Saturday, 21 December 2013

Review: “Frozen Whispers” by James Jacobs

James Jacobs was already associate editor on Paizo's run of Dragon Magazine when he contributed to Wizards' free “Original Adventures” series for D&D 3.5. I understand that he's gone on to play a more prominent role in Paizo's “Adventure Path” development, so it was with no small amount of interest that I cracked open Frozen Whispers. Although this module showcases material from outside of the core books, the module does not require anything more than the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual to run. Although here is a rules clash between what is presented in Frozen Whispers and the Pathfinder game, I don't think it poses a serious conversion problem.  Frozen Whispers is not currently available for purchase.

This is an extremely short module. It's a nine page .pdf with two full page colour maps, and the adventure description proper (including the maps) doesn't start until page 3. While the maps are attractive enough, I'm not convinced that either of them is actually necessary for the adventure as written, while the overland map that was left out – supposedly to help the DM with conversion to their campaign – is a serious omission.

I rather liked the adventure background. It was short (everything in this module is), flavourful and direct. Jacobs lays out the scene of mortal greed and supernatural horror in the frozen north without getting bogged down in minutiae. There's no civilized or semi-civilized centre in which the PCs to prepare themselves, just a trail through the lonely woods and the weight of the snow. Frozen Whispers recommends that the party be drawn to the area on some other business to preserve its surprises, and that's a fair approach.

A beautiful place to die.

Unfortunately, there's no follow-through.  Jacobs drops a few hints about drawing up a random monster table, but it's not part of his “event-based” adventure. Yes, those are scare-quotes: these events are not tied to a calendar but instead take place whenever the PCs reach certain places on the map that was not provided. I know this kind of design is common, but it's quite unsettling to think of a reality in which events hang suspended until exactly the right people come across them. Of these events, three could loosely be described as combat encounters. The first is a cross between a joke and a “plot this way” arrow while the second is feeble but admitted to be such by the designer.

The final encounter has contradictory instructions, so I'm not really sure if it's meant to be picking off the party one-by-one or making a stand against them. In the former case, the encounter is tremendously difficult and the party has no chance of victory. In the latter, their success depends largely on having the right Knowledge skill and being fairly lucky on the permitted checks – without that information (which isn't really granted in the module) the party is going to be sent packing, much the worse for wear, and harried all the way back civilisation by a powerful foe. I don't mind the idea that the PCs can face setbacks, but this hangs too much on one method for solving the problem. Nor am I against adventures that involve the party unleashing forces beyond their ability to control - but Frozen Whispers just pushes them into the wrong place at the wrong time.

My rating is 1/5. This isn't an adventure, it's an encounter – and, for the reasons stated above, it's not a great one. The only reason Frozen Whispers doesn't get a 0 is that I can see this material being included, without substantial re-writing, in a good wilderness adventure.