Review: Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount

In a surprise move, Wizards of the Coast partnered with the streaming show Critical Role to release a campaign setting product detailing the continent of Widemount, the location of campaign 2 of the Critical Role live stream. While they had previously teased in Descent into Avernus that the world of Exandria was part of the D&D multiverse, this was still a bit of a twist as far as products go. Although not entirely unprecedented, as there were a number of licenced D&D products in 2019, including Acquisitions Incorporated, Rick & Morty, and Stranger Things

For the unaware, Critical Role is the popular actual play livestream game where a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors get together to play Dungeons & Dragons. The cast spends much of its four-hour sessions speaking in-character and having extended in-character discussions or lengthy roleplaying scenes. At the time of this writing, campaign 2 just passed it’s 100th episode a few weeks back 

Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount is the second Critical Role campaign setting, following the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting, published by Green Ronin in 2017 (but as of a few months ago the licence expired and that book is no longer in print). 

What It Is

Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount is a 304-page hardcover book that acts as a gazetteer to the continent of Wildemount on the planet of Exandria. It’s the standard full colour WotC product with a poster map at the back. 

Included in the book are a whopping twelve reprinted player characters races, four brand new new subraces (one elf, one halfling, two dragonborn), three new subclasses (one for fighters, two for wizards), sixteen new spells, thirty-odd magic items plus a few “artifacts”, a couple dozen new monster stat-blocks, and four small introductory adventures in the middle. 

Each D&D book tends to have a new mechanic as a centrepiece, such as the patrons in Eberron: Rising from the Last War and factions in Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. In this product, the new addition is the Heroic Chronicle subsystem, which is a method of randomly generating a character’s origin: producing a number of allies and rivals, fateful moments, a prophecy, and your favourite food.  

The book starts with a five-page introduction to the setting; 23-pages on history and the gods; 21 pages on factions—such as the various empires and other noteworthy groups—including the names and backgrounds of important NPCs in those factions; a gazetteer that fills a good hundred pages (!); 40-odd pages of character options; 50-pages of adventures; 15-pages of magic items; a bestiary covering 21-pags, and ending with a two-page glossary and a one-page index. 

For the curious, this book was written around episode 50 and doesn’t contain any details of events that occur after that episode. But the book does have a few revelations that could be considered spoilers (such as the nature of the Traveller) and many, many other details that haven’t been revealed or occurred in the campaign.

The Good

The quality of a campaign setting product very much depends on how good the setting itself is. So the big question is “how is the setting of Wildemount?” 

It’s… okay. 

That may seem overly harsh, but WIldemount is pretty generic. A generic high fantasy kitchen sink homebrew campaign setting with a very minor twist. In this case, the twist is that the eastern “evil land of evil” dominated by drow, duergar, orcs, goblins and the like—which is slowly covering their land in an unnatural magical darkness—(spoilers) isn’t really all that evil. And the western “good kingdom of good” ruled by the wise human king is actually rather intolerant to other peoples and religions. It’s actually a rather slick bit of subverting tropes and expectations, while simultaneously countering complaints regarding evil races in D&D (which has been around for many decades, but has certainly come to the forefront of gamer’s minds in recent months). 

In many ways, Wildemount is your generic high fantasy kitchen sink homebrew campaign setting done for the 21st Century, retaining much of the classic elements while jettisoning some of the inherent racial baggage of the 1970s. While other D&D fantasy words have had the “civilized kingdom of monsters”, such as Droaam in Eberron, the kingdom is still often presented as evil and negative. In this setting, the Kryn Dynasty is no more evil or good than the Dwendalian Empire, and the conflict between them isn’t one of Good versus Evil but a much more familiar clash of opposing cultural values and manipulation of outside interests. 

