Typically, a Dungeons & Dragons adventure book is all about creating a world for your heroes to go on epic campaigns — detailing the vast settings of places like Eberron or Icewind Dale, or setting up cities like Waterdeep or even the Magic: The Gathering land of Ravnica. While its newest adventure revisits a classic D&D location, it’s doing so to bring something new, and shorter, to the tabletop.
Today Wizards of the Coast announced the latest sourcebook for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, Candlekeep Mysteries. Named for the infamous magical library citadel on the Sword Coast, Candlekeep will bring players and dungeon masters new lore and details to set their own adventures in and around one of the greatest resources of knowledge in the Forgotten Realms. But that’s not its core purpose: the whole premise of Candlekeep is not that parties are adventuring in the famous location, but visiting its fortress libraries and uncovering knowledge to whisk themselves off on their own short, whimsical adventures.
Candlekeep Mysteries will provide seventeen new adventures for various party levels, many written by adventure writers new to D&D. The full list of contributors can be seen below, alongside the standard and alternate covers for the book, by Clint Cearley and Simen Meyer, respectively:
- Graeme Barber
- Kelly Lynne D’Angelo
- Alison Huang
- Mark Hulmes
- Jennifer Kretchmer
- Daniel Kwan
- Adam Lee
- Ari Levitch
- Chris Lindsay
- Sarah Madsen
- Christopher Perkins
- Michael Polkinghorn
- Taymoor Rehman
- Hannah Rose
- Derek Ruiz
- Kienna Shaw
- Brandes Stoddard
- Amy Vorpahl
- Toni Winslow-Brill
Although all linked by their connection to Candlekeep — in that the story of each adventure is envisioned as being written from one of the many tomes the library trades in — each adventure is intended to be seen as a short, “one-shot” story to be completed in one or two sessions by a group of players, either as the stepping stone to larger-scaled stories or an interlude in an ongoing campaign.
Image: Clint Cearley/Wizards of the Coast, Other
Image: Simen Meyer/Wizards of the Coast, Other
Image: Simen Meyer/Wizards of the Coast, Other
“I got my start in D&D thirty-five years ago writing D&D adventures as a freelancer. The experience was very formative to me, and I’ll always like the short adventure format,” Chris Perkins, D&D’s principal story designer, told the press over a video call last week. “So when an opportunity came up to do a product that would allow me to work with a bunch of other people on doing very much the same thing, I jumped at the opportunity. I reached out to various, enormous talents — great people I’ve been wanting to work with and had done great work — who have been terrific graces in the D&D community — and I brought them together to each contribute.”
Beyond its range of short adventures, Candlekeep will also provide background flavour and detailings for players to learn more about the titular fortress itself, and to give dungeon masters the knoweldge they’ll need to draw their bands of dungeon delving heroes to a place of knowledge in the first place.
“Candlekeep is a huge fortress that perches on the end of a sea — it’s this magically-warded fortress which holds the greatest trove of lore the Forgotten Realms has ever had,” Perkins explained. “It has existed since the earliest days of Faerun, it has appeared in every edition of the game in some way, shape, or form — and I think it’s hard to run a Faerun campaign and not have the word ‘Candlekeep’ actually come up — and a desire for the characters to actually go there, at some point. Because, if you have a question that needs to be answered, a puzzle to be solved, the best place to go to find the answer is this place. The other great thing about Candlekeep is it’s eminently portable. You can take it and drop it pretty much wholesale in a campaign!”
Candlekeep has been a formative location for many D&D pieces of lore, from the tabletop to games like the beloved Baldur’s Gate series. Revisiting it as the framing device for a new series of adventures didn’t just give the chance to tie seventeen disparate adventures together thematically, but to revisit some old favourites, and characters related to Candlekeep, and flesh them out with statistics for Fifth Edition. “When we were doing the write-up for Candlekeep, we went back into the history and dug up some nuggets and brought them forth into Fifth Edition,” Perkins added. “One of Candlekeep’s spookier features is this ghost dragon who lives underneath the library. So, we brought her back and set her up in the book so that the characters can interact with her and learn things. Assuming they don’t anger her and fall prey to her spectral jaws.”
“[Candlekeep’s] basically the hub from which all these adventures launch out from — or in some cases, take place in, and so, a DM needs to feel comfortable with this place,” Perkins continued. “You have to walk them through it and show them what are all the weird things in it. ‘Oh, there’s this part you can’t get into because it’s closed off to the public.’ ‘There’s a magical ward that prevents creatures from flying over or into it — but it doesn’t keep out birds. That’s weird. Why did they do that? Well, here’s why…’ That kind of thing. There was some ground to cover there, some secrets and mysteries we had to crack and reveal to the DM just so they’d feel comfortable running adventures out of there.”
