d20 gaming happens plenty in my house, but Friday nights is special. Friday night is for adults only! While my kids and my brother’s kids run around, eat popcorn and have a movie night together, we parents play some Pathfinder. If all four of us are free we play Mummy’s Mask, and if only three of us are free we play Reign of Winter.
And this week? Reign of Winter.
Reign of Winter is a six-volume Pathfinder Adventure Path by Paizo Publishing. The campaign begins in the village of Heldren in the nation of Taldor during mid-summer. A blizzard appears out of nowhere, blanketing the nearby Border Wood with snow. When a wounded caravan guard delirious with frost-bite and fatigue staggers into town telling crazy stories about ice fairies, mass slaughter, and a kidnapped noblewoman, the village leaders urge the PCs to investigate his claims. Tasked with finding the missing noblewoman, discovering what happened to the guard’s caravan, and investigating the cause of this unnatural winter, the heroes set out to the Border Wood. Deep in its depths they discover a magical portal to the frozen land of Irrisen, whose supernatural winter will soon engulf all of Golarion unless the PCs can discover the fate of the otherworldly witch Baba Yaga. But following her trail of bread crumbs will take them far from home… Through the eternally frozen lands of Irrisen, and into even stranger lands beyond.
Though the premise is simple–find Baba Yaga and end this unnatural winter before it freezes the whole world–this campaign has a ton of twists, turns, and surprises. Each and every adventure in the series is well-written, fast-paced, and loads of fun. It features a lot of awesome locations, some of which are bound to take your players completely by surprise (parts four and five, here’s looking at you!). One of my favourite parts? Reign of Winter doesn’t always assume what your players do. It leaves it up to them. Although they have destinations to reach and a task that must be completed in each volume to keep them working towards their goals, how they go about achieving it, and who they decide to help or hinder is almost always up to them. This is awesome to see in an adventure path, and really lets the player’s be in control of their destiny, despite being in a pretty tight, ‘on-the-rails’ style of campaign.
In terms of supplemental material, this campaign works well with nearly everything Pathfinder. It’s particularly well-suited to the addition of occult classes and mythic tiers. Surprisingly, gunslingers will also have some distinct advantages during part of the campaign. The only class I don’t recommend is the paladin. Although mechanically they will have a ton of opportunity to shine, and they’re not forced to commit evil acts, the players will not always be able to fight the evil they see. In addition, this campaign’s major goal is to find and save Baba Yaga, an evil witch of tremendous power. Most paladin’s would have a hard time justifying this. Although it can be done, this campaign is much more enjoyable for everyone involved without being constrained by such a strict moral code.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that this is almost entirely a cold-weather campaign. Your characters will need to find ways to deal with the winter’s chill as soon as possible. But, that doesn’t limit character choices. In fact, as much as playing winter-themed characters can be fun, it’s more beneficial to go in the opposite direction. You are fighting against winter’s spread, after all. In a practical sense, many creatures native to frozen climates have resistances to the cold and weaknesses to heat. Preparation and adaptation to the cold is more important than being at home in cold climates.
I have read a lot of adventures and campaigns over the years, and I can honestly say that Reign of Winter is one of my all-time favourites. Top three, for sure! If you ever get the chance to play, read or run it, I highly encourage you to do so!
My group of players for Reign of Winter is incredibly small. I GM it, while my husband and my brother play it. That’s it. Three people, with a two-person party. Obviously, this brings up some challenges, which will be discussed later. But for now, let’s meet the heroes of my Reign of Winter Campaign: Huxley Rangvald and Aesir Havelok.