Moving on, the book features both the actual names for the gods as well as their titles. The campaign uses the “Dawn Pantheon” from 4th Edition D&D with the addition of one god from Pathfinder. Previously, this meant Green Ronin’s Tal’Dorei book could only use titles for the gods and not the names. As this book includes both, you can easily find out who is who and compare the two. The book also includes Raei, the Everlight. Also known as “Sarenrae”, this god was pulled from the Pathfinder RPG (owned and published by Paizo) and thus needed a rebranding. The book also includes several lesser idols, which are basically warlock patrons, but can serve as cleric deities in a pinch. There are some nice nods to the past here, such as Vesh (who was the god of a guest star’s cleric in campaign 1).

The book features several city maps, which are an often forgotten part of campaign settings. There’s three maps of the major cities and a few smaller maps in the adventures. And while on the subject of the maps, this product returns to the full colour maps seen in past D&D products, and doesn’t make use of the simple monochromatic line-art maps we’ve seen in the last few D&D products. I much prefer the full colour maps.

As the land is divided into factions, it makes sense that each of these is given some extra attention. Each factions’ histories and goals are described, as well as their relationships with other factions. This is nice and it means the factions don’t just stand alone, but are connected in the world and have alliances and rivalries. 

As you would expect from a 100-page chapter that occupies a full third of the book, the gazetteer includes lengthy descriptions of the regions and nations. This section is subdivided into the seven major regions of the continent, with descriptions of key features in each region along with settlements, city demographics, relevant local information, and occasional sidebars on small elements like types of wine or famed mercenary companies. Most large locations and cities have a couple adventure hooks provided, which are categorized as low, mid, or high level to give you an idea of where they should fit into a campaign. This is very similar to how this information was presented in the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting. The book tries to find the “goldilocks zone” between giving you endless details that serve no purpose and having too few details forcing you to invent large swaths of the world, all the while helping you tell stories and make campaigns. It doesn’t just try to be a guidebook of the world and is very aware this serves a game purpose. Even if you have zero interest in running a game in this world, the sheer amount of hooks will inspire you to some degree. 

As a game product this book is rather useful. There are plenty of player races, including reprints of a dozen races from multiple different books. Wildemount is arguably the book to get for more PC races. Included in these reprints is the aarakocra (previously only found in the digital Elemental Evil Player’s Companion and tortles, from the digital product released for charity.  Given tortles are a fan favourite, having a physical copy of them might be worth checking out the book. 

The three subclasses are fine. The echo knight is by far the stand out, being a magical fighter subclass that allows you to teleport or attack from multiple spaces. It’s very unique, flavourful, and setting specific—but not so setting specific that you couldn’t justify having it in other worlds. (For example, it’d be effortless to reflavour the echo to be their shadow and call this the “shade knight.”) The wizard subclasses are chronurgy magic and graviturgy magic, both tied to dunomancy, the magic of possibility. Although how graviturgy connects is pretty tenuous at best. The chronurgy subclass has some neat ideas and should be balanced, but it’s not the best chronomancer I’ve seen. I didn’t walk away wanting to play one like the echo knight. Probably because by focusing on manipulating die rolls it feels a little too similar to the school of divination. The graviturgy subclass is more interesting in that it does more unique things, but being a “gravity mage” just feels like a subclass better suited to a science fantasy setting. 

The product makes heavy use of artists from the Critical Role fan community. Because not all of these artists adhere firmly to the Wizards of the Coast house style, this can be a little uneven. But I never saw any bad pieces of art and there are some fantastic bits of art. Too many campaign setting books only show the world though it’s inhabitants, and that’s not the case here: there are many landscapes and illustrations of settlements or the terrain. 

The presentation of NPCs in the book is also excellent. In the adventure, the antagonists have motivations and personalities, so they aren’t just nameless monsters. They have personality traits and quirks. Unsurprisingly, there’s a decent mix of genders in terms of NPCs and not all the people with authority are white cis males. In fact, there are multiple gender neutral NPCs who are just part of the world.  

