|Cover for "The Winds of Madness"
Art by Inigoiio
©2021, Angus Bessai & Patrick Hoffman
Publisher: DM's Guild
System: Dungeons & Dragons 5e
I don't usually review material for 5th Edition Material, but the moment Angus Bessai explained the concept, I had to read it, and bring it to the attention of some of my fellow Grognards, because this is the kind of adventure that I wish we had seen for 5e at the start.
Winds of Madness is a 90-page campaign that carries a party from levels 11-14 and features two phases. In the first, the PCs attempt to prevent a fimbulwinter by sealing an ancient planar gate that has been opened after centuries of dormancy. The second phase is an attempt to prevent an alien being from the Far Realm from infecting and mutating all life on the Material Plane and then harvesting it.
This setting blends material from Planescape, Spelljammer, The Epic Level Handbook, Frostburn, and 3e Psionics.
I I could swear that this module was specifically designed for me. It takes some of my favourite things from different editions of Dungeons & Dragons, often things I wish were included in the more recent additions, and put them all together in one package. It also borrows notes some of my favourite science fiction media, like the Parasite Eve novels and games and Final Fantasy 6.
What I Loved
Going Beyond the Set Lore, but Respecting It
The Winds of Madness borrows ideas from a lot of sources. It expands on material like the Far Plane, the Githyanki war machine, the Elder Evils and Spelljamming and uses them in new ways. There is loving attention to detail about how the lore worked in various editions of Dungeons & Dragons. D&D Canon is treated with far greater respect than it is in Wizards of the Coast products. Where he takes ideas to new places, like exploring the Far Realm with spelljammer ships, he makes sure to do so in a way that fits perfectly well with existing lore.
A lot of the material being used in this book comes out of second and third edition sources. Not only does this material get treated with respect, it's clear that the author has spent some time looking at the original material, and in places give those notes on how it was used in the past in Dungeons & Dragons.
This book feels stripped-down in terms of Art. It has a beautiful cover and an illustration at the beginning of each chapter, plus maps of Spelljammer ships. In a 90-page book that doesn't come up to a lot of artwork, but all of it is beautifully executed and effective. My hat is off to the illustrator. I hope we will see a lot more work like it.
Love for Much-Neglected Old Material
The Abominations from the Epic Level Handbook like the Uvuudaum and the Atropal often seem like redheaded stepchildren of the Dungeons & Dragons community. As do the high-level Inevitables. There are creatures, magic items, and bits of lore that were like old friends that I was so glad to see make a reappearance in this module. He's always seemed destined to me that so much of the great creativity of the early Wizards of the Coast Area has gone to waste in the last decade and a half.
This adventure is structured for a game that runs from 12 level to about 15th. You don't see adventures written for this sort of high-level often, and it certainly does a great job of creating scenarios that do not underestimate high-level characters. In fact, it counts on them having incredible abilities to overcome tasks that a lower-level character simply would not be able to do. Sometimes it throws them impossible, obstacles and Trusts the PCs to find creative ways to solve it with their incredible abilities. As it should.
This module opens with a written prophecy that uses prose that reminded me of Lord Dunsany's work. It is strange, vaguely eerie, and compelling. If I were planning on offering The Winds of Madness as an adventure option for my player characters, I would make sure that prophecy appears good and early in the campaign.
A lot of bits of lore and information scattered about this adventure appear in a Proto-Elvish language. Extremely intelligent characters may be able to derive it. There are also a number of ways in which player characters can learn the language. A lot of it feels like a tip of the hat to the Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis series. Mastery of an ancient language gives the player characters quite an edge if they take the time to learn it.
Because much of this adventure is set in the Far Realm, a plane of Madness where reality doesn't follow its usual rules, the authors were given a huge amount of opportunity to create strange and other worldly events and effects. And did not squander it. From their own custom monsters that are truly bizarre, to progressive mutations that player characters can pick up, to a table of strange reality shifts that happen at random on the Far Real.mas they travel, to intelligent artifacts looking for their counterparts, there is no shortage of strange and unusual things that always make you stop and think about how clever they are. One of my favourites is a magical spike thst character can drive through the heart to gain some of the powers of the Titan that once wielded it,
Clever Monster Reskinning
In several places throughout the module, the pieces are going to encounter unique monsters, such as creatures made out of magicalkg sculpted living flesh. In many cases, they are using the same stats as existing monsters, but given a lot of different flavour and description. Given that 40 of the 50 pages of the module are already appendices, and half of that is Monster statistics, I think that this is a clear example of smart recycling. They get to use even more unique creatures, but don't have to continue to expand the book infinitely.