Aesir Havelok is a hunter and fisherman of Ulfen descent. During the summer months he lives in the Taldan town of Heldren. During the fall he travels north by ship to meet up with his cousins, and during the winter months he joins his cousins in their longboats, hunting great sea-beasts. He is a cleric of the agathion Ylimancha, the neutral good empyreal lord of seafarers, coastal waters, and creatures that fly. Aesir is particularly good with a bow, and has a way with animals. In addition to summoning creatures to aid him in combat he began the campaign with two beloved pets: his dog, Bjorn, and his seahawk, Bronna. Along the way he also became the proud master of a combat-trained warhorse, Ulbricht, and a wild, giant weasel, Brigga. For a time he was master of a glorious white stag he dubbed Loki.
Aesir is friendly and likeable, but not around Heldren much. He’s not quite considered a local, and is more of a welcome outsider. He’s brave and bold, and tries to inspire others to be the same. He dreams of hunting epic sea monsters, and making a name for himself that his ancestors and future descendants can be proud of! Aesir is my brother’s character.
Huxley Rangvald is a man of contrasts. Raised in a museum with an Ulfen father who longs for adventure, a Taldan mother with a head for business, and a horde of siblings and cousins, Huxley has become a fusion of cultures. Descended from an Ulfen warrior who once protected Taldan royalty and earned all the wealth he could carry as his pay for a decade’s work, Huxley’s great-grandfather used his eye for quality to fill his arms and backpack with priceless relics, valuable antiques and historic artifacts. But instead of heading home, he founded a museum, married a wealthy woman and lived a life of leisure.
Huxley himself grew up well-educated and wanting for nothing. But, living among the relics of legends and heroes, surrounded by history, he yearned to do more. He loves hunting for relics and bargaining for new acquisitions, and has managed to expand his family’s collection tremendously. Huxley is an occultist who uses historic artifacts to unlock and channel his own psychic powers. He is my husband’s character.
The Story so Far…
My group is currently on book one of Reign of Winter, The Snows of Summer. Having set out from the town of Heldren into the Border Wood, the duo fought against strange creatures, frigid icy fey, and the ever-encroaching cold to rescue a missing noblewoman from a group of bandits. But clues discovered in the forest led them to believe that the source of the arctic weather lay within the woods itself. After returning the noblewoman to Heldren and resupplying, Huxley and Aesir returned to the depths of the frozen woods and travelled to its centre, deep in the Somir Valley. Along the way they met a strange doll in a small house within a haunted ice maze. Made from the soul of a child by someone foul, the doll seemed an oddity at first. But as the doll began to act of its own volition, they believed it was haunted, and finally, alive. Aesir though it was creepy and should be destroyed, but Huxley thought it was amazing! He treated the doll kindly and befriended her, learning that her name was Thora. With the creepy doll in Huxley’s care they soldiered on. The cold intensified, and more strange creatures foreign to the woods appeared. After combating terrifying foes amidst a howling blizzard they followed the impossible storm to its centre and found a portal. Suddenly the doll screamed and fought like crazy to prevent them from entering.
Huxley had learned much about the doll during the journey, not only from speaking with her, but from examining her with his occultist abilities and vast arcana knowledge. He knew that whoever had killed the human Thora had captured and used it’s soul to create a dangerous construct known as a guardian doll. Such dolls much follow their creators commands, and can be given tasks to carry out, but are intelligent and cunning. In addition, they lash out against those that they loved in life. But, the dolls are still influenced by the soul used to create them, and as evil as its commands might be, the child inside the doll–little Thora–was a good girl. Huxley had finally discovered the dolls purpose: to prevent anyone from approaching the portal. Knowing Thora would attack them to the best of her ability, he bound her and blindfolded her, and stuffed her inside his bag. Although it was cruel, he hoped that upon leaving the portal behind, the doll would no longer be compelled to harm him. Then her actions would be her own again.
And if she still wanted to harm him? Well, that was her right. He did tie her up and stuff her in a bag….
Just as they were about to approach the portal a nearby tree moved, revealing itself to be a moss troll, the final guardian of the strange portal. Dealing with Thora and the troll at the same time proved a challenge, but Huxley and Aesir triumphed and moved to examine the portal. Huxley determined that the portal was the cause of the unnatural winter, and by closing it they could return the local weather to normal. Unfortunately, the source of the portal wasn’t here, it was on the other side of the portal. Knowing they would be stuck on the other side, wherever that was, they decided to pass through. Only to have something come out of the portal!
