[Review] Elves Pt. II; Ice & Sword

Continuing where we last left off, the Second Part of Elves concerns the Ice Elf. Aah the Ice Elf. Bereft of a suitable tolkinian analog, or perhaps written by an altogether more talented designer, this part is far superior to the Wood Elf in terms of both creativity and execution.

The Ice Elf lives in the uttermost north, beyond the tree-line, tending herds of caribou or walled up in cities of beautifully shaped ice. The harsh climate has stripped them of much of their longevity, and though they can walk lightly robed through temperatures that would maim unprotected men, terrible storms and the savage environs claim many of their kin. A martial people, their history involves a narrowly avoided blood feud among other things, and you get the sense they are much more prone to internecine warfare. Their weapons are bows, harpoons and weapons magically shaped from ice. They drive around on the polar expanse in Ice Schooners. They rock.

Even the settlements, an absolute low point in the book, have a little something going on, though there are still by far too many boring shopkeepers. The elven trading post of Summer Place has at least a smattering of interesting things; An elven innkeeper has the largest ice gem ever but he won’t show it to anyone, an exiled Grey Elf whiles away his time unbeknowst that his crime has long been pardoned (reward from family if returned) and a human painter making art from the harsh, desolate landscape. It’s a little closer to what you would actually want in a settlement: Little side-quests, discoveries or other noteworthy events to be picked up while the PCs rattle off their grocery lists.

The Elven city of High Crags is much better. Walls raised by wizardry against the killng winds. There’s descriptions of balding or fat elves which I don’t really like, I know it exists but having elves with mundane imperfections strips them off their wonder and renders them human. You can have spectacularly ugly elves, but not mundanely ugly elves. There’s again, too many mundane wine shops, weapon shops, magic renfaire cleric earning money with his create reindeer fodder spell (nooooo!) and so on. There is some intrigue: A jewelmaker has found a secret way to fashion gems of sorcerous ice and her rival offers a large reward for the secret of how they are made. George Hugh is a collector of exotic weaponry and will pay 100-500 gp for a weapon he does not have yet. Those are almost little sub-quests that can be picked up over the course of weightier adventures. There’s other hints of good writing too, little quirks, an elven librarian that insists everyone washes their hands before entering her library (even the king), the first pair of twins that were born since the Kings and a human trader with a peg leg made of ivory.

The meat and bones of the adventure is Crossing the Border.  The characters set out for the uttermost north to pick up the Cloak of Annoc. They are sensibly rid of their magical balloon from the first part because it is TOO DAMN COLD for the PCs to fly into Ice Elf lands. Nice.

This adventure is good but lest we don our rose-colored glasses the layout and table usability is still A GIANT PIECE OF SHIT. How would you like to spend two pages reading on the PCs meeting a patrol, getting escorted to the city, having to watch the guard captain interact with villagers, having the king interact with his counselors, and then and only then, having the king talk to the PCs.

And so on and so forth…

Eventually they manage to get to the point. Uncle Evron has decided to rebel against the rightful king, stealing the artifact and taking with him some few Barons and Landowners, and has amassed an army. Great bloodshed will surely follow if they are not stopped. While the King and his dudes will be sending their army to distract and lure away the army of King Evron, the PCs, accompanied by guard captain and a few guides, will sneak into Evron’s mostly abandoned fortress and stealing that shit back. Your reward will be the knowledge of having done the right thing! If you also find two relics of the Ice elves your name will be sung in saga’s for 10000 years. I think I’d accept if someone promised me that.

Versimilitude is kept. If the PCs ask for it, help can be provided in the form of spells cast on the party beforehand, but since the journey to the enemy fortress takes several days this is of limited use.

I like Crossing the Border because it’s not afraid to fuck over the players if they are stupid. The danger begins before the PCs think it does. One of the courtiers they meet (that presumably is not privy to high level military strategy) attempts to seduce one of the players. If they let slip what they will be doing, they will be ambushed by her and a band of ice elves later on.

This trend of poor decisions having consequences continues on into the fortress proper. You decide to wait too long to observe the fortress? Reinforcements arrive in the form of 50 warriors, an 8th level captain, officers etc. etc. all mounted on reindeer. You got out but you didn’t take out the Cold Drake on the top floor? He might come after you, depending on how lucky you are or whether you took the Ice Schooner.

The layout of this text is atrocious but the content is solid, maybe even exceptional for a 29-room fortress adventure. Again, if the players are incautious THE ALERT WILL BE SOUNDED. Almost everyone in the fortress has some sort of action in case the alert gets sounded. The initial cull de sac is linear and brutal in case the PCs mess up and the alert gets sounded but afterwards the fortress opens up, with plenty of secret doors and suprises.

