Darkness and death in fifth edition
There have been many attempts to introduce a sheen of darkness to the heroically optimistic realms of Dungeons & Dragons, but The Lost Citadel manages to be a little grimmer than most. Its cocktail of rampant undeath, institutionalised slavery and endless violence can be rather tough to swallow, but if you’re aching to explore only the gloomiest of tales it offers a fascinating place to start.
There are two major sections of the rather chunky book. The first of these deals with details of setting and of story, sketching out the realities of life in the vast city of Redoubt – a lone bastion of life and of tattered civilisation in a world consumed by tides of mindless undead monsters. It’s all very gothic and gloomy in nature, with mysterious churches and warped magics filling the world with doubt.
The second side of the book is more concerned with the world’s rules and mechanics, which draw from the popular D&D 5E ruleset by way of its Open Gaming License. It doesn’t bother to lay out the basics of those rules, as it assumes the players already have access to them, but rather explains the myriad ways in which The Lost Citadel is and – importantly – is not like a traditional D&D campaign.
These changes are sweeping and extensive, ranging from heavy restrictions on the classes and ancestries that players can pick through to a handful of entirely new mechanics revolving around the world’s slow, lingering death. For example, alongside mere physical damage, the heroes can also suffer the impact of spiritual harm that rends their souls and spirits rather than their flesh.
Indeed, this forms a core part of many of the new character options presented to players delving into The Lost Citadel, which range all the way from new fighting styles through to entire classes built specifically for the setting. Several of the penitent’s powers revolve around absorbing other characters’ woes and corruption, for example while the re-worked warlock class instead allows players to dump these problems onto somebody else.
Every one of these is beautifully evocative and dripping with flavour, but in many places the designs don’t feel quite as clean and simple as those presented in the core D&D books. Many come with so many restrictions and risks that it can be tempting to just fall back onto simple fighters and rogues built using the old, well-established rules.
Honestly, perhaps the biggest question hanging over the entire book is whether it truly needed to be built on the foundations of D&D in the first place. At times, it feels like The Lost Citadel would be rather more suited to a more lethal, less high-powered ruleset more fitting with the world’s tone.
Before going any further, we should probably make it clear that this tone is pretty much guaranteed to be nasty, violent and potentially a little upsetting. The Dwarves of Redoubt, for example, have had their culture destroyed and bastardised by humanity, and are habitually enslaved for the imagined sins of their forefathers. Elves, meanwhile, are characterised as fragile beings with shattered, flawed minds that manifest as bouts of mental illness that often parallel those found in the real world.
The book has frequent sidebars on ways to approach these topics sensibly and respectfully at the table, but even then, these may well be things that some groups just don’t want to deal with them on their game night.
Even beyond that, the premise of the game sets up a whole heap of more generalised nastiness. If you’re put off by the idea of a book with not just one, but two separate stat blocks for when you need to fight some undead children, The Lost Citadel might not be for you.
If, however, you think that you and your table of adventurers would enjoy – or perhaps gain that rush of catharsis provided by the gorier kind of horror film – these kinds of situations, you’ll find The Lost Citadel a competently assembled, imaginatively designed bit of work. Yes, some of the rules feel a little bit wonky in places, but at least that core of D&D should make it easy for many players to pick things up.
Enjoying the endless horrors of The Lost Citadel requires a certain group and a degree of maturity, but if you like exploring the darkness it’s a good place to start
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED: Forbidden Lands...
When you want your fantasy dark and depressing, but want to stick to tried-and-tested rules
Words by Richard Jansen-Parkes
Publisher: Green Ronin
This review originally appeared in Issue 44 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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