A tall figure in black armour, bleeding from many wounds, and clearly near death. The armoured knight removed his helmet and fell into the snow, revealing himself to be an incredibly old man. But this was no mortal… This was Dark Midnight, the Black Rider and one of three Heralds of Baba Yaga’s return. As he was dying, the man drew the others to him and imparted upon them both wisdom and knowledge.
Every hundred years the Great Witch, Baba Yaga, returns to her country of Irrisen to place a new daughter upon the throne. But this year, something went wrong. Queen Elvanna, ruler of Irrisen, did not wish to give her throne to another. Forgetting that the throne was not hers to give, it was Baba Yaga’s, Elvanna set out to kill the Heralds of her return, kill all those loyal to Baba Yaga, and take the entirety of Golarion as her throne. To this end, she has placed magical portals throughout the world, with the intent of spreading endless winter across the globe. Millions will perish, and Elvanna will rule over the frozen world that remains.
The source of this portal was close, within a few days travel once they passed through the portal, in a place called the Pale Tower, but the other portals throughout the world? They were farther, and they were many. Huxley and Aesir would not be able to shut them all down alone, and with even one remaining, the eternal grip of winter would continue to spread.
But Dark Midnight offered them hope.
Baba Yaga is always prepared for betrayal. She set a contingency in place–left a trail of breadcrumbs for the Herald’s to follow. But death was coming for the last of her Heralds, and the PCs would have to take up his cause. After saving their home by destroying the portal in the Pale Tower, they would need to travel to Whitethrone, the capital of Irrisen. There Queen Elvanna had imprisoned Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut as a symbol of her power. If they could free the Hut and step inside they could travel anywhere–even across planes and to other worlds. But to do so they needed the keys to the hut. Objects mundane in appearance but attuned to different locations. Combining these objects provides navigational direction for the Hut to follow. Elvanna had deactivated the keys, but Baba Yaga had already placed a few keys in hiding for her Heralds to find, and Dark Midnight has done so. With these keys, they can follow Baba Yaga’s trail, rescue her from whatever prison she is trapped in, so that Baba Yaga can destroy the portals–all of them.
But Baba Yaga has a way of testing even those who she desires to aid. The keys are but the first in a series of trials. Where they will take the heroes, Dark Midnight doesn’t know, but he does know that there will be more. More keys to find, more clues to follow, and more trials to face. In the end, they will find Baba Yaga and Baba Yaga will put an end to Elvanna’s foolishness. But until then, they would need a final boon from him. For only Baba Yaga and her Heralds can enter the Dancing Hut. To save their world, they would need to become Her Herald in Dark Midnight’s place. They would need to usher in the return of Baba Yaga.
They hesitated only a moment. Huxley needed no incentive to accept a mission involving a MAGICAL LEGENDARY HUT! While Aesir was bound by honour to save the town of Heldren. Accepting Dark Midnight’s offer, the Herald gave them the keys to the hut, and then passed onto them, his powers. The man in the armour had died. But Dark Midnight lived. Huxley Rangvald and Aesir Havelock took on the mantle and responsibilities of the Black Rider, and with it came great power. They achieved their first mythic tier, and charged through the portal only to come out… in Irrisen.
Eventually, Thora stopped screaming and trying to murder Huxley, which made him very happy, but he did not release her from the bag. Not yet. He needed to be sure she was under no further orders before allowing her more freedom.