NPCs have charm and character to them. Its subtle but its there. A cook that fears his lord possessed by a demon, a courtesan that is just trying to get out, an ice devil leisurely sipping from a cup of wine as the PCs enter etc. Prisoners that you can free, but you, again, have to be careful since not all of them are enemies of the Lord Everon. There’s two schooner mates imprisoned for brawling that will betray the party the first chance they get…but you can use them to pilot the Schooner, rewarding clever play.

There’s other subtle touches too that I enjoy. The holy symbols from the shrines have been taken down and covered with cloth. A hint that the Lord Everon has fallen under the influence of Morda. A less subtle hint might be the doors of the main shrine, sealed with an invisible mark, holding a horrid spirit imp within.

Speaking of which: New monsters! There’s a horrid Ice imp that can open a gateway to the plane of ice, a terrifying spirit imp that drains PCs of health and whose wounds can only be cured via Restoration [1], maidens of living ice fueled by the intersection between the plane of ice and hell, it’s good stuff. Combine that with intelligent opponents, like a 10th level mage who will polymorph himself into a pidgeon and hide among the birds if the alarm is sounded so he can ambush the PCs later…

There’s a tonne of high level treasure magic treasure in the fortress; bracers of AC 2, Ring of 25% magic resistance, +2 and even +3 weapons, it’s nuts…but it feels appropriate. These are the strongholds of elves, bearing weaponry forged in distant ages. Why the fuck not? Throwing Shield+2, a dagger that freezes the blood on a 19+, a blade of white adamantine with a devilbone handle. Nice.

Crossing the border is a tough but well-designed raiding adventure on a stronghold in the distant north, and the midway reveal of demoniac influence is a nice touch. Its difficult, but by the time PCs reach level 5+ they should be equipped to handle the type of challeges the game throws at them. A skillfull and lucky party could very well persevere. An incautious or foolish party is likely to find itself caught between hungry demons on one side and a torrential outpouring of ice sorcery to the cries of ‘Blitzen!’ on the other. This one is -sorry- cool. ***

The third part is back to form; Miserable. The best that may be said of this section is that it is short.

Perhaps I exaggerate. The book kind of sells you on the Grey Elves, making them the artisans and craftsman of the Elven peoples, and taking pains to contrast the natural, flowing beauty of their mines and works with the utilitarian, angular craftsmanship of their dwarven cousins. I was even sold a little by mention of their capital, Falcon’s Nest, built in an extinct volcano, abandoned for ages and recently re-inhabited, which contains a vast storehouse of all the knowledge of elvenkind, protected by an unknown force against theft. THIS. THIS IS GOOD STUFF. Elves have a hobby  of amateur archeology. That is bad stuff. Don’t call it a hobby. Don’t use mundane language and concepts when describing beings that are literally an analogy for us to interact with the fundamentally unknoweable, be it Divine or Magical.

My hopes were raised a little by the trading post of Thornbranch, which is described in 2/3 of a page! and contains but three locations of note. An inn with an innkeep with metallic skin, a tavern with fine wines and a wool seller that is actually a spy for the dark elves. Something wonderous, something exquisite and something dangerous.

Cue the city of Falcon’s Nest where we are dragged back into gray drudgery. The city is supposed to be almost isolationist but it is filled to the brim with bustling commercial districts, taverns, whorehouses and fucking carpet sellers. Is there anything less magical then inns with cheap, shitty ale where you can get mugged? Why not describe the streets as muddy thoroughfares dotted with puddles of stale urine, lined with shivering beggars covered with putrefying bandages over weeping sores, accompanied by the occasional sloshing of fat, buck-toothed elven midwives emptying chamber pots and drenched with the thick, cloying black murk of the shoe-making plants in the background? Jeez louise.

It’s not that Elves can’t have taverns, artisans and temples, it is that these locations should be differentiated from the vulgar, the mundane, the banality of the human world. An Elven spice house that says it has Dark Elven spices but its actually lying? Why would it lie? If elves lie they should either do so consistently as a matter of aesthethic preference or do so only to keep one from the dark, ancient secrets they carry with them.
Taverns should be places of airy wonder, with viands of exquisite taste that one can never quite remember the next day, places of light and magic, where one can hear and long remember the songs of the elves. If you want to make it more Faery-like sometimes a guest will be ensnared by the music and he will hear it forever until it drives him mad. See? Don’t give us this mundane shit. High Epic or High Faery tale. There’s ONE entry that gets it sort of right, an armorer that makes armours that are 20% lighter, less likely to rust and there is a 10% chance they are carrying a suit of +1 platemail for 10.000 gp. That’s fine. There’s a section on how boots of elvenkind are made in total silence out of mouseskin or something. That’s fine too. Wonder! Whimsey! Awe! Oooh! Aaah!

The adventure proper is called SwordQuest and it suxx. The premise is that it is a test, only those who are worthy may take the Sword of Annoc.