Not all adventures in D&D take place in the Sword Coast, however, so while Candlekeep Mysteries devotes a lot of background information to its locale, it also covers ways Dungeon Masters can integrate the setting into their own campaign settings and other locations in the Forgotten Realms (and beyond). “Some of it as simple as ‘just scrub off this name and insert the name of an important NPC of your choice.’ We have summarised very quickly and in some detail who the movers and shakers of Candlekeep are, these are figures that are customisable and can be plugged out and plugged in,” Perkins said of the book’s advice to Dungeon Masters looking to tweak Mysteries’ settings for their campaigns. “But part of the trick is not describing it in so much particular detail it becomes nailed to a particular campaign setting, and that was foremost on our mind. So, all the details surrounding Candlekeep, they try to confine themselves enough that fora DM there’s isn’t anything that’s going to stop you from taking it and dropping it somewhere else.”
But as the name implies, Candlekeep Mysteries’ main premise is, well, mystery. Each of the short adventures found in the book — framed as a book housed within Candlekeep’s many-tiered libraries — is not necessarily focused on a simple dungeon crawl or combat encounters. Instead, they’re mysteries for players to solve that don’t necessarily have to rely on traditional campaign structures and scenario ideas.
“That was one of the challenges for the writers because the way it worked was, I gave them an instruction sheet where you get to come up with the name of the book [their adventure would be named for], but you also have to come up with the mystery that ties in with that book and how that mystery kicks off the adventure,” Perkins added. “It’s a harder task than you might think. It’s hard to come up with a mystery, for one thing, one that stands on its own and is unique. But then to make it open-ended enough users can actually play it, and make sure there’s enough incentive to make sure they want to go on the adventure. That’s a tall order. So that was a process!”
Candlekeep also has to appeal to all sorts of D&D players and groups — not just in terms of level disparities, but groups looking for either simple, introductory standalone adventures, breaks from long-term campaigns, or a mix of something in between. “Every adventure is a standalone, which means it doesn’t connect to the other adventures, at all,” Perkins said of Candlekeep’s structure. “But in a couple places, there are other opportunities for a DM to insert one of the other [adventures]. So through the course of the adventure, you may find one of the other books [from Candlekeep’s library…but those are just sort of Easter Egg level stuff, we wanted to make sure every adventure could be taken as its own thing and run. They could be [part of a larger campaign together] if the players decide to treat Candlekeep as a hub, a place they keep coming back to.”
Making space for multiple adventures from Candlekeep to be connected also meant providing a series of challenges — both in terms of the player levels for which each adventure was most appropriate, but also a variety of adventures that could emphasise different kinds of encounter scenarios for D&D, from more storytelling-based adventures to ones driven by combat. “We do know most of our DMs tend to run adventures in the 1-10 [player level] range, particularly 1 to 5, 1 to 6,” Perkins added. “Special care was taken to make sure when you’re [conceiving] the adventures, that the lower level adventures would be structurally simpler. Even the ones that are level specific, you might be able to run them with a higher or lower-level group. If it’s mostly a role-playing experience that places less emphasis on combat.”
He continued, “Tales from the Yawning Portal sort of inspired this because the success of that indicates there is a hunger for shorter adventures, that you can never have too many good, short adventures. Particularly at the higher levels — and because we know most games are run at a low level, we have somewhat underserved that need — so [Candlekeep] helps address that.”
For Perkins himself though, who has helped design so much of Fifth Edition’s vast adventures and settings, the chance for him to return to short-form adventure writing was a call back to his earliest days of working in the world of D&D, a career forged in the pages of the beloved tabletop magazine Dungeon.
“It was a joyous experience for me,” Perkins said of not just writing a new adventure for Candlekeep Mysteries, but helping some new talent come to adventure writing for the first time through the book. “It brought back memories of working on Dungeon Magazine back in the day. It was pretty much the exact same thing: Somebody comes to you with an idea, and I’m just using my experience with the rules and history of the game to try to help them shape that into something I know will serve the needs of the DMs — and hoping to help them close any logic holes I detect or helping them twist an idea slightly to make it more useful to DM’s.”
“I think that it’s like bringing in a consultant to help decorate your house. You have an idea of what you want to do and then the consultant helps encourage you to think of all the options and find the ideas a bit. And maybe something to even put up on a wall,” he said.