In time they heard screams on the wind, and hurried off to find the source. Finding a caravan of dogsleds and their riders under attack by a massive praying mantis–a creature native to the Border Wood back in Taldor. Huxley and Aesir helped fight the beast off and introduced themselves to the people they had saved. Turns out it was a group of importers, returning to the nearby town of Waldsby after weeks away acquiring supplies. They thanked Huxley and Aesir, but had no time for chatting. A storm was coming, and they hoped to reach shelter before becoming trapped in it. Together, they all rode off. But they could not outrun the storm. It came upon them before arriving in Waldsby, and they sought shelter in a cave. There they settled in for the night and had a chance to socialize. Huxley and Aesir shared their tale, and their goal to visit the Pale Tower to save their town, but left out all mention of Thora, Dark Midnight and being Heralds of Baba Yaga.
The caravan was run by a woman by the name of Nadya. It had once been her husband’s business, but his death a few years ago left her in charge of the supply runs. Her husband’s business partner and good friend, Laszlo, stayed on to help her, and was here as well. The third member of their group was Inuq, a foreign woman who was the owner, breeder, and trainer of the dogs they used to pull the sleds, as well as owner of the sleds themselves. Typically, the three were the only ones in the caravan, but this last run had been long, and a few more hands had volunteered to join them. Laszlo’s son, Andrei, who had almost been eaten by the mantis, and Nicholai, Nadya’s neighbour, who was a friendly fellow, but didn’t seem comfortable this far from town. As the night wore on, they settled in to sleep, only to have a visitor arrive–a forlarren musician on her way from Waldsby to the Pale Tower. The group begrudgingly let the fey join them in the cave, but clearly the mood was tense. Nadya covered for Huxley and Aesir, lying about their purpose and claiming they were distant relatives of hers. They went along with the lies, knowing something was off, and managed to avoid confrontation with the ice fey. But as she played some local music for the group, she watched the PCs keenly, curious if they knew the words and clearly trying to discover what part of their tale was lies.
The evening was tense, but in time everyone went to sleep. When they awoke it was to the sounds of Nadya screaming in pain. Something had hurt her! Huxley and Aesir charged in to see what had happened to find the forlarren gone, and Nadya wounded from intense cold–a magical spell most likely. The group muttered and worried over the attack, and wondered how the forlarren could slip away so quickly, but Huxley felt a nagging worry. He checked his bag to find Thora there, but unbound, and her tiny footprints heading toward Nadya’s tent. At the back he found a small section of canvas cut away by a sharp object, just large enough for a doll to peek through.
It wasn’t the forlarren that had attacked Nadya. It was Thora. But why?
Huxley kept this news to himself and chatted with the others. They set out for the day and Huxley continued his prying. Eventually he discovered that Nadya had three children. Two boys and a girl named Thora. While Nadya was away on a supply run the Lady of the Pale Tower and her Guard had come through Waldsby on a surprise visit. Thora had been heard making a joke about the witch, and dragged back to the Pale Tower as a prisoner. Her babysitter, Nicholai and his wife, was distraught, and told Nadya what had happened as soon as she returned home. Nadya rode for the Pale Tower, begging for her daughter back, and was promised that if she could bring back more than double her typical shipment of goods to the Pale Tower, her daughter would be released. Nadya agreed and hurried back to Waldsby. Laszlo and Inuq prepared to join her, but to bring back double would be a long trip, and they would need more sleds. Inuq had plenty of sleds and dogs, but they would need others to drive them. Nicholai volunteered out of guilt, knowing that little Thora had been in his care. Laszlo’s son volunteered out of pride and excitement, hoping to join his father on an important journey. Now Nadya was returning to Waldsby, and then on to the Pale Tower to get Thora back.
But she wouldn’t get Thora back, would she? For the witch of the Pale Tower, Nazhena Vassiovna, had killed Thora, captured her soul, and turned her into a guardian doll, sending her through the portal to the Border Wood to stalk and kill all who attempted passage.
Huxley had Thora. And as a guardian doll, Thora would be compelled to lash out and kill all those who she had loved in life. Including her mother, Nadya, and her brothers… Worrying over what to do, Huxley kept his theories (and Thora) to himself. The journey continued, and they triumphed over the dangers of the frozen woods and plains.
