What Do I Know About Reviews? Citadel of the Unseen Sun (5e OGL)
I’ve been doing first impressions of all the individual chapters of the opening arc of Fables, which unfold into the Citadel of the Unseen Sun campaign. This time around, I’m going to wrap up looking at the sixth installment, then take a look at the overall campaign arc. If you want to see the previous entries in this series, you can find them here:
- What Do I Know About First Impressions? Death is Not the End (Fables: Citadel of the Unseen Sun Episode One; 5e OGL)
- What Do I Know About First Impressions? Dreams of the World Beyond (Fables: Citadel of the Unseen Sun Episode Two; 5e OGL)
- WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT FIRST IMPRESSIONS? A Masque of Life (FABLES: CITADEL OF THE UNSEEN SUN EPISODE Three; 5E OGL)
- What Do I Know About First Impressions? Land of Despair (FABLES: Citadel of the Unseen Sun Four; 5E OGL)
- What Do I Know About First Impressions? City of Decadence (Fables Episode Five, 5e OGL)
I was not provided a review copy for this adventure series, and made my own purchase for purposes of this review. I have not run any of these adventures, but I have review the Grim Hollow Player’s Guide, and am familiar with D&D 5e both as a player and a DM.
The Final Chapter
Our final chapter clocks in at 80 pages long. This includes a title page, a credits page, a table of contents, and a full page OGL statement. This follows the same two column layout as the other adventures, and is attractively laid out with nice, full color artwork.
In the Vault
The book is divided into the following sections:
- Welcome to Fables!
- Flight to the Citadel
- Citadel of the Unseen Sun
- Fate of the Unseen Sun
- Epilogue: Sunrise
- Appendix A: New Monsters
As with previous volumes, a lot of the “Welcome” section is repeated from previous adventures. This adventure, like the previous volumes, pick up right where the previous volumes leave off, meaning that most of this adventure is constantly moving.
The adventure starts with the Light Hunters, the lich Kasimir’s special soldiers, raiding the city of Nov Ostoya, and the PCs are expected to make a run for the Citadel of the Unseen Sun. While they were told to go there by their patron, the GM may need to either remind the PCs where they were at and what they were doing, or do some not so subtle communication of what is expected.
All of the Lighthunters together should be too much for the PCs, and they have had a chance to fight one of them before. They are 10th level, so multiple CR 9 creatures should be seen as a threat, but I’ve seen players assume weird things once they can defeat one of something, and are later faced with multiples. It also feels like with all of the momentum pushing the PCs, this would be the part in story where they fight off the villains minions, rest and prepare, then go take on the boss. Instead, they need to keep moving or fight six CR 9 creatures.
While I kind of like the time crunch angle, I almost wish it weren’t a straight “run from the minions so you can kill their boss” scenario. I would have rather seen the PCs be able to take a breather, then do something that signals they are on the clock with a limited time to stop Kasimir, causing them to hurry from that point on.
There are some special rules introduced for the pursuit, but they reference absolute positioning ( . . . if the characters flee more than 1 mile from the light hunters . . . ) and this feels like it would have been a great place to use some modified chase rules or clocks instead of more specific travel rules. There is a section saying that it may feel tedious to track these distances, but the solution is to have it take a set number of days no matter what and make the PCs feel like they are being chased, and that doesn’t feel satisfying either.
I like several of the random encounters. You can meet the adventurers that the PCs may have encountered when they first escape the False Afterlife, and they may also run into a vampire they may have interacted with in the past, and I appreciate the callbacks to previous adventures. I do feel like the vampire encounter would have been great if it had been more fully fleshed out, but it amounts to “you can accept her help, and here is the DC to trick her into doing something fatally stupid once she isn’t useful anymore.”
I also like that the Marsh provides a place where the Light Hunters won’t pursue, but it has its own dangers, which might be partially mitigated if you have a vampire escort. I like the synergy of the different options at play in this instance, which makes for some meaningful decision points.
The climax to everything that has been happening up to this point is here in the Citadel of the Unseen Sun. PCs have two primary objectives, destroy Kasimir’s soul object, and destroy the Unseen Sun. Once that happens, the lich will no longer be a threat, and the sun will shine over Ostoya again. Between escaping the False Afterlife while interacting with strange rules in different settlements, fighting across the country side, and escaping from a vampire ruled metropolis, a dungeon feels like the right capstone to the adventure, especially since the only substantial dungeon before this was the threshold where the PCs may have encountered the other adventuring party.
There are multiple conduit cores that feed power to the Unseen Sun. If those are destroyed, the sun is destabilized. On the other hand, Kasimir’s soul object, a crown, needs to be fed into the sun to destroy it.
There are lots of very evocative parts to this dungeon. There is a prison that is a gateway to a pocket dimension that appears as a moon orbiting the Unseen Sun. There are prismatic gates that have to be disabled in specific ways. There are bone masons that repair damaged conduits, thus complicating the work the PCs have already done, and there are giant death’s head moths that are used by the inhabitants to move from level to level in the dungeon.
