Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries Notes

Candlekeep Mysteries cover Art
By Clint Cearly;
©2021 Wizards of the Coast
I have a very specific project in mind for Candlekeep Mysteries, and so I have acquired a copy of the book.  I am flipping through adventures in random order and writing my thoughts down I thought I would share them here. This is a fairly raw and unpolished take on the book from a grouchy old Grognard. It will be a different tone from the usual articles here, and will include some foul language and general cynicism. 

It also must come with a serious Spoiler Warning: I am going through them at varying levels of detail. I will definitely ruin surprises for people intending to play in Candlekeep Mysteries. 

Be prepared for grumbling.

Introduction

Be a Sensitive DM - yeah, right. Look, I am not a dick... Or I try not to be. If someone has limits I invite them to tell me about it, and I don't stomp on boundaries... And I give players an idea of what goes on in my games ahead of time so they have a chance to decide what they are comfortable with, and whether my table is for them. 

I am not, however, interested in spending endless time and energy treating this like a lovemaking session. Adult players get info up front, and they get a chance to advocate for themselves. They do not get endless check ins or Hand-holding. 

...And can we please stop with the "trigger" bullshit already? Avoiding sources of trauma makes anxiety disorders like PTSD worse. So does believing that your trauma defines you. Healing requires exposure... Preferably willing and conscientious exposure in a controlled environment. As a person who has dealt with severe trauma from sexual assault, I promise you that my life and my relationships were far worse when I spent my precious timeseeing myself as a victim and trying to avoid being triggered. The whole idea is counterproductive to caring for the traumatized. Stop contributing to a culture that keeps people in a state of suffering. 

This is D&D. It is a game. Not a therapy session or a religious service. Let's stop pretending it is anything more.

And where D&D is shown to be beneficial, it is because it allows anxious youths to process trauma and fears safely, which it cannot do if we are stripping the danger out of it. 

Hell, we are giving bad arguments made by BADD credence here. Ms. Pulling and her "experts" claimed that role-playing was a therapeutic tool that ought to be confined to the psychiatrist's office, because a DM could "mess someone up" with amateur therapy. We called bullshit on them then, why are we agreeing with them now?


Candlekeep

Defenses and Decorum - How many Archmages?! You are telling me that Candlekeep has five Archmages and at least four 9th+ level mages on staff? Really?! How? This is the sort of BS we used to call out in games in the 90s. You really don't want the PCs to ransack the keep, so you put an improbable array of superheroes in their way, who attained this level of power how exactly? This us the designers "cheating" to make the players play their way.

NPC Gender and Alignment - Yes, yes, you've checked your mandatory minimum number of performative virtue signals. IDGAF about characters' genders. It matters not one whit to the game. But alignment? You have missed an opportunity here. Alignment is  great for helping GMs decide how to role-play a character. It is, in fact, a really useful tool and short-handed idea generator. Imagine how different this game would feel if the Gatewarden was listed as LE vs. LG, even in terms of getting in. 

Wards - This is why I don't play in the Forgotten Realms, my friends. A castle with an all-powerful force-field, anti-flight, and anti-theft magics that are permanent, potent, and ought to be beyond the power of anyone there. It's a cheap way of controlling players. At least when AD&D modules do it, it is to improve the challenge to the players by taking away easy solutions. This is just a blanket "No." 

Master Sage - So fire magic doesn't work in Candlekeep. Why, then, do the Master Sages have Fireball as their combat spell of choice? How did they miss this oversight? And these guys are 12th level wizards, and there are at least a dozen of them?!

First Reader - Bookwyrm? Really? That's the name? And it doesn't seem a little like racial profiling to you, seeing as how you are so concerned about it? 

Chanter - Why is the Chanter of a different religion than the Patron deity of Candlekeep and the prophet who's words she is chanting?

The House of Rest - AND you have an innkeeper who can provide multiple Magnificent Mansions??  Look the only FR module I have read is Under Illef├órn, and the only one I have played is Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Is it always this far over the top? Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter didn't seem to be this over the top. Kind of makes the PCs seem pathetic...  Why would you ever need low-level adventurers to solve problems?

The Hearth - This "Dimensional Amplifier" - and stealing seems like a better hook than half the ideas I have skimmed so far. Again, if this is possible, and someone would use it for a mere tavern, why isn't Candlekeep just an Adamantine TARDIS hidden on the Ocean Floor?  Consider my credulity stretched.

The House of Binder - It seems to me that the rule that a text must be copied in its entirety is more of a money grab. It could be both that and a desire to preserve the scholarly intent of the Keep . You're allowed to say it's both. This is DM material.

While we are at it, are you telling me that you have a clockwork device that can make a bigger-on-the-inside tavern that includes multiple shrines... and multiple editions of Dungeons & Dragons have had a first or zero level copy spell...  and yet getting a book copied and bound costs 100 gold pieces? And could possibly take months?