But as Walsby came into sight, Huxley made a decision. Taking Nadya aside he told her about Thora’s death, and her rebirth as a doll. Nadya didn’t believe him, and was angry, but as Huxley pulled out Thora, Nadya broke down in tears. The doll wore her daughter’s clothes, and her daughter’s real hair had been used in the doll’s creation. After crying over the fate of her child, Nadya lashed out at the doll, tossing it into the snow. That abomination wasn’t her daughter. Her daughter was dead. That thing needed to be destroyed.
Aesir agreed, but Huxley and Inuq did not. And as Huxley cradled little Thora in his arms, he vowed he would not let anyone harm the girl, whatever form she might be in. Meanwhile, Aesir convinced Nadya that they would seek vengeance against the White Witches on Nadya’s behalf–or alongside her, if she desired.
Setting out to Waldsby with grim determination, the group entered town in order to resupply and rest. Huxley and Aesir would set out for the Pale Tower the next morning, with–hopefully–someone to guide them there.
But Waldsby was not what they expected. It was strange. A mirror image of Heldren in both layout, and its citizens, Aesir and Huxley were both creeped out. They resupplied and socialized, but found the people here hard, and cold where the citizens of Heldren had been welcoming and warm. Huxley determined that the two towns likely lay along the same ley lines, which made the town connected by both magic and psychic powers despite the distance between them. Things occurring in one place would echo across the ley lines and affect the other. Intrigued, Huxley explored the town. Although they made a few friends, more often than not these interactions ended poorly. In the end they decided to leave their animals in Inuq’s care for the night, and sleep in Laszlo’s tiny house.
But the evening was interrupted by the sounds of guards approaching. The Pale Tower Guard were here! Deciding they didn’t want Laszlo to be punished for harbouring them, Huxley and Aesir slipped out a back window and waltzed into the town square. They were immediately approached by the Pale Tower Guard who ordered them to see their commander for questioning. Aesir loudly refused, causing a loud ruckus. Although both groups resorted to intimidation and threats for a while, it ended with violence. Aesir and Huxley defeated the first few guards, but more were on the way. Aesir whistled for his animals, and Huxley used his magic and sword skills. But soon the rest of the Pale Guard were upon them–all nine–as well as their Sergeant. The battle was hard, but together, the group triumphed. With the bodies of the Pale Tower Guard around them, bleeding in the streets, Nadya insisted they leave. More guards would come, and if they were to get vengeance for the death of her daughter, they would need to leave now. Inuq and Laszlo also offered to join Aesir and Huxley on their battle at the Pale Tower.
While Huxley stripped the dying guards of their gear, and the townsfolk yelled at the outsiders to leave, Aesir called the town to arms. Surely SOME amongst the citizens of Waldsby would fight back against the oppression of the Pale Tower Guard and the White Witches? Some seemed convinced, and to these people he bestowed the weapons and gear of the Pale Tower Guard. These people would be the town’s defenders!
Huxley was pretty sure these people would die.
With all the goods they could carry, Huxley, Aesir, and Aesir’s many pets set out with Inuq, Nadya and Laszlo by dogsled to the Pale Tower. The time had come to destroy the winter portal, kill Thora’s murderer and save the town of Heldren.
If they can…
The other side of the screen:
Welcome to the other side of the screen, a place where you’ll find GM notes related to the recent game sessions you’ve read, and links to the adventures themselves. If there’s something different in the adventure, or things I’ve changed and added, you’ll find it here!
So what’s different in this session?
At its core? A bit. In the details? A lot.
For starters, it’s NOT expected that anyone will try to keep the soul bound doll containing Thora’s soul as a companion. Most groups would have left the creepy doll alone. Those that understood what she was would likely consider destroying the soul gem inside her a way to set Thora’s soul free into the afterlife–which it is. Even those groups who kept her with them for a while would likely turn on the doll the first time she tries to attack, harm or hinder the group.
