The wild beyond the witches’ light, the most recent campaign from Dungeons & Dragons, was designed from the ground up with the option of a pacifist gameplay. That does not mean that it is designed for children or that it is necessarily easy in some way. Quite the contrary, in fact. Ending the campaign without resorting to violence is possible, but it could actually be the most difficult way to do things.
I can already feel several angry Dungeon Masters (DMs) banging on their keyboards at home. Yes, every RPG campaign has a pacifist option if your game master allows it. But I’ve played a lot of tabletop RPGs, including D&D campaigns, which demand kill the big bad before the story progresses. You can stay in Barovia forever, if that’s your thing. Try the Dream Pastries, they are delicious. But without killing Strahd von Zarovich there is simply no way that you will never leave that valley again.
This time around, the designers at Wizards of the Coast set out to do things differently, calling it out to new players on the opening pages of the campaign.
[Warning: What follows contains light spoilers for The Wild Beyond the Witchlight.]
“One of the many novelties of this adventure is that the characters can achieve their goals without resorting to violence, but only if they are intelligent,” write the authors. “They can also fight their way through adventure, but the odds are not always in their favor.”
So what does that look like in practice? First of all, it requires a bit more awareness on the DM’s part, because the things the group accomplishes early in the campaign can pay big dividends later on, including things like skipping some puzzles and encounters altogether.
For that reason, this book includes a Story Tracker. It is essentially a worksheet that will help DMs keep track of their party’s achievements throughout the game. It contains a half-page worksheet for the much-needed pre-game “zero session” you will need to have before starting. But the authors have also been careful to mention in the adventure text when DMs should take note of something that might otherwise seem trivial.
Perhaps the group learned a minor puzzle-solving skill, something small that doesn’t really have a place on the character sheet. Or maybe they received a token from a non-player character (NPC). The text explicitly mentions what the DM should take note of, without overloading it with information about why. Then when the appropriate obstacle appears later in the adventure, sometimes dozens or even hundreds of pages later, the text also indicates when that minor skill or token becomes useful. It sounds trivial, I know. For many seasoned game masters, this is how things have always been done. But there’s so much more here to this adventure, and for first-time or rusty DMs, this kind of handhold is a blessing.
The wild beyond the witches’ light It also features much more interaction with NPCs than past adventures. Often times, finishing a mission without hitting the hits requires creative role play and bringing those NPCs to life with energy and consequently it can help guide the party in the right direction. So Wizards has included a special appendix called Role Play Cards.
The eight double-sided pages contain cradle sheets for 32 key NPCs that players will encounter along the way. Each card writes down the name of the NPC, where they appear in the book, and then gives a few hundred words about their motivations and how to perform them at the table. Just copy them, cut them out and save them behind your DM screen. That leaves the back of each card open for additional notes.
Again, seasoned DMs are probably pulling their hair out right now. Of course there are notes on how to play the NPCs! They have been on the D&D books all along! Many third-party modules already come with these types of cards! But Wizards took the time to add them here, along with a new and improved all-round DM guide at the beginning of the book. They rearranged the standard 256-page format to accommodate. This is the first time we’ve seen this kind of help in the fifth edition, and I hope that Wizards will add more in the future.
Finally, for parties that fall short, or for parties that simply don’t assimilate the pacifist solution to a given puzzle, Wizards occasionally point out an explicit way to help. I won’t spoil it here, but suffice it to say that in the opening chapters of the game there are plenty of opportunities for the party to hang out with the colorful Fey creatures in this book. He’s so upbeat and raucous that they may just skip his goals altogether for fun. That is not a bug, it is a feature.
If the party deviates, or if they fail in their rolls, there are often notes on how to get them back on the pacifist path. Sometimes it’s just a random character that shows up, opens a door, and pushes them in the right direction. Players can usually fight their way through brute force as well. Kick enough butt at the Witchlight Carnival and you’ll find what you need to move the story forward.
And that’s okay. In the world of video games, peace careers can take several years and hundreds of hours to complete. When we have friends around the table in the real world, nobody has the time or patience for that. The wild beyond the witches’ light You clearly want your DMs to be successful, and that means giving them the tools and permission to help your players achieve their goals.