Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep is the first major Dungeons & Dragons adventure book set inside the world of Exandria. The module was co-designed by the actual play troupe’s Dungeon Master, Matthew Mercer, and features something not yet found in the 5th edition version of the game. All throughout their journey, players will be competing with a rival group of adventurers, a party that can become either powerful allies or potent enemies. Speaking with Polygon, game design architect Chris Perkins revealed some of their secrets — and a look inside how these non-player characters are integrated into the campaign.
[Ed. note: What follows contains mild spoilers for Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep.]
“Critical Role, as you know, is very character-driven,” Perkins said. “The interactions within the party, and then the interactions that the party has with the NPCs of the world, are very deep in Matt’s campaign. And in order to get this story a new dimension, one that’s sort of built on character development, Matt conceived of a rival party of adventurers who would essentially be chasing the same goals as the heroes of the story, but not necessarily approaching the problems in the same way.”
The leader of this rival group of NPCs is named Ayo Jabe, a powerful young water genasi born to orc parents. But, like all of the best characters brought to life by Mercer during his actual play sessions, she has many different details to her backstory and layers to her personality.
“Once you start to drill down there’s actually a bit of frailty there, some uncertainty,” Perkins said. “She puts on airs of knowing what to do, but kind of like Captain Kirk, if you sort of drill down, she’s just winging it. And the other members of the party — the new ones and the ones who know her best — they can sense that in her, but they are determined to help her succeed. And so she is basically the struggling leader archetype, the one who is always moving forward, but not always with both feet on the ground.”
Perkins explained that DMs are given lots of tools to slowly introduce the rival party one by one. Only later are they all thrown together in the same room with players, even fighting together in the same battle at one point. Those carefully orchestrated interactions allow the party to make their own judgments about each individual rival’s intentions, which in turn can give way to creative ways to interact with them. But that doesn’t mean that DMs will ultimately be responsible for inhabiting all of these characters to the same degree.
“In the introduction, we give advice, that’s basically, ‘use these to whatever depth you are comfortable,’” Perkins said. “In some cases, you may not want to focus on all of the rivals, because that’s a lot of NPCs to sort of bring to life. You can basically shine a spotlight on one of them, and then relegate the others to basically background. And where that spotlight shines, we tell the DM you can move that around over time. If the player characters glom on to a particular character, like Ayo, then the introduction tells the DM how you can focus on her and let the other party members just sort of become shadows behind her.”
Perkins said that as these interactions pile up, the rivals will each develop their own affinity toward the players. That could lead to conflict within the group of rivals, allowing players to pull them apart if they choose to apply the right kind of pressure. On the other hand, it could have the opposite effect and further galvanize them against the players.
Ultimately, it’s up the the DM to decide how big a role they play.
“These NPCs come and go,” Perkins said. “They’ve got their own plan, so if they become too much of a burden what we basically tell the DM is [that] Ayo makes a decision, she goes off and they sort of part company with the adventures on whatever terms.”