Pathfinder Society Scenario #10-03: Death On The Ice

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A Pathfinder Society Scenario designed for levels 5-9.

A message delivered by an unlikely courier sends the PCs to the Crown of the World. After making a dangerous trek across the icy passes and bays of Golarion's northernmost continent, the PCs must come to the aid of a Pathfinder Society expedition whose archaeological excavations have uncovered far more than they expected to find. Can the PCs unravel the mysteries that lie beneath the gelid glaciers of the Crown of the World in time to save their fellow Pathfinders from a frigid fate?

Written by Scott Young.

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****( ) (based on 6 ratings)

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A challenging and interesting jaunt

****( )

I love a good scenario where you really can feel the weight and heft of actually exploring some place; something that really is far too rare considering we work for an exploration guild.

It definitely feels like it was heavily influenced by Bones of Biting Ants as the two have a lot in common on down to being based on weather mechanics and it's simply not as good but this really is a great adventure mold.


Great Writing, Exciting Climax

*****

NO SPOILERS

Death on the Ice is a great scenario set in the frozen north of Golarion. It features excellent writing, a meaty story, and a great climactic encounter. It tests the PCs in all the right ways, and introduces them to some of the lore of the setting that they've probably never been exposed to before. I ran it at low tier using the four-player adjustment and had a really good experience.

SPOILERS!:
The scenario starts at the Pathfinder Society lodge in the Land of the Linnorm Kings, with half-orc Venture-Captain Bjersig Torrsen delivering the briefing. Torrsen (accompanied by his adorable dog Mahki) explains that a PFS field agent named Svala Ice-rider has encountered difficulties while doing historical excavation work of ruins found further north in the Crown of the World. The ruins are believed to be a settlement of the Erutaki (one of the indigenous peoples of the north) that was abandoned mysteriously and that is referenced cryptically as a ominous location in their oral folklore. Communicating through her snow owl, Svala has reported that the site is contaminated with blackfrost (a toxic and corrosive substance that blows from the north pole) and contains a surprisingly large number of undead creatures buried in the ice. Concerned that she might be in over her head and acting on information that has been poorly translated from indigenous languages, Svala has asked for help verifying the translation of the oral histories of the Erutaki and for reinforcements to finish the work before the spring thaw comes and makes travel across the ice pack far more difficult. The PCs are thus charged with travelling via longship to the fishing village of Aaminiut, conferring with the elders there, and then arranging land transportation to the dig site. It's a journey that will take several weeks altogether, which gives a good sense of the vast distances through unforgiving landscapes that one envisions in the Crown of the World. There's a lot to take in with the briefing, much of which will be new to the PCs (and most GMs).

I'll just flag as a note here that there's more information on the area in the Jade Regent adventure path, and that I used the map folio to that AP to good effect, as one of the maps covers the area where the scenario takes place. Later in the scenario, the PCs travel by dogsled, and I found the dogsled tokens in the Vehicles map pack worked really well.

The sea journey to Aaminiut is largely uneventful (with a couple of brief landmarks provided for flavour), with the first encounter starting once the longship reaches sight of the fishing village. Due to large drifting icebergs in the harbor, the longship can't approach the docks directly; instead, villagers come to meet it in canoes to ferry the PCs over. This is when "playful" orcas appear, threatening to capsize the canoes and dump everyone into the freezing cold waters! PCs who can't swim or with poor protection against the cold could be in trouble here, and when I ran the encounter it worked out to be pretty exciting. There's no map provided for the encounter, and I may have made it too easy by allowing the PCs to swim and climb easily onto nearby icebergs to await rescue. The point of the encounter isn't really to drown the PCs (which is hard to do in Pathfinder) but to see if they react violently against the orcas--which are the totem animals for the Erutaki clans of Aaminiuit. If the PCs act aggressively, they'll find the elders in the village far less amenable to conversation and aid.

Once ashore, the PCs can arrange a meeting with the elders of the village, where they'll hear a well-described story (told through both dance and song) of how the village that Svala Ice-rider is excavating once belonged to an evil, cannibalistic tribe infected by malevolent spirits called the Pilungak ("flesh eaters") and was sealed away by the Winter's Favored (spirits of the north) to stop its corruption. The Winter's Favored buried the village under the ice and placed a magical seal over it--but if that seal has been disturbed by Svala's digging, the Pilungak could be released! The elders give the PCs a custom wand of ice shaping to help them repair the seal. I liked this scene, and I appreciated the attention paid to non-Western conceptions of storytelling and symbolism.

After this, the PCs essentially have two options: they can head directly to the dig site, or they can take a detour of a couple of days to seek out a shrine where the Winter's Favored are propitiated in the hopes of making contact and finding out more information about the seal and the evil spirits trapped underneath. If the PCs do reasonably well in impressing the elders, they'll be provided with a local guide, dogsleds, and supplies for either journey. Either journey requires checks to avoid getting lost, with could start to deplete supplies (food and firewood) and make the return journey to Aaminiuit far more dangerous (it's a few weeks to get there and a few weeks to get back). In addition, the PCs have to take the cold into account, and the scenario strikes a reasonable compromise here by asking for Fortitude saves only just prior to each encounter (but making the consequences more severe than normal). My group did a good job with each of these challenges, but they know I'm a stickler for travel hazards so they didn't take the matter lightly. I do wish endure elements didn't trivialize the challenges of travelling in the cold to such an extreme degree, but that's a complaint about the system, not the scenario.

