My first takeaway from Journeys through the Radiant Citadel is the futility of pre-ordering the latest D&D releases on Amazon. I enjoyed Candlekeep Mysteries and was, if anything, more excited for this anthology, but despite buying the book in June and expecting it on my doorstep in July, after a couple of false starts, it arrived a month later in August (naturally, the day after I left on holiday).
I’m not really sure if this was an Amazon issue, or a WOTC one, but since you probably didn’t come here to read about supply chain logistics – and I’ve now had time to have a good read of the book – let’s just crack on, shall we?
Since Journeys through the Radiant Citadel is an adventures anthology, I’m gonna break this post down into 13 reviews of each of the individual adventures and give my rating and feedback on each (as well as my own personal running tips, aka Hipster Remixes), and then we’ll do a final rankings at the end, just for fun.
Obviously, the contents of this post comprise of just one person’s opinion, so do mooch around the Internet and read some other reviews for a wider perspective. I’ll link to a few of those at the bottom too.
Just as Candlekeep library anchored the 17 mysteries of that anthology, the city of the Radiant Citadel tethers the 13 journeys of this collection, and the dedicated chapter to this location merits its own review. But before we get to that, let’s refresh ourselves on the simple ratings system I used when reviewing Candlekeep Mysteries:
5 stars: Überhip – hand me my f***ing dice!
4 stars: Très chic – a well-crafted offering.
3 stars: Passably cool – a flawed, but still worthy, adventure.
2 stars: Somewhat shabby – a disappointing effort.
1 star: Downright lame – I want my money back!
SPOILER ALERT: This post is written for DMs ONLY and contains spoilers for all the adventures. Players can hop on a Concord Jewel and planeshift to my player tips instead.
The Radiant Citadel
The Radiant Citadel chapter is a 12-page lore guide to this unique settlement, that is cast adrift in the Ethereal Plane. Carved out of the fossil of an enormous, long-dead creature that curls around the luminescent Auroral Diamond, the city effectively forms a United Nations headquarters for 15 civilisations on the Material Plane, each of which is linked to the citadel by its own ‘Concord Jewel’ (a kind of plane-hopping vessel used to transport goods and people).
Something of a progressive utopia, refugees from all civilisations are welcomed and housed in the city, while residents receive a basic income, healing services are free for those who can’t otherwise afford them, and the rich bear the brunt of taxation. If that sounds all a little too good to be true, then a few sources of tension are hinted at throughout the chapter, and DMs shouldn’t have a problem creating a little ‘trouble in paradise’, should they wish to.
Several interesting sublocations are presented in the chapter, including the intriguing Court of Whispers, where information is bought and sold; the Trade Discal, a circular marketplace where the 15 different ‘founding civilisations’ can do business with each other; and the Preserve of the Ancestors, a kind of biosphere, cut into the Auroral Diamond, where the city’s leaders make decisions and consult the Incarnates, ancient beings made of spirit-infused gemstones. Meanwhile, a peacekeeping and rescue force called the Shieldbearers has excellent ‘adventurers needed’ potential.
Given how surreal the setting is, I have a little trouble envisioning how daily life goes by in the Radiant Citadel, as well as how its existence affects the founding civilisations bound to it, and in that respect I found the lore a little lacking. I even wondered if this chapter could have even benefitted from an adventure set within the citadel itself, to help bring it to life.
In any case, it’s pretty obvious that the citadel’s main purpose is not to provide hours of adventuring in itself, but to link the diverse worlds presented in the anthology together, along with other other lands from official or homebrew D&D settings. The book says as much with the chapter’s final sentence: “This makes the Radiant Citadel a useful bridge between wherever your characters are and any adventure in your D&D library”.
So I mostly consider the Radiant Citadel a ‘device’, but there’s certainly enough lore provided to use the city as a homebase, or a place to pick up adventure hooks, should you wish to promote it beyond the function of travel node.
The chapter includes a very cool map.
Final Rating: ★★★★☆. An intriguing location that doubles as a device to link your disparate D&D adventures.
Before I begin my individual reviews of each adventure I think I should give some context and caveats. I’ve already stated the obvious, that these reviews are just my opinion, but I would like to add, as well, that it’s easier to find fault in an adventure than design one without any flaws. Additionally, it seems that the writers were labouring under quite a restrictive word count… so if I criticise them for being linear at times, I do also sympathise that there is a limit to how many options you can offer players in 10 pages of content (note: the last 3-4 pages of each adventure is a gazetteer on the civilisation in which the story takes place).
I have some personal biases when it comes to adventures, that I will disclose now. I favour stories with watertight plots (because I hate having to fudge stuff in my mind to make things make sense), that offer player choice, have high stakes, and feature great combats and varied locations. Meanwhile, room by room dungeon crawls, or grand set pieces that look cool but don’t really make sense within the story, are not really my bag, baby.
While I’ve provided Dungeon Masters with some of my own ideas on how to improve your running of each adventure (see Hipster Remix in each case), my ratings and rankings are based on what’s written in the book. These ratings are for the adventures themselves and not the gazetteers (the strength of the gazetteers however contribute to the product’s overall rating in my Conclusion).
Where Wizards of the Coast have interviewed an author I’ve embedded the video. I deliberately abstained from watching these interviews until after I’d written my reviews, as it’s harder to be impartial after you’ve seen the (invariably) engaging personality behind the story. I definitely recommend watching the videos, as well as reading the author interviews (linked to throughout), because they often lend some clarity to certain points that were not 100% clear to me from reading the published product.
I also have some thoughts about the anthology as a whole, and things that were awesome and things that could have been done better. I’ve filed that under the header General Feedback at the end of the adventures.
Off we go…
1. Salted Legacy
A conflict between rival night market vendors draws characters into a hunt for a mysterious saboteur and a series of whimsical contests. (Levels 1-2).
A bustling night market is a great location to kick off this anthology and the set up here is rife with intrigue. The lucrative business enterprises of two respected families are being sabotaged by a third party, who is trying to invoke a war that will make buying one of the families out easier.
When the players get caught in the middle of an argument between the two trading families, they are employed by either or both to investigate the strange goings-on; however, they soon learn that night market traders are not the most forthcoming when it comes to sharing market secrets with outsiders. No! In order to win the respect of the vendors, they must win renown (see the rules governing renown in the Dungeon Master’s Guide) in the ‘Market Games’.
It’s all a little forced (“you will take part in the Games!”), but also a lot of fun. Competitions that players can partake in have always worked well on my tables, from those in the Witchlight Carnival to the many I included in DRAGONBOWL. Trying to hold down spicy peppers, prepare prawn cakes in record time, or coerce silkworms out of hiding, are original challenges that are likely to be memorable, even if they border on nonsensical at times. For example, the silkworm hide-and-seek is a non-spectator sport that can be attempted several times a night, making me wonder a) if the organiser wouldn’t be better looking after their stall than overseeing this competition b) how this helps build participants’ renown if no one can see them win and c) if this isn’t the equivalent achievement of grabbing a cuddly toy from a supermarket claw machine.
Anyhow, depending on how much renown they earn in the Market Games, the players can then gather more or less information from various market vendors during their investigation, which should eventually lead them to work out what’s really going on. That trader Kasem Aroon is using mischievous wynlings (persimmon-munching, cute little critters that can turn invisible) to sow discord between his two rival traders.
Overall, I feel like Salted Legacy provides a robust investigation scenario (the adventures can speak to a variety of different traders, all of which have different info to share, allowing PCs to gradually build up a body of evidence against the perpetrator), with lots of fun roleplaying potential, while the inclusion of the Market Games provides an original set of challenges that are sure to entertain.
There’s also a really cool map of the Dyn Singh Night Market included in the adventure and the wynling is a fantastic addition to any D&D bestiary.
My main reservation over Salted Legacy is that it feels like a very low stakes story. Asking players to intervene over the theft of four onions sure feels like a far cry from stopping Tiamat rising up and destroying the world.
I also feel like the Night Market could have been better presented in the text. DMs are told to “indulge in descriptions of colourful magic lights and glowing vendor signs” etc., but a few more concrete descriptions of those in the boxed text would be nice. Tell me more about the ‘dazzling display’, ‘whimsical mascots’ (which creatures?) and ‘colors, smells, and music’ (which colours and smells, and what instruments?). There are concrete descriptions woven into the adventure here and there, but I feel like the author has left me with some extra spadework to do here, which I was expecting to find included within.
Like all the adventures in Journeys through the Radiant Citadel, it finishes with a gazetteer of the land in which it is set. The Siabsungkoh Gazetteer describes a protected land of family ties, spirit worship, and rare natural commodities, with an underlying tension between traditionalists and modernists. It includes a map.