The Bad

While I praised the book for striking a balance between being a large guidebook and gaming supplement, I suppose this comment can be seen from the other perspective: for Critical Role fans who don’t play D&D this book will be an interesting guide to the world but will contain a fair amount of useless game text. It’s not just a big fantasy travelogue. 

Like the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting, the blood hunter and gunslinger are not included. Also, the cobalt soul monk (from the no-longer available Tal’Dorei book) isn’t in here, despite that subclass having been revised since it was printed AND one of the characters of the campaign being a monk of that order. That feels like a more irritating exclusion. 

The big new mechanic in the book is the Heroic Chronicle, which is so-so. This was hyped in a few places and I was excited to see what it offered, and was rather disappointed that it was just another random character generation method. It’s useful for randomly picking a background, home region, hometown, and the size of your family but it’s not very exciting. It’s simply not that different from the random background generation in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. There are too few fateful moments, making it easy to get doubles. And some of the benefits are much stronger than others, with some basically just being straight penalties.  

The orc race is updated here, removing their intelligence penalty in an attempt to address complaints of racism. (Which is good.) The book mentions the “curse of ruin” which is rumoured to make orcs violent, but the text on page 178 makes it explicit that it doesn’t exist and orcs are no more prone to violence than humans. The curse of ruin is just a negative stereotype. But earlier phrases in the book imply the curse to be factual. This feels like a last minute revision. Meanwhile, four pages earlier, there’s a lengthy sidebar on the “curse of strife,” which affects goblinoids and is the reason they’re innately evil. Having a curse affect goblinoids rather than orcs isn’t any less problematic. 

The Ugly

The following complaints are pretty much 100% pet peeves.

First, because it’s published by a different company, this book doesn’t match the Green Ronin version on my shelf. I like matching and consistency. 

I’m also not sure why this book was published by Wizards of the Coast rather than Green Ronin. WotC has a wealth of classic settings they could have published that are just lying fallow. Settings only they can publish. Unlike this tome, which any book publisher could have handled. And WotC doesn’t need multiple generic kitchen sink fantasy worlds; this book means a new Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk book is much more unlikely. D&D didn’t need the Critical Role sales boost. But had they stuck with Green Ronin, they would have helped a small publisher make money in an industry when everyone but WotC and Paizo has trouble sustaining sales. Plus, by changing licence partners, the Tal’Dorei book was forced out of print and newcomers to the stream (or the forthcoming Adventures of Vox Machina animated series) won’t be able to purchase it now. 

Here I’m going to trudge into the weeds of worldbuilding and get nit-picky here. (As I wrote a book on the subject this is something I care about and it’s hard for me not to notice the flaws; if you don’t care, please skip the rest of this section.) 

Frankly, the nitty-gritty design of the world is a lot shakier in Wildemount than in Tal’Dorei 

The continent is pretty damn small. This was a problem in the Tal’Dorei book as well, as that was really the “island” of Tal’Dorei. This book goes so far as to offer a stealth re-sizing, doubling Tal’Dorei’s size. However, at 1600 miles north-to-south, Wildemount is a little smaller than the continental United States of America. Which wouldn’t be a big deal if the southern region—the Menagerie Coast—wasn’t hot and tropical while the northern Greying Wildlands were cold tundra. (Ah yes, everyone is familiar with the lengthy stretches of permafrost covering Washington state.)

Rivers are a repeated problem in the book. Big cities tend to form by the coasts, or on rivers by the coast. Especially since large cities need a lot of water. Many of the big cities in this book (Zadash, Rexxentrum, Rosohna) are nowhere near water.

Meanwhile, there are several impossible rivers. No fewer than three rivers flow from one ocean to another (marked in yellow) and another river flows uphill through a mountain range before emptying in the ocean (marked in blue). 

Apparently, the sea level to the southeast is much lower than the sea level in the north. 

