Critical Role 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.


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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.


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Russ Morrissey

Russ Morrissey

jamesjhaeck

Explorer
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.
 

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Evenglare

Adventurer
Not a super huge fan of Critical Role. Id rather support smaller gamers, but good for them. Im doing something similar with my liveplay developing a guide to download as well as companion videos to our stream. But I know Critical Role is like the 800 lb gorilla in the room, there is no competing in any real form. Good for them though I guess.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
But I know Critical Role is like the 800 lb gorilla in the room, there is no competing in any real form. Good for them though I guess.

It's not a zero-sum game. You don't have to beat Critical Role to do well for yourself. They get to be the shining face of player acquisition, and you get to benefit from that. :)
 

Barantor

Explorer
Not a super huge fan of Critical Role. Id rather support smaller gamers, but good for them. Im doing something similar with my liveplay developing a guide to download as well as companion videos to our stream. But I know Critical Role is like the 800 lb gorilla in the room, there is no competing in any real form. Good for them though I guess.

They have a big following, but there are other streams that have a lot of interesting things. HyperRPG for one has a ton of RPGs, not just one.

Roll20s twitch channel has stuff on all the time with a big following too. Many of those folks were featured during the big "Tomb of Annihilation" stream.

Hell, look at Chris Perkins' Acquisitions Incorporated at the PAX stages. It even has a spin-off show that Penny Arcade does.
 

jamesjhaeck

Explorer
A rising tide raises all ships. Just like D&D's financial success and cultural penetration improves the success of the entire RPG hobby, Critical Role's continued success turns people on to new RPG shows and opens the door for new shows to appear and thrive. I have faith in you, indie streamer! :D
 


BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
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.

Thanks for the info! And congratulations! It looks like it's already on its way to being a hit.
 

Brodie

Explorer
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.

Wow. Cool. Thanks for responding. I always enjoy when something I've commented on gets attention from someone in the business.

I really do feel the resurrection rules are something that needs to be in core D&D because like I said it's too easy to come back if the funds are available to the party (and at VM's current level, it really is easy). This and the recent Unearthed Arcana alternate initiative rules are both things that should be in the core game, even if as an optional thing.
 

SkidAce

Legend
Supporter
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.

Or write their own adventures.

I think that is one of the GREAT things about Critical Role introducing d&d to a new set of players.

It is emphasizing the create your own story style of play.

I welcome hordes of new players with that idea in their heads.
 

machineelf

Explorer
The production value and art looks a lot better than I was expecting. Since Faerun is the world I DM and I've put in a lot of time learning it in and out, I always hope that someone else puts time into learning and DMing a campaign setting that is mostly unknown to me. So I'm hoping I can convince my wife to get into this setting when she wants to DM.
 

machineelf

Explorer
Not a super huge fan of Critical Role. Id rather support smaller gamers, but good for them.

I'm not sure what this means. The people who made up Critical Role started as a group of friends playing together privately a few years ago. When they were asked to have their sessions online, it started out small but grew a ton because they are fun to watch and have an in-depth role-playing style. So are you saying that you only support smaller gamers if they are somewhat unsuccessful, and as soon as other people realize how good they are and start watching you withdraw your support?
 
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Quickleaf

Legend
Congratulations James! Between you, Matt Mercer, and the talented crew at Green Ronin - there are some tremendous creative chops behind this book. :)
 

Barantor

Explorer
Or write their own adventures.

I think that is one of the GREAT things about Critical Role introducing d&d to a new set of players.

It is emphasizing the create your own story style of play.

I welcome hordes of new players with that idea in their heads.

I've looked around the web to know that 'new DMs' are constantly asking what adventure to run as a newcomer. Most point them to the starter set (lost mines) and that is fine, but it can be daunting for a new DM to start fiddling around with things too much. If Crit Role's goal is to get more folks into the game, that could be an issue, we'll see I guess.
 

Iry

Hero
Critical Role is mostly good. I really love how they are bringing D&D to a large audience and promoting the hobby in a very positive and engaging way. But a friend of mine made a hilarious observation.

Critical Role doesn't run by strict 5E rules, which means many new players are showing up at tables expecting Critical Role rules, only to discover that it doesn't work that way. =D
 

phantomK9

Explorer
Has the book come out yet?
I pre-ordered it on amazon a few weeks back, and I thought it was being released this past Monday, but I've gotten no word on it being shipped to me yet.
 



vilainn6

Explorer
I'm not sure what this means. The people who made up Critical Role started as a group of friends playing together privately a few years ago. When they were asked to have their sessions online, it started out small but grew a ton because they are fun to watch and have an in-depth role-playing style. So are you saying that you only support smaller gamers if they are somewhat unsuccessful, and as soon as other people realize how good they are and start watching you withdraw your support?

He probably means he prefer to support smaller publishers than Green Ronin.
 



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