The Temple of Oghma - Four stone golems can cast Feather fall. Overkill, much? If we don't care about a character's gender, why must we be so specific about ethnicity?

Erudite Outfitters - they missed the gendering of Feldmar... Or are we using "he" as gender neutral here? I would be more interested in is whether or not purple robes can be sold or stolen here for disguises when breaking into the keep, than the details of the clothier. 

Welcome to Hogw- er- Candlekeep... 
Extradimensional Spaces - Has Candlekeep always been Hogwarts?

The Stables - Stables for hippogriffs I get, but stables for griffins? How come an amount could they possibly be? There is a reason why very few people keep large predators for pets.

Great Library - Okay, with all of these Archmagi and powerful mages about, how are the Adjutants - the people in charge of keeping outsiders out of trouble - merely commoners? Something isn't matching up here.

Darkwood was  almost literally worth its weight in silver in 3rd edition. Floors made out of the stuff must be worth a fortune and a masterful bit of conspicuous consumption.

Miirym - I thought this character was interesting. Especially as an evil Silver Dragon. Was this part of existing FR lore, ore something new? Evil Silver Dragons seem to be more consistent with the modern push to separate Alignment from species than something that would have been in the Realms 25 years ago... And would have been pretty mind-blowing back then. A whole Cult of the Dragon plot might have been involved.

Darn. According to the Forgotten Realms Wiki, she only appears in Candlekeep Mysteries. And it is just treated as a given that silver dragons can be evil. That's a bit of a lost opportunity.

Maybe I will sit down and make something up that would be cooler. I will definitely point the character out to my friends on the Beamdog team in case they can come up with something that uses the character for Baldur's gate. Given that Candlekeep Mysteries is set a 127 years after Baldur's Gate, the spectral dragon should already be in the basement.

It is a testament to how insane the hit point economy of D&D5e has become that Miirym regenerates 40hp per round when an equivalent Silver Dragon adult in AD&D probably had 67hp was the probable average and 120hp max. Miirym has literally double that maximum.


Candlekeep Dekonstruction

This is one of those rare moments while reading a role playing game manual that I have found myself wondering "What the actual fuck I am reading?!"

The plot to this module involves a chaotic good gnome named Stonky Noptopper, who has been kept out of the Avowed and relegated to custodial duty. Stonky formed a cult of other janitors and disgruntled monks who are bound and determined to prove that they can do a better job of protecting the books of Candlekeep than the avowed.

 (So much for not giving alignments) 

What's his plan? To steal a bunch of rare books, hide them in the tower called The Barn Door, then launch the Barn Door into Space, as it turns out that the barn door is secretly a rocket... A fact he discovered in a mostly disregarded book on Candlekeep architecture.

His cult, "Livestock" go by codenames following a farm animal and farm export theme, giving them codenames like Rooster Muffin, Ram Sugar, and Donkey Biscuit.

Given the title of the adventure, I have no doubt that this is meant to be a discussion of the fandom of Dungeons & Dragons, but I am having a hard time figuring out what the actual statement is supposed to be.

But I sure have questions.

Stonky is portrayed as an angry misanthrope who wants to be alone in space... Yet he is bringing ten cultists with him? He is a Master Scholar, and so has the skill and intellect to act as a 13th level wizard... Which he somehow attained as a Custodian? He is brilliant enough to invent a new living construct (by accident)... And yet he is not welcome in the Avowed?

His plot involves a rocket... That somehow can lift off in spite of the magical fire suppression field? And the books he is stealing will somehow not teleport back to the keep? And the cult has no food source except a one-time use of Heroes Feast? All to somehow prove they are better than the Avowed.

And while we are on the topic of nonsense, let's talk about the Skitterwidgets. Stonky's constructs that mate, reproduce, and protect their young (by accident... He somehow gave them this power unintentionally.) They are vicious, overpowered and totally random. Their offspring the Kittywidgets, add exactly zero to the encounter: they could easily be removed and just have the Skitterwidgets performing their guard duty and the scenario would change not a whit.

In the description of the Skitterwidgets, they suggest that if they are not wiped out, they could become"a problem" for Candlekeep. I disagree. In a sensible setting, a fast-breeding CR 5 monster would be a localized extinction event. In a setting where they have Archmagi to spare, they would be a brief nuisance. But it is a non-issue, because the nests are in the blast zone for liftoff. The Skitterwidgets are pretty much bound for extinction if liftoff happens.

