It would be hard to meet someone who regularly plays Dungeons & Dragons that isn't aware of the phenomenon of Critical Role. For those wishing to explore Exandria there's also plenty of published content to start your own adventure such as the Explorer's Guide to Wildemount or more recently the Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting Reborn. For the first time Matthew Mercer, CCO at Critical Role and DM of the main Critical Role campaigns, as well as James Haeck, who co-wrote previous Exandria D&D source material, and Chris Perkins, Senior Story Designer at Wizards of the Coast have put together an Adventurebook for Dungeons & Dragons 5e called Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep. With the lowest barrier of entry ever before how good is this book at setting up DM and players alike for an adventure through Exandria?
The book tells a story of a mighty hero known as the Apotheon who was bestowed gifts from the pantheon to fight as their champion. While he did not die the immortal Apotheon fell into a deep sleep at the end of conflict in a realm of water and magic known as the Netherdeep. It's when one of his relics, the Jewel of Three Prayers, is stumbled upon that the party is thrust into action to discover the whereabouts of Apotheon and attempt to save him from his watery tomb. The adventure will take the players all across Marquet, one of the continents of Exandria, as well as to the Netherdeep, a plane not yet explored by the show. The book gives DMs a crash course of the deep history of the world of Exandria including the events of the Calamity, a war between gods and mortals, and manages to effectively and efficiently detail the relevant parts of the skirmish to have just enough context to understand the weight of the Apotheon on the story and the legends that the players might hear about.
Uniquely Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep tells the story of not one, but two adventuring parties. The story begins with a friendly rivalry between these two parties as they compete at the local Festival of Merit in Jigow. Throughout your player's journey they won't just be able to measure their growth alongside the difficulty of the situations they encounter and monsters they slay, but can also watch themselves grow alongside the other party. There are a number of times that depending on your player's proficiency they might compete directly with this party, as early on as the first chapter the main relic that can be found, the Jewel of Three Prayers, might not even be discovered by the player party and instead could be recovered by their rivals. How weird is it that you can have a party of friends sitting around the table from you, and they might not even be the main characters of their story?
This relationship with the rival party can develop and deepen in a variety of ways, either for the positive or into a spiteful hatred of one another. At each encounter the book will detail changes in equipment and stat blocks, as well as suggest demeanor based on how friendly the two parties are with one another. The idea of a rival party pushing the players through the story is an amazing concept and does so much not only for the players to immediately have a parallel that they can start a rivalry with but also to give an adventure that progressed across so many locations familiar faces. For the forever DM it might also offer some chance of getting to play D&D as you get to return to characters time and time again and watch them grow.
Fans of Critical Role will notice all kinds of signals of Mercer's style through the narrative. Through the Jewel of Three Prayers, as long as your party is the one that currently is in possession of it, the slumbering immortal Apotheon is able to reach out and communicate to the party. Mercer's love of cryptic story delivery through dreams and prayers with gods is a recurring theme through all three Critical Role campaigns and this magical item opens up the possibility for the DM to speak to the characters and provide cryptic knowledge, or prod players in the correct direction if they seem to be falling off course. The deep lore and connection between the Calamity and the types of powerful magical artifacts from that time are also explored. This time a cursed material known as Ruidium, a red material born from the curse of the red moon Ruidus that was placed upon the Apotheon. Magical items imbued with this material are powerful, but also cause poisoning in the user. This poisoning, much like fatigue, can slowly grow over time. While at Level 1 the Ruidium corruption will leave a red rash on the wearers skin at Level 4 spurs of Ruidium crystals will protrude from the wearers body, Level 6 means death.
An aspect of Dungeons & Dragons that Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep explores is underwater adventuring. Land combat, aerial combat, and even naval combat has been detailed in previous books but it's the nature of the watery plane of the Netherdeep that has Call of the Netherdeep better outline movement underwater. Accompanying the underwater combat section of the Player's Handbook there are rules about exhaustion without a swimming speed, the use of magical items, as well as the crushing pressures of the Netherdeep and how swimming at below 100 feet of water will affect your player character. Whether you're playing Call of the Netherdeep, or have a party diving into the reefs off the Sword Coast, this kind of information fleshes out a lot that was up in the air beforehand.
What are our final throughs on Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep?
From the deep lore expertly delivered to the DM, the unique setup and premise, as well as the grandure of the adventure that the players are about to set out upon this is the kind of Critical Role story that players have wanted to be able to play in their home games for years. The DM gets their own treat, playing a rival party to the players at the table, while also getting an excuse to Deus Ex Machina as a visage of the Apotheon every now and then. It's hard to not find something to enjoy when reading through this adventure. It is somewhat a shame that there are no character options to expand the base Dungeons & Dragons game, but for the adventure itself it's well worth it. This campaign is as much a treat for the DM as it is for the party who gets to go along for the ride.
Should I Buy Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep?
It's no secret that Dungeons & Dragons have been picking up the pace with published content, it feels like every second month there's a new longform campaign for you to try to scrounge up players and because of that it means that plenty will go untouched. Not only for a fan of Critical Role, but for most tables this is a book of high enough quality that would be hard to not pass up.
The copy of Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep used in this review was provided by the publisher.