*** SPOILERS AHOY! ***
We’re going to be looking at the different motivations behind the main villains of Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU ARE GOING TO BE A PLAYER IN A CAMPAIGN!
Ok. Now that the warning is out of the way on with the show. As stated, this post is going to look at the different villains present in the latest D&D adventure, and try and figure out their motivations and how we as DMs can use these to inform their actions but also, and more importantly in my opinion, how we can use this to hook the players into the adventure.
I want to start by saying that while I haven’t done a review of RotF (IDRF? IDRotF? Rime? RoTFM? IDRotFM?) yet, I’m pleased with it for the most part, a few qualms aside. However, one of my main pet peeves is back: the main villain doesn’t really have a purpose except to be evil. Now in most cases this is sufficient to hook most goodwilled players into the basic premise. Auril is killing off the people of Icewind Dale by creating a never-ending winter. You don’t need to understand her deeper motivations to want to stop her.
The problem in this adventure however is that it is possible (though hard) to defeat Auril in chapter 5, meaning that getting your heroes to continue on to chapters 6 and 7 relies on them deciding to go and explore this random dungeon just because they have now found the key (and yes, there are meant to be NPC’s that are there to convince them but it’s not like they’re particularly nice NPC’s that the players are likely to be deeply invested in). This is especially odd to me given that the writers made sure to include at least two or three reasons to visit pretty much every area in Icewind Dale but then basically none for Ythryn.
So how do we change things so that the players are more invested in the end chapters? It’s time to look at our antagonists and how we can make them more alive.
Gods move in mysterious ways
An important starting point here is that our antagonists are not mortals, but gods (or as we will see later archdevils, which is basically the same thing for our purposes here). Therefore, what we are asking here is what does a god want. Now that will very much depend on how you as a GM understand the influence of gods in your game, but in my case I’m basing a lot of my principals on a collection of blog articles written about polytheist religions on A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry (first article in the collection here).
The adventure describes Auril as “a neutral evil lesser god of cold indifference who embodies winter’s cruelty”. We are also told “she’s unhappy and craves isolation. Her nightly quest to hold the sun at bay stems from a need to preserve the beauty of things by freezing them” and “there is no way to reason with a being so bereft of compassion as Auril”. I am FINE with this. Auril is the embodiment of winter’s cruelty. She doesn’t need any more motivation to try and plunge the world into an eternal winter than that, because that is what she is. We might be able to extrapolate that the residents of Icewind Dale practice sacrifices to Auril as a general practice to appease her and did so even before she created her never ending winter. They were probably not as important as currently, but for the residents of Ten Towns to believe that current sacrifices might appease her presumes some level of cultural knowledge that it did, or at least appeared to, in the past. They probably weren’t as often or as important, as desperation leads to minor innovation, but we might of expect that in the past the different villages offered up food and fuel to Auril to ask for a more clement winter. They might also have used human sacrifice, either volunteers or more likely as a form of execution for dangerous prisoners.
What it is important to know for the purpose of the adventure, is why Auril has decided to freeze Icewind Dale NOW. She is effectively immortal, and therefore not limited by any notion of time or urgency. Why not freeze the world next year? Why didn’t she do it last year? We’re told that Appendix C explains why Auril has returned to the mortal world but… well we’re not. We get some backstory and “After a world-shaking event known as the Sundering, most of the gods withdrew from Toril, leaving mortals to govern their own fates without the gods’ meddling, but the Frostmaiden could not stay away for long. Auril returned to her icy realm in the far north and, after a time, plunged it into frigid darkness using her magic”, which explains nothing about her motivations for returning.
A first explanation could be that she was displeased by Ten Towns sacrifices and decides to punish them, but this seems unlikely given that A) she hasn’t stopped despite the increase in offerings meaning that she doesn’t really seem to care about them at all and B) we are told “there is no way to reason with a being so bereft of compassion as Auril”, so again it seems unlikely that she is motivated by mortal matters (maybe the Epicureans are right in the D&D multiverse?). So, what might push her into trying to turn Icewind Dale into her own personal winter wonderland? Maybe it’s time to look at our other antagonists for a reason why?
We have two pretty big villains that play behind the scenes roles in ROFL currently: Levistus, the archdevil who rules Stygia, and Asmodeus, the Lord of the Nine Hells. These are some pretty big players on the (under)world stage and are currently present to explain the motivations of more imminent antagonists: The Knights of the Black Sword and Xardorok Sunblight leader of the local duergar, respectively. We don’t get much information about the motivations of these two in the adventure, and it would appear that it’s mainly just that devils like collecting souls, Levistus making the most of people dying in the cold to claim the souls of the desperate, and Asmodeus, well just likes impersonating other gods and screwing with people apparently. At first glance it looks mainly like these two devils are just trying to profit from the situation to claim more souls for them, and possibly inflict some general evilness on the world, but what can we do to make their interactions more interesting, and tie them into Auril’s actions.