Hipster Remix: I would like to inject some more drama into this adventure, right from the off. Instead of having Gammon Xungoon run into a character, embroiling the party in the family feud, I think it would be more fun if the players see the kobold rush off to cries of ‘stop thief’. Now we’ve got a dynamic market chase, which you could pepper with Athletics and Acrobatics checks to avoid crates of grapefruits, baskets of pitayas (dragon fruit), steaming vats of broth or stacks of glass or pottery. In this way we can introduce the setting via an action scene, instead of via a boxed text lore dump (during which the players most likely pay more attention to their phones than to the DM).
When it comes to the meat of the investigation (i.e. talking to vendors), as stated previously, I’m not convinced how much renown one could hope to win in Market Games that takes place multiple times a night, and presumably aren’t watched by traders who should be busy trading. My solution would be to make the Games a once a night event that many of the traders gather to watch at the end of their shift, while you could also give winners a medal/badge, so they are recognised throughout the bazaar on subsequent nights.
And while I like the renown mechanic the author has used to determine how much info players can get from vendors, I don’t think it should be a straight replacement for Charisma checks, so much as a modifier on those checks.
The biggest change I would make if running this adventure would be to up the overall stakes. Aside from skewering an oversized prawn or two, there’s no combat baked into this adventure, and I feel like the adventure’s villain needs to be more a damn sight more dastardly, so I would want to put some more thought into that before bringing this to the table.
Author: Surena Marie
Pages: 18-33 (16)
Final Rating: ★★★½. A cool investigation in a cool setting with some fun and frivolous games to get the party going. Just lacking some genuine drama.
2. Written in Blood
A community is terrorized by a horror lurking in a distant farmhouse (Level 3).
Written in Blood is a rural adventure story that is fertile with atmospheric horror motifs, such as: possessed farmers with crimson eyes, fervid drawings, mysterious sinkholes, deserted farmhouses, and disembodied hands crawling in the dirt.
I’m just not sure these elements are woven together in a way that actually makes perfect sense behind the scenes.
To begin with, it’s inferred that bulettes are responsible for the burrowing that leads to the often deadly sinkholes that occur in the Rattle (a fertile but dangerous borderland, where increasingly desperate locals have been farming out of necessity), but then we don’t hear of nor encounter any bulettes in the adventure, and this story thread seems to fade into the background. (At other times it’s inferred that the crawling claws are behind the sinkholes, but a) that’s a lot of tunnelling for human fingers and b) we’re not told why!).
Disembodied hands make for a great motif, and allow the author to introduce creepy crawling claws into the adventure, but where’s the story connection? Why do only the hands of the dead farmers revive into undead? I’m also left wondering why the soul shaker only formed when Culley died, when there were plenty of deaths before his drowning? Were these deaths also part of some curse? There are hints of necromantic powers behind the community’s misfortunes, but no concrete explanation. Finally, it feels a bit convenient that Culley’s essence is the one that drives the soul shaker, of the many disembodied limbs that form the creature. While it’s not quite a deal breaker perhaps, I should state that I also find the soul shaker extremely unconvincing as a monster (to have some kind of will or plan I feel like a monster should have a head, or at least a heart, not just be a bunch of severed forearms).
Perhaps I’m misreading the adventure, or maybe something got lost in the edit (the authors seem to have been working with a very limited word count), but I’m left scratching my head at times here.
Aside from confusing me, Written in Blood feels like an adventure with a beginning and an end, but not much substance in the middle (a combat against unrelated monsters, plus a hazard). The set up during the Awakening Festival is great, but the atmosphere doesn’t really have a chance to build, or the horror to grow, before the players are resolving the adventure in the final location. Again word count may have been a factor.
On to the end-of-adventure gazetteer, and Godsbreath is a cool mini-setting. I love the idea of a community with strong oral traditions, and the author has settled upon some awesome location names. No map though!
Hipster Remix: While I am happy with the elements of horror the author brings to the table, we really need to de-muddle the soul shaker’s origin story (and indeed switch the soul shaker out all together). What about if we hone in on the issues of abandonment that perfuse the adventure and make that negative emotion the origin of a new monster.
This abandonment is embodied in a past event: the time when a young Kianna scythed off her friend Culley’s hand to avoid drowning with him, as he threatened to pull her under the murky waters of Cradlelace Lake. Naturally, Kianna neglected to mention this to Aunt Dellie etc., and this traumatic truth is only manifested in her manic drawings. A handful of other witnesses kept quiet too, as they were equally scared to rush into the lake and help the boy, making them complicit in Culley’s death.
The circumstances of Culley’s death meant that his spirit refused to leave his body and the bloated undead youth instead rises to torment the community that abandoned him, possessing the local farmers and symbolically cutting off their hands, which become crawling claws. He sends the amputated farmers in search of Kianna, who has managed to hide from him until now, while their hands creep about the countryside as a grim portent of the evil tormenting the land.
Obviously we’ve left with a fair amount of work to do now… a new stat block for the big bad (maybe zombie Culley sews the crawling craws onto his body), plus some new and rejigged encounters. But I think we’ve got a much stronger story that is easier for DMs to understand and run. It even ends in a nice dilemma. What to do with Kianna if the players a) manage to save her and b) expose the truth of her crime.
Author: Erin Roberts
Pages: 34-47 (14)
Final Rating: ★★★☆☆. The creepy raiments of horror, unfolded in an original mini-setting, don’t quite cover up the nakedness of a muddled storyline.
3. The Fiend of Hollow Mine
The cure for a spreading curse leads from an abandoned mine to a city celebrating the departed (Level 4).
The Fiend of Hollow Mine plunges characters into a kind of Mexican-themed wild west, full of bandits and bounty hunters, where they are asked to uncover the mystery behind a supernatural plague. The origin of the plague lies in an innocent youth whose soul was sold to a demon lord (by his very own father!) and is forced to roam the borderlands by night as a tlacatecolo, spreading its curse on those it encounters.
There’s a lot to like about this adventure, which begins with a fight against bounty hunters searching for a Robin Hood style outlaw, before the players are contracted to investigate an abandoned mine that seems to be the source of the problems. Here the players should learn more, before they are forced to escape the mine via a tunnel that takes them into the city of San Citlan, just as the Night of the Remembered festival is taking place. The clues they get at the mine should lead them first to a worried mother and then an abandoned metalworks for a final showdown.
Positive points include cool locations (which are well mapped), memorable NPCs (including a skeleton barkeeper), a coherent storyline and a great villain. What impressed me most about the adventure, though, is how the author finds occasions for the players to interact with the Mexican-inspired setting (i.e. the setting is not just window dressing). For example, players are invited to make an offering at an ‘ofrenda’ shared altar to the dead (and doing so gives them a charm), while a parade chase scene blends action and setting together in masterful fashion (see my Hipster Remix of Salted Legacy where I propose using the same technique… it’s a good one!).
Perhaps my biggest criticism of The Fiend of Hollow Mine is that it is very linear indeed. Given how well the adventure is scripted, I think players are unlikely to notice that they are being pushed down the plotline, almost regardless of their actions, but in an ideal world the author would have made this story more node-based, with a bit more free will and agency given to the PCs.
I have a few other minor gripes as well. The investigation part of the mystery is rather too easy. No sooner have we learned of the curse, for example, than Paloma the outlaw comes out of hiding and gives the players pretty much all the info they need to get going. Next a villager (who finds the players, not the other way around) tells of seeing two deathly creatures around the mine… but this doesn’t seem to add up with the ghouls being tied down as prisoners in the dungeon location that comes up later. The role of Itzmin in the corruption of the Serapio is a bit hazy given that Serapio’s soul is supposed to be already forfeit, while it seems incredibly stupid of the tiefling to trap the heroes in the mine, knowing full well there’s a tunnel leading back to the city (a rather convenient tunnel that must stretch around 4 miles!).
The additional lore on San Citlan paints an interesting picture of an industrial post-colonial city, full of tensions that could be well leveraged in a campaign. It feels more modern than the other settings so far and it’s somehow easier to imagine it tied to the Radiant Citadel.
Hipster Remix: A bit like Written in Blood, some of the horror elements at play in The Fiend of Hollow Mine seem to be working independently of one another and not in tandem. The tlacatecolo’s curse and Teocin’s experiments on corpses have nothing to do with each other, despite them both working under the influence of Itzmin for the demon lord Pazuzu. I would consider making spreading the sickness phase 1 of Itzmin’s plan, while reanimating the fresh corpses to wreak havoc as ghouls is phase 2. Finally, Itzmin’s masterplan will be to disguise real undead in the parades of the Night of the Remembered and have them attack and kill the other members of the Trecena council, leaving him to rule San Citlan alone.
Back to the beginning of the adventure and we can talk up the dangers of the night (already alluded to in the adventure) and have undead attack the inn at Milpazul, where the players presumably spend the night. Villagers recognise the attacking cadavers as friends / family / neighbours / revolutionaries who have recently died of the Sereno disease, and confess the buried don’t stay buried around here.
