Back in the pre-cataclysm days of 2017, I was aware of the growing phenomenon of Critical Role, but I hadn’t spent much time investigating it myself. Then I watched the Stream of Annihilation, WOTC’s online live promotion for the release of the Tomb of Annihilation adventure. Not only were there several members of the cast in attendance, but this marked the beginning of the release of the show as a podcast. That’s when I decided to check out what all of this was about.
Not long after I started on the podcast, the original Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting came out, as a joint venture between Critical Role, Geek & Sundry, and Green Ronin. My initial thoughts on that original release, with my (at the time) limited investment, can be found on my blog here.
In the interim, the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount was released as an official D&D 5e product. This product detailed a different continent in the world of Exandria, the location of the second campaign for Critical Role’s streaming show. Unfortunately, the original Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting went out of print.
As Critical Role became a larger venture, they announced their new publishing company, Darrington Press. The company produced a board game based on lore introduced in campaign two, called Uk’otoa. Additionally, plans for a modern urban fantasy crime RPG called Syndicult came to light. And then all of the sudden, the announcement came for Tal’Dorei Reborn, a 5e OGL campaign setting book that would revisit the continent of Tal’Dorei 20+ years after the end of campaign one, putting it in the same timeframe as the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.
Former gnome and current Darrington Press Marketing Manager Darcy Ross contacted me asking if I would be interested in a review copy and provided me with both the PDF and physical copy of the book for this review. While I have not had the opportunity to use any of the material in this book in a game, I’ve reviewed the material on which this book was based, as well as alternate versions of some of the subclasses that were revised for this book. Additionally, I’ve run and played D&D 5e for years and am familiar with the game.
This review is based both on the PDF of the book, as well as the physical copy. This is a 280-page product, which includes a credits page, a table of contents, a two-page index, an additional two-page index of artists, and a full-page OGL statement.
The book is full color, with full, half, and quarter page artwork throughout. The formatting is similar to official D&D products, regarding headers, tables, and sidebars, although the book uses its own fonts and colors. Sidebars appear as purple banks of fog arranged on the pages where they appear. If you like purple (like I do) you should enjoy the color scheme here. The book is laid out in two-column format.
There are some amazingly vibrant images in the book. Some of the artwork has been reused from the original Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting book, but most of the art is new. Each of the chapters has a full-page introductory piece of artwork.
The physical book is solid. The colors pop even more when you can see the book itself, versus the PDF. Interior pages are glossy, and the book has a sewn-in bookmark ribbon. Unlike most books that include maps, instead of using adhesive to stick the map to the endpapers, the book includes a pocket that can securely hold the folded-up map of Tal’Dorei.
The PDF looks great, the book looks and feels great (and has a great new book smell!), but I think my favorite thing about how this book is set up is that index of artists. I really like that concept, and I would love to see more companies adopt something similar.
Lay of the Land
The book is organized into the following sections:
- Chapter 1: Welcome to Tal’Dorei (History, calendar, and running a Tal’Dorei campaign)
- Chapter 2: Allegiances of Tal’Dorei (Religions, factions, and societies)
- Chapter 3: Tal’Dorei Gazetteer (Individual regions of the setting with plot hooks)
- Chapter 4: Character Options (Subclasses, backgrounds, and setting specific ancestry information)
- Chapter 5: Game Master’s Toolkit (GMing advice, magic items, artifacts, optional campaign rules)
- Chapter 6: Allies and Adversaries of Tal’Dorei (Monsters, NPCs, and character stat blocks)
One thing I wanted to note upfront is that in many cases when rules are introduced in the text, some sidebars present pertinent rules from D&D 5e that interact with the new rules being introduced. This clarifies how the new rules work within the paradigm of the game.
I’ve got opinions about how setting books present information. There are lots of pitfalls that RPG setting books fall into. These can include going into a deep dive presentation that tries to frame the setting as a real location and not a gaming location. It can include not making sure there are clear transition points from one part of the setting to the next. I can also entail not providing enough potential energy that can convert into game inspiration, by presenting the setting as being too well balanced, with all the conflict being framed as an artifact of the past.
