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D&D 5e Goes Wild Beyond the Witchlight - Review

MB Updated October 03, 2021
 
3.5
 
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D&D 5e goes Wild Beyond the Witchlight - Review
There Will Be Games

Prepare for whimsy.

The new D&D 5E book is The Wild Beyond the Witchlight and it is likely to give the entire OSR a stroke despite a few Greyhawk-era callbacks and the triumphant return of Warduke. Rather than deathtrap dungeons and umpteenth generation Howard/Leiber/Vance homages it’s a much more whimsical affair bedecked with assorted Bradbury/Gaiman/Carroll touches that make for a brighter, lighter high fantasy setting. It’s more Wizard of Oz than Drizzt and I applaud this book for taking a different tack than say, Tomb of Annihilation. It is a campaign book set in the Feywild, but unlike most of 5E’s previous adventures it is almost entirely focused on exploration and roleplaying- this is an adventure where players could theoretically get through the whole thing with minimal combat, which could appeal to players and DMs who are looking for high fantasy with less violent outcomes than is common.

As expected from a 5E book, it’s all well written but also over-written, with a dazzling array of elements and moving parts for the DM to manage. Like most 5E adventure books not called Candlekeep Mysteries or that are compliations of classic module conversions, this is one that is going to require a good bit of prep work to get running and it may not be well suited to novice DMs, although tools such as a story tracker, a set of NPC cards, and a structured trajectory through the core story will help. The hooks are a mixed bag, I really like the one where each PC has a “lost thing” that was taken from them by the carnival as a child – it’s the right mix of whimsy, wonder, and wicked. The other is more of an “old wizard tells you to go do stuff” thing that works but it’s uninspired and frankly sort of lazy. The madcap Witchlight Carnival is the centerpiece of the narrative and it leads to a deeper storyline involving a kidnapped Archfey and their Domain of Delight, Prismeer. Without spoiling it, the big bad is a callback all the way back to 1982’s Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.  

Despite its intention as kind of a jump-off point for the realm-hopping that goes on for most of the book, a lot of text is spent up front on the Witchlight Carnival, a wild assortment of NPCs, events, and of course attractions that you must get a ticket punched to enjoy. The players’ behavior can directly impact the tone of the carnival, which is a cool touch, as the whole mood of the environment reacts directly to how the party navigates Big Top events, assorted rides, and minigames. If the PCs engage the carnival’s denizens, follow the rules, and partake in the frivolity it stays light and fun. But bad manners, coarseness, and indifference might cause the whole show to take a darker, more ominous tone. It’s all very cute and I can see some groups whiling away many RP-focused sessions enjoying the interactions and the open-ended scenarios that might evolve from messing around in the carnival. For parties that like carousing and assorted mischief in town, this could be a compelling alternative to the usual town-based troublemaking on its own without the larger storyline.

I like this book, but it’s also not the kind of prep-heavy game I’m prone to invest in as a DM - I’ve been poisoned by Mork Borg, after all. Reading through the story, which involves Hags (which I love to run) and the three distinct realms of Hither, Tither, and Yon before winding up in Prismeer and the Archfey’s castle, the Palace of Heart’s Desire, where they’ll even run into a Jabberwock as if the homage weren’t already apparent.  There’s a very clear “level” based structure once the PCs enter the Feywild via the carnival, but throughout the realms there is a sense of vagary and indirect goals that some might find lacking or potentially unmotivating without the aforementioned heavy DM work to get everyone on board. Be prepared to function as a ringmaster.

It’s all definitely a unique feel for a WOTC D&D book- this is writing that is leaning into a different type of fantasy than what is typical for the brand and there are elements of it that are actually quite maverick for a D&D product.  It’s by turns goofy and grim but never really all that dark- witness the brightly colored maps that practically scream “WHIMSY” at you and things like singing mushrooms or capricious magic swords. It highlights a “pillar” of D&D that too often gets buried under combat and exploration by focusing on actual role-playing. This is an adventure for weirder, quirkier characters rather than your optimized, statistically ironclad god-builds and I appreciate that aspect of it as someone who hates “optimal” characters.

Wild Beyond the Witchlight is a neat set of ideas and I value the inspiration the book offers. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m coming away from it thinking that this is one of those books that I’d never want to run and I’d be somewhat disinterested in playing through its campaign. Some of the material included might be of use outside of the adventure and there are some fun new monsters such as a Displacer Beast kitten which I absolutely adore because they are my favorite D&D monster. There are a couple of new player ancestries (including a fabulous rabbitfolk option), backgrounds focused on the Feywild setting, and a decent table of fairy trinkets that could provide some mystery and mirth in any game. But this is, for me, a book to have as part of the collection rather than as a practical tome.

What it all comes down to is subjective. No surprise there, of course, but I think there are some tables that are going to absolutely adore this book and god bless ‘em, I hope they have many happy hours exploring the Feywild and riding the Bubble-Pop Teapot and the ride that may have some shouting “Look, it’s the Dungeons & Dragons ride!”. I’d much rather be investing the time and effort to run Goodman Games’ brilliant 5E conversion of Temple of Elemental Evil, or running something like Emmy Allen’s wonderful books The Stygian Library or Gardens of Ynn,  maybe even Troika! for something more wicked and whimsical. But for those deep into 5e, this is an excellent option for a more fairy tale-ish adventure.


