Review: Candlekeep Mysteries

Image Copyright WotC

On March 16th, Wizards of the Coast released a collection of 17 adventures that run from levels 1 to 16. (If they had one fewer adventure, that would have been some lovely symmetry.) Each level between 1st to 16th receives one adventure, except for fourth, which receives two adventures. 

Candlekeep Mysteries is an adventure anthology. Unlike past collections of modules, these are all new adventures rather than reprints from earlier editions of the game. Each adventure is a short one-shot that begins in the famous library of Candlekeep in the Forgotten Realms, made extra famous as the starting point of the classic 2nd Edition video game Baldur’s Gate

Like most recent RPG hardcovers, there is a regular cover and a collector’s edition cover that is exclusive to game stores. This time, the deluxe variant isn’t a soft-touch cover but gilded and slightly embossed, resembling a classical mystery novel.  

What It Is

Image Copyright WotC

Candlekeep Mysteries is a 224-page hardcover book collecting seventeen short adventures. Adventures range in length from as few as nine pages to as many as fourteen pages. Each adventure is relatively short, potentially only filling a single four-hour session, making this a book of one-shots; while you could play each adventure in order and turn this into a campaign, you would likely need to supplement it with additional adventures between each published tale. Each adventure shares its name with the title of a book, which acts as the hook or initiating event for the adventure. As mentioned, each of these books is assumed to be found in the library of Candlekeep. 

At the start of the book there is also an 11-page description of the library of Candlekeep, the premier source of books in the Forgotten Realms. This includes the names of several NPCs who could be encountered inside along with a brief description of their duties (while also leaving their gender, ethnicity, and background open for the Dungeon Master to customize). At the end of the book is a single-sided poster map of Candlekeep. 

The adventure also includes twenty-odd new monsters, including classics like the grippli (my preferred frog person) and the nereid. Monsters from sources other than the Monster Manual are reprinted. Many of these monsters are NPCs and there are a number of new variant monsters in the book, such as a lightning golem, which is basically a flesh golem that punches electricity. Stat blocks are included in each adventure where they’re encountered rather than being collected at the end in an appendix. 

The Good

The book begins with a reminder to be a sensitive Dungeon Master. Likely a disclaimer we can expect at the start of all new adventures. It’s always a good idea to check with your players to find out what their comfort zone is and what kind of adventures they enjoy playing. Which extends to elements they find boring but also what they find hinders their fun (or even makes them uncomfortable). 

Candlekeep features more prominently in this adventure than past compilation’s framing devices, such as the Yawning Portal tavern from 2017’s compilation. This is lovely, as I’ve been hard on past product’s framing devices for being relevant in name only. Here, each adventure starts with a book found in the library, and a few have added hooks for what the party could be doing in the library prior. While the vast majority of these adventures are only loosely tied to said book—being is little more than the adventure hook that could be replaced by a travelling bard or a location encountered on the road—at least three adventures are actually set in Candlekeep while a couple others are set nearby and assumed to start in the fortress-library. Thankfully for those not playing in the Forgotten Realms, Candlekeep isn’t mandatory: most adventures set with the keep’s walls are only loosely connected and could be moved to other locations with minimal effort. Only one (Kandlekeep Dekonstruction) is heavily focused on Candlekeep, and even that could work just as well in the city of Sharn or Greyhawk. 

Image Copyright WotC

Speaking of which, the book even suggests other libraries that could replace Candlekeep, mentioning examples in Exandria, Eberron, and Greyhawk. (But curiously not Ravenloft, an odd omission given it’s the next hardcover book. I guess the libraries of Il Aluk or Port-a-Lucine don’t rate.)

The book features a recolouring of elves. There’s a very copper sun elf, a blue moon elf, and a wood with green hair. I like that they’re trying to give each elf subtype a more distinct look, while also making ashen drow less unusual as the only non-white elves. (Having the typically evil drow be “paler” than sun and moon elves feels like a good move.) Ten years ago this might have been seen as copying World of Warcraft with its red-pink Blood Elves and blue-purple Night Elves. But, eh. Elves that look completely human are overrated. 

There’s quite a few interesting adventures in the book. And a surprising amount of demiplanes and pocket planes.

A Deep and Creeping Darkness was the first adventure that really jumped out at me. While the non-standard use of traditionally evil monsters in Mazfronth’s Mighty Digressions was engaging, I simply enjoyed the effective use of evil fey and creepy atmosphere of A Deep and Creeping Darkness. It caught my attention and made me start to take this book more seriously. 

