Candlekeep Mysteries was first announced as a showcase for the Dungeons & Dragons community, the response was obviously quite positive. A diverse group of designers being brought in to give their spin on the Forgotten Realms, and at a location that has long been a source of mystery and intrigue? Sign us up! While the book won’t be out until the 16th, Wizards of the Coast was kind enough to send me a review copy to check out. Normally I’d do one big review like I had with previous books. But unlike those, Candlekeep Mysteries is a collection of seventeen adventures plus the new Candlekeep lore. That’s a lot to try to stuff into one review. So, because I love you, this is going to be my very first TWO PART tabletop RPG review. This part will cover the first eight adventures in the book as well as the new lore, and tomorrow’s will cover the remaining nine. Grab a cup of tea and your favorite cursed tome, and let’s dive into Candlekeep Mysteries.
A Note On Covers
While the art on the standard edition is gorgeous like we’ve come to expect, the alt-cover for Candlekeep Mysteries is one of the prettiest RPG books I’ve ever had. Seriously. Simen Meyer’s elegant gold filigree, embedded so delicately into the red cover, looks straight off of the shelves of Candlekeep itself. You should be supporting your FLGS anyway, but if you can you absolutely need to make sure you get the alt-cover if you get this book. It’s damn near a display piece.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Lore For The Lore Masters!
Can’t have a book containing all of the lore of the world without adding some lore for it! Candlekeep has been a bit of an elephant in the room for the Forgotten Realms in 5e, since it’s obviously a place with a lot of importance to the realm as well as containing lots of juicy secrets to uncover. Candlekeep Mysteries goes some way to develop it, both in the beginning and in smatterings of lore throughout the rest of the book. There’s only about 10 pages of description for Candlekeep itself, but we get a good look at how its set up, how its organized, and who adventurer’s will run into should they visit. It’s laid out more like a small town than a library. They really left a lot of room for DM’s who want to do their own adventures in Candlekeep, which is nice. It does have the feeling of a nexus of magical knowledge thanks to the many portals (my favorite being the use of Mordekainen’s magnificent mansion to expand the sleeping quarters) and the spectral dragon living in the basement.
They fleshed out Candlekeep with a colorful little cast of characters to keep things running, each distinct but easy to mold for a DM. Keep an eye out especially for Little One, a super-intelligent ogre trying to better himself who can work as a guide and entry point for the adventure. I think players are really going to like him.
The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces
by Michael Polkinghorn
Our first adventure is probably the least surprising, thematically, of the bunch. In this, players are investigating a mage who disappeared inside a conjured mansion. It’s got lots of magical traps and puzzles, most of which center around books and the trappings of wizardry. Sort of a D&D escape room, really. Polkinghorn sets a rather whimsical tone for a mystery and definitely doesn’t go as dark as many of the other adventures in the book do. For a first level adventure, you definitely could do worse. This especially works well if you plan on doing a more Candlekeep-centric campaign.
Mazroth’s Mighty Digressions
by Alison Huang
I think that this adventure really opens the book up and shows off the possibilities of the format. A book on Candlekeep’s shelves turns into a strange vampiric orb, and its up to the adventurers to investigate why it is that it did that, which takes them to Baldur’s Gate and a bookshop run by a strange group of jackalweres. There’s very little combat in this one (though it’s D&D so violence is always an option), and the writing of the adventure encourages you to investigate and work things out with the NPC’s rather than just go in fireballs blazing. The end is pretty satisfying no matter what you do, and Huang injects a lot of complexity into a pretty short adventure.
Book of the Raven
By Chris Perkins
“Book of the Raven” kind of reads like Perkins is doing some advertisement for D&D’s May release, Van Richten’s Guide To Ravenloft. Not only is the titular in-universe book about the Vistani (bringing them into the Forgotten Realms proper for the first time), it also directly references the Domains of Dread that will be a big feature of the upcoming release. The whole adventure is as dark and gothic as the ones you’d see in Strahd’s realm. There’s a big spooky house, mausoleums, ghosts of dead daughters, possessed statues, revenge. The works. It’s as if some wizard used their magic to transport a tiny part of Ravenloft into the Forgotten Realms…which might actually be what Chris Perkins has the power to do. Coolest part of this is the inclusion of Wereravens, who are a unique kind of lycanthrope perfect for the goth in your party who needs something to complete the look. And yes, there are rules for it so you actually can become one if you want.