Editor reviews

1 reviews

Rating 
 
3.5
D&D 5e: The Wild Beyond the Witchlight
A wild and whimsical Feywild adventure that may be great for some audiences, lacking for others.
MB
Top 10 Reviewer 137 reviews
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #326952 04 Oct 2021 08:31
This sounds cool.

I think I might be the only person who actually kind of appreciates the way WotC writes adventures. They tend to provide the stuff I hate to create as a GM, things like world details and so forth. Of course the only one I’ve run to completion is Tomb of Annihilation, and it definitely required a lot of me as a DM, but it was the kind of work I didn’t mind doing.

That said my experience as a player with Dragon Heist was…not the best. So what do I know?
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #326953 04 Oct 2021 08:52
I think I can file this review under the "Damning with faint praise" header :P

I could tell this was not for me just from the cover. While I'm not inherently adverse to more "role playing" oriented stuff that is the easy thing for me to come up with organically during play. A "Something Wicked this way comes" or even a "Needful Things" type adventure could be cool but 5e isn't the system I'd want for that type of thing.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #326955 04 Oct 2021 09:41
I like the concept of this adventure, but it sounds more aspirational than actual, like a flashy fey cantrip. When I purchase an adventure that is ready to run, I tend to do a fair amount of additional prep. When I purchase a half-baked adventure, it tends to gather dust until I maybe eventually pilfer a map or a few ideas for something else. I thought that I read somewhere recently that D&D 5e now offers adventures that can be resolved without combat, and I think there is probably a decent market for that sort of thing, theoretically producing sessions that are more focused on role-playing and story-telling and less on power-gaming and murder-hoboing.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #326956 04 Oct 2021 09:48
That's disappointing. I was rather excited about this one, as I would love a quest based adventure that deemphasizes combat in a whimsical fantasy world. But sounds like it requires a very motivated an creative DM to make it work.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #326960 04 Oct 2021 12:09
And players too. If the players don’t have buy-in to this kind of thing it’s gonna go south. I saw one review that said it was “best for drama students” or something like that. That is a pretty good assessment.

It’s had a lot of really good stuff going on, but like Jason suggests and what I alluded to I’m not sure that 5e is where I want to have this kind of game. Troika! For example is way looser and does this kind of thing better

It is pretty weird that this is the book they brewing back Warduke in.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #326961 04 Oct 2021 12:21
Theater Kid D&D
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #326966 04 Oct 2021 14:25
Wilds beyond the Witchlight, aka 'Better hope Charisma wasn't your dump stat!' :P
damiendada's Avatar
damiendada replied the topic: #326970 04 Oct 2021 16:15
I like the concept it looks cool
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #326972 04 Oct 2021 16:29
I must have misread because you mentioned Warduke and then never brought him up again.

Greater disappointment I haven’t known
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #326973 04 Oct 2021 16:35
Alternatively, it might be your best review because the mention of Warduke
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #326976 04 Oct 2021 17:22
He’s got a full stat lock and a cool picture!
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #326979 04 Oct 2021 22:18
That alone might push to get this damn thing
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #326980 04 Oct 2021 22:35
“Prepare for Whimsy” is a phrase that fills me with apprehension.

In theory I like a D&D that draws more on the lighthearted weird than the aggressively edgy. In practice “whimsy” often means “tryhard random” because it’s divorced from the fairy tale logic that ties it together.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #326982 04 Oct 2021 23:25
Well. I would say that this is more successful than you might think- it really captures a dark fairy tale like atmosphere quite well (once again, provided you have the buy-in).

I wouldn’t accuse it of try hard to be honest, I think it does work as written and it does get across a different tone. You know what, in a way or reminds me at least a little of Castle Amber, how it went in a very different kind of direction at its time.

I kind of feel like the carnival part is almost a separate module…if it were 1981, the carnival would be like WW1 and the three realms would be WW2, 3, and 4 to create the WW series.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #326983 04 Oct 2021 23:29
Also Doug they are doing an Icons of the Realm mini set with Warduke and the other League of Villains or whatever they are. Needless to say I’ll be having one of those.

And by the way…Strongheart the Paladin and Kelek the Sorceror are also in there.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #327000 05 Oct 2021 14:48

Michael Barnes wrote: And players too. If the players don’t have buy-in to this kind of thing it’s gonna go south. I saw one review that said it was “best for drama students” or something like that. That is a pretty good assessment.


I actually play with a lot theatre people. Like, when our bard performs, it's not just a die roll. They actually perform... so...maybe...??
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #327015 05 Oct 2021 18:05
Because D&D arose from a miniature-based wargame, it was inevitable that D&D would focus on combat. But it is completely arbitrary to limit role-playing adventures to a series of combats. Modern role-playing games have pushed the boundaries of role-playing far beyond the murder hobo dungeon crawl, with experimental games like The Mountain Witch or Fiasco or Soap. Diceless role-playing games do have combat, but players tend to recognize that combat based on DM fiat is uninteresting compared to other aspects of the storytelling.