Excellent Use of Clocks and Constraints on Rest
My absolute favourite part of this adventure is the incredible constraints it has on rest and time. Every time the player characters take a long rest, they risk a chance of mutating further, and more of the region of the farplane they find themselves in gets consumed by the Elder evil Ragnarra, which is the villain of the campaign. Player Characters will be afraid to waste time on rests, and use them sparingly. There will be a constant sense of urgency built into this adventure that is something you seldom see in modern design.
|Far Realm Map fro. "The Winds of Madness"
Art by Inigoiio
©2021, Angus Bessai & Patrick Hoffman
I know I have mentioned the Art above, but, the art of the map of the far Realm deserves its own special attention. It is absolutely stunning. My only regret, and we will get to this in the growth point, is that we needed another one for the Frozen wastes.
Roland Wc Arnold
Quite possibly my new favourite non-player character from a module, Roland Wc Arnold is a strange and surreal figure with a mystery behind him that the player characters can help to solve or not but is most definitely memorable for the DM. His background serves as one of those beautiful embellishments that makes this such a rich setting for an adventure.
I would Love More lore on the Hurachi and Solnor
Over the course of the first section of the module, we are introduced to a small Elven tribe called The Hurachi and later on we are introduced information about their ancient precursors, a lost race of elves whose ruins have been buried under the ice. And we are shown through events and artifacts that suggest they are one of the earliest and oldest of Elvin cultures. We see some of their festivals, rituals, and sports.
But, for such a large role, and possessing so many fine details, we don't actually get to learn a lot about their traditions, religion, for history. We could use a some more broad-strokes information on why this particular Elvish culture is going extinct and why they live so far apart from other elves. There are so many hooks to be had here.
The Ice Age Cycle is Bizarre
The ancient elves detailed in the module in places created a system of weaponized ice ages. They would literally send their world into a fimbulwinter in order to avoid being detected and providing life that might be perverted by the Elder Evil Ragnorra. This is such a bizarre solution to the problem that I had to scratch my head. Surely, there are better ways to hide the existence of life then freezing an entire continent to hide it. And if you have that level of magical ability, why not weaponize it tonight directly against the Elder evil, instead?
The Odd Journey Mechanic
Chapter 2 of The Winds of Madness is a voyage across an icy wasteland to a frozen city while under a constant barrage from a supernatural blizzard. This is a harrowing Journey that takes a better part of a month in-game. And there are a number of interesting disasters, discoveries, and random encounters that the PCs can run into along the way. However, it seems perfunctory.
For all of the hardship and Adventure that could be had, the entire journey is reduced to a Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition-style skill challenge. As I only played a small bit of D&D Next, and never 4th edition proper, I didn't even recognize what I was looking at with this mini game at first. It seems as though the travel across the frozen waste is mostly being skipped over in order to get straight to the meat of the Frozen City. If that were the case, why not go straight to the introduction to the Frozen City at the end of The Journey, like they do in at least four Dungeon Crawl Classics modules I could name?
Why not use Fatigue Rules for Frostbie?
Chapter 2 includes a set of mechanics for hypothermia and frostbite as their own set of conditions. These are elaborate, and while they are well-thought-out, I don't see the necessity. You could have had almost the exact same effect simply by saying that hypothermia or frostbite cause levels of fatigue. In fact, it would have made both conditions far more lethal.
Lost Opportunity: Army of the Dead
One of the coolest Random Encounters in the Frozen Wasteland is entitled "Army of the Dead." It depicts a legion of uniformed Undead Warriors marching across the frozen wastes looking for life forces to consume. Little is given about their background, but they would have made an amazing side plot if they had been developed just a little bit more.
In general, they follow a pattern. The first and third chapters of the module were extremely well-developed, and the second chapter really let the rest of the book down not because it was rushed - - there is a huge amount of beautiful detail - - but because the whole chapter exist to rush the player characters to a specific destination.
Go Big on Tables
A lot of tables, like the random encounter tables you find throughout this module have great ideas, but are often too small. A month of journeying in the Wasteland, the treasure is found in ancient Elven civilization, or bizarre things to run into on the Far Realm all deserve much larger sets of entries than they got. Especially as some of those tables sit display on otherwise empty pages.
Handling 88 Spectres
One particular blunder the player characters can and perform will unleash 88 spectres the frozen city, who will hunt the PCs. However, there is very little information on how to tackle this massive encounter. Creating a secondary encounter table, and maybe notes in each location in about how it would play out if the spectres where are released would have made a lot of sense.
Complex Lore Can be Doled Out on Tables
There are a number of places where PCs can learn incredible facts about the history of the setting and environment, but only by luck on random. tables. Why create so much incredibly sophisticated lore and history, purely for the sake of enriching the player experience, and then leaving it totally to chance as to whether or not it can be found?
