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Critical Role Explorer's Guide to Wildemount Review

The combination of Critical Role's success and its patronage from D&D Beyond in its second season probably made Explorer's Guide to Wildemount inevitable. Wizards of the Coast is virtually guaranteed sales from every DM who is also a Critical Role fan (a.k.a. Critter) and a large percentage of their players, too. Creator Matthew Mercer gets an opportunity to officially play in Dungeons & Dragons sandbox, and anyone looking for a new D&D setting gets a new option.

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But this is not the first Critical Role campaign setting for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. In 2017, Mercer along with James Haeck and additional content by Joseph Carriker and Steven Kenson, produced the Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting for Green Ronin. Tal'Dorei was the backdrop for the first season of Critical Role and is another continent on Mercer's world of Exandria, of which Wildemount is another continent. So if you really want to play in Mercer's world having both books is useful even though they function independently.

One of the differences between the two books is that in Wildemount, Mercer can finally use all the names of the D&D gods and other items that are not allowed to licensed creators. While it's easy for anyone who knows the official D&D multiverse to realize that the Scaled Tyrant is Tiamat, the Spider Queen is Lolth, the Matron of Ravens is the Raven Queen, etc. the change doesn't adversely affect players or GMs. It even makes a certain amount of sense that a different continent might use different names. But for a creator, a certain amount of satisfaction comes with being able to use the formal names, otherwise disallowed races/monsters, etc.

Both books feature “The Myth of Exandria,” which details The Founding, The Age of Arcanum and The Calamity – an ancient period that shaped the entire world. What surprises me is that the Wildemount version almost word for word matches Tal'Dorei since the opening of both talk about there not being a definitive creation story but instead variations and variants. It seems a missed opportunity to show a variant, albeit anchored with a writer's note that this is a variant told on this continent rather than being a mistake or reworking since the first season/Green Ronin book.

Regardless of whether it's using licensed names or variants, the story of the prime deities, primordials and betrayer gods feels familiar yet different. That's not a criticism. In creating Exandria, Mercer clearly wanted to play in a setting that both fits classic D&D without being a pre-existing campaign setting so he had room to breathe and create as he saw fit. Using familiar elements but moving them around in somewhat different combinations (but nothing so different that it suddenly makes Vecna a good guy or such) hits a sweet spot for established D&D players who want something familiar yet fresh. Both creatively and practically, it makes sense.

I really like the layout used for the prime deities and betrayer gods. Each entry gets a few paragraphs of backstory and relevant information, depiction, an image of their holy symbol, and their commandments. Prime deities also get a holy day entry whereas betrayer gods get an enemies paragraph. Personally, I think even betrayer gods should have a holy day entry since they are worshiped, albeit not widely. Enemies would be nice, too, but are easily extrapolated from the betrayer gods' entry.

Personally, I prefer the dispute between Corellon and Loloth as depicted in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes because it's more nuanced. The backstory of Mercer's world predates that version, though, so its omission makes sense. A DM could easily tweak things if they prefer that version.

Mercer adds his own myth of the Luxon, a being of light and energy that existed before the gods brought forth life on Exandria. The Luxon is the central divine figure in the Kryn Dynasty and can clearly be used by DMs to add a new element to the typical pantheon-driven stories with this blend of faith and science. I do also appreciate a god whose followers carry hollow dodecahedrons (d12s) as a faith symbol.

The chapter on factions and societies has nothing to do with mainstream D&D factions like the Harpers or Emerald Enclave. These are all groups specific to Wildemount, jockeying for allies and power in various ways. The entries are fairly meaty and also well laid out. Each faction gets a couple of columns of print to explain its history and place in the world, followed by a section in its goals, another section on its relationships and then figures of interest within the faction. It's a small thing but making it clear and easy to find goals and relationships makes things much easier for a DM when they need to check something mid-game.

While none of the figures of interest get a stat block or artwork, there is enough information along with alignment and race to use them in a campaign. I plan on borrowing a few for my own non-Exandria campaign with appropriate tweaks. Still, if Critical Role and/or WotC wanted to sell an easy supplemental product, a “Face of Wildemount” deck with art on one side and stats on the other would probably work so long as they used tarot deck-sized cards to ensure enough room.

I also like that each faction that is also a government, country, etc. gets a sidebar explaining its most common laws and punishments for breaking them. It also explains who the judging authority is in each case. While none of them are drastically different, it does illustrate differing priorities.