Before the book gets too far into the storytelling, it is noted that everything presented in the book should be viewed as being related by unreliable narrators. Bards, authors, and sages may not know the whole story, which is the meta “permission” to use or change whatever you want from the setting. The setting information in the book starts with the broad items, like the calendar, the moons, and the planes associated with the setting. The planar information is usually only a few paragraphs per plane. Then we hit the big historical points on the timeline:
- The War of the Primordials
- The Calamity and the Divergence
- The Reign of Drassig
- Thordak and the Chroma Conclave
- The Ascension of Vec . . . er . . . the Whispered One
- The Rebuilding
The two of the later points on that timeline deal with Critical Role Season One and the exploits of Vox Machina, and The Rebuilding part of history is key to a few new elements introduced in this setting book, as it advances the storyline decades.
The book then moves into a discussion of the major gods of the setting. Each one of these entries is about a half-page, and includes depictions of the deity, their domains, holy days, and the commandments of the faith. The book then has an illustration of the holy symbols of various gods.
These entries are short, but they hit on a lot of actionable material. One of the reasons I like to play clerics is that I like to portray the beliefs of the religions that exist in the setting and having quickly summarized elements like holy days and commandments are extremely functional and player-friendly.
At the end of the section on the Betrayer Gods (those gods that fought with the prime deities and are the reason Exandria has been locked away from the divine), there are two curses, the Curse of Strife, and the Curse of Ruin. These are tied to the Strife Emperor and the Ruiner, and they are narrative ways of dealing with some problematic elements of D&D past. Like a lot of “in-game” fixes for real-world problematic content, it’s a mixed bag how well they address the issues.
The Curse of Strife is real and can be spread by clerics of the Strife Emperor via bestow curse. This curse brings out the worst behaviors in a creature, as well as funneling those afflicted into dominating others, or serving as soldiers to those with power. As a curse, it can be removed, and the curse is how the Strife Emperor controlled his chosen troops, the goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears, although the curse can afflict any thinking being. It’s also noted that there are many “uncursed” goblinoids in the world. This fleshes out some awkward text that appears in the Explorers Guide to Wildemount that failed to fully explain the curse.
The Curse of Ruin, on the other hand, doesn’t really exist, but many people of Exandria believe it does. Because orcs gained strength and stamina from being bathed in the blood of The Ruiner during his battle with the Arch Heart, the assumption is that orcs not only became physically stronger but were cursed to be bloodthirsty berserkers.
Moving beyond the gods, we also get several organizations that have wide-ranging interests on the continent of Tal’Dorei. Those organizations include:
- Tal’Dorei Council
- Arcana Pansophical
- The Ashari
- Brawler’s League
- Chamber of Whitestone
- Claret Orders
- The Clasp
- Golden Grin
- Houses of Kraghammer
- League of Miracles
- Library of the Cobalt Soul
- The Myriad
- The Remnants
- Wardens of Syngorn
Each of these entries includes goals, relationships, and figures of interest within the organization. That means you know what the organization is trying to do, who they like and dislike, and what NPCs you can use if you need a “face” for that organization.
Because of the clearly laid out format of these organizations, most of them work well either as opposing forces or as potential patrons for adventurers. Like the entries for the various gods, the material for each is very table-ready and actionable, without providing too many granular details.
The League of Miracles especially caught my eye. This is a new faction in the setting, which has helped to rebuild communities in the wake of recent devastation. They use powerful magic to speed the process of rebuilding, but also put many communities in debt, then leverage that debt to gain positions of power. I love it, and it flows naturally as a faction that makes sense in the wake of continent-wide devastation, as depicted in Critical Role’s first campaign.
What About Locations?
When the original Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting came out, one of the things that I really appreciated was that at the end of each section, there was a set of story hooks that explained what adventures in that region might look like. Those hooks might be for different level characters, and there might only be one, or there might be several, but it was a good way of framing the book as a game aid, showing why you would want to use the setting.
