Creeping Cold (2019)
Ian McGarty & Jason Gartner (Silver Bulette Games)
Levels 3 – 5
Creeping Cold is an S&W conversion of what I assume is a 3.5 adventure and reads like something the authors worked really hard on and probably had a lot of fun running online or on conventions. My hatred for many of the 3.5 adventure design conventions is too strong and it makes too many fundamental errors for me to even get near a recommendation.
The characters get snowed in in a caravanserai during an unusually fierce snow storm. One of the guests that also got snowed in is some sort of Werespider. People panic as lifestock is found dead and eventually the chase leads to a ruin under a circle of standing stones for the final showdown.
Ugh, where do I begin. As Chris Hall noted, Creeping Cold introduces us to weather effects which play an important roll in disincentivizing the party to go outside in the storm in the first part, and as general nuisance in the second part. As cold effects rules they are fairly robust, abstracting various factors such as the wearing of metal weaponry or cold weather gear into modifiers on a single saving throw. I think the key here is that the effects increase as more saves are failed, giving the rules some versimilitude. Frostbite does not instantly set on but gradually worsens and eventually leads to the limb being lost altogether, and recovery time is a day for each phase of hypothermia or heat loss. There IS a bullshit section that recommends the effects of weather be increased if the characters are higher level, which is worded in a way that indicates that the same weather should have more deleterious effects on high level characters for balance reasons. This type of Elder Scroll encounter balancing persists throughout the adventure and betrays wrongheaded focus on encounter balance that D20 did its best to instill in even the most resilient GM’s.
My eyebrow was raised when I was next presented with an NPC quick reference chart, a charming and much needed concession to actual gameplay that is actually of great use. It is perhaps a pity that this section is essentially a movie that masquerades as a murder mystery, with zero interactivity and the PCs utterly unable to affect the outcome.
There’s almost 20 NPCs, each with multiple paragraphs of text, prompting instant confusion and making me scroll down to double check whether I had not, in my absent-minded state, accidentally acquired a conversion for some sort of LARPing system, an impression not helped by the portraits of real actors next to each NPC.
Bjorn, the Blade is a common visitor to the caravanserai. Currently, he is heading
south, following rumors of hobgoblins massing and the opportunity for work.
Bjorn is in his early 40s, and a veteran of several wars and numerous border skirmishes. The signs of his trade can be read in the scars on his hands and arms. He keeps his hair loosecropped and his long beard braided. Bjorn is superstitious, believing in spirits and demons influencing battles and events. He often talks about demons, influencing weather in particular. Bjorn speaks in a rough and crass manner, cutting straight to the heart of things. Many of his profanities are unique amalgamations of creatures and bodily functions. Bjorn displays few or no manners, except to Jade who he makes awkward attempts at proper manners. Bjorn secretly loves Jade, although Alina and Zyta know this and it is obvious to a casual observer. Bjorn wants to find a mythical gem, the Algid Cerulean. He believes it holds magical properties to keep a person warm regardless of the weather around them.
Fuck this. The amount of detail is stiffling and would be unnecessary even if the adventure were some sort of complicated murder mystery where the killer’s identity must be carefully gleaned from clues pieced together from the backgrounds of all the different inconsistencies and red herrings. Since there is no mystery, this means the background is going to be channeled into idle chatter and fluff, an irritant if kept under control, the bane of even decent adventures if allowed free rein.
This is exacerbated further by the russian novel type description of the common room in the inn, a strange abberation since every other room is described perfectly; one or two noticeable details, followed by gameable content (i.e. treasure, books that can discovered, object that can be interacted with).
And then follows a 4 day timeline and the DREADED BOXED TEXT APPEARS.
The blizzard comes with wrath. The wispy clouds of the early afternoon form into a white skyline and your nostrils begin detecting a lack of other scents which is rapidly replaced by the warm moist redolence of impending snow.
Tiny tight flakes began stinging your faces as you steadfastly plodded along the road. Tales tell of a caravanserai several miles forward along the road. With stout walls and a solid roof, this place will allow you to ride out the looming storm.
The writing is not terrible but the boxed text sometimes expands to encompass up to four paragraphs. Bryce already made the point; Studies have shown that player attention wanders after so much as three sentences. Kill your darlings.
The 4 day timeline is repeated several times throughout the adventure in confusing fashion but it is not greatly important since nothing the PCs do is meant to affect it. Day 1 they get to the inn, day 2 a dead pig, a bunch of clues and you have a fight with a random ice troll (at level 3, probably fatalities will ensue, the cold weather affects your ability to use fire on it), day 3 a dead horse and day 4 someone gets attacked and the PCs track the werespider to a nearby circle of standing stones…I think?
There’s a nice set of clues the PCs can find with each animal but these clues are meaningless as anything but a vague sort of build-up since A) there is no meaningful way in which the clues can be used to find the identity of the werespider and B) a werespider is not a creature of well known folklore so the clues won’t subconsciously prime the PCs to expect a confrontation. At best they signal to the PCs that some sort of monstrous spider is involved, which would admittedly get me nervous.
Anyway, there’s some fuck you business going on with the adventure instructing that some dude’s horse will die even if the PCs decide to post guards. Are you sure you wanted to make an adventure? There’s a missed opportunity here of the different NPCs, some of them armed, starting to suspect eachother of wrongdoing and cabin-fever setting in. That would have been fucking interesting. Who here has seen John Carpenter’s the Thing? The module barely makes use of its premise. A waste.
The overland section is three random encounters, not much to see here; wolves, some natural habitat and possibly an encounter with a treant, a rare bit of non-violent interaction. For 3.5e this probably would not have been terrible, there’s a note where PCs get a bonus if they come up with something clever, giving lip service to the central point of DnD.
The dungeon proper is 8 rooms at the end of a corridor radiating out from a central point. The cold effects make their come-uppance here, complete with slippery floors, extra cold saves and some nice-scenery of were-spiders frozen in mid-transformation. The encounters are mostly straight up combat and 3e treasure, with a single interesting feature. The runes in one of the rooms can be “charged” by a spellcaster in order to “trap” a creature in ice, something that can be used to capture the girl infected with werespider-ism in a nonlethal fashion, which is rewarded in the adventure.
There’s two magic weapons in the game, each accompanied with their own rhyme, which I dig, and noted as +1 Silvered Longsword or +1 Cold Iron Battleaxe. Fucking D20. Magic items and creatures in this are alright, but the writing, for all its verbosity, lacks something of the mythical atmosphere of Beyond the Ice-Fall, being mired in modern tropes and DnDisms. I don’t know whether its the two 65 pound female caravan guards or the elf sisters running an inn but the McFantasy vibe has seldom been stronger. It doesn’t feel like a living, breathing place and the fantastic location near the standing stones seems mostly there because there needed to be a dungeon at the end.
Creeping Cold is charmingly amateuristic from a production standpoint and comes well equipped with maps, hand-outs and little pictures of actual actors but that doesn’t compensate for its myriad of grinding, crippling flaws. What few whiffs of creativity are present are utilized improperly and in scattershot fashion and the whole never quite congeals. I would recommend a scattering of wrapping paper you find in the ditch next to the freeway before I would recommend this adventure. Probably pretty fun to play this at the author’s convention game though.