Defrosted: Snows of Summer AP#67
by GM Dimi
Rime of the Frostmaiden is out and everyone here at Flanked Games is filled with excitement. So much excitement, in fact, that we are not going to play it. Instead, for our first ever adventure review we are going to defrost (pun intended) one of Pathfinder's underrated adventure paths; Reign of Winter. So hang on to your beanies and join us for a spoiler-light module exploration of this winter themed alternative to fill your quarantine days.
The Snows of Summer – Reign of Winter AP#67 by Neil Spicer
The Snows of Summer module is part of the Reign of Winter campaign that embodies Paizo's take on the horrific Baba Yaga and the host of bloodthirsty faeries that she has unleashed upon Golarion, Pathfinder's official campaign setting. Since it is the first installment in the series, it sets the tone of what we are to expect from this adventure path; a combination of survival horror, grotesque encounters and a constant feeling of alienness that will challenge your PCs every step of the way into Irrisen and beyond. Even though the scenario suffers at times from railroad-itis, toomuchcombat-iosis and other similar afflictions common in published adventures, it still manages to make a compelling read and adds a lot to the legend of the extraplanar hag.
Art and Layout
Paizo has a tradition of delivering modules of excellent quality and Snows of Summer is no exception. The layout is such that the adventure is easy to navigate and most of the information is readily accessible, making GM tasks all the more easier. Something to note here is Paizo's decision to avoid adding stat blocks to encounters whenever possible, so as to save valuable space for other things. This is also done by many other mainstream RPG publishers and is usually a pain for GMs, since they have to refer to other book resources (usually more than one) before running the encounter, thus adding a lot to their prep time. But in the case of rules-heavy systems like Pathfinder this layout decision makes perfect sense. Having all stat blocks inside the module would greatly affect the book's flow and size. Fortunately all the information you'll need is available online for easy reference.
The module's artwork is top notch, as expected from a Paizo title, but from the trove of talented artists contributing to the adventure, two of them really stand out. Sara Otterstätter's black and white works clearly establish the haunting, fairytale atmosphere permeating the story, conveying folkloric Slavic imagery with imaginative fluidity. Miguel Regodon Harkness, on the other hand, has a more detailed, realistic approach to his NPC portraits, so masterfully done, that every single one of his drawings emits a distinct personality and feeling, compelling the GM to roleplay them accordingly. Between the two of them the mood is expertly set, making one wonder whether the module needed to include so many different artists with such diverse styles. Adding more people to a project, no matter how skilled, may result in a worse overall product, sacrificing aesthetic consistency for visual variety, and that may as well be the case here.
One other questionable choice is that of the cover art. Even though the piece itself by Craig J Spearing is excellent, its subject matter is not doing the adventure's content justice. The giant mantis monster is out of place and surrounded by an aura of ridiculousness that invokes images of an Italian swords-and-sandals movie rather than a Brothers Grimm nightmarish treatise. Baba Yaga against a desolate winter wasteland background would have sufficed and, in a way, would have been much more ominous and exciting than a giant bug gone haywire.
Finally, the full color area and combat maps provided by veterans Jared Blando and Robert Lazzaretti, are of a very good quality and make excellent tableaus of conflict and exploration. They are detailed enough to incentivize the PCs without being overwhelmed by minutiae. The final location map can be kind of confusing and would greatly benefit from a side view image, but all maps are otherwise expertly designed. Keep in mind that not all combat encounters of the adventure are accompanied by a respective battlemap. This may present a problem to some groups, especially those playing on VTTs, where it's more difficult to whip up a hand-drawn sketch to orientate everyone playing. As a result the GM would have to do some extra work or otherwise resort to the soulless empty grid. A better option is to experience these encounters descriptively, without a map, so that they are quickly paced and you can move on to the more substantial parts of the adventure.
Game Design and Story
It is immediately apparent while reading this module that this is no ordinary adventure path. Neil Spicer and the rest of the development team at Paizo have gone overboard with this one, pulling all stops to service a fitting hommage to the infamous Baba Yaga. Straight from the introductory low-level entry of the series, the scope of the story is rather ambitious, involving an end-of-days magical ritual, mythical NPCs and over-the-top battles. Baba Yaga's hut holds the promise of plane-hopping and, despite the PCs not getting to it until later on in the campaign, extra-dimensional travel is essential to the plot. All of the above elements, combined with the horrific gloom of the Slavic fables that this module draws upon, weave a page-turner of an adventure.
Navigating Snows of Summer's challenges is no walk in the park, though; more of an uncontrolled skid on the thin ice of a frozen lake. The environmental factor plays a decisive role in the majority of the encounters and can be crippling to low level characters that struggle even in the sunniest of days. It is very easy to have your spellcasters turn into endure elements spell dispensers, making their players dead inside while decommissioning all of their magical arsenal. To add insult to injury, the adventure progresses through a barrage of combat encounters with little breathing room for respite or roleplaying. Whether the adventure is manageable hugely depends upon character creation choices. In any case a four-player party is going to have a hard time regardless of an optimal class and ability roster. Five or more PCs are more likely to handle things better but even parties of these sizes are most probably going to need a helping wand. One thing is for certain, that any inexperienced GMs will have a hard time joggling all these snowballs. Veteran playing groups, on the other hand, may find this level of challenge preferable over other more accessible paths.
The gravest flaw of this adventure is its unrelenting railroading. The whole scenario seems to be afraid of player agency, overwhelming the characters with one combat encounter after another on a preordained route, limiting choice every step of the way. The plot at some point goes so far as to place a Geas type of effect upon the PCs, committing them into action, as if the incentive of saving the world wasn't enough. It is likely that most roleplayers are going to find this off-putting since this approach in essence prevents the story from blossoming into a truly interactive affair and funnels it into a PvE battlefest. Luckily GMs can totally disregard the Geas thing without any serious story repercussions and with a little bit of extra effort, create a more open setting from the seeds provided in the module.
So, a bunch of unnecessary puns later, it all boils down to this; Snows of Summer is a tough, unforgiving adventure, moving on Snowpiercer's railroad tracks. Nevertheless, it has a ton of great ideas and is easily adoptable to any campaign setting by those GMs who are searching for something new to add to the Baba Yaga legend. It is a shame that as written it doesn't take the risks it needs to be elevated into a classic, but still, it remains a nice addition to a gamer's bookcase and an inspiration for an epic campaign filled with maniacal cackling over bubbling cauldrons.
For further advice on how to make the most of your Snows of Summer experience check out the Adventure Fixer podcast.