Delve into Critical Role's campaign setting with co-writer James Haeck!
  • Delve into Critical Role's campaign setting with co-writer James Haeck!


    The pre-order for the Tal'Dorei Campaign Guide, the D&D 5th Edition campaign setting book written by Matthew Mercer and James Haeck, published by Green Ronin, and based on Geek & Sundry's popular Critical Role web-series, was launched a few days ago (with overwhelmingly popular success, I'm told). It's a full-colour hardback book, 144-pages in length. James Haeck was happy to answer a few questions about the book, and about working with Matt Mercer, and Green Ronin was kind enough to send along a couple of gorgeous previews, which you can see below.




    The Tal'Dorei Campaign Guide is based on the world presented in Geek & Sundry's Critical Role. For the uninitiated, tell us a little about the show - what is it, who stars in it, and how can folks get to see it?


    Critical Role is Geek & Sundry's breakout hit D&D show, which almost singlehandedly introduced livestreamed actual play RPG shows on Twitch. It broadcasts live every Thursday at 7 PM on www.twitch.tv/geekandsundry and Geek & Sundry's proprietary livestream platform, www.projectalpha.com. It's been featured on mainstream American channels from CBS to the LA Times, citing it as the major force for introducing D&D to a broader audience. The show stars seven LA-based professional actors and voice actors (in order of appearance in the intro): Travis Willingham, Marisha Ray, Sam Regal, Ashley Johnson, Liam O'Brien, Laura Bailey, and their Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer. While the show began as a homebrew Pathfinder campaign that Mercer and his friends played on weekends at home together, Geek & Sundry founder Felicia Day suggested that he transform the weekly game into a live show. The campaign was updated to use the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and currently has a back catalog of over 100 episodes spanning 2 years of gameplay, accessible on YouTube.

    This is quite the prestigious project! How did you get involved in this book?

    In my junior year of college, I was hired by Geek & Sundry as their editorial intern—and my role as editor of EN World EN5ider featured very prominently on my resume! Since D&D and other RPGs was my area of expertise, I wrote a huge volume of articles for the G&S website that covered all sorts of roleplaying games and RPG shows, including Critical Role. I actually watched the entire show from episode 1 to the (then-current) episode 50 as background noise while I wrote, so that my work could be as authentic as possible.

    At some point during that year of interning, I stayed late one Thursday night to hang out backstage and watch the live show. (You might be able to hear me laughing in the background of episode 59, sorry, I'm a loud laugher.) I met with Matthew Mercer and the rest of the Critical Role cast that day, and a few weeks later Matt told me that G&S and Green Ronin Publishing were going to create an RPG sourcebook to create a resource to help the Critters (as CR's fans are loving dubbed) run their own campaigns in the world of Critical Role—the realm of Tal'Dorei. Like most momentous occasions, I suppose this one was brought about by being in the right place, at the right time, with the right set of skills!

    You're a co-author, along with Matthew Mercer. What was it like working with him? How did the process work?

    Yes, Matt and I made this book together. Looking it over now, there was a lot of content I never got to see that was wholly Matt's work. I would say I was half author and half editor. We worked together on a shared Google Doc which Matt would fill with his notes and completed passages. With that foundation laid, I would run wild with all sorts of ideas, some based directly on events that occurred during the show, and others which I felt matched the tone of the show and its setting. I knew the events of the show and its characters backwards and forwards, so that let me create with abandon.

    Matt and I were in constant collaboration. I would create new chapters, he would edit them to fit his view of Tal'Dorei. He would create new chapters, I would edit them to be more instantly accessible and "game-able". I say this to just about everyone I meet, but Matt is one of the kindest and most creative people I've ever met. He has an incredible creative capacity, takes criticism very well, and is always willing to try new things. That air of free, nonjudgmental creativity let me feel free to create whatever I wanted, even if we decided to rein it in later. You'll see my influence most heavily in the gazetteer, pantheon, races, monster races, and creatures sections. Most of the feats and subclasses and mechanical bits were Matt's private creations.

    Who is the driver behind the campaign setting - the source of all the information? Is it primarily Matthew Mercer, or did you and Green Ronin add content?

    I saw this as an opportunity for the Critters to peek behind the DM's screen and see Matt's notes. Even the stuff I created whole cloth was always in service of deepening the world Matt had created, and that was one of the biggest joys and challenges of the project. I've said that I felt liberated to create whatever I wanted, but after I completed a section, I would always return and carefully review it. "Is this Critical Role, or is it self-indulgent?"