Perkins handed over the stage (well, computer screen) to three of the writers from Candlekeep Mysteries to discuss their own approaches and experiences of writing D&D adventures: Producer, tabletop gamer, and disability advocate Jennifer Kretchmer, game designer Taymoor Rehman, and comedian, host, and Dungeon Master Amy Vorpahl, to discuss their experiences writing for a tabletop game that they’ve all been familiar with on the other side of the tabletop for much of their lives. Kretchmer kicked things off, introducing us to her story, The Canopic Being — a mystery involving the Tashalar trade city Tashlua, and a spree of mysterious organ transplants. For Kretchmer, approaching D&D as a writer rather than as her usual Dungeon Master self, part of the biggest challenge was the constraints of working in a one-shot scale, where adventures can’t be more than 10-15 pages long.
“There were a lot of notes coming back — ‘This will not fit, this is too much.’ And you’re going, ‘No, no, I can totally make it work!’ And then you start writing and you’re like, ‘I’ve gotten through one idea of the seven things I wanted to do and I’m out of space!’,” Kretchmer laughed. “So that was a real learning process — going from being a DM who works in her own style, and has her own shorthand, to working in a format that is going to be accessible to anyone who is trying to run your adventure, trying to convert from your brain to a brain that works for everyone.”
Kretchmer’s role in her D&D adventures as both player and a DM provided a challenge when she found herself having to write from the perspective of the sourcebooks she was typically reading for her own games. “I’m so used to seeing and reading, but for some reason, actually doing that writing is so much more difficult. So there was a long learning curve on that, for me, of translating things into the format and going ‘OK, this has to be written in this way…’ because that’s just the way…people who don’t think, who don’t engineer their stories the same way, approach their narratives or their characters the same way I do, need this information, which to me would be instinctual,” Kretchmer said of her early writing process. “But it’s got to all be there so people can dig into it and make it their own, and you also want that flexibility to be workable for any party. Normally, when you’re writing your own stories you’re working with the characters you have, whereas with this, you can have a completely evil party, You can have a party of all rogues, and you need to make sure the story works for all of those different groups.”
The Canopic Being is a dungeon crawler adventure, which created another interesting problem for Kretchmer: she suddenly found herself not just an adventure writer, but a map designer. “I have real problems with visual-spatial processing. My brain just does not work very well with that type of input. So, I was trying to design my map. I have a multi-land dungeon, [and] one of the notes Chirs gave me was ‘make it non-linear.’ I put in a lot of work, but I was really struggling with the top-down design. So I would try to draw it on a grid and I could not get it into my brain,” Kretchmer explained.
“Eventually, I took my laundry rack and printed out the names of each of the rooms [in my dungeon], and took objects that were roughly the scale of things in my rooms and tied it like the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia meme — I tied string to represent hallways, to make sure everything actually connected on levels. And it sat in my living room, as I was writing! I think I learned I could draw maps if I worked in isometric, which is the three-quarters viewpoint, where you’re getting the vertical scale as well as the horizontal. But it took me actually creating a 3D model in order to recognise that about myself. So I learned so much about my own dungeon design process.”
Aside from a twisty-turny dungeon for gamers to overcome, Kretchmer made sure her adventure also included elements near and dear to her heart advocating for representation of disability within D&D, and making tabletop spaces that felt welcome for players to play characters that themselves require accessible spaces. A wheelchair user herself — and a big fan of player-created D&D homebrews like Sara Thompson’s combat wheelchair — Kretchmer didn’t just put in the work to make her esoteric dungeon map work for the story, but be completely accessible to all kinds of adventures.
“I made it easy on myself. I made it accessible, too, so, it’s full of ramps and elevators which are mentioned in the Dungeon Master’s Guide,” Kretchmer noted. “These are not something new to tabletop gaming or D&D, but it was important to make accessibility part of my dungeons as a wheelchair user. I wanted people to see themselves represented in-game. We have the ability in fantasy to imagine things, we don’t have to pay to make those accommodations. This is something we can imagine in our brains and it’s there.”
Next up was Taymoor Rehman, who wrote Zikran’s Zephyrean Tome for Candlekeep — a journey that actually saw him go from interning for Wizards of the Coast’s D&D team to actually becoming a full-time designer and writer during the process of writing the adventure. “I get to be on the D&D web team now!” Rehmoor rejoiced. “It was the sole process. I was an intern when I first talked to Chris about Microwave [D&D’s internal codename for Candlekeep], and then contracting the company to full time. I got to see the book from idea to print. Seeing every step has been amazing.”
