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D&D's Latest Books Take 5E To New Places - Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel and Spelljammer Review

MB Updated October 20, 2022
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D&D's Latest Books Take 5E To New Places - Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel and Spelljammer Review

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There Will Be Games

D&D's newest adventures explore diversity and spaaaaaaaaace.

There are a couple of new 5e books out in the wild and both (well, all four of them technically) are pretty interesting for different reasons. With the recent announcement and uncertainty of whatever D&D One will bring to the table and with a sort of renewed vigor to bring back legacy settings such as Dragonlance and Planescape, perhaps these new tomes point the way to the future of the game? In some ways I definitely hope so but in others I think there’s some refinement in order.

Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel is a collection of 13 short-ish adventures similar to the excellent Candlekeep Mysteries book, each proscribed for a different level range and executed by diverse authors- and this time, those authors are primarily folks who aren’t white. I’m sure this likely caused many an OSRbro to clutch his copy of Oriental Adventures in horror at the “wokeness” of it all. But by bringing Black and Brown voices to the fore, the result is a fascinating look at how expansive and thoughtful fantasy gaming can be when it is no longer tethered to its crusted ass “Appendix N” origins, prejudices, and narrow perspectives.

Instead of tired, worn out genre tropes, these adventures go to places and explore themes that are inspiring and rich with possibility.  I’m especially fond of “Written in Blood”, a lovely Southern Gothic influenced by Black American and African folklore featuring a truly terrifying monster made of arms called a Soul Shaker. And I’ve also been especially intrigued by the 4th level adventure, “The Fiend of Hollow Mine” which offers a wonderful South American piece that brings in classic D&D elements such as a dark-dealing sorcerer, shape-changers, cultists, and a tidy dungeon crawl but also finds the players learning to set an Ofrenda as part of a Dia De Los Muertos-inspired segment. Other stories bring in elements and inspiration from Southeast Asian and Arabic cultures. And it’s all far more authentic, heartfelt, imaginative, and honest than anything in Oriental Adventures or Al-Qadim. Thank god.

Each of the adventures also includes a brief gazetteer describing the individual regions that they take place. This is significant because all of these stories are set in different locations with different cultural backgrounds, lifestyles, geography, and languages. The frame that holds all of this together is the Radiant Citadel, a floating city built around a massive, color-changing gemstone called the Auroral Diamond. The Radiant Citadel is sort of a hub and players may reach civilizations described in the adventure by means of Concord Jewels. Of course the Radiant Citadel itself has its own factions, lore, and potential for adventure.

There’s an overarching theme of interconnectedness and diversity throughout with a tone of exploration and appreciation. I’m just a bit disappointed – and this is more of a personal preference issue – that the adventures, much like Wild Beyond the Witchlight, are strongly focused on role-playing encounters and non-violent interactions. Depending on your group and how you play this may not be an issue and quite frankly, I think this is a generational thing where folks who have come up playing online or watching streams are more interested in those elements than dungeon slogs or extended combat encounters. But you know what, if you really want that kind of stuff in your game it’s not hard to throw in some fights, make an NPC or faction more hostile, or add in a bespoke dungeon to raid.

It’s a wonderful book offering all of the high-end qualities that the indie RPG scene despises – but in some sense, it almost feels like D&D is catching up with the broader scope and diversity that has always been out there. And that leads into the other recent – and not quite as successful – D&D release.

I never got to play Spelljammer but wow, I sure wanted to. The closest I ever got was a campaign a friend ran where we wound up in a castle that was actually a crashed Spelljammer ship. I feel like I bought the PC game at one point but I have absolutely no recollection of playing it. So I was pretty excited when WOTC announced that they were bringing Spelljammer back as a three-volume slipcase set including a new DM’s screen, The Astral Adventurer’s Guide, Boo’s Astral Menagerie, and Light of Xaryxis. These books are essentially appendices for the DMG, Monster Manual, and a sort of weirdly brief adventure.

In fact, my first thought after looking over the three books, could be summed up as “weirdly brief”. I felt like my expectations were perhaps set too high by excellent books like The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, and Eberron: Rising from the Last War. These were all stunning and thorough works with lots of new options, lore, and inspiration that left me excited to play and scribbling notes for future campaign ideas. The Spelljammer set just kind of left me wanting more of it.