    In a way, being Matt's partner in writing was a great deal like being an editor for a publication like EN5ider. Beyond simple copyediting, an editor's job is to tease out and heighten an author's voice. To make their personal style sing. I feel like Matt and I design games and adventures in very similar ways, so creating work that heightened his foundational notes was very natural for me.

    As far as I know, Green Ronin's role was primarily as a development team, an editorial team, and as a publisher. I never received a mandate from them to include certain content. The creative freedom they afforded us was a huge boon.

    This is a campaign setting for D&D 5th Edition; what are your personal favourite "stand out" elements of the setting?

    As Matt Colville will tell you, every story needs a central tension. Extrapolating from that, every campaign setting (which can hold many stories) needs a variety of central tensions. These tensions are not just plot hooks writ large, but also the fundamental elements that differentiate this setting from another. There are some large tensions in Tal'Dorei that differentiate it from the core D&D setting (for instance, the gods are trapped behind a Divine Gate that prevents them from interfering in mortal affairs; the current arc of Critical Role revolves around this setting detail).

    My favorite aspect of Tal'Dorei, however, is a little more subtle than that. This is something I want to leave open for interpretation, but I always hoped to portray Tal'Dorei as a fantastical version of an ideal America. You can see the influence even in the geography; the capital of Emon is about where Los Angeles would be, the Cliffkeep Mountains are similar to the Rockies, the Dividing Plains mirror the American Great Plains, and so on. The core value for me in creating this fantasy ideal was having the struggle for equality already be over, in human society at the very least. Tal'Dorei isn't a setting that tries to be "historically accurate" in its fantasy by including gender stratification, racism, or homophobia like Game of Thrones, for example. Other than fantasy staples like "elves and dwarves don't get along," that sort of real-world baggage doesn't exist. I find that sort of thing tiresome; there are plenty of other more interesting conflicts to explore in a fantasy setting than prejudice. This isn't just pandering or lip service, either. I made a big effort to include a wealth of characters that supported this narrative design. The goddesses of civilization and nature are engaged in a tempestuous but loving relationship, and the kingdom of cloud giants always has two wedded kings, for instance.

    Of course, if exploring fantasy prejudice is something you do want in your campaign, Critical Role has done that too. Directly east of Tal'Dorei (you can see its tip on the gorgeous map included with the book) is the continent of Wildemount, a darker, more brutal nation than the cosmopolitan Republic of Tal'Dorei.

    Could you gives us a brief overview of some of the new mechanical options found in the book?

    My main contribution on the mechanical side were the monsters. Every major organization in Tal'Dorei, from the crime family known as the Clasp to the Cult of the Whispered One, gets a handful of NPCs, similar to the appendix of the 5e Monster Manual. Tal'Dorei predominantly uses monsters that exist in the 5e "canon," so these new NPCs my way of tying mechanics and story together.

    Matt's contributions included a slew of subclasses, backgrounds, and feats unique to his world and his game table. There's a monk subclass called the Way of the Cobalt Soul, and there's a Blood domain for clerics, for instance. They all feature in the lore of Tal'Dorei very prominently, but they're perfectly usable for anyone else's home game. My favorite chunk of new mechanics in the book is a hefty chapter detailing legendary magic items vital to the plot of Critical Role. These legendary artifacts, called the Vestiges of Divergence, grow in power when its wielder reaches certain milestones. Kind of like achievements in a video game. It provides a little bit of mystery, excitement, and even a sort of character development for magic items. And there are just a ton of them—the show featured 7 vestiges, this book contains more than twice that number.

    Critical Role also has a handful of house rules that Matt wanted to share with the Critter community. Most significant among them is his resurrection "mini-game." One of the biggest bugaboos of high-level D&D play is the "revolving-door afterlife," as I heard it called back in the 3rd edition days. Resurrection is very easy, and death can become trivial. I believe that his resurrection houserules were initially made to raise the stakes for the live show and make returning from the dead a more tense affair. That's just better storytelling!

    In the show, whenever a resurrection ritual is being performed, Matt makes a single "resurrection roll" of a d20 behind his screen, against a secret DC. All of the dead character's companions can provide some sort of memento or emotional speech for the ritual, in order to lower the DC. If the roll succeeds, the dead character comes back fine. If not... well... Let's just say there's a section called "Came Back Wrong" in this book.

    Overall, this is a book that provides a deep insight into the world of Critical Role. It's primarily for fans of the show, and those fans absolutely must get it in print next month. But it also contains enough new mechanical content to please 5e players of any kind. The PDF, which is available on the Green Ronin Publishing website right now, is the perfect option for people who are most interested in new monsters, magic items, new rules, and awesome story ideas.



