This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Ninety One on 8th December 2021.
(coin flip followed by eldritch blast)
Lennon: Ha! My aim is improving. They better watch out when I show up.
Ryu: Lennon. Why are you eldritch blasting coins? I mean, if you want to keep me from stealing them I suppose that’s one way to do it but it seems expensive.
Lennon: No, see, I’m preparing for our trip to Exandria.
Ryu: How is that supposed to help with Exandria?
Ostron (sighing): Here we go.
Lennon: Well, I read up on it like Ostron told us to and I heard it was infested with critters. So I figured I can practice aiming at small moving targets and hire myself out as an exterminator to make back all the money I’m using for target practice.
Ostron: …What? Don’t look at me, you asked.
Ryu: So he just saw the bit about the critters and then started doing this. He knows nothing else about Exandria.
Ostron: I can’t guarantee that but I know where the smart money is.
Ryu: All right, here, we’ll share my notes and Ostron will just talk because he usually knows this stuff somehow anyway.
Critical Role has been a geek culture phenomenon almost since it’s debut in 2015 and its popularity and influence have only grown since then. Despite being new on the scene, as of 2021 it remains only one of three fully third party settings to get official resources printed by Wizards of the Coast, the others being Eberron and Acquisitions Incorporated.
Still, not everyone watches the shows and there are a fair number of people with limited knowledge of Critical Role’s world or setting. Even with the resources related to it they’re hesitant to have anything to do with the setting, believing they need to go back through hundreds of hours of play to catch up.
This primer we’re going through certainly won’t give you the in-depth knowledge of the setting that your average critter has. Note, I’ve also just learned “critter” is the term for a fan of critical role and not an infestation of small animals as I’d previously thought. However, if the show is totally foreign to you and reading the summaries in the various resources seems like too much work, hopefully we’ll be able to give you enough information that you can get a feel for the place.
The planet that the Critical Role stories have all taken place on so far is called Exandria. It is wholly a creation of Matt Mercer, though of course he was influenced by multiple sources as most writers and creators are.
Unlike Eberron, Exandria as a whole is very similar to the Forgotten Realms. In fact, it may be helpful to think of Exandria as a sort of parallel universe or reimagined version of Toril; most of the major elements are the same, but the details vary.
Exandria’s history is broken up into four ages. In the first of these the main conflict was between the gods and the primordials, both of whom had risen out of the chaos that was the forming planet. The gods all wanted to create creatures that would run around on the planet doing things, and the primordials wanted all of those creatures to die and stop messing up their lakes and lava flows. To give the mortal beings a fighting chance, the gods gave them magic and created metallic dragons to help teach them how to use it.
However some of the gods had already given up on mortals and either washed their hands of the whole thing or threw in with the primordials. At the very least, they weren’t willing to help the gods on the side of the mortals. This resulted in a huge war that ended with the primordials either ending up dead or trapped somewhere, and the so-called Betrayer Gods locked away where they couldn’t do any more harm.
To celebrate their victory and thank the gods, the mortals at the time founded the city of Vasselheim. Remember that name, because it comes up again later. After the rush of founding a city and running a war got old, the mortals all decided, “hey this magic stuff is pretty neat” and started playing around with it. Eventually a few of them said “hey, I can do the same things the gods can!” And then one of them did; a woman whose name was lost to time decided to challenge the god of death to a fight, won, and then made herself the Raven Queen.
After seeing that, another “genius” named Vespin Chloras figured that getting the power of the gods would be even faster if it came directly from the source. Since the Prime Deities weren’t sharing, he decided opening up the Betrayer Gods’ prison and asking them would be the next best thing. You can guess how that turned out.
The Betrayer Gods set up their own kingdom in record time and launched an assault directly on Vasselheim. The city held, but it was the first shot fired in the war that would define the third age of Exandria, which is called The Calamity. The major problem the “good” forces had to deal with was Tharizdun, a being possibly older than all the other gods who likes death and driving people insane. To get rid of it, they needed to enact a ritual called The Rites of Prime Banishment, which required the participation of a lot of the Prime Deities and ended up with Ioun severely wounded.
That fortunately worked, but Exandria was a mess; continents had been rearranged, a full two thirds of the population of the planet was dead, and Vasselheim was the only remaining thing that qualified as a city. In an effort to limit the amount of divine power involved directly on the planet, the Prime Deities created the Divine Gate to prevent gods from directly manifesting or interfering in mortal affairs.
That brings us to the fourth age, called post Divergence, the Divergence referring to the part where the gods adopted their hands-off policy with mortals. This is the age where all of the Critical Role campaigns have taken place.
Geographically, there are five recognized continents on the planet. Tal’Dorei is arguably the most well known as it was the setting for most of the activity in campaign one of Critical Role. It again has a lot of similarities in tone and structure to the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms setting, although unlike the city-state model of the Sword Coast, most of the human population of Tal’Dorei is governed by a republic of the same name.
Campaign two focused on the continent of Wildemount, which has more of a harsh feel to it overall. The climate is analogous to western Russia and Eastern Europe and the political landscape mostly focuses on the sometimes hot, sometimes cold war between the Dwendalian Empire and the Kryn Dynasty, many facets of which the Critical Role group the Mighty Nein were involved in. Wildemount is also historically significant because the large area of badlands on the continent contain the former site of Ghor Dranas, which was the Betrayer Gods’ base of operations during the Calamity War.
The rest of the continents are less defined as they haven’t been focused on during any of the campaigns yet. Issylra has a Scandanavia/northern Canada or Russia feel to its climate and landscape, with a lot of mountains and snowy plains. It’s claim to fame is that Vasselheim is located there.
Vasselheim, by the way, is what you get if you somehow combine Jerusalem, Mecca, Bodh Gaya, and the seven holy cities of Hinduism all in one place. Since the gods of Exandria literally spent a lot of time hanging out in that city since almost the beginning of time, it’s considered the most holy site on the planet, and it has temples upon temples for people to worship. Also they’re not big on arcane magic; it’s highly regulated and certain parts of the city don’t allow it at all.
The continent of Marquet is designed mostly to be your stereotypical desert wasteland. What isn’t sand is mountains, and very few people live there because it’s really hard to do. The few settlements that exist are almost all on the coasts. As of this recording not much is known about Marquet but it is going to be the setting for Call of the Netherdeep when it releases, so probably more to come there.
The final continent is called Shattered Teeth, though continent should be in quotes here. The shattered teeth are technically just a collection of 43 islands in the Lucidian Ocean. Two major groups of people live there; the Ossended Host, who are mostly fishing people who worship dreams, and the Wanderman Assembly, descendants