Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries (review)

(Note: This review first appeared on Australian Tabletop Gaming Network. Thanks to Wizards of the Coast for the review copy.) 

Candlekeep Mysteries is an anthology collection of seventeen short adventures from various authors covering a wide spread of levels. In addition, the book also presents the Forgotten Realms’ largest library, which acts as a framing device for the adventures, and includes a large full-colour map of the library-fortress. I’ll confess that I can’t recommend it to dedicated players. Unlike some of the other supplements, Candlekeep Mysteries doesn’t offer any new races, class options, spells, or other toys to play with. It’s firmly a DM resource, but it’s a very good DM resource.

And quite frankly I’m relieved that the book is dedicated to a certain target audience of DM’s only. I think it’s quite a disservice to the consumer to buy a book where a good portion of it is off-limits or superfluous (Tasha’s Cauldron is a good example as so little of it is useful to those who just play.) So keeping that all in mind, I’ll take a leaf out of Candlekeep’s book and note that likewise this review is full of spoilers and probably not for players either.

Each adventure is somehow based around a book of some kind and I’ll confess that they are a mixed bag. As a collection it gets a solid pass (at least a B+) but most importantly it offers a prospective DM a showcase of the variety of adventure styles available when running a game. Some are railroaded, others are more open. Some are dungeon crawls, some are social endeavours. Some are witty and creative, others are more traditional.

There’s a few interesting particulars worthy of note. The fact that each adventure goes into detail on it’s book of choice is great consistency, as is the illustration of said book, but the same can’t be said of some of the other elements. A big niggle for me is that the maps for the adventures don’t have a common style guide. I can get over the cosmetic issues, but some use ten foot squares and others use five foot squares, and that’s exactly the kind of thing an editor should have been on like a hawk.

Also, most of the adventures mention important details presented in the books which the players will discover, but very few actually offer a handout or other artistic method of presenting this detail. It all becomes very “tell, not show” and it is a sad oversight especially noticeable when an adventure actually does stand out by going to this kind of effort.

But enough chit-chat. Let’s bid the players adieu and give it a blow-by-blow.

By the by, I’ll confess that I’m not that big on the alternative cover. The font doesn’t quite seem fitting. It seems more at place in some kind of game set around 1900 with mediums, carnivals, and magicians or something.

SPOILERS FORTHWITH

Intro: Candlekeep

The immense library of Candlekeep is undoubtedly a cool location to base adventures out of, so it’s such a shame that so few of the adventures take full advantage of it. Most of them simply use it to throw you a hook in a book and then get you out of there asap. The map that comes with the book is pretty funky though the reverse could have been utilised in some way as well (maybe some maps of the bigger floorplans used in the modules, or something showing where the various adventures are in relation to the greater geographic area.)

The chapter is bare-boned and functional with two notable inclusions. The first is the spectral dragon Miirym, which sadly doesn’t feature in any of the adventures. But I’m most intrigued by the stat-lines for Candlekeep’s master sages who can each cast three fireballs per day. That’s a nifty trick, but considering that “any spell that creates fire is wasted if it is cast within the keep” one wonders why the hell they have that ability… unless the anti-fire enchantment was created because all these master sages kept letting loose fireballs all the time…

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (Lvl 1)

The premise here is an extradimensional mansion, which is a fantastic reward to give to a party and I simply adore the idea. Essentially, the party get into the mansion easily enough, but then have to work out the secret keyword to get back out.

Sadly, as an adventure it all feels a bit forced. Any cautious party worth their salt won’t fall for the obvious trap of sending everyone inside as written, so most DMs will have to engineer some cleverer way to get them into the mansion. But it’s the justification as to why this keyword puzzle exists in the first place that really bugs me. Apparently the previous owner was really worried that someone would get trapped inside so they scattered a series of books throughout the mansion with letters printed on the side which can be arranged to spell the word in question. Why they didn’t just put up a big frikken sign is anyone’s guess. (A good idea would have been to include some kind of entity trapped inside that can’t work out the puzzle, which not only explains the lack of sign but also would give the mansion an antagonist that the module sorely lacks.)

