Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries Review: The Price of Beauty and Book of Cylinders

I've been running the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries, a book of seventeen scenarios based around the legendary library of Candlekeep and the strange tomes kept within. The adventures in the book aren't necessarily meant to be played one after another; they're more geared toward being dropped in between adventures of your own devise, but playing them back to back hasn't been much of an imposition. 

But is Candlekeep Mysteries good? I reviewed the first five adventures here, and in this review I'm going to give my impressions of the next two adventures in the book, so you can better decide for yourself whether this is a sound purchase for you and your group.

The Price of Beauty

Written by Mark Hulmes, developed & edited by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

The locale for "The Price of Beauty" feels novel; I can't think of many adventures that take place in a spa. The setting gives the adventure a whimsical feel that won't be for everyone, but I did think that the way it juxtaposes NPCs who are far too nice and accommodating against the growing dread that something is very wrong at the spa works well. Speaking of NPCs, the supporting cast here has plenty of opportunities for interesting interactions. However, there may be a few too many NPCs in the adventure; my advice is to thin the herd and only use the ones you find appealing. Overall, "The Price of Beauty" was a pretty fun adventure. We had a good time with it, and it led to some genuinely surprising moments of play. 

Book of Cylinders

Written by Graeme Barber, developed & edited by Kim Mohan

This adventure straight-up sucksThere was a bit of a furor when Candlekeep Mysteries first came out, as the author of "Book of Cylinders" was surprised at the adventure's final form when the book arrived. Apparently he had a lot of lore he wanted to add to the adventure (and to the Forgotten Realms as a whole) and more conflict between competing factions that was excised in the final version. He has a blog post about the content of his initial draft here. Some of his ideas that were cut might have helped, but I'm also not seeing anything in that post that assures me this adventure would have been good if left untouched by editors. 

Either way, we can't rely on speculation. I want to talk about the published adventure's many problems. To start with, the hook is very weak: as written, a librarian at Candlekeep approaches the players and asks "You're adventurers, right?" They are then tasked with going to a grippli village because the library has stopped receiving its regular shipment of...crab meat. Not exactly the stuff of thrilling adventure.

Also, there are no interesting NPCs to interact with in the adventure. The NPCs in "Book of Cylinders" exist to point the characters toward the objectives they're supposed to fulfill to end the adventure. If this was a video game, they'd have little arrows over their heads indicating that you should talk to them to advance the questline. Other than dropping plot points, they have no intriguing facets, no wants, schemes, or desires.

The biggest problem is that the adventure locations...are not actually adventure locations as I understand the term. There are certainly places the characters can go to, but they have very few interactive elements and there are no real exploration opportunities. The grippli village, the main adventure location, is hideously linear: fight or avoid crabs -> talk to the grippli -> go fight the yuan-ti -> end of adventure. 

The worst missed opportunity is the temple the yuan-ti have occupied within the grippli village. I've placed the map to the side of this paragraph because I do not want to be accused of exaggerating the issue here. Take a good, long look at that map. You can't go down into the sublevels because they're blocked by rubble. Note that there are only two keyed areas on the map. One is an anteroom that is essentially empty. It's a straight funnel toward the combat encounter in the other keyed area. There is zero, zilch, nada to explore. You're meant to move from obvious location to obvious location, killing the obvious bad guys along the way.

I don't know what happened here, but whatever it was resulted in easily the worst adventure in the book so far and one of the worst adventures I've ever encountered in a published product.