Friday, 7 Aug 2020

Explorer’s Guide To Wildemount Review: Not Just For Critical Role Fans

There was excitement among Dungeons & Dragons players earlier this year when a book was announced for March 17th. There was no cover or description. Not even a tiny hint was given. This stoked hype… until the book was revealed to be a collaboration with D&D livestream Critical Role. That’s when much of the excitement turned to disappointment. After all, many D&D fans don’t care about Critical Role. So, why were these e-celebs taking precedence over a more classic, beloved D&D setting like Dragonlance? It’s all good, though. It turns out that the book, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, is one of the most creative D&D products released for 5th edition.

So, what exactly is Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount? In short, it’s a famous DM’s homebrew campaign setting given polish thanks to an official D&D endorsement. Readers will learn all about the continent created by Matthew Mercer for Critical Role season two. They’ll also find new monsters, items, and even an entirely new branch of magic to add to their own games. Even though the first part of that is bound to turn off non-Critical Role fans, homebrew DMs should still consider giving Wildemount a look just for the the cool new character options.

About half the book is dedicated to describing Wildemount. It goes into the geography (with plenty of gorgeous colored maps), the factions, the gods, and how all of that uniquely affects an adventurer brought up in these lands. As with previous D&D setting books, like the recent Eberron: Rising From The Last War, one’s value from this is tied to how much they like lore. Wildemount makes a strong case for a roleplay-heavy political campaign. A lot of attention is paid to a brewing war between two powerful empires. However, several individual cities also get subsections that break down their population, commerce, culture, and other aspects of daily life. It’s very easy to imagine how to introduce these locales and how players can affect them. This is a book for DMs, by a DM.

That may be Wildemount‘s biggest strength, but also its biggest drawback. Options for races, subclasses, spells, and magic items take up about 50 pages, so about a sixth of the book. That said, many of these options are tied to Dunamancy, a brand of magic invented by Mercer and therefore exclusive to the Wildemount setting. Same goes for the Vestiges of Divergence, a game-changing new type of magic item. Imagination is a core aspect of D&D, and the book gives guidance on incorporating its unique additions to one’s own game, so it’s not impossible for DMs to borrow these ideas to their own campaign. It just takes some narrative and possibly mechanical retooling.

This will naturally be of little consequence to homebrew DMs. It’s their world, so there’s nothing stopping them from coming up with a way for Dunamancy to suddenly be a thing. Likewise, the Vestiges of Divergence can easily be rewritten as legendary artifacts left behind by any set of gods or ancient people. It will get more difficult to introduce Wildemount elements in the middle of another hardcover D&D book and keep them balanced. Many Critters, as fans of Critical Role call themselves, probably started with an official pre-written adventure because they’re easier to set up. They might be disappointed, then, to find their DM saying no when they excitedly bring Wildemount to the table.

Dunamancy For Dummies

If players are allowed to play with Wildemount‘s options, then they’ll get some fun new toys. Dunamancy is probably the best thing Mercer came up with. It’s essentially magic that gives one power over reality. Time, space, and even outcomes are at the command of a Dunamancer. This results in three subclasses (two for wizards and one for fighters) and a list of new spells that range from levels 1 to 9. These aren’t just flashy tricks; Dunamancy allows for a new set of full-on playstyles. Gravity wizards control the battlefield by pushing or pulling foes, with the ultimate form being creating miniature black holes. Time wizards bring a meta aspect to magic by messing with initiative or even bestowing luck to other players, letting them redo dice rolls. The fighter subclass creates a magical afterimage that can also dish out attacks like an anime power-up.

The magic items introduced in Wildemount bring a similarly meta-but-balanced aspect to D&D. Many expand on some of the properties of Dunamancy. One, for instance, expels a tiny ball of light per day. Whoever this light gravitates to will get to redo one die roll. It’s basically the popular Lucky feat in item form. But the once-per-day restriction stops it from being game-breaking. This sort of item encourages players to take risks, excites them when they barely pull them off, and doesn’t happen too often as to give the DM a headache.

Other items, like one of the Vestiges of Divergence, address common D&D problems. A magic druid armor powers up Wild Shape, encouraging players to actually use that feature instead of becoming a Conjure Animals bot. Another gives fighters an actual use for their bonus actions. In general, the Vestiges are expertly-designed items that push players to be creative while still letting them feel powerful. They also bear narrative weight for the role play fans, as they “level up” when the player achieves a character growth moment. D&D finally has its version of the Master Sword.

You Don’t Have To Be A Critter

To put it simply – and said by someone who isn’t a Critter – Matthew Mercer is an expert DM and this book is testament to that. His world feels detailed and is presented in a way that helps DMs immerse players in it. His experiments with lesser-used D&D mechanics pays off with fun new character options. His take on developing character backstories will help DMs and players come together to create great stories that are fun for both parties. And he even found a way to make Dragonborn viable.

More importantly, the knowledge put down in Wildemount can teach homebrew DMs. It can help them refocus on what truly is important when designing a setting. It shows how to balance fun with power when creating new mechanics and items. DMs just have to be willing to put aside any bias they have for or against Critical Role to take it all in.

Critical Role has undoubtedly brought new players to D&D, and continues to do so. Critters will probably rush to pick up this book just to support the show. That raises a question, however, in just how many Critters are DMs. Because players might find the few options presented to not be worth $50. Instead, it’s the next generation of Mercers, or the DMs who want to walk their own path, that will find the most value in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount. This is an inspiring act of creation, and will hopefully help birth more fantastic fan-created D&D worlds.

A physical copy of Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount was provided by Wizards of the Coast for this review. Roll20 provided access to a digital version for further experimentation. Both versions are available now.

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