Mazfroth’s Mighty Digressions (Lvl 2)

The hook at the heart of this adventure is really cute, as it centres around a scam. A group of jackalweres are using some mimic-like critters to take the form of valuable books which they can then sell, the profits going toward a resurrection spell for their late lamia leader.

This is one of those “morality test” scenarios, it seems, and is an example of where the D&D team is heading in terms of removing fixed alignment. Sure, the party can simply hack and slash their way to victory, but they could conceivably also talk their way through the scenario and get the whole thing done in under forty minutes with everyone holding hands and kumbaya-ing their way to a peaceful resolution (because we all know how peaceful and understanding most adventurers are.)

Book of the Raven (Lvl 3)

For those of you looking to get your players into Ravenloft (or the Shadowfell in general) Book of the Raven offers a shadow crossing to play around with the dark and gloomy. It offers a lot of fun toys, such as a good map of a chalet, a very interesting dark magic item, and a really cute handout to give to the players.

The inhabitants of the chalet are a fun device, being more interested in scaring off the party rather than actually hurting them, though there’s also the possibility of sending your party through the shadow crossing for a showdown with some undead. It’s a bit of a shame that this gratuitous fight doesn’t have more of an influence over the module, but at least it does offer a fight.

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (Lvl 4)

Actual villainous antagonists have been pretty lacking so far in this anthology. The level 1 adventure didn’t have one at all opting for a puzzle instead, the level 2 went for a fake-out, and the level 3 also did the fake-out with an obligatory but meaningless fight option. So it’s nice to have an adventure with a traditional bad guy that can be bashed up.

A Deep and Creeping Darkness is a pretty by-the-numbers three-hour convention module which ticks all the boxes without offering anything new or exciting. Everything about this adventure seems like a shake-and-bake packet mix of a module; it’s competent, capable, and entertaining enough, but it’s eventually forgettable. The earlier modules might have been flawed but at least they tried to do something different; Creeping Darkness plays it safe and eventually enters the land of one-session mediocrity.

Shemshime’s Bedtime Rhyme (Lvl 4)

The second level four adventure is one of the best in the book. A cursed nursery rhyme manages to escape the confines of its storybook, forcing the PCs and some interesting NPCs to quarantine themselves within a section of Candlekeep until they can conquer the dark spirit threatening them all.

So much about this module shows why it stands out. For one thing it uses the Candlekeep setting to maximum effect. It offers a proper antagonist and the supporting cast of characters are varied and intriguing without being overwhelming. It also has a player handout, which is very welcome.

I’ll confess that more tools could have been offered to help DMs stress the power and influence of the catchy mnemonic tune, but despite that minor quibble I stand by Shemshime being one of the better, more creative, and well-designed offerings in Candlekeep Mysteries. Nice one!

The Price of Beauty (Lvl 5)

Another big fake-out, this adventure posits a situation that most players will believe too good to be true… which of course it is. A temple of baths and hot springs belies a sinister secret, which is all well and good, but few characters are going to be at ease and will immediately start trying to uncover what’s going on behind the scenes.

Which is great! That’s exactly what they should do. And I think it’s a credit to the designers that not only will that good ol’ adventurer suspicion be rewarded but it may also turn against them. It’s entirely possible that the poor victim at the heart of this prison will be killed in an overzealous purge by the players. There’s more subtlety to the design here than expected and the cruelty of its villains is more devious than anticipated. I like it.

Book of Cylinders (Lvl 6)

This adventure has been getting a bit of publicity recently due to the designer disowning it. Politics aside, it seems nobody is really happy with it, and neither am I.

It largely involves some grippli frog people caught up in a yuan-ti civil war (I’ve never been really keen to have benevolent snake people in my campaigns, but they’re here if that’s your thing.) At the end of the day, this isn’t a mess but it’s clunky and I’m not surprised it was “ruined by committee.” However, what I’ve heard of the original plan (some kind of setting-shaking major event involving a snake god intended to make a dent on Forgotten Realms lore) seems more than a little like an ego trip on behalf of the designer. Feel free to find out more about it elsewhere.

Mind you, the “book” idea of it being cylinders you read by rolling them in mud is fantastic.

Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor (Lvl 7)

Y’know, this is another module (like Creeping Darkness) that is reminiscent of dozens of others I’ve played. A clue to a murderous crime leads to the investigation of a noble’s criminal activities, which leads further to uncovering a blasphemous and wicked cult ripe for some justified homicide and corpse-robbing.