Which leads to the level assessment for this adventure. There is really no reason why this module has to be for level 9 characters. The first encounter is with cult fanatics wielding brooms. (For some reason these brooms do the same damage as the scimiters they would otherwise wield.) It has a potential for a comedy, but at the cost of feeling sensible. Otherwise, the climax encounter is likely going to be with Stonky and three more cult fanatics. Given that his most powerful attack spell as written won't work, he is not much of a threat. I'm told I would optimistically set this encounter as challenge rating seven. 

Using this as the gold standard, and making it the hardest encounter in the adventure scans well with four cult fanatics as the first encounter.

The two other encounters have a note are with new, adventure-specific monsters: lightning golems and the skitterwidgets. As the lightning golems are made up, the designer could have used almost any creature she wanted. The author chose to give them stats identical to flesh golems aside from damage type. It might have been more appropriate to use something to the tune of CR4 or CR5 air elementals. Likewise, the skitterwidgets feel overpowered for small, cobbled together constructs made on the sly from salvaged parts at CR5. So, while those are both medium difficulty encounters for a level nine party, that challenge rating has effectively been shoehorned in without any real reference to verisimilitude.

I get the impression Amy Vorpahl has handed a slot and told that her adventure had to fit that level bracket. The challenge rating here seems forced. But then, that kind of hangs a picture on the biggest problem with scalability in Dungeons & Dragons doesn't it?

The only other encounter of note is with a handful of cultists who have tied to themselves up, and have no means of escape. Which is a bizarre design choice clearly played for laughs or as some kind of artistic metaphor.

Here's the funny thing. I like stupid Gonzo. I enjoy the works of Venger Satanis and Jobe Bittman for that very reason. I like the weird, off the wall, often silly adventure designs you can find in the OSR. I had to sit down and work out why it was I did not find candle keep deconstruction appealing in the same vein.

Invader Zim, Created by
Jhonen Vasquez
©1999 Nickelodeon

And the reason is pretty simple. The characters are dumb. Their scheme is nonsensical. It only works if you suspend the rules of the setting. The characters themselves act like adults in Invader Zim.

Hell, the reason the player characters are able to surprise the cultists when there's an hour left until launch is that a ring of telekinesis that is central to Stonk's plot has fallen off of his finger somehow and landed in a vat of acid. They are still looking for it, and ignoring their magical security cameras.

The first Cultists the PCs meet defend themselves with brooms. The second batch are tied to chairs and can't actually interfere. The constructs that provide the most unique and interesting encounter are giving a totally superfluous motivation, and feel grotesquely overpowered for their description. I suspect the whole reason that they are given the power to reproduce in the story in the first place is that the writer was required to have a future plot hook wedged in there

And finally there's a matter of the conclusion. It is suggested that if the cultists are stopped, Stonky will not suffer any serious consequences for his actions, as there is no rules against launching a rocket from candle keep. Somehow, stealing books, assaulting the player characters, creating dangerous constructs, and attempted murder on the behalf of his cultists don't warrant notice.

Like some of the most cynical pieces of Modern Art, while reading this module, you are expected to suspend any search for reason, logic, consistency, or quality of writing in favor of looking for some deeper meaning that may not actually be effectively expressed in the text. I am honestly surprised that this module sits as is in a Wizards of the Coast product.


The Book of Cylinders 

I read this one early on because it has a certain amount of controversy around it. I was curious to see how it actually worked out in the text.

Every adventure in Candlekeep Mysteries is supposed to either provide an important clue through a book in the grand Library, or provide its hook through a book in The Grand Library. The Book of Cylinders does neither of these things. 

Instead, the book offers a prophecy that has already come to pass. It does not offer the player characters very much in the way of useful context or information. They are no better off then going in blind. In fact, the prophecy seems to exist too throw some confusion as to whether the factions of Yuan-Ti the adventure are trustworthy.

The travel to the adventure location takes place aboard a boat with a moderately interesting NPC ship captain. However, it is a missed opportunity, as it is designed to have no encounters whatsoever in it. Only giving the players one chance to quiz a relatively uninformed NPC. Given that this is an adventure designed for sixth level characters, I think this is a missed opportunity for a random encounter that helps set up the rest of the story, such as with a giant crab, or maybe some Kuo-Toa, who might have reinforced the theme of not judging creatures by their appearance.

The setup - a faction of good Yuan-Ti have started excavating an ancient Temple important to their religion near The domain of a clan of Grippli who sell giant crabs that make up a major food staple for the monks of Candlekeep. The activity of the good Yuan-Ti attracted a faction of evil, Merrshaulk worshipping Yuan-Ti who have enslaved the Grippli and now intend to sacrifice the good-Aligned heretics.

I personally don't understand how they are "good" Yuan-Ti. They are not dead yet.

Joking aside, the stated intention of the author and creating this particular module was to challenge the idea of innate or predominant alignments in Dungeons & Dragons... It fails at its task, I feel. Rather than tie alignment to race, The Book of Cylinders ties it to religion, making all the Yuan-Ti of one faith "good" and another "evil." We still aren't making individual judgements.