I feel the author also missed a trick with his presentation of the sick Paloma, by failing to point out that she doesn’t have long to live – and thereby introducing a ticking clock into the adventure. (As written, the curse’s mechanics mean that she has very little time to live indeed… probably about 6-7 hours on average. I would change the curse’s Constitution check to once every 3-4 hours, and this way players will also have a chance to see more afflicted country folk, as the sick have a decent chance of surviving a night or two before death).
Other changes would be maybe introduce another thematic encounter, or clue gathering location, en route to the mine, and I might dangle the chance to start the investigation in San Citlan, so players don’t feel railroaded. I would also make exiting the mine via the tunnel a challenge… now it’s a network of tunnels, and getting lost in them for a significant time endangers Paloma’s life, while surviving them through smart decisions and/or good rolls feels like agency, not being herded along a plot line.
Ok, so now we’ve got more creep factor, a more coherent story, a more compelling reason for the players to get involved and even a device to ensure a fast pace throughout (not always a good thing, but for a short adventure I think it’s probably a boon). Combined with the excellent material given to us, I think this could be a winner!
Author: Mario Ortegón
Pages: 48-65 (18)
Final Rating: ★★★★☆. The Fiend of Hollow Mine is a compelling story which makes good use of its setting, and has some intelligent design touches throughout (like a half locket that could be used to locate the villain… by casting locate object on the other half).
4. Wages of Vice
A murderer stalks the streets during a raucous festival (Level 5).
Wages of Vice is a classic story of a vengeance. Once upon a time, the Kings of Coin made a deal with a witch, who agreed to make the land of Zinda wealthy by introducing the wine-producing jeli flower and causing it to flourish in the native soil. However, instead of offering up their first born as apprentices, as agreed, the Kings of Coin decided to simply murder the witch instead. Now the witch’s daughter, Kala Mabarin, is out seeking vengeance, poisoning the first born of each murderous King of Coin.
Symbolically, Kala Mabarin is doing this during the March of Vice festival which celebrates the wine that her mother introduced to Zinda. Naturally the players turn up five minutes after Kala has claimed her first victim, and the character with the highest passive Perception (see General Feedback section for thoughts on this piece of design that appears throughout the anthology!) spies the victim’s dead body in an alleyway.
I am happy with the set up here. The story is ‘clean’ and easy to understand (making running NPCs easy, because I know their role and motivations), but there are some potential grey areas over whose side the heroes should take. Yes, the villain is doing diabolical deeds, but so did the families of her victims. Is her vengeance justified?
Meanwhile, the city of Zinda is another great setting (four adventures into Radiant Citadel and I’m beginning to expect this now! So just assume that from now on…), and I enjoyed reading the descriptions of the initial walk through the rainforest and into the city, right into the carnival-esque March of Vice festival. Meanwhile, the scene in which a trio of Divas – driven crazy by poisonous dust and armed with high heels and broken bottles – kick off a bar fight has the makings of a memorable encounter.
Now onto the negatives. If The Fiend of Hollow Mine threatens to be too linear, Wages of Vice says “hold my
beer jeli wine” and moonwalks along a tightrope onto the dancefloor. It actually feels like the adventure happens to the players, rather than them driving it forward, as they are constantly reacting to events that take place all around them. After being contracted by Madame Samira Arah to investigate the initial murder (in the age-old D&D convention of a bunch of random adventurers from out of town being the best possible folks to hire for sensitive missions), they are shepherded along an encounter chain of three near identical combat situations. In each scene, random folks, crazed by Kala Mabarin’s biza’s breath poison, attack a different scion of the Kings of Coin and the players (presumably) try to intervene. In the final encounter the villain joins in the fight, as does the spirit of her dead mother, who is now a wraith.
While the author does seem to want characters to explore Zinda, they fail to introduce any compelling reason for doing so (at least within the scope of this story).
Oh yeah, describing in detail someone barging past the players in the marketplace is going to trigger at least one of them to realise it’s the killer. When you make a point of describing an NPC doing next to nothing in an RPG it’s the cinematic equivalent of a close up of a kitchen knife, just before someone gets the Psycho treatment.
Now, I don’t doubt for a minute that Wages of Vice would be fun to play, but this kind of frantic encounter-chain-medley doesn’t make for optimal D&D adventure design… for my tastes at least.
There are also some mechanical issues present that irritate a nitpicker like me. Pretty much every NPC has the commoner or noble stat block, unless per chance they get targeted by Kala’s biza breath poison, and start going apeshit, in which case herbalists suddenly appear with the stat block of a veteran, or dancers with those of a highly-trained assassin. If I was a player, I’d be questioning why ordinary folk are so fucking handy in combat all of a sudden.
The murderer’s modus operandus also make some of her decision making rather questionable. If her biza breath poison can cause people to attack the nearest folk in range, surely the time to throw a pink cloud of biza breath in the air is precisely when their desired victim is surrounded by guards carrying pointy swords. She seems to want to do the opposite, as often as not. Why would you poison a bunch of unarmed entertainers who are not standing next to the target, when you could poison trained soldiers who are, for example? The resulting scene is cool, it just doesn’t make great sense.
Wages of Vice finishes with another cool little gazetteer, zoning in this time on just the city of Zinda. This means we get a city map (yay!) and some cool locations and factions.
Hipster Remix: I don’t have a 100% fixed idea on how to remix Wages of Vice, but I might be tempted to bring the jeli wine into play more. Maybe, after attempting to assassinate her specific targets, Kala Mabarin intends to poison every barrel and carafe of jeli wine on the final day of the festival, as her revenge on the city as a whole. Her mother gave Zinda this wine, but since the city betrayed her mother, the wine will be their downfall.
I think I would also make the players work harder during the investigation segment of the adventure. We can probably cut out the dwarf’s death (feels weird that one victim is killed by conventional poison, but the others are killed by the resulting violence of biza breath… esp. since dwarfs are highly resilient against poison) and go straight to the market death. The heroes are arrested in the confusion, but are either bailed out by Captain Adann or released by Samira Arah – in either case it’s on the condition they investigate the (attempted) murder.
To begin with the only clue the players might have to find the guilty party is the use of the pink biza breath poison, so DMs can prepare a few locations, like apothecary, library, the Covenant of Magic, or the Jeli Gardens (where daturas tend to the vines), where the heroes are likely to start enquiries. Additionally, I might do something a bit goofy and have a clue giver only agree to cooperate with the investigation if the heroes stand in for the (injured/late/ill/hungover) dancers who are supposed to form part of a parade – thus getting the players involved in the March of Vice celebrations and having them roll some Performance checks.
As the body count increases, players should hopefully work out that the victims are all the (first born) children of the Kings of Coin, and begin to suspect that there’s a mystery behind the mystery. They might also want to take charge of the personal security of the remaining first born (giving them a chance to plan a successful protection scheme… see my post on the nine types of D&D quests!).
Throughout their enquiry players will be exploring Zinda, under their own agency, and can also be drip fed interesting tidbits about the simmering tensions that bubble under the surface of this paradisiacal metropolis that will bring more layers and complexity to the adventure (the author has created these layers… it’s just they don’t come into play as written).
Author: T.K. Johnson
Pages: 66-77 (12)
Final Rating: ★★★☆☆. Fun, flavourful and easy to run, Wages of Vice is perfect for a casual night of gaming.
5. Sins of Our Elders
A slighted spirit takes vengeance on the community that forgot her by stealing their memories (Level 6)
Structurally, Sins of Our Elders is very similar to the anthology’s first adventure, Salted Legacy. The players conduct a location-based investigation in order to restore harmony to a discordant community, most likely leading to a peaceful resolution.
The location in this case is an entire city, Yeonido, making the investigation feel more expansive than that of Salted Legacy, and I think I slightly prefer the set up here, as there are some combats along the way, tokens to collect that will aid the players in the final showdown, plus a few handy hints from the author on how to keep the story going if the players miss a clue or deduction.
The story of a ghost (gwishin) out for vengeance after her legacy was forgotten spoke to me somehow, and in general Sins of Our Elders feels like a really elegant story. The complicated customs and family-first traditions of the setting are well brought to life.
Having said that, there are bits here and there that either don’t make much sense or aren’t really made clear enough for my liking. What’s the gwishin’s grand plan here? To destroy the city, or just torment it? We are given some info and mechanics about the fog, but nothing concrete about the gargoyles and sabre-toothed tigers she seems to be able to summon (how many, how often etc). And, back to mechanical nitpicking, if she has been summoning CR2 creatures to attack guards, nobles and commoners several times a day for several weeks, we should be talking about massacres, not occasional deaths. Also on mechanical nitpicking, a DC 16 for the fog’s saving throw means at least a quarter of the city should remember any given appearance of the fog. It’s also not really clear if PCs are supposed to make this save, or if it only effects Yeonido residents.
The adventure ends with a gazetteer of the city of Yeonido, featuring some cool extra info on its society and locations. I particularly like the draconic origins of the city and the fact that dragonborn form the ruling classes, although there’s a lot of unnecessary repetition over the gwishin lore already revealed in the adventure.