Like Kretchmer, Rehmoor’s experience writing an adventure instead of just playing it was a challenge at first. “Writing an adventure, something I read all the time, it’s a language I understand but don’t speak,” Rehmoor said of the process. “I’ve got to figure out how to put it on paper. And then the mystery angle, as well…you’re writing for this nebulous party that plays the game. You don’t know who they are, how their day’s been. You gotta make sure anyone can pick it up and have a good time.”
Zikran’s Zephyrean Tome has a simple premise, but can mechanically offer adventurers a very interesting path to go on. But Rehmoor was most intrigued about bringing the mythology of real-life religion and mythos around djinn and genies into the context of D&D’s fantasy world. “I have a soft spot for genies,” he explained. “They play a strong role in Muslim mythology, which I have an interest in. So I thought, ‘I’ll make a genie story…’ there’s a lot of depth to djinn and genie characters in mythology, and unfortunately, you don’t get to see a lot of it [in D&D]. The Aladdin story is pretty much the most common thing, and D&D has this wonderful take of them being elemental nobles or just denizens, and that’s a wonderful way to see mythology and modern gaming meet. I wanted to give them the depth that it’s a person. It’s a genie, but it’s a person. You can riff with that.”
Riffing with the genie you encounter in Zikran’s is what makes it so mechanically interesting: by the end of the adventure, your party could have a mythological being as their best bud. “You find a genie trapped in one of the books of Candlekeep who asks you ‘Please, free me,’ and offers you a wish,” Rehmoor said of the premise. “But, as every good adventure has a twist, you can save the genie, there’s a bunch of cool locations you can go to, you follow his evil former master, and at the end, you can get that wish or the genie can be your friend. And you can have a genie companion that comes with you on your adventures — which can be in this book or not! The companionship angle I wanted to make sure I kept. Because adventures are cool, piles of gold are fun, but — and this is silly — it’s the friends you made along the way, right?”
The Genie itself, considering its potential to be a long-running aspect of your adventures beyond Candlekeep, was a big focus for Rehman to get right as a personality for Dungeon Masters to inhabit, especially if they become a long-term companion.
“The genie knows how powerful he is. But also he has absolutely no ability to change his fate. So, he needs your help. It’s the wonderful back-and-forth of ‘I am this powerful noble creature, I have my pride, my sense of self — but I need your help,’” Rehmoor said. “I tried to include characters like that, that people would enjoy. I have a dragon in my adventure, with this beautiful crown. He loves boats. I like giving those details to characters — someone to talk to.” But it also meant there was a creative surprise to Rehmoor’s writing process. “The unexpected is what keeps me feeling good about D&D, the creative,” he concluded. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Let’s figure it out! That’s a wonderful thing to have in your back pocket.”
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The third adventure we were previewed marked a decidedly different tone. Amy Vorpahl’s Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion is one of the few adventures in Candlekeep that actually takes place within the library itself.
“This adventure is about a stolen book that leads the adventurers to a tower in Candlekeep that’s more than it seems. Basically, the players will have to deal with a potential threat to the actual Candlekeep library, itself,” Vorpahl explained. “The book [adventurers are] dealing with is a blueprint for the architecture of Candlekeep, so it gives the DMs licence to create more maps and things like that from the entire library, itself. It just gives you some information about what Candlekeep really is, and how it was constructed in the beginning.”
Vorpahl’s background as a comedy writer also means that Dekonstruktion plays with tone in ways other adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries don’t. “I was so inspired by the…they gave us a brief on what Candlekeep was, and the Forgotten Realms and the ins-and-outs of it were so inspiring to me. To me, it was very, very fun to plan an adventure inside this fortress, really, and then muck it up, put my stank on it,” she joked. “My style of adventures, in general, are kind of forged in the fires of one-liners and silliness — and like, galvanised with a fart joke here and there. [Dekonstruktion’s] not quite that extreme, we’ll have the DM have their own take on it, but it’s definitely a quirky take on what the Candlekeep could be.”
Vorpahl’s experience writing D&D instead of just playing it was similar to Rehmoor and Kretchmer’s, a process of learning just how to write a game she has played for years. “I only pitched [Chris] one thing that was my favourite, and he said yes to it, so that was great,” Vorpahl said of the experience. “But from first draft to second draft, we got a twenty-page formatting guide on how to write a D&D adventure. I really thought I had read it five times but I got corrections back on every single sentence, which means he went word-by-word, line-by-line, and read it…which is very good. I have dueling thoughts about this. It was awesome because a lot of the changes were entirely accessible and fixable, I knew exactly what to do…and then, it was a little disappointing he read it with such a fine-tooth comb because I had also tried to sneak in an NPC called Dognuts.”