Adventures that are tests don’t have to suck in DnD but they almost always do. I suspect it is a problem of execution. The whole prove your worth concept has been a staple of heroic fantasy since King Arthur had to draw Excalibur from a block of stone or Luke Skywalker had to venture into the Cave on Dagobah. The execution of most tests in DnD is stale however [2], lacking a sense of wonder and feels contrived and unnessecary, and unfortunately Swordquest is no exception.

So the Grey Elves recognize that the artifacts of Annoc must be united to prevent the return of the evil one and they have stowed away the sword of Annoc in the caves beneath their city. That’s fine. There’s a little bit of a mysterious vibe to the caves even though the adventure tries its utmost to snuff out any sense of wonder wherever it threatens to appear, as though you are indeed passing from the world we know into some mysterious otherland, like Alladin’s Cave or Wonders or Odysseus passing into the House of Death to consult with the Blind Seer Tiresias.

The adventure begins by off-handedly mentioning something about rope bridges across chasms and how this might be a danger to people on horseback. Trivial. A trivial challenge. Bridges across chasms in mostly friendly terrain are a spooky scary challenge for 1-3rd levels going on their second adventure, not a band of heroes assembling the artifacts to prevent the rise of the Evil One. Focus.

Okay so the Grey Elves have stored the Blade in caves beneath the City. That it may not be stolen, there are many false blades there also, as well as monsters of illusion and all who attempt to take a false one from the caves are struck down with divine lightning (cool!). Pretty cool so far, I meant the actual caves and the execution is lacklustre but the concept works. And then the adventure fucks it up. In order that our heroes might recognize the True Sword of Annoc, they are given the use of the Grey Elven Library for Four Days. The Librarian will help if the PCs ask for it, as well as Jorel Greywing, a young elven guide, who will help them on the first day but will have important errands to run for the other three days.


In concept it is possible the Grey Elves do not remember exactly the appearance of their ancient relic since its described in ten thousand year old books nor a means of bypassing its guardians but some throwaway sentence was neccesary to render this plausible to the reader given its importance. Since Falcon’s Peak has been abandoned for so long, it would be pretty easy to tie this together. It’s the pettyness of the whole research phase that strikes me. If you are rude the Grey Elf Librarian won’t help you? Jontee the elf guide has important errands to run but you can talk him into helping you save Middle Earth and reschedule some of his priorities if you are nice to him? And why do I only get 4 days? How about you go suck a dick and I give the Ring to Sauron?

Anyway, the point is that for each 5 hours you spend time in the library you get to roll a d100 and discover one fact about the sword, be it appearance or powers. Even if the PCs are diligent, there is a good chance you don’t walk away with all the information, and that’s actually fine, there’s a few other ways of discovering information in the dungeon proper.

The dungeon proper is…sigh. It’s not terrible, you can kind of see what they were going for. A spiralling cave complex that branches out into three forks, 18 rooms total. Almost all rooms have a sword and an illusory guardian. The adventure goes into the mechanics of the Shadow Magic monster but we are honestly better off not knowing. Don’t use technical terms to discuss a place of wonder. No attempt to evoke any sort of atmosphere. Once you enter the cave you can’t leave until you have the blade, you can carry only one sword through the entrance, you get one retry if you fuck up and the elves give you a wand of identification. It has 10 charges. There are 16 swords.

The monsters are a random grab bag, different in each room. Some fit the theme of guardian monsters really well like the Spirit Naga, Salamander or two minotaurs. Others are mundane, like a band of lizardmen, almost out of place in a location like this. They are all straightforward combats with two exceptions. One is clever, a vast swarm of giant ants pours from the rock while the only means of escape collapses behind you. One is not agressive. The Rest is all combat —> get sword.

There’s some clever trickery with some of the swords. Some of them are intelligent so if the heroes are smart they can just ask the swords whether they are the true blade of Annoc, which is OP as Shit btw. And there is some shitfuckery with some of the swords being cursed, which means you can’t complete the scenario until you get rid of them via Remove Curse, but if you forgot to prepare that spell you are not totally fucked. The caves don’t have wandering monsters so you can just rough it and get rid of them so it isn’t too bad.

You can’t leave until you find the right sword, and if you guess wrong twice the Caves will send you off and the elves will get another party to fetch the sword instead. Shameful. I would prefer a TPK to getting a tap on the shoulder like that. Fun fact! If the PCs get the weapon right and attempt to leave with extra swords they will be struck with Lighning bolts and the Ghostly Voice will tell them ‘do not take what you do not deserve.’ I dig the Cave of Wonders stuff. It’s classic. If you try again the whole party takes 30d8 lightning bolt damage. But if you live you get to keep the swords. Hahahaha Yeah!


At least I get a decent reward, some of those swords act as Swords of Slaying against the Servants of Morda. Nice.

