Dungeons & Dragons is historically descended from wargaming, but that’s not where its fanbase exists today. The franchise’s new center of gravity lies in the performative space, and its best ambassadors are a new breed of professional entertainer. Troupes like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, Dimension 20, and others have breathed new life into the franchise by modeling a different, more character-driven way to play.
The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, the latest campaign book from Wizards of the Coast, leans into this new reality like never before. It’s an adventure made for the theater kid in all of us. Designers went above and beyond, creating a campaign that doesn’t require combat to complete. Instead, it demands careful and consistent collaboration between the players and the Dungeon Master (DM). The end result is a dense 256-page book that helps expand the capabilities of every DM, while simultaneously empowering the players at the table. It’s one of the very best products released for D&D’s 5th edition.
[Warning: Our review contains spoilers for The Wild Beyond the Witchlight.]
The Wild Beyond the Witchlight kicks off with an all-but-required “session zero,” which combines character generation with outlining the early beats of the story itself. While common in many modern tabletop RPGs — and recommended for D&D as well — it’s embraced more fully here than in past campaigns. The prescriptive nature of this first session represents Wizards’ newfound confidence in its expanding player base. People aren’t coming to D&D just to kill some goblins. Even new players are showing up expecting to experience a moving character arc, and doing the work up front helps that aspect pay off in the long run.
From there, the campaign begins in earnest at the Witchlight Carnival, a sort of role-playing estuary containing all of the best parts of D&D — except the violence. Players can explore the magical fairgrounds to their heart’s content, racing snails or floating through the air inside magical bubbles. But the Carnival has several compelling mysteries to unravel, and breaking noses or spilling blood will only make that work more difficult. The key to victory is building up a pool of allies that can help you pull off a final dramatic heist. There’s even a built-in timer, displayed right there on the lavish fold-out map, that helps to move the action along.
It’s a marvelous premise, and perhaps the single best tutorial for D&D that Wizards has yet published — better even than the lauded Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit.
From there, the adventure proceeds through three different realms of the Feywild, named Hither, Thither, and Yon. Each one is more exotic and bizarre than the last. Players will fly through the air in a raincloud balloon, make friends with a sentient oilcan, find their own dreams trapped inside a crystal cavern, and fight shoulder-to-shoulder with a swashbuckling dandelion. Despite all of its weird twists and turns, the storyline remains laser-focused on the needs of the player characters. Only once those needs have been met are they finally turned loose to rescue the central non-player character (NPC), a powerful archfey named Zybilna.
What impressed me most is just how many big swings The Wild Beyond the Witchlight takes, including set-piece events that are the complete opposite of pitched battles. My favorite is a theatrical production that players can choose to perform in front of a live in-game audience. While one group pulls their lines randomly from a hat, another group explores the area backstage. The structure of that encounter actually encourages players to split the party, long a dangerous taboo in tabletop gaming, and supports the DM admirably to help manage the action.
Best of all are the threads that begin subtly in those first few sessions, little mysteries that simply won’t pay off until dozens of hours down the road. Groups that can meet more regularly, who can play through the campaign in just a few months or less, will get the most enjoyment out of it.
Despite the abundant opportunities to be pacifist explorers, there are still dangers littered throughout The Wild Beyond the Witchlight. This is not a children’s book, and danger lurks behind every corner — including fairly abrupt character incapacitation and even death. Be sure to prepare your group, especially younger or inexperienced players, for that eventuality going in.
Overall, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight is an advanced class in RPG storytelling, made all the more potent by a few pages of extra notes for newbie DMs up front. Experienced DMs can find value here, too, as elements from the book can easily be broken apart and harvested for your own homebrew campaigns. If you’re looking for an excuse to form a new role-playing group — or a second, or a third — then this campaign is the perfect place to get started.
The Wild Beyond the Witchlight was reviewed with a pre-release copy of the book provided by Wizards of the Coast. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.