Review: Critical Role’s new D&D book, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, could be better (but fans will love it)
Before we get into all of this, I have to admit something: I’m not a Critical Role fan.
I know. I know. But hear me out: It’s not that I don’t like it. I just haven’t watched it. A big part of that is its impressive depth. There are eight years, two seasons and more than 200 total episodes (each three to four hours long) on Crit Role’s YouTube.
But I still have enormous respect for Critical Role, its cultural relevance and the people behind it, especially Matt Mercer.
So that’s where I come from when checking out Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, the new 5th edition campaign setting book from Critical Role and Dungeons & Dragons.
If you’ve watched every single episode of Critical Role, you’re going to love the guide. And even for those of us that are less familiar, there’s very good material there. That said, I have to say the book’s execution isn’t great. (But more on that in a minute.)
For starters, what’s contained within? A whole lot, even if you’re not a superfan.
You get the entire setting of Wildemount, the continent explored by the Mighty Nein in the second season of the show. That includes an entire chapter telling the history of the continent, one on its factions and another that’s a gazetteer. (That section offers a few one paragraph adventure hooks for each region, which is very nice.)
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For Dungeon Masters, there’s a new set of 18 monsters as well as pages of magic items including the Luxon Beacon. There are also four new adventures, each introducing one of the main areas of Wildemount.
For players, there are new race and and sublcass options, spells and backgrounds. The subclasses feature Mercer’s dunamancy magic system, which taps into the web that holds the universe together. Characters “can subtly bend the flow of time and space by controlling the forces of localized gravity, peering into possible timelines to shift fate in their favor, and scattering the potential energy of their enemies to rob them of their potency,” Mercer writes.
It’s very cool.
There’s also the Hollow One, which some are calling a new race but is actually a supernatural gift (see the DMG) that bestows new traits on characters of any race.
Largely, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount is just another campaign setting book. If you want to immerse your D&D campaign in this world, it gives you every painstaking detail to do so. The gods (the good ones and the bad ones). Important laws from each faction (worshipping the betrayer gods in the Kryn Dynasty will get you executed). The exotic locations (the crash site of the once-flying city of Aeor will be really fun to explore).
Though you don’t have to be a superfan of Critical Role, it would help immensely to understand the content of this book, which is otherwise pretty confusing.
The opening chapters named so many places and factions that my head was spinning.
It’s hard to tell which details are important and which aren’t. The only central hook is a big war between the Kryn Dynasty and the Dwendalian Empire. One of my favorite hooks, destroying the weapons of the betrayer gods, is oddly explained in the magic items section, and it’s my favorite idea for a Wildemount-based campaign. Then there’s the factions. Named as one of the four major factions, Tribes of Shadycreek Run doesn’t correspond to anywhere on the accompanying half-page map in the text. You can find it in the super-detailed fold-out poster map in the back of the book, but it’s not even a prominent label.
The map itself is a problem. It labels some areas with the nation that controls them and others by their place names. Other areas that are often mentioned don’t appear to be labeled at all. (Where is The Biting North? It’s referenced multiple times in the text, but it’s not on the map. Anywhere.) It’s confusing for someone who’s not well-versed in the story already.
The Luxon Beacon is apparently an important item — it is featured on the cover and splash page — but it doesn’t much come into play in the adventures.
Conspicuously missing from the book are the Mighty Nein themselves. Why do they not appear as NPCs in the adventures, there lend a hand or offer quests? It would have been a fun addition similar to the way Penny Arcade’s actual characters appeared in the Acquisitions Incorporated D&D book.
And that’s just a few examples from the text’s expansive pages.
I get it. This book is largely for people who are already fans. They’ll navigate this guide easily, and they’ll be happy they can look up more background about their favorite moments in Critical Role. That said, the book’s authors could have done a better job for non-fans interested in a new campaign setting, and they could have drawn more people to the show while they were at it.
It’s the practical parts of the book — the character creation pieces, the adventures, the monsters, the spells — that are the best parts of The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.
The Heroic Chronicle is the absolute best piece of the book, and it takes up only about 10 pages.
The Heroic Chronicle is a system to help players and DMs create a compelling character story arc starting with character backstory. It includes seemingly mundane information such as favorite foods as well as big, important pieces such as fateful moments, family relationships, mysterious secrets and prophecies. All of these things give great inspiration for creating characters and also sets up DMs to offer rewarding moments fo revery character in their campaign.
While the Heroic Chronicle is geared specifically toward Wildemount, it can be adapted to any campaign.
The four adventures contained within — Tide of Retribution, Dangerous Designs, Frozen Sick and Unwelcome Spirits — offer the best hooks into the world of Wildemount.
Each adventure takes place in a different region the continent and introduces players to the conflicts and factions of Wildemount. There’s a battle against eldritch-twisted half-sharks and sahuagin, a tinkerer experimenting on kobold warriors, the mystery of a strange malady turning people to frozen statues and a goblin warlock possessed by her powerful patron.
Each adventure is fun but admittedly short, taking adventurers only from 1st to 3rd level. After that, DMs are on their own to continue offering adventures in Wildemount, but the gazetteer offers plenty more ideas and places to explore. You’ll just have to craft the specifics yourself.
Though the adventures are solid, they could have been the central piece of the book that wove everything else together. A single adventure chapter that explored the four major regions of Wildemount, included the Mighty Nein and explored some of the things that make Wildemount itself interesting (the war, the factions, the important artifacts, the bestiary) would have made this book much more cohesive.
Still, there’s a lot to like here. Though your mileage may vary depending on your level of Critical Role fandom, the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount is packed with a whole lot of D&D material. And that’s a good thing.