Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount – First Impressions
To say that the 5th edition of D&D has a dearth of campaign setting material is an understatement. Most of its base setting, the Forgotten Realms, are undescribed in this edition so far. Its few forays into other settings, such as the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica and Eberron: Rising from the Last War, have been hit-and-miss affairs. Both offering tantalizing looks into their respective worlds, but those looks were similarly incomplete in an effort to create books that were both sourcebooks and adventure guides. So the announcement that there would be a new campaign setting released understandably got people excited. Rumours ran rampant when, in the Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus (BGDA), Exandria was mentioned. This was huge, as Exandria is the world made by Matt Mercer for the famous Critical Role live play. Then the book dropped, and Exandria was welcomed into the list of official D&D worlds. This is the first of a multi-part review of this world.
Before proceeding, bear in mind that I am not a fan of Critical Role. I’ve never watched an episode, and only know about it and its goings on via the fanart, cosplay, and fan reactions to story events on Twitter. I have no ill will towards Critical Role or its members or fans. This review is from the perspective of someone who has picked up the books and has no idea (because I don’t) about any in-world changes or nuance presented in the live play, comics, art books, or other Critical Role materials.
Critical Role kicked off on Geek & Sundry, and the world of Exandria was introduced to the gaming world through their adventures. Rapidly gathering steam in popularity thanks to the show, but limited by the nature of the OGL, Exandria first came into the hands of gamers in 2017 via Green Ronin in the form of the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting book. By 2018, the live play had truly unprecedented levels of popularity, and in 2019 Exandria was mentioned in BGDA. In 2020, the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount was released as an official D&D product.
Overlap & Retcons
Having both these books, the first thing that struck me is that they are both stand alone books, but both present a lot of the same information lore wise. The reason is simple. Tal’Dorei was produced under the restrictions of the OGl, meaning there was a lot of content that they couldn’t put on paper because of legal restrictions concerning product identity. So there’s a lot of myth work in Tal’Dorei that’s altered for Wildemount. It’s an interesting dichotomy, and one I will explore later in a compare and contrast post.
My initial impression of the art is mixed. The art in the book is fantastic, but there’s two distinctive styles used. One is more or less standard fantasy fare as seen in numerous books by numerous publishers. The other is a distinctive, simplified (although not simple), cartoonish style. Both are good, both are beautiful, but they aren’t complementary and, to me, sent different messages about how the campaign setting was. I’ve talked about this in previous posts, how I think art styles in a book should be complimentary, and it doesn’t seem to have happened here.
Style of World Build
Exandria is what I would refer to as a “classic modified plug-n-play” world build. Matt Mercer took existing components of, and narrative arcs of, D&D products, then modified them for the purposes of his own setting. Examples are many of the deities, who are mildly palette swapped versions of extant Greyhawk deities, such as Pelor and Vecna. A narrative mentioned (but not executed in other D&D books) is that Hobgoblins are militant expansionists, and that there’s some serious Goblinoid lore. Matt Mercer ran with this and set up a whole empire of Hobgoblins. So the setting is classic modified plug-n-play in the sense that it is a combination of off the shelf parts and individual creativity done in the fashion that many grognards argue D&D was “meant” to be used.
Lots. Lots and lots of information. A cursory look through the book and it felt like I was reading campaign setting book from back in the day. This is a net good thing. A campaign setting needs lots of information to not only build the world, but to make it interesting, alive, and inspirational to both players and dungeon masters. In my cursory read through, this book seemed to be hitting that sweet spot.
Overall First Impression: Cautiously Optimistic
I’ve been burned before, but I’m cautiously optimistic about this. There are some red flags though. The writing team was the opposite of diverse, and the continent, at first pass, seems to have a lot of POC human and POC coded non-human cultures, so that’s a concern. However, they also seem to have made efforts to subvert or negate at least some of D&D’s problematic baggage. So we will see where it all goes as I move into the detailed review.
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