When I finally purchased my copy of Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting (TCS) by Matthew Mercer, I was expecting it to be on the same vein as the Sword Coast Adventure’s Guide (SCAG). I’m surprised to find out after reading it that it had exceeded my expectations of what a campaign setting book could be. If anything, the SCAG should have been written the same way that the TCS was wrote. I am extremely happy with this book, and while I accidentally bought the PDF thinking it was the hardcover I would say it would be worth buying it twice.
Everything from lore, to artwork, to the many mechanical aspects strewn throughout the book makes it clear that a great deal of time and love went into engrossing you into this world. The only issues I had with the product were minor and included synergy issues on some sub-classes, the fact that some feats feel a bit weak and the fact that maps lacked proper scales for determining distance. Overall, these problems are easy to forgive and the guide is an unparalleled product. It gives you all the tools to get your players engaged into the world of Tal’dorei.
For those unfamiliar with Tal’Dorei, the continent is the setting of the Critical Role series, a weekly live stream produced by Geek & Sundry that showcases a group of professional voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. Before its original airing on Twitch.tv on March 12th, 2015, the Tal’Dorei campaign setting began as a one shot in 4th Edition, then converted to Pathfinder. This campaign was played for two years in Pathfinder until the series premiere where they converted to 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Since its debut, Critical Role has gained massive popularity over the years. As of the 100th episode it had amassed over 68 million series views, according to the Geek & Sundry website.
Due to the popularity of the series, Green Ronin Publishing announced that they had signed a licensing agreement with Geek & Sundry to produce the first TCS book using the 5th edition ruleset. The PDF version of this book released on July 17th, 2017 and recently hardcover copies are now up for order on Green Ronin’s site and Amazon.
The book is 145 pages and laid out as follows. Chapter 1 gives an in-depth detailing of the history of Tal’Dorei as well as the continent’s pantheon, races, factions and societies. It also goes over how to run a campaign within the setting. Chapter 2 details the entire continent of Tal’Dorei, including its various regions, cities, and locations. In this chapter there is dozens of plot hooks as well as ‘mundane and magical’ items found in places across the continent, everything from cursed swords to drugs. Chapter 3 provides character options, four sub-classes, a handful of backgrounds and feats. There are also legendary magical items made by the gods themselves and optional campaign rules. Chapter 4 details monstrous races and their lore within this setting as well as non-player characters of Tal’Dorei.
Strengths of the Product
When I bought this product, I thought it was going to be laid out much in the same vein as the SCAG. I was happy to find this wasn’t the case. In fact, TCS exceeded my expectations for a campaign guide by including story hooks and other amazing details throughout the continent.
There are more strengths to this product than weaknesses. Clearly, a great deal of time, effort, and even love went into developing this setting that is elaborate, realistic, and ultimately unique.
Story Hooks. One of the things I loved most about this product was the plethora of story hooks strewn throughout the continent. Well over 70 of them can be found in the book and each one is a paragraph of information that gets the mind rolling for designing quests and challenges aimed at characters of all levels. These story hooks are a gold mine to new and old DM’s alike because even something as small as finding a sword can turn into a side adventure or potentially even an entire campaign itself. Honestly, I feel like the adventuring guides (including SCAG) should have story hooks because this feature helps new DMs navigate the setting and build better games. One example is a story hook titled “No Basis For A System of Governance” (TCS pg. 80):
World. The world of Tal’Dorei is exquisitely detailed, while at the same time leaving enough room for DMs to place their own creative marks into this expansive setting. The continent is divided into seven different major sections. Each section gives a brief paragraph of the area, lists major and minor worship of regional deities, and explains the region’s imports and exports. Each major area is also complete with a map. The major areas are then broken down into the cities or points of interest. These sub-sections detail town populations as well as the racial demographics that are in those locations. For bigger cities, the book goes in-depth on the politics, crime, and economics of the city. For example, due to a recent dragon attack, unsavory criminals have begun to slip into the city of Whitestone under the guise of providing aid in reconstruction efforts. They hope to line their pockets with relief money. All of these types of details and plot hooks help to create a realistic and multifaceted world for players interacting with the campaign. Many players from other campaign settings may even find Tal’Dorei’s details unexpected or even mirroring problems sometimes found in the real world.
Pantheon. Traditionally in high fantasy the gods play an interactive and tangible role in the settings they are in.The gods in Tal’Dorei are more abstract and are incapable of interacting directly with the followers and people of the realm. As mentioned in the blog post on Tangible vs. Abstract Gods, these kinds of abstract gods add a level of realism to a setting and allow for plots and stories that do not rely on mythological figures. This is great for the many story hooks in the setting that deal with political or local issues. Moreover, abstract gods are different from what players might find in official settings. Unlike Forgotten Realms where a god, if they so wished, could make themselves physically present on the Material Plane, Tal’Dorei’s deities cannot enter the Material Plane without breaking the Divine Gate. Such a decision would release the Betrayer Gods back into Tal’Dorei again, reigniting the Calamity. Thus, the only way these deities can interact with the world is through their interactions with their followers and devout worshipers. In this way, the gods of Tal’Dorei are more interesting and up to interpretation than the deities of Forgotten Realms.
Race Lore. While many things will be familiar about races to those who have played D&D 5th edition, a lot of lore has changed to fit and improve the setting of the world. This new setting allows people to enjoy a fresh take on classic D&D, especially for players who have grown tired to the Forgotten Realm standard. An example of this would be the Drow (TCS pg. 23). Similar to other settings, the Drow reside deep underground. However, the Drow of Tal’Dorei were driven to madness, not out of hatred of surface dwellers, but by the whispers of Oblivion whose evil power twisted their minds. This different origin story is a breath of fresh air for the Lloth worshipping race, which has been the same for many years. Even the cliche of Drows turning into driders has been revamped by having drow turn into driders through drinking the blood of the Spider Queen from underground pools rather than it being a punishment from Lloth directly. As an added bonus, Drow can become new monsters, such as becoming white-eyed doppelgangers through offering themselves up to aberration.