But despite the fact that it’s nothing new, I still kinda like it, and I think a big part of it has to do with the fact that the NPCs encountered are really likeable and sympathetic. The spirit of poor Sarah elicits a desire to do right by her, Sir Vecken is likeably heroic, and Young Fargo offers a chance of a redemption arc without sacrificing the opportunity to beat up the villain. The NPCs elevate this higher in my opinion than it should be.

Lore of Lurue (Lvl 8)

Here’s one for the fairies and rainbows crowd, which is nice to see. The PCs are thrust into a demiplane following all the classic fairytale tropes, including a magical forest, a wicked witch, interactions with pixies, satyrs, and a treant, a dark moonlit ritual complete with werewolves, and a unicorn who must be cleansed of corruption. So if you’re the kind of person who thrives on pixie dust you’re in for a treat here.

Unfortunately, the scenario is strongly railroaded, which is somewhat alleviated by the fact that it’s all meant to be following the tale set down in the pages of the book you’ve been thrown into, so it’s thematically appropriate. But at the end of the day this module will be subject to taste, and that taste is likely to have a preference for sugar.

Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion (Lvl 9)

Straight up, this is without doubt the best adventure in the book.

Writer Amy Vorpahl shows a great deal of creativity and humour in an adventure that sees an attempt to turn one of Candlekeep’s towers into a rocket that will blast off into orbit within a matter of hours. It’s a novel idea which carries through on its premise with a clever dungeon, some funky new constructs, and a wonderful antagonist (a gnome tinkerer with the wonderful name Stonky Noptopper. So good!)

If you’re not into comedic games or just hate fun you might want to give this one a pass, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice. Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion is well-written, highly entertaining, and very clever. It also reminds us that the adventures set in Candlekeep are some of the best.

Zikran’s Zephyrean Tome (Lvl 10)

There are certain iconic aspects to Dungeons & Dragons that very rarely come up in actual play. The titular dragons themselves are surprisingly absent in most games, as is the opportunity to obtain a wish. So it’s really lovely that we finally get both in this cracking little adventure, along with a cloud giant stronghold haunted by the ghosts of its deceased inhabitants, all in the cause of freeing a trapped djinn.

There’s a lot to like in this module, which could be easily extended with some more encounters on the trek between locations, but the stand-out for me is the bronze dragon encounter. It’s personable enough to engage in some fun roleplaying but also fickle enough to start a fight if the party are belligerent. As for the rest, it’s only just behind in quality. A really good bit of fun.

The Curious Tale of Wisteria Vale (Lvl 11)

The setup here is pretty simple. A heroic bard has been slowly corrupted and his allies have placed him into an idyllic demiplane prison until they can work out a way to save him. Now they’ve discovered a cure and it’s the party’s job to go in and administer some salvation. All pretty straightforward.

But the twist is that there’s a beholder-sized spanner gumming up the works of this operation, and it’s one of the better beholders I’ve come across. The fact that it believes the PCs are harmless figments of its own imagination is not only a fun idea but allows for a load of entertaining roleplaying possibilities.

The Book of Inner Alchemy (Lvl 12)

It’s great that we’re seeing more variety in D&D than the tired old Western Tolkien-esque fantasy tropes. This adventure takes its cues from wuxia martial arts cinema with a temple of monks seeking immortality through dark arts.

But there’s very little depth to Inner Alchemy. It’s basically just a big fight scene with a paper-thin plot and some incredibly B-grade dialogue (Steel Crane’s lines in particular are hilariously bad). If you’re just looking for a fight (maybe with a side plate stuffed with ham and cheese) this is fine, but it’s hardly sophisticated.

The Canopic Being (Lvl 13)

Mummy Lords don’t get as much love as they should in my opinion; liches often overshadow them in many published adventures. But I like a good mummy tomb, and The Canopic Being is a solid example of one. It seems to fill the spot of a Tomb of Horrors-lite module, with a few devious ideas but none of the blatant unfairness.

My only real issue with it is the fact that it’s one more module that relies on convenient teleportation portals to move the party to the action, and too many of the modules in this book are going with that clumsy tool. But on the plus side, it does have an actual handout to give to the players, which so many more of the adventures should have also had.