I’m also fond of the Shemshime’s Bedtime Rhyme, with its unique take on a book and a creepy omnipresent threat that can’t be defeated through stabbing. And kudos to this adventure for not only listing the objects that could be used to end the threat, but providing multiple options. While an adventure set in Candlekeep, this could easily be moved to almost any location, either other libraries or just a generic tower in a city. The fact it focuses on being quarantined and locked-up is extra amusing; I’m uncertain if this was intended or coincidental, but given the long lead time official D&D books have, I expect this was planned and/or written in 2019 or early 2020, before the lockdowns really hit North America.

Another adventure that makes creative use of the “books as adventure hooks” theme was Book of Cylinders, which stretches the definition of “book” in a neat way. This is one of the many not-mystery adventures, but at least the party is investigating the cause of a village ceasing trade. 

Lore of Lurue had a neat take of pulling people into the narrative in a literal sense, which elevates an otherwise unremarkable adventure. It might be a nice choice to run for younger or new players, where you don’t want to penalize people too much for dying. And I just appreciate that the author of this adventure decided to make the shared theme of books more than just an adventure hook, and have the plot of the book itself be the adventure. 

I prefer serious adventures. My players are perfectly able to be silly on their own, so I seldom feel the need to make anything purposely goofy. And I tend to gravitate to darker, horror tales anyway. But there’s just something joyful about the absurdity of Kandlekeep Dekonstruction, and its reproducing clockworks, mad gnomes, flying towers, and repeated use of farmyard terminology. And just the possible conclusion where, if you fail, the hapless antagonists escape into outer space until they run out of food and descend into cannibalism. The adventure knows it’s light, escapist fare and just embraces its own ridiculousness. 

Image Copyright WotC

I enjoy the cursed book aspect of The Scrivener’sTale as a hook, along with the time limit it subtly places on the adventure. It’s unfortunate that the PCs might not be aware exactly how long they have, as a harder limit might really prompt them to action. But some uncertainty is a good thing. This adventure really makes use of locations in the Forgotten Realms; while trickier to move, I appreciate it being set in actual canonical places rather than just generic locales. The final adventure in the book, Xanthoria, is just a pretty bog standard dungeon delve. The initial investigation elements almost feel reluctantly tacked-on. And it’s almost the opposite of The Scrivener’sTale and Alkazaar’s Appendix as it doesn’t even try to locate itself in a specific location in the Realms. Just “a forest.” But after defeating the final monster, the adventure offers up a final unexpected twist regarding their enemy’s immortality. Honestly, this adventure will live or die based on the DM and the player’s ability to roleplay and interact at the table. With a good willing and able to break out their acting chops, this adventure will be deeply entertaining.

The Bad 

Not all the adventures are really investigations. Many are closer to site-based adventures where you’re just meant to kill everything in sight, and the final encounter reveals some hidden truth. It’s an investigation by way of Scooby Doo, where you catch the monster and then find out what was behind the problems. 

While I was impressed by some of the adventures, others fall prey to the traditional problems of investigation adventures. The Book of Inner Alchemy jumped out to me in this regard, with a couple instances of narrative leaps. You can investigate an assault and deduce they were killed by people hiding in the Cloak Wood. Despite none of the evidence or related bullet points leading to the Cloak Wood. And once the PCs reac said 2,500 square mile wood, they’re just meant to wander in and encounter the bandit-monks. The PCs aren’t investigating so much as stumbling in the direction of the plot, and being carried by the narrative to the next encounter. 

A few investigations could have also used a little more DM guidance. For example, The Price of Beauty is a neat freeform investigation that you could drop in the path of any adventurers on the road and the players have to realize that something isn’t right. But the DM isn’t given much guidance, they just have to know the adventure and respond to the character’s actions. It’d be a little too easy for the adventurers to pop in, murder the nereid and medusa, then wander off while missing the real threat. (This adventure is actually rather interesting, and a moderately skilled DM could easily make it a memorable investigation. It just needed a dash more guidance.)

Image Copyright WotC

It’s useful at the table to have the stat blocks of monsters in the text rather than at an appendix at the end. But this comes at the expense of making it more difficult to find said monsters when not running that module. There’s no handy list of stat blocks or index of creatures. If you want a cloud giant ghost or lichen lich for a homebrew adventure, be prepared to flip. And because the new monsters are scattered throughout the book, it’s not apparent how many few creatures are actually featured until you count; when I finished the book I only recalled seeing four or five new foes and it wasn’t until I went back to count that the number of new stat blocks jumped out. 

Apart from the map of Candlekeep and one in-world handout, all the maps are simple monochromatic line art. A few have the extra hand-drawn detail of Dyson Logos, while some seem like clipart assembled in a graphic design program like Illustrator or Corel Draw (or a free Open Office variant). These maps aren’t bad… but they also don’t look like art you’d find in an expensive product by the hobby’s market leader, instead resembling budget art produced by a small publisher. Ostensibly, these maps are easier for DMs to draw at the table, but you can choose to ignore added detail as a DM. And these simple maps are especially jarring in the Age of COVID when online play is the norm: these maps would look odd when compared to people’s bright and detailed tokens and character art.