    SaveSave
    SaveSave
    Comments 72 Comments
    1. Rhineglade's Avatar
      Rhineglade -
      OK now after seeing this, I am SO excited to get my copy I can almost pee my pants.
    1. JeffB's Avatar
      JeffB -
      As someone who is wholly unfamilar , This interview tells me almost nothing about the setting other than a blurb about social prejudice/lack thereof.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by JeffB View Post
      As someone who is wholly unfamilar , This interview tells me almost nothing about the setting other than a blurb about social prejudice/lack thereof.
      There's some info at the link:

      Critical Role has taken the roleplaying world by storm. Now, you can join the adventure! Until now, the wondrous and dangerous lands of Tal’Dorei have been the sole stomping grounds of the show’s adventuring company, Vox Machina. But now, you can explore these realms in a tome from the pen of Game Master Matt Mercer himself! Will you find one of the revered Vestiges of Divergence or perhaps discover part of the Chroma Conclave's legacy? Can you help the Ashari in their sacred charge to prevent the elemental vortices from overwhelming the world, or will you find yourself embroiled in the machinations of the Clasp? This setting book takes an in-depth look at the history, people, and places of Tal’Dorei, and includes new backgrounds, magic items, and monsters for the Fifth Edition rules.

      There's also a wiki online:

      http://criticalrole.wikia.com/wiki/Tal%27Dorei
    1. Barantor's Avatar
      Barantor -
      So it's high magic, standard races, mostly classic tropes but the big thing is social culture differences that mirror what a perfect real world is? Seems the only difference is the resurrection rules to make it a bit more risky? (which is added to lots of streaming shows to create onscreen drama)

      Not sure I'm sold, but I bet there are super fans of the show that will eat this up.
    1. choam10191's Avatar
      choam10191 -
      For someone who "knew the events of the show and its characters backwards and forwards", Haeck has managed to mis-number the cast (eight, not seven) and completely eliminate Taliesin Jaffe from the lineup. Not exactly an endorsement of his editorial skills.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      Quote Originally Posted by choam10191 View Post
      For someone who "knew the events of the show and its characters backwards and forwards", Haeck has managed to mis-number the cast (eight, not seven) and completely eliminate Taliesin Jaffe from the lineup. Not exactly an endorsement of his editorial skills.
      In fairness, there are seven players plus Mercer. He likely counted to seven and then mentally skipped Taliesin, forgetting Mercer makes eight.

      And this is writing not editing. As anyone remotely familiar with editing will tell you, you never edit you own stuff. (And I'm uncertain how much self-editing you'd do with an interview).
    1. Matthan's Avatar
      Matthan -
      I can't say that I'm a super-fan, but I'll gladly claim to be a fan. I'm working my way through their backlog, but haven't gotten current yet (they're about to fight Thordak).

      So with that, I would offer that there isn't anything high concept different about the setting. The continent detailed in this book feels like a very standard D&D setting. That's not a bad thing, but a lot of the places and organizations that the group has encountered from what I've seen would not be out of place in Greyhawk, Dragonlance, or the Forgotten Realms. Mercer does have other continents which shift the flavor a bit (there's a more Arabian type continent that the heroes briefly visited for example), but, from the show, this continent is relatively standard D&D.

      I think the big draw of the book is for fans. I've preordered the book through Amazon and I'm excited to read through it as a fan. When I was a young fan, I got a hold of the Dragonlance Chronicles and fell in love with that world. When I found out that you could buy the setting and play in it, I was over the moon. It wasn't that Krynn did things markedly different than anything else. It was just the fact that I was a fan and I loved reading about (and sometimes playing in) that world.

      If you're an old hand at D&D and have read/enjoyed the classic settings, then I think you'll enjoy this book in a similar vein. If you're just looking to lift ideas for a classic setting, then this is probably a well-illustrated option. However, if you already have your one D&D classic love and you only have room in your heart for markedly different settings (Dark Sun, Zombie Apocalypse, Planescape, Spelljammer) then this probably won't meet that need. For me, I love the show and enjoy reading setting books (especially ones that are focused on giving lots of plot/adventure hooks which this one is supposed to do) so it's an easy sell.

