Critical Role got its first official D&D book with the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. That was a setting book, and now Critical Role is getting its first full official D&D campaign – Call of the Netherdeep. Call of the Netherdeep is inspired by Critical Role and is set in the world of Exandria, but is not something like a book version of the campaigns from the show. Instead, it’s an all new adventure for characters of level 3-12. Those familiar with Exandria may have more background information on the world, but knowledge of Critical Role is in no way needed to play or enjoy the campaign.
Note that, as a campaign book, Call of the Netherdeep is primarily tailored for DMs (it doesn’t even have any character options). However, this review isn’t going to spoil anything more than you would learn by reading the back of the book, official WotC advertisements, and attending a session zero. But if you want to go in completely blind, you’ve been warned.
Call of the Netherdeep starts in the Wastes of Xhorhas, on the continent of Wildemount. In particular, it starts in Jigow, on the edge of the Kryn Dynasty. As is standard for this part of Exandria, once the seat of power for the Betrayer Gods, many of the inhabitants are “monstrous” humanoids, but here that means a lot of goblins, orcs, and such living like most other folks do – in town, with their families, trying to make do. And the Kryn Dynasty is a run by lawful good drow. Characters don’t have to be descend from any of these ancestries, but they’re easily available as options without having to worry about the DM having the village try to chase your character off. More information can be found in the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, of course, but it’s not necessary to play Call of the Netherdeep.
The adventures in Jigow will set the tone and pace for the book in a lot of ways. Characters will go from Jigow to Bazzoxan near the Betrayer’s Rise and then to Ank’Harel (on the continent of Marquet). In all three places, there’s basically a ‘town’ and a ‘dungeon.’ In all three places, characters will have the chance to interact with their rivals, another adventuring party – and those rivals will grow and change, just like the player characters. In all three places, the characters will need to explore the town and get to know the natives and have the chance to interact with their rivals. In all three places the characters will have to go into that ‘dungeon’ (possibly multiple trips) to achieve their objectives – once they decide what they want their objectives to be (OK, it’s pretty simple in Jigow – they want to win a contest – but it’s more complicated after that).
And in all three places, I would say that three things are true. The first is that how you treat people matters. Yes, Call of the Netherdeep is a D&D campaign and, yes, it has epic fights. But it’s also campaign of relationships, empathy, and personal growth (or the lack thereof, depending on how you want to play it). From start to finish, these things will significantly impact the campaign, both the characters and the world around them. It’s not the only D&D campaign where that’s true. The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, for example, had real elements of the characters’ actions mattering in the world and affecting NPCs, while Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos leaned heavily on the DM making social interaction matter. But I think Call of the Netherdeep is the first where all of these concepts are so baked into the fundamentals of the campaign. That’s most prominently with the rival adventurers, who have been the subject of much of the recent social media push for Call of the Netherdeep. But it’s not just them.
Second, decisiveness matters. Decisiveness is a good trait for a group to have in RPGs in general – few things can bog down a campaign more quickly than players/characters who simply cannot make up their mind about what to do. Unless you’ve got a real “gotcha” GM, making decisions and seeing the consequences is almost invariably more interesting than dithering around and either not deciding or trying to hedge your bets. But decisiveness is especially important in Call of the Netherdeep. As the song says, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
Third, destiny is a fickle myx. As with many hero’s journeys, fate has its role in Call of the Netherdeep. But fate is malleable, and prophecies can have more than one interpretation. The characters’ choices matter. There’s more than one way this thing can go.
But, for all the thematic similarities, that doesn’t mean that things are the same as the campaign goes on. Call of the Netherdeep is a true heroic journey (for the player characters, and for others). And like any heroic journey, that means change. The characters will start off with small-town fun and games, be called on an epic quest, face the lingering darkness from the Calamity on the rough edge of civilization, delve into trap- and-puzzled filled ruins, behold a glittering metropolis, navigate their way between competing factions (there’s a full set of interlocking quests for several factions, giving the players real choice), and do a little non-dungeon archeology. And that’s before they finally dive into the sunken realm of the Netherdeep, a realm of sorrow and corruption that provides one of the most emotionally fraught D&D experiences ever printed. And all along there will be their rivals, making their own decisions and being affected by the characters’ decisions.
Call of the Netherdeep is a demonstration that you don’t need to make a campaign stretch over 20 levels in order to feel epic. In 10 levels of play, Call of the Netherdeep manages to infuse almost every step with heroic and/or emotional heft. It isn’t perfect – there is one level worth of content that’s basically just random encounters in transit from Point A to Point B. Like any good epic, it opens with simple foundations, then a moment of revelation, and then it just keeps weaving everything together into what might be the most satisfying conclusion we’ve seen in a 5E campaign. Like a lot of recent 5E content, this one is not going to scratch your itch for an old school dungeon crawl. But if you want a really emotionally meaningful campaign – without the DM needing to improvise every single bit of the social stuff – it’s hard to beat.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy. Strange Assembly may earn commissions from affiliate links in this article.