Speaking of maps, only part of the Candlekeep poster is reprinted in the book, with half the keep not shown. I have literally no idea what the rest of Candlekeep looks like because there’s no way I’m removing my map from its perforated position at the back of my fancy collector’s edition.

Master sages of Candlekeep have fireball memorized, despite being unable to cast it inside the fortress-library, due to its wards against fire. And it’s not just one spell on their list, but one of the few spells fully written out in their stat block for ease of use.

New to this book, monsters stat blocks are now omitting alignment. Apparently this is the new default. I understand the reasoning for this with mortal humanoids, but fey creatures, undead, and constructs are different (to say nothing of fiends and angelic beings). As a DM it’s useful to know what the baseline alignment is at a glance, to know how to portray a creature. Especially when dealing with mooks and not named villains, as the former might only have the briefest of motivations. 

I’d really prefer simply modifying alignment with an adverb, like “usually” or “often.” So a nereid is “commonly chaotic neutral” and the lichen lich is “typically neutral evil.” It just makes it easier as a DM, so you know if you need to explain why this is a good ____ opposed to explaining why this is an evil ____, or just skip the motivation altogether. When roleplaying fey literally created out of fear and spawned by the torture of living creatures, I’d prefer to quickly know if they’re disorganized and chaotic, organized and coordinated lawful beings, or self-centered neutral beings.

The Ugly

The Book of the Raven adventure is just a mess. It’s less an adventure and more a series of things duct taped together. There’s the adventure hook book, which details lore on the Vistani. How is this relevant to the adventure, you ask? It’s not. Because the adventure is about a treasure map found in the book. Which sounds cool: following the locations and deciphering clues and identifying the correct landmarks. But all that is a single two-paragraph mini-section where you’re told to flesh out the journey. Most of the adventure is spent describing the Chalet found at the end of the map, even though the secret society of wereravens residing there (who are devoted to keeping evil magic items from bad people) can tell adventurers there’s no treasure inside. Oh, and the map was placed in the book by the founder, because a secret society dedicated to hoarding evil treasure totally wants to direct treasure hunters to their hidden base of operations. Then, at the end, the adventures can cross over into the Shadowfell and encounter a mausoleum where the treasure surely must be hidden. And there they find… an uncommon magic item that makes people better at mounted combat. So… the real treasure was the lycanthrope you contracted along the way?

I could write a whole blog post on how Book of the Raven is a poorly written adventure and you shouldn’t design adventures like this. 

I might be more forgiving if this was a first time contributor to D&D—this is something like fifteen contributors’ first D&D product—but this adventure was written by Chris Perkins, a long time D&D designer whose sole job is managing and working on adventures. 

Image Copyright WotC

While I praised the elves being re-hued, it feels inconsistently done. In addition to the azure moon elf, there’s a blue wood elf in another adventure. It almost feels like it was a last minute change that they didn’t fully plan out before implementing. Or that elves are now like tieflings and can just be any colour.

Similarly, the book deliberately doesn’t list the gender of NPCs in stat blocks, with the intent that DMs can make them whatever they want. However, as almost all the NPCs use gendered pronouns they still have a gender, it’s just less obvious. All this does it draw less attention to the couple NPCs who use they/them pronouns, making it harder to spot this vital representation. It’s a little like omitting ethnicity and having all the NPCs have yellow skin—like Lego minifigures or Simpson characters—it doesn’t erase assumed ethnicity and just removes the ability of visible people of colour to identify characters like themselves. I’d prefer if they just mention pronouns with the NPC write-up. I.e. Neutral evil elf, he/him or Chaotic good human, they/them.

The magical gloves at the end of The Book of Inner Alchemy adventure strike me as possibly the most broken magic item I’ve ever seen. Even for a Legendary item. They make you Constitution 20 and add 2d10 force damage to each unarmed strike. That’s all good, but you can also regain hit points equal to the force damage an unlimited number of times per day or gain advantage if you’re maximum health. Holy crap that is good. Especially for a monk that might throw four fists a round, potentially gaining 6d10 extra damage and healing an average of 22 hit points each turn. And even more on a crit.

The Awesome

That alternative cover….oh man. I’m over the idea that every book needs an alternate cover; it was fun for a while, but now that it’s just become mandatory and expected, it feels less special and fun. But this cover is just lovely. The binding on this version also seems better. To get technical, the alternate cover is case bound (with several sewn folios glued to the spine) rather than the perfect binding of most 5th Edition D&D books. 

-edit: I checked the Standard Edition at a couple FLGS here, and all were also featured sturdier case bound spines. I appears WotC has finally listened to feedback and improved the binding of their books.-

One of the adventures is set entirely in a Mordenkainen’s magnificent mansion, and features a map of said mansion. This is super handy to have for anyone who uses said spell but doesn’t want to make their own floor plan.

