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“It’s been a wild experience,” Matt Mercer says when we ask about the continued success of livestream behemoth Critical Role. “None of us expected anywhere near this level of attention. It’s equal parts exciting and scary, if that makes any sense. We’re really thankful for the opportunities and are carefully taking each step.”
With a Critical Role: The Legend of Vox Machina animated special in production following a massive $11.4 million Kickstarter campaign, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see an official D&D fifth edition sourcebook based in Mercer’s world shoot to Amazon’s number one bestseller spot based on preorders alone.
“No pressure! I’m still processing it. It’s still so weird and crazy, I hope this doesn’t ever seem like a normal thing for us. I really don’t. We understand and respect the amount of good faith people are putting into us to do the things we do, and there’s a very strong sense of responsibility. But everyone who’s helped me on Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount has done an incredible job. I’m very proud of the work we’ve all done and I’m excited for people to get their hands on it.”
No one can accuse the Explorer’s Guide of skimping on content. Boasting 304 pages on everything from Wildemount’s creation myth to its geography, while also cataloguing its deities, races, subclasses, creatures, and unique spells and artifacts, it’s guaranteed to bring the continent fully to life. Even the most ardent Critter who has devoured every episode of the Critical Role livestream will find plenty to surprise them.
“A lot of these elements existed as general themes in my head, just not as detailed and fleshed out. As any Dungeon Master knows, there’s only so much you can write and create when you’re running a campaign because there’s only twenty-four hours in a day and we’re all paltry mortals. You usually flesh out your world as the players encounter it, but I have now had to do that entirely, which was a unique challenge. Thankfully I have good people helping me to carry some of that bandwidth and bringing their creative ideas to my broad strokes.”
Part of the process of fleshing out Wildemount has been the creation of a gazetteer. This classic D&D term used to refer to a complete overview of a region: from its economics and geography to wider sociological elements and its place in history. It’s a fitting use given the level of detail included in the sourcebook.
“This guide doesn’t only contain maps and location information, it breaks down Wildemount region by region. That includes information about the mood and feel of a place alongside the racial diversity of a location, the population variance, titbits about the military and who’s in power in the region, as well as detailed sidebars explaining specific locations or experiences that can be found there,” Mercer reveals.
“A lot of the locations have one or more plot hooks designed to inspire a DM to incorporate a cool little element within their campaign. There’ll also be some Easter eggs in there for fans of the show, and a few nice reveals that the players and viewers never got a chance to see. I’m excited for folks to start running into those too.”
SPELLS AND SUBCLASSES
Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount also contains a new type of magic called Dunamancy, which builds on the existing magical practices within fifth edition D&D. This magic originates in the Kryn Dynasty, although it has spread beyond the drow into the rest of the world. Mercer describes it as dealing with the fabric of the universe and having its basis in science, suggesting it’s the type of magic Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan would wield if they were wizards.
“Dunamancy is a magical school dealing with time, space, quantum physics, and astrophysics, focusing on probability, potentiality, the realization of timelines and alternate realities, the passage of time, entropy, and all of these facets. There is a lot of gravity and minor time manipulation,” he says.
“They’re very much dealing with the fabric of the universe, using the base idea that matter itself can be manipulated in many ways. It’s a little high concept and there’s more to wrap your brain around, but the spells themselves inform the overall theme much better. For example, a spell like dark star essentially creates a small singularity that sucks everything in and deals force damage. It’s like a tiny black hole in the middle of the battlefield.”
The Dunamancy spells in the sourcebook will be available for use by three subclasses, although Mercer suggests a deity could also grant the spells as boons to any magic user. These three subclasses are:
“The echo knight is a fighter subclass, which plays into the multiple timeline theory and uses anticipatory energy. There’s a vibration towards making strong choices in your life. When you make those choices, you solidify the next future timeline while other possibilities eventually decay and fall away. An echo knight has the ability to temporarily pluck an echo of themselves, one of these shades of an unrealized timeline, into their own reality. This shadow of themselves can fight alongside them and has a bunch of really fun utility options, both in and out of combat. An echo might aid a character or attack on its own, and can move and exchange places with them on the battlefield. I think people will enjoy playing this very mobile and flexible fighter.”
“The chronurgist has the ability to manipulate time. They are more naturally in tune with the flow of time around them so they can get the jump on enemies by improving their initiative using their intelligence modifier. They can also cast spells and lock them at the moment of casting, so those spells can be utilized at a later time. Their abilities also enable them to temporarily place an enemy in stasis and remove them from the fight.”
“A graviturgist can adjust the density and gravity of themselves and the things around them. They can make objects easier to carry by making them weigh half as much, or make people weigh twice as much so they are a little sturdier and move more slowly. They can help an ally move more quickly towards a target to inflict additional damage or make a target fall harder. The gravity wells they create around the creatures they attack can also help them move those creatures around the battlefield, like chess pieces on a board.”
The world of Wildemount also contains a number of incredible magic items for players and NPCs to collect and wield. These Vestiges of Divergence actually grow with a character and become more powerful as they advance. Rather than being something that happens when a character levels, these improvements occur during suitably epic in-game moments and represent a moment of growth for the character as well.
“There is no mechanical method for the advancement of the Vestiges, it is always based in story. The point at which they level up might be tied to specific character goals or happen during moments of great crisis or victory. Perhaps a player runs into a longtime rival and during a showdown with them is about to fall. In that final moment, their weapon may suddenly awaken and advance to give them a boost of additional strength in a truly cinematic moment. We offer lots of suggestions on how the Dungeon Master chooses the moments they allow that to happen,” Mercer says.
