Today we take a look at The Wild Beyond The Witchlight, the new manual for Dungeons and Dragon's Fifth Edition. The Wild Beyond The Witchlight has the onerous task of starting a new narrative line; similarly to Rime of the frostmaiden, Tiranny of Dragons e Dragon Heist). What a manwhich we're talking about? What will the Adventurer's League (AL) be like? We find out in this review, full of spoiler and comments.
That the Hasbro editorial line had opted for a much shorter leash on the creative line was already evident in the reading of the fifth edition: the freedom of creation and modifications, so frowned upon by some and welcomed by others, is the sign that distinguished D&D 5E from its previous editions. It is therefore not surprising to find - with The Wild Beyond The Witchlight - in front of a manual that enters the multiverse - a bit like the MCU - and embroider on it a pleasant, characterized and very inspired story. We are following a path announced a long time ago (although abandoned on some occasions).
The synopsis is this: the heroes participate in a traveling circus, discovering that a fairy demiplan, the Prismeer, has fallen into diabolical hands. Three witches have in fact usurped the previous fairy entity and subjugated this demiplane, from which the circus draws strength and power. It will be up to the heroes to put the Prismeer back in the hands of its previous owner and save its fairy entities.
The Prismeer, a winning compromise
Wanting to dwell right on the demiplane where the story takes place, The Wild Beyond The Witchlight turns out to be decidedly smart; the Prismeer is in fact only a part of the Feywild (infinite and very distant from the Material Plane). This "being just a piece of" works perfectly as a Sandbox leaving intact the illusion that there is something extended but limiting the space of the players to the manageable. We are therefore not faced with a Sandbox campaign (a la Rise of Tiamat) but one that pretend to be.
To get an idea of what the Prismeer is, imagine the Avernus described in Descent into Avernus and split it up to obtain three parts. The demiplane, in fact, is separated into three regions, each ruled by a witch belonging to the coven: the areas to be explored are therefore few and easily managed by the narrator. Plans, on the other hand, are tools to be used with very experienced players and only after a certain period; it is not surprising that a similar choice has been made. The campaign, which takes players from 1st to 8th level, avoids taking players where they cannot be controlled.
On the other hand, however, we underline the problems that Dungeons and Dragon has always had structurally:
- The need to have written campaigns contrasts with the high level of the characters and their ability to avoid any obstacles. The levels of the campaigns are in fact always below 10 with very few exceptions, a fairly obvious and almost counterintuitive design problem. At the time of 3.5 we had tried to buffer the problem with a block at level 6, but as you can see the problem is chronic.
- The need to offer new spaces for creators does not conform with the need to have something canonical; if it is good that more space is left to the creators, on the other hand there will inevitably be adventures that are less temporally and spatially localized; The Wild Beyond The Witchlight takes the adventure to its own demiplane (thus flying over the problem) but it is a problem avoided, not solved.
The circus has arrived in town
Going back to The Wild Beyond The Witchlight, the campaign begins with a traveling circus. Nothing new, even here: Chrono Trigger, Carnival - module of 2E - or the second campaign of Critical Role already had these main themes. The Witchlight Carnival, being itinerant, can occur in any setting: great for adding something to any module you are playing at the moment; the place is obviously full of activities, weird but curious characters and many mysteries.
Circus activities are a way to accumulate cameos, references and more that will happen in the campaign. It is not the Barovia Tarot system but it shares the feeling; a victory at the burp competition will return and be heard when it comes to talking to the big frog and a mime competition will help to escape from the cage of strength (examples). The whole chapter implies a mediocre ability to climb the narrator to be able to interpret different characters.
In addition to proposing new characters and situations, The Wild Beyond The Witchlight offers two pleasant and easy to adapt narrative hooks: one more classic (and, personally, quite anonymous as intriguing as it is) and another very powerful that, personally, I would put almost as mandatory. If the circus, with its characters and situations, stressed the need for an almost actor's preparation to the narrator, the narrative hook requires it from the players. The Wild Beyond The Witchlight - as written in the manual - can be tackled even without a fight: therefore novice actors and interpreters are welcome.
Playing with plans is dangerous, but not here
Once on our demiplan, the players will have to put things right. Each "region of the demiplane" is well characterized, with a big problem being the main theme and many details to enrich it; the whole chapter reminded me a little of the creation of Cityscape neighborhoods (3.5). To move from one floor to another, it is necessary to find the way, indicated by a particular png that embodies the same theme of the region.
Faced with so much vastness, we have both a path outlined for the continuation of the plot (left free for purely aesthetic reasons) and casual encounters. Focusing on the latter, every encounter, creature or mystery is perfectly included in the regional theme, thus helping the identification with HOC monsters as Wizzy has now accustomed us to.
The path outlined is well written: there are many situations where the challenge is linked more to interpretation than a simple technical approach to problems, keeping faith with the premise of the campaign without any conflict; some situations may be too difficult to face head on, others too simple. The campaign sector in the three central chapters, therefore, is decidedly solid and ties in well with the circus chapter.
Great revelations, huge magical items and pngs
The final chapter is obviously the most complex in terms of management, as well as the least interpretative one: a huge dungeon that winks at the fairy tale and puts players in front of truly overwhelming challenges. As in the previous Dragon Heist and in Rime of the Lost Frotmaiden, we have:
- huge monsters to avoid like the plague, on pain of a bad tpk or the death of the characters one step away from the grand finale; it is the situation analogous to Jarlaxe for DH, or Auril for ROTF: statistically unattainable.
- Famous NPCs and references to the world. These underline the disparity in level between heroes and setting and serve to contain the situation. This is the case of Vajra Safahr in DH, a mage archer brought to deal with neighborhood heroes, or Laeral Silverhand herself.
- a group of antagonists similar to the heroes who, like them, try to reach their goal: a challenge within the reach of the characters to be kept in the background while the large NPCs solve the situation.
At the end, we have the usual add-on creatures (some really, really cute), magical items ranging from powerful artifacts to utterly common clothing and cosmetics (I think smiling at the always fluttering cloak) and a handy, yet practical, NPC summary card of the countryside. The latter is very useful, since there are so many extras and leafing through the manual would be exhausting.