With the release of Critical Role’s first official D&D sourcebook, The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, less than a week away, we were interested in reaching out to Wizards and learning more about the process of putting together this highly anticipated resource for Critical Role fans and D&D nerds everywhere. Thankfully, Principal Story Designer for Dungeons & Dragons, Christopher Perkins, made himself available to answer some questions, and it gave us some great insight into the creation of this new book.
There is a lot of work that goes into any D&D sourcebook – what was your involvement with the Wildemount guide?
My involvement was in three stages: I was in the room with a handful of people, including Matt Mercer, when we were first scoping out the product and what our working relationship would be between the two companies. Defining roles and responsibilities, etc. At that time, it was decided that I would be Matt’s primary point of contact at Wizards for content. He was going to be spearheading the writing of the book, but if he needed to bounce ideas off of somebody, I would be his primary contact – that’s the role I served.
In the middle of the process, that role continued and evolved into being the person who would ultimately be receiving all of the text and building a book out of it.
At the end of the process, I was the last decision maker. If something didn’t get in the book, or did get in the book, that was my decision to make based on the realities of the book’s size, and also based on the realities of time and what we could “get right” before the book had to go out the door.
I also served as Managing Editor on the product at that state. In the final book stages it was my responsibility to make sure the copy editors had submitted their text, the book fit…if the book was running long or short in some sections I had to decide what to cut, or get additional text to make it look the way it looks in its final form.
Calls for a proper D&D sourcebook of the world of Exandria have been floating around for some time – while the Tal’Dorei guide was a great primer, it didn’t seem like Wizards was ready to take the plunge and commit to an official guide. Do you have any insight into what ultimately led to the creation of this book?
It was two things: Matt’s enthusiasm, and secondarily the growth of the relationship between Wizards of the Coast and Critical Role. They are, in a great respect, an extended family. Once the roads of trust were there, it became a much easier sell to get into partnership with them.
We’ve done studio partnerships in the past, but this is probably the closest, most entwined and intimate relationship we’ve had…even moreso than the Acquisitions Inc. book, and we work really well with Penny Arcade. This project felt even closer. I think largely because Matt and his friends…we trust each other. We love what Matt does, and Matt loves what we do.
Part of it too, was that we’re actually a pretty small team. The number of books we put out a year actually is partly because of the size of our team, and we want to give every book the attention and love that it deserves. Adding a book the size of Wildemount would have been troublesome for us if we didn’t think that Matt was ready for it.
The fact that he had already done one book told us something, and the initial conversations and his visions for the project told us something else: that he was ready for it, and we were ready to help him to turn this book into something we would be willing to call official, and be proud of as part of our holistic line.
To clarify, this book is in addition to the Wizards lineup this year, correct? It hasn’t impacted the standard schedule that Wizards has, but is a bonus product of sorts?
Correct. If we didn’t feel ready to tackle this book, we would have just stuck with what was on the schedule. It showed a great deal of confidence in both Matt and Critical Role on behalf of Wizards, and Matt had a lot of confidence in us when it came to turning this book into something official.
There have been a number of comments from individuals involved in working on the book that cite Matthew Mercer’s guidance and direction of the project. What was your experience working with Matt on this book?
He was receptive, very keen on making sure that he was adhering to our standards and styles. He was extremely professional. An absolute joy to work with from beginning to end. And I knew he would be – this was not a surprise to me, nor was I expected anything else based on my past dealings with him and whatnot. I think he approached the project with a seriousness and maturity but also with a childlike love of the craft and the game – and that’s a very interesting situation. Often when we’re working with people they’re either very green, and don’t really have a good handle on what they’re doing, or they’re very experienced and come across as a little jaded – seasoned folks who aren’t surprised by anything anymore. With Matt, he’s got this absolutely incredible combination of fresh enthusiasm, but also a respect for the craft that I found very reassuring.
One of the great things about a collaborator is their ability to take feedback well, and Matt has no problems with that. He’s not precious about his work, he just wants it to be as good as it can be and will take advice from people that he trusts and then implement it.
You mentioned earlier how you had the final review of content before the book went out. Were there things where Matt was asking you “Does this have to go?” Circumstances where he did say “This is really important, what else can we look at?”
