D&D 5E Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep Review

Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep is the first full D&D adventure set in the world of Exandria. It brings elements of what a Critical Role campaign can feel like as well as some a few challenges compared to the typical D&D release.

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How Call of the Netherdeep is Different​

The prior Critical Role books for playing Dungeons & Dragons (Tal'Dorei, Explorer's Guide to Wildemount, Tal'Dorei Reborn) have all been settings with just a small adventure included. Matthew Mercer definitely brought a few fresh elements to this book, which makes sense since Chris Perkins said that Mercer came up with the concept and wrote the first draft. Mercer and James Haeck worked together to revise it. Then Perkins said he came in later to “turn it into a book,” shape, and polish it with writing from LaTia Jacquise, Sade Lowry, Cassandra Khaw, Makenzie De Armas, Dan Dillion, and Taymoor Rehman.

The roots of the adventure begin long ago in Exandria's early days when the gods still had an active presence in the world. The hero at the center of a momentous event has since been forgotten, trapped by an extreme circumstance that created an underwater dimension of gloom, sorrow, and corruption. Early in the adventure, the players will receive a vision from that now ancient being, begging for help, which sets the rest of the story in motion.

But the players aren't the only ones who heard the call. To add urgency to the adventure, CotN introduces a team of Rivals pursuing the same goal, which is part of what makes this feel like a Critical Role adventure.

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Meet the Rivals​

D&D has experimented with various methods to add urgency to campaigns and keep players from wandering away from the main adventure. Tomb of Annihilation used a “death clock” mechanism to accomplish that. It sounded fine when reading it, but in play, at least at my table, it simply frustrated the players. Worse, it seemed counterproductive with an adventure that also encouraged exploration. The Rivals approach appears to be more productive.

First, having Rivals pursuing the same goal adds more flavor and flexibility. Second, if the relationship with the Rivals isn't antagonistic, and the players go awry, the DM could use the Rivals to nudge them back or even provide information they might have missed in their wanderings.

CotN is smart and treats the Rivals as individuals, not a monolith, including having the players meet each member of the Rival team separately before encountering the whole group so the players can form opinions and maybe even build a relationship. The Rivals level as the players do and each chapter has a sort of “check in” for the DM in regard to the Rivals as well and instructions at a chapter's end for what could happen if the Rivals are hostile, neutral or favorable to the players.

Rivals can also be allies. Unless the players kill or seriously harm one of the Rivals, even the hostile versions of the Rivals won't try to kill the players so how nasty things get will depend upon the players' actions.

Created for a team of five players, CotN recommends that the number of Rivals equal the number of players so it provides five Rivals. Have a larger group? Make a few more Rivals or give one Rival a twin. Have only four players? Either drop a Rival beforehand or give one a dramatic death in the Emerald Grotto segment.

If you create your own adventures, a look at the initial information blocks for the Rivals is worth your time. They do an expedient job of explaining who this person is, where do they come from, and do what they want. That said, connecting the emotional dots for the Rivals between the check-in text updates is up to the DM running CotN because there's no good way to account for everything that could happen in a game. So that adds to the DM's prep work for each session. More on that later.

Unsurprisingly for a Critical Role adventure, the Rivals are interesting and give a DM a lot to work with. The Genasi Ayo Jabe wants to be a good leader and her impulsiveness tends to make her more of a Kirk than a Picard in terms of style. Goblin cleric Dermot Wurder is caring and likely to want to compromise with the players unless they're mean to his friends. Ogre mercenary Maggie Keeneyes is often underestimated and more perceptive and sensitive than she appears. Drow Galsariad Ardyth is sarcastic and hates secrets, which could lead to a conflict with party animal Irvan Wastewalker, who is hiding the fact that he has memories of a prior life.

