December 6, 2023

RPG Setting Review: The Lost Citadel

Image courtesy of Green Ronin Publishing

Having a premade campaign setting is nice. Granted, a homebrew setting is very fulfilling and of course unique, but it requires a ton of work on the backend. Personally, premades allow me to feel like I have a safety net. For example, if a player asks me who the local captain of the guard is, I don’t have that momentary panic of coming up with a name, a brief backstory, and how they fit into the larger setting.

The Lost Citadel by Green Ronin Publishing was released in 2020, after having enjoyed a successful Kickstarter campaign a few years prior. Back in the halcyon days of 2017, a campaign setting with the tagline, “Roleplaying in a world ravaged by death,” was indeed much more fanciful escapism than it comes across today. Regardless, Lost Citadel takes place in the high fantasy world of Zileska. It has most of the usual trappings; elves, dwarves, magic, swordplay and the like. What is unique to this setting is that foul magic has caused swarms of undead to conquer all the known realm forcing survivors to crowd into the fortified city of Redoubt. All the remaining races and creeds of Zileska vie for resources and influence as civilization, such as it is, becomes crueler and crueler.

This is a dark, dark setting. Drawing influence from sources like The Walking Dead, the setting figures fellow survivors as equally dangerous to the undead abominations outside the city walls. One of the major mechanics to reinforce this theme is called woe. Woe is a corrupting force that represents damage to a character’s very soul. It can be incurred fighting various monsters but also comes from performing evil acts. I won’t go into specifics about what woe can and can’t do, as the book itself specifies that players shouldn’t have a firm grasp on how exactly it works and what its effects are. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the setting and something I think the ubiquitous Curse of Strahd campaign could have benefitted massively from.

Lore and locations aside, this book is filled to bursting with supplemental content. Aside from a scant few classes with specific subclasses, the entire class system gets some pretty significant reworks. Bards, clerics, druids, sorcerers, and wizards are gone entirely. They’re replaced with:

Beguiler: a master manipulator, who often engages in criminal hustles.

Penitent: support character that takes on the damage meant for other party members.

Sage: catch-all magic user.

They work very well with the setting, and their setting-specific abilities really help to make the classes feel like their own thing and not just a cosmetic overhaul. Unfortunately because of this, you won’t be able to port most of the classes in generic 5e games without a decent amount of tinkering. Some of the stronger abilities either focus on mitigating the effects of woe or have incurring woe as a baked-in cost. 

You get four races to choose from: humans, elves, dwarves, and the hyena-like ghûl. The ghûl are pretty similar to what the 5e Monster Manual would call a gnoll, but these are considerably more fleshed out. For one, they’re not just mindlessly evil predators, which weirdly makes them the one common D&D aspect in this game that is less dark in Lost Citadel. A key feature of the ghûl is their physiological inability to speak most languages aside from their own – think Chewbacca. They vocalize their own lexicon that is fully understandable to other ghûl and can understand other languages, but to speak with outside races they use something called “Ghûl-friend.” This communication system includes some basic grunts and snarls combined with some sign language to get their points across. It’s a fantastic vehicle for roleplay with players trying to parse what a ghûl player is trying to say. Even if there’s not one in the party, the DM could have a critical NPC be a ghûl, which could make for a very intriguing puzzle of sorts. If you took nothing else from Lost Citadel, I’d recommend swapping out generic D&D gnolls with something more closely approximating the ghûl.

However, after the ghûl, we start to get into some of the more problematic aspects of this setting. Elves in this world suffer from a sort of racial neurosis resulting from them witnessing the fall of the known civilization called simply “Elven Madness.” I personally don’t have a problem with sanity mechanics like in Call of Cthulhu, but Lost Citadel presents a form of mental illness I could definitely see even myself recoiling at. The book does urge the player not to take this aspect of elf characters as an opportunity to make light of real mental illness. They specifically cite, “wandering around slapping people with fish” as a bad example on how to approach this feature. But they go on to list addiction, depression, mania, paranoia, and borderline psychosis as possible acceptable examples. Given the right group and an insightful enough player, none of those on their own are necessarily insensitive or hurtful. My gripe is that making this a key element of one of the four playable races really raises the likelihood of somebody misrepresenting a pretty substantial source of real life pain for someone at the table. They try to thread the needle by cautioning players to be respectful, but that’s quite the onus to saddle upon a player who might just want the plus two to dexterity.

Next we have the dwarves. This is where this setting as written really loses me. The city of Redoubt was originally created by the dwarves. When the world went to hell, they allowed refugees from all around to settle there but treated them harshly. In a betrayal of the noble houses, the other races rose up and overthrew the dwarves forcing them to be their slaves in revenge. This is so central to the setting that the two dwarf subraces are ‘indentured’ and ‘free.’ Like with the elves above, the book recognizes that this may be a difficult subject and advises to treat this type of subject matter with the gravity it deserves, but it takes it too far for my liking. For a world overwhelmed by undead, a society in shambles, and corruption around every corner, adding chattel slavery is just too dark. If it offends any sensibilities of your players, the book recommends removing this aspect, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this review, part of the reason I like premade campaign settings is that it offloads a great deal of the mental overhead for the DM. But this isn’t a variant rule like flanking, this is a central point to the lore of this world.

As far as my recommendation goes, I’d give this a rating of proceed with caution. There are a lot of interesting things going on here: the world outside the city swarming with the dead, the ghûl, and the woe system. But this isn’t something I would feel comfortable springing on a group without sussing out exactly what they’re comfortable with and being prepared to modify the setting substantially before play. It’s undeniably an interesting world with dense lore and no end to potential adventure ideas, but it’s layered just so thick with misery and darkness. If you have a group with a lot of mutual trust that has a penchant for grim dark roleplaying, this would be great for you. If you’re looking for some fun, lighthearted escapism, this isn’t for you.