The Scrivener’s Mark (Lvl 14)

I had to reread this one a few times to get my head around it. The players are caught up in intrigue between two major players from the feywild and will have to delve into a subterranean library to do battle with a villainous archfey. The hook that draws them in is blackmail; a magical curse starts covering the PCs with writing bestowing both funky benefits and horrible drawbacks. They will need to destroy their tormentor before the curse turns them to glass.

Unfortunately what interesting aspects the module has is offset by some clumsier elements. The use of telepathy could have been replaced with a less forced method of communication. The battle with the golems and mummies uses an ugly mechanism of dropping a quest item whenever a certain number of them are destroyed whereupon more just spawn in (it feels very much like video game design rather than tabletop roleplaying, and it bites.) Certainly a better explanation of the fae factions at play here would have been convenient. Fun villain, though.

Alkazaar’s Appendix (Lvl 15)

If Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion is the best adventure in the book, this is second best. The background is interesting and well-presented. The NPCs that accompany the party are likeable and the golem that is so integral to the plot is ripe for fun roleplaying opportunities. A side quest involving a dragon tortoise and its chwinga friends is a fantastic optional encounter and I wish more of the adventures had similarly interesting inclusions.

As for the adventure itself, the purple worm-infested Hall of Rainbows introduces the backstory through use of murals which keeps to the theme that Candlekeep Mysteries is meant to be promoting. The dracolich at the tomb can prove to be a worthy recurring foe, and the final matter of the sarcophagus offers a set of options that could potentially drive a wedge between the party. The Appendix is an excellent adventure, and also has a great voice to the writing (well done, Adam Lee.)

Xanthoria (Lvl 16)

The obligatory lich at the end of the book is a really fresh take; a druid whose research into the undead caused her to become a moss-covered horror of lichen and fungus. Furthermore, her necromancy has created a plague that can only be eradicated by killing the lich, which itself may test the moral fortitude of the PCs seeing as her phylactery is a sweet and innocent fairy fella…

This is fairly traditional dungeon delving fare, but there’s enough cute twists to make it stand out. The room with the purple worm is a stand out, but I also especially like the fact that one room has been included specifically with the intention that the party would be able to comfortably rest there. That’s a quality touch.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Tiny Teddies Go To War ruleset cards!!!

 Melbourne convention staple and tradition Tiny Teddies Go To War is now available in card format and is COMPLETELY FREE FOR DOWNLOAD!


You can download the file here, print it out, cut it out, and get on your way to diabetic disaster before you know it!


Friday, 23 April 2021

The Sad Loss of ATGN

 This blog has been really quiet for a few years, primarily because I've been writing any gaming pieces that come to mind on Australian Tabletop Gaming Network (atgn.com.au).

Sadly, ATGN is coming to a close. I'm very grateful to ATGN and it's editor in chief Toby for being so encouraging and kind in letting me write for them. I'm sincerely moved.

So without that outlet, I'll hopefully some be returning to this space more. Certainly I'll need it to preserve some of my articles for posterity.

Otherwise, I'll be looking into Twitch...

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Tiny Teddies Go To War rules update

For those of you who love edible tabletop games, the ruleset for Tiny Teddies Go To War we used last year at Pax Aus is now available for your print'n'play enjoyment!

Simply click on the link, muster your forces, and get battling!

We recommend inserting your cards into plastic slips to protect them.

Note: no scenarios included. Tell us your favourites :)


Some optional rules we like:

The Rambo Reroll: The last survivor of a Teddy Trooper squad gets to reroll all failed rolls. Avenge your fallen comrades, little fella!

Into the Fray: During the first Round all Teddy Trooper squads may double their Move. This gets the action happening much faster.

Reroll Pools: Each team gets a number of rerolls to use during the game. We like to use party poppers. Between three and six rerolls should do the job.


Update on my work

It's so nice to see that people are still reading roleplaygreenroom articles and I feel bad for not updating the site for ages. The main reason is that I'm now writing articles and reviews for Australian Tabletop Gaming Network which can be found at atgn.com.au

I still want to update this blog when I have content that isn't appropriate for there, but it gets a lot more traffic than I can get on my own and I'm supported by a good team while also getting a small measure of credibility.

