What began in 2012 as a bunch of friends playing RPGs in each other’s living rooms now attracts over half a million viewers each week on livestream. Currently in its third campaign, the show features seven popular voiceover actors diving into epic adventures, led by veteran Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer. Even if you’ve only just passed a Strength (Athletics) check to lift up the rock you’ve been living under for the past decade, the likelihood is you’ll know we’re talking about Critical Role.
The world’s most famous tabletop roleplaying livestreamers are busier than ever. Having recently returned to screens both small and extremely large for campaign 3, critters also have the upcoming animated series The Legend of Vox Machina to look forward to from February 2022, as well as the official D&D adventure Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep set for release one month later.
If the word “Netherdeep” suggests that a set of mariner’s armor would be a wise investment, then you’re getting the watery picture. Not since Ghosts of Saltmarsh have the seas been so treacherous. Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep features a host of terrifying creatures living so far underwater you wouldn’t normally encounter them.
“My inspiration for the Netherdeep comes from my long-term fascination with the Mariana Trench and all the unknown, deep, lightless spaces that we’re still barely scratching the surface of,” Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer tells Dragon+. “No life should be able to exist in these high-pressure, high-temperature, volcanic habitats. But the creatures that adapt to these environments not only exist, they thrive, evolving into alien forms. I wanted to evoke that space in a fantasy setting and we’ve conjured up some nightmarish denizens.”
Concept Artist Shawn Wood was the first to tackle these ghastly ocean dwellers, before Critical Role’s army of artists got to flex their creative muscles.
“When you unleash Shawn’s imagination in a space like the Netherdeep, he comes back with incredible designs. One of my favorite facets of a project like this is seeing how artists take a nugget of imagination and then bring it to life in ways that are far cooler than you ever thought possible. It’s been fun to offer a few prompts and then let Shawn’s talent run free. When you see the results, the only reaction you can have is, ‘Wow, that’s terrifying!” Matthew remembers.
“Critical Role is also very supportive of its fan artists and that’s extremely important to me. We get to do what we do because so many wonderful people support us. We’ll take any opportunity we have to pay that forward and bring others up with us. The art team at Wizards asked if we had any recommendations for artists we wanted to work with, and we were able to point to a vast list of talented people.”
Players won’t simply see how terrifying these creatures are, they’ll also go toe to tentacle with them. Explanations on how to run combat within Call of the Netherdeep include optional rules that really bring home how different and dangerous this environment is. Rules for underwater combat already exist in the Player’s Handbook (you’ll find them on page 198), but DMs will have the option to add a little extra flourish to battles taking place at such depth. Borrowing from real-world experiences such as the effects of pressure, they’ve been written so as not to overload Dungeon Masters with unwieldy options.
“There’s always a delicate balance between introducing elements of minutiae and maintaining what can already be a crunchy adventuring experience. We wanted to ensure that these additional options reflected the unique challenges and fear that comes from exploring this space, while not overwhelming newcomers,” Matthew says.
Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep follows Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. Matthew says that when the opportunity arose to collaborate on another project with the D&D Team, he knew that he really wanted to tell a story.
“Whether or not people are familiar with our show, I want this to be an adventure within the world that we’ve established that they can make their own and enjoy. I had some elements of lore in my head that I didn’t think we’d necessarily get to use, based on where the streamed game had taken us. I thought these unique nuggets of history would make fun facets to put into an adventure module like this. So I went ahead and broke down the arc of what I think is a really cool story and presented it to Chris Perkins. He agreed and told us to assemble our team and go for it.”
One of the first pieces of lore players will encounter started life as a teasing side note in a description in the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount:
Always at Odds
Despite the peace between the peoples of Jigow, their long-standing rivalries require other outlets wherein they can express their need to conquer and gloat, which is why Jigow celebrates competition in any form. Whether the rivalry of the day is a contest between hunting parties, a cooking competition, or just children playing sporting games, the people of Jigow love turning amicable rivalries into a loud and colorful spectacle—especially when they can make bets or help their chosen side cheat to achieve victory.
Matthew understands that classic roleplaying tropes often have characters meet for the first time in a tavern or see new heroes pulled into dangerous circumstances that force them to bond, and he wants Call of the Netherdeep to tread a different path. The storyline starts in the coastal city of Jigow, where players take part in competitive events as part of the Festival of Merit.
“We wanted the beginning of the story to be something that immediately builds character and relationships beyond a threat of danger and the idea that we’ve come together because the world needs saving. We wanted instead to begin these relationships on a more playful footing,” Matthew explains.
“The atmosphere of Jigow is one of a community based in rivalries settled by competition. Displaying skill, intelligence, and strength is seen as a social merit in its own right, especially during an event like this. The Festival of Merit offers many opportunities for the players to succeed and fail without resorting to life and death circumstances. And then, when life and death circumstances do eventually enter the storyline, that doesn’t wholly define these characters’ connections and who they are.”
Another location that plays a big role in Call of the Netherdeep may be familiar to longtime fans of Critical Role’s streamed games. Ank’Harel was touched on briefly when Vox Machina spent a short time there hunting down a Vestige of Divergence. The city has now been fleshed out, courtesy of a gazetteer written by Makenzie De Armas and a double-sided poster map created by cartographer Deven Rue.
