Monday, August 30, 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries: Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor and Lore of Lurue

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 The Price of Beauty and Book of Cylinders here. 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.

Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor

Written by Derek Ruiz, developed & edited by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

I appreciate the thoughtfulness of Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor as an adventure. The early, investigation-based part of the adventure gives you a fairly wide selection of options. Even beyond the obvious leads, there are plenty of ways for the players to get at information that will help them figure out what is going on. They can pursue as many or as few of these options as they need or want to; none of them are necessary and there isn't a prescribed order of events that needs to be followed--which ultimately creates an adventure where the players are well and truly calling the shots and working things out the way they want to.

The latter part of the adventure, the cult's dungeon, is more direct in presentation, but it still features good set-dressing and interesting encounters in the ruined tower. Add that to a great premise centered on a ghostly haunting (one of my favorite hooks) and this one is a winner.

Lore of Lurue

Written by Kelly Lynne D'Angelo, developed & edited by Kim Mohan

This is a difficult adventure to comment on, as my group had a very fun time playing it, but I suspect the fun we had was dependent on the lengths I went to alter and revise it. As written, Lore of Lurue commits many unforgivable sins. I feel confident that this adventure would have fallen entirely flat if we had played it straight from the book.

To start with, the adventure doesn't have a strong hook. Worse yet, it uses magical coercion as its inciting incident. It's intended that the players find a magic book that, when opened, casts a gate spell on them--no save. The spell transports them into the forest that is the singular adventure location. I hate that: the hook is really just "Okay, you're in the adventure now." That's not interesting, or even a hook as such, and it feels way too forced for my tastes.

To remedy this, I added an entire layer to the adventure concerning a manor house and a missing daughter of mysterious parentage. I absolutely felt like I had to give the players a reason for their characters to get involved because otherwise they're just trapped in an adventure with extremely low personal stakes. I thought my additions fit the underlying themes and aesthetics of the adventure, which has a fairytale feel to it. It made sense to add a missing girl lost in a strange new world, as that reads very "fairytale" to me. Of course, it also gave me the opportunity to add disturbing implications in the style of Angela Carter and Tanith Lee, which felt right for the adventure too. Otherwise, the adventure has very little texture to it. It comes across as a standard accumulation of D&D tropes with no particular aesthetic or sensibility.

Once the characters are in the woods, the adventure is an absolutely linear path between encounters. It's an explicit railroad: if the characters try to go to other parts of the forest, they find "invisible walls" that won't let them pass. That is unbelievably lame. I also cut out all of the suggested NPC dialog that tells the characters where to go and what to go because I play with adults who can make their own reasonable choices. 

The solution to the railroad in this adventure is such a ridiculously easy fix that it beggars belief that someone in the design process didn't implement it: just put all the encounter locations on a map and let the players decide where they want to explore. Spread out the clues about what is going on in the forest and you have a pretty simple, but satisfying, pointcrawl instead of forcing the players' hands.

Also, if any characters die in this adventure they literally respawn so they get to try again. Someone needed to say "Come on, this isn't something we can include in an adventure we want people to pay money for." Again, there is potential here, and we did have a blast in this session, but I sincerely believe that the adventure provided very little of that fun on its own.