Hipster Remix: I really like the fog idea, but I feel like it could be used to better effect. If the gwishin is pissed off that the city has forgotten her, maybe it would be more thematic to slowly rob the citizenry of their entire memories (instead of giving them temporary black outs, during which they get mauled by tigers).
Maybe the statue of Queen Young-Soo only got erected recently (a week or so ago), and a major celebration of the Queen’s legacy that took place at the same time at the statue unveiling is what set off the gwishin, whose resentment had been building for years. (The injustice of the celebration poured the oil on the flames of her resentment and spiked her powers considerably!). Since then the fog has appeared every night and, apart from making folks’ memories hazy in the moment, is causing them to gradually forget their skills, knowledge and even identities, threatening to bring the city to its knees (tradesfolk have forgotten how to ply their trade, merchants wander the town rather confused, magistrates struggle to remember laws or turn up to meetings).
Mechanically, it might be that for every night in the city you have to make a DC 13 Wisdom saving throw. On a fail you can’t remember anything that happens that night. On a fail by 5 something worse happens.
First failure by 5. Lose proficiency in any tools and weapons.
Second failure by 5. Lose proficiency in skills, and must succeed on a DC 15 Arcana check or any levelled spell cast fizzles out (burning slot).
Third failure by 5. Can’t cast levelled spells or remember anything that happened more than a month ago.
Fourth failure by 5. Can’t remember anything that happened more than a day ago.
Fifth failure by 5. Can’t remember anything that happened more than an hour ago.
Sixth failure by 5. Can’t remember anything that happened more than a minute ago.
Once the party appear, you can say the fog rises for short periods during the day as well, so you can ramp up the urgency and the debilitating effects of the fog.
Maybe having one of Dae Won-Ha’s tokens on you makes you immune to the effects (enabling players to get reliable info from Young-Gi, who will retain his longterm memory thanks to being the owner of such a token), while remove curse will end the fog’s memory loss effects.
I would also prefer for the gargoyles and tigers to be more obviously spectral avengers (I didn’t really get if they were solid, summoned, or what, nor understand why they were blue). And in the final showdown at the Park of the Elders the gwishin should unleash several of these creatures (or, even better, a new type of spectral avenger) upon the players before any peace talks take place… thus granting the adventure a climactic final combat (as mentioned, I’m not a big fan of the peaceful resolution ending to D&D adventures), even if the players decide against taking on the gwishin herself.
Author: Stephanie Yoon
Pages: 78-91 (14)
Final Rating: ★★★★☆. An elegant adventure in every sense, but with some slightly foggy design around the antagonist, their plan and their powers / mechanics.
6. Gold for Fools and Princes
Mysterious creatures cause a gold mine to collapse, precipitating a race between rival princes to save those trapped (Level 7)
The Sensa Empire is built on gold, so when a tunnel collapses in the empire’s Goldwarren mining complex, trapping several miners, it’s both a humane and a political issue. In Gold for Fools and Princes, the adventurers are put in charge of the rescue mission, along with two princes who want to raise their profile in the hopes of being named Empress Inaya’s chosen successor.
Unfortunately the political aspect of this adventure is something that the players witness more than partake in (they are encouraged to pep up the rather hapless Prince Simbon, but that’s about it), while the rigid structure involves the PCs being strong-armed into a meeting with the behind-the-scenes villain, followed by a fairly routine dungeon crawl, only really memorable for the gold-devouring stoat-like monster the aurumvorax.
Thanks to a few nice touches, I think Gold for Fools & Princes would still result in a fun session, but a lot of the adventure design / choices rubbed against my personal tastes. Examples:
1) A key plot point involves the scrawling of arcane symbols as a clue that treacherous magic is afoot… except that scrawling symbols on walls isn’t part of any spellcasting mechanics that I know of in D&D, and this just rings false for me. If the bad guys had spilled some material components of a spell in the Player’s Handbook the adventure might have plot consistent with the rules and lore of the game (it’s a bit cheap to make stuff up on the side and go… “hey, it’s magic!”), which I’d find way more satisfying to read and DM.
2) As in other adventures in this anthology, the NPCs push the players along a linear encounter chain, without any freedom of agency for the PCs.
3) The bad guys’ plan is a terrible one: it is much more likely to get Prince Kirina killed that make him a hero. I personally also find fighting summoned creatures horribly anticlimactic. When beasts vanish at 0 hit points, as a player you feel like you just killed an illusion or something that wasn’t real, and that’s way less epic than fighting real twilight dune scorpions (who by the way, aren’t given any mechanical difference to giant scorpions… which is also disappointing!).
In general, I find dungeon crawls are bit boring at the best of times, and this one doesn’t do enough to surprise, horrify or entertain us. I love the auromvorax but it’s a bit too cute to be the dreaded monster that is munching on trapped miners.
Also the confinement of a dungeon crawl is the worst possible design choice to get the most out of a new setting…
Speaking of which, the setting (inspired by pre-colonial Mali) is actually really interesting, with the gazetteer sketching a politically precarious Empire made up of three city states. A war of succession seems imminent, and that could take this adventure into a very cool campaign afterwards.
Hipster Remix: Remixing this to my satisfaction would take a bit more effort than I’m willing to put in right now (especially since I have semi-developed my own mining rescue mission adventure, which I would rather invest my effort in!).
But a couple of ideas occurred to me while reading Gold for Fools and Princes that I’ll share here. The first is, I think it would be way cooler if Prince Kirina was not the de facto bad guy, but in fact the far better fit to rule the Sensa Empire – thus giving the players a dilemma. How far will they go to complete their job (using the ‘Royal Attendants’ adventure hook) for King Diara, vs. supporting the guy who is clearly better for the job? This will work even better if King Diara is paying them a big bonus payment IF Prince Simbon is named successor as a result of their work. Maybe King Diara has badmouthed Kirina, but as the adventure goes on it becomes clear that he’s actually a solid guy.
I also think it would be way cooler if the auromvaxes were actually back from extinction, and not just hokey summoned creatures. If they are going to stick around, breed like rabbits, and eat dry the gold mines that’s a way bigger threat to the empire than some summoned beasts that are presumably going to dissipate at some point, once the spell duration wears off. Perhaps these critters survived in small numbers in the wilderness for centuries and have bred back into healthy numbers again; or perhaps they’ve been reintroduced by an enemy state or even some anti-civilisation, nature-loving faction that wants to undermine the empire by having the beasts eat all the mines’ minerals.
Author: Dominique Dickey
Pages: 92-105 (14)
Final Rating: ★★½. Some cool ideas and a fun new monster that I would like to repurpose, but the adventure feels scripted and the encounters rather routine. The setting is not brought to life in the adventure itself.
7. Trail of Destruction
A legendary creature reawakens and begins a chain reaction of volcanic eruptions that threaten the land (Level 8)
Tletepec is a land that lives in constant danger of volcanic eruptions, but recently they have grown so frequent that even the scholarly Watchers of the Ashes are unable to predict the next explosions. At the same time, ruthless fire elementals have started prowling the land, stealing offerings made by the people of Tletepec to appease the gods.
After the adventurers touch down in Ttelepec, having answered the call to travel to the region (three solid hooks are provided), they are immediately plunged into a fight, where they’re expected to thwart a caravan raid by salamanders and fire snakes. From here they get a concrete mission. To travel up to the Twin Gods Observatory in the footsteps of four warriors who went there on a fact finding mission, but didn’t return.
What follows is a neat bit of travel with a few hazards, a chance to gain insight at the aforementioned observatory (before it collapses in an earthquake), and a memorable NPC to accompany the party en route, before the heroes are pointed in the direction of the adventure’s final location.
A fire giant social encounter en route should prove fun, before a temple needs clearing out and the legendary tlexolotl behind the volcanic upheaval needs confronting. And even if the author does suggest this can be done peacefully (arrghhh!), the fact that you would need to speak Ignan and pass on a DC 20 Charisma check mean it shouldn’t be so easy. Still, I would ignore this option.
I’m really liking this adventure. It’s epic in scope, includes all three pillars of play, and the entire setting and story work together to make a really coherent whole. Because everything makes sense (instead of being a mash up of cool ideas, pulling in different directions), I am confident Trail of Destruction will also prove really easy to run.
Naturally, I have a few quibbles. Although the setting concept (a civilisation that has to live in a state of death and renewal) is excellent, there’s not much help bringing the two settlements that the players travel through to life. Combat-wise and there’s a lot of salamanders and fire snakes, which threatens to get quite dull, while an optimised party is going to take out the final boss (104 hit points) in one round. Possibly before they’ve taken an action, if the players roll well for initiative.
While there are things I’d definitely change about this adventure, the general structure is so tight that I feel like I can easily just dial up some monsters’ HP, or add elements on top of what’s there, without having to tie my brain in knots restructuring the entire story.