Mine didn’t. No matter how many times the Thora doll tried to hurt, enchant or thwart the PCs progress, Huxley was there to stop her non-violently. He understood Thora, her impulses and her limitations. Plus, she’s a freaking magical doll! Huxley LOVES things like that. This meant that I had to put a lot of thought into what exactly, Thora’s orders were, who she was compelled to listen to, and who she was compelled to attempt to kill if she met them. It’s also important to keep in mind that guardian dolls are subtle, disturbing creatures–not straight up combatants. This turned out to be great fun, and through it all, Huxley still managed to keep her. How much longer he’ll manage when Thora’s mother is travelling alongside them–a person she is compelled to murder–we’ll see. But honestly? I’m rooting for Huxley and Thora! If they can get her through the Pale Tower, destroy her creator and keep her away from the people she loved in life, Thora has an opportunity for growth and a second chance at life. And if they can’t? It will be a heart-breaking climax to a budding friendship between a creepy soul-bound doll and a kindly eccentric.
The second minor change to this campaign so far, was characters. There’s a great primer in the Snows of Summer for both Heldren and Waldsby, which can be used to great effect in the campaign. It’s honestly my two of my very favourite towns to play in. If done well, it will be both memorable and disconcerting for your players. To compliment this collection of quirky townsfolk, everyone was given face pictures to represent them, and characters who had no names (like Nadya’s four helpers) were given identities, personalities and families. Of all the townsfolk in the campaign so far, my players have felt the most connection with Yuln Oerstag, the wounded caravan guard who initially set the PCs out on adventure back in Heldren; Nadya Petska, Thora’s mother and the importer destined to be your guide to the Pale Tower; Laszlo, Nadya’s business partner and a grizzled old hunter; and Inuq, the Varki dog breeder who supplies Nadya with her dogs and dogsleds. Of these, only the first two had names and images in the published adventure.
The major change I instituted was the mantle of Dark Midnight. In the book, accepting the position as a Herald of Baba Yaga grants you a permanent increase to an ability score, a few boons that will come up throughout the campaign (like the ability to enter the Dancing Hut) and a compulsion that makes your characters want to save Baba Yaga. However, shortly after the printing of this book, Mythic Adventures was released. In fact, Baba Yaga herself was one of the first stat blocks I had ever seen printed who had mythic tiers. Taking into consideration that I had a group of only TWO characters, I decided that this would be a great time to try out the mythic rules in one of our campaigns. And thus, taking on the mantle of the Black Rider granted the PCs their first mythic tier. Throughout the course of the campaign I expect them to get a few more. I’m very excited to see how this change affects the campaign. I think it’s going to be a wonderful fit!
Reign of Winter is a six part Adventure Path by Paizo Publishing. It’s player’s guide is available as a free download here. The first volume, The Snows of Summer, is currently out of print and can only be found for a lot of money on Amazon. However, it is available for much cheaper as a PDF download on Paizo’s website, here. The other volumes in this series are all quite affordable on Amazon, at around fifteen to twenty-five dollars (Canadian) each, which is an awesome deal! For those of you interested, the rest of the Adventure Path includes, Part 2 – The Shackled Hut, Part 3 – Maiden, Mother, Crone, Part 4 – The Frozen Stars, Part 5 – Rasputin Must Die, and Part 6 – The Witch Queen’s Revenge. To further complement this awesome adventure path quite a few game supplements were released. I highly recommend picking up the Reign of Winter Pawn Collection. It’s a steal of a deal, and provides a bunch of unique minis to use in the campaign.
That’s all for now! Thanks for joining us on our continuing adventures in the Reign of Winter Adventure Path. This one’s going to be a wild ride!
What do you think of the campaign? Is it one you’d like to play in? More importantly, what would you PLAY if given the chance to make a character for Reign of Winter? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Until next time,