If the PCs head directly for the dig site, they'll have a couple of days' journey before encountering an ambush set by a sort of winter hag called a Qallupilluk (and, at high tier, some aquatic ogres). The encounter takes place on a frozen pond with thin ice that could easily crack and pull in dogsleds, making the encounter far more dangerous. My PCs chose the other option, but this one looked like the most fun to run.

If the PCs head for the shrine, they'll reach it without incident. A giant polar bear is sniffing around and will attack, but I don't think it'll be much of a challenge to most groups. One of the Winter's Favored appears to watch the battle, and here the PCs may get the first glimpse as to what they are: a sort of tribal arctic giant. Interestingly, the Winter's Favored only spoke Giant (not Common), and my PCs failed the checks to use pantomime to explain why they had come and what they had wanted, so they got no assistance from it. If they had, the Winter's Favored accompanies them to the dig site and makes the encounter there far, far easier (because he can fix the seal quite quickly and is effectively immune to the undead's cold-based attacks).

The big climax to the scenario occurs when the PCs reach the dig site. It's very cinematic and exciting, as Svala and her assistances are under assault by several "blackfrost mummies" and their barricades are failing. (depending on how long it took the PCs to arrive, the archaeologists will be more severely hurt or even dead) The PCs can see where the seal has been damaged, but they know the archaeologists will be overrun in just moments, leading to some exciting decision-making and crazy dogsled driving. The way that repairing the seal works is interesting, as using the wand effectively to repair one of the five damaged sections requires a Dexterity or a Craft (Sculpture) check, and the wand has limited charges. Plus, every few rounds, another blackfrost mummy emerges from the ice and attacks anyone trying to repair the seal. PCs with bad luck using the wand can prolong the encounter, and the mummies carry a Constitution-damaging poison effect that can get pretty nasty if the exposure/duration rules for poisons are followed literally (there's some conversation in the forums about this). I thought it was a well-conceived and memorable ending to the scenario, as I like situations where there's a race against time, escalating hazards to deal with, more than just one enemy to handle, and encounters where the PCs are torn between multiple goals.

There's a *lot* to like about Death on the Ice. The writer handled (the fictional) Indigenous cultures and worldviews well, the journeys through the arctic landscapes were reasonably challenging, and the encounters were solid. The ending was fantastic. I've never run or played anything set in this area of Golarion before, but it's definitely something I'll look forward to doing now.


Great fun!

*****

I adored this scenario.

This adventure tasks the PCs with getting some advice from a local tribe of Erutaki and relaying it to Svala Ice-Rider, a Pathfinder of Varki descent who is running an archaeological dig further north. If you’ve got any characters from the region, or who are built for cold environments now is your chance to bring them out to play. There are also lot of animals in this scenario, and a lot of travelling, so druids and rangers are likely to get to show off a bit more than they normally would. There’s wonderfully streamlined rules for the weather and travel that that I think will work really well.

This scenario features Venture-Captain Bjersig Torrsen, a deaf Ulfen half-orc who I thought was wonderful. And his delightful husky Mahki, of course. Along with Bjersig this scenario had a LOT of fun NPCs to interact with (which I won't mention in detail to prevent too many spoilers).

Some of the battles in this scenario can be avoided by clever characters, which might make it a little light on the combat for some groups. That said, the final battle is both complex and very climatic, so I found it balanced out nicely.

This spoiler features information on a creature used in this scenario:
This scenario makes great use of one of my very favourite monsters, the qallupilluk, so I obviously think it’s amazing!

While we’re on the topic of my biases, it should also be noted that the Erutaki are one of my favourite ethnicities in the world of Golarion, so I’m thrilled to see them in print once again!

I thought this scenario handled the very long journey your PCs are destined to undertake very well. Near the end you have more than one route you can take which will change how the final encounter plays out, which I thought was wonderful.

Overall, I adored this scenario. I give it five out of five stars. It's definitely one of my favourites!


Miserable

**( )( )( )

Playing this scenario resulted in one of the most miserable experiences I had in PFS. And because the four-player adjustments felt non-existant, it almost resulted in a TPK twice and someone almost dying in every encounter. The explanation below doesn't reveal anything about the plot but does provide some tactical information about the encounters.

Spoiler:
One encounter you can easily lose if you don't have the requisite skill check to understand the situation and could result in someone dying from the very start of the adventure. The stakes felt way too high for such a "ha gotch ya!" encounter.

The roleplay encounters were painfully short and made me feel like we had little to no input. It was basically just one simple Diplomacy check and then the GM reading half a page of box text. I'm sure the scenario had some cool lore. Unfortunately, the scenario runs into the common problem of having tons of cool lore that the scenario provides very few ways for the players to learn about.

