Designing Frontier Settings Like Icewind Dale for 5E D&D

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Hey Folks! By now you’re likely aware Wizards of the Coast’s next big offering for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. Set in the titular Icewind Dale this new campaign adventure has been described by Chris Perkins as a horror story and various interviews and discussions of reveal it plays on themes of isolation, paranoia and an unforgiving environment. Inspirations for the book include movies such as Alien, The Thing and even Jaws. I don’t know about you all, but I’m on board. But I don’t play in the Forgotten Realms. Why am I so thrilled for this new book? The answer is simple. I have been working on my own cold weather setting for a while now and this promises to be an amazing tool box for my own personal campaign much in the same way that Tomb of Annihilation proved invaluable in my current nautical, island hopping campaign. I’m sure there will be a good amount of source material surrounding the adventures much like previous 5E D&D books. It has already been revealed there will be a whole lot of new monsters leaning toward cold climates.

5E D&D Icewind Dale frontier
Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden brings 5E D&D adventure to a harsh, frozen region of the Forgotten Realms. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]

Explore the frontier of your 5E D&D world

It is unlikely I’ll ever run Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden as intended but the adventures and material inside should easily adapt to my own homebrew setting. After all Icewind Dale is not too different from my own ideas of a cold and unforgiving land. Icewind Dale has knucklehead trout, my setting has moon eels. Icewind Dale has Ten Towns teetering on the brink of disaster in a frozen land while my setting has a series of forts and trading posts delving ever further into a new land of opportunity. I even have to chuckle because Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden introduces a new special commodity in the form of a magical crystal related to Crenshinibon and my setting has a magical substance called Black Glass that washes down from a massive glacier.

The important takeaway here is homebrew gamers can find a ton of useful things in published adventures like Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. WotC is always very good at packing them with tidbits that can be lifted. Whether it is a chart or table, a new monster or an amazing magic item there is something useful in all of the products. Entire adventures can be lifted from the larger campaigns and dropped quite comfortably into your own campaigns.

Making a good frontier setting for 5E D&D

When creating frontier settings for 5E D&D it is important to recognize not what makes a frontier a frontier in the real world, but what makes it so in your fantasy world. Fantasy settings make the prospect of a frontier function differently than it might in the real world. In a real world medieval setting, gold and resources are incredibly difficult to obtain whereas in a fantasy setting many resources are already amassed in areas such as dungeons, vast mines and ancient ruins. I’ll examine the specifics of a fantasy frontier below.

Placing your frontier setting

In a fantasy setting, a frontier must be far enough away or difficult enough to reach that casual adventurers and explorers are not going to already have explored there. It should be remote enough to be of limited interest or use to the powers that be in the fantasy world. At the same time it must still be part of the world but set on the extreme edge of the known world. It must be close enough to tempt intrepid sorts to take the frontier to task but not so close that this is easily done. Getting to your fantasy frontier must be a quest for those who go there or at least a place of last resort of such specialized interest to attract only a few.

Choosing the frontier environment

A frozen waste like Icewind Dale or a cold wilderness such as my own frontier setting are some examples of a frontier setting. They are unforgiving, challenging environments for 5E D&D adventurers. Food, magic, equipment and even hit points and hit dice face constant draining by these harsh places out to kill the party. Icewind Dale or a desert are extreme examples. They are both places where almost everything from the environment that could easily support the party is missing. But a frontier need not be a wasteland to challenge adventurers.

On the other extreme from the wasteland frontier is a jungle frontier. Massive environments such as the Amazon or the deep jungles of Africa are far from wastelands. They are abundant with small prey and edible foods and they are warm. This same abundance challenges adventurers. The heat of a jungle can and will kill you and while the diversity is amazing in such a place it can be very hard for adventurers to know what foods and animals are safe to eat. Add to this diversity works directly against party interests. An arctic environment has many large, dangerous predators but a jungle can kill a party with a thousand tiny, biting, rotting, sickening cuts. Of course the jungle has big creatures out to kill you too.

Frozen wastes and steaming jungles are the extreme environments of frontiers. There are plenty of less extreme but still resource draining environments. Take a temperate forest region or a wide open plain. Both have milder climates and tend to be remarkably sparse in terms of survival. While animal food sources might be plentiful, adventurers discover anything else they might need is difficult to find. Temperate forests are often wet, sparse places with very little for intelligent races to eat. Plains are dry and often experience dangerous weather conditions and are also sparse in consumable vegetation.