The Tletepec Gazetteer adds a little more to the lore in the adventure, but overall I feel like once you’ve played Trail of Destruction, there’s no real need to go back to this setting. It’s hard to up the ante, when you’ve just saved the civilisation from certain ruin. And that’s totally fine.
Hipster Remix: The first thing I would do would be mix up the combats, replacing the salamander and fire snakes that attack the caravan with some fire newts led by a fire newt warlock of Imix, and maybe adding some ordinary (i.e. non-fire related) monsters to the travel encounters (they are crazed and fleeing the increased volcanic activity). That still leaves one salamander encounter in the Gate of Illumination temple.
For the boss fight, we need to give our Tlexolotl resistance to nonmagical weapons (as per salamanders), and possibly 50 more HP besides. I think some magma mephits or magmin minions would be cool too. I’d be tempted to draw up a larger and more ambitious final battle map for area I6 in the Gate of Illumination, with maybe some incentives for players to move around (to avoid hot streams of magma that burst up from the lake, perhaps… “if you pass the Dex save you can move 10 feet out of the way in the direction of your choice”) so that the battle doesn’t get too static. Perhaps the four missing warriors are actually chained to a pillar on a large island in the lava lake, so the players have to play a very dangerous game of stepping stones or cast fly to rescue them (hope you don’t lose concentration!). See my post on designing great combat encounters for more inspiration.
The other thing I’d like to do with this adventure is flesh out the two settlements, Etizalan and Xoxotla, perhaps running a local festival (true to this anthology’s modus operandus!) which is interrupted by a doomsayer predicting the Ashrise. The idea would be to insert any last unused pieces of lore from the gazetteer to create a solid sense of this culture, along with perhaps some extra research on the real world Aztec culture that inspired the setting.
Author: Alastor Guzman
Pages: 106-119 (14)
Final Rating: ★★★★½. Everything you want in a D&D adventure, plus theme-wrapped and easy for DMs to run.
8. In the Mists of Manivarsha
A local champion goes missing after a deadly flood, leading to a search for her along the rivers of a vast swamp (Level 9)
In the Mists of Manivarsha is the perfect complement to Trail of Destruction, except this time, instead of a society that worships the dangerous volcanoes it lives upon, we are introduced to the Shankhabhumi, a nation of three city states, all dependent on the caprices of the mighty rivers they lie next to.
In fact, the adventure follows an almost identical structure to ToD. An explosive beginning precipitates a fact-finding journey (in the company of a memorable NPC) to an interesting location, after which a second journey needs to be made in order to confront the final boss.
If anything In the Mists of Manivarsha does it even better though. A tidal wave washing over the plaza of Sagorpur, just as the The Shanka Trials (a kind of cultural Olympics of the region) are taking place, is about a thrilling start to an adventure as a DM could hope for, while I think Mists slightly exceeds Trail of Destruction for its travel encounters. Plus the party get to travel in a funky flat-bottomed skiff (which is always cooler than on their own two feet, right?).
Is it perfect then? Well there are some mechanical things I’d change along the way (that’s pretty much given for all these adventures by the way, but I’ve usually had bigger things to gripe about), and I’m not fully clear / convinced on the back story. How did Jijibishi win the trials if the city of Manivarshi was destroyed for example? If she’s just claiming to have won, that’s not as dramatic. A little more detail on how she bested the riverine and trapped it would be nice too.
Gameplay-wise and it would be cooler if the players decide to visit the Falls Clearing from some clues or info they glean around town, rather than being told to do so by the only boatman who survives the storm. Once at the falls, the players don’t have to do anything to get Tinjhorna to talk – when potentially the author could have turned this into a challenge. This is a riverine, after all, effectively a god of this civilisation! More drama is required I feel… but easily added by the DM.
One final gripe would be that the boss battle should definitely have some extra components to it, and I feel either some lair actions (note: the awesome riverine stat block is unlikely to get used so you could repurpose these for this fight instead!) or else some minions are required.
The Shankabhumi Gazetteer completes a really coherent world-building job, replete with origin myth. A city map of at least one of the city states would be nice, if one were planning to revisit the setting.
Hipster Remix: Aside from the changes I already suggested within my review, I would like to offer my players maybe an alternative (cheaper) boatman to choose from, who has a different suggestion on where the players should begin their investigation – a ruined, overgrown temple would fit the setting well. The players then will have to decide who they think has the best information. The temple could turn out to be a red herring, and cost them some time and resources, or it could gain them a useful item for completing the quest. Potentially both.
This talk of wasting resources reminds me of another of the adventure’s flaws. The author throws several encounters at the party which seem to designed to cost them time, but the adventure doesn’t include any ticking clock that the heroes have to adhere to. I might fix this by making a Constitution save against exhaustion for Amanisha every 8-12 hours. The longer the party takes to reach her, the more likely she is to reach six levels of exhaustion and die. Smart players should figure out from these regular rolls, that they probably don’t have infinite time to mess around.
I also think I would flesh out the River Journey Encounters table, as it seems like we’re going to have to roll on it pretty often. Also, can you really have a river/swamp-based adventure without a giant crocodile encounter? No, no you can’t.
Author: Mimi Mondal
Pages: 120-133 (14)
Final Rating: ★★★★★. A fantastic beginning and middle, and a decent finish, make this my favourite adventure so far. Nails the setting and theme. (Amazingly, post-review, and I’ve discovered this is the author’s first D&D adventure!)
9. Between Tangled Roots
Rageful spirits provoke a dragon to go on a deadly rampage (Level 10)
Between Tangled Roots offers Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel its first monster hunt: for a bakunawa dragon that has gone berserk and is attacking local settlements (which once it would have protected).
The setting is inspired by the Philippines and made instantly memorable by the introduction of skybridges that link the various isles of the archipelago. A huge bridge could make for a rather boring travel environment but there’s some excellent lore behind them, some great encounters included, plus some inspiring artwork that helps us imagine their sinuous forms snaking through the sky.
Back to the monster hunt and the author has given this common D&D quest type a couple of additional layers. Firstly, the quest-givers hire the characters to “bring it [the dragon] peace”, leaving it somewhat ambiguous whether they should kill, or somehow save, the monster in question. Secondly, there is a (potentially rival) group of dragon hunters also seeking out the bakunawa, who are less ambiguous about their aims – they wish to slay the monster that they feel betrayed their settlement many moons ago.
So far so good, and once over the skybridge, the travel through the blighted island of Lambakluha feels atmospheric and well thought out. The final boss battle also promises to be interesting, at least if the party try to de-corrupt the dragon instead of killing it. This way they will have to try and destroy the spirit blisters pumping the bakunawa full of negative energy, while the beast fights to protect them. DMs can use the rival party of dragon hunters as a complication in the combat, or perhaps a potential deus ex machina to prevent a TPK.
As for flaws, the author sometimes plucks for what’s convenient, rather than what’s credible, including sometimes shuffling players towards a predetermined scene or outcome. I also don’t think there was any need to stick a PG rating on the dragon attack at the start of the adventure, which miraculously doesn’t kill anyone.
The Dayawlongon Gazetteer builds a picture of a story-telling, family-orientated society that (mostly) pay their soul debts.
Hipster Remix: I was disappointed by the undead attack on The Final Steps of Courage military camp, where “whether the characters are near the gate or elsewhere, three wraiths… close in on the characters and attack.” I guess the author’s intention was to break off a manageable slice of the combat for the players to deal with, without having to worry about the NPCs etc., but it comes across as a bit too convenient. I would do my best to turn this story beat into an epic ‘Massacre at Hardhome‘ style scene, whereby the camp is assaulted and the players have a chance to show off their horde-breaking skills, joining the fray with the soldiers (if they choose to! As written the players aren’t given any agency). Given the corrupted nature of the island, twig, needle and vine blights would make for thematic allies to accompany a dozen or so wraiths (or maybe some more corporeal undead) at the gates.
While I enjoyed the introduction of the rival monster hunters as a tool for the DM, it’s a bit off-putting that if the players choose to head several miles off course to explore the Zenith of Sorrow before heading to the dragon’s lair, they only end up losing a few rounds on their rivals. I’d be tempted to introduce a real ticking clock here. What if, when the party sit down with the soldiers, after the camp assault, they learn that a party of dragon hunters set off into the swamp some 8 hours previously? (Note: we still introduce Paolo and his crew to the party in Kalapang [in the Root & Roost tavern would be better than on the skybridge], but these dragon hunters either set their alarm earlier than the PCs, or used windwalk etc. to get ahead). Now the party know they can’t hang around if they want to get to the dragon first… giving them a dilemma over whether to rest (they may have burned a lot of resources in the camp assault) or investigate Sorrow’s Zenith, or simply press ahead. You can then run some kind of progress check for the rival party, who may suffer significant delays themselves. (Note: the adventure states that the swamp and overgrown hills are difficult terrain but gives journey time of one day to travel 24 miles. That should read 12 miles, as 24 miles per day is the amount travelled over normal terrain [p.182, PH]. On the other hand, on the map the distances look half of that stated in the text. As the DM, you can fix the distances to suit how much travel you want to include in the adventure!).
