We’ve reached Wizards of the Coast’s first proper release of 2022: Critical Role’s Call of the Netherdeep, the first adventure set in Matt Mercer’s homebrew setting of Exandria and created in partnership with Critical Role. Netherdeep in particular takes place on the continent of Wildemount, which got a full book from Wizards devoted to it almost exactly two years ago (you can see my full review of that release here).
As with the previous release, I’ll be upfront about the fact that I do not watch Critical Role. I have a great respect for Matt Mercer as a storyteller and creator, and I’ve tried my best to get at least some context for setting details from my Critter friends while working on this review. However, I am approaching this as somebody who has no connection to Exandria beyond what I’ve read as sourcebooks. I see it no differently than a setting like Eberron or Planescape. It’s my belief that a setting like this should work for anybody, not just devoted Critters. Does it succeed? Well, let’s get into it shall we?
Who You Gonna Call?
Character options in this adventure are nonexistant, with the clear assumption that you’ll pair this with Wildemount in the creation of your party. Instead, the big innovation from the jump is the rival party, a group that is equal parts Team Rocket, the Psycho Rangers, and the adventuring party the next table over that can’t keep their voices down. This five man band is led by the hotheaded water Genasi Ayo Jabe, and includes a soft spoken goblin paladin, an introverted drow wizard, a hard partying human rogue with a ton of self doubt, and an ogre named Maggie who’d rather write poetry than get into a fight. They’re built to be as fleshed out as the main adventuring party, and have a full fledged adventure “behind the scenes” that’s shaped by their interactions with the main characters. Similar to the relationship mechanics from Strixhaven, it’s a great way to make the NPC’s of the game feel much more alive.
One of the things this adventure tries to make you do through the duration is really think about the decisions your character is making and how it effects both their own development and the world around them. There’s a strong factional element (more on that later) that carries effects through the game, and how you interact with your rivals can spell the difference between an uplifting, heroic victory and a destructive apocalypse. These choices have always been at the core of D&D, but Call of the Netherdeep puts them at the fore.
Destiny Has Your Number
The general plot of the adventure revolves around the Apotheon, a legendary demigod who warred with the heavens in a time of apocalyptic destruction. It’s been asleep for centuries after being wounded body and soul by a great power, but its alien influence has begun to leak out from the titular Netherdeep, a dark realm with its own magic warped by the Apotheon’s dreams. The gods have called on the two parties to heal and free the Apotheon from his prison, though as with most things in D&D it’s up to the players to decide if all will go as planned. The main Macguffin is the Jewel of Three Prayers. It’s a wondrous item that changes and grows more powerful as time goes on thanks to its connection to Apotheon getting stronger the closer players get to his resting place.
The adventure begins in Wildemount, in the city of Jigow. Both adventuring parties start out partaking in the rather lighthearted Festival of Merit, which serves as a good intro to the world for people unfamiliar with Exandria. It also lets you get to know your own characters and the rivals without the stakes being too high. It very much smacks of the “starter town” you see in a lot of RPG video games. This first chapter sets up a formula the rest of the book follows for a while: go to new place, meet some people, then enter a dungeon underneath it. Rinse and repeat until you get to the high level areas, where things are much looser and the stakes reach astronomical levels. I’m not going to say that Matt Mercer’s extensive work on World of Warcraft directly influenced his planning of this adventure…but I’m not going to pretend there’s not a LOT of similarities.
It’s in Ank’Harel, on the continent of Marquet, where we finally see things break away from the bog standard medieval fantasy of Wildemount. Here, things are much more Arabian, with vast deserts and much more colorful folks to meet. This is where the other interesting mechanic added in by Call of the Netherdeep comes in to play: Factions. These have always been a big part of D&D (Descent Into Avernus has players join several over the course of the story), but Netherdeep goes the extra mile by giving each major faction an exclusive story track that takes up the middle part of the book. The Allegiance of Allsight send you on missions that befit their obsession with the Netherdeep and the lost city of Cael Morrow, the Consortium of the Vermilion Dream’s occult dealings have a dark and more avaricious bent to their dealings, and the Library of the Cobalt Soul desire knowledge at any cost. Each track’s final mission has a dramatic effect on the resolution of the adventure.
The final portion of the adventure is where the question of choice realy comes into play. This is in the Netherdeep itself, down beneath the underwater city of Cael Morrow where the corrupting influence of ruidium is strongest and the Apotheon himself sleeps. Yeah, it’s a bit Lovecraft.
Rather than a simple boss fight, you instead travel through the memories of the Apotheon a.k.a Alyxian as he grows from a child of destiny to a troubled hero to a defeated prisoner yearning for freedom. The battles all involve monsters and manifestations of these memories, and at the end you confront not just Alyxian but his own self-image.
While I have my gripes with Exandria and Wildemount in particular, the adventure really ended up winning me over as time went on. There’s some fascinating concepts at play here and I really hope the writers for this adventure can continue to incorporate more complex ideas into games as time goes on.
The main theme of the story is underlined at the end in big, thick red ink. What is a hero? Why do they work to sacrifice so much, to suffer like they do, when all their work can be snuffed out by the acts of gods? Is the ideal hero an isolated demigod or someone surrounded by friends? Being a hero in Exandria means being in many ways a human wrecking ball. Every choice effects the people around you in ways you don’t expect. A normal D&D game doesn’t dwell on this much, letting your characters sort of swan through things with most consequences left up to the DM. When your party leaves a mark on the world her, it might just end up as a wound.
- Wizards has outdone itself with art in this book. They’ve always done well with including new artists, but there’s much more variation in style to be found here than in others that restrain them closer to the “house style” of D&D books.
- The Rivals could honestly be fun just as their own party for future adventures, and you might even end up with them being set up for more adventures by the end.
- The end of the book features concept art for Call of the Netherdeep, which is a great addition that I hope is continued going forward.
- Unlike other released adventurs, there’s no toolbox to move the story to Eberron, Greyhawk, etc. It wouldn’t be that hard to do, but it’s clear this book is as much an ad for Critical Role as an adventure on its own.
- Speaking of, the little plugs for Critical Role are a little annoying. Not even the Magic the Gathering tie-ins are that blatant.
- The included map of Ank-Harel and the world beneath it is maybe the best map I’ve ever seen in a book like this.
Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep releases tomorrow (April 5 in the EU), and can be pre-ordered at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or at your FLGS for $49.95. It will also be availaible on D&D Beyond and Roll20, with a retail of $29.99.
Images and Review Copy via Wizards of the Coast
Have strong thoughts about this piece you need to share? Or maybe there’s something else on your mind you’re wanting to talk about with fellow Fandomentals? Head on over to our Community server to join in the conversation!