Mundane to Magical Goods. Dipped in and throughout the world of Tal’Dorei are mundane and magical items. These items help Dungeon Master and player alike engross themselves into the world they are delving into. They are the cherry on top for this campaign setting. They can be found in story hooks as well as inside information on locations and points of interest. These objects vary from sticks of dynamite, glue bombs, or wind gliders in the Gnomish district of Kraghammer to a mystical sword that has the power to free the Drow city of Ruhn-Shak from madness. Not only are items like these strewn throughout the world but players can even buy or sell drugs, complete with effects and lore in the book. All of these items add depth and make Tal’Dorei a ‘living breathing world’ for the players.
Character Options. A variety of character options are presented in Chapter 3. The great thing about these character options is that while they are campaign specific, they still felt new and original. These character options range from four sub-classes (monk, barbarian, cleric and sorcerer) to Tal’Dorei specific backgrounds and a handful of feats Some of the subclasses have mechanics not found in existing sub-class materials. One example is the Way of The Cobalt Soul monk, an intelligence monk who pummels their opponents and in doing so can learn information about their foe (TCS pg. 103). Similarly, the backgrounds each have a unique feature, such as how the Lyceum Student gains access to any tool kit, minor enchants, or inexpensive crafting materials on the grounds of the Lyceum (TCS pg. 106). Feats range from everything to dual-concentrating on two spells at once or the Thrown Master feat, which expands the range of thrown weapons and turns weapons that are not normally thrown into thrown weapons.
Allies and Adversaries. A helpful addition to TCS that is often missing from campaigns is roughly two dozen stat blocks of NPCs. These stat blocks can be for allies to help players or villains to hinder them on their adventures. While a lot of them are campaign specific, they will fit into just about any homebrew setting. Generally, the stat blocks are balanced and fun, employing some new mechanics. An example would be the “Ravager Stabby-Stabber”, which is a small goblin with a unique trait that allows it to continually make attacks until it does not hit (TCS pg. 137). These allies and adversaries provide good stepping stones for DM’s running an adventure in this setting, which can be toned up or down to suit the DM’s when challenging their players.
Weaknesses of the Product
Obviously, I loved this campaign guide for not only exceeding my expectations but changing them. Yet, there are a couple of problems with the product that I hope Green Ronin will improve for their next releases.
Sub-classes. While above I praised these sub-classes because they felt new and original, after closer inspections they do feel a bit weak and sometimes lack synergy. An example would be the Way of The Cobalt Soul monk (TCS pg. 103). Their 3rd, 5th, and 17th level features require an expenditure of ki, which leads quickly to ki depirativation. While a monk does regain ki on a short rest, it would be easy at any level to blow all their ki points within the first couple of rounds due to the excessive number of features that use ki.
While these synergy and balancing issues are a problem, the good thing about this is that none of the sub-classes felt overpowered, which is often what worries DMs the most with new and third party material. These sub-classes may have felt a bit weak but it is nothing a few minor tweaks couldn’t fix, such as scaling back ki points or removing the ki point expenditure altogether on a few features of the Way of The Cobalt Soul subclass.
Feats. Although most feats in TCS feel correct and balanced, a couple of them feel underwhelming. For instance, there is a feat called Rapid Drinker (TCS pg. 109). This feat allows you to drink a potion as a bonus action, and gain advantage on saving throws triggered by ingesting alcoholic or dangerous substances. This feat is at best situational and it pales in comparison to a +2 bonus to an ability score, which will improve a character’s skill checks, saving throws, and their chance to hit. Likewise, the feat does little compared to the benefits of other top-tier feats like Sentinel or Mobility (Player’s Handbook pg. 168-169), which are always helpful and reliable in combat.
Most of these underwhelming feats can usually be forgiven as long as you’re playing with the alternative rules found in the book. With the alternative rules, it is suggested that some of the more weaker feats can be given out for free at certain levels to ‘enhance’ game play. I do like this idea, because at higher levels it would be nice to quaff a potion without using an action or to cast a cantrip as a bonus action. These features allow the higher game to feel rewarding and play with the regular rules without slowing down the gameplay.
Map Scaling. The maps in this book are beautiful and illustrate important areas in Tal’Dorei. Yet, one odd thing about them is that there is no scale presented on the city or regional maps. This is the case for Whitestone and for the Capital City of Emon (TCS pg. 49, 91). The issue with no scaling is that it is hard as a DM to determine traveling distances across a region or simply how long it will take for players to get from point A to point B in a town. This makes it difficult as a DM to keep regions and distances consistent between game sessions or to help players imagine the scale of the grand city they are visiting.
As you can tell from above, I loved this book. From the well crafted lore, the 70+ story hooks to the unique take on the gods, and the new takes on many races we know and love, the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting is an artfully built campaign book that in many ways redefines what it means to be a campaign book. . Despite the few hiccups in the book, there is undoubtedly a lot of love that went into this project to make each feature and location unique. Therefore, I rate this book 5 out of 5 Shields in terms of the Lore and the Mechanics. It is a fine addition to your collection, whether you are a fan of the show or have never heard of the book until reading this review
Artwork and Lore – 5 / 5 Shields
Mechanics – 5 / 5 Shields
You can purchase a PDF copy of the book for $18.95 or a hard cover copy for $34.95 found here. This product is most definitely worth your money. As mentioned earlier, I accidentally purchased a PDF copy of the book and I am even considering buying a hard copy because I enjoyed the book so much and would love to see a copy of it on my bookshelf.