So, the latest Dungeons & Dragons adventure module, Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel was released recently. I obtained a digital copy of the work, though as I’ve gone through it, I like the resource so much that I may consider including a physical copy to my collection due to the book’s utility and some of the interesting aspects of the titular setting at the heart of this book.
So, in summary, deep in the Etherial Plane is this gigantic floating fossil with a massive crystal in the center, which wayward extradimensional travelers discovered and took over as a base of operations, carving out a place to survive and thrive in. If you will, it’s sort of like a D&D version of Deep Space 9, or Babylon 5, except it’s not really in the equivalent of “space” in D&D (which is going to be covered in the upcoming Spelljammer release), and things tend to be generally harmonious between everyone (so it seems), rather than a meeting point of multiple factions constantly at everyone else’s throats.
It’s also a gateway to several unique cultures/worlds not covered in D&D before, drawing upon milieus other than the generic European fantasy realm-analog that a lot of milestone fantasy works use. It’s all good and clever stuff, and it addresses aspects about the cultural elements or elements that shaped the culture without having to literally rely on the actual events and cultures that inspired it. A great example is a realm which leads to a theocracy ruled by a celestial entity (not a deity, but a servant thereof), and the factions and conflicts that arise in relation to this aspect. The setting is inspired from real-life Iran (both its historical predecessors and its modern incarnation), but its not sloppily done by just cribbing history and slightly changing the names (so no Prince of “Qersia” or “Byatollah” of “Jran” or anything like that). For one, the author of this section is part of the very (real-world) culture that is drawn upon, and it’s done so with respect but as well as honesty about the challenges facing it.
It’s these things, as well as the opening adventure, that sold me on this sourcebook. Narratively, I’ve already developed a link to this unique location for my homebrew setting (and with that, for those in the know, let me just say: I’ve called black opal and lynx already for my campaign). I think it’d be kind of cool if the official established D&D settings may also identify similar links to their published D&D settings, if only to narratively facilitate the interconnection of these realms through the Radiant Citadel.
There have always been third party publishers who have created material and settings from cultures beyond those frequently used for fantasy like D&D. To be fair, I was always a bit nervous about investing in those products, primarily because I didn’t know how, if and when I could use the material, but also if I would be clumsy, and thus unintentionally disrepectful, in my use of it. It also makes me consider some much older works of fantasy that do derive from non-European sources that have interested players before; the one that immediately comes to mind, unfortunately, has recently revealed a rather malign underbelly of its creator, which the fans of the material are having to grapple with in their own ways. (And, as a weird retrospective sidenote, there has been some underlying hesitancy on my part of exploring the works even before all of this mess, though I think it has to deal with a lack of interest of the basic concept of the material rather than some weird back-projection-through-time-from-future-self-to-warn-past-self-of-the-issue sort of weirdness: more “meh-sense” than “Spidey-sense.”)
Therein, if you will, is what may be at the heart of some of the hesitancy to attempt such approaches before now. For one, would it be a respectful homage to that material, or just a fetishization of it for a culturally-different majority audience? In addition, would there be enough interest in such a product to repay the time, effort and cost to create it? In my perspective, I think that there is interest in the material, but as we can see in this new book, it’s more of a showcase of multiple examples covering multiple cultures rather than an intense deep-dive into one single culture. I believe this is a wise approach on Wizards of the Coast’s part, since it allows an anchoring point for many people to get into different approaches to the application of a familiar and well-known game. Also, if you will, I think it’s savvy because it includes a lot, shows how more can be included, and does what it can to be inclusive without being exclusive at the same time. What do I mean by that?
Simply put, we need only to look at previous D&D supplements to get an idea of this. The prime example I’m going to refer to is the 1st ed. AD&D Oriental Adventures sourcebook. Going beyond the title’s problematic aspects, the setting focuses a lot on a Japanese-like fantastical setting. Its grand setting of Kara-Tur has analogs for a lot of other Asian cultures in the text, but the focus is more on that China-Korea-Japan triangle of influence and flavor, with little delving into South or Southeast Asian elements. Furthermore, it really seems like it’s made to capitalize on the fetishized interest in those cultures during the 1980’s—it’s less Kurosawa, not so much Bruce Lee, but more like Brucespoitation, American Ninja or Gymkata (but pre-breakout of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). For those in the know or of the cultures touched upon, there’s a bit of cringe caused. No cringe with this item, I’d argue.
One upshot of the digital age is creating digital works that make investigation and availability of materials much, much easier than the old methods of physical publication and distribution. On DMsGuild.com, some of the settings are explored further with Journeys Beyond the Radiant Citadel, which provides even more information on some of these worlds, especially if they are what players wish to use for a regular campaign, or even a regularly-visited set of locales. Thanks to the digital format there’s no worry about a product on a shelf missing its potential audience because its either on the wrong shelf or right people don’t happen to see it. And it allows others, like an old guy like me, to gain perspective and some degree of understanding of others their their own handcrafted lenses. Then again, that’s part of the power of creative works—it provides a means to express and share things with several others, providing deep meaning to those well-versed in all the references, but still engaging and illuminating for those novices who interact with the work.