Candlekeep Mysteries Review
Table of Contents:
Illuminating Discoveries or Waxy Blob?
The latest addition to the 5e library is Candlekeep Mysteries, which is so far a completely unique 5th edition addition as it's a collection of one-shots! Candlekeep contains countless magical books, many of which can lead your adventurers on far-flung expeditions, into eldritch traps, or to uncover what may have best been left on the shelf. But are these little adventures worth a dungeon master's time? Get your reading glasses and a candelabra as we delve into the library and go through everything you need to know in a comprehensive Candlekeep Mysteries review.
What's in the Book?
Candlekeep Mysteries clocks in at 224 pages, which is just a bit lighter than what I'm forced to call it's closest comparison Ghosts of Saltmarsh which totaled 256 pages. It's at about the same price point of $29.99 which seems to be WotC's target for these relatively slimmer volumes. There's also a very fancy hardcover version running around that seems to be retailing for around $50 - $60.
The book is almost entirely composed of 16 short one shot games for characters of levels 1 to 16, each at least starting with one of the books from a collection of books hidden away in the candlekeep library. It also presents options for other campaign settings (basically by saying use other big notable libraries) including suggestions for Eberron, Exandria, and the Greyhawk setting.
Other than these 16 mystery adventures and the introductory section on candlekeep itself, you're not going to find any bestiaries or appendices with new magic items. There is a bunch of new stuff tucked into the standalone adventures though. All told you can find the following within Candlekeep Mysteries:
Located along the sword coast in the forgotten realms (an area already very well traveled in 5e adventure paths) the Candlekeep acts as the starting point for all our new adventures. We get a good bit of lore and characters to play with here, a detailed map, and a ton of interesting nooks and crannies to explore. Candlekeep is a famed library fortress with a vast collection of books, with all sorts of high-level magic going on and a literal ghost dragon in the basement. As an adventure locale It works pretty well on its own already, and it makes for an excellent launching point for your characters to set off from. Each adventure has several options for why your players would want to head to Candlekeep, and how they can embroil themselves deep in the next mystery. You will get the sense that these adventures are truly independent and there's no loose connecting threads like we saw in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, but you could easily string them together and run them all as episodes of the same game if you wanted to.
The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces: 1st Level, 1-2 Sessions
The players stumble upon the lost gateway to a famous wizard's permanent extradimensional mansion, and are trapped inside. They must explore the comfy but dangerous extradimensional space to piece together the clues that will let them escape. Simple to pop into, should only take 1 session, maybe 2 if the little combats cumulatively soak up a lot of time. The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces does everything you'd want a quick 1st level adventure to do, you've got a variety of interesting enemies (I'm using that new swarm of animated books elsewhere), some fun NPCs, a couple puzzles that feel clever without being too hard, and a setting that goes well beyond stomping giant rats and can potentially lead to future adventures.
Mazfroth's Mighty Digressions: 2nd Level, 1-2 Sessions
One of the books the players start reading transforms into an ectoplasmic monster and attempts to suck out their life force! The players will have to follow some leads that take them to Baulder's Gate to investigate a very suspicious bookstore. This one feels like a proper mystery, albeit at a very low level scale, and I appreciate how much of it encourages roleplay and actual investigation rather than just dice rolling though I felt the combats it did have were pretty bland.
Book of the Raven: 3rd Level, 2-3 Sessions
A treasure map is hidden in a cryptic book and it's time for the players to go treasure hunting! One of the most flexible of these adventures since you can really start them off from anywhere. I will say though that I was disappointed that nothing really happens along the journey following the map, the encounters when you reach it are very fun, but it didn't feel like a real adventure so much as a singular encounter. The payoff is also less of a climax and more of a stepping off point for further adventures, so I'd describe it as more of a high-quality side quest than an adventure in and of itself.
A Deep and Creeping Darkness: 4th Level, 2-3 Sessions
A relatively simple investigation story with some horror vibes. A mining town has been emptied out by a mysterious disaster and the firsthand accounts found in a discovered book only lead to more questions. Surprisingly combat light, this one is all about the spooky atmosphere and a feeling of dread followed by a final confrontation in the mines. I rate this one highly, as it looks satisfying as a one-off, could fit literally anywhere in your world, and has some dangling plot threads you could use to build into the next adventure.