Author: Pam Punzalan
Pages: 134-147 (14)
Final Rating: ★★★★½. A superior monster hunt built around the mythology of a well-designed setting.
10. Shadow of the Sun
Rival factions clash in an angel-ruled city on the brink of rebellion (Level 11)
Shadow of the Sun is the anthology’s most ambitious offering, and takes place in arguably its most original setting yet: a culturally sophisticated but politically isolated city state, inspired by ancient Persia, which is run by an autocratic angel. Yep, we’re a long way from The Shire by now.
The heroes arrive in the city to celebrate the ‘Brilliant Night’, a triennial phenomenon when the moon shines as brightly as the sun for around a week (the city’s curfew is lifted for this period!). They find themselves milling around Three Sun Square when a bunch of anarchists wearing efreeti masks take to the plaza to espouse their political messages, denouncing the angel Atash and his Brightguard enforcers with the aid of some magical ‘boomhailers’. As the Brightguard respond by trying to arrest the anarchists, a purple worm, disturbed by the boomhailers, bursts up from the ground and does its best to devour the noisy devices – and any creature holding one.
Even more plot strands are woven into this scene-setting beginning, as a seemingly innocent elf woman is arrested alongside the anarchists, leading the players into a three faction tug-o-war. The Brightguard want the party to help keep the peace during the lunar festival, the masked anarchists, known as the Ashen Heirs, want a change of leadership for the city, while the Silent Roar (a bunch of pacifist rebels) approach the party asking for help undermining the Brightguard, and securing the release of their unfairly imprisoned leader (the aforementioned elf woman).
In essence, the masked anarchists fulfil the role of the undisputed bad guys in the adventure, and the players’ first task will be to track them down and then neutralise them. This process initiates what might just be D&D’s coolest ever scene – a magic carpet chase through a busy bazaar!
Once the anarchists are dealt with, a kind of second finale sees the players having to choose between rescuing the Silent Roar’s leader, or, if they side with the Brightguard, having to guard against her rescue by the same rebel faction. As she’s being held prisoner in a 300 foot high ‘Sky Prison’ this will involve an epic aerial combat, either way.
Overall, this is a rich and entertaining adventure brimming with intrigue and epic scenes, i.e. very much my bag baby! But you didn’t think it was going to get away without receiving my gripes and grievances treatment did you?
While I love the faction intrigue of the adventure, it’s often crowbarred into the plot rather clumsily. I’m not sure how eager a zealous militant group like the Brightguard would court a bunch of strangers to help with the city’s dirty work, for example, while Laleh Ghorbani must be the most trusting dissident of all time, when she spills all she knows to the party in attempt to recruit the players to her side.
I’m also not a big fan of the ‘this happens whatever the players do’ style of adventure design, that the author resorts to on a couple of occasions.
While it’s a bit unlikely, the fact that the two factions are played off so well against each could leave the players with decision paralysis, or just the feeling that they shouldn’t get involved, as neither side are monstrous and it’s not their business. This would be very anticlimactic if so!
The Akharin Sangar Gazetteer rounds off the adventure with a few more details on the city’s important buildings, as well as some insights into the surrounding lands.
Hipster Remix: There’s not too much I’d change about Shadow of the Sun, it’s more of a case of just putting some thought into how to present the different factions, instead of having them each approach the party and spew out their goals and beliefs out of the blue. It might be fun to present the Brightguard as the de facto good guys to begin with, but let their haloes slip gradually over the course of the adventure, tempting the players to switch loyalty (to be fair, I suspect that’s how the author half intends it to play out!). I would keep some kind of dirty revelation up my sleeve, for one or both factions, just in case the party dither too long or threaten to declare themselves neutral.
Aside from that I didn’t really like the Ashen Heir Hideout section of the adventure as much as the rest. Navid the efreeti feels a bit wasted just sitting in his lair. Meanwhile, the fact that his djinni cousin stays out of combat feels like a combat balance decision, not a narrative one, and the notion that they both planeshift away to leave mortals to their own devices just robs the players of the chance of resolving the situation. I might be tempted to map out a more interesting lair and plan for a double genie fight… and if the genies are forced to planeshift to safety, you can be sure they’re coming back! (The heroes would be well advised to try and trap Navid in the iron flask and then negotiate with his cousin).
Author: Justice Arman
Pages: 148-167 (20)
Final Rating: ★★★★★. You had me at “magic carpet chase”.
We Interrupt This Broadcast…
All this talk of intrigue and epic scenes makes me feel like this is the right time to interrupt this article and offer a full introduction to my own epic adventure, DRAGONBOWL.
If you want to challenge your players to take on a medusa in a staring competition, channel their inner Indiana Jones on a rollercoaster mining cart ride, or defend the Dragonbowl Airship from a beholder and a bunch of bugbears on hover disks, then this might just be your kind of fun. And that’s not even counting the gladiatorial games, dozens of festival locations and scores of intriguing NPCs to encounter, any of which might lead to new ‘entanglements’ (side quests).
A lot of game masters have written to me personally to say it’s the best adventure they’ve ever run. Which is always nice to hear! And that just makes me even keener to share the indiscriminate bloodshed with as many DMs as possible.
So, if you made it this far down the article, and you’re at least DRAGONBOWL-curious, here’s a little gift for – 5 dollars off the adventure!
Just click the link to redeem the discount on the DMs Guild.
11. The Nightsea’s Succor
A quest for ancient lore reveal threats from the past and leads to a mysterious nation beneath the waves (Level 12)
The Nightsea’s Succor see the players travel to “the misty coast of Djaynai”, a mud-brick city inspired by a composite of African cultures, where they have an appointment with a city official about one business or another (depending on the adventure hook used). Before they can meet their local contact, however, the inn they are staying at experiences a haunting: two ‘haints‘ (essentially ghosts) beseech the heroes to reclaim the knowledge they are guarding, which is under threat. It is inferred that the knowledge rests at the bottom of the sea, in the shipwreck that killed these two artisans (although the text also says they were murdered, but hey…).
Word gets out about the players’ encounter with the haints and soon both the head of the People’s Stewards (i.e. the city’s official ruler), and mysterious boss of the Night Revelers, a bunch of progressive philosopher-rebels, are entreating the party to bring them this lost lore, the first to safeguard it, the second to mould it into something new. Later in the adventure, two more factions of Djaynai’s twinned underwater kingdom, Janya, also pester the players to bring their findings directly to them.
While I do like the ‘choose your own faction’ device, as discussed in the previous adventure, it brings with it the possibility that the players either won’t care enough, or won’t have enough knowledge / conviction over who they should side with. Overall, I’d still rather have this choice baked into the story than not, but maybe four factions to choose from is a bit of overkill!
The adventure has some bigger design issues for me, and the first is the reoccurrence of the linear encounter chain we’ve seen quite a few times in this anthology already. The Nightsea’s Succor begins with the players on their way to an appointment with a city official, and from there on in it feels like they are a relay baton that is handed from one NPC to another. There is some free time built in for exploration, but no hints in running that free time (a random [non-combat] encounter table, or a cool shop or two, for both the surface and underwater city, would have been welcome), nor is it assumed that any such exploration will affect the story in any way.
More damaging for me is that I couldn’t think of any good reason why Zisatta (boss of the underwater security forces) wouldn’t just send her Billowing Patrol team to retrieve the lost lore themselves, if she wants it so badly. She knows the position of the shipwreck after all, and thanks to the characters she now knows what’s stashed there. We often come across this dynamic in D&D – which feels akin to the police hiring some tourists to arrest someone – but adventure designers need to at least put in a vague reason why the obvious people to do the job can’t go and do that job.
Another slight disappointment is that the civilisations’ missing lore sounds cool (the Blackmist Way and the Blackthrone Arts) but we don’t find out much more about them.
Finally, the adventure’s aboleth feels like it isn’t used to anywhere near its full potential.
The Djaynai and Janya Gazetteer completes a well thought out and highly original location with interesting political factions. The idea of an underwater nation made from captives who threw themselves into the water to save themselves from raiders feels like a poignant piece of mythology.
Hipster Remix: I think a subtle change or two can do a lot to improve The Nightsea’s Succor, and the first change would be that when the players mention the shipwreck to Atiba-Pa, the regent does NOT point the players in the direction of the underwater city of Janya for more info. Instead he asks them to investigate themselves, possibly assigning them an adjutant. The players can try asking around town about the shipwreck, and they might pick up some imprecise guesses from old sailors, but eventually they work out that the info they’re really looking for is in the library of the Ancestor’s Danse House.
This allows the players to meet the Night Revelers more organically, and they can choose whether or not to tell this faction about their mission, after enjoying some festivities. If they do so, they get an alternative proposal from the faction, and maybe some additional items / info to help.
