Review: The Scarlet Citadel (5e)

AdventureThe Scarlet Citadel
Author: Steve Winter
PublisherKobold Press
System: Dungeons & Dragons – 5e
SummaryOnce a fortress where wizards honed their eldritch craft, the Scarlet Citadel now holds a sinister reputation—and for good reason. The dungeon’s well-trod stairs have seen few return from their journeys below. Now, malevolent creatures spin shadowy webs, enchant foul magics, and summon forth dark gods. But for those brave enough, ancient treasures and secrets still lie scattered everywhere.
Snap Judgement for Busy Wyverns: Finally, a true campaign-starter dungeon crawl, designed around 5e playstyles. If you need a hole in the ground that will challenge players throughout your campaign – this is it. Danger abounds in here, and there is true risk. Not every challenge can be overcome through combat. Knowing when to retreat is important. But if you have a the right group of players who are willing to risk it all to gain fame, glory, treasure – and of course – maybe save the town – this is the adventure to get. Top notch design, writing and art, exactly what you’d expect from a Kobold Press Product. Get this for your main campaign – or for your meat-grinder side campaign.

What is it?
Coming in at over 200 pages and with multiple options for VTT support, The Scarlet Citadel is a true dungeon crawl, placed in Kobold Press’ fantastic Midgard setting but could be adapted to any fantasy world. In this product you get a town setting, the multi-level dungeon, maps, stat blocks, spells, items, hooks & lore and more. Each level of the dungeon has its own look & feel, NPCs, factions and challenges. Each room is described in full detail – and there is a lot of detail to describe. Throughout you will find unique and dynamic environmental considerations, NPCs with clear off-screen motivations and actions, clever traps and advice for the DM on how to handle success and fail scenarios. Lead designer Steve Winter has been around since the TSR days and his old-school roots show through with the amount of danger and emphasis on “smart” play – but nothing reads as unfair to the players who are willing to stop and think about their options. This is not a dungeon that can be finished in one playthrough, or one shot. Players will have to retreat, regroup, maybe even go on side adventures topside to recover and prepare for their next foray into the citadel. This is a long-term play setting. You will get content for dozens and dozens of play sessions from this product – consider it equivalent to a hardback adventure like Tomb of Annihilation or Curse of Strahd.

What makes it good?
This will keep you busy for a long, long time. Some of the monsters do come from the Kobold Press products like Tome of Beasts and Creature Codex, so it’s not *quite* standalone – but it’s pretty close. Most important of all though – this is a capital-D Dungeon. And there’s not many of those around anymore in modern D&D play. This style of play, while almost ubiquitous in the early days of the hobby, has largely been lost. I would not exactly call The Scarlet Citadel a Megadungeon (like Barrowmaze or Rappan Athuk) but it’s not a one-shot dungeon either. There’s an entire ecosystem down there, and it needs to be run as such. Luckily the Introduction to the product does a great job of prepping the DM for this style of play – when to press harder on the PCs, when to back off, and how to advise players prior to starting what to expect. Managing expectations up front will be pretty key, lest players get a rude awakening.

The art is top notch, the maps are clearly defined and well drawn. There are all sorts of weird, unexpected things for players to find and take advantage of and enjoy! There’s all sorts of surprises to spring on them as well – for the DM to enjoy! NPCs have notes on motivations and actions, and everything has a little twist to help keep the element of discovery fresh and at the forefront – I think that’s what I appreciate the most in this product – there was something new and interesting in almost every room.

How do I use it?
Start a campaign here, or bring the PCs to the town, Redtower, early on in their careers. Ease them into the adventure, keep digging the hooks deeper and deeper. There’s way too much here for any one person to memorize front to back – but that’s OK. Having a physical book would make it easier, since you’ll want to prep cross-references prior to running a session – but essentially the DM only needs to focus on one dungeon level at a time. Most of the information you need to run a session is in the book, and just a few readthroughs and notes on cross-reference locations of monsters or treasures is all you need. Give thought to the factions on the levels, especially if the PCs have left and come back. Each level has restocking notes for DMs unfamiliar with that process in a big dungeon.

It’s big and its deadly! That may be scary to narrative-oriented players that haven’t really experienced a high-stakes, death-is-real game. Setting those expectations up front is important – death very much could be part of your character’s story in this dungeon – and it could be meaningful, or seemingly meaningless if you make bad decisions. It’s how D&D used to be played, almost exclusively – and it’s worth experiencing! Other downsides, in a sense, is that it uses almost exclusively Kobold Press content for monsters – but their PDFs are reasonably price and absolutely worth it in quality. We’ve seen a lot of discussion lately about how hard it is to challenge higher level PCs using monsters out of the official Monster Manual – but the monsters from Kobold Press are known to be much more challenging while still being interesting and fair.

The only other “downside” I can think of is that once you read through this dungeon – you’re going to want to run it. Right away. It’s so interesting and compelling – you might want to drop everything in your current campaign and start over!

Final Thoughts
The Scarlet Citadel is an awesome product. There’s so many awesome ideas and experiences in this dungeon, its fantastic. If you can get all your players on the same page – this is a deadly dungeon that will require thought, role-playing, guile AND combat to get through, along with knowing when to retreat and regroup – then this could be an epic, compelling adventure that will never be forgotten.

To learn a little more about The Scarlet Citadel, you don’t have to take my word for it – Steve Winter himself talks about the design and intentions behind this dungeon, and it’s a fascinating interview up on the Kobold Press YouTube channel. If you want to check out an Actual Play of the dungeon, Kobold Press has you covered in this ongoing series. For more background on that Actual Play, check out this interview with the GM – Vee Mus’e.

Recommend or Not?
Recommend! This is a great product to read through, with compelling ideas and characters. Important to me, it’s definitely a product that can be dropped into any setting (though Midgard is becoming more and more interesting to me…) and basing the players in the village of Redtower makes Open Table play pretty easy too. Definitely get this into your library – you’ll never be afraid to start a campaign or a dungeon crawl ever again.

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