“I have a deep love for Ank’Harel and was keen to expand on the setting,” Matt says. “So much of what I’d previously written has never been experienced by my players because they came and went so quickly, which is the nature of roleplaying games. As I began telling this story and setting out elements of the world lore, I saw the opportunity to flesh it out so it could be explored further. And then to be able to bring in an amazing writer like Makenzie De Armas to add even more life and vibrancy to it was incredible. The gazetteer offers an extensive view of the city and shows there are many different paths to follow, numerous factions to get involved with, and different ways to pursue this story. And Deven’s poster is not just a great art piece, it’s also a very useful tool for the DM and the players as they begin to explore this desert metropolis.”
Dragon+ spoke with Matthew as campaign 3 of Critical Role was about to air its first episode, and while Call of the Netherdeep isn’t specifically connected to that storyline, it does tie into some of the larger world lore.
“What I’m excited about is that campaign 3 takes place in Marquet. That’s the same continent where the city of Ank’Harel in Call of the Netherdeep is located, though we start campaign 3 in a separate location,” he explains. “And because of the nature of D&D, I don’t know what the players are going to do or where the story is going to go. But there are a lot of facets within this book that are steeped in the history of Marquet, as well as existing Exandrian lore.
“So I wouldn’t be surprised if some facets of campaign 3 either allude to or possibly intersect elements that are mentioned within this adventure. And I think that’s a really cool, unexpected way to tie the two together, if that’s what happens. But if anyone’s watched our show and knows my players, they do some weird stuff, and I have no idea what’s going to happen!”
Call of the Netherdeep contains a handful of new magical items to add to your party’s loot pile. Matthew says some of those will have “unique narrative elements” that tie into the adventure.
RIVALS OF NETHERDEEP
Matthew admits that part of the fun of creating Call of the Netherdeep was making sure it contained winks and nods for the critter audience, while also being fully accessible to anyone who might not have that same level of interaction. One of the more subtle elements to make it into the book is Matt’s personal style as a Dungeon Master, showcasing his love of character development.
“Those who aren’t as familiar with our show can get an idea of the elements we like to emphasize when we play a roleplaying game. And that involves having colorful, fleshed-out nonplayer characters and having personal stakes in the parallel narratives that deal with those NPCs.”
Call of the Netherdeep takes that aspect of Critical Role to a whole new level. A fun mechanic in the storyline has characters interacting with a similar party whose members dog the characters’ footsteps throughout the campaign, effectively operating as rivals.
“I’ve played a lot of RPGs, and it’s natural for the story to be centered around the players. But I love the idea that the party has the realization that they’re not the only adventurers out there,” Matthew says. “Suddenly they understand that if they aren’t going to step up and answer the call of fate and they wait too long, somebody else is going to grab the opportunity. That adds a ticking clock to the narrative and helps build relationships with these rival characters, depending on how those interactions go.”
The five characters that make up this rival party are featured on the cover of Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep, surrounding a mysterious central figure. How the player characters interact with them defines the nature of the relationship between the two parties. The rivals can be playfully competitive and function more like allies. Or, based on the characters’ choices, the relationships can lean toward jealousy and anger, turning rival party members into enemies.
“It’s easy to assume that because these characters are rivals they should be considered enemies to fight. That’s definitely one way to go. But we wanted to offer the opportunity for DMs to think outside the box and to allow the players to build those relationships in a natural way that allows for dynamic change,” Matthew says.
“The rival party might start off as friends and then something goes south and the characters write them off as villains for the rest of the story. Conversely, the characters might want to try and redeem those relationships. Alongside the overall narrative goals of the storyline, you also have personal goals. Are you going to try and one-up your rivals, stop them in their tracks, or make friends with them? There are lots of different ways to play out this narrative.”
If running five NPCs sounds like a lot of work, there’s plenty of guidance in the book that explains the rivals’ interactions and their personal goals to make their addition as easy as possible. Matthew says a major achievement of this adventure is that it’s designed to be run by anyone, no matter their skill level as a DM.
“The team has done a great job of balancing that feel between not being talked down to if you’re a very experienced DM, but helping you run the most memorable adventure you can if this is your first time,” Matthew says, noting that the individual stat blocks for the rival NPCs increase in challenge rating as the adventure progresses.
“Depending on the circumstances in which you encounter them down the road, you might be surprised that they’ve learned a few things, too.”
“I was delighted for the opportunity to work with the amazing creative folks at Wizards again, and for the trust they put into me and the incredible team that brought this together,” Matthew says. “While it’s my overall story and I oversaw the creation of this book, James Haeck came in as my co-lead and helmed the lion’s share of its development. I needed someone that I trusted to know and understand Exandria, who also had experience on similar projects, and he’s done a phenomenal job.
“And the writing team we assembled is fantastic. LaTia Jacquise, Sadie Lowry, Cassandra Khaw, Makenzie De Armas, and Hannah Rose all took parts of the story that inspired them and ran with them to bring those facets of the world to life. I’m super excited for people to get the opportunity to enjoy what we’ve put together.”
Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep releases March 15, 2022 and is available for pre-order now at your local game store, bookstores such as Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million, or online at retailers such as Amazon. A digital version is also available at D&D Beyond, and Roll20.