Review – Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount (Dungeons & Dragons)

The early years of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons were characterized by an emphasis on campaign/adventure books, and an avoidance of setting books. As of October 2018, there were nine of the former (Hoard of the Dragon Queen, The Rise of Tiamat, Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss, Curse of Strahd, Storm King’s Thunder, Tales from the Yawning Portal, Tomb of Annihilation, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist) and only one of the latter (Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide). The latest D&D book – the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount – emphasizes a departure from that early trend, marking the fourth setting book released in that time frame (the other three were Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica, Acquisitions Incorporated, and Eberron: Rising from the Last War), with one more on the way (Mythic Odysseys of Theros).

Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount continues another trend of those recent setting books, in that it’s about a setting not previously featured in Dungeons & Dragons (only Eberron was a published D&D setting before 5E). Wildemount is one of the continents of Exandria, the world of Critical Role. In particular, Wildemount is the setting for the second ‘season’ of Critical Role, featuring the adventures of the Mighty Nein (the part of Exandria explored by Vox Machina and featured in the first season of Critical Role was covered in the 5E compatible Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting, from Green Ronin Publishing).

I am given to understand that many, many of you watch/listen to Critical Role, to the point that I have heard it suggested that Critical Role is in no small part responsible for the success of D&D 5E (certainly it is a big contributor to the current explosion of tabletop RPG actual play content of all sorts). So many people will approach the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount from the perspective of fans of the show. I am not one of them. I have never made my way through a single episode of Critical Role, much less possess a fankid’s grasp of the whole thing. So this review of the Explorer’s Guide is, of necessity, going to approach the book entirely from a tabletop gaming point of view, and not from a show fan point of view.

Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount released on March 17, 2020. It is a full-color hardcover. In terms of page count, the pure setting material covers ~160 pages, character options run ~45, adventures take up ~60, and treasure/bestiary content for the GM makes up ~35.

The Setting

Understandably for a setting based on a campaign/show, Wildemount feels like a place poised for explosive action (reminiscent of how, once upon a time, Dragonlance was poised for explosive action). The Dwendalian Empire and the Kern Dynasty aren’t hostile but static political entities; they’re hostile political entities who just started a hot war right now this very second. That sense of everything is about to happen – and what that everything is – is part of what distinguishes Wildemount as a campaign setting. There is a certain level of “real world” in Wildemount – both sides engage in intrigue and get their hands dirty, governments have factions and corruption, that sort of thing. Another aspect is the particular historical blender that the traditional D&D fantasy elements have been put through to achieve a fresh configuration.

The history of Exandria and Wildemount involves titanic struggles between the gods, who were a physical presence in the world for most of its history. The most extensive of these conflicts destroyed the high magical civilization that existed at the time (conveniently producing a wealth of higher-powered magic for the characters to find), after which the mostly-good prime deities dragged their counterparts back out of the material realm, and locked all of them out, good and bad. The deities of Exandria are largely local variations on traditional D&D deities. They also set the tone for the gender/orientation diversity on display throughout Wildemount, including Corellon (an iteration on the genderfluid Corellon Larethian) and a same-sex couple in Erathis/Melora. The various NPC write-ups include plenty of same-sex relationships, and the drop-down menu for basic NPC descriptions (e.g., Lawful evil male human) includes more than one option beyond the binary.

This historical background, and some modern developments, leave the gods in an unusual place. In the biggest power on the continent, only the worship of certain prime deities is permitted. Services can only be held in official state-sanctioned temples. And the sermons are all written in the capital and then distributed to priests for delivery. The worship of some gods is driven underground and the worship of others is twisted to the purposes of the state, and there doesn’t seem to be much the gods can do about it. The second-biggest power practices a religion that doesn’t involve the gods at all. Life is probably not as simple for a cleric in Wildemount as it would be in most D&D settings.

That biggest power is the Dwendalian Empire, a human-centric monarchy that much more closely resembles a modern age monarchy than the medieval version more commonly appearing in fantasy. The ruler and the magical equivalent of nobility contest for power behind the scenes. The ruler doles out propaganda and whips of xenophobic sentiment to try to stay popular while high taxes fund the military and get bled away to corruption. The second-biggest is the Kryn Dynasty, which blows a big raspberry at everyone who ever hated Drizzt-clone characters by setting up an entire nation of dark elves (drow) who have (mostly) moved to the surface and rejected Lolth. Their territory includes some of the most blasted terrain from the final godswar, which is largely inhabited by monstrous humanoids. This leaves the Kryn as sympathetic in some ways, in that they get to stand up for species being universally lumped into the evil category …. but then they also have a nation with a lot of folks who are usually labeled monstrous humanoids for a reason.