Mordenkainen’s book of foes is a good place to start if we’re trying to figure out the motivations of these devils. Asmodaddy, being the big boss of the nine hells, doesn’t need to go about collecting souls of mortals, so he spends his time trying to catch bigger fish instead: notably demigods and the like, his latest catch being Zariel. So, we know that Asmodeus’ minions are planning to attack Ten-Towns, pulling away vital resources and adventurers from the fight to stop Auril. Could it be that he wants her to succeed? Possibly to corrupt her and draw her into the nine hells? It seems like an interesting possibility.
What about our other devil? Levistus is trapped by Asmodeus in the frozen layer of hell that is Stygia. Levistus would like to escape from this imprisonment, to finally defeat his archdevil rival Geryon (Mr. NotAppearingInThisAdventure, so we won’t dwell on him anymore here). What is in this adventure that might further this goal? Well there are the ruins of an ancient magical civilisation that can be used to both control the weather and GO BACK IN TIME. Might Levistus want to pull the whole of Icewind Dale into Stygia and claim control of the ruins to break him out of his ice prison and gain more power? It seems like the sort of thing that could motivate him. However, he probably doesn’t want Auril coming along for the ride. Last time Asmodaddy tricked a demigod (or archangel in this case) into joining the legions of devils they got control of their own level of hell. Levistus is already trying to keep control of Stygia in the face of one rival, two rivals would probably make things very problematic for him even if it could get him out of his prison.
So, both archdevils have a reason to be involved in the area, but also remain antagonistic to each other and try and foil each other’s plans. Asmodaddy doesn’t want Levistus out of prison, and Levistus doesn’t want anymore competition, but they both have a reason to try and drag Icewind Dale into the Nine Hells (and yes all of this is based on some weird physics where the Icewind Dale is pulled out of the material world into another plane as Barovia was).
Plans within plans
Now to pull all of this together.
The current optimal path for adventures in ROFLcopter from chapter 5 onwards is:
The heroes assault Auril’s fortress – Steal the Rime of the Frostmaiden but FAIL to kill Auril – Head to Ythryn in order to find a machine to change the weather and foil Auril’s plans.
However, if they succeed in killing Auril in chapter 5 during the assault on her fortress, then they have very little reason to continue on to Ythryn, because her death causes the weather to improve. Now obviously as DMs we can make Auril survive if we want. She has a lair action to teleport anywhere on the island, has flight in her first form and a roc to fly on otherwise. As a general rule if things start to look bad for her we can probably get her out of it, but that doesn’t seem to fit with her character for me. She’s a frikkin’ GOD, she isn’t just going to run because of some mortals showing up. She’s cold, she doesn’t care about the characters, they are insignificant, she is winter itself, timeless, immortal, and she’s on her own territory, in her own temple (aside: the location of the temple seems significant to me given her backstory. The little backstory we get is that her alliance with other gods broke because Umberlee, goddesses of the Wrathful sea, was fed up with Auril freezing her water. Where is Auril’s temple? On an iceberg in a dangerous sea). Plus even if she does escape, or she fights the heroes off, I’m not really sure what stops the very simple logic of “well we just need to get stronger and try again”, though you could of course say “well there’s these caves over here where you might gain a few levels…”. You don’t NEED to change anything in the adventure for it to work, but I like to have my villains have slightly deeper motivations (and plant a few possible plot hooks to entice my players) and therefore I’m going to make a few minor alterations.
Firstly, Asmodeus made the other gods turn on Auril (described in her backstory in annex C), to manipulate her into try to turn Icewind Dale into a frozen wasteland. He hopes to use this to drag her into the Nine Hells as he managed with Zariel and possibly Icewind Dale with her. He has also manipulated a group of duergar into attacking the dale at the same time. This is to A) distract any adventurers and/or opposition from the towns that might stop Auriel and B) provide him with a way to further antagonize Auriel later on if she freezes the entire Dale before joining Azmodaddy.
Secondly, Levistus wants to gain access to the knowledge hidden in Ythryn to help free him from his icy prison (and possibly pull the Icewind Dale into Stygia to add it to his realm and increase his power). However, he also wants to eliminate Auriel to avoid further competition. He is therefore willing to help adventurers fight Auril and foil Azmodaddy’s plans, but then dispense of them when they are no longer of use to him and use own servants to seize control of Ythryn.
It’s this second part that gives us a redundancy plot for our adventurers to push on into chapter 6 an onwards should they manage to defeat Auril in her temple (and therefore foil Azmodeus’ plans). They still need to foil Levistus. Of course, your players may know nothing at all about Levistus and his plans. The beginning of ROFLMAO is very open to letting your players follow their own path and if they don’t visit the right places then they might never meet any of the followers of Levistus until the end. That’s fine. This is just an extra reason to go to Ythryn if one is needed. By reinforcing Levistus’ intentions here I hope that it will provide me with another way to get my players involved, either through some NPC that they already know, or if needs be a direct intervention from Asmodaddy himself to make sure that they screw over Levistus.
Anyhow, I hope that if you’re confronted with trying to urge your players on towards the end of the adventure, I hope that this little ramble will be of some help. If not, then I hope that you at least enjoyed me trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist!