book – and, frankly – if you have the choice, get the hardcover. It’s worth owning.
Justin Andrew Mason’s “Wrath of the Jötunn” seemed to be cursed; the author, at one point, lost a ton of his notes and had to recreate the saga. It is puzzling, considering this complication, that he managed to not only deliver a good mega-adventure, but a great one.
Let me elaborate: This is, in essence, a massive sandbox with a really strong narrative that resounds with themes of love, loss, glory; this feels like a larger than life tale, straight from a mythology that could have been. This module at once manages to evoke themes of old-school masterpieces, the sense of myth, the sense of plausibility and the new-school focus on a captivating narrative, with tons of read-aloud text, diverse challenges, etc. Now, personally, I was not necessarily too happy about some of the cut-scene-like sequences and how they can feel slightly too linear; at the same time, though, the book handles these in a smart way – it moves quickly in the sequences and provides the next awesome thing; the excellent prose helps the GM to navigate these slightly weaker spots in the otherwise inspired, epic narrative. Now, I would have loved for a few of the foes herein to have a few more unique tricks on their plate, but all of that is me complaining at a high level.
In the end, the exploration of the Vikmordere valley, from the inspired threats to the mythological items, the evocative dungeons – all of that makes this mega-adventure a thoroughly unique and evocative experience. The blending of new- and old-school design paradigms has been executed in a masterful manner that I absolutely loved. This may not be perfect, but it does a lot of innovative, convenient things for the GM; it is easier to run and navigate than comparable offerings; it tells a fantastic story resounding with the classic themes, adding a unique spin to the tropes. It is suffused with glorious cultural tidbits. It is a great read. The massive dressing-entries and sandboxy aspects add a further dimension of longevity to the module. In short: I adore this book. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4.5 stars (reflecting the minor imperfections), but I will round up (since this is excellent, not just good). I thoroughly LOVED this gem, which is why this gets my seal of approval. And for its blending of adventure-design-schools, for the convenience-aspects, the supplemental material, etc., for going one step beyond in pretty much all aspects, this also is nominated as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2017.
You can get this inspired mega-adventure here on OBS!
Want the bundle with the cool items and creatures etc.? You can find that one here on OBS!