The other large-ish geographic/political chunks of Wildemount are the Clovis Concord along the Menagerie Coast, which is a multicultural collection of coastal cities who happen to have a pirate problem; and the various tribes of the Greying Wildlands, who present as a disorderly, savage lot. In addition to these geographically limited regions, there are other factions that contest within or across nations – the organized crime of the Myriad, the Cerberus Assembly (the noble mages mentioned above), the evil folks recruited by Lolth to punish the Kryn (Children of Malice), the melded elf/dwarf city of Uthodurn (which turns the usual elf-dwarf enmity on its head), the monks of knowledge who try to both serve the conflicting goals of king and truth (the Library of the Cobalt Soul), and those pirates (who are probably not as fun as their name, the Revelry, makes them sound). The elven/dwarven team-up isn’t the only twist on a fantasy race, with the dragonborn featured in a society that until recently saw one version of dragonborn subjugating the other.

The Player Options

The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount presents a lot of new ancestry options, plus new class options and a few backgrounds. However, the apparent plethora on the ancestry front isn’t as much for someone who already has prior 5E books, because most of them are repeats. I imagine some of them (e.g., aasimar, goblins) are included because characters of that type featured in Critical Role (also aasimar are inherently nifty anyway, so I don’t mind seeing them spread more). Others I’m not sure – several are explicitly referenced as being very rare or unusual, which makes me wonder why they’re repeated here (e.g., firbolgs, genasi, goliaths, kenku, tabaxi, tortles).

That leaves one semi-new species, the aarakocra (who are also not common in Wildemount). They have previously been in a published D&D 5E product, but it was the relatively obscure Elemental Evil Player’s Companion. Their biggest draw is probably just being able to fly (sorry, Kenku). In addition to entirely new ancestries, there are subraces. The non-reprint options here include the pallid elves (pale moon elves) and Lotusden halflings (forest halflings). The pallid elves, in particular, could be appealing because their inherent ability to have advantage on every single Investigation and Insight check is a helluva thing – those get rolled all the time in a lot of campaigns (especially Investigation). Also useful for a Wildemount campaign than the reprinted mechanics is material on how different ancestries are viewed in different parts of the continent, especially given the political assumptions that are likely to be made.

Another ancestry-ish option is the supernatural gift Hollow One. In addition to being a cool name (thank you, T.S. Elliot by way of Mage: the Ascension), they give a way to keep dead characters around – they’re intelligent, undead-ish creatures that don’t have a bunch of extra powers.

The magical concept of dunamis (or, as like to call it, general relativity) informs the class options. Wizards get two new school options – chronurgy and graviturgy (and an array of spells to go with them). Fighters get the echo knight martial archetype, which is a powerhouse. It lets the fighter manifest an ‘echo’ of themself in a nearby space. The fighter can then move that echo around and move between the two spots, making extra attacks and getting to make attacks from both locations (including attacks of opportunity). At higher levels the fighter can use the echo to scout, block attacks, and heal.

There are two mechanical backgrounds include, the Grinner (a setting-specific rebel organization; reminiscent of the Harpers in the Forgotten Realms) and the Volstrucker Agent (one of the secret police type organizations in the Empire).

There’s also a new system referred to as a ‘heroic chronicle,’ but I think the title is a bit misleading. It’s just making a backstory (where are you from, what was your family like, did you have allies or rivals, etc.). It’s got a lot of random tables for this, and my long-time readers will no I’m not fond of random tables for creating backstory. I’m especially not fond when mechanical consequences are shoved in them, as they sometimes are here. Players shouldn’t get (or not get) things like extra proficiencies or feats because they had a random roll during character creation.

The Rest (for Players)

The remaining content – adventures, treasures, and the bestiary, is primarily aimed at DMs. Down at the bottom of this review will be more information, including spoiler-bearing looks at the adventures. This part is a spoiler-free look for players.