Cults also get a sidebar. Harbingers of the Core worship Elder Evils that sound much like the Cthulhu mythos or similarly inspired. The Caustic Heart seek to free Tiamat. If you read Tal'Dorei and were unsure if Remnant Cultists or Remnant Chosen adversaries who worshiped the Whispering One meant Vecna or Tharizdun, it confirms Vecna.

The gazetteer section is much like the one in Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide (SCAG) – one to several paragraphs on each location with some art and maps. It improves on SCAG by giving the larger areas a sort of stat block that lists population, government, defense, commerce and organizations that operate within it. Gazetteers are always tricky in my opinion because you don't want to bury readers in details but some readers, like myself, always want more. Other DMs love the more overview approach because it leaves them space to fill in the gaps on their own. Wildemount hits a decent middle ground in the approach.

The race section in the character option chapter was disappointing. For most of them, the traits were the same as those presented in either Volo's Guide to Monsters, Princes of the Apocalypse or the latter's free Elemental Evil Player's Companion, depending upon whether the species is Genasi, Kenku, etc. That does solve the PHB+1 rule problem and each species gets sections how they live in the Dwendalian Empire, on the Menagerie Coast or in Xhorhas, but it makes the chapter feel less special.

What really bothered me about duplicating the information from other books, even though it serves a purpose, is that they didn't commission any new art. I at least thought that the firbolg entry would feature Pumat Sol, one of Mercer's most popular NPCs, and one that he actually played in full make-up and costume at Gen Con in 2018. That seems like a missed opportunity to delight Critters.

Speaking of art, while I like all of it, the juxtaposition of art styles on pages 48-49 to depict miscellaneous citizens of various regions versus the simplistic, cartoony style on 47 is jarring. Jessica Mahon's art is nice and in another section. I wouldn't normally grumble about this, but going from that minimal style with no shading to Anna Velkamp's more realistic style felt discordant.

Back to character options, dragonborn do get two new variants – Dragonblood and Ravenite. Since dragonborn are frequently overlooked in terms of player options, it's a welcome addition here. Dragonbloods have long tails, are prone to social manipulation and have a Forceful Prescience trait. Ravenites are tailless, have a more muscular physique and a Vengeful Assault trait. While Dragonbloods are supposed to be the rulers and Ravenites their soldiers or henchmen, it feels a little cliché for Ravenites to have been slaves to Dragonbloods in the past.

I do like the Goblinkin and the Curse of Strife sidebar in the section on goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears. It presents both an explanation for why those races tend to be evil while also providing a solution if a PC or NPC isn't. Having fallen a bit behind in Critical Role episodes I can't swear that this explains Nott's difference from her kinfolk, but it seems like a viable possibility.

Speaking of Nott, if you were hoping for the show's characters to be NPC options in Wildemount or otherwise get some backstory on them, you'll be disappointed. The book provides information and context on the show's campaign setting but not the characters themselves.

I also like the tips for how to role-play a Kenku and its mimic ability without driving the other players crazy. It's a character race that can easily wear thin on player's nerves. On the show, Mercer made the Kenku girl Kiri adorable so it is possible to find that line.

The Hollow One is another new race option, but it shouldn't be confused with another D&D creature of the same name that has a Soul Devour ability. This Hollow One is a person whose bodies have continued despite all but a fragment of their soul having left for the afterlife. Technically this Hollow One is more like an option laid over top the original character race and you register as undead for the purpose of spells. They're not necessarily evil but have an Unsettling Presence ability to essentially frighten someone into Disadvantage.

One of the new subclasses are tied to dunamis and dunamancy, with the former being a “primal magical energy of potentiality and actuality.” The latter is the practice of it. The Echo Knight is a fighter subclass that uses dunamis to “summon faded shades of unrealized timelines” enabling them to fight “as a cycling swarm of shadows and strikes.” Depending upon your level you can swap places with your echo, originate attacks from the echo's space, put your consciousness into the echo temporarily, etc. It definitely adds a cool set of new options to the fighter class.