All of the examples above assume mundane environments and not fantastical environments, which of course can be made even less hospitable. No real world jungle explorer ever had to contend with giant insects or undead. Likewise molds and fungus, while still potentially dangerous or even deadly, are not the same as in 5E D&D.

Frontier residents

Let’s face it, 5E D&D is a game where no matter where you go, somebody already lives there. This is not too different from the real world and inhospitable environments assume the frame of reference of a visiting adventurer or immigrant population and not local populations who would have had generations of living in the environment to master it.

So, who lives in your fantasy frontier?

The answer to this should be either not too many people, one big group or a combination somewhere in the middle. The goal here is to establish that while people may live in your frontier, they are not everywhere and their effect on the region is not so great that it no longer feels out of the way and well, frontier like. The best model for this is going to be sparse settlements with possibly diverse peoples (humanoid races included) with the presence of monstrous and animal threats being more the norm. It would be possible to have a single culture dispersed throughout the region, spreading from a single or a few bases of power but in doing so you want to make sure most encounters with these people deal with outliers and the folk on the frontier of their own culture. In the end you want to avoid an abundance of civilized peoples who can provide aid too readily to adventurers.

Establish a frontier base

A frontier base helps make a setting playable. Providing players with a base allows them to feel they have a safety net even when it’s difficult to access at times. Having a base area can even add to the sense of danger and foreboding characters experience in frontier settings. Knowing relative safety is just out of reach enhances feelings of dread and desperation along with the cold realization that the safety net may be destroyed while out adventuring.

In Icewind Dale, this base setup is done through the presence of Ten Towns. In my own setting the base environment is provided less by civilization and more by the lay of the land where there is a burgeoning fort on the edge of the sea serving as a gateway into an ever more dangerous interior. My base element is further established through relations with many of the local peoples as well as a number of trading posts. In both cases there are substantial enough resources at the starting area of the frontier to allow players a reasonable sense of support, even if they may find themselves hopelessly cut off from it at every turn.

Base environments also provide a good source of low level adventure for campaigns starting in the setting. Parties of adventurers can perform various mundane tasks as they gain experience and resources needed to tackle the more dangerous and unforgiving parts of the frontier. As characters advance in level and learn more about what adventure and rewards wait for them in the dangerous unknown, they can leave the safety of the base environment. There is, of course, no reason higher level dangers might not come to visit or even spawn from the base environment. This is a very effective way to shake up the characters and remind them the frontier is dangerous anywhere and everywhere.

Frontier reasoning

Of any frontier setting, determining why people chose to live there may be one of the most important questions to ask yourself. There must be some reason the frontier is important, something unattainable through simple settlement or conquest (though these may be the ultimate goal). It usually best to make this some sort of material commodity and can easily be a MacGuffin. In 5E D&D there is even more merit to making sure the commodity has some sort of value to the adventurers, the story and the world. You could make this something more esoteric but doing so makes it less likely the regular folks, who are key to establishing your base area, would be making their way to the frontier setting. Real world examples of such commodities that drew people to inhospitable frontiers are precious metals and stones, oil, rubber, coal and nearly anything with value to the industrialization of Earth.

But we’re not talking about Earth. In a 5E D&D fantasy world gold and riches seem to pile up everywhere and the needs of industrialized civilization have rarely (I’m looking at you Eberron) reared their heads. Most fantasy settings seem to manage a rather inert medievalism that avoids the needs for massive resource exploitation or the massing of riches shaping our own world history. Fantasy kingdoms tend to conveniently have everything they need close to home and we seldom see the examination of what makes kingdoms tick beyond elements generating adventures. Parties of adventurers rarely travel far and wide to establish trade relations with foreign powers or to locate a source for natural resources that can be accumulated by the power base and consumed by the masses.

None of this is to say there shouldn’t be any sort of mundane industry in your frontier setting. Icewind Dale has fish and furs as key mundane industries supporting the surrounding communities and my own setting has similar things. These are needed as they fuel the day to day, keeping the base area functioning and providing hooks for adventures.  Your frontier setting needs something special to attract people to the region and keep them coming.