      All that said, I haven't read the book so take it with a grain of salt.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      Quote Originally Posted by Barantor View Post
      So it's high magic, standard races, mostly classic tropes but the big thing is social culture differences that mirror what a perfect real world is? Seems the only difference is the resurrection rules to make it a bit more risky? (which is added to lots of streaming shows to create onscreen drama)

      Not sure I'm sold, but I bet there are super fans of the show that will eat this up.
      Up to 30,000 people watch Critical Role when it live streams, and even more afterwards. If only a tenth of the audience buys the book, that's 1000 more people than backed the Kobold Press Midgard Kickstarter.
      (And viewship of older episodes gets as high as 100k.)
      This could easily become one of the most popular - if not the most popular - 3rd party campaign settings.

      It's your bog standard generic fantasy world.
      No new ground broken, no twist on the formula. But a lot of people want that very thing. Lots of new players were introducted to the game via the stream rather than a Realms or Dragonlance novel, and Exandria is "their first world" like Dragonlance is mine.
    1. Zarithar's Avatar
      Zarithar -
      If it brings in more new players I am all for it!
    1. Waterbizkit's Avatar
      Waterbizkit -
      Wrote up something lengthy about this, decided to go back and go small. I'm looking forward to this as a fan of the show. There's a lot that gets hinted at in the show because of paths and tidbits the players never pursue, and now I get to read about the setting in greater depth.

      To those who aren't already fans of the show it's hard to say exactly why you should pick this up. The setting has never had any in your face gimmicks that settings like Dark Sun or Eberron do, at least not from what I've gleaned watching the show. The setting just seems like a fun and interesting one to explore, so I'd say give it a chance, but I'm biased.

      The mechanical stuff is just icing on top for me, especially since I wasn't expecting it. Matt's stuff on DMs Guild is the only stuff outside of core and UA I've let in my game so far so anything in the book should hopefully prove just as good.
    1. Brodie's Avatar
      Brodie -
      Critical Role also has a handful of house rules that Matt wanted to share with the Critter community. Most significant among them is his resurrection "mini-game." One of the biggest bugaboos of high-level D&D play is the "revolving-door afterlife," as I heard it called back in the 3rd edition days. Resurrection is very easy, and death can become trivial. I believe that his resurrection houserules were initially made to raise the stakes for the live show and make returning from the dead a more tense affair. That's just better storytelling!
      Does its inclusion on the show REALLY mean it was created to add drama? Or could Mercer have simply thought coming back from death just too easy as they got higher level? Personally, I think the resurrection rules are a great addition to D&D (even if it's homebrewed) and think it's something that should be in core D&D. Sure, it does add drama, but also can encourage a group to care about characters other than their own.

      "I didn't like Frank at all so you can count me out of the resurrection ritual. F' that guy."
      "What about all those times he had your back?"
      "He was trying to pick my pocket! And that's exactly why he died: he was trying to pick me pocket during combat and took an arrow to the throat that would have otherwise hit me!"

      Even though player doesn't give a crap about Frank, he cares enough to state why he won't participate.

      Anyway, reading through the PDF, I can almost hear Mercer reading it as if it were him setting a scene on Critical Role. A little surprised to learn that it's not all him in the book with someone just adding better descriptions. Nevertheless, it's nice to see that world expanded on in a medium other than a fan-created wiki.
    1. BookBarbarian's Avatar
      BookBarbarian -
      I don't buy campaign books to play in a setting as much as I buy them to harvest components for whatever setting I am currently playing in. I didn't really have any interest in this until I read the interview. Now my interest is definitely piqued.
    1. jamesjhaeck's Avatar
      jamesjhaeck -
      Quote Originally Posted by Brodie View Post
      Does its inclusion on the show REALLY mean it was created to add drama? Or could Mercer have simply thought coming back from death just too easy as they got higher level? Personally, I think the resurrection rules are a great addition to D&D (even if it's homebrewed) and think it's something that should be in core D&D. Sure, it does add drama, but also can encourage a group to care about characters other than their own.

      "I didn't like Frank at all so you can count me out of the resurrection ritual. F' that guy."
      "What about all those times he had your back?"
      "He was trying to pick my pocket! And that's exactly why he died: he was trying to pick me pocket during combat and took an arrow to the throat that would have otherwise hit me!"

      Even though player doesn't give a crap about Frank, he cares enough to state why he won't participate.

      Anyway, reading through the PDF, I can almost hear Mercer reading it as if it were him setting a scene on Critical Role. A little surprised to learn that it's not all him in the book with someone just adding better descriptions. Nevertheless, it's nice to see that world expanded on in a medium other than a fan-created wiki.
      Drama is one major reason why it's included on the show, yes. That said, your interpretation is another awesome use for the resurrection challenge! My favorite part of having this book out in the wild is seeing how different gamers take it in totally unexpected directions.

