Dungeons & Dragons is enjoying a renaissance in recent years, reaching its highest popularity levels ever. One factor driving that growth is the success of actual-play podcasts/shows like Critical Role—where a dream team of accomplished voice actors sit down weekly to play the world’s premier tabletop roleplaying game. The two enterprises have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, so it’s only fitting to see the show jump farther into the game.
Thus we have Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep, the latest premade adventure for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, and the second Wizards of the Coast sourcebook from the show’s setting, Exandria. Unlike the previous book, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, this is a full-fledged campaign taking players from level 3 to 12; the first book is not required, but would be an asset.
First, let me assuage one concern you may have: no, you don’t need to have consumed hundreds of hours of Critical Role content in order to run or play in this campaign. Personally, I have only a passing knowledge of the show, and had only watched the first half of their Amazon show, The Legend of Vox Machina, when I received a review copy, but all the background I needed was in the first pages. (Of course if you are invested in Exandria already, you’ll enjoy this even more.)
Call of the Netherdeep sets the table for the DM with an efficient introductory channel, laying out setting details and concepts unique to this adventure. It’s somewhat heavy, yet captivating; from what little I have experienced of the source, I have the utmost respect for DM Matthew Mercer’s storytelling skills, and I was fascinated by the background he set up with the folks at Wizards of the Coast.
The story revolves around the Apotheon, a mythical hero from Exandria’s past who slumbers deep beneath the earth, stewing in his regrets. Visions draw the party to investigate this demigod’s tale and stop the corruption caused by ruidium, a crimson element born of the Apotheon’s fermenting power.
One key feature of Call of the Netherdeep is the use of a rival party, who will cross paths with the players early on and progress alongside them, functioning as foils and adversaries. These characters are brought to life with descriptions, evolving stat blocks, and abundant roleplaying tips, to the point that they feel like they could have been actual player personas in the show. Previous sources like Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos have played with these ideas, but this tome steps up their application.
The adventure itself feels a little more prescribed, trying to hold your hand more than recent adventures like Wild Beyond the Witchlight. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it might even be for the best, for parties looking for an adventure that feels more like Critical Role—but it does mean DMs will want to adjust their preparation time accordingly.
“Critical Role represents the pinnacle of what good, fun Dungeons & Dragons play can look like, so it’s fitting that Call of the Netherdeep should also be a gold standard sourcebook.”
Along the way the party will defend a drow settlement, travel across Exandria from Wildemount to Marquet, seek favour with factions there, search a sunken city, and arrive in the Netherdeep to confront the Apotheon himself. The climactic showdown is one of the best approximations of a video game’s final, multi-phase boss I’ve seen translated into D&D yet. It truly feels like a campaign worthy of both the Critical Role name, and the playtime it would take to explore it properly. Multiple endings, depending upon the Apotheon’s fate and the group’s real-world investment in Exandria, would even help establish a follow-up campaign.
As is tradition, the campaign’s unique enemies and magic items are included in the appendices. Some foes are more adventure- or setting-dependent, but are nonetheless worthwhile if you can adapt them for use outside Exandria. (I know I’ll be using the Sword Wraiths in my own campaigns.)
The items lean toward one-time-use boons, but one particular item features heavily in the story, and is a masterclass in design. My mind was buzzing with ways to reappropriate or adapt ruidium and ruidium-imbued weapons as well.
For the collectors, it’s worth noting that there is no independent store-exclusive alternate cover for Call of the Netherdeep. The art direction throughout the book is fantastic, with a ruidium-styled motif, detailed maps, and abundant character art, so it’s almost a shame that we didn’t get a premium cover to match—but this is a small quibble.
Critical Role represents the pinnacle of what good, fun Dungeons & Dragons play can look like, so it’s fitting that Call of the Netherdeep should also be a gold standard sourcebook. The campaign offers a little bit of all the game’s features, and inspires players to rise to the occasion with a grand adventure. Newcomers may balk at the depth, but I have no doubt that players who run the entire campaign will emerge better for the experience.