What Do I Know About First Impressions? The Lost Citadel

LC CoverIn 2015, The Walking Dead was heading into its 6th season, and it’s spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, was just reaching the public. Arnold Schwarzenegger was debuting his first zombie film, MaggieThe Call of Duty games regularly included zombie DLC. Robert Kirkman was still four years away from ending the comic book on which The Walking Dead was based, in 2019.

This is only the second year of publication for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. We’re still a year away from the release of the 5e Open Game License which opens that ruleset up for 3rd party development. 

It was at this time the first Kickstarter for The Lost Citadel dropped. This original Kickstarter was for a “transmedia anthology,” primarily a short story collection gathering authors that had worked in the fantasy and horror genre, including many that had worked on game related fiction in the past. This project included a writer’s bible, to establish the realities of the setting, and distributed to all the writers so that they had a shared vision of the setting.

In 2017, another Kickstarter launched, this time for the purpose of funding both an RPG setting book for The Lost Citadel, using the 5e Open Game License, and a novel. The RPG setting would be published by Green Ronin, and the novel would be handled by Green Ronin’s fiction imprint, Nisaba Press. This successfully funded, which included stretch goals for a setting soundtrack, a rules hack for Green Ronin’s Fantasy AGE system, a GM screen, additional rules for martial schools, and a second novel. 

The Long Road from 2017 to 2020

Three years isn’t the worst length of time an RPG Kickstarter has required in order to start it’s fulfillment, but it was longer than the 2018 estimate for the original fulfillment. Even then, the novels for The Lost Citadel project have not yet been completed at the time of this article. The project ran into problems early when one of the primary authors working on the project faced consequences for their actions. I’m not going to go in depth about this situation, other than to post a link to the Horror Writers Association Facebook page, which makes an announcement about the situation. After this, C.A. Suleiman was no longer coordinating the project, which meant someone else had to be recruited.

When the project was envisioned, 5e OGL projects looked a little different, as I explored a bit in this post. Campaign settings, especially those that had some dramatically different assumptions from standard D&D 5e, were as common then as they are now.

The Lost Citadel: Fifth Edition Roleplaying In a World Ravaged by Death

Here in 2021, I have both the PDF and the physical copy of the campaign setting book that was funded by the Kickstarter. The final product is a 306 page book that has a unique look among other 5e products. It has elaborate gold and green page borders, haunted green tinted images of the world, line are and color images, and special illustrations for the fiction sections of the book. There is an almost hazy, ghostly vertigo that accompanies some of the artwork in the book, and overall, it’s an impressive book to look at, and a solid feeling physical tome.

The Lost Citadel: Setting and Fiction

There is a good amount of fiction included in this book. There is an opening story, as well as the ongoing story of a priest of Father Death as she makes her way through the Redoubt. This story unfolds at the beginning of each of the chapters of the book.

In addition to the fiction, there is a lot of material on the world and its people, the history of the setting, and how society works in Redoubt. The greatest amount of information comes from 28 years before The Fall, to 42 years after the fall, although other historical events are touched upon.

The history of the setting intertwines with the history of the prominent sapient races of the setting, including the meliae (what other settings might call sidhe or leshay, more magical cousins to the elves), dwarves, elves, ghuls, and five primary nations of humans. While the later GM section implies that maybe some other traditional fantasy races existed, or still exist, in this world, none of them are included as part of the unfolding history presented.

The First Ascension brought greater magic into the world, and ushered in the age of humans. The Second Ascension changed magic and tainted it, driving the elves to instability, and causing the dead to rise. The meliea were wiped out by the corruption of magic. Anything or anyone using magic needs to learn to curtail more extensive magic, and supplement their practice with more careful rituals.

The dwarves allow humans into their city to extend protection to them, but eventually the humans turned on the dwarves and forced them to sign the Accord of Last Redoubt, changing the name of the city, authorizing the execution of the dwarven royal family, and entreanching dwarven slavery as part of society.