Image Copyright WotC

I love the meenlock adventure. This is exactly the type of small investigative monster hunt I would personally write and like to run. I’ve never really paid attention to meenlocks before, but this adventure not only utilizes them to good effect, but sells them to be as a monster. If you’re looking for a quick Ravenloft one-shot in two or three months, you could do a heck of a lot worse than this tale.

Chris Perkins’ adventure includes a brief section of lore on the Vistani. This continues the “rehabilitation” of the Vistani, moving them away from the negative stereotypes that plagued Curse of Strahd and will likely be emphasised in van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. While largely superfluous to this adventure, I like how the Vistani were handled here and are presented as found throughout the Shadowfell in addition to just Ravenloft. It’s a nice bit of additive canon. And once could easily justify Vistani in Ravenloft being slightly different than free Vistani not trapped by the Dark Powers.  

As mentioned, the grippli see their return to the game. I’m sad there’s no rules for them being a player race/ lineage, but nice to have a classic monster back. They were in the Monstrous Manual where I got my start with the game, so they’re my preferred non-evil frog race (and the grung feel like cheap knock-offs). 

Fan favourite, chwingas return. This time, the tiny fey/elementals are in desert form. 

There are thirteen modrons working in the library. The idea of free willed beings of pure law rummaging around through the library acting as pages amuses me greatly. 

An exceptional guest at Candlekeep is the ogre, Little One, who has a headband of intellect and thus an Intelligence of 19 (and an alignment of chaotic good). I’m uncertain how I feel about the idea ogres only being evil because they’re, well, stupid. Especially because at Int 8 they’re within the range of human intelligence (Forrest Gump would be a 7 or 8). But I’m probably overthinking things and should just roll with the idea of a genius ogre. 

Final Thoughts

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t particularly interested in this book. A bunch of short adventures by untested rookie authors attempting to do mysteries, which are among the hardest genre of adventures to write. But that limited edition cover… that was a thing of beauty that needed to be owned. Regardless, my expectations for the contents were not high.

Very early on I was quickly impressed by the imagination and tone of the adventures. And while not every adventure is a winner, there are some excellent adventures that I will seriously consider running in the future.

Image Copyright WotC

Final Thoughts

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t particularly interested in this book. A bunch of short adventures by untested rookie authors attempting to do mysteries, which are among the hardest genre of adventures to write. But that limited edition cover… that was a thing of beauty that needed to be owned. Regardless, my expectations for the contents were not high.

Very early on I was quickly impressed by the imagination and tone of the adventures. The extra effort that comes with being an untested rookie that doesn’t want to throw away their shot. In fact, many of the best adventures in this book were far superior to the efforts by the established authors with dozens of credits to their name. And while not every adventure is a winner, there are some excellent adventures that I will seriously consider running in the future. And even many of the weaker adventures can be easily run and turned into memorable game sessions by a competent Dungeon Master. 

Furthermore, what makes an engaging adventure is very much based on what excites a particular DM. While I like the dark creepiness of A Deep and Creeping Darkness I know other DMs might enjoy the subverted expectations of Mazfronth’s Mighty Digressions or The Price of Beauty, the Indiana Jones style delving of Alkazaar’s Appendix, or the old school dungeon crawl of The Canopic Being. This might even be a decent book for rookie DMs who are experienced with the game but have never run before. The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces or Book of Cylinders would both be decent for someone’s first published adventure.

The usefulness of this product isn’t as immediately obvious as a full campaign spanning 1st level to 10th or 15th level. But it’s the kind of product that is useful to have, for those times when you have an impromptu game, want to test out a new mechanical option, just need a break from the regular campaign, or had the week from hell and just did not have time to prepare. And unlike past compilations, the adventures in this book are short enough to only fill a single session, rather than derailing the campaign for two or three nights.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this article, you can support me and encourage future reviews. My disposable income, which is necessary to buy RPG products, is entirely dependent on my sales.
Seriously. After returning to work after being unemployed for 4 months (in part due to Covid-19) I’ve found myself quarantined after a potential exposure and unable to work for another fortnight. My finances and ability to pay for books to review is dependant on sales.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including Who’s Doomed, a book of 5e stat blocks of darklords for the Ravenloft campaign setting, which is a huge passion product. And if it sells well, I’ll add additional darklords to the product. And it’s newly released companion Allies Against the Night, which takes classic Ravenloft heroes and makes them into sidekicks.

Others include the Blood Hunter Expanded, my bundle of my Ravenloft books, the Tactician a level 1 to 20 class, Rod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (And now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

Plus, I have T-shirts available for sale over on TeePublic! The art of which can also be put on cloth masks.