Please check out atgn.com.au if you get the chance, where I still go under the ivan name. Or find me in real life where I also have the ivan name. To be fair, I'm just generally ivan.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Fools Haven RPG Setting Kickstarter

Red Genie Games and I have just launched a Kickstarter for comedic adventures in the Vague World city of Fools Haven! Please check it out!

Check this link for more information!

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

The Two-Star Generic RPG Design Method

Want to make a tabletop roleplaying game but don't want to engage any creative thinking? Well the Two-Star Generic RPG Design Method is for you!

Yes, in twelve easy steps you too can create a completely uninspiring roleplaying game which is bound to earn at least a couple of thousand dollars on Kickstarter from a bunch of well-meaning gamers who don't know any better!

Best of all, the Two-Star Method is completely free! After all, you've already seen it a billion times.

  1. Create a core system. (For OSR games you may be able to get away with three or four core systems, depending on how far you wish to lampoon the genre.) The best place to put this core system is approximately page 207.
  2. Take the six Attributes from D&D, remove one or two, rename a couple of others, and add Perception and/or Luck to the list.
  3. Settle on a Skill list (though you may rename them Abilities if you like.) Link each Skill to an Attribute somehow and maybe even divide them up into multiple categories. Somewhere around twenty Skills is great, although if your game is made in the '80s you'll want about 200. Alternatively, if your game is trying to impress Jason Morningstar or Ron Edwards just leave empty spaces and let the players fill it in themselves after giving a few vague examples such as "Sharp As A Knife," "A Cat Has Nine Lives," or "Roast at 180 Degrees Celsius and Baste Every Ten Minutes." Don't worry; one day they're bound to respond to your comments on their blog posts.
  4. Adapt the Attributes and Skills to suit a bunch of different fantasy races. Elves and Dwarves are no-brainers. If you're going to have half-orcs you'll probably want to overlook the whole... umm... yeah.
  5. Decide whether your game is going to have classes. Either way, justify your decision by make snide references to another popular game that took the other route.
  6. Design a combat system. If you included combat Skills in step 3 you may think most of your job is done, but don't become complacent. Here's where you get to make a weapon chart and make sure your favourite weapon is the best (anything that you trained in for three lessons when you were nineteen is a bonus.) Also, remember to make grappling rules either useless or overpowered.
  7. You're now going to want to go back to character creation and include a bunch of subcategories to make combat work. Health points! Movement scores! Resistance modifiers! You'll have a lot of fun here. Don't forget to call them something like "Derived Ability Ratings, or your DAR for short." Oh, and now you'll need to remember whether to spell it "defense" or "defence" though if you aren't going to pass your game by an editor it doesn't matter much.
  8. Everyone wants versatility, so include a system to allow PCs some kind of individuality. Call these Feats, Quirks, Merits, Edges, or something like that. Only allow starting characters one or two at most, but make sure you include one or two hundred to choose from so that it takes the best part of an hour to read through them and decide which one you want. If this system becomes unwieldy, just claim that it was always optional.
  9. Add a magic system. Divide magic up into several types depending on flavour, but make sure to include necromancy, illusion, something for paladins, and something that casts fireballs. It might seem wise to include a game system where players can design their own spells, but not only is that rather advanced game design but it means you'll miss out on getting to pad out your gamebook with 200 pages of spells that you've designed. This not only makes your game extra expensive (ka-ching!) but it makes you look diligent and creative. Even better, you can market it as a bonus on your crowd-funding, and even add an extra hundred as a stretch goal!
  10. Throw in a list of stats for monsters. Orcs, wolves, dragons, zombies, liches, minotaurs, giant spiders, and ogres should start you off nicely. 
  11. Add a character sheet. Make sure anything that will be constantly updated, changed, or erased is in the centre of the page so that when it inevitably wears through the player will need to replace the whole thing and not just an edge or corner. 
  12. Pay good money for up to ten good pieces of art to put near the front of the book. Litter the rest of it with random sketches you got on the cheap from mates.

Oh, and a thirteenth step as a look into our advanced class:

13. Spend three and a half minutes on an index. Nobody will ever use it anyway because your rules explanations are just so clear and intuitive.