Friday, April 12, 2024

The Wild Beyond The Witchlight Stretches D&D To Its Limits

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It’s been about a year since the last big Dungeons & Dragons adventure dropped. At the time, the bleak and sometimes horrific world of Icewind Dale felt emblematic for where we found ourselves mid-pandemic. We were entering an uncertain winter and hoped that, like in the adventure itself, the world would right itself in the spring.

Obviously, that didn’t happen.

The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, 2021’s D&D adventure announced at D&D Live, comes during what should have been a celebratory time, finally getting over the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to a mass vaccine roll out. But with the Delta variant rearing its ugly head and the possibility of more lockdowns on the horizon, the escapism in this adventure is stronger than ever. While I doubt that the writers intended to be a fantastical example of all the things we wish we could do while stuck indoors, it definitely felt that way in the end. It’s a weird little story, full of colorful characters and strange places. It’s the first adventure to allow for a totally pacifistic run, as well as the first in a long time to deal heavily with the Feywild and its denizens. And it serves as a perfect blueprint for what Dungeons & Dragons can really be.

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers for The Wild Beyond The Witchlight: A Feywild Adventure

Roll Up, Roll Up

Witchlight Carnival big top scene
Fire-throwers, acrobats, and more fill the Witchlight Carnival Big Top

The first thing that sticks out about the adventure is that it’s truly setting agnostic. Rather than being tied to specific parts of the Forgotten Realms like previous adventures, all that’s required is a way to connect with the Witchlight Carnival somehow. It comes with two plot hooks: a fairly straightforward “old guy gives you a quest” setup and a much more interesting one where each player has had something stolen from them by the fey as children. This can be as (relatively) mundane as a few inches of height or as wild as your sense of creativity. Little personal touches to help with roleplaying and development happen a lot in this book, and it’s really nice to see.

The Witchlight Carnival is the perfect gateway into the Feywild, capturing the whimsy and woe inherent to the setting. Snail races and bubble rides abound, and a calliope jingles merrily over the grounds. But there’s plenty of shadows hanging around, and dark creatures flitting beneath the tents and around the wagons. The big mechanic here is the “mood” of the carnival, which acts like a check on the vibes of the party. Do good things, the carnival gets a little brighter and the music gets peppier. Do bad things or harsh the groove of the patrons and employees, and storms start to brew as the calliope grows more and more discordant. It’s here you’ll meet Mr. Witch and Mr. Light, the pair of Shadow Elves who run the carnival, as well as learn about the Hourglass Coven (the big bads) and their prisoner, the archfey Zybilna.

Beyond The Looking Glass

Wild Beyond the Witchlight Getaway Gang art
There’s a lot of feral children in Prismeer, and the Getaway Gang are here to help

The meat of the adventure is set in Zybilna’s mirror realm of Prismeer, now shattered and under the control of the Hourglass Coven. The party will travel through the realms of Hither, Thither, and Yon to get to the hags who make up the Coven, get back what was stolen, and hopefully get to Zybilna to free her. These section reminded me of the 3D platformers that came out on the N64 and PS1. It’s very Banjo-Kazooie. You enter a big themed world and collect enough to challenge the boss at the end, doing little mini games and meeting strange people as you go. It’s a nice compromise between truly open-ended exploration and on-rails adventuring, a balance that neither Rime of the Frostmaiden nor Descent Into Avernus really nailed. You can also really see the D&D team letting their creativity shine here with the amount of chaotic strangeness that can happen around Prismeer. Chattering frog heads, crashing air balloons, talking oil cans, and the love story between a flower and a bee all play parts in the journey. It’ll be hard for a group to hit every weird and wonderful encounter put in this book, like in Icewind Dale, which makes it much easier for groups to repeat the adventure down the line.

The first area, Hither, is a big swamp filled with strange bullywugs, goblins, and a very froggy witch. It’s the most “normal” of the three realms and goes by pretty quickly. Thither is a bit more interesting, a magical forest full of lost children and cursed fairy rings. Finally there’s Yon, a mountainous land where players will have to take part in a “tragedy” play to get the attention of the hag in charge. This, by the way, is a really cool piece of roleplaying that I think uses the mechanisms to D&D very well in an interesting way.

Following Your Heart

The Palace of Heart’s Desire

Finally you’ll get to the Palace of Heart’s Desire where Zybilna (who, spoilers, is actually Iggwilv) is being kept. You don’t even have to have defeated the hags to get here or to free the prisoner, and a truly pacifist run might not even deal with them much at all. But it’s a much more linear “final dungeon,” though there’s the fun added twist of D&D’s very own Legion of Doom (The League of Malevolence) and Justice League (Valor’s Call), featuring classic 80’s D&D characters like Warduke, Ringlerun, and Strongheart. Even if you’re not a nostalgic Gen X’er, these cameos are a fun little distraction that also serve as a good hook for future battles.

Agdon Longscarf lives to fight another day

The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is an ambitious book. Since it’s totally divorced from the Forgotten Realms, it has to do a lot of lifting to develop the strange new worlds at its core. It’s much more of a travel story than previous releases, being more about the journey than what lies at the end of the dungeon. While it still lacks the narrative clarity of Descent Into Avernus or Curse of Strahd, it doesn’t have the strange narrative leaps that trip up Frostmaiden. The vibes of the adventure are the important thing, and at that the book excels. The creators nailed perfectly the shift from whimsy to horror, walking that very fine line in ways that you don’t really expect. It’s very silly at times (I see a lot of Looney Tunes in this book), but there’s a lot of tragedy in the Feywild as well, tragedy that the PC’s can easily find themselves at the center of thanks to the incredibly personal stakes of the story.

While this is going to be an instant-buy for many just for the Feywild hook (and that Patrick Rothfuss helped write it), I think anyone interested in the possibilities of D&D needs to give this a look. The attempt to make the adventure truly violence free is admirable and, for the most part, successful. It turns most of the fights into puzzles and mysteries, but you can bargain, beg, or cajole your way out of everything. D&D is, famously, not built to handle anything but combat and yeah, you should definitely try out one of the many other games that de-emphasize the violence. But if you want to stick to 5e, this is a good model for what you can do with it to make things a little more interesting than your everyday hack-and-slash dungeon crawl.

Stray Thoughts

Wild Beyond the Witchlight art showing two unicorns
  • Ellywick Tumblestrum (who “appeared” on D&D Live to announce the adventure) is explicitly referred to as a Planeswalker in the book, further connecting Magic the Gathering to D&D in the multiverse.
  • At one point, you can take custard damage in a cupcake eating contest.
  • Character cards in the back of the book are a fantastic resource for DM’s to help with roleplay and should be standard going forward.
  • The map work by Stacey Allan and William Doyle is some of the best ever, capturing how a more fey cartography might look on the page.
  • In another first, the book directly references a DM’s Guild supplement, Domains of Delight.
  • DM’s ought to brush up on their poetry for this one, there’s a lot of it.

The Wild Beyond the Witchlight: A Feywild Adventure officially goes on sale on September 21, with a retail price of $49.95. You can pick it up from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or digitally through D&D Beyond or Roll 20. You can also pick it up at your local game store, which is your best bet if you can swing it. Not only does it support your local business, brick and mortar stores are the only places selling the gorgeous alternate cover by Hyrdo74 showing Star, a displacer beast kitten who loves adventure, and the witchlight vane carried by Mr. Light on the back cover.

And you can also pre-order the Platinum and Silver Editions from our friends at Beadle & Grimm’s Pandemonium Warehouse!

The Wild Beyond the Witchlight cover
Cover by Hydro 74

Images via Wizards of the Coast

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