Whatever special commodity you decide upon must be attainable by common folk but rare enough that it cannot easily be amassed. It must have a value beyond simple material wealth or mundane industry. As mentioned in the introduction both Icewind Dale and my own setting utilize a magical crystalline substance as their special commodity. At the time of this writing, to what degree these special crystals play into the plot and setup of Icewind Dale remains to be seen but in my own setting Black Glass is a potent arcane substance with a number of uses in magic. When deciding on the special commodity making your frontier worth venturing to, the important part is it has some sort of value not only to the world at large but also something the characters can use. This doesn’t mean it has to be easy for adventurers to exploit, and it might require special skills or additional resources they do not have.

Final thoughts on 5E D&D frontier settings

Like any campaign setting, a fantasy frontier needs room for adventure. It should never be a static place with nothing going on. When going through the above topics, consider and note down any adventure ideas you can come up that might tie into them. At the same time make a quick list of the monsters and races inhabiting your frontier, noting how they interact with your settlements and each other. As you do both of these things you start to see greater plots coming into place.

In my setting several native human tribes live scattered around the bare area. These tribes have different outlooks on the frontier explorers and thus different relationships. The current state of things is such that there is no open conflict between these tribes and the newcomer explorers. Conflict still occurs but on a circumstantially specific basis. There are non-human races inhabiting the region with their own motivations and needs conflicting with those of the tribal humans and the frontier explorers. This creates a fruitful environment ripe for adventure hooks and conflict.

It is also important you build special locations into your setting. These can be natural or fantastic locations to feed your adventures. In a cold arctic setting, this might be a hot spring or a mountain. Animal graveyards, ancient ruins and sacred spaces are also good ideas for inclusion as they tend to create usable locations without adding extra population centers to your frontier, which ought to be sparsely populated and isolated. This is not to say you can’t have groups of powerful creatures like giants, undead or fey in your setting. These groups won’t push the population dynamic and the concentration of power in a smaller group of creatures is useful in creating conflict and drama, which equals adventure hooks.

One final consideration is ways for adventurers to find and obtain aid. Outside of the base area a party of adventures may find themselves needing aid. It is important to figure out or be willing to invent ways for this to happen. Caution must be applied when doing so, otherwise you risk ruining the frontier experience. Aid found on the frontier should come at a cost or through some sort of side quest. It could mean seeking a specific monster or people or going to a remote special location like a healing spring but whatever it is, it must not be easily obtained.

Exceptions to any of the previously discussed considerations and guidelines can always be applied but consider these exceptions carefully and base them on the norm for the rest of your gaming world. If your world is poor in iron, then iron can be the commodity bringing people to the frontier. If your frontier is more populous then you must consider the possibility for colonial conflict in any campaign taking place there. You may decide your frontier is not inhospitable, and why the powers of your world have not already spread there such as distance, a natural barrier or psychological limitations. Any exception you make shifts the dynamic and make the frontier experience more difficult to achieve.

Things to be careful of when you are developing your frontier

  • Overpopulation. Do not have too many people, societies or civilizations in the area.
  • Abundance of Basic Resources. Life on the frontier should be rough and resources scarce or difficult and dangerous to obtain.
  • Lack of Conflict. Make sure there are enough things to challenge characters beyond the environment. Pay particular attention to how resource scarcity and commodities interact with the needs of the people and monsters inhabiting the area.
  • Nowhere to Go. There must be places for adventurers to go otherwise they will never engage with the hardships of the frontier.
  • No Aid. This may seem contrary to every bit of advice I have given here but, as you are building a gaming setting, it is important to consider how the adventures will find help when they are far away from their base area.
  • No Reason to be There. If there is no valid reason for people and adventurers to go to your frontier, they will not. Make sure you have a good MacGuffin.

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Follow Eli Arndt:
Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Eli Arndt grew up and resides in Washington state. After a chance encounter with Dungeons & Dragons at the age of 8, he has been a lifelong fan of role-playing games of all sorts. Deeply interested in history, anthropology, and archaeology, he enjoys creating grounded game worlds and he dabbles in writing adventures, building monsters and running far more game than he really should. He has also worked as a designer, sculptor and producer of miniatures and love to talk about little toy soldiers and crafting scenery. With a gaming family, he has a special interest in teaching the hobby to others and helping players and GMs grow and develop in the hobby.

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