We return once more to the world of Exandria, the home of Critical Role, with Wizards of the Coast’s newest D&D offering: Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep. This 224 page adventure is meant to be a stand alone campaign set in the world of the most popular Twitch stream D&D campaign, but it also expands on the worldbuilding done in D&D: Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.
Whether you’re a Critter, or you don’t know your Pumat Sols from your Dunamancers, here’s some helpful impressions to help you decide if Call of the Netherdeep is for you.
This IS Critical Role
The biggest praise I can place at the feet of this book is that through and through it is a Critical Role campaign. Running and playing through Call of the Netherdeep is as close as it gets to capturing the feel and pace of a Matt Mercer D&D experience.
His tendencies and leanings as a dungeon master and worldbuilder come through in the text and encounters really well: likeable but complex non-player characters to interact with, charismatic factions of opposing sides that the PC’s get to choose to work with, dynamic combat and chase encounters with multiple phases, and antagonists that are loathsome even though you eventually understand what made them the way they are.
For instance, not quite half way through the campaign, the characters find themselves in Ank’Harel on the continent of Markett (The setting of Campaign 3). Here they’re put in touch with two different factions that can help get to the next step in their overarching quest.
What follows are a series of fetch quests and other missions that immerse the characters in the setting, set up possible combat encounters, and have enough space in them to be tackled in a variety of different ways. Each mission could feasibly be handled in a single four hour session (roughly the length of a Critical Role episode). This campaign seems to be ideally made for D&D streamers, but it’s rewarding to any kind of group.
New Mechanic: Adventuring Rivals
The biggest addition Call of the Netherdeep makes to D&D 5e adventure structure is the introduction of a party of rivals. If you’ve seen any of the promotional art for this book, you’ve likely seen these characters.
Ayo Jabe the water genasi, Dermot Wurder the goblin priest, Galsariad Ardyth the drow dunamancer, Irvan Wastewalker the human nomad, and Maggie Keeneyes the ogre fighter.
This group is poised to be the real heroes of this adventure, starting at the same time as the PC’s and competing with them to complete the same quests and tasks. As the party levels up, so do they, advancing up to three tiers of power as the campaign progresses.
Depending on how the PC’s interact with them, and if the PC’s complete the campaign’s quests before they do, these rivals may be friendly to the players, indifferent, or even hostile. They can be erstwhile allies or bitter enemies should the PC’s treat them as such.
I like the addition of rival characters a lot, but I feel like it’s a game mechanic that only certain kinds of groups will find rewarding. It takes a DM and group who love to roleplay and banter to really get the most out of these characters. If your players tend not to be invested much in NPC relationships, these characters may feel more like a nuisance than a creative addition to the game.
Just What Is The Netherdeep?
I won’t spoil a lot of the moment to moment storytelling of this campaign. Just like an arc or season of Critical Role, much of its appeal is dependent on the stories, secrets, and reveals that come up during play. Here’s a bit of a synopsis and explanation though…
…In this campaign, your characters receive a telepathic call from a being trapped in the Netherdeep, an extradimensional prison that they cannot escape without aid. Both you and your rivals receive this call, and the adventure is a globe-trotting trek across Xhorhas and eventually Marquet to find a way into this extradimensional prison to free this being in need.
The Nethdeep is a lightless sea, filled with all manner of corrupted and horrifying sea life. Underwater exploration and combat are a big part of this adventure, and the Netherdeep showcases it in a big way.
The Netherdeep itself is tied to Exandria’s second moon, Ruidus. This small red satellite is an ill omen when it appears in the sky, and its otherworldly forces create a magical crystal-like growth called Ruidium. Ruidium is a powerful arcane reagent that reacts to emotions. It can be tempered and worked into weapons and armor, granting its user tremendous power, but it also has a corrupting force about it. Ruidium slowly warps and takes over any creature it is exposed to, leading to a lot of flora and fauna being turned into terrible monsters.
There’s more to all of this than I can reveal without spoiling things, but if any of that sounds appealing, definitely check this adventure out.
Flourishes upon a Fresh Canvas
D&D 5e’s art and map quality has been on a consistent upswing over the past couple of years. It’s become more abundant, more expressive, and more diverse in its depiction of different kinds of peoples and characters. One of the high marks of this upswing was 2020’s Critical Role: Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. It had a ton of full-color maps by newer cartographers, lots of detailed character and locale illustrations, and even a handful of new monster designs.
Call of the Netherdeep’s interior art and maps follow closely in its footsteps and design choices. Not only are the interiors gorgeous, but all of the illustrations and maps are made in the same style as the prior instalment, which provides a welcome feeling of uniformity. The quality that goes into a Critical Role production seems to be a cut above, and it’s incredibly welcome.
One detail in the book I appreciated is a collection of Max Dunbar’s concept art and character sketches in the back of the book. Similar to the work he did for Tyranny of Dragons and Descent Into Avernus, it’s great to see the concepts and early work that goes into shaping the look and feel of these books.
Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep is a great addition to both published D&D 5e adventures and published Critical Role materials. There’s a lot to love about both this campaign and the world that it’s set in, and it’s a testament to not just the appeal of Critical Role as a property, but its versatility and longevity as an official D&D campaign setting alongside the Forgotten Realms and Eberron and the like.
If you’re just getting started as a dungeon master, and your players are fans of Critical Role and its style of play, this book is an easy recommendation. It’s easy to parse and use for new players, it has a lot of dynamic encounters and roleplaying opportunities, and it’s chock full of easter eggs and references that die-hard critters will love.
Definitely check it out!