The Astral Adventurer’s Guide seems to barely scratch the surface of what Wildspace has to offer with an almost kind of hand-wavy explanation of how it all works and what the deal is with the whole Spelljammer setting. There’s a couple of new backgrounds and six new PC races (I thought we weren’t doing that anymore, WOTC???) including a questionably described slave race, the Hadozee, who are borrowed from – believe it or not- the simian Yazirians from Star Frontiers. It’s really unfortunate that whoever edited this book or oversaw this section didn’t think twice about having a slave race whose background story does nothing but reinforce white, colonial supremacist views of slavery including the “happy go lucky” slave myth and this whole weird, extremely cringey thing where the Hadozee love and adore Astral Elves – who were there opressors, who brought them civilization and culture, whatever. Yikes. It’s especially troubling given everything I wrote above about Radiant Citadel and WOTC’s stated initiatives to strive for, you know, less of this kind of bullshit. (Note- WOTC has officially apologized for the oversight and future printings and downloads have a heavily revised and much less racist description.)

Stick with it and there’s also two new spells. A table for “Astral Fishing”. And then almost half the book is Spelljammer ship layouts and stat pages. It all feels quite perfunctory, rushed, and constrained.

Boo’s Astral Menagerie fares much better since it is essentially just a monster manual for Wildspace. There’s lots of variations on the classics like some new Githyanki and of course dragons as well as plenty of fun new monsters like the Megapede, Eyemonger and the Murder Comet. There are also Space Clowns and Vampirates so that should give you an idea of the freewheeling tone of it all. There are more bits of lore and background in the monster descriptions to be picked up on, so maybe the thought was to offload some of that out of the core book.

Light of Xaryxis engendered goodwill right from its first pages because it states that it is very specifically inspired by the 1980 Flash Gordon film so I was on board with it immediately. Billed as a “rollicking” space adventure, it encourages players to lean into the pulpy 4 chapter narrative and there are definitely opportunities to do so. It’s a 5th level adventure so characters should be fairly capable in rising to the challenge of saving their home world from the imperial advances of an Astral Elf prince. It’s all very good and with lots of fun elements such as cliffhanger chapter breaks but it also feels extremely scripted and constrained. It almost feels like there was a larger concept here that got squished into 64 pages.

But truth be told, I’m kind of torn on this point because I’d actually rather run a 64 page episodic adventure than a sprawling 400+ page one like what I am doing right now entering into year 2 of my Temple of Elemental Evil campaign. That’s great and all, but this is a much more manageable, modern adventure. I just wish that it felt bigger in scope than it does.

Here again, as a DM you can flesh all this out and make it your own, as proscribed by Rule #1 of any RPG game – “this is your game”. But I can’t help but feel like WOTC wanted to do this as a single SKU and that pushed Spelljammer up against some editorial constraints. I think I wanted this book to be more like Eberron or Wildemount, brimming with ideas and details rather than really just a few new character options, some ship rules, and a monster manual supported by a pretty restricted adventure.  With all of that said, I’m sure Spelljammer will have plenty of support on DM’s Guild and there will likely be all kinds of stuff there for it. I just sort of hope that Dragonlance and Planescape don’t get this kind of dashed off feeling. It makes me miss the days when a D&D setting was an entire product line, but heaven knows that’s just not tenable now.

Editor reviews

1 reviews

Dungeons & Dragons Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel and Spelljammer
A pretty great collection of short adventures written by non-white European authors and a sort of so-so return to a classic D&D setting.
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 and 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.

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Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #336466 28 Oct 2022 09:54
I ran Temple of Elemental Evil back in the late '80s, and it was great. Fifteen years later, I got to play Temple of Elemental Evil on my computer, and that was even better. Other than updating ToEE to 3.5, the computer game adaptation was surprisingly faithful to the source material, and modders eventually upgraded the game in interesting ways. Also, the computer version handles all the tedious complexities of 3.5, like attacks of opportunity and spell durations.
quozl's Avatar
quozl replied the topic: #336482 28 Oct 2022 18:35
Are you no longer an OSR fan?
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #336490 29 Oct 2022 15:05
No. Although there are lots of very talented, creative folks working in that space the whole thing is ultimately a negatively atavistic reaction to the advances in accessibility and diversity that D&D has made. Much of that whole OSR thing is a cover for some very bigoted, edgelordy, and elitist attitudes. I found myself rather routinely disappointed to find that creators and adherents to the OSR style were bigots, sexists, homophobes, and far right-leaning. I'm also about this weird Gygax/Arneson worship that goes on there. I do really love the Moldvay rules because that's what I grew up with but the game has changed for the better across the board and books like these, despite some flaws, really show how far the game has come. Ultimately, D&D in any edition can be played however you want and it doesn't require this kind of ubernerd devotion to antiquated rules.