“[The note] was probably something to the effect of, ‘I love this, we can’t do it,’” Perkins interjected.
“No, it wasn’t,” Vorpahl rebuked. “This was the note: ‘Dognuts?’”
The writer did manage to sneak some cute new critters into Dekonstruktion. “They’re called Skitterwidgets, and they’re mechanical constructs that skitter around and look like widgets,” Vorpahl added. “They’re not dog-sized, they’re adorable, point of note. And they have little babies called Kittiewidgets which went back-and-forth between being non-combatants [and enemy encounters], so yes, you can in fact kill the kids. Construct babies!”
Perkins was quick to note that Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion served as a palette cleanser in Candlekeep’s array of adventures. “The best part is, it sits right in the middle of the book, so there are a number of adventures you read before it that are compelling, but scary, or leading you to dark and foreboding places,” he added. “Then there’s this thing in the middle…then there’s another bunch of adventures after it, but right in the middle is this experience where you’re just going ‘What?’”
“You have to set the tone before you completely break the tone,” Vorpahl concluded.
Setting that tone in Candlekeep was part of the learning experience these writers shared — especially as people who already played a lot of D&D before even contemplating actually writing for it. “The things that you have fun with as you’re creating are often the best things in your work,” Kretchmer said of her experience. “I think that was a huge piece of it, for me, and just leaning into your own imagination. Letting yourself just come up with the most outlandish ideas. And you can always pair back but…if you let yourself run wild with creativity and whatever is fun and silly and entertaining or scary or bizarre, it can turn into something really special. The writing of D&D is very different from the running of D&D. There is this technical skill of writing adventures that is very, very different from the creative and technical skill of DMing adventures, or playing.”
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“The advice Chris gave me at the end of my internship was, ‘If you want to write D&D, play a lot of D&D,’” Rehmoor added. “Which I did — I started three different groups — it does genuinely help. When you’re writing, when you’re already battling the technical stuff, making sure all the rules work knowing what a D&D adventure is and internalizing that as much as possible really helps., Because you get to this place, ‘What’s going to be cool here?” A dragon would be rad. Let’s try that,’ and making that fit. All the technical stuff builds itself around [saying] ‘This would be cool…’ the more you expose yourself to the system, the more it builds itself. Not that it’s easy, you still have to follow it up. But you can start to see what it’s going to look like. It’s an incredibly valuable skill.”
“The way I approached it was, ‘Oh, a mystery — that’s going to be really tough,’” Vorpahl said of approaching her story. “But then I realised, when I run a game, there’s always a mystery just by nature of not telling my players everything. So, I just kind of thought from the end backward, ‘What’s the biggest thing in this environment that I don’t want to tell my players as long as possible?’ And make them work toward, ‘I can’t help it, they figured it out.’ Working backward that way, it kind of was the simple twist or button I needed to push. That made the rest of writing the midsection, the actual adventure, kind of easier.”
Even though he’s been writing, playing, and dungeon mastering his way through the Forgotten Realms and beyond for decades of his life, Candlekeep provided Perkins a surprising amount of perspective as he helped bring together such a large and varied cast of writers. “I think that what I learned through this process is that short adventures are, in some ways, harder to pull off than longer adventures, because you’ve got this unforgivable constraint of space,” he said. “I think that this experience reminded me of that. But the other thing I learned to do is that, asking someone to write a mystery is a challenge, and it takes time to crack that nut because you don’t know how it’s going to play.”
The act of playing these adventures during the creation process was also something Perkins would take going forward into Fifth Edition’s future. “When I read the playtest feedback [for Candlekeep], people loved the varieties of the adventures and they gave great advice for how to smooth out some of the wrinkles. [That’s] the other thing I learned from this experience is how important playtesting is,” Perkins concluded. “We all overlook things, and the more eyes, the more people actually run through things — that information they give you is so important because they’ve actually played it. They’ve run it for their groups. They’re telling you something you didn’t know before. And you can’t get that information any other way.”
“It doesn’t help to playtest an adventure yourself, because you will automatically fill in holes as you run it. But as soon as you give it to somebody else to run, what they tell you is very important for informing your growth as a writer, and as a developer. That’s why playtesting has been so important for Fifth Edition and for us. My big takeaway is, if I was to go through this process again, I would build time in to turn their story over to a friend, have them run it, and then have them give feedback, and give them a chance to experience that playtest feedback loop for themselves. I think it’s so important.”
Candlekeep Mysteries will be available from March 16, 2021, and is available to pre-order now.