Yes. In the final stages of the book – it was actually kind of a 3-way conversation. I always like to loop in Jeremy Crawford as well, even if he’s not leading a project, since he has a grasp of the fundamental rules of the game that is very helpful to have when you’re making decisions in the final stage of the project. Jeremy was actually instrumental in identifying some problem things to cut. With Matt, there were things where we went back and said “We’re cutting this.” And he would say “I understand why you’re cutting that, and that’s fine…but if there’s a way we can re-frame it I’d really like to keep it because it’s kind of important.” And I can give you a very specific example:
We ended up cutting a spell called “Nightfall” – this is basically a spell that lets you create night over a very large area, turning day to night. There were some issues with the structure of the spell and its impact on the greater game. The reason the spell exists of course, is that within Critical Role there are creatures that live in cities that are constantly shrouded in night. Matt felt it was important to the story, but we weren’t happy with the execution, so we ultimately compromised and created a limited-use magic item, and Matt was very cool with that. It worked in term of the story, and it got it out of the realm of spells. We didn’t want casting the spell willy-nilly in campaigns around the world – it instead works well as a magic item that DMs can control.
That’s how we addressed that situation and everyone was happy with the result.
What are some of the traditional challenges that come up when putting together a new sourcebook for D&D, and were those challenges amplified in any way during the creative process? Any unique challenges that you encountered?
Some of the challenges are simply that when you start with an outline you don’t exactly know if it’s all going to fit. Then you get the written text and, in this case, it was considerably longer than we anticipated. So one of the challenges of course is making cuts, and trimming things down. It’s never as easy as just cutting out a single chapter, but rather performing surgical cuts to all chapters.
For instance, the number of spells we ended up publishing is less than half of the spells that were written for the book. In some cases the spells were cut because they didn’t work, in others it was simply because we didn’t have the space. Space considerations were an issue for this book and are an issue in every book.
Another consideration is how much pick-up material we’ll allow in a book. Matt’s presenting a new world, but he’s using existing D&D elements, and he’s also using material that we’ve published before including race write-ups for Kenku and Tortles and Firbolgs and other races we’ve already done. A lot of that material we picked up for this book because we don’t expect the DM to own everything that’s come out for 5th edition. We want this book to be able to be played and used with just the core rulebook. So, when Matt decides that Firbolgs are important for this world, we have to pick up that material from another source. We also have to make sure that any errata that has been generated is incorporated as well. It’s not as simple as copying and pasting text from one book into another – there has to be some careful analysis so we’re picking up the most current text, and that any changes that are made are backwards compatible.
Other challenges that we faced in the creation of this book specifically was making sure that the art reflects the tone of the product. Because it’s a “world” book, we like to shift the focus of the art away from characters to setting. Therefore, it was very important when we were working with Matt that he was giving us lots of pictures of places, so that when you open the book you feel immediately immersed in that world.
That’s certainly an interesting element of putting together this book – the art. You have such a wealth of fanart, created by a community that has been an instrumental element of the growth of Critical Role as a brand…
Absolutely. In the preliminary meetings when we sat down with Matt and were laying out responsibilities we said “Hey, when you get back to LA send us a list of 30 freelance artists that you really like and you’d like to work with.” He put the list together, and then our art director, Kate Irwin, contacted a bunch of them to see if they had availability, see if they were willing to be involved in the project, and a good many of them said yes.
This is advantageous both for the book, because as you say – the book not only contains Matt’s works, but also some of the people who have visualized the Critical Role setting. On top of that, it’s given us more artists to work with on future projects. These artists can be paid for future D&D work now that those relationships have been established.
What a great opportunity for them, to be able to use that gateway of a product and a show that they fell in love with, to ultimately transition to doing what many would consider their dream work: creating art for Wizards of the Coast/D&D.
Exactly, and have it be official D&D stuff. The other effect was that it relaxed Matt a bit, because he had an expectation of what the art would look like. Often times, external writers that are not as involved in choosing the artists, the art can come as a surprise. Matt knew what he was getting into.
What is your favorite new rule, class or feature that’s coming out of the Wildemount guide?
The thing I would draw attention to is a section of chapter 4 called “The Heroic Chronicle”. We often do things that one can expect in a setting book – we describe places of the world, we do maps of certain locations, we do a monster section, a metagaming section…but the heroic chronicle feels very new to a D&D book.
What it’s designed to do is add texture to your character during the character creation process. It’s an adjunct to the “background” system that you use to create flavorful little facts about your character. What’s great about it is that it’s 100% grounded in this world. You can’t just take this heroic chronicle and reprint it in another setting book. This chronicle is designed for Wildemount characters. It gives you ways to define who your family is, what community you came from and how it shaped you as a person, what foods you like, allies and rivals you have in the world, a prophecy that you’re tied to that’s also tied to the world.
