In my years of watching Critical Role, I was always engrossed by the high-stakes combat episodes in season one like The Kill Box, that pitted our heroes against seemingly impossible odds, only to emerge victorious with a thrilling (and unorthodox) end. Yet, in the two years since season two started, the lore has spoken to me more than ever before. The narrative opportunities were lush, with good investigation and history rolls giving Matthew Mercer the opportunity to spin even more of this broad world into being. Something about Wildemount was different…deeper and richer than before.
The ever-gracious dungeon master of the worldwide tabletop phenomenon says as much in the opening pages of The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. In creating this new world for his friends, he “…developed Wildemount on a scale and level of intricacy I had not previously attempted.”
The scale is definitely there – when he put together his primer on the world of Exandria in his continent of Tal’dorei guide, it was 142 pages in length, indices included.
The expansive Wildemount guide is just over 300 pages.
Within those pages lie countless treasures for fans of Dungeons & Dragons, whether you’ve watched every episode of Critical Role, or have barely heard of it until now.
I will be referring to Matthew Mercer extensively through the review, but no man is an island. As he mentioned numerous times, the book would not have been possible without the help of talented staff from Wizards, including Christopher Perkins and Jeremy Crawford. He was also joined by fellow writers James Haeck, James Introcaso and Chris Lockey for the project. Their contributions to the project cannot be overstated.
The introduction and Chapter 1, which lay out the history and foundation of the continent across ~25 pages, serve as a captivating hook for the broader guide. Mercer’s take on the creation story and the clash of the Gods is captivating, but more importantly is his care in building out the slow-going fallout and recovery that came in the following centuries. Conflict and climaxes are often more thrilling to build narratives around, but Mercer seems to relish in the process of healing, both on a personal and societal level. It’s a refreshing take to see in world-building philosophy, particularly at this moment in time.
Central to the narrative of Critical Role’s second season is a brewing war between the largely human Dwendalian Empire and the Kryn Dynasty, comprised of surface-dwelling drow, among numerous beasts and presumably “undesirable” races. Mercer notes that having a party of characters enlisted for war isn’t necessarily the best, especially for itchy murder-hobo parties (not that I have any experience with that). He provides numerous options for integrating the broader conflict in home games, including dialing back the clock 6 months to a year to avoid it altogether. I appreciated the acknowledgment of this potential narrative bottleneck, which further demonstrated Mercer’s commitment to making a guide and a world that gives DMs room to breathe and make Wildemount their own.
No doubt, fans of Critical Role will gobble up these opening pages, with major events being bridged with details and figures previously unmentioned. This also got me thinking – this could be seen as a big ol’ spoiler guide for a lot of fans, since we may come across some of these factions and figures later in the campaign! Take that as you will, critters.
As I mentioned previously, however, the joys of this book are not restricted to Critical Role fans…and this becomes readily apparent in chapters 2 and 3, which expands on the factions and characters, as well as building out the locations within Wildemount, beautifully brought to life by cartographer Deven Rue.
Of particular interest to me in chapter 2 was the expansion on the pantheon of Exandria. The deities included certainly run the gamut, with commandments included to really help you gravitate towards one or the other in the character creation process. I mean, who wouldn’t want to make a warrior who serves Bane, the Strife Emperor? Bad. Ass.
Chapter 3 is the meatiest segment of the book, with a synopsis of every major location (and many, many minor ones) and a handful of plot-hooks for each at varying levels. By the time you navigate the approximately 100 pages of location info and narrative hooks, you’ll have a much greater appreciation for the level of detail that Matthew Mercer has put into the creation of this world.
Chapter 4 features many of the more unique and innovative elements of the book, including The Heroic Chronicle. This is like character creation on steroids – providing an opportunity for players to roll much more than simple backgrounds and motivations – it allows you to randomize places of origin, the relationship you have with your family, as well as allies and rivals that you have around the broader world. You can even determine your favorite foods, terrible secrets and untold prophecies that you find yourself tangled up in.