Shemshime's Bedtime Rhyme: 4th Level, 1-2 Sessions
A cursed children's book is infecting people's minds with creepy rhymes, the players must figure out what's going on, and come up with a way to stop the terrible shemshime and its contagious rhyme. I'm torn on this one, because while it's incredibly unique and interesting it also takes place rather specifically at Candlekeep, making it very hard to work into any other scenario or setting. Still, as a one-off it's an excellent creepy experience to put your players through with a lot of charm.
The Price of Beauty: 5th Level, 2-3 Sessions
A magic mirror on a magic book opens a portal to a magic spa and resort! The players relax, unwind, and then immediately get stressed again as they start to figure out that things aren't as they first appear. I love this one, it's really cute and unique. You've got a lot of NPCs at play here, and a lot of mysteries to unravel. It's definitely a roleplay and investigation heavy adventure, but the final climax should get your combat junkies their fix. Since you literally teleport to the spa it's also very easy to place the adventure in any setting, perfect for when you want to give your players "downtime" that doesn't turn out to be downtime.
Book of Cylinders: 6th Level, 2-3 Sessions
This one feels like an old school adventure, you've got legends, rituals, and a bunch of Yuan-ti who are up to no good. There's a conflict between yuan-ti and a friendly tribe of grippli (which quite frankly I thought were pushed out of 5e in favor of bullywugs and grungs) and you need to navigate dangerous crab-filled waters, save some grippli eggs, and stop an evil ritual. A very easy one to introduce anywhere, and it can also be used as a starting point for some more dungeon-delving themed adventuring. Definitely a good pick if your players have an old school d&d mentality.
Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor: 7th Level, 3-4 Sessions
A haunted book, a ghost looking for somebody to solve their murder, and an evil cult that needs stopping. The setup is engaging, and the payoff is strong. I think it spends a little too much time wandering before it gets to where it really wants to go, but that's an issue of personal taste. If you're looking for a (comparatively) lengthy mystery this will grip your players as they track down what really happened to all those people of Yellowcrest manor...
Lore of Lurue: 8th Level, 3-4 Sessions
The players are sucked into an enchanted storybook and must act out the story to complete it and free the fey spirit trapped within. It's a bit odd, since you're escaping from a fantasy world into a fantasy world, albeit a more twee and twinkly one with narration subtitles. It does a good job of capturing a storybook feeling but honestly none of the encounters really feel like they'd be out of place in a typical D&D adventure, and I wished they'd leaned harder into the tropes to make it more memorable.
Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion: 9th Level, 1-2 Sessions
A gnome and a spaceship, what a classic combo! Obviously, an adventure that's on the comical side, this one is more or less a single investigation and dungeon delve that'll take you 1 long session or a couple quick ones. I both love the tone and playfulness here, but it annoys me how closely tied the adventure and setting are. To run this one right it essentially has to be in candlekeep, which will be fine for true one shots but may be more awkward to integrate into an existing campaign.
Zikran's Zephyrean Tome: 10th Level, 2-3 Sessions
A book with a trapped genie leads the party on a deep-sea adventure to find and fight the mage that imprisoned him and earn a wish! Combat heavy with some pretty unique and interesting enemies. Very little mystery in this "mystery" but sometimes a straightforward dungeon delving side-quest is exactly what you need to spice up a campaign.
The Curious Tale of Wisteria Vale: 11th Level, 3-4 Sessions
A demiplane where things aren't quite right, intrigue, mystery, beholders! I rather like how this one plays out with a solid mix of roleplay, combat, investigation, and just a little tinge of existential horror. The session length will vary quite a bit depending on how you proceed (what you choose to fight or talk to essentially) but I rate this one highly. My only gripe is Wisteria Vale's inherent ties to the forgotten realms setting, but it's nothing that can't be easily homebrewed into your own world.
The Book of Inner Alchemy: 12th Level, 2-3 Sessions
This one is essentially a kung fu movie in D&D form. Pages from an ancient book have been stolen that could contain secrets of immortality, and investigation quickly leads the players to an order of secretive monks. You can really feel the pulp 80's kung fu dripping off this one, in a good way. A tad combat heavy but what would you expect from the source inspiration, give it a go if you've been itching for a short tier 3 adventure and you're nostalgic for classic kung fu.
The Canoptic Being: 13th Level, 3-4 Sessions
The players names are found marked out in a book as "willing sacrifices" to a mummy lord! The players must investigate how their names came to be in such an ominous place and then they must delve into a trap-filled pharaoh's tomb. Really love this one for its call to action, roleplay, unique fights, and for genuinely making a good short adventure at this level. Once you get to about this level the number of good quick adventures really falls off and it's nice to have more content to run my higher end adventurers through.
