Review: Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting

Spinning out of, Critical Role, the hit Geek & Sundry Livestream* D&D game, is the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting book. This product details the main continent of the campaign and is set roughly a year after the Chroma Conclave arc of the show (coinciding with Episode 95 onward). The few included rules elements are designed for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

Published by Green Ronin, the book is written by the setting’s creator—the Dungeon Master of CR — Matthew Mercer, with some help from James Haeck (of En5ider fame). Unlike some of Green Ronin’s more recent books, the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting was not funded by Kickstarter. PDFs are available now on the Green Ronin e-store, and (at the time of this writing) hard copies are soon to be available in game stores. Pre-orders *were* available online, but copies ran low – despite being an anticipated high seller – and a new print run is expected in the Fall of 2017.

* Critical Role is also now available as podcast, so if you hate the sight of human beings, or want to listen during a commute, now you can.

Disclaimer: I’m totally a Critter. I have also worked with co-author James Haeck at least once and think of him as a cool dude. And I might have ended up working with him more, had this book not happened and occupied his time. So there *could* be some bias.

What It Is

The book is a full colour 143-page book focusing on the continent of Tal’Dorei on the world of Exandria. This review is based on the PDF, but the physical book is a hardcover. The book includes four new subclasses (blood domain, path of the juggernaut, runechild sorcerer bloodline, and way of the Cobalt Soul). There are also nine new feats, five backgrounds, and sixteen magical items.

The book begins with eight pages of history, a page-and-change on campaigns, eight pages on the Pantheons, seven pages on the local races, and eleven pages on assorted factions. The bulk of the book is spent on the fifty-eight pages devoted to the setting, which is subdivided into 7 regions and ends with two pages devoted to other lands/ contenders, which will likely be the focus of future books.

The book ends with a section on monsters, including how existing monsters fit into the world and over a dozen new monster stat blocks. While most of these are new humanoid NPCs, there are a couple new inhuman foes.

The Good

The world of Exandria is fairly simple. It’s your generic fantasy world without a “twist”, and complete with your standard “near apocalypse” in the distant past that provides ample dungeons, forgotten lore, and magical items that can no longer be recreated. Nothing particularly exciting or noteworthy here. But if you want or need a generic kitchen sink world, this will comfortably fill that need. It’s a solid alternative to Greyhawk or Mystara. While some neo-grognards will chafe at the idea of this potentially replacing the world-that-Gygax-built, it’s just as useful of a world and far more detailed than the old ’80s folio that launched a hundred campaigns. While the world includes some of the classic tropes of fantasy RPGs, such as elves and dwarves that don’t like each other, the setting at least tries to explain and justify this hostility.

The design of continent works. Mostly. There are no impossible waterways (rivers running uphill, splitting, or not going to a lake or sea/ ocean), which is a personal pet peeve. The only unnatural bits of geography that leap out are the random mountain of Ironseat Ridge and Frostweald, with the former being a place of myth and possible throne of a titan, while the latter described as being affected by a perpetual winter. This is just fine; “because magic” works wonderfully when it feels purposefully and not done as a justification for poor foresight. (“Why is there a jungle in the rain shadow of this mountain?” “Umm…. MAGIC!”)

The gazetteer section is broken up by region, which is a reasonable way of organizing a campaign setting without large nations. Each regional section also includes a large accompanying map, making it easy to locate the region on the larger poster map. The start of each of these regional sections makes mention of the prominent religions in each nation as well as discusses trade. I always appreciate when a campaign setting considered the natural resources of a region.

Throughout the book are small sidebars. Some of these contain new crunch, with magic items, vehicles, some drugs, and at least one monster. But most contain small snippets of world lore, such as quotations, poetry, prayers, and local legends.

The book ends with six pages on how the various monstrous races fit the world. This is a useful, interesting and often forgotten part of campaign settings. While many will devote pages to how their elves and dwarves are different, often times the place of orcs in the world or history of goblins is forgotten. The monsterous races are just there. So I always appreciate some lore and history given to non-playable creatures.