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Art, Levels, and Other Basics​

Before delving into more of what works and what doesn't, let's address facts readers always want to know. CotN is for characters 3-12, which is nice because players have selected their subclasses by then. It also it provides an opportunity for backstory that brought the players together. Advancement uses the milestone method, both because it's easier in general and especially helpful since the Rivals level as well.

As with all official D&D adventures running CotN requires the Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and Monster Manual. You'll definitely need to acquaint yourself with the DMG's exhaustion rules because it's one of the symptoms of a mystical corruption specific to this adventure.

Even though CotN begins in Wildemount (specifically at the Festival of Merits in Jigow, a town in Xhorhas), you do not need Explorer's Guide to Wildemount to run CotN. Some players or DMs might want a bit of extra knowledge of Wildmount, but most of the adventure is in Marquet so it's definitely not necessary.

The cover art is by Minttu Hynninen. Stacey Allan, Will Doyle, and Deven Rue provided the cartography. The maps fit the tone of CotN, but I feel like the scale is a bit too small for the art in the larger maps, making them feel cluttered.

Appendix E has CotN concept art by Claudio Pozas, Richard Whitters, Shawn Wood, which is a nice details. The Netherdeep versions of deep-sea creatures are also appropriately disturbing. The interior illustrations were well planned by art director Kate Irwin to begin bright, fun, and cheerful to reflect the festival at the start of the campaign (see the Orc baker illustration), then set the tone for locations as the players and Rivals explore and gradually turn darker and creepier as they get to the corrupted core of the Netherdeep.

Speaking of exploration, the book contains a gazetteer for Ank'Harel. That provides a bit more insight to Exandria overall and Marquet in particular.

CotN has a pronunciation guide, which is always welcome. It contains 27 stat blocks for creatures and NPCs plus the stat blocks for the Rivals as they level up and four stat blocks for the imprisoned being that they're all seeking. It also has 15 magic items, seven of which are one-use medals.

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What You May Love​

CotN is the first deep sea adventure for D&D in a while. Ghosts of Saltmarsh had water-based adventures but more focused on ships, the high seas, and port towns. The Netherdeep is a deep-sea dimension where deep pressure is one of the challenges for players within it, though ruidium corruption can help offset that. CotN is set up that you really only need the DMG to run it, not the extra rules from GoS because the players will absolutely need magic items to survive the Netherdeep.

CotN strongly focuses on all three pillars of D&D—combat, exploration, and social interaction/role-play. It's both very character driven and story driven with plenty of opportunities for characters to role play terrific scenes, but combat is also present. In fact, some segments of the adventure are dungeon crawls, including the exploration of a long-dead Elven city.

CoTN has a lot of interesting ideas and approaches. The ancient being at its center was once a hero, but after being imprisoned for ages, grief, sorrow, and the presence of ruidium has had a corrupting influence. Players will receive visions and dreams reflecting various sides of their personality. Player choices will have a big effect on the outcome.

Speaking of the outcome, if you liked the varied possibilities at the end of Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, including the fact that it could spin off an entirely different adventure, you'll like this. The players could redeem the trapped hero, kill him, or release him without redeeming him, which is the worst possible ending for Exandria. Add in the Rival options and it's not a simple binary win/lose resolution even though clearly winning or failing horribly are among the options.

One of the interesting bits is an aboleth with, essentially, an identity crisis. It thinks that it is the ancient, trapped being at the heart of the Netherdeep so that leads to interesting possibilities.

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The Challenges​

I don't mean challenges for players to face. From the player side of the screen, CotN will likely be enjoyable because it has a nice blend of combat, exploration, and role-play with enough cool ideas and variables to enhance the core ideas. If you like Critical Role, it captures the feel of Mercer's campaigns.

But it's a challenging campaign for a DM to run. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but DMs need to know what they're walking into before promising to run CotN.

First of all, if you're a “flying by the seat of your pants” DM or just one, like I have frequently been, a busy DM with very little prep time, running CotN could be (will be?) a challenge. With some adventures you can read the overview, skim the rest, and then run a respectable session by reading the material you need for that session while the players are arriving. That won't work for CotN.