Compare and Contrast

There are no half-elves or half-orcs in the setting, as sapient species aren’t cross fertile in this setting. The Second Ascension and the change to magic has cut off contact with other planes of existence, and while demons exist, most of those encountered are fiends trapped before the change in magic. This also means that major magic that was once attributed to clerics doesn’t function in the setting.

Dwarves have the ability to go long stretches without breathing, many elves are addicted to a substance that helps them to manage the visions they often have, and the ghul are hyena-like humanoids that can eat the dead and once eaten by a ghul, the dead no longer rise. This makes them important, but not always well liked, to other species. Ghuls also understand other languages, but can only speak their own.

No one in the setting is sure of exactly what happened to cause the dead to rise, but The Dead weren’t well known before The Fall, and no one assumes that any of The Dead have a true intelligence, only the fading, warped memories left in their warped head. Intelligent undead like vampires or liches don’t exist here, although there are a few undead, including one particular unique undead, that may subvert this common knowledge.

Incorporeal undead aren’t considered The Dead, but the spirits of those disquieted by the state of the world. If they aren’t placated, they may tear the soul of the dead apart, which is one of the things that causes the dead to rise.

The Lost Citadel: The Mechanical Side

All characters in the setting have a Pnuema score, which is essentially the character’s spiritual hit points. The more spiritual damage a character takes, the more they are assured to rise again as the dead. Some locations exude Woe, the force that damages Pneuma, and many creatures also do Woe damage with their attacks.

There is truncated list of Player’s Handbook options assumed for the campaign setting. This includes one Barbarian subclass, two Fighter subclasses, and two Rogue subclasses. It introduces several native subclasses, as well as the new classes of the Beguiler, the Penitent, and the Sage, and modified versions of the Monk, Paladin, Ranger, and Warlock.

Monk don’t natively have access to ki, as the spiritual connection to the supernatural is corrupted. There is a subclass that pushes its luck to incorporate ki into their practices. Paladins and Rangers are redesigned to remove spellcasting and add other features. For example, Rangers are inspirational figures, so they have some almost bard like features incorporated. Warlocks are redesigned due to the limited range of patrons that can access in the setting.

There are several things that make these classes and subclasses hard to port to other 5e settings. Any class that has spellcasting also has a unique set of spells, usually removing some of the flashier 5e spells and adding in more utility spells. Several class feature also play with the rules for Pneuma damage, which won’t be quite as useful unless you also port spiritual damage to another setting.

The martial school system is also heavily integrated into several of the subclasses. Essentially, depending on your d20 roll on an attack, you generate a number of Martial Opportunity Points, which you can spend on exploits that modify how your attack works. If this reminds you of the stunt system from Fantasy AGE, more on that later.

This section feels a little frustrating to me, because its presented as a world that used to work like a standard D&D world. But its hard to port 5e material to this setting, especially any subclass that interacts with spellcasting. It’s also hard to pull some of the really good ideas out without reworking them. I really like the idea of the penitent absorbing spiritual damage and redirecting it to harm opponents. I like the “gambling with Inspiration” mechanics of the ranger, and while I’m not sure it’s filling a vital function, I kind of want to tinker with the beguiler for use outside of the setting.

When it comes to spells, most of the spells drift towards the subtle. Many of these are listed as rituals, because ritual casting has less of a chance to generate woe. As a side effect of these setting trappings, there are some nice utility spells that involve things like fertility, gaining advantage on saves versus physical maladies, and some nice multi-step curses. I also like that the Warlock gets an eldritch blast that isn’t, essentially causing wracking shadowy pain. 

The bestiary includes a lot of physical undead, and most of them are highly portable to other settings. They only really lose the additional woe damage that they cause. While “lots of zombies” may not seem like it makes for a good variety of monsters, there are actually some fun twists on 5e mechanics with these monsters. Undead with burning fires of magic inside them, slimy maggot throwing corpses, mounds of collected body parts, animate dismembered body parts, and my favorite, the misery mob, an undead that turns the living into a phalanx of human shields that PCs need to break away from the undead before they can attack.

