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


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I like alot of Green Ronin stuff, but don't watch/know anything about Critical Role. But the naming convention of that is used obviously comes from the twoname 4E era! ;)
From the piccy in the OP I see:
Arc/heart, All/hammer, Dawn/father, Change/bringer, Ever/light, White/stone, Briar/wood, Parch/wood, Timber/lands, Dawn/mist...
And that's only from a quick scan!
 

I like alot of Green Ronin stuff, but don't watch/know anything about Critical Role. But the naming convention of that is used obviously comes from the twoname 4E era! ;)
From the piccy in the OP I see:
Arc/heart, All/hammer, Dawn/father, Change/bringer, Ever/light, White/stone, Briar/wood, Parch/wood, Timber/lands, Dawn/mist...
And that's only from a quick scan!

Amusingly, Mercer was a Pathfinder guy. The campaign was originally PF until they switched to 5e for the stream, as it was simpler.
 





Fildrigar

Explorer
Is there an available compilation of the house rules and deviations to 5E that Matt Mercer and Critical Role makes?

There's a list in the book.

Quicker potion drinking, more difficult resurrection magic, the ability to cast two spells a turn ( with restrictions, ) and a few others.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
I like alot of Green Ronin stuff, but don't watch/know anything about Critical Role. But the naming convention of that is used obviously comes from the twoname 4E era! ;)
From the piccy in the OP I see:
Arc/heart, All/hammer, Dawn/father, Change/bringer, Ever/light, White/stone, Briar/wood, Parch/wood, Timber/lands, Dawn/mist...
And that's only from a quick scan!
Interesting take, Flash/heart. :)
 

SigmaOne

First Post
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

I think most 5e tables don't play by strict 5e rules. Every table I've played at has done things differently. Sometimes in major ways, sometimes in minor ways, sometimes both.
 

Aldarc

Legend
There's a list in the book.

Quicker potion drinking, more difficult resurrection magic, the ability to cast two spells a turn ( with restrictions, ) and a few others.
Thanks. So it's nothing too drastic? The way some people talk about the deviations, they make it almost sound like three steps removed or another game entirely.
 

Fildrigar

Explorer
Thanks. So it's nothing too drastic? The way some people talk about the deviations, they make it almost sound like three steps removed or another game entirely.

They're playing a pretty slow advancing game. ( 105 4 hour episodes and they've gone from level 8 to 18? I think ) They also started out and played their first right levels in Pathfinder before converting everything over. So, they have more magic items than the usual 5e campaign.
 

Kalshane

First Post
Thanks. So it's nothing too drastic? The way some people talk about the deviations, they make it almost sound like three steps removed or another game entirely.

That being said, I need to remind one of my players every other game that drinking a potion is not a bonus action. :)

However, I did swipe Mercer's one spell up to 2nd level and one normal spell per turn if a bonus action spell is used house rule (rather than limiting to cantrips if a bonus action spell is cast). It doesn't seem to break the game and the party cleric loves being able to toss out a weak Healing Word and still do something "cool" with his turn.
 
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KahlessNestor

Adventurer
They're playing a pretty slow advancing game. ( 105 4 hour episodes and they've gone from level 8 to 18? I think ) They also started out and played their first right levels in Pathfinder before converting everything over. So, they have more magic items than the usual 5e campaign.

Part of the reason it's so slow is there is a LOT of roleplaying and a lot less combat, so less XP being handed out, I think. Plus they often get NPC help. Heck, most of the killing blows on the big bads have gone to guest stars!
 

KahlessNestor

Adventurer
That being said, I need to remind one of my players every other game that drinking a potion is not a bonus action. :)

However, I did swipe Mercer's one spell up to 2nd level and one normal spell per turn if a bonus action spell is used house rule (rather than limiting to cantrips if a bonus action spell is cast). It doesn't seem to break the game and the party cleric loves being able to toss out a weak Healing Word and still do something "cool" with his turn.

Yeah, this is probably the biggest house rule, besides his resurrection minigame. The others being the gunslinger class, and I'm pretty sure he's done some things to beef up Trinket. Some home brewed magic items, like Vestiges and Craven's Edge.
 

Kalshane

First Post
Part of the reason it's so slow is there is a LOT of roleplaying and a lot less combat, so less XP being handed out, I think. Plus they often get NPC help. Heck, most of the killing blows on the big bads have gone to guest stars!

Mercer doesn't use straight XP, but rather hands out "hash marks" based on RP, doing something cool, overcoming challenges, etc that then get converted into a certain number of XP based on the character's level. (I think he posted a link to his system on Twitter at some point.) The end result is that progression ends up a little different than the XP charts would suggest.

Yeah, this is probably the biggest house rule, besides his resurrection minigame. The others being the gunslinger class, and I'm pretty sure he's done some things to beef up Trinket. Some home brewed magic items, like Vestiges and Craven's Edge.

Yeah, Trinket got buffed (as well as the finding of the "pokeball" necklace to get around all the logistics problems of attempting to get around with an enormous bear). Homebrew magic items aren't even really notable to me as a "house rule" as I've been doing it since I started DMing nearly 30 years ago, so it's just part of running a game in my mind.
 

goatmeal

First Post
I just came across the show a few weeks ago, and got hooked on it. I was watching about one three hour plus episode a day for over a week. Can't believe it took me this long to find it, but on the other hand, I haven't really been into watching people play games online (though I did listen to a few Nerd Poker Podcasts a few years ago). Still have nearly a hundred to go before getting caught up.
 

KahlessNestor

Adventurer
I just came across the show a few weeks ago, and got hooked on it. I was watching about one three hour plus episode a day for over a week. Can't believe it took me this long to find it, but on the other hand, I haven't really been into watching people play games online (though I did listen to a few Nerd Poker Podcasts a few years ago). Still have nearly a hundred to go before getting caught up.

Ah, good, so you're past the hump where half the show is fan crap LOL Enjoy! I'm behind a couple episodes. Need to catch up this weekend, maybe.
 

Kalshane

First Post
Ah, good, so you're past the hump where half the show is fan crap LOL Enjoy! I'm behind a couple episodes. Need to catch up this weekend, maybe.

I'm glad they finally put their foot down and said "No more Critmas as part of the normal broadcast." They tried several times but fans kept whining they wanted to see it, but the cast eventually said "Enough is enough." (It was also really unfair to the crew to have to constantly stay late so the cast could open gifts on-stream.) I imagine with the fact that opening the stuff is no longer shown to the normal audience the sheer amount of crap they received has died down, too. (They did occasionally get some cool stuff, but you know they didn't have room in their homes for the vast majority of the stuff they received.)
 


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