This updated campaign setting book does the same. Where applicable, it provides population data, describes the region, and then provides a few adventure seeds, most of which have a suggested level range on them.
More important locations, especially those that had relevance in the original campaign, get several pages of details. For example, Whitestone, home of the de Rolo family, gets four and a half pages, including a city map with location keys. Other locations might only have two or three paragraphs to describe the location, before moving on to the suggested adventure hooks.
Some of the adventure hooks also have attendant sidebars. For example, when one of the locations has slavery as an element of its adventure seeds, there is a sidebar discussing how to use the location and the adventure hooks if your group doesn’t want to include slavery as a plot element. There are similar sidebars where drugs and guns are included as part of the adventure hooks.
And in case you are wondering, a certain pageant does get called out in the appropriate entry. You know which one.
The entries include many examples of “monstrous” ancestries living in other cultures in non-adversarial ways. I still wish that some of these species would get their own homelands as readily as elves and dwarves do. There is a hobgoblin nation, but it is, unfortunately, ruled over by traditionally tyrannical forces, although one of the plot hooks includes a progressive leader waiting in the wings.
Player Facing Material and Character Options
First off, let me just say that sections like this in campaign setting books are both boon and bane to me. I love digging into the ins and outs of player-facing content, but when it appears as part of a campaign setting book, it’s really hard to go into quite as much depth on those options as I would in a more mechanically focused rules expansion.
What is especially interesting in the Character Options chapter is that early on, it starts the discussion by mentioning Session Zero, and explaining that the people on the live stream have pre-campaign discussions about many things to help them set the tone of the next campaign. This section gives advice on what to discuss in Session Zero, from what people want out of the campaign, what people want included or excluded, and what the “rating” of the campaign should be, using movie ratings as examples.
The next section discusses races and cultures, and how they fit into Tal’Dorei. These don’t reprint any rules or present new races or ancestries, but it does explain, for example, what cultures of elves are most like high elves versus what cultures are more like wood elves. In some cases, it also provides some alternate names for non-core species, like using “elemental ancestry” in place of Genasi. Included in this list are various goblinoid species and orcs. I especially like that bugbears, goblins, and orc illustrations aren’t showing armed or menacing members of that ancestry, and in fact, many of the illustrations of the various species depict them in more “day in the life” moments.
Like the curses described above, there is some narrative work to make duergar and drow into ancestries that aren’t “mostly evil.” It works a bit better for duergar than drow, in my opinion. The drow are effectively framed as victims of the Spider Queen, and adversely affected by the battle for survival with Underdark dwelling aberrations. Drow aren’t inherently evil, but those influences warp their cultures. While the Kryn Dynasty elves of Wildemount are mentioned, there aren’t any major Tal’Dorei drow cultures that aren’t more malevolently inclined described in the book. To the book’s credit, drow who leave the Underdark to get away from the Spider Queen and nasty aberrations aren’t framed as exceedingly rare.
Now, for the Rules
The next section delves into the various subclasses and backgrounds tied to the setting. The subclasses include:
- Path of the Juggernaut (Barbarian)
- College of Tragedy (Bard)
- Blood Domain (Cleric)
- Moon Domain (Cleric)
- Circle of the Blighted (Druid)
- Way of the Cobalt Soul (Monk)
- Oath of the Open Sea (Paladin)
- Runechild (Sorcerer)
- Blood Magic (Wizard)
Because I have a lot more to look at in the book, I’m not going to deep dive into any of these classes. I will say that I love the fact that each class has a sidebar describing a character that is a member of that class, as well as having artwork to accompany that description. Not only does this help to frame what kind of characters might take that subclass, but it also builds in more ready-made NPCs.
The Blood-themed subclasses get their own sidebar about making sure your players are okay with blood being a recurring theme in the campaign. They are meant to represent characters affiliated with the Claret order, hunting aberrations and cursed monsters. Despite their goals, blood magic is viewed with suspicion, despite not being inherently evil.
