This scenario is kind of mean.
Not unfair, mind you. I don’t think there’s any encounter in Shades of Ice: Exiles of Winter that tips the balance of power too steeply in the game master’s favour. There are no inescapable death traps or plot devices that funnel players into tactically miserable situations.
But mean. Definitely mean.
Exiles of Winter picks up where Shades of Ice left off. Having learned that the lost scholar Skagni is being held in a Shadow Lodge stronghold in Irrisen, the players hop on the first caravan to the lands of the Baba Yaga. Disaster strikes as a band of marauding ice trolls kills their escorts, leaving the players with the daunting task of infiltrating the walled city of Whitethrone on their own.
Like Shades of Ice, Exiles of Winters benefits from a well-developed backdrop. Whitethrone is one of the most unique settlements in Golarion – for starters, it’s aligned lawful evil. Players may think themselves seasoned from travelling through hives of scum and villainy such as Riddleport, but the nefarious elements of Whitethrone are institutionalized. If the players succumb to heroic impulses or reveal that they are Pathfinders, they’ll quickly find themselves cut down by menacing Iron Guard enforcers.
It adds real consequences to failing those diplomacy and bluff checks, consequences heightened by the communities of worgs, ice trolls, and other beasties who make their home in the city. Yikes.
There are a number of options for sneaking into Whitethrone, but sadly few of them are any good. Attempts at scaling the walls or stealthing in will ultimately be foiled by the heavily armoured dwarf in the back. Arriving by sea is borderline suicide, to the point where I’m surprised the scenario even offers it as a option. Thankfully, the most obvious avenue – bluffing the guards to get in – is also the easiest.
It’s a shame that the scenario doesn’t present a better-rounded array of options, but a savvy game master should feel obliged to entertain more creative solutions.
After a few goofy stealth rolls, the players will find themselves in the meat-and-potatoes of the adventure: the dungeon crawl. The Shadow Lodge has established a secret headquarters underneath an abandoned brewery, and they of course have not left in unguarded.
If I had to use one word to describe the encounters in Exiles of Winter, it would be attrition. The first three encounters of the dungeon crawl have a very low chance of killing the party and instead seem entirely focused on diminishing their strength and resources.
The rabid dogs that guard the front door are mooks of the lowest order, but can pass on their nasty diseased condition to unlucky players. They also serve as a distraction from the real threat in the room: the goblin alchemists.
These guys are mean. Mean, mean, mean. Starting them off stealthed in the rafters is mean, giving them the explosive bomb discovery is mean, and having their constitution mutagens active is double mean. A party lacking ranged firepower will be forced to withdrawal, and even an optimized group is going to struggle against the nigh-undodgeable rain of fire.
Battered and bruised from the goblins, your players will be find little respite in the next room. Vermund, the leader of the Shadow Lodge chapter, is a blight druid, which means it’s time for every player’s favourite monster type – swarms!
From a game master’s perspective, I dislike swarms because they pose a very binary challenge. Either your party has a robust means of dealing with swarms – such as an alchemist or a blasty sorcerer – or else they spend the next hour flailing around with bugs crawling all over them. Thankfully, the goblin alchemists from earlier each drop a pair of alchemist’s fire – a shrewd and benevolent design choice.
This makes the encounter with Vermund manageable but not a cakewalk. Spider swarms can apply strength damage fairly effortlessly, and the blight druid has no qualms with summoning a prodigious number of them. Between the disease, the fire, and the poison, players are bound to be pretty beat up by this point.
Like I said, attrition.
Speaking of which, I quite like the traps included in this scenario. They are cleverly placed in arterial passageways and have good flavour to them. I couldn’t help but laugh when a tiefling at my table just scarcely avoided falling into a 70-foot pit full of bugs.
If I felt let down by anything in Exiles of Winter, it was the final encounter. Glorfan, the hideously mutated goblin slaver, is built up as a certified badass by the preceding NPCs. True, he can dish out some hurt if he manages to get a full attack off, but he suffers from being a dumb sack of meat with low saving throws. After the magus at my table just barely failed to put him to sleep with a hex, the lore warden covered for him by incapacitating Glorfan with a tanglefoot bag. A barrage of ranged attacks immediately followed.
It was an unfitting end for an adversary with such an expansive amount of flavour text.
I really don’t have much to say about the optional encounter at the end. It ultimately feels a little tacked on, and the boon it rewards is comically weak, but it’s a decent challenge to throw at an optimized party.
Given the large number of encounters, there isn’t much narrative meat to Exiles of Winter. Little threads about a slaving ring and an ancient weapon pop up, but they are mainly spouted by felled baddies to propel the party to the next room. Since this is such a solid dungeon crawl and already runs a little long, this omission really doesn’t bother me.
What does bother me is the insistence that players keep tabs on that infernal footlocker again. Again the introductory blurb stresses the importance of this mcguffin, and again it goes completely unmentioned for the remainder of the scenario. How did it even survive the ice troll ambush anyhow?
Minor quibbles aside, Exiles of Winter is one of the best Pathfinder Society scenarios I’ve run. Although many of the encounters are downright mean, they are never impossible and always memorable. Having it all set against the backdrop of Whitethrone is icing on the cake.
Shades of Ice is turning out to be a solid trilogy of scenarios, and I look forward to what awaits me in the Realm of the Mammoth Lords in the finale.