In terms of presentation, the book is well-written with decent description and nice turns of phrase. It’s also well edited; a few typos snuck in, but nothing worth mentioning and mostly related to punctuation. The layout of the book is solid, which is unsurprising given the experience of Green Ronin. The book has an ink splattered look with its headers and footers, and subtler spatter behind images. This is certainly reminiscent of the 5e books, so it feels consistent with the source books, without flagrantly attempting to copy the trade dress or mimic the style.

For a product driven by a single campaign, the presence of the adventuring party Vox Machina is surprisingly muted, which is appreciated as a heavy focus of the book should be on “your” campaign more than “theirs”. And while almost every PC is mentioned somewhere in the text (Pike and Taryon are omitted), Vox Machina are not on every page. The focus is on new heroes and stories. There’s certainly a few small side references that might be less necessary (where the text could have used “adventurers” rather than name dropping VM) and a few alternate adventuring companies would have been nice, to give the impression of a living world with lots of heroes and champions.

The new character options are decent. Nothing really blew me away. The feats seem good, but a few seem a little weak, while some others might be too good. I think, if asked, I’ll allow most in my home game. Similarly, the new subclasses all seem relatively balanced. The blood domain and runechild sorcerer bloodline really seemed designed for the setting, but the barbarian path is pretty generic, and the monk way doesn’t leap out as inherently part of Tal’Dorei (Edit: with the second campaign, now it totally does.) However, this does make those options a little more useful for other campaigns.

There are three pages of optional rules, including the resurrection variant seen on the show, which is totally going in my home game. The other house rules are decent, and give some options and alternatives. I expect a lot of people will be happy to use the rapid quaffing rules.

There are few new magic items in the book apart from the fairly epic Vestiges of Divergence. These are nigh-artifact items, but require additional steps (determined by the Dungeon Master) to unlock their full potential. There’s some neat stuff here. And as a nice feature, these don’t just include the Vestiges seen on the show (and worn by Vox Machina) but items merely mentioned but not recovered.

The Bad

I’m not entirely sure how the various regions were organized. It seems East to West, but that’s awkward with the more northerly and southerly regions. It feels arbitrary really. A somewhat related nitpick, the PDF of the book was missing a bookmark for one region, “the Bladeshimmer Shoreline”, which also made navigating the regions and finding a location I wanted to re-read somewhat awkward. (I’m sure this will be fixed soon enough.)

The names of several gods had to be changed. Sarenrae, the Raven Queen, and Pelor—the big gods frequently named in the show — do not appear in this book under those terms. This is understandable as the old gods were pulled from the generic 4th Edition D&D pantheon with a couple additions from Pathfinder, so their actual names could not be used for legal reasons. The new names are presented as titles (the Everylight, the Changebringer, etc), so the old proper names can still be used in-world, but for a few it’s not immediately obvious who was who.

Curiously, the book still uses “genasi”, the elemental race descended from genies and mortals. Which isn’t an SRD race. (That’s why the race is divided into five separate races in Pathfinder.) Oops.

There’s precious little history in the book. Three major events are really covered, all massive continent spanning events. Some smaller history is included in the regional sections, but you’re really left to invent a lot of the past. This is a feature-bug, as you’re more open to make the setting your own, but the likely reasons someone is buying this book is to learn more about the Critical Role world for the livestream, so there’s less here to learn. And if you’re inventing vast swaths of history or adding details, there’s diminished benefits for buying a book, and you feel less like you’re playing in the same setting as Vox Machina.

The book doesn’t include the popular gunslinger fighter archetype or the blood hunter class (which is mentioned repeatedly in this book, being a big part of the Claret Orders, which inspired the blood domain). Green Ronin apparently couldn’t negotiate an agreement with the Dungeon Master’s Guild that would allow them to keep those document online there and reprint them in this book. I imagine they opted to keep the files where they were and where people had already purchased them rather than pull them and risk having someone lose access. Very commendable, but annoying for anyone who was hoping for a hard copy. (Like me. Oh well… guess I’ll just use Lulu.)

The Ugly

Things be small.

