Normally, the idea of traveling to a world defined by danger and a looming war between two powerful nations doesn’t sound too appealing. However, if that world is the setting for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and the real world is currently being ravaged by a pandemic, a chance to travel to Wildemount seems like it arrived at just the right time. For Matt Mercer, the DM behind the Dungeons & Dragons web series Critical Role and author of Explorer's Guide to Wildemount, an official D&D campaign setting based on the world of the show, the timing is a bit surreal.
"I would have hoped that, for something I've worked on so hard for a while, there could be a little more embracing the fanfare of it all," Mercer tells SYFY WIRE. "But at the same time, I'm glad that it could be an escape for some people who really need that outlet to immerse themselves in something that isn't the anxiety-ridden world that a lot of us are currently dealing with."
Whether you're a longtime fan of Critical Role or a D&D player looking to start a virtual campaign to fill time during self-isolation, the Explorer's Guide to Wildemount has plenty to offer. Set on the continent of Wildemount, the setting of Critical Role's second and currently ongoing campaign, the book boasts plenty of lore, campaign hooks, fearsome new foes, an entire dynasty that reshapes the concept of “monstrous” races, and new subclasses based on a new school of magic that controls the laws of time and space.
"It’s a little part of my own love and fascination with quantum and theoretical physics," Mercer explains. "I got to pepper a little bit into my Dungeons & Dragons and then build these subclasses around it."
Mercer spoke with SYFY WIRE about Critical Role (which is currently on hiatus due to the coronavirus), turning homebrew into official D&D content for The Explorer’s Guide, and a what-if about one of Critical Role’s most infamous deaths.
How is Critical Role doing with the COVID hiatus? This could end up being the longest y'all have gone without recording an episode. Is that weird for you?
It's a little weird. More than anything, we just miss each other. Like, we still check in and do video meetings just to hang out, hear each others' voices, and see each other's faces. But it's weird to not be coming back to the table week after week. It's very much kind [of] our zen time amongst the chaos. Right now we're just planning what our content is going to look like in the near future. We're putting up replays of one-shots and content that we already have out there that maybe some folks hadn't had a chance to check out, and we're brainstorming how best to handle the future.
The next episode will be the 100th episode, and we're like, "Can we hold off on that until we're back in the studio?" But if it looks like that's not a viable thing, then we'll figure out what to do from there. If we ended up having to do it online, then we just won't have all the bells and whistles, necessarily.
But it's a combination of anxiety — mainly just from missing people and trying to figure out what's next — and weirdly an unexpected necessary moment to breathe given just how breakneck our pace had been for so long. It's forced some of us to sit down for a moment and take a breath, which I don't think we realized we really needed at the moment.
Let's talk about the Explorer's Guide a bit. How does it feel to have gone over the past couple of years from an average D&D player, to a D&D celebrity and Kickstarter record-setter, and now to have actually helped create some official D&D material?
Oh, man. It's been a ride. It's still a lot to process. I still grapple with feeling like I deserve any of this. It's been really wild. It's been really exciting. I feel very thankful. I'm a kid who grew up playing D&D, and it shaped a lot of who I am as a person. It is absolutely wild. I still look at the book, holding and kind of thumbing through it with a feeling of awe and “How the hell did we get here?”
What’s the difference between worldbuilding and creating lore for the purposes of Critical Role and creating it for this campaign book?
The unique thing is finding all those common elements of the worldbuilding, but also making sure there are some things that I keep unique to the story that I'm telling with my players.
I want the book itself to be something separate from the campaign that we're playing so that people who buy the book don't feel like they're just buying the Mighty Nein's experience. They're not feeling like they're forced to fall into the same footsteps as our players. Instead, it’s a background facet of the world that you can lean into if you want to for your home games. It's been a cool exercise in writing both of those different paths simultaneously and keeping them both connected but uniquely separate.
Are there things that you wish you'd been able to include in the Explorer's Guide, but for whatever reason you couldn't get it in?
There wasn't much from a lore standpoint or narrative standpoint that got cut. For me, it was also making sure that I didn't include too many elements of the long-term Mighty Nein storyline in the book, partially because I wanted, once again, for the Mighty Nein story to be unique to their experience and also to not spoil anything within the book for people within our community who are watching along with the story.
As far as things that didn't make it in the book, there's a lot of stuff that I've been working on. Creative ideas for player options and subclasses — a blood hunter class and stuff. But those are all things that are very forward mechanic-facing that require a lot of time to fine-tune and play-test and utilize. With the number of things that we were putting in the book, it was already so big that it would have been a struggle to include those on top of it and test them along with everything else that we were testing.
Those facets weren't absolutely necessary to tell a Wildemount story, so those were kind of relegated to the cutting-room floor. But that doesn't mean I'm not still developing on my own.
You mentioned the blood hunter class, and you’d previously made with Green Ronin for the Tal'Dorei campaign setting. You’ve since released an updated blood hunter and created the Explorer's Guide to Wildemount as an official Wizard's release. What have you learned about making homebrew, and is there any advice that you can pass on?
Oh, so much. [Laughs.] I never considered myself a game designer by any right. And even then the blood hunter was my first real attempt at class design within fifth-edition D&D. Even then that was very reactionary. I didn't intend to create a class, but after we did our D&Diesel one-shot many, many years ago, I threw together some abilities to represent his witch hunter character based on the movie that had just come out. People were clamoring for the release of the class that he played. And I was like, "Oh, God, I guess I have to make a class now."
It was a lot of throwing stuff at the wall, putting it up online, getting yelled at for how poorly designed it was. And then learning by trying to adjust and make better on the internet's anger.
Largely, people have been very helpful. There's a lot of really great constructive feedback that more experienced designers are able to give on web communities and D&D design Reddits. It's a lot of trial and error, a lot of being open to outside criticism and feedback, and just diving into the design concepts behind fifth edition D&D — or really any game system you plan to homebrew for.
That makes me think of what might be my hardest question. If you had been using the updated blood hunter from the start, would Molly still be alive?
[Laughs.] No, because all the things that he did that led to his demise in the campaign — those facets of the character class didn't really change, necessarily. Not entirely. So I can't say it would have. There's a possibility, of course, but, based on what events transpired to lead to his demise, I do not think it would have automatically made a difference.
Is there a part of you that's at all protective of the world you've created? Do you chafe at the idea of a player making radical changes to the setting for their campaign? Or is that exactly what you want people to do?
That's exactly what I want [people] to do. I'm only protective of our story [on Critical Role]. Outside of our campaign, this book is me opening the world to do whatever you want with it. So in that regard, no, I'm not protective at all. I want people to make it their Wildemount. I want them to customize it, break it, pull it apart, put it together again, and walk away with something that they feel like they have ownership over as well. That excites me.
And you like the idea of a DM perhaps voicing a bunch of the Mighty Nein NPCs as a guest spot?
If they choose to, hell yeah! I think it's a really fun bit. I've enjoyed bringing cameos into campaigns in the past. Previous player characters, for instance.
Anybody who played a Star Wars RPG through the '90s and the '00s and had their game master bring in Luke Skywalker for a cameo in the middle of the campaign knows it's an exciting moment for the players. So I'm excited [for] people to do that, or not at all and to not include them, instead carving their entirely separate and unique story. I'm excited for people to take either route.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Listen to the full interview when it's released by subscribing to SYFY WIRE's Who Won the Week podcast.