I love the flavor of it, I love the attention that James Haeck, who worked on that section, gave to it. It shows a lot of love, but also tremendous familiarity with the Critical Role world.
You’ve now had the chance to sit at the Critical Role table a couple times now – as the wise goliath, Shale, and the scrappy kobold Spurt (Long may he reign). No doubt having the opportunity to sit down at hundreds of tables during your time with D&D, what makes the Critical Role experience different compared to say, Acquisitions Inc?
Acquisitions Inc is very broad humor, and we run the games just infrequently enough that it’s hard to build a continuous storyline for people to keep track of. Because Critical Role is a weekly show and has such a large following, people do pay very close attention to the serialized story that Matt’s telling, so you feel – I feel – I’m injecting myself into a real, living, breathing world and campaign. It’s obviously being treated with great care, and guided and protected by Matt.
When I sit there, I have to constantly remind myself that I’m not there to disrupt or torpedo anything, but rather to add to the texture of this fantastic world that these 8 people are creating week after week after week.
You also realize that you’re sitting at “The dinner table” with a very tight-knit, very loving family. They all adore each other, they protect each other, they guide each other, and it’s sort of an honored place. They don’t just let anyone sit at the table because that dynamic that they’ve created, the relationships they’ve established are so important not only to the show but to them personally.
I felt the weight of that privilege, the weight of that honor, both times I sat at that table. I tried to respect their time and embrace the fact that they were giving me this very rare opportunity. I cherished both the times that I was on the show – both the deliberate time which was the first, and the accidental time, which was the second. I actually wasn’t supposed to appear as Spurt – I just happened to encounter Matt shortly before the show.
It created quite the legacy for Spurt…*laughs*
I still can’t believe…it’s very surreal to me. It was surreal to me after the 15 minutes, after he died…people were starting to write songs about this character and I thought “I have no idea what’s going on anymore”
You put yourself out there and you get swept up by the broader community of Critical Role. They pick you up and say “Here’s another character we can grow to love…”
Yeah. It also shows reach too. I’m always very conscious at the table “What is the message of the character that I’m playing?” Can people draw something psychologically or spiritually uplifting about this character? That’s not something at most other tables that I sit at. Because of that show, and its effect on people, and how it brings out the best in the community, I feel like if I’m going to take up peoples time and have them watch this character, I want it to resonate on a human level.
Many DMs choose to tweak or forego certain rules like ignoring carrying capacity or monster XP in favor of leveling up the players at certain milestones. Do you have a favorite homebrew or shortcut mechanic? Are there mechanics that you often ignore?
That’s a very good question – it depends on the situation. If it’s Acquisitions Inc and it’s meant to be a cavalier experience, I’m very fast and loose with the rules for the sake of the humor or drama in the moment.
If I’m doing my live-streamed weekly game, which is meant to be educational in a way – showing DMs how they can take our published adventures and make them their own – I try to follow the rules more closely.
In my home games, when they’re not being seen by anybody, is often when I’m feeling most playful with the rules. For example, I might jettison initiative altogether and just have the characters (or the monsters, depending on the situation) act first, and keep it organic. Stopping and making rolls and regimenting initiative can often seem weirdly robotic or unnatural.
Ultimately, my style is defined by the people I’m playing with – I think that’s a good general rule that guides me.
WizKids just announced that, for the first time in years, they’ll be releasing new chromatic and metallic dragon miniatures. Are there any miniatures that you would like to see made in the near future?
It’s a weird question if only because WizKids is a partner of ours and so I know what they’re doing in the future. *laughs* Because they like to tie things to our stories and stuff, I actually have some say in what they do, or they usually take my suggestion…so if there’s something I want I usually get it! *laughs*
If I could have anything…let me think about that for a second…
I’d like a giant Tarrasque that also serves as a carrying case that I could put other minis in.
Before we wrap up, there are a lot of podcasts and streams out there with quality D&D content outside of Critical Role. Are there any that you particularly enjoy or would recommend?
At the risk of self-promoting: Rivals of Waterdeep is a different style of game, but very true to D&D. I’m a fan of High Rollers – Mark Hulmes is really extraordinary at what he does. I also like Adventure Zone of course…the McElroy’s are geniuses. I’m sure there’s one I’m forgetting…
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us!
We’re very excited about Wildemount. It’s our first campaign grown organically out of 5th edition specifically. I’m hoping that there are a bunch of young people out there thinking “I could do that!” And 10 years from now we might be launching their campaign setting after they’ve launched their own successful show, you know? This is a potential gateway for a lot of new creatives, and so I’m really excited about that.