      Matt's a monumentally busy guy, and writing a setting book is a huge task! (Just look at the number of authors on any edition of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting.) Being able to collaborate was a serious boon for both of us; it allowed us to share ideas and brainstorm together. It led to the development of diverse story and character ideas that kept the setting from feeling monolithic. And ultimately, it let us finish the book faster than if Matt had been working on his own.



      (And sorry for skipping over you in the cast list, Taliesin. It's not personal, I swear!)
    1. jamesjhaeck's Avatar
      jamesjhaeck -
      Quote Originally Posted by BookBarbarian View Post
      I don't buy campaign books to play in a setting as much as I buy them to harvest components for whatever setting I am currently playing in. I didn't really have any interest in this until I read the interview. Now my interest is definitely piqued.
      The Gazetteer portion of the book is rife with plot hooks. (Like that "Legend of the Headless Horse-Man" one above? Hee hee.) The huge density of story seeds is one of my favorite parts of the book.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      Quote Originally Posted by BookBarbarian View Post
      I don't buy campaign books to play in a setting as much as I buy them to harvest components for whatever setting I am currently playing in. I didn't really have any interest in this until I read the interview. Now my interest is definitely piqued.
      It does have five backgrounds, nine feats, the potent semi-artifact magic items, sixteen monsters, and the four new subclasses.
    1. CydKnight's Avatar
      CydKnight -
      I just noticed that it has been tagged as the #1 New Release in Fantasy Gaming on Amazon.

      https://www.amazon.com/dp/1934547840...=1Q4T8WM0UCE0E
    1. chunkosauruswrex's Avatar
      chunkosauruswrex -
      One thing I like about it even though I am a big fan is that for a setting like faerun there is so much lore there that it's almost paralyzing for a new DM as to where to start. This is small enough that you could read it all in a day or two and contains basically all the lore currently written for the setting. Not to mention at least in my opinion Matt is an engaging writer.
    1. Barantor's Avatar
      Barantor -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jester David View Post
      Up to 30,000 people watch Critical Role when it live streams, and even more afterwards. If only a tenth of the audience buys the book, that's 1000 more people than backed the Kobold Press Midgard Kickstarter.
      (And viewership of older episodes gets as high as 100k.)
      This could easily become one of the most popular - if not the most popular - 3rd party campaign settings.

      It's your bog standard generic fantasy world.
      No new ground broken, no twist on the formula. But a lot of people want that very thing. Lots of new players were introduced to the game via the stream rather than a Realms or Dragonlance novel, and Exandria is "their first world" like Dragonlance is mine.
      It all depends on the adventures released after, if there are any. Many first time DMs might buy this book and think they can use it but then if there aren't any adventures set in it they will have to adapt normal 5E adventures, which are already set in FR.

      I would be interesting to see what numbers are like for things like Adventures in Middle Earth that changed a lot more of the 5E gameplay around but have a very well known setting.

      Most popular 3rd party campaign setting? I'm not so sure, but we'll see.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      Quote Originally Posted by Barantor View Post
      I would be interesting to see what numbers are like for things like Adventures in Middle Earth that changed a lot more of the 5E gameplay around but have a very well known setting.
      I'd be willing to wager it's easily outselling that product.

      Quote Originally Posted by Barantor View Post
      Most popular 3rd party campaign setting? I'm not so sure, but we'll see.
      It's higher on the Amazon charts than either the Pathfinder core rulebook or preorders of Starfinder. And preorders of Xanthar's Guide to Everyting. And that's just Amazon, and not the Green Ronin site where you can get a cheap PDF as well.

      And unlike other books, there's an ongoing show continually getting new viewers to sustain sales. Potentially with a new jumping on point looming, with all new characters.
    1. jamesjhaeck's Avatar
      jamesjhaeck -
      Quote Originally Posted by Barantor View Post
      It all depends on the adventures released after, if there are any. Many first time DMs might buy this book and think they can use it but then if there aren't any adventures set in it they will have to adapt normal 5E adventures, which are already set in FR.

      I would be interesting to see what numbers are like for things like Adventures in Middle Earth that changed a lot more of the 5E gameplay around but have a very well known setting.

      Most popular 3rd party campaign setting? I'm not so sure, but we'll see.
      To my knowledge, there are no plans of releasing adventures for this setting. The goal of the campaign guide is to provide fuel for GMs to create their own adventures. Matt hopes to create more campaign guides for other continents on his world of Exandria, however.
    Comments Leave Comment