Without the Night Revelers help they still get a decent lead on the location of the shipwreck from the library, but with it they might get a better one (or advantage on the Investigation check etc.).
In all cases, they establish the shipwreck is in the Trench of Love Lost, with a greater or less degree of accuracy to it’s precise location.
Next we can give the players another decision to make. The characters are told that the people of Janya know the Trench well and can choose to enlist their help or not. This time however they’ll be making a mistake if they do, or at least if they let on why they are seeking the shipwreck, because if Zisatta learns about the lost lore she either detains the players and sends her own agents to retrieve it, or she insists on sending an escort with the players (with secret instructions to relieve the PCs of the items, if they find them).
In this way, we’ve put the players at the helm, and the decisions they make will affect their understanding of the setting and the outcome of the adventure (as written, their decisions affect the outcome of what happens after the adventure, which most likely won’t get played out on your table).
I’m also tempted to try and make the aboleth a more dynamic villain. Perhaps it knows the value of the lore it watches over, but can’t remove it for some reason (maybe the books are locked in a chest… and tentacles aren’t great for picking locks), so it first tries to shut down the haints’ haunting (you can run this as described in Spirits Plea section), but if/when that fails it sends more wraiths to thwart the PCs, on both dry land and at sea (we can say that the aboleth can control any member of the drowned crew of the shipwreck who died with a guilty conscience… i.e. the slavers and murderers, but not the innocent captives). Wraiths with the appearance of drowned men that follow the party around are sure to creep the players out and bring plenty of fear and tension to the table!
Author: D. Fox Harrell
Pages: 168-183 (16)
Final Rating: ★★★½. A well-designed setting with cool factions (esp. the Night Revelers!), but there’s too much NPC hand-holding for my liking, while the story seems to have a rather large plot hole that needs plugging.
12. Buried Dynasty
Agents of a long-lived emperor seek a timeless secret to keep their ruler in power at any cost (Level 13)
In the land of Great Xing the death of an Emperor usually brings with it a tumultuous period of upheaval and bloodshed, which is why Grand Secretary Wei Feng Ying is stressed out. She’s well aware that the the imperial alchemists have run out of powdered shards of Dragon of Heavenly Blessing eggshell, a key ingredient for making potions of longevity safe to drink ad infinitum. This makes such an upheaval imminent, as the White Jade Emperor is getting on in years.
She believes some “Dragon’s Blessing” may be stashed in the Old City ruins of the Yun Dynasty, which lie under the capital city of Yonjing, and she sets up an expedition to search for it. The ruins are known to be rife with traps and monsters, so she invites our very own intrepid adventurers to the Hall of Divine Wisdom (where they get a little taste of imperial bureaucracy) to serve as the muscle on the expedition, the true nature of which she keeps to herself.
Buried Dynasty boasts a great setting and back story, but in terms of gameplay we go straight into a dungeon crawl, which I found disappointing. It robs the adventure of a chance to develop the political intrigue or for the players to conduct a meaningful investigation (based on social encounters).
During the dungeon crawl, the scholar leading the expedition accidentally reveals to the players what they’re really searching for (Dragon’s Blessing). And the scholar just happens to make this slip of the tongue just as the Grand Secretary is using clairvoyance magic to spy on the expedition’s progress. Immediately deciding that the players know too much, the rather ruthless bureaucrat engineers a cave in of the dungeon entrance, but then gets in touch via her crystal ball of telepathy to offer them a portal out of their predicament. It’s a trap though… the portal leads them to a room full of glaive-wielding ancient jade statues (stone golems).
Before they are hacked to death, the Grand Secretary at least has the decency to appear in illusory form to thank the party for their service and offer them a last request (this offer of a last request is essentially a nice design device for DMs to explain to the players what’s happening and why).
I have mixed feelings about this set up. One the one hand betrayal scenes are often some of the most dramatic and memorable in D&D. On the other hand it is a bit of a cliche and this one feels extremely scripted. It actually feels like the entire adventure is built around this moment, which the players have precious little chance to anticipate (and if the players do anticipate it somehow, then you have no adventure, because they would refuse the quest).
It also doesn’t really make sense. If the players were already trapped in the other dungeon, why not just leave them there to starve? Why bother beaming them into a second dungeon, where there also happens to be a bunch of sensitive political material to discover?
Anyway, assuming the heroes work out how to escape the room full of stone golems (there are dozens, so no chance to beat them in a fight), the adventure finishes pretty strongly, with a chance to rescue a chained dragon and then pop up from under the stage of the imperial opera house and confront the Emperor himself with the Grand Secretary’s dastardly deeds.
The Yonging Gazetteer is another great resource, with a map that makes the city’s real world inspiration pretty clear (hint: it’s the Forbidden City), and a nice legend that made me laugh.
Hipster Remix: Despite its many epic themes, Buried Dynasty is disappointingly narrow in scope for my liking, in both terms of gameplay and geography. While I find it credible, and even a fun piece of lore, that Yonjing is built upon the ruins of previous dynasties, it’s also rather boring to be poking around in a five room dungeon just below your doorstep at 13th level.
I once spent four months travelling around China, and I can tell you that its certainly not short of epic landscapes. I would have the Grand Secretary send the players off through forests, mountains, gorges, deltas and rice fields on a top secret mission to find the ruins of the Yun Dynasty (where she believes the Dragon’s Blessing to be), perhaps in the guise of foot soldiers accompanying a caravan of Ying porcelain to a far off settlement.
Then I’d run the adventure’s first dungeon with a few adjustments, the most important being that they do find the Dragon’s Blessing, which they’re told about from the beginning. The betrayal comes because the Grand Secretary wants the Dragon’s Blessing for herself, not the Emperor, and – once she’s confident the players haven’t blabbed to anyone – she decides to get rid of them, portaling them into the jade statues room on the pretext of sending them somewhere more exciting.
If they survive the room of death, the players find themselves outside the city, with the Grand Secretary’s agents searching for them (she learns of their escape). They must now sneak back into the city and build up a body of evidence to present to the Emperor. Given how hard it is to get an appointment with the old boy, they might learn (through an ally or good investigation) that one opportunity might be to confront him at the Opera House (I’m keen to keep the adventure’s excellent ending!).
Author: Felice Tzehuei Kuan
Pages: 186-201 (16)
Final Rating: ★★★½. Some great drama and cinematic moments, but lacking a bit in scope and far too scripted for my tastes.
Note: seeing the emphasis the author puts on the continuity of the dynasties, one literally on top of the other, we might assume that, in the Hipster Remix, the faraway dungeon is the ruins of a summer palace. Later the players might have to find out more closer to home.
13. Orchids of the Invisible Mountain
Adventurers must travel to the Feywild and the Far Realm to prevent otherworldly forces from tearing a land apart. (Level 14)
Lovers of the exploration pillar of D&D are likely to enjoy this offering, that not only sees the players explore a Venezuela-inspired setting on the material plane, but also has them venture into a polluted part of the Feywild, as well as portal into the desiccated shell of a dead god in the Far Realm, where, amongst other things they might battle a beholder in zero gravity.
Overall, Orchids of the Invisible Mountain is not quite my flavour of fantasy but I had to admire the creativity on display throughout, as encounters with sugar tycoons, miming macaws, thri-kreen traders, serpentine gods and creepy, whistling aberrations make for a memorable rollercoaster ride.
The locations of the encounters also feel fresh and if, like me, you’ve never visited a sugar mill, a tepui or the husk of a dead god on your D&D table then Orchids delivers something fresh for your table.
As with many of the Journeys, there’s a linear structure in play throughout, and not too much room for the players to manoeuvre outside the planned encounters. Meanwhile the plane-hopping epic scope of the story means that it doesn’t feel so tightly themed as some of the anthology’s best offerings.
The Atagua Gazetteer features a map with several intriguing sounding locales, linked by the land’s famous Grassroads (another unique location!), while the ‘shifting pantheon of hundreds of folk heroes’ is an interesting angle.
Hipster Remix: It would be cool to introduce some more player choices into the adventure. I might start with a simple choice. Like asking them if they trust Nene the macaw’s direction sense or their own. Instead of having the bird automatically know the way to the Feywild portal, perhaps it too has to roll Survival checks to find the fastest way; while the players have enough general info about where to go that their characters would have their own opinions on how to get there. All checks to be made in secret by the DM, with any resulting poor decisions costing resources (random encounters) or levels of exhaustion (getting stuck in hot, fetid swamps etc.).
Other than that, instead of running “Ambushed Thri-kreen”, I might have the players run into the Dawn Mother earlier on in the adventure. If they decide to kill her, they might run into difficulties when they need her to give them the Hammock of the Worlds (I would place it in her lair, which they now have to find and search. She has put it in a very safe place!).
Author: Terry Hope
Pages: 202-221 (20)
Final Rating: ★★★½. A flavourful high-fantasy romp to faraway realms, sure to please lovers of the exploration pillar of D&D. The macaw might be my favourite NPC in the anthology.