Dunmancy also gets its own spell list to supplement The Players Handbook. The low-level spells like Sapping Sting (a cantrip) or Fortune's Favor are fine. Wrist Pocket, which lets you banish and summon an item you're holding of less than five pounds weight, could be a useful little spell. The higher level spells, though, seem overpowered. Even if they technically aren't – I haven't had a chance to play test the material – a spell called Reality Break is likely to give a DM pause unless they love especially chaotic campaigns. Time Ravage is what it sounds like. Only a Wish spell or a Greater Restoration cast at a 9th level spell slot can undo it.

The other two are wizard subclasses related to time and gravity. Chronurgy allows for Chronal Shifts and Momentary Stasis. Graviturgy magic lets you Adjust Density, create Gravity Well, etc. Players will probably love both options. As a DM, I like Graviturgy better because time magic still gives me a headache after a few years of playing Mage the Awakening. Your mileage may vary.

The section on Wildemount backgrounds has instructions for creating a “Heroic Chronicle” with your players. Besides adding more to the backstory and established relationships, you can also create together a prophecy for the character that can help guide their personal story as they seek to fulfill or evade it. Twenty options are presented for inspiration. To me, the Heroic Chronicle option creates the feeling of a Critical Role campaign the most.

In addition to suggestions for customizing backgrounds for Wildmount, it adds two – Grinner and Volstrucker Agent. Grinners are a type of minstrel spy who inspires freedom and hope among the oppressed. Volstrucker Agents have been broken by life in some fashion and are now clandestine agents serving the Cerberus Assembly.

Explorer's Guide to Wildemount comes with four adventures – Tide of Retribution, Dangerous Designs, Frozen Sick, and Unwelcome Spirits. Each one is an introduction to a different area of Wildemount and all are designed for both new players and new DMs. Mercer writes about improvisation and “going off the rails” before the adventures, trying to instill the idea that a good game isn't about slavishly following a preordained script, but having fun and rolling with the unexpected. That's a lesson even some long-time DMs I know need to learn.

I wouldn't say that any of these adventures hold the DM's hand, but they do contain useful tips for how to role-play key NPCs and other things useful for new DMs. I'd like to see more sidebars like that in other adventures.

The section on magic items is fine. I like the Vox Seeker, which is a tiny, wind-up construct, but the Butcher's Bib didn't impress me. It's always dripping blood no matter what you do. In exchange for that you crit on both 19 and 20 when doing slashing damage, and can reroll damage once per turn. I expected more damage for that gruesome item. Items like Needle of Mending and Spell Bottle are what you think.

Arms of the Betrayers, however, could be a campaign focus or terrible items used by recurring villains. They're artifacts forged from the souls of fiends for servants of the Betrayer Gods. Even the names are cool – Blade of Broken Mirrors, Lash of Shadows, Ruin's Wake, Mace of the Black Crown, etc. That section definitely sparked campaign ideas for me, inside Wildemount or elsewhere.

The monster section is somewhat slim but packed with things to give your players nightmares. Elder Evil minions like Core Spawn Crawlers are appropriately alien. Frost Worms are terrifying (CR 17). Gearkeeper Constructs are a potent challenge with a CR of 10. The gargantuan Horizonback Tortoise should raise eyebrows. They have a symbiotic relationship with some citizens of Xhorhas, acting as mobile homesteads and siege weapons when needed.

I love, love, love that Explorer's Guide to Wildemount has both a glossary and an index. While I've been generally very happy with the official 5th Edition books, adding a glossary and especially an index to all books would make a DM's life much easier. The index is even in a readable font size, unlike the PHB index. With long-time players aging and vision issues a possibility for players of any age, WotC really should pay more attention to ease of reading. Small things that make a DM's job easier and make products in general more accessible ensure faithful fans.

So, should you buy Explorer's Guide to Wildemount? If you're a hardcore Critter, you most likely already have a copy or have ordered one. More casual Critical Role fans interested in Mercer's world are also an obvious yes.

If you don't care about Critical Role or even know what it is, it's still a good consideration if you want a fresh setting that still feels like classic D&D. A DM who runs their own setting could still raid from Wildemount and adapt it as needed.

What Explorer's Guide to Wildemount won't do is making you into a DM clone of Matthew Mercer – but you shouldn't be anyway. D&D can be played and DM'd in a variety of styles. While Mercer gives tips as I mentioned, the goal shouldn't be to copy Mercer. Instead learn from watching him (if you want) and use this book to forge your own adventures and game style, within Wildemount itself or your own game borrowing elements and ideas from it.