A solo enemy encounter had a mixture of powerful abilities to instantly disable a PC and create giant monsters. She also had such a high AC that only the barbarian could reliably hit her. As a result, a 5v1 fight turned into a 1v2 fight. The four-player adjustment (making the enemy sickened) did nothing to help because almost all of the enemy's abilities do not rely on attack rolls with exception for grappling, which she had such a high CMB that the -2 penalty did not matter. This fight almost resulted in a TPK. While this encounter could have been resolved peacefully, that went out the window because we had a barbarian and a rogue with loose lips.

The exploration section was exceptionally dull and just one player rolling Survival checks. We ran out of food despite the player acing most of the rolls. Not sure why we weren't allowed to have a surplus of rations when we had plenty of storage to carry it all.

I took issue with the final encounter the most. "Timed encounters" are becoming a trope that I gradually started to lose patience due to the fact that it's an encounter that punishes you the longer combat lasts but the "timer" doesn't start until the scenario says so. At best, it creates silly situations where the PCs always arrive in the nick of time. At worst, it railroads the adventure in a way that feels extremely unfair, like the scenario controls the flow of time in a way that always leaves the PCs severely disadvantaged unless they metagame.

As soon as our GM told us that our party sees the final area, we immediately took a minute to prepare. However, the GM counted the minute against the "combat timer," which put us at a huge disadvantage as the encounter infinitely spawns enemies and kills NPCs. When I asked the GM why we weren't able to prepare on the way to the location, the GM replied that the scenario railroads us into being unable to respond to the site until we arrive, despite theoretically being able to see the location a mile away AND having the foreknowledge that it would be dangerous.

Having only four players disadvantaged in a large map full of monsters would have been enough to make this a brutal fight. However, it does not end there. Almost the whole map was difficult terrain (which the GM thankfully forgot about until later). The monsters hit like a truck, had tough defenses we couldn't figure out how to bypass, and had the ability to poison and slow. The only reason we were able to beat this was that my companion creature soaked up enough damage to kill it (instead of a party member), I played heal bot for the barbarian, and the GM had to cut the encounter short when we started to have the situation under control.

Overall, it was not a fun scenario. The encounters were poorly balanced for a low tier party of four. The roleplaying seemed shockingly minimal for a scenario that's supposed to have plenty of lore behind it. It has a potentially lethal "gotcha" moment. And the final encounter can easily railroad you into an unwinnable situation. The only reason I don't give this 1-star is because I strongly suspected the GM wasn't effectively bringing out the best in the scenario.


Excellent flavorful story

****( )

Perspective: Ran this for a high tier party of 3 with a Kyrah pregen.

The flavour starts out amazing, with an adventure setup in the Golarion polar circle, where an interesting people has managed to survive for centuries. As this usually goes, such cultures have some skeletons in at least one closet. The way the local culture is portrayed, is very well done.
Mechanically, the scenario is sound: The mechanical challenges thrown at the party should not be a surprise, and players of this level should be able to handle them. I only wishe the mechanics of the Final encounter were a bit more clear. The description of what mechanics are at work where is somewhat unclear, despite the interesting setup.
The encounters are interesting as well, and what is you be expected within the polar circle of a magic world. Relying on "Real Life" legends for such a location makes for flavorfull encounters. I have my doubts about the punch some of the encounters will have for a 6-player party though, as attack modifiers and action economy might put the party at an advantage.


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Paizo Employee Organized Play Developer

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Pathfinder Society Scenario 10–03: Death on the Ice uses the following maps:

Scenario maps:
Pathfinder Map–Pack: Frozen Sites and Pathfinder Flip-Mat: Winter Forest, as well as a custom map. There's also an unmapped encounter that takes place on open water.


To quote TOZ, "Huzzah!"

Dark Archive

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

If the party are not chased by giant undead penguins I am going to be disappointed. Very, very disappointed.

Paizo Employee Organized Play Lead Developer

3 people marked this as a favorite.
Leg o' Lamb wrote:
If the party are not chased by giant undead penguins I am going to be disappointed. Very, very disappointed.

Brace yourself for disappointment. Applying the giant simple template to undead penguins would make for an unfun encounter, so I made the executive decision to have only normal-sized undead penguins.

Animal distribution retort:
Also, the Crown of the World is the arctic. While Golarion's not bound to arctic vs. antarctic species delineation, there's part of me that winces a bit at penguins in the arctic circle.

No no, we have more than enough other awesome stuff coming up.

Dark Archive

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

So no Mountains of Madness? le sigh


1 person marked this as a favorite.

Oh, I wouldn't say that...


Having now run this scenario 7 times, with at least 2 more scheduled, I have a question. There are two routes to complete this scenario. In one of them, there is a treasure given, which has a substantial value (commiserate with the level 5-9 scenario), but for the other option, there is absolutely no treasure that I can see. Is this intended? I simply put the same treasure in both options to solve the discrepancy, but am wondering whether this lack of treasure in Option Two is intentional, or if there was a mistake in the drafting and the treasure for Option Two was forgotten.

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