I do still very much love and still play/run DCC and Mork Borg- to me those games not only represent what I think are the best qualities of OSR style but they also move it forward into a contemporarily valid context.

I fell really hard for OSR because I loved getting back to old school THAC0 D&D...but I also had an epiphany with it when trying to get two groups into playing OSR games. Both groups has started with 5e, and then here I come trying to get them to play a game like I played 30+ years ago. They -hated- it, and it killed both groups. I felt terrible.

But I'll tel you what my Tenple of Elemental Evil game, which I run using Goodman's -excellent- 5e conversion from their Original Adventures Reincarnated line, is as old school as can be. But with familiar, accessible rules.
quozl's Avatar
quozl replied the topic: #336491 29 Oct 2022 15:18
Interesting. As a self-described OSR fan, I thought the negative parts were a very small minority of the scene and the major reason I like OSR is for the very simple and accessible rules. I'm sorry to hear you've had some bad experiences.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #336492 29 Oct 2022 15:35
We ignored three quarters of the rules back when they were published.
blatz's Avatar
blatz replied the topic: #336513 31 Oct 2022 13:29
I don't think OSR has anything to do with gatekeeping or far-right agendas for most people. I just prefer the way the game runs under Moldvay/OSE.

If one of my players says they want to search under the mantle for a hidden lever, they just find it if it's there. Great idea! No rolling an investigation check that everyone then wants to try until somebody succeeds. I got so sick of 5e's perception checks and investigation checks and on and on...

The other area where I prefer OSR is combat and the creativity you are afforded. Nothing is codified in the rules. You want to jump off of a flight of stairs unto the orc with your sword drawn? Go for it. If you hit you get double damage, but if you miss I'm going to rule you fumble your weapon and possibly hurt yourself. Nobody at the table is going to look up the page number for "jumping off staircases with your sword drawn" to prove you did it wrong because "rulings over rules" is the core value of the game.

I get that 5e has a sleek rules systems that you can use to resolve everything and that's great but I actually LOVE all the strange little mechanics found in 1e. It made the whole game seem so weird and arcane and rewarding to discover.

I don't know. There's no wrong way to have fun but don't deprive yourself of OSR just because OTHER people who use it are assholes. There's nothing stopping anybody from learning from the mistakes of the past and applying a more modern mindset to older games. I would imagine (hope) that's what most people in the community are doing.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #336517 31 Oct 2022 15:53
I think it’s easy enough to enjoy OSR-style games and rules, while ignoring the OSR scene. It does seem to have a high degree of reprobates for whatever reason; maybe there’s just a lot of people who think everything was better 40 years ago. Games, social attitudes, whatever.

Although, if you like the style of games/rules, there’s better games out there than B/X. I’m not sure why anyone would get B/X today when there’s OSE or Labyrinth Lord — basically the same thing, but better written, better organized, and more consistent.

But unless I really needed to run modules with a certain amount of combatibility, I’d rather run Knave, or Maze Rats, or Errant. All the feel, but a little more interesting to me in terms of rules structure.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #336522 31 Oct 2022 19:05

OSR scene

Who on Earth is role playing with strangers?
quozl's Avatar
quozl replied the topic: #336527 31 Oct 2022 20:54

Sagrilarus wrote:

OSR scene

Who on Earth is role playing with strangers?

Exactly. And who cares what the strangers do that also play the same game you do? That's not your game!
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #336528 31 Oct 2022 22:06

Sagrilarus wrote:

OSR scene

Who on Earth is role playing with strangers?