The cleric domain gives access to shared bonds if you have a blood sample, allows you to briefly control others if they have blood, can let you bleed out to regain spell slots, and can cause a literal blood burst. The wizard version of blood magic lets you shed blood to replace material components, bleed yourself to cause more damage with your spells, curse others with bleeding, and eventually, do some minor healing.
It’s probably saying something about me that my favorite subclasses from this list include the College of Tragedy and the Circle of the Blighted. What can I say, I played a Grave Domain cleric for quite a while. I also absolutely enjoy seeing a fancy goth goliath bard.
The Fate-Touched background from the original campaign setting book gets (appropriately) reframed as a Supernatural Blessing in this book. The other backgrounds include the following:
- Clasp Member
- Lyceum Scholar
- Reformed Cultist
- Whitestone Rifle Corps
I really like it when we get setting specific backgrounds, and I like it even more so when those backgrounds are also a good example of what kind of patrons an adventurer might have. Most of these backgrounds have the expected scope for a feature, meaning they provide a more story-based benefit or ability, rather than expanded spell lists or modifications to die rolls, etc. The Reformed Cultist and the Whitestone Rifle Corps differ on this point, however.
The Reformed Cultist gets advantage on Intelligence (Religion) checks that pertain to information that would have been pertinent to their former cult, and the Whitestone Rifle Corps grants the character a pistol or a rifle. One of the fun rules associated with the Rifle Corps background is that the character is sworn to keep firearms out of the hands of others, so you can take this background and be on an extended mission to find a lost firearm. It’s also worth noting that when I read about the Whitestone Hunters, a special organization that seeks out threats to Whitestone, under the ultimate command of Vex’ahlia, I immediately thought this would be a great campaign framework for a Tal’Dorei game.
New feats include the following:
- Cruel (Spend cruelty dice to use effects related to damage dealing and intimidation)
- Flash Recall (Switch out prepared spells)
- Mystic Conflux (Pick up an extra attuned magic item as well as identifying items)
- Remarkable Recovery (Con booster, extra hit points when stabilizing or being healed)
- Spelldriver (Cast an action and bonus action spell without the “one must be a cantrip” prohibition)
- Thrown Arms Master (Str or Dex booster, throw anything and farther than usual)
- Vital Sacrifice (Shed blood to gain bonuses to hit, damage, or to lower another’s save)
Toys for the Game Master
The Game Master’s section hits a lot of topics quickly. It presents a way to outline adventures, presents magic items, and introduces optional campaign rules.
The magic items are divided up into general items from the setting, Ashari tools, and the Vestiges of Divergence, divinely touched magic items that become more powerful over time. The vestiges all have Dormant, Awakened, and Exalted versions, based on the deeds accomplished by the character carrying the item. None of these Vestiges are repeats from the Explorers Guide to Wildemount. Most of them originally appeared in the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting book, but a few additional Vestiges are making their first appearance.
The optional campaign rules include accelerated rests, alternate resurrection rules, and rapid potion drinking rules. For anyone that has watched an episode of Critical Role where a character has been brought back from the dead, you’ve seen the variant for Fading Spirits, which involves setting a DC for the return that can be modified by those participating in the ritual. My favorite, however, is Harrowing Return, which has the player roll on a chart for lasting consequences, like having a personal undead nemesis that shows up trying to make you die again, being supernaturally drawn to get revenge on your killer, or gaining the ability to keep functioning at 0 hit points, potentially to your detriment.
Friends and Foes
The final section of the book starts with a broad look at standard D&D monsters, and the specific details of those monsters in a Tal’Dorei campaign. Want to know what giant politics look like? You get information on the Council of Seven Scepters, how dual cloud giant kings came to run the show, and what became of the storm giants. Yes, I picked giants as an example, because I’m on brand.