First, CotN has a lot of backstory explain to the DM who the central being is, how they became trapped, how it ties into the Calamity, what the Netherdeep is and how it came to be created, what ruidium is and does, and how it ties into the moon. It's fascinating and absolutely necessary for the intriguing story Mercer and company are telling. It's also a lot for a DM to process and keep straight, along with rules for ruidium corruption. And this is all backstory, albeit necessary backstory, before the DM starts reading about Jugow and the Festival of Merits. The DM needs to have a firm grasp on this material to manage it when pieces are revealed throughout the adventure and to play the various aspects of the being's personality.

The Rivals are a cool story device to keep the players motivated and add antagonists in the here and now while pursuing the larger mystery. That's great.

But the Rival group is not a monolith. In any interaction the five Rivals could, and probably should, react individually to the players and what is happening. It's definitely possible for one Rival to be amused by a situation and another wanting to compromise while yet another is annoyed.

The check-ins at the start of each chapter for the Rivals is good, but as I said above, the DM has to connect the dots between those check-ins and flesh out each Rival's response. I understand that providing more information would be virtually impossible due to all the variables, but it adds to the DM's workload.

Also, if you have a five-person player group and the standard group of Rivals, that's potentially 25 reaction/relationship combinations to any given situation that the DM has to keep track of. It might be wise to borrow the relationship mechanics from Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos to help manage that.

Then there are the factions. The players have to align with one of the portals to Netherdeep and that requires cooperation from the Allegiance of Allsight, the Consortium of Vermilion Dream or the Library of the Cobalt Soul. Each group has their own agenda and interest in ruidium so the players and the Rivals have opportunities to perform short quests for the various factions to win their aid. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist had a similar component.

However, the faction quests are very broadly outlined so a DM has to flesh them out. While that was somewhat true for WDH as well, some of these feel like they need more effort—or maybe it's just because CotN puts a heavier workload on the DM by contrast.

Also, all of the faction quests are in Chapter 4, which is when the factions are introduced. However, some of the quests actually connect to situations in the next chapter so it could be a touch confusing if you don't catch that immediately. It's also an annoyance in terms of layout but splitting the faction quests isn't necessarily better. It does, however, make me wish WotC hadn't stopped providing an index—it could help simplify the situation.

Then, as I mentioned, the ending can vary greatly according to the choices the players make, which is great. I highly endorse that—but certain actions could lead to a bigger problem after CotN is finished. Some DMs may love that, but if you don't have time to homebrew another adventure to resolve it, it could mean a frustrated group.

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In Conclusion​

Overall, I like CotN a lot. It's a well-written, intriguing adventure with lots of juicy ideas. It both emphasizes role-play and character while balancing it well with exploration and combat. The story is compelling without a simple, good versus bad approach to the ending.

But deciding to run CotN requires a larger commitment from the DM than many of the other book-length D&D adventures and a lot more than Candlekeep Mysteries required. If you're short on time or need a more “ready to run” adventure, then maybe you should wait to run CotN when you have more time.

Call of the Netherdeep is a good adventure, and one that's different from the typical D&D adventure. It captures the feeling of Mercer's Critical Role campaigns well. I rate it a solid B+, though if you're a big Critical Role fan, it might be more of an A- in your book. Either way, if the concept is appealing, and—for DMs—you have the time for the prep work required, your group should have fun with Critical Role's first full-length adventure.
 
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Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels

pukunui

Legend
For what it's worth, Justin Alexander (of the Alexandrian) has done a "Let's Read" of this book. He's admitted at the start that he's not familiar with Critical Role, so his thoughts are more from the perspective of "how usable is this for someone who isn't a CR fan?".

Needless to say, he rips into it pretty hard at times, particularly in terms of the plot hooks (or lack thereof) and the implementation of the rivals.

Here's the start:

 

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