There are prisoners that the PCs can interact with, as well as the undead fire giant craftsman that works for Kasimir. I especially love that the fire giant has several conceptually impossible items that he has created and wants to show off, and there is a sphinx that is only convinced that she and Kasimir are real, and demands that others prove they exist. I like that various NPCs in the dungeon are given Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws (but I have some thoughts on this coming in a bit).
The main things that don’t work as well for me include Kasimir stalling the PCs at the beginning to potentially allow his Light Hunters to show up. There is a sidebar on how they don’t get killed for this, because Kasimir will offer them a deal, but I still don’t like the tactic. I would rather the Light Hunters show up as an “add on” whenever they take too long to do something. I’m also not thrilled that Kasimir is the one that provides the clues to open his chamber, due to his arrogance. Given that this is a history laden place, I would almost rather the PCs find something associated with the story of Kasimir and the dungeon that provided the clues.
All of that said, I think the dungeon is a bright spot in this adventure, and a solid place to wrap up the story.
The End of Things
Kasimir could end up being really powerful if the PCs don’t shut down enough of the conduit cores. This kind of design has been around since at least 3rd edition, but I like the concept that the PCs have a goal to weaken the final boss, and thus have a reason to explore the dungeon rather than finding the closest route to them.
I also like that Kasimir provides an alternative that might actually appeal to the PCs. “Let me siphon off the sun bits in your soul, I let you go, the sun shows up, gets rid of the vampires, and it may take me a while to get my shit together to take over Ostoya.” Given that a whole country of vampires is present, and the PCs were pushed onto this course by an archdeamon, maybe taking the lich’s deal isn’t so bad? The worst bit is that he still keeps stealing souls here and there in his False Afterlife.
While I think the deal may be tempting, I wish they had pulled a few more heartstrings, maybe forcing the PCs to weigh some of the NPCs they have met over the course of the adventure. There is some reference that “eventually” some of them would be hunted down, but it’s not a threat that is evident in the moment.
End of the Road
While I had some notes here and there about things that didn’t completely click for me, I think this was a great finale for the campaign. It provided a satisfying ending for the adventure, and also provides player characters with an ending that shows they have permanently affected the setting. Even if they cut a deal with Kasimir, things don’t look good for the continued reign of the vampires of Ostoya. This might be my favorite of all of the adventures in this campaign.
The few missing elements for me include offhanded comments about things like convincing the Bone Masons to turn against Kasimir. I don’t think we’re given enough information to realize this would even be possible, except for an offhand comment about doing so. I wish there were more time with the potential vampire ally, as well. The suggested vampire had more in depth NPC information in a previous adventure, but I would have liked an updated look at what motivates them now that Kasimir’s plan is underway.
To start, I think Ghostfire did an amazing job of keeping this project on schedule. I received a notice at the end of the month, every month, all through this subscription. It does make me wonder about the development schedule, because I recently heard on Ghostfire’s Eldritch Lorecast that the third Fable is currently in production, before the second has started to ship.
The adventures have all looked great, and all of them have imaginative, memorable elements. Working with scavengers to survive, resolving the final moments of various people trapped in a dream-like afterlife, donning cursed masks, working with other adventurers, and participating in a blood fueled carnival are all ideas that are varying degrees of rare or non-existent in other adventures.
For all of this that worked, I think there were a few rough edges:
- Forcing the player characters to play through a scenario where they are going to die to start
- Killing the player characters a second time, without their agency, to motivate them to finish the second adventure
- One too many adventures that was taking place in the false afterlife, not allowing the PCs to escape the underworld for 13 to 14 sessions of play
Introducing an NPC that felt very important for one adventure, who was barely mentioned in the next adventure
- Getting strung along by a patron that only kind of wants them to succeed, but is okay if they don’t if they aren’t entertaining
This is from an internal reading of the adventure, with its own logic, and not looking at the wider campaign setting. For example, Ostoya is going to be changed long term after this campaign. Spending a little more time showing what the status quo is in the land would have been appreciated. While I don’t expect the adventure to reprint these rules or to require the use of the Grim Hollow setting books, I was really surprised that there weren’t any sidebars about some of the key elements of the setting, like the transformation rules, or examples of people using the advanced gear introduced in the books.
It also feels like there is some confusion about how much the campaign wants to be horror and how much it wants to be dark fantasy, and they aren’t as interchangeable as they may seem at first. It feels like to reinforce that “there may not be a happy ending” the adventure uses evil beings lying about who and what they are, rather than showing desperate people making terrible decisions, or knowing that an ally is morally compromised, but is the only ally the PCs can count on at the moment.
Too much of this felt like it was trying to keep the PCs from knowing enough to make informed decisions, and without informed decisions, “dark fantasy” feels more like a bait and switch than a hard world made up of hard choices.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
These adventures are fun and imaginative, but also a little frustrating and disjointed. Some of the key information that nudges characters in a particular direction comes from holding back information from the players. It misses just a little bit on the dark fantasy side of things, and it also could have done a little more to showcase the Grim Hollow setting. I think there is a lot to enjoy, but it may not do exactly what someone may hope when looking at the adventure from the outside.
I’m interested to see how the line progresses, and the Pirates of the Aetherial Expanse campaign that is next up is interesting to me because it’s a pirate based story, and it’s also introducing a new setting while also presenting an adventure path.