I like Explorer's Guide to Wildemount and will mine it for my own campaign. I wouldn't call it a must buy, though, like I did Xanathar's Guide to Everything or a highly recommended buy like Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. If you are a fan of Critical Role or want a new setting to experiment with, Explorer's Guide to Wildemout is a worthy option.
 
Beth Rimmels

Comments


Connorsrpg

Adventurer
So, not really any 'new' races? Thanks for the review Beth. Sounds like I would still like to see this book. I love new settings :)
 


Hopefully this book will evaporate Wizards' reluctance to expand the page count of their books and hopefully expand their horizons into delving into other settings.
 


Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Well we had Eberron, Wildemount, and next is Theros. I don't think it was this book, but they are clearly expanding their settings.
And Ravnica and Ravenloft. The list of 5E D&D settings is getting quite large!
 


Rellott

Explorer
Well we had Eberron, Wildemount, and next is Theros. I don't think it was this book, but they are clearly expanding their settings.
Don’t forget Ravnica, too. I somewhat enjoy reading about other settings, but I enjoy adventure and character options more. I’m ready for another official adventure path/campaign.
 

And Ravnica and Ravenloft. The list of 5E D&D settings is getting quite large!
Not sure Ravenloft really counts, it did not get an actual setting treatment. Unless things have changed WotC was not even allowing the setting to be expanded out on the DMs guild. Everything had to be either generic or part of Barovia.
 



Von Ether

Adventurer
Using familiar elements but moving them around in somewhat different combinations (but nothing so different that it suddenly makes Vecna a good guy or such) hits a sweet spot for established D&D players who want something familiar yet fresh. Both creatively and practically, it makes sense.
And really it seems that is what the vast majority of role-players, especially those who do D&D, what.
 

The only thing I felt disappointed(but then backtracked on in that feeling) was in was the section on the Vestiges of Divergence/Arms of The Betrayers. It gave specific VoDs/AoBs and that was it. At first I thought it would offer advice on customizing your own "Vestiges" so that way your characters could have their own "unique" weapon that levels up with the character. So a character would be more likely to carry and use their father's sword more than tossing it in the gutter for a shiny upgrade bought at a town square.

Then I realized, it does in a way. All of the Vestiges and Betrayer arms can "level up" to +3 via being Exalted. So one can follow that template to achieve the same result. Just work out the details with your DM on what it does per "level up" and stuff.

So a Paladin, who was given their father's broken Holy Redeemer, starts it out as a Worn Blade(dormant). But has to potential to upgrade it to Awakened, then Exalted. And by upgrading it to Exalted status, has become a legit Holy Avenger.

Of course the details to Dormant--Awakened----Exalted are to be worked out between the player and DM. Getting the Holy Avenger in Icewind Dale 2 was a BIG FLIPPING DEAL so it's not like giving the player a weakened base form is just solved by tossing Platinum Dragons at its hilt.
 
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teitan

Hero
So Nott isn’t a goblin really. She is a halfling in a goblin body so that explains why she is different.
 
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mcmillan

Explorer
@teitan
As Brimmels said she had fallen behind on episodes, and other people may also be watching from earlier in the campaign you should probably edit your post to put that in spoiler tags (like below - you can click the three dots to get a dropdown menu for inserting spoilers)

So Nott isn’t a goblin really. She is a halfling in a goblin body so that explains why she is different.
 


Before this book got into people's hands I wasn't interested. I've already got a dozen WotC books I hardly touch for my home campaign. I'm not a Critter. It just didn't seem to fit my visions.

Now, the various reviews make me think that I will get several dozen hours of enjoyment out of it.

It's moved towards the top of my wish list.
 

Marandahir

Crown-Forester
Not surprising that you made the mistake (the reality sounds incredibly awkward), but Dragonborn's subrace is called Draconblood, not Dragonblood. The flavour text lines up with Draconians in Tal'Dorei Campaign Guide, and they have likely been renamed by WotC due to Dragonlance-style Draconians.
 

Not surprising that you made the mistake (the reality sounds incredibly awkward), but Dragonborn's subrace is called Draconblood, not Dragonblood. The flavour text lines up with Draconians in Tal'Dorei Campaign Guide, and they have likely been renamed by WotC due to Dragonlance-style Draconians.
Baconblood is also an acceptable substitute. For some reason, they snort more and have spider Familiars.
 

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