There are over thirty stat blocks in this section, before you get to the stat blocks for the heroes of Vox Machina. And yes, unlike the original Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting book, which did not feature Vox Machina directly, this has stat blocks for every member of the team, including Taryon Darrington. Each member of Vox Machina has a general description, and a section called “After the Epilogue,” which explains what that character has been doing since the end of Campaign One, and where they are now. While the stat blocks are direct translations of whatever might have been on the character sheet, all the characters have abilities meant to emulate signature abilities they had due to their class and level, meaning some of the stat blocks are still pretty intense.
Some of these stat blocks are updated versions of the ones that appeared in the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting book, but many of them are new, like the special astral constructs used by the League of Miracles, new elemental creatures, fiends, golems, singular supernatural entities, creepy plants, and serpentfolk.
For those keeping up with current D&D 5e trends, the stat blocks don’t include alignment, however, some of the descriptions do list an alignment at the end of that section of the monster entry. All the stat blocks list the creature’s proficiency bonus, but none of the spellcasters use the “not quite an actual spell” actions that we’ve seen in more recent WOTC D&D books. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few stat blocks that do interesting things with spellcasting, like one that allows a character to cast a specific spell as a bonus action whenever they hit with their weapon.
How Do You Want To Do This? This book communicates some clear themes, like rebuilding after adversity, the need to fight against the elemental damage that still scars the land, and the political factions that push and pull the setting and adventurers.
Matt Mercer has said that his original intention with Tal’Dorei was to create the baseline D&D experience for his players. He wanted it to draw on a lot of established tropes. That’s evident in the original version of the campaign setting, but the factions and plot hooks included in the book made it a more user-friendly setting than the official D&D campaign setting that was available at the time, the Sword Coast Adventurers Guide.
This new version of the book is still very user-friendly and does a wonderful job of both communicating a setting and being an accessory to be used, at the table, to run a game. However, the longer the Critical Role campaigns go on, the more Exandria is developing its own personality. This book communicates some clear themes, like rebuilding after adversity, the need to fight against the elemental damage that still scars the land, and the political factions that push and pull the setting and adventurers. The mechanical aspects of the book also feel more polished than the original campaign setting material did.
You Can Certainly Try
Where the book tries to engage with more problematic legacies inherent in D&D, it struggles a little to communicate a clear message. Presenting the drow as still being exiles means that you must work in that space that frames either most of the drow being at fault and causing their exile or framing those that exiled them as at fault for damning a people that weren’t lost to evil. I know the WOTC lore expansion was recent but framing them as deep-dwelling elves that might have more neutral or benevolent enclaves, as well as those lost to the Spider Queen’s influence or the paranoia caused by aberrations of the deep may have been a better route.
Likewise, the Curse of Strife feels like it’s sending a mixed message. Rather than saying that people unfairly assumed all goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears are evil, it comes across as, “maybe most of them were evil, but now that we know the curse can be lifted, it’s wrong to assume that they are evil, now.” I don’t think there was any kind of bad faith intended in either of these setting elements, I just think it’s a danger you run into when you try to reconcile too much “in setting,” other than by just rewriting the parts of the setting that may have inherited the less desirable content.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This setting has really come into its own, and Tal’Dorei Reborn holds its own against any of the current heavy hitters among WotC’s campaign setting books (including its companion volume, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount). If you are a fan, you’ll want to see what Tal’Dorei looks like after twenty years, and to check in with the retired members of Vox Machina. If you haven’t engaged with Critical Role much in the past, this campaign setting book provides a great template for how to make a campaign setting engaging and table-ready.
What other fantasy properties would you like to see get their own campaign setting guide? What are some of the key themes that make that fantasy property unique? What fantasy properties have you seen that have grown and taken on their own personalities over time? We want to hear from you in the comments below.
I’d kill for a Adventure Zone: Balance setting world, that’d be just stupendous.
A Dimension20 setting would be excellent.
A lot of fantasy settings don’t make great D&D settings, and some would but exist on their own merits (eg The One Ring), but I definitely love the idea of other major podcasts releasing their worlds in similar quality.