“A handful of the Vestiges are neutral, but a whole cluster of them are tied to the history of the betrayer gods and would be considered weapons or objects of dubious morality. You could give them to your villains or even give them to your players and have them wrestle with what is essentially an evil artifact. Do they use it to do good things, or embrace it and do bad things? That’s up to them.”
With so many new spells and artifacts to kit party members out with, it’s almost possible to feel sorry for the monsters on the continent of Wildemount. That would be a mistake. The Explorer’s Guide contains 23 new creatures, many of which are specific to the world and pretty nasty. Some are the remnants of a war between ancient magic-using societies in the Age of Arcana, where the feuding parties bred monstrous, experimental creatures to use against their enemies. Others were left behind by the demonic betrayer gods at the end of the previous age and now roam the wastes as natural creatures.
Whether you encounter those beasts depends on where you begin your adventures in Wildemount. Mercer came up with the idea for the modular set-up in Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, where the adventure had four possible villains depending on which season it was in the city. Explorers Guide to Wildemount offers four possible starting scenarios across the continent in a similar fashion, adding more replayability to the sourcebook.
FROM VIEWER TO PLAYER
Critical Role has played a big part in helping bring new audiences to Dungeons & Dragons, and the success of its fifth edition sourcebook suggests many of those viewers will be venturing into Wildemount themselves. Mercer says it would be immensely satisfying to carry their audience along with them and turn them from viewers into regular players.
“That was a big point of inspiration for even wanting to create this book. I’m hoping it definitely helps bring more people to the game by showing them how easy it is to play,” he says. “There will be many folks whose first real introduction to D&D might’ve been Critical Role. If they feel like they know Wildemount from following our show and we provide a familiar place in this comprehensive guide, I hope they’ll pick it up, read it, and be excited and inspired to run a game. I want them to say, ‘I’ve watched this show for a hundred-plus hours, I get the mood, I get the themes, I’m going to go ahead and grab some dice and get some friends together and run my first adventure.”
Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount is released on March 17, 2020 with an MSRP of $49.95 and is available to preorder now.
MAPS OF WILDEMOUNT
Artist Deven Rue shared a map of Tal’Dorei on Twitter to celebrate the Vox Machina campaign, and found herself becoming the official mapmaker for Critical Role. She tells Dragon+ how her colorful style and eye for detail bring the settings alive in the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.
How did all of this start?
The funny thing is that Matt Mercer and I followed each other on Twitter before I became his cartographer. I’m a huge fan of the show and when it reached the end of the first campaign, Taliesin Jaffe said his character Percy would hire artists to tell the tale of Vox Machina. In response I made a commemorative color map of Tal’Dorei and posted it online, tagging Matt. I wanted to send him the original so we were chatting and I said, ‘If you ever need a map, just let me know.’ His response was, ‘Well, we are starting a new campaign….’ He asked if I could draw something so they could have it made into a prop map and I thought that was funny, because not only do I make full-on prop maps for my own players, I’ve also done the same thing for plays and productions, cosplayers, and a lot of other people. We worked out the details and I made the first map. It came out looking fantastic and he loved it.
And that relationship has continued?
I didn’t know if Matt would ever ask me to do another map but when the story went into another area, I jokingly said, ‘I guess we’re working on another map then?’ He replied, ‘Yeah, I’ll send you the stuff soon.’ And it just kept going from there.
Your work will also now feature in an official D&D product. What does that feel like?
The 14-year-old me is still having a really, really hard time processing it. Does not compute. I don’t know if it’ll ever sink in, even when I have the book in my hands in its tangible form.
How did you first get started making maps?
I made a prop map of Skyrim because I’m a huge Elder Scrolls fan and the internet went crazy over it. Everybody was asking, ‘Can you sell me a Skyrim prop map?’ and my reply was, ‘No, it’s copyrighted!’ Then people started asking if I could make a map of their homebrewed worlds. I’m so used to people who homebrew content and draw their own maps as part of that, it just didn’t occur to me up until that moment that I could make maps for other people.
Is there one map that’s the most popular?
The Steppes of Augrudeen is my most popular map. It’s very colorful. It encompasses a wide range of biomes and has all these waterfalls flowing into a river. It took me roughly eight weeks to make. My most downloaded map is Faerûn and the Sword Coast.
What will we find in the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount? Because a guide needs plenty of maps!
We have 16 maps in total. That includes the beautiful map showing the continent of Wildemount, which Chris Perkins quickly flashed when he was talking on D&D Beyond. It’s a nice big map that can be folded out, and we wanted it to have a really olde-worlde feel to it.
What was the biggest challenge?
We’ve also got some city maps, which are a little terrifying to work on. As an artist it’s hard to draw something that we have all imagined in our heads. Matt describes every little detail, so I’ve tried to keep it as close to his vision as possible because I don’t want to break someone else’s immersion in the story. I still try and give every map its own personality and that usually involves a really interesting palette of colors. I actually wondered if they’d ask me to tone that down a little because I color the roof of each individual house on my city maps.
Will the maps instantly give us a feel for the places they depict?
Even though the maps we use today are functional, maps can be used as propaganda. It’s a way for a kingdom to manipulate the way we see them, and they might claim they are a much more impressive territory than they actually are. You can see that with the map I made of the Dwendalian Empire. Its kingdom is the main focus and when you reach the borders everything else instantly fades to the background, because they don’t care about anything outside of their territory.
We love that your website is called Rue Ink. It sounds like somewhere people go to get a tattoo they know they’ll definitely regret!
The hilarious thing is that Rue obviously means to regret but it also means road. And my first name means divine. It’s either a divine regret or a divine road.