Crab Maze - This is a stylish encounter. I love the design.

Trading Post - in the context the word "primitive" used in the read-aloud text is pretty benign. I honestly can't see why the author was upset by it, but I suppose it could have easily be replaced with "rudimentary" or "makeshift" or even "hobbledehoy" if you have a really good Thesaurus. It doesn't pay to ban the use of a word just because it has semiotic baggage in a few contexts.

Village - Why on Toril would the Yuan-Ti have "No Quarrel" with human adventurers stomping around the village they have enslaved?!

Did we forget where Yuan-Ti purebloods come from? The Yuan-Ti, according to lore, degenerate into Abominations if they don't get fresh human genes into the gene pool once in awhile. Yuan-Ti have every reason to take adventurers captive.

Not to mention that they probably wouldn't want to risk anyone stealing their loot or freeing their captives.

Pond Mother's Home - Here we have "good" and "evil" Yuan-Ti labelled as such. There is not much commitment here to casting aside alignment. It is just fused with ideology Rather than species.

Brood Pools - Baby-eating is pretty bleak. As is poisoning whole nurseries out of spite. I am not sure what to think about this.

Upper Court - I am confused by this encounter. I know that WotC trimmed a lot out of this module. Mostly on the "good Yuan-Ti" and their faith. The Evil Merrshaulk worshippers are opening a sarcophagus and doing so kills the good Yuan-Ti. is it because of the ritual? Is it because the shrine of the Scaled Mother is being profaned? What is the significance of the sarcophagus? Is it the Scaled Mother herself? I get the feeling I am missing vital details.


The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces

Over the first two modules I have read, this one is a massive improvement. The first adventure in the book, it is calibrated for first level characters.

The hook - characters are sent to find an NPC scholar who has the ability to cure the blight that is threatening the PC's Hometown with famine and plague.  However, the character himself is shown as a scholar of dimensional magic, and has no reason why he would have any specialty that could help the village. "Why him?" is never explored. Likewise, with the characters arriving in candle keep, it hardly seems important that they seek him out in specific, rather than just making inquiries of the whole pool of scholars.

The Setup - The scholar the characters are seeking, Matreous, discovered in a book on dimensional magic the passcode to open up a doorway to a permanent Magnificent Mansion like pocket plane. It just so happened he was studying the right book while in the right room to activate it. It is a big, multi-dimensional coincidence.

The passcode to get out of the Demiplane is different from the one to get in, and Matreous is now stuck. It doesn't appear that he has worked very hard to explore the mansion. He's found in one of the first rooms having not encountered any of the creatures found throughout.

The demiplane belonged to a missing scholar, one who has been missing long enough that her estate has been executed. However, it is clear that the scholar, and an NPC friend of hers, are still alive and somewhere at large. She was collecting samples of various magical creatures both good and evil for study, and some have gotten loose and are hiding throughout the demiplane.

Given that there is only one entrance in, if we assume this works like Magnificent Mansion, one wonders how she and her partner got all of these creatures into Candlekeep to take them through the only entrance. And how they disappeared without being seen by the Avowed on their way out of the Grand Library.

The Puzzle - there are a few simple puzzles scattered throughout this dungeon. The big one is unlocking the passcode to leave, which is embedded on the spine of a series of volumes scattered throughout the dungeon, with a master clue to tell players what to look for.

As opening dungeons go, it is pretty solid. It has a variety of monsters both hostile and benign, and doesn't fall back on the standard fare of low-level adventurers like dire rats and kobolds, instead we see crawling hands, mimics, pseudo dragons, and a personal favorite unique to the adventure: an animated pile of books that uses clever tactics to turn the library into an ambush point.

It doesn't go overboard on the magical treasure, but the player characters can get out with a few useful items.

 All told, this is the best one I have read so far. Given that I am reading them out of order. I saw little to gripe about, aside from not understanding why the player characters would want to look for Matreous if they were going to Candlekeep anyway, It's pretty solidly designed.



3 comments:

  1. When this came out the consensus seemed to be that this book is just a big, fat virtue signal...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a buy-out. Several of these writers were going full bore attacking WotC as an evil, racist company. Several more were demanding publicly WotC take action about X or Y. And several were influential streamers who were talking about abandoning D&D for one reason or another and possibly taking their audience with them.

      So WotC gave them a fat check and the cred of having written for Wizards on an official product on the condition of cooling it on social media and tying them up with a nice NDA.

      Delete
  2. Excellent rant, of a product well deserving of it.

    Note that the hit point inflation began with 2nd edition. A 1st edition average adult Silver dragon had 50 hit points, with a maximum of 88 hit points as huge and ancient.

    ReplyDelete