After reading these adventures, there were some general points I would raise that applied to the collection as a whole.
Let’s start with the positives, and I think every DM is going to appreciate the fact that the adventures are consistently formatted, with a paragraph introduction, background, pronunciation guide, and character hooks on each, before ‘Starting the Adventure’ etc. The gazetteers as well all use the same format, more or less, and whereas I didn’t consider them when it came to rating the adventures, each offers a lot of added value to the book.
A minor point I liked was the reoccurrence of ‘charms’ (p.228 of the DMG) as player rewards, as they are fun and flavourful but not as unbalancing as too many magic items can be.
Negatives would be the constant recycling of old stat blocks, which just feels really cheap and lazy. Reskinning stat blocks is a DM’s tool for saving time, and shouldn’t form a major part of an official publication IMHO.
Another issue I had was the frequent use of this piece of design: “The character with the highest passive Perception score notices…” This feels like lazy design that can’t be bothered to accommodate more than one outcome. If I can just about excuse it for spotting the ‘instigating incident’ that gets the adventure rolling, I certainly don’t want to see it any deeper into the story than the first paragraph.
I was also a fraction disappointed that the influence of the Radiant Citadel on each civilisation isn’t really discussed in any of the adventures. It has the advantage that you can just ignore the citadel and play the adventure with your own hook more easily, but after spending a chapter discussing the citadel it is all but ignored.
Finally, I think it’s rather a strange, and even unfair, decision not to put the authors’ names immediately next to their work (the writers receive a lumped-together credit at the beginning of the book, and no mention is made of which adventure was designed by whom. If I was a contributor I’d have been disappointed by this!). This is made more strange as credits for the book’s excellent artwork can be found in the margins on the same page as the art itself.
I was struck in Candlekeep Mysteries how often some of the same themes and features repeated themselves, and the same can be said about Journeys Through The Radiant Citadel. Here are some quirky stats for you:
Adventures featuring festivals: 5 (since festivals are often a society’s most colourful expressions of culture, I guess it makes sense that so many of the authors sought to include them…).
Urban adventures: 5 (I include Shadow of the Sun, even if the final location is 5 miles outside the city, but not The Nightsea’s Succor, which includes a lengthy exploration of a sea trench).
NPC Rescue missions: 4
Adventures featuring sinkholes / cenotes: 3 (pretty sure I never read a D&D adventure with a sinkhole in it… this anthology features three!).
Adventures featuring market scenes: 3
Adventures featuring mines: 2
Adventures featuring wraiths: 4
Adventures featuring giants: 4 (giants aren’t the main adversary in any adventure, but they feature in four… two in random travel encounters, including a fomorian).
Adventures featuring dragons: 2
Adventures featuring aboleths: 2
Adventures featuring new stat blocks: 10
Ok, now for the fun part! Putting everything in order of what tickled my fancy the most. I feel like I should stress again that there are always personal preferences and biases involved when one person compiles a rankings list, and these results are based on my reading / interpretation of the adventures (i.e. without always knowing, or possibly understanding, the authors’ intentions etc.). There’s something I would use or repurpose in every single one of these adventures, and I respect all of the offerings in the anthology.
- Shadow of the Sun. An explosive beginning, a choice of factions to side with and an epic aerial battle to wrap things up… and that’s before I remind myself of the magic carpet chase scene through a crowded bazaar. 5 stars.
- In the Mists of Manivarsha. Another belting beginning, the anthology’s best designed travel encounters and a solid end game earns ItMoM silver medal. 5 stars.
- Between Tangled Roots. More great travel leads to an objective-based boss battle, with rival adventurers offering the DM a joker up their sleeve. 4.5 stars.
- Trail of Destruction. Volcanic eruptions, toppling towers and invading elements lead to a thematic adventure of epic stakes. Less fourth, and more joint third with Between Tangled Roots. 4.5 stars.
- The Fiend of Hollow Mine. A kind of Mexican Wild West which features a creepy villain, memorable dungeon and a chance to join in with a festival of the dead. 4 stars, pushing 4.5.
- Sins of Our Elders. One of the most successful combinations of theme and setting, and for me the best investigation scenario. 4 stars.
- The Nightsea’s Succor. Lots of evocative fresh material here, from factions and locations, to back story, although the encounters are rather railroaded (but not the resolution, with the players getting to choose who to side with). 3.5 stars.
- Orchids of the Invisible Mountain. Unbeatable for unbridled creativity, although probably a little too ‘far out’ overall for my personal tastes. Still, Nene the macaw is worth the entry fee alone. 3.5 stars.
- Buried Dynasty. A great back story beckons players into an adventure that’s all about big cinematic moments, even if they are rather scripted. 3.5 stars.
- Salted Legacy. A really well-designed investigation, in a cool setting. Just needs seasoning with a little more high stakes drama. 3.5 stars.
- Written in Blood. An atmospheric horror story that needs a bit of plot tightening. 3 stars.
- Wages of Vice. A fun and frantic adventure, with a lovely sense of exuberance, but the sequence of encounters are all rather similar. 3 stars.
- Gold for Fools & Princes. A decent dungeon crawl with a cool critter and neat device (making the players decide which prince to support). However this adventure didn’t go where I hoped it would, while also ticking the dreaded ‘too scripted’ box. 2.5 stars.
Beyond the Radiant Citadel
Journeys through the Radiant finishes with gazetteers on two more of the 27 founding civilisations (handily leaving DMs with 12 lost societies that they can design themselves, or pull in from established D&D settings).
Like all the settings they’re packed with ideas, but at less than two pages each they actually give us less info than the gazetteers that accompany each of the adventures. Surely it would have made sense to have given us more?
Overall, I’m extremely pleased with my Radiant Citadel purchase. I bought it hoping to expand my D&D horizons and experience adventures and locations that I might not have explored before, and that’s precisely what was delivered in this book. And while I wasn’t 100% certain what lands with clear real world inspiration might feel like when moulded into D&D settings, I feel like the experiment has worked well… there’s a truth and authenticity to each setting that will help players feel grounded in a familiar civilisation (assuming they’re at least mildly culturally savvy!), while obviously offering us a variety of dramatic stages that feel much fresher than the classic European-model of a medieval village or town. I should note to that the authors generally haven’t tried to create exact facsimiles of their cultures, but struck a good balance of incorporating certain elements and conventions while switching in fantasy elements or ideas from other sources.
While many of the adventures struggled to break out of the linear design structure (few do in my experience!), I am confident all of the offerings within the anthology would still deliver a good gaming experience, with plenty of memorable moments, original details and evocative atmosphere – while the best Journeys are some of the strongest short D&D adventures I’ve read. I particularly enjoyed those adventures where the mythology of the land was intertwined with the geography of the setting, which made travel seem more epic and more thematic… exploring volcanoes in a land where the locals worship volcanoes is a more exciting experience than just traversing them in an unnamed region of the Forgotten Realms, for example.
And in general, the mid-section of the book, simply delivered banger after banger of adventures that made me want to reach for my dice and get going.
So yes, it’s a big thumbs up from me, with Journeys through the Radiant Citadel exceeding my expectations.
Final Rating: ★★★★½.
Radiant Citadel vs. Candlekeep Mysteries?
So which anthology should I buy? Well, I love myself a few Candlekeep Mysteries and you can read my in depth reviews, along with running tips, right here.
Plus, if you buy CM you will have all the lore and gorgeous maps you need to run Candlekeep Murders: The Deadwinter Prophecy, which is my own mystery adventure set in D&D’s legendary library (and recommended by none other than Ed Greenwood btw!).
But… if you can only choose to fork out for one, I’d say Radiant Citadel edges it for me. Candlekeep is a better setting than the Radiant Citadel, but the adventures in the latter are slightly stronger overall and blow open the doors to so many other enticing adventure opportunities.
Thanks to the DMs Guild, you can now dive deeper into the lands that lie beyond the Radiant Citadel with a supplement written by largely the same crew of authors. Expanded lore, new encounters, more adventure hooks, and additional magic items all await.
Other supplements include a tailored book of monster loot / harvesting and these cool-looking warlock variants that made a pact with the citadel’s Dawn Incarnates.
More Hot Takes
Need a second opinion? Tabletop Bob did some of the best video reviews of Candlekeep Mysteries, with the added authority that he played through each adventure first (#commitment). He’s already started playing through the various Journeys, but I guess we’ll have to wait a while for his final thoughts on the whole anthology.
Already live is Rogue Watson’s review and rankings, which contain plenty of fun insights and smart observations. While he’s equally as enthusiastic about the product, his views differ quite markedly from my own on what’s hot or not. So a good way to get a more balanced view of the anthology.
Please share your own thoughts, insights and any questions on Journeys in the comments section.
And perhaps while you’re at it, if you found this article helpful, go ahead and share it with a dice-rolling amigo/a/e or two.
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