Thursday, December 2, 2021

Actual Play - Candlewick Mysteries

Over the last 6 months or so, I've been playing on-and-off in a campaign using Candlekeep Mysteries, run by Jack Shear from Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque. I made it to more sessions than I missed, though, and it was satisfying to have (what was, for me) a long-term campaign come to a conclusion recently.
Candlekeep Mysteries by Clint Cearley
The adventures in Candlekeep aren't really intended to be run as a single, linear campaign, I don't think. I believe the idea is that they're meant to stand alone, and that you can drop them in to other ongoing campaigns to add a bit of variety. They all involve books in some way, and I think most of them have a connection to Candlekeep Library set somewhere or other in the Forgotten Realms. Jack reskinned this to be Creedhall University Library, in his Krevborna setting.

I managed to play in 13 of the 17 adventures (although I missed the back half of one of them) and had an especially good run at the end. I played a paladin - a first for me! - and generally enjoyed getting to assist the other characters with healing and my various auras, and getting to smite my enemies with the power of divine magic.

Jack kept a running series of actual play posts on his blog, and a parallel series of reviews of each adventure. You can find links to the whole of both series here, in the appropriately titled "We Played the Whole Thing". I've gone ahead and linked to the adventures I played in below:

Since Jack's already written a good narrative of each session, I'm not going to try to reconstruct all of them now. My paladin Elsabeth had a good run, becoming friends with another lady knight NPC, getting magic muscles from a magic painting and managing not to suffer any consequences for it, slaying an actual dragon, and saving the world like 2 or 3 times. But I did want to say a few words about what I thought about playing through the campaign.

Too Many Demiplanes - If I had one critique of Candlekeep Mysteries, it would be that too many of the adventures have the same set-up where a magic book transports you to another dimension, and specifically a mini-dimension created by the book's author. (And way too many of those involved a rather tedious guessing game to figure out how to open the portal!) I mean, I get it, it's already metaphorically like every book has a secret world inside it, and like reading transports you there. It's a pretty good metaphor to make literal. But there are too many of them. And I also get that Candlekeep isn't meant to be played straight through. But there are still too many of them. 

D&D is set in a magic-filled world, Forgotten Realms especially so - you don't need to travel to some wizard's pocket dimension just to set the adventure in a magical environment. The need is even less if the environment turns out to not be very magical anyway. It sometimes seemed like the only purpose the conceit of the demiplane served was to handwave travel time or to put up a wall around the playable area that the player character couldn't travel beyond. But if so, I would argue that's the wrong approach. Metafictional concerns like that don't need rules workarounds, they just need the GM and the players to agree on what kind of game they're running.

Complex Backstories, Linear Adventures - If I had a second critique about Candlekeep, it would be that the backstories that set up the adventures are often complex to the point of unintelligibility. The example that stands out in my mind is "The Book of the Raven". The PCs get a book delivered to them by some mysterious ravens. The book leads them to an old abandoned house with ravens flying overhead. The house is haunted, with some whole drama playing out among the ghosts as they continue to fail to resolve their unfinished business from life. Also it turns out the ravens are secretly human cultists who can magically transform into ravens. They were compelled to deliver the book to you by a different cult, who worship some kind of demon lord, and who then pull you into, wait for it, a pocket dimension, where a couple of demons try to kill you. There is, as far as I can tell, no connection between the ravens and the ghosts, the ghosts and the demons, or the demons and the ravens.

And while the backstories of Candlekeep can be convoluted, many of the adventures themselves are pretty linear. You arrive at the entrance to the adventure site, perhaps by being teleported there by the book, and then follow a straight-line path going from one encounter to the next until you reach the conclusion. That's certainly not true of all them, but more than you'd hope for in what's meant to be a flagship product. The worst offenders combine both - a terribly complicated backstory leading to a terribly simplified conveyor belt of encounters.

Options and Opportunities - That said, some of the adventures did provide some good chances for the players to make meaningful choices. While trapped in a grotesque fairy tale, we met some wolves and managed to befriend befriend them and enlist their help in fighting some terrible hunters by borrowing a page from Aesop. We met a dragon who might have killed us, but we offered to catalog his library, and he ended up offering us safe passage through his section of the dungeon. In a desert hideout, we met a giant worm, realized we'd followed the wrong clues and were in the wrong place, and left without needing to fight it. (Though sadly we did lose our camel to the worm's ferocious hunger!) Even the dragon Elsabeth fought and killed was avoidable - although this was another case of misunderstood clues, and having set it free from its ancient trap, we didn't feel good about just letting it seek unlimited vengeance on the world that had entombed it.

Because we played this campaign as an "adventure path", we didn't take advantage of any of the opportunities to follow up on details that could give rise to new side adventures. If I recall, replacing the missing books in "Mazworth's Worthy Digressions" could have occupied several more sessions of questing, if the book thieves hadn't turned out to have spare copies on hand in the back room. And the university tower that turns into a rocket ship absolutely cries out for a follow-up adventure where you get to use the damn thing and go into space. Jack repurposed the last adventure in the book and set it on one of Krevborna's moons, but if we'd just let it blast off with us inside, instead of preventing the space cultists from launching it, I don't know if there would have been any advice in the book about where it should take us. But that's not just an obvious follow-up, it's a necessary one - if you write an adventure where it's possible for the characters to steal a rocket ship, you'd better also make up a planet they can fly it to!

Better Boss Fights - Boss monster types in 5e get special "lair actions" and "legendary actions" that basically let them react by doing something every time they're attacked. I was really impressed with how well this worked out in practice. I recognize that the ideal military strategy to use against a big monster is to come at it with overwhelming numbers and the element of surprise, win the initiative, and kill the damn thing before it ever gets to strike a single blow. But while that's probably the ideal strategy, it's not necessarily the ideal gameplaying experience. With these special actions, the monster gets to alternate with the players; we get to see the monster doing cool, scary, monstrous things; our numerical advantage is somewhat balanced by the extra attacks; and the fight ends up feeling much more epic and narratively appropriate than it otherwise would. These are a 5e innovation I can absolutely get behind!

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