I was a bit thrown by the adventures in the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. With such an emphasis placed on the newborn war, and advice on how to run a campaign that featured the war (either in the foreground or the background), I was expecting the adventure part of the book to feature that aspect, running the characters through some broader plot elements. So I was surprised to learn that, instead of one set of adventures running 60 pages that took the same characters through events, it was instead four separate pairs of adventures for characters of levels 1-2. Each adventure is supposed to be for new DMs and players, to give an introduction to D&D and one of the areas of Wildemount (one adventure is set in each of the four main geographical areas of the continent). I found that less useful. D&D already has a couple of great entry-level products. And by doing the adventures this way there isn’t as much tie-in to part of what made Wildemount stand out to me (although there is some). Additionally, only two of the four adventures were solid (Dangerous Designs and Frozen Sick); the other two were … not so great. Although being identified as starter adventures for new DMs/players, both presented elements that I believe are likely to cause problems for a new DM.

There are two chunks of magic items in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. There’s the normal stuff, and then there are legendary items that grow more powerful with the character. The latter, which I presume tie into the plot on Critical Role, are always a welcome addition. One of the things D&D generally does not do well is having a cool, iconic item that a character can start with or acquire early on, and then continue using over time. Grandma’s non-magical heirloom sword just isn’t going to cut it at level 9. Items that grow with the players get around that. On the ‘normal’ magic item front, I am sure that the Amulet of the Drunkard will be popular – it provides healing (once a day) when the wearer has an alcoholic beverage. The Ring of Obscuring allows the user to drop fog clouds a couple time a day. On the high-end potency side of things, the Orb of the Veil grants boosts to Wisdom, darkvision, and advantage on checks to find hidden doors/paths – what do I care that it’s cursed?

In the bestiary, I am quite fond of horizonback tortoises, because having an entire village mobile on the back of a tortoise is pretty great. Other sorts of monsters with multiple entries include monstrosities left over from the crash of the flying city of Aeor and spawn of elder evils from the Blightshore.

Wrap-Up (for Players)

The best part of the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount is the setting. Which is a pretty good start for a setting book. There’s an interesting mix of the known that provides a freshness without overwhelming players/DMs with a stack of entirely new mechanical elements. It lets the setting focus on how the players and their story will be affected by a different sort of governmental (and inter-governmental) system than what is usually present in a fantasy setting. I just had to get through the history and factions chapters to think that this was a cool place well worth exploring.

The downside, then, is where we didn’t get as much of that as I would have liked. The inclusion of a variety of not-really-new ancestries that don’t seem important to the setting was puzzling to me, but ultimately that doesn’t take up a lot of space. What I did find disappointing was the adventures. Two (out of four) were good, but I had really wanted all of that page count to be a more involved adventure that would better explore the themes of the setting, not just give brief glimpses of some locations (or just one shorter adventure, with another 45 pages handed back to the setting section).

The Adventures (for DMs)

As noted above, the four adventures generally line up with the four primary geographical/political zones of Wildemount – Dwendalian Empire/Marrow Valley (“Dangerous Designs”), Kryn Dynasty/Wastes of Xorthas (“Unwelcome Spirits”), the Menagerie Coast/Clovis Concord (“Tide of Retribution”), and the frigid north (“Frozen Sick”). Essentially, if you want to start a campaign in a particular area of Wildemount, there’s an adventure for that.

Each adventure is divided into two parts, with the characters increasing from level 1 to 2 in between. In general, the first part is a bit looser in structure, with the characters having more freedom about what order to do things in, and more of an emphasis on investigation. The second parts are, in general, tighter in structure and more combat-focused.

My favorite of the adventures was Dangerous Designs. It starts off with the character witnessing a jail break. In the first part, they investigate the escape and then nab the escapee. This takes them (literally) to the door of a cave system with information that the mastermind lies within. Part two, then, is the ‘dungeon’ experience. I like this one because (1) it directly ties in with the overall action of the setting; and (2) both sections are tightly put together to make things easy for the DM. The overall plot is that the nasty fellow in the cave is planning to use explosives to bury the nearby gnomish town – and the Kryn Dynasty is funneling him resources to do it. For the DM, the investigation part is solidly laid out. There are clear ways for the PCs to find the clues and then clear next steps when they find them. And the dungeon gets the job done, with some interesting encounters and nothing that’s just going to wreck an unprepared group. Also, the bad guy basically has an exosuit, which is cool.