"Rocks Fall" Ending
|Something Positive, May 3, 2002
©2002 Randy K. Milholland
Kooky "Random" NPCs
In general, the tone of this campaign is strange, and mysterious, often weird and disturbing. It deeply broke my immersion in the setting when the staff of the bar at the edge of the Far Realm were introduced. This staff includes Ronald Wc Arnold, who I loved, but the rest of the bar staff seem to be designed to offer zany comic relief in the vein of a Wil Farrel movie than Weird Fantasy.
Embedded Stats Make Running Modules Easier
I appreciate why the authors chose not to embed monster statistics in their book, but the design as is requires a lot of page-flipping. Embedding stat blocks and maps could do the manual wonders for readability.
I have no idea how long the authors of Winds of Madness have been playing D&D. Since 1992 at least would be my guess based on the lore they are using. So I won't pretend to be a wise elder. What I will do is point out some Old-School ideas that they lost in the shuffle of designing a 5e module that would be worth revisiting. Or seeing howl. the OSR has innovated in ways that could profit their design.
The Frostfell Would Make an Excellent Hexcrawl or Point-crawl
The journey across the tundra that the players must have Hunter take to reach the Frozen City is possibly the weakest point in the game. It's a Pity. It's a great concept.
Unfortunately, it just wasn't executed at all, really. A series of progressively more difficult for Eastdale skill challenges does not do the idea justice. It would have made an excellent hexcrawl or pointcrawl where the PCs had to navigate a selection of obstacles. And while they were at it deal with the survival needs of extreme environments. They could do themselves a huge favour by looking at Misty Isles of the Eld by Chris Kutalik and Do Not Let Us Die In The Dark Night Of This Cold Winter by Cone of Negative Energy.
Don't Neglect Mundane Survival
Part of the appeal of early Dungeons & Dragons, and for that matter, the kind of adventures that take PCs across the planes, is the difficulties and hardship presented by the elements, and the feeling of accomplishment you recieve when good planning and cunning play gets you to your destination. Neglecting it by glossing over the journey strips your players of a great intrinsic reward. I can tell there was more planned for this section that was trimmed. Why have rules for frostbite if your PCs have little chance at being frostbitten?
Raise the Reward
500pp for ending the fimbulwinter, saving a dying civilization, and collecting lore of a lost civilization? After crossing the Tundra? When you employer is an Archmage? 12th level PCs have backpacks worth more than that. At this level, the PCs ought to be getting impressive rewards, like a castle built with a week of stone shape, fabricate, and wall of stone spells, personal golems, Scrolls of limited wish, or elven valets at this point. Make sure the reward matches the PCs ability and station.
Skill Checks in the Veins of Muw are Another Wasted Opportunity
The Veins of Muw are a Labyrinth that is confusing and shifting that players can only reach the heart of by... making DC 27 Wisdom (Survival) checks.... Yeah, that is disappointing.
In older editions of Dungeons & Dragons, creating a cool location like this was a chance to challenge you player to see how they might use their wits to find the right path. There even is a way... Play music to the crystal pylons, then follow them. With a hint or two to suggest it in the first place, this would be perfect as a puzzle. But instead it defaults to rolls. This is one of the most unfortunate conceits of D&D5e... That the dice and the character should get to solve the problem, and not the wit of the player.
It is one of several points where the module mutes its own brilliance to make sure the convention of having a roll for everything is observed
I love this module. It really is one of the most enjoyable I have read in the last year, and certainly, the best thing I've ever read for a fifth edition. It is what 12-year-old me playing Ravenloft and Spelljammer I expected Dungeons & Dragons to look like when he was a grown up. It takes existing lore and builds them up into something new, strange, and exciting. Is like a history course in the best of second and third editions of Dungeons & Dragons brought forward to fifth.
And it certainly gives you a lot. From the monsters that truly defined the epic level handbook, to some of the most sinister psionic phenomena of the golden age of D&D psionics in 3e. It even offers you enough Spelljammer material to run a space battle including complete plans and statistics for two of Spelljammer's most recognizable ships, Nautiloid and the Doombat.
In a way, the first and second chapters of the book let the meat of the module down. The first chapter is meandering, and perhaps a little too detailed for a short time prepping for a journey across the Frostfell. And the journey across the Frostfell itself was compressed to give more space in the book to the Frozen City and at the Far Plane. In general, you find yourself wondering for the first chapter and a half if it is going to be as good as the back cover looks... And when it does you find yourself wishing that the cool ideas in Chapter Two in particular were given the same treatment as Chapte Three.
In places as well, the design gets lazy, substituting skill challenges or even single rolls for what ought to be puzzles that players can solve. This might be understood as an unfortunate necessity of being something that can be played in a standard 5th edition modality. A necessary evil of the time, if you will. But I can tell that the authors
Overall, if more material was written like this for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, I would be far more interested in playing it. It shows respect and creative engagement with the material that came before without being slavishly devoted to it, and seeks to entertain rather than to make a political or artistic statement. I can't wait to see how this team's work grows.