It's hard not to get sidetracked in most roleplaying games, but you'll find staying on task impossible for The Wild Beyond the Witchlight. You can blame its carnival for that. A toybox of quirky distractions, this fairground is the star of the latest Dungeons & Dragons adventure.
Offering a tale of "wicked whimsy" with shades of Alice in Wonderland for good measure, The Wild Beyond the Witchlight begins with your visit to a Disneyland-esque carnival that only lands on the player's world once every eight years. Even though it's just the beginning of your journey (the bulk of this campaign lies outside the fair's borders), you'll probably be happy enough exploring its attractions, and If you're anything like me, you'll also forget why your character is there in the first place.
Roll up, roll up
That's because the Witchlight Carnival brings your D&D world to life in a way no dungeon-crawl can. Rather than beating you around the head with a world-ending threat or some rare monster running amok, its stories are a refreshing slice of life. That may sound boring, yet it's a chance to explore depths of your character that you don't normally get a chance to plumb. How does your adventurer respond when performing for a crowd or working to be crowned as the day's Witchlight Monarch? Are they inclined to help when a proposal goes embarrassingly wrong? Opportunities for roleplaying abound, and that's always a good sign when it comes to the best Dungeons and Dragons books.
You're free to pootle about the fair at your own pace, too; unless players are set on causing trouble, combat is entirely absent from this section. Meanwhile, the stakes are much more relaxed - they're tied to a mood tracker that goes up or down depending on what the party does during their stay. This influences what happens next, leading to a domino effect that leads to a different experience every time you run the carnival. Such freedom is a hallmark of the best tabletop RPGs, so that's a big thumbs up right away.
Your reason for exploring the fairground has a sense of fairytale magic about it as well; one plot hook weaves character backstories into The Wild Beyond the Witchlight narrative with minimum effort but to maximum effect. Namely, it sees you trying to retrieve something that was stolen from you by the carnival as a child. However, this isn't a prized possession or treasured item. Instead, it's something precious like your sense of fashion or ability to smile. It's a wacky, memorable idea that shapes your adventurer's personality from the off.
The impact of this sandbox gameplay only deepens after you leave. The next leg of the party's journey - into a dreamlike kingdom known as Hither - isn't as free-wheeling, and despite things opening up again in later chapters, this section is guilty of some railroading that feels restrictive by comparison. To be precise, the book recommends that players arrive at locations in a certain order no matter what they do, and many of the choices made during these encounters leave them in a similar place regardless of their actions.
No-one but the Dungeon Master will be aware of this illusion of choice, of course, and these scenarios do introduce essential information you'll need somewhere down the road. Nevertheless, it's still jarring after players were let off the leash in such a big way at the beginning of the story.
It makes me realise how rich a vein downtime activities are in Dungeons & Dragons, not to mention the power they have for creating a unique, personal story. While there's plenty of inspiration throughout the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide for your character's life between missions, I'm game for more D&D books that focus on the little things. They breathe life into the fantasy, offer an impression of a wider world, and allow you to define your adventurer's personality through action rather than something written down on your character sheet. In all honesty, I'd be happy for a few hundred pages of lighthearted distractions like the Witchlight Carnival to scatter throughout a larger campaign.
I'm still ploughing my way through The Wild Beyond the Witchlight's later chapters and will update this review-in-progress as I go, but from what I've seen so far, it's happy to stray from the beaten path - and is all the better for it.
For a better idea of what's waiting for you in the latest D&D adventure, check out our The Wild Beyond the Witchlight preview. As for other recommendations to play at the table, don't forget to visit our guide on the best board games.