Not me. My contact with the OSR scene has been:

- I need a new scenario for my group
- These OSR guys seem to have a similar vibe to what I am after
- Oh these OSR adventures are pretty cool
- Let’s go check out an OSR forum, maybe there’s some more cool ideas there
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #336544 02 Nov 2022 03:03
The OSR blog world is pretty fun if you find some people who you relate to. I really like A Knight At The Opera and Lich Van Winkle, personally. It's when you venture into the OSR-specific web spaces that things get unpleasant quickly. It's not been so much right-wing wankery, but more a serious case of looking down on those normies who would stoop to playing 5e. By choice, even! It's a bigger problem in places that skew younger, like /r/osr. But it gets really exhausting.

There's also a reverential tone among some OSR spaces that I find pretty silly. You MUST use dungeon rounds. You MUST meticulously map every corner. You MUST make the game about resource management. You MUST utilize hirelings! You MUST teach your players about consequence and how tough life is, like a strict parent. It takes about ten minutes in the TTRPG hobby to realize that most things you MUST do actually aren't that necessary. But again, a lot of OSR spaces insist that if you aren't doing these things you must be some kind of lazy gamer who isn't worthy to play the really good stuff. It's so exhausting and so try-hard.

That's to say nothing of the surprisingly adult-oriented material the OSR community often produces. It's surprisingly hard to find kid-friendly stuff. I can only chalk this up to the influence of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. That game has gone out of vogue now, but its legacy stretches long.

All that said...I like a lot of OSR stuff. I'm running an OSE game at my son's school these days, and it's pretty fun. It's nice to have a game that just gets out of the way, especially with eight kids. I like that there's a preservationist component of the hobby that works to keep older styles of play in the conversation, and seeks to build off of them. I like that so much of the content is free. (Though a lot of that free content seems to be created with the mindset to be as minimalist as possible, often to the detriment of the module.)

I'm much more of a 5e type, but I really enjoy a lot of OSR stuff. But the community can be pretty exhausting sometimes, just as much as any other community on the internet.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #336573 02 Nov 2022 15:46
No argument that there’s lots of ways to play D&D, and the only criteria for whether a particular style is valid, is whether it’s fun for your table.

BUT … I think there’s a more nuanced argument, which is that B/X and its derivatives assume a certain style of play, and if you lean into that style, the rules will support you. If you don’t, you’ll be fighting or ignoring the rules, and there might be better games out there that will give you what you’re after.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #336575 02 Nov 2022 16:56
What the heck is B/X?
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #336576 02 Nov 2022 17:24
Basic/Expert Dungeons and Dragons.

1981 edition written by Moldvay and Cook. The Basic boxed set has an iconic magenta cover.

It's widely seen, among fans of old D&D, as the best iteration of the rules. It doesn't have the endless cruft of AD&D, or even the slightly restrained cruft of the 1983 Mentzer "BECMI" D&D (that's five boxes: Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, Immortals) with the iconic Elmore cover. It's clear and consistent (for the most part).

Old School Essentials, Dark Dungeons, Labyrinth Lord, and Basic Fantasy are all restatements of B/X. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Mazes & Minotaurs, and countless others are all heavily inspired to the point of being mostly compatible.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #336578 02 Nov 2022 18:02
I started with turquoise/white Basic box and soon switched to AD&D back in the day. But at one point, I got a look at the Basic set from the B/X releases, and even then I was impressed by the well-organized rulebook.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #336579 02 Nov 2022 19:41
That’s the Holmes 1977 Basic D&D. I’ve never read it. Supposedly it is a mostly uninspired restatement of original white box D&D, with a few things from AD&D. It doesn’t get much love.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #336580 02 Nov 2022 20:07
Y’all think too much. Use the rules that work, dump everything else.

D&D was invented by a wargame designer. It started life as a medieval tank combat game. You need to ignore all the parts that look like Tactics II.

At that point, judging one ruleset against another makes little sense.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #336584 03 Nov 2022 00:50
The original B/X rules, as published in 1981, are probably the best-organized rulebooks TSR ever put out, for whatever that's worth. There are other candidates like the Rules Cyclopedia, but that ones just such a massive tome that I find it a little cumbersome as an all-in-one prospect.

But dysjunct is right, if you want to play B/X you are really better off just playing something like Old School Essentials or Labyrinth Lord. OSE is literally identical, and it's way easy to use at the table.