The best first party 5e adventure to date.
It doesn’t matter that I’m not into Critical Role or the way they play Dungeons & Dragons. Regardless of my opinion on Matthew Mercer’s DMing or the cast of voice actors rallied around his table, it’s one of the reasons that the game is bigger today than it has ever been in its entire history. I know folks that have never played D&D but are big fans of the shows. I know folks that got into 5e- indeed, the best official version of the rules that have ever been printed- strictly because of the show. It ain’t like it used to be, where you’d come to D&D through flipping through the books in B. Dalton, watching the cartoon, or when the socially awkward kid in the neighborhood manages to get a basement group going. More than that, the kind of fantasy that D&D represents now has changed. The old pulp fiction saints of “Appendix N”- Howard, Vance, and so forth – have next to no resonance with most of today’s players. Their referents are Final Fantasy, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Peter Jackson moreso than Tolkien. Regardless, the gatekeeping bros of the Old School Renaissance -chiefly aging white male gamers and younger iconoclasts nostalgically pining for a kind of Platonic ideal of what playing D&D in 1981 was like even though they weren’t alive in the 80s or 90s in some cases- rail against 5e and accessible vectors for entry like Critical Role.
As a DM and player that spends time in both the OSR and 5e spheres, the new Wizards of the Coast publication of Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep strikes me as a kind of inflection point where a 2022 conception of Dungeons & Dragons reaches its full flowering. It’s a level 3-12 adventure module based on Mercer’s Exandria setting. It features plenty of material that I’m sure “Critters” will delight in, while those of us outside of that bubble are resigned to appreciate strictly as a vivid and honestly quite exciting combination of modern fantasy sensibilities and remixed vintage D&D concepts. When I got the review copy I kind of shrugged at it. I didn’t even review The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount because they didn’t send one and I didn’t feel like buying it. So I figured that this book wouldn’t really be something I’d be interested in.
Smash cut to me sitting in my Jeep reading it during my daughter’s ballet class. Slow zoom as I look up from the book. Line: “This is actually really fucking good”.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Call of the Netherdeep has blown me away. I’ve not run it – the book is barely out in the world – but it will be the next thing I run after Goodman Games’ brilliant 5e conversion of Temple of Elemental Evil. This is a stunning adventure book that seems to avoid a lot of the things I didn’t care for in some of the other WOTC-published 5e books. It’s lithe, more tightly written, and gives the DM and players plenty of room to play with the pieces. It’s a world-sweeping storyline yet it avoids the sloggy, sprawling feeling of Tomb of Annihilation or Storm King’s Thunder. It doesn’t feel so beholden to the older game, it’s offering something new. This is an adventure that starts with a pie eating contest and ends up in one of the best end boss battles I’ve ever read in a D&D book, an emotional and highly charged struggle where Charisma (and compassion) might just be your ultimate weapon.
If that’s the way you want it. There are multiple outcomes and threads that develop over the course of the game, and for those who argue that these kinds of books are “railroady”…well, this book usually gives you three or four different tracks to choose from at different points throughout. I’m really impressed at how the writing accommodates for variables, meaning that the DM in most cases is going to have a baseline for how to proceed in almost any circumstance.
There are so many elements I love in this adventure, but the crown jewel is how it introduces a rival adventuring party. This group of fully realized NPCs with their own agendas and ideals grows along with the party and their destinies often meet. This can go in any direction. When the party meets the rivals, it’s all about competing at festival games but eventually the stakes continue to rise throughout the storyline. There is change in the characters. And the party chooses how to react to these adventurers. Maybe they kill one or more of them outright early on, setting up a more dangerous and antagonistic relationship. Maybe they become friends and staunch allies. Or that alliance could evolve as one of convenience and mutual need.
This is also my first experience with Exandria and already I think it should replace the tired-ass Forgotten Realms as the de facto 5e setting. This is so much more alive and compelling than the Sword Coast. It also does some great work toward erasing some of the uglier aspects of D&D as a concept, including some of the racist and colonialist overtones that have haunted the game since its earliest days. There’s still work to be done but it needs to be done in Exandria and not in legacy settings firmly couched in and borne from dated politics. About two hours after I finished reading Call of the Netherdeep I had the Wildemount setting book in my hands and I’ve been impressed with it as well.
As a taster for what Wildemount offers, Call of the Netherdeep’s wide-ranging environments are rich and compelling, from a fishing village to an underground grotto, from an ancient fortress to an Egyptian-influenced metropolis. But the piece de resistance is undoubtedly the massive underwater (!) Netherdeep. It’s a dungeon alright, but it’s a wholly unique and utterly fascinating one. I don’t want to spoil any of it, but just to give a taste, one chamber is the main antagonist’s (if he can be called that) childhood playroom. The challenges and concepts in the last act really show how far D&D has come from going into a hole in the ground and robbing goblins of their GP.
I haven’t stated much about the actual story but I think it’s outstanding. It’s deeper, richer, and more introspective than you might expect. Essentially, it’s about a mythic hero from Exandria’s past who becomes trapped in a sort of psychic prison. The players are called (hence the title) into an adventure to find and rescue him from sorrow, self-doubt, and despair. Throughout the narrative, the players will actually encounter physical manifestations of his emotions as a kind of almost radioactive element called Ruidium, another element I really like. There’s also competing factions, plenty of traps and puzzles, and lots of great encounters including some great new monsters.
But you know what, all of that is kind of the “expected”. What makes Call of the Netherdeep so great is how unexpectedly innovative and forward-thinking it is, how it is bold enough to push 5e into spaces that previously would have been more the domain of indie creators. It feels much more maverick than recent titles like Rime of the Ice Maiden and it has more focus and indeed a sense of vision than other 5e books of late.All this said, I can not completely recommend this book for everyone. The dogmatic OSR bros are going to get their hackles up about that pie eating contest and those that think D&D is all about keeping accurate time records and counting torches are going to likely rail against it. It does require, I think, a solid commitment on the part of the DM to really bring the most impactful beats of the story to the fore while also balancing that with the squishier elements where the players are effectively dictating the narrative path. I also get a sense that this whole thing is going to live or die at the table based on how invested your party is in RP encounters. Those preferring a tactical game without relationships getting in the way of the murder hoboing would best look elsewhere.
Call of the Netherdeep is the best in-house 5e supplement published to date other than the compilations of classic modules that they’ve done, but it’s very much an apples and oranges comparison there. Held against previous WOTC adventures written for 5e, it simply smokes them. Even Curse of Strahd feels dated and maybe even a little corny compared to this book that suggests a more evolutionary, progressive path forward for the game. I can’t wait to run it; it doesn’t matter that I don’t like Critical Role.