The first 5th Edition adventure from Critical Role and Wizards of the Coast, Call of the Netherdeep is a dynamic and engaging adventure, incorporating new pieces to the standard fifth edition adventure style and leaning into the tried and true pieces that allow it to cultivate the best story possible. We’ve seen published content from Critical Role and Darrington Press, and we got the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount published for fifth edition with Wizards, but this is the first adventure from the partnership. While I’m sure there was trepidation regarding this book’s release, the success seen by the previously released content as well as the resounding success of products worked on by Mercer, Haeck, and many others involved in this project should have left no one surprised at how great this adventure is.
A New Adventure in a Familiar Setting
Call of the Netherdeep is an adventure designed for five players, starting at 3rd level in the Xhorhasian city of Jigow who will advance to 12th level by the adventure’s conclusion. For tables looking to start at 1st level and gain another level of introduction to Exandria, the “Unwelcome Spirits” adventure in the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount is perfect for adventuring parties starting in Xhorhas and can progress them to 3rd level prior to starting Call of the Netherdeep.
It is an adventure that brings a diversity of locations, but does not necessarily create many opportunities for wild exploration. There are moments of travel between key locations, such as traveling from Jigow to Bazzoxan, to experience travel and exploration of the landscape of Xhorhas. As the adventure gains momentum and the party advances in level, travel is expedited to allow for a more engaging narrative arc and to avoid the loss of momentum (or the potential for the party to become too sidetracked) that can come from extended travel between story beats, especially at higher level.
For many players, Call of the Netherdeep might be their first exposure to Exandria. Others might be familiar through Critical Role, and some might have delved into the books and resources that have already been published. This book allows for all of those players to participate, bringing tips for new players experiencing Exandria, as well as details about what sort of key information should be made available to the players at the start of the adventure. Beginning the adventure in Xhorhas allows for an easy integration for players wanting to play some of the more uncommon races typically expected in adventuring parties, or hail from lifestyles that might have been more ostracized in other settings. A group consisting of a water genasi born to half-orc parents, a goblin, a 12-foot-tall ogre, a human raised in the Xhorhasian wastes, and a drow doesn’t draw a second glance in a place like Xhorhas.
The dynamic of the rival adventuring party, along with their necessity to the story, is a wonderful new addition to this adventure, and is something I hope allowed for more creativity in adventures to come. Call of the Netherdeep provides a full breakdown of who the rival adventurers are, what their goals are as a group and individuals, their motivations, and mechanics for roleplaying, controlling, and fully utilizing them in the story. They are meant to be both a tool for the Dungeon Master and a mirror for the players, offering a push and pull aspect within the overarching adventure. They can reflect aspects of the players’ characters and stand apart in other ways, and just as importantly they offer the Dungeon Master another powerful tool for storytelling, motivation, and depth. The rival party is something that is familiar to D&D, but new to published 5e content from Wizards of the Coast. Having published rules and mechanics help make this far more accessible to less experienced groups and Dungeon Masters. The advancing stat blocks (yes, the rivals level up as the players do) allow them to progress, multiple sections explore the causes and effects of different interactions, as well as roleplaying suggestions all serve to fill out what could have been an overwhelming addition to the adventure.
The adventure crafted by the incredible writing and story team sees players travel across Xhorhas, from Jigow to Bazzoxan, and then to Ank’Harel, the “Jewel of Hope,” in Marquet. From there, the adventure can follow one of three story tracks depending on which faction the party falls in with, giving echoes of the narrative style of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist which both Matthew Mercer and James J. Haeck (Project Leads on Call of the Netherdeep) also worked as Story Consultant and Designer, respectively. The journey from Ank’Harel to the ruins of Cael Morrow and into the Netherdeep allow for brilliant storytelling and expansion of the lore of Exandria. The history of Cael Morrow is tied to the Calamity, the war between the Prime Deities and the Betrayer Gods, and the story creates opportunities for the rich mythology of Exandria to be incorporated into the adventure. The story of the Apotheon is beautiful and tragic, masterfully crafted by the creatives behind this book. Likewise the adventure brings unique challenges. Cael Morrow, known as the Drowned City, and the Netherdeep are both underwater, forcing the adventurers to contend with finding ways to breathe and deal with the crushing weight of the deep. Equally important is the exposure to ruidium, a crimson element that can imbue some of its power to objects, but has the potential to corrupt creatures that come into contact with it for too long.
More than a Story
One line that jumped out to me early on in this book was “The true nature of Ruidus is a topic to be explored in other Critical Role stories.” Ruidus as one of Exandria’s moon and an omen long associated with woe and misfortune brings the nature of curses and fate into the same realm that has typically only been reserved for the gods and their dominion, at least in 5th Edition adventures. It gives a new aspect to these ideas that have always had a role in Dungeons & Dragons, but now on a new level to mirror how powerful a storytelling aspect it has been for Mercer and the players at his table. Creating an avenue for it to play a role within this adventure while not being an “end-all” or uncompromising aspect that takes away player agency is really well done, and creates a dynamic that ends up placing more power in the hands of the players. It gives them more room to determine how they respond and react, rather than arbitrary decisions coming solely from the text of the adventure or predetermined by the Dungeon Master.
The choice the place the details of Ank’Harel as a location, the “Ank’Harel Gazetteer,” in the chapter sequence of the adventure rather than at the end of the book is a divergence from previous D&D publications. Adventures such as Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus both had their section dedicated to exploring the details of their cornerstone locations, but always had them with the rest of the reference material indexed after the adventure. Similar to magic items, new spells, and stat blocks, that organizational style kept all the reference material in the same location in the book. The result of having it in the adventure is that while it’s physically close to where it is first relevant, it’s less useful as a reference and can actually become a block to the relevant points used to actually run the adventure. In my opinion, keeping it indexed in the back of the book allows for an easier time for the Dungeon Master to decide when and how much they will reference it. In the sequencing of the adventure, it makes for a lot of dense lore and location details that aren’t immediately necessary for the progression of the adventure. Ank’Harel is a rich and vibrant location, and certainly deserves the section that is dedicated to it. It is a significant part of the adventure, and the details absolutely are what make it come to life. Additional location and cultural information is a cornerstone of D&D, and of what Matthew Mercer has created, but I think the decision to add it to the chapters of the adventure rather than dedicating a section in the reference materials and other resources makes for a less optimal usage of space.
As a worldbuilding resource, Call of the Netherdeep offers great insight into Ank’Harel as a location, as well as Jigow and Bazzoxan in Xhorhas. Between subtle references to details familiar to fans who watched Critical Role and brand new content, it does even more to build out the world of Exandria. Paired with Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, it would beautifully supplement a campaign that spans the continent. With the release of Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting Reborn earlier this year from Darrington Press, it’s great as a fan to see Matthew Mercer’s world continue to grow and become more accessible for players at their own tables.
Call of the Netherdeep strikes the perfect balance of original content with beautiful storytelling and the familiar, nostalgic aspects of Exandria. The references are sprinkled in for avid fans of Critical Role, but the heart and soul of this adventure is fully its own. The intersection of expansive worldbuilding is conveyed just as effortlessly as Mercer’s brilliant same design, crafting adventures that are dynamic and evolving as well as encounters and conflicts that challenge players’ abilities to think creatively and improve. This is not a one dimensional adventure, and provides the tools to allow the players and the Dungeon Master to weave a brilliant story together.
Critical Role Presents: Call of the Netherdeep is published by Wizards of the Coast and created in partnership with Critical Role.
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