I’m not just referring to the book—however, at just 144-pages, this product does feel rather svelte compared to other campaign settings — but I’m also thinking of the world itself. At 500 x 1000 miles (somewhere between 500,000 and 400,000 square miles) Tal’dorei is small for a continent. Technically it’d be a large island. The total landmass is roughly the size of France, and a little bigger than the island of Madagascar. Now, the much smaller land of England is tiny, but still manages to house all the stories of King Arthur, Robin Hood, the War of the Roses, and a third of Shakespeare’s plays. But, when you’re expecting a full continent, being given something roughly the size of California, Oregon, and Nevada crammed together is a tad misleading. There’s also the issue of the northern areas being cold and snowy and the southern being jungle. While California could house a jungle, last time I checked southern Washington wasn’t regularly blanketed snow, let alone with blizzards “so thick that no human unprepared for their chill can survive”.

Problems with scale are a common flaw with fantasy worlds. Dragonlance is famous for its equally small continents. But it’s still unfortunate.

(Arguably, this can be hand waved by having the northern stretches a higher altitude while the lower stretches being warmed by temperate breezes and some kind of warm ocean drift. Which would also explain the lack of deserts where there’d otherwise be an arid horse latitude. But, I’m a worldbuilding nerd.)

The book is fairly detail-lite in a lot of places. Most locations receive only a single paragraph of description. There’s very often more words devoted to adventure hooks (that might be used once or not at all) than locations that are expected to be used. I wouldn’t have minded a little more detail in some places.

The Awesome

While I complain about the sparse details in some entries, the book is bursting with adventure hooks. Most of these aren’t just a vague story hook that the DM then has to flesh out and complete, but the skeleton of a full adventure complete with suggested adversaries. There’s some fun ideas in there. Even if you never plan on running an adventure set on Exandria, there are some fun adventure seeds and plots here to pillage for ideas.

The book uses a lot of fan artists in the Critical Role community (or “Critters”). There are some really great pieces, and I hope Green Ronin taps a few for future projects. It’s great that fan art drawn for fun and love of a show segued in paying work for some artists.

Drow are presented as ashen and grey rather than pitch black. It certainly makes more sense for a subterranean race to be colourless, and removes the ugliness and negative stereotypes of associating black with evil. Totally stealing that for my world.

I enjoy the naming throughout the book. I have trouble with good names for NPCs and places myself, which is not an uncommon weakness among gamers. As so many names in Critical Role have to be spoken aloud (in front of an unseen audience), it makes sense that most sound like real names and not random keystrokes.

The map is sweet. It’s presented as an in-world piece with texturing and a fold-line. It’s pretty and detailed but easy to read.

Final Thoughts

If you’re a Critter that plays Dungeons & Dragons, and is looking for a new campaign setting to make your own, then this book is for you. (And given how Green Ronin ran out of pre-order copies, you might already have it…)

Even if you’re not a fan of Critical Role, if you’re looking for a nice generic setting (or need a large island for your world) then this book is a good choice. It’s a decent alternative to Kobold Press’ Midgard or updating a setting from an earlier edition. Especially if you’re just looking for a framework for the world and want to design the plot and recent history around your players and their characters.

However, if you want a highly detailed world where 90% of the world creation is done for you, there are better choices. And if you’re tired of generic medieval European fantasy settings, then this book is probably also not for you.

There is a few new crunch options, so if you’re desperate for new additions to your D&D campaign, then this might be a worthy PDF purchase. Similarly, if you just need a big book of adventure hooks to use for inspiration and brainstorming, this book certainly checks that box. That might end up being my favourite use for the product.

Lastly, if you’re a fan of Critical Role and haven’t taken the plunge into Dungeons & Dragons and somehow are reading this review… this book could be a fun purchase. If won’t tell you how to play the game, but it will give you a look at the larger world behind the scenes of the campaign and maybe get you a little more excited to try D&D. The D&D Basic Rules are free online, so there’s no reason not to try. Get some friends together and play an adventure in Tal’Dorei as rookie adventurers inspired by Vox Machina and have some fun.

Shameless Plug

If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including a bundle of my Ravenloft books including the newly released Cards of Fate and my FIRST adventure on the Guild, Smoke, Snow & Shadows. Others include my first level 1 to 20 class, the TacticianRod 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! (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!