A Deep And Creeping Darkness
by Sarah Madsen
This is our first adventure to feature creepy fae, but it’s not going to be out last. Another horror adventure, this one investigates the apparent disappearance of a town despite being located atop a very lucrative platinum mine. It’s a good length adventure that moves around a lot and lets players flex both their role-playing and combat skills. The meenlocks that are the primary monsters of this adventure are a particularly creepy addition to the world that should have some legs for people who need a darker fae for their story. The only problem with this adventure is I think DM’s might have to work on the hook a bit. The one included relies entirely on a party’s curiosity to get them interested, which is a dangerous thing to assume. Once they’re hooked there won’t be a problem, and Madsen includes plenty of little hooks and possibilities for more play after the primary conflict is over.
Shemshime’s Bedtime Rhyme
by Ari Levitch
This adventure is the third horror story in a row, and is basically a love letter to The Babadook. It’s actually set within the confines of Candlekeep, and begins with players being forces to repeat a creepy rhyme over and over. They and the others around them are then quarantined (which is more topical now than it was when written) and the source of the curse must be found. It’s kind of the “bottle” episode of the book, since the location doesn’t change and the cast is limited to just a few people. There’s some genuinely creepy parts (the titular book is actually a clockwork pop-up book that depicts the party’s grisly murders), but I think the author definitely wanted to show off how clever he could be in an adventure. It’s also got kind of an annoying layout, since the entire sequence of the adventure’s events are laid out before we actually know where everything is. Confusing on first read and makes me wonder if there should have been more uniform standards for adventure layout.
The Price of Beauty
by Mark Hulmes
An acolyte has gone missing and, say it with me folks, it’s up to the party to find him. This one actually takes you inside the book (well, there’s a portal) and is probably one of my favorite adventures in the book. Set around a seemingly idyllic spa run by a trio of mysterious elves who are not what they seem, “The Price of Beauty” contains lots of ways for the DM to mess with the PCs while still having a pretty fair mystery at its core. The characters and villains are quite memorable, and the themes of desire and perception are woven in perfectly. It’s got lots of connections with the Sword Coast as well, making it one of the easier adventures to build on in the book.
Book of Cylinders
by Graeme Barber
Two words: Crab Maze.
Barber’s adventure is a throwback to a simpler age of D&D. A tribe of adorable frog people have been displaced by evil snake people (or sneeple) and need help defeating them. The elegance of Graeme’s writing of this adventure is that he takes a setup steeped in some of the worst aspect of D&D’s history and brings it into modern sensibilities. The Grippli, who he brought back after a long absence, are more than just some “primitive” frog tribe and the Yuan-ti, who are basically where D&D dumped all its Orientalist stereotypes, are complex and divided like anyone else. It’s also unique from a lot of the other adventures in that it takes place mostly outdoors, on the side of the sea or atop the docks that make up the aforementioned crab maze. And its a good break from all the horror stories its surrounded by. The biggest miss here is that D&D didn’t include stats for playable Grippli, but hopefully that gets rectified soon.
Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor
by Derek Ruiz
Speaking of horror…let’s go full Lovecraft. This time the book’s haunted (loads gun) and your task is to figure out who did the killing. The answer to that question leads on a semi-winding involving travel to both Baldur’s Gate and a little village called Greenfast where a dark wizard and his Cult of the Burnt Tongue have set up shop and doing what cults to the elder gods often do: murder. So much murder. There’s rituals, sacrifice, possession, tentacles, all lurking under the feet of the charming villagers you get to meet. And underneath all that is a tragic love story that helps player investment quite a bit.
So THAT is the first half of Candlekeep Mysteries. There’s a whole lot more where that came from so be sure to check in tomorrow for the second half of my review!
You can pre-order Candlekeep Mysteries at your FLGS, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon as well as on digital marketplaces like D&D Beyond and Roll20. It releases on March 16, 2020.
And don’t forget to check out my series of interviews with some of the authors of Candlekeep over on All Bark, No Dice!
Images via D&D
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