Reading over the Chronicle, I couldn’t help but remember something that Christopher Perkins had mentioned in our recent interview regarding the book: “… he approached the project with a seriousness and maturity but also with a childlike love of the craft and the game…” Anyone who has sat down for a game with Matthew Mercer has likely experienced his commitment to the comfort of his players. He has a passion for helping people craft wonderful stories for themselves, the same way his passion drives the creation of further narrative twists to navigate and fantastical lands to explore. The Chronicle impressively utilizes the simple act of rolling a die to put together a much more compelling story than “I’m a fighter that was orphaned after a goblin raid and now fight for vengeance.” (No shade at any players with this backstory, btw)
For the sake of this review, I walked through the Chronicle myself. Here’s what I ended up with: a half-orc Grinner (a new Bard/minstrel inspired background) that was born in the Bladegarden of Marrow Valley, but eventually settled in Icehaven, found in the Zemni fields. I have an ally in the Clovis Concord, a longtime drinking buddy who lets me crash on his couch whenever I need to, and a rival in the Dwendalian empire who was ordered to arrest me and now pursues me wherever I go (you’ll never catch me, Javert!) I grew up with a single father and 2 siblings – an older brother and younger sister. My younger sister tragically died while I was supposed to be watching her…or at least that’s what I thought. She’s actually alive and out for vengeance (additional rival). My older brother and I have always been competitive, and he’s always looking for an opportunity to show me up (additional rival). When I was young, I found a treasure map buried in one of my father’s many books, which pointed to Bazzoxan (a place of my choosing). My favorite food is spanferkel – an expensive dish of suckling pig that I have enjoyed twice or three times in my life at lavish parties that I somehow snuck into. During my brief flirtation with blacksmithing, I burned myself with the blade and saw a vision of a powerful weapon – eager for me to wield it. Having a longstanding fascination with dragons, my greatest wish is to speak with one and live to tell the tale, even though it would certainly provoke its wrath for the rest of my days.
There were a couple small choices I made in here (single parent being a father, location of hidden treasure, etc), but the bulk of this character creation was done by the guide, and I was able to walk through it in about 10 minutes or so. There is so much material here, I can only imagine the fun that players, and DMs, will have by utilizing this chronicle in their Wildemount games. With so many gems in here, it means a lot when I say the Heroic Chronicle is arguably the best thing in this book.
Sharing center stage is also the full reveal of Dunamancy – a brand new school of magic for D&D players the world over to fall in love with. Mercer is careful not to throw the gates of Dunamancy wide open, as it is specific to a handful of wizard subclasses, particularly those of Kryn descent and background. With that being said, there are some nasty spells in here, including a time-bending 9th-level spell that immediately ages a target within 30 days of their death.
Chapter 5 provides 4 mini-modules to guide new Wildemount adventurers through their 3rd level, complete with maps and encounters to acquaint them with the broader continent. If you’re nervous about diving into the 100 pages of locations and trying to find just the right hook to get started, these modules provide plenty of material for your first handful of sessions, and will likely give you plenty of motivation for future sessions.
Chapter 6 reviews some of the magical items and potions that can be found in Wildemount, concluding with an expanded section on the Vestiges of Divergence. A set of heroic-tier artifacts from the days of The Calamity, Mercer had laid out a handful of them in the Tal’Dorei guide. The new book provides even more options for players, including an entirely new set of Betrayer arms – similar artifacts that were borne of the Betrayer gods. Acquiring the means to destroy these evil weapons can be randomly decided, and all are largely epic in scope.
The book concludes with a bestiary of new monsters that can be found on the continent – from massive war-turtles to the savage, and incredibly fast, moorbounders.
Of course, peppered throughout the 300+ pages of this guide is spectacular art, ranging from epic clashes between deities, to creatures having thoughtful moments of contemplation. A central element of the Critical Role fandom has always been the fanart, and seeing so many talented artists from the community (~30 or so) contributing their work to this project was a real treat. (For a deeper dive on some of the artists in this wonderful community, check out our previous spotlight piece.)
Overall, it’s easy to see that The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount was a labor of profound love: love of the game, love for the world of Wildemount, and love for the players experience. The result is a sourcebook teeming with potential, and one that will drive countless games across the D&D community.
As Matthew Mercer comments in his introduction: “This is your Wildemount now.”