The Scrivener's Tale: 14th Level, 3-4 Sessions
Upon reading part of a cursed book one or more of the players are "infected" with scrawling words that cover their skin, imparting weaknesses but also new powers. I'm mixed on this one. On one hand I love the opening hook and the ending fight, but I think a lot of the combat in the middle felt like grindy filler. It's a common problem with higher tier adventures, but since several fights are just "more of the same" enemies, I think it runs the risk of boredom in the middle with a lot of time spent on "meh" fights. Give it a shot though if your players don't mind a little grindy combat.
Alkazaar's Appendix: 15th Level, 4-5 Sessions
A book written by a great adventurer tells of a friendly golem and a mystery he never solved, leading to a quest for a mythical scroll deep in uncharted deserts and lost cities. Firstly, nobody does tier 4 adventures these days, so having some quality adventures to work with at this tier is amazing. Secondly, while "short", this is a grand adventure with puzzles, exploration, and epic fights with purple worms and dracoliches. I dig it.
Xanthoria: 16th Level, 4-5 Sessions
A fungal infection has stricken the land and the players must investigate the lair of a lichen lich with the help of a scared but friendly pixie. The adventure itself is pretty straightforward, but I'd expect it to take 4-5 sessions just because of the combat length. When a minor side encounter is a CR 14 monster, those rounds of combat really add up. I was also sad to find we only got "lichen lich" as a new stat block, and they cheated with "counts as" stat blocks for all the other fungal monsters as I was really looking forward to snagging some new fun guys for my own campaigns. Still, there's barely any tier 4 adventure content out there and any content at this high of a level is a welcome sight.
22 New Monsters / NPC Statblocks
Amongst the adventures you'll find 22 new stat blocks, ranging from simple NPCs to epic final boss monsters. If you're just a DM looking to pick up more monsters to play with this is a decent selection and I particularly liked the living gnome contraptions and some new workhorse stat blocks for low level spellcasters and mid-level monks.
27 New Dungeon / Area Maps
Between the 16 adventures we get 27 maps to play with. They're rather bland artistically compared to some other 5e publications but I think that's intentional to fit the adventures into whatever setting you need them in. They're formatted in a simple but very flexible way and can easily be retrofitted to your own needs outside the adventures they're built for. You also get a poster map of candlekeep, though most adventures shouldn't have too much running around on the library grounds.
5 New Magic Items
Most of these are the end of the adventure McGuffins the plot has centered around and are quite powerful. This isn't the book to buy for magic items but there's a couple really interesting ones tucked in here.
What's Good About the Book?
Candlekeep Mysteries sets out to provide DMs with side quests and short adventures across all 4 tiers of play and it accomplishes its goal. The conceit of "every quest starts with a book" creates a solid anchor point and almost every quest can start in the titular Candlekeep or literally anywhere in your campaign where the players can find a book. Overall, the quests are very high quality and will outperform the average fare you'd find out in the wild. I also have to give kudos for including at least a couple tier 4 adventures, as they're hard to come by.
What's Bad About the Book?
I wish they'd stuck harder to the any setting concept, as some of the quests I like the most are quite difficult to unravel from Candlekeep itself. The quality of the adventures has ups and downs, some are absolutely excellent while a few seem grindy or forgettable. I was also disappointed with the low number of handouts, in-depth puzzles, or unique elements present throughout the adventures. Because of the short form nature, a lot of time is spent getting in and getting out, and in some places the actual adventure content seems rushed or thin.
While Candlekeep Mysteries accomplishes its goals and is a fine book, I anticipate it will be one of the worst performing 5e publications. Short form adventures are great to have, but unless you're a WotC purist who only deals in 1st party content then they're also extremely plentiful in the current market. This isn't a new book of rules adding to the game, and it isn't the next grand and involving 5e adventure path. Instead, it occupies a weird zone of just potentially useful content that is only moderately above the quality currently available for cheaper or even for free in 3rd party markets. If you are hungry for side quests, tier 4 adventures, or one-shot adventures, this book has a lot to offer you, but it does little to stand apart from the mountain of similar content other than the simple fact that it's officially published with the D&D brand.
Final Score: 6.5 out of 10
Last updated: January 27, 2019
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