My second favorite was Frozen Sick. An explorer has died under mysterious circumstances, killed by what the characters will eventually discover is a disease called Frigid Woe. The characters have to investigate, finding more victims, finding out what the cause of the fatal condition is, and then figuring out (generally) how to cure it. Again, there’s a solid set of paths for the characters to take. They have clear options, and it will be clear to the DM how to handle those options. There’s also an adorable couple (Irven and Fenton) and their adopted Tiefling daughters (Honor and Magic) – the PCs are the ones who figure out they’ve been infected, and then the terrified family is a great motivator to get a move on for part 2. In part 2, the characters have to go off to the frozen north (where the original victim had done his exploring) and find the cure in the long-forgotten magical bioweapons lab. There’s some environmental hazards for the DM to deal with here, but extreme cold is pretty straightforward.

Unwelcome Spirits see the party running a rescue mission for a local monstrous humanoid tribe. The best part here is the simple presence of horizonback tortoises, including a massive ancient one laying there in the swamp. The tribe’s warlock has gone missing, and they (accurately) presume that she’s been captured by a recently-arrived force from the Dwendalian Empire. The first part is the trip through the swamp. There are some encounters in the swamp, but you kind of have to force them at the players, and even then there isn’t a reason for the players do interact with some of them, other than “because they were there” (indeed, if the characters lolligag, a Bad Thing happens). Then they get to the fort that’s been build by the Dwendalians. If they didn’t get there fast enough, then the kidnapped warlock has been tortured to death and brought back so many times that her mind broke and she’s been possessed by her not-so-nice patron. This is a potential problem for two reasons. First, it can feel crummy for the players, who have no way of knowing that they’re on a clock. Second, it means that everything about the second half has to be presented in two different ways (depending on whether the warlock has gone crazy/powerful and killed most of the Dwendalians), which is a hassle for the GM to sort through. But, more importantly, when the characters get to the fort there’s no immediately apparent way to get in. They can’t break through the front door. They can’t talk their way in. And sneaking in is very difficult (and risky). I think there’s a real chance of a novice DM with a novice party just hitting a brick wall here.

Finally, Tide of Retribution features a sahuagin attack on an island town and some subsequent retribution by the characters. The initial attack strikes me as a nightmare for a starting DM to manage. There’s backstory for the DM that the island will be sunk by earthquakes that are part of the attack. That isn’t actually conveyed to the players, but the adventure just seems to assume that the players will know about it. It’s a tiny town that’s being attacked (like, 10 buildings) – it’s going to be wiped out fast. But there’s no sense of urgency in the adventure. There’s no timeline to tell the DM what happens when. There are instructions about how it will take 10 minutes for the characters to loot this innocent person’s home, but common sense would say that everyone in the town is dead or gone by the time the PCs emerge with their ill-gotten gains – but that isn’t addressed. In the transit away from the island, and then back to the vicinity of the island for part 2, there’s more than one fight that involves NPCs as well. The adventure sort-of suggests how the DM can avoid dealing with this situation (which is a pain for an experienced DM) – but it seems like the better option would just be to not put the situation in the adventure in the first place. Then the second part of the adventure is basically underwater, which means that everyone has to learn the rules for underwater combat. There’s also an attempt at moral ambiguity here, but it doesn’t really pan out. Sure, it turns out that the ‘nice people’ who are ferrying the characters around are pirates, but nowhere in the adventure do the pirates do anything bad. The write-up for the sahuagin leader tries to make her sympathetic (e.g., the islanders have been killing our shark buddies). But the sahuagin just murdered a bunch of villagers. And the leader sank an island with earthquakes. And the characters interrupt her in the middle of a ritual that turns the villagers bodies into sharkbody abominations. Most players are not going to see a lot of grey in that scenario (especially since they will probably never hear her side of the story, which only comes up if the characters are defeated due to their inability to cope with underwater combat).

Ultimately, I liked two of the adventures, but found two of them lacking. Frozen Sick and, especially, Dangerous Designs should provide good starting points for a new party of characters. I do wish, however, that these 60 pages had been used to provide one longer experience (maybe levels 1-7), with more of a tie-in to the action of the world. Because that intrigue and conflict seemed like one of the highlights of the setting, and I would have liked a bigger hook for it.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

 

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