The Awesome

Did I mention the amount of world lore? Because there’s a lot. Arguably more than Eberron: Rising from the Last War and definitely more than Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. This setting book is probably more akin to the many campaign guides that came out in 2nd and 3rd Edition than the recent products by WotC. Which is probably necessary; while there is a whole library of sourcebooks on Eberron and a wiki and several novels for Ravnica, this might be the only book of lore Wildemount receives. It has to stand alone.

And it’s not just places where the campaign has gone. It’s not a who’s who of famous NPCs from the stream. There’s factions we’ve barely seen, important NPCs in the nations who have never come up, places that were ignored or circumvented, and so much more. 

I’m really fond of a lot of the naming in the book. There’s a good mix of real world terms and fantasy made-up names. But the fantastic names all flow nicely. You can tell they were made to be spoken aloud and were written by someone who talks for a living. There’s no R.A. Salvatore gibberish names. 

There are several Easter eggs and references to the campaign, but nothing in this book seemed to require viewing. You could easily come into this book not knowing anything about roles, critical or otherwise, and walk away with an understanding of the setting. In the book I saw five references to Vox Machina from campaign 1 (in largely unavoidable places), which averaged roughly one every 50-pages. Probably less than some famous groups in the Forgotten Realms. And I only saw a single reference to the Mighty Nein (the heroes of campaign 2), which isn’t very surprising as they were only level 8 during the timeline of the book 

Speaking of the book’s timeline, it picked an excellent starting point. The book takes place when the Dwendalian Empire and the Kryn Dynasty have gone to war. An active conflict between two nations opens up a lot of stories for adventurers but wartime campaigns are rare. It instantly creates stories, character motivations, and tension. Even if the war is just in the background or the characters are neutral, having the main army of the kingdom occupied means fewer soldiers saving the day and leaves more room for adventurers.  

Unsurprisingly, there’s a few custom monsters in the book that appeared in the stream. Gloomstalkers, the devil toad, and moorbounders aren’t surprises, but I love the addition of the gearkeeper construct. And the horizonback tortoise is just neat.

Final Thoughts

Wildemount isn’t the best campaign world, or the most interesting setting for 5e, but Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount is probably the best 5th Edition campaign setting product to come out of Wizards of the Coast. It’s a nice, generic setting that can easily serve as the foundation for many campaigns. It’s simple and classic, yet also modern. And most importantly it actually has a decent amount of information on the setting, rather than just giving each nation 2-3 pages, and it does so without losing the focus on adventure.

For people uninterested in the setting, it’s a useful book for character races. You can safely declare Volo’s Guide to Monsters a DM-only book and not take away much content from the players. It’s just a handy book to have on the shelf. 

For Critical Role fans, this book is an interesting read that will give you a better grasp of the world, it’s history, and various locations in the world. Most of the book can be consumed with no knowledge of the game and with limited risk of being spoiled. And if you want to set your campaign in Exandria and have adventures off to the side of the Mighty Nein, then this book is just perfect. This and the Basic Rules or Essentials Kit would make for a great introduction to the game.

For non-Critters, the book serves as a decent campaign setting and a source for inspiration on plot hooks, characters, locations and more. You won’t be lost reading this book or feel you need to watch hours of content to understand the world. If you want a simple, classic fantasy world then this is an excellent choice. It doesn’t redesign the wheel or flip every trope on its head, but it makes enough changes to feel fresh and less culturally dated.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this article, you can support me and encourage future reviews. My disposable income, which is necessary to buy RPG products, is entirely dependent on my sales.

Seriously. I’ve been unemployed for 3 months, in part due to Covid-19 and my ability to pay for and review books is dependant on sales. Plus, y’know, making rent and buying food.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including Who’s Doomed, a book of 5e stat blocks of darklords for the Ravenloft campaign setting, which is a huge passion product. And if it sells well, I’ll add additional darklords to the product.
Others include the Blood Hunter Expanded, my bundle of my Ravenloft books, the Tactician a level 1 to 20 class, Rod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (And now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

Plus, I have T-shirts available for sale over on TeePublic! The art of which can also be put on cloth masks.