The Prince of Tears is a unique undead presented in the bestiary. As a CR 21 creature, he is presented as a campaign ending villain, with three alternate backgrounds, one of which presenting him as the source of the The Fall, and giving you a means of possibly ending the current torment of the world. This is also the only section that really gives a general idea of what a Lost Citadel campaign looks like, but even then, its not overly detailed. There are adventure hooks in various section, but it feels like there is a wide gap between “idea for a job” and “what do we do to string together a narrative.”

A Citadel of Content Warnings

I will freely admit, reading this book from beginning to end was rough. It’s a harsh setting, and even though I normally don’t get too turned around by gory descriptions, I had to come up for air from time to time. Including an entire race that is born into slavery is another grim and difficult topic, and in the bestiary, there is a specific form of undead child that I don’t think I would spring on a group regardless of their lines and veils.

There is a section in the book talking about not forcing players to play enslaved characters, or to directly engage with that part of the setting, but unlike some other settings, that’s a foundational historical aspect of how the setting works. You literally can’t play a dwarf or encounter a dwarf without some degree of interaction with the plot element. There also aren’t any active safety rules touched upon in the book, which really would be a nice addition.

LCAGEThe Fantasy AGE Connection

As part of the Kickstarter, Green Ronin also provided a Fantasy AGE Conversion Codex. This is a 38 page document that addresses the same topics as the core book and its 5e implementation, and instead defines those terms in Fantasy AGE mechanics. This reuses several pieces of The Lost Citadel artwork but the overall formatting matches the formatting of other Fantasy AGE formatting, but with a unified green and black theme.

Since Fantasy AGE only has three core classes, all of the classes and subclasses presented in the book end up being specializations instead. One effect of this mechanics drift is that some specializations can be taken by more than one class, and making them feel more like adopted professions over time, rather than a trained job that the character has assumed at the start of the campaign.

Because spells are grouped into different Arcana in Fantasy AGE, instead of rewriting spell lists for different classes, there is a sidebar on changes to healing, and an alternate Death Arcana that fits the setting. There is also a section that details ritual casting in Fantasy AGE terms.

The Martial Schools, instead of being an entirely added on system, functions as an extra pool of stunt points that can be spent on special stunts available to the individual martial schools, and which can be spent even without rolling doubles.

I have to admit, it feels like the rules of Fantasy AGE aren’t swimming upstream quite as much as the 5e rules are. Ritual casting may be new, but the system already has characters making checks to cast spells. Martial schools sit on top of stunts and stunt points without modifying them. It also feels like the rules portions are presented in a manner that is clearer and less anchored in descriptions of the world, making it a little easier to absorb them on their own.

First Impressions and Final Thoughts

Both zombie media, and 5e OGL games have changed a lot since this project first started. I was very eager to see this back when there wasn’t much in the way of ambitious settings expressly for D&D 5e, and I’m glad I backed the project. Its been fascinating to see how this project has developed over time.

Because of the number of outside races and classes not utilized in the setting, I can’t help but feel like this would have benefited from a similar approach that was taken in Adventures in Middle-earth and Beowulf Age of Heroes, where the setting is assuming you are only using classes from the setting book, and therefore aren’t pulling in expectations where the rules material still touches the core books.

The setting information is engaging, but it definitely reads more like a book presenting a sourcebook for a shared world series of novels instead of a campaign setting book. In part, this is because its not especially easy to find named NPCs or plot events that you might want to spin into adventures. The game rules almost feel intrusive compared to the facts being presented about the setting.

For someone not wholly devoted to D&D 5e, I would almost lean towards recommending using this as a Fantasy AGE setting. The 38 page conversion presents a cleaner set of rules, less cognitive drift from how the core game works, and a clearer presentation of what other creatures might appear in the setting and how to use them than the core book does.

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