Swordquest is a nice concept that falls prey to the petty or occasionally insulting execution. Each room really needed to be some sort of mythical trial as opposed to a straight up combat to really elevate it. A lake with a severed giant head posing riddles. A pit of green fire that one of heroes must cast themselves into. A vision of the future if Morda is reborn. A ghostly cowled horror that beckons one of the players forward. A swordfight with a doppleganger. That’s what this section needed. Some more magic in its magic. **.

In the next part, our heroes must rush to interrupt a Dark Elven ritual to destroy the Helm of Annoc, while two more adventures remain. Stay tuned!

[1] That’s how you know its an old school game, if the game has ONE FUCK YOU monster in it. I mean nobody would be so cruel as to put tonnes and tonnes of wights in barrows. No one.
[2] I would venture that one exception is Tomb of Horrors, another genius Gygax adventure that is actually a test on many levels, both narratively as Acererak seeks to feed on only the most worthy foes and metaphorically as an ultimate test of abilities.

6 thoughts on “[Review] Elves Pt. II; Ice & Sword

  1. [Ice Elves]
    This was what I was expecting when I bought Frostbitten And Mutilated. You literally have demonic influence in these elves! Just add some more gore and cannibalism and we’ll be set for a LOtFP product.

    [A Dark Time]
    So, did the writer accidentally sent in his unfinished script, or is the DM supposed remember all this?

    [Adventure in the Ice Place]
    That’s a pretty solid adventure, I enjoy the ice-themed demons.

    [Grey Elves of Falcon Crest]
    I don’t know, there is something mystical about the wonders of Lockjaw and Dysentery. But I’m also saddened by the fact it doesn’t explore the idea of artisan elves living in a volcano. I can think of fifty different ideas for them.

    [Talking Swords]
    Were any of these swords:
    A.Perverts willing to answer questions as long as they can oogle the party’s weapons?
    B. So bloodthirsty it had to be drowned in poppies and blood?
    C. A Joke cracking wiseguy?
    or D. A smarmy, know-it-all?

    How bad of a curse we’re talking about? Is it seriously crippling or…?

    [All the References in the writing]
    Somebody’s got their “Big Boi Brain” today..

    On towards the Dark Elves then.


    1. [Grey Elves]

      Right. I didn’t point it out but its also not technically a tolkien ripoff either. I mean Tolkien had Grey Elves but the elves were mostly distinguished by their allegiance to the sons of Feanor or at what time they had left the island of Valinor or had ever set foot on it…it’s complicated. Artisan elves with flowing stone and ironwork sounds kinda cool.

      [Talking Swords]

      Not much elaboration on their personalities, Lawful aligned with a special goal to slay the servants of Morda.


      The usual. Cursed Berserking or Cursed and character is convinced the blade is the sword of Annoc and will not relinquish it under any circumstance.


      My mind is soaring, ascendant, in time I will look back on this and consider it purile, as I do everything I have done in years past. Already I groan inwardly at my older reviews.

      [Dark Elves]

      And Half Elves and High Elves oh my!


  2. I’ve been sleeping on your blog, it seems, and forced to conduct an act of necromancy (in no way aligned with any or all of my prior tastes, ho ho).

    The Ice Elves seem an ancestor of the Iron Kingdoms’ Nyss (which doesn’t surprise me, everything else about those Kingdoms is a riff on something done before) and, perhaps it’s the civil war plot or you banging on about piss-stained alleys redolent with the filth of elven suffering, but the whole affair reminds me of the least onerous aspects of Skyrim. I don’t hate these. Also, on the note of grotesque elves, I quite agree, and refer back to the Nyss: the sculptors were not kind and endowed many of the miniatures with an angular gargoyle quality I rather admire, making them ugly without losing their essential elven Otherness. Except for the girl ones, who were of course merely attractive in that Felix Panigua/Chris FitzPatrick kind of way. (Not that I’m complaining – I like a FitzPatrick sorceress as much as the next connoisseur – but it’d have been nice to have a proper grundy-lookin’ female elf as well. And a pretty boy one. Diversity cuts both ways.)

    Those “collect four McGuffins to save the world” jetsetting adventures always seem to wear a bit thin, whether it’s the quality of the freelancer involved or a sole developer starting to run out of steam. Doomstones went the same way. Do you think this whole Elf-crawl would be improved if the best elves were carrying one of the weaker adventures, rather than hogging all the good shit?


    1. Your Systems Thinking approach to adventure paths intrigues me. Can the impact of crap be mitigated by good flavor text? I think it depends on how you are wired. Some might recall several terrific chapters and coast by on the meteoric heights of single entries whilst the whole trundles on. Others with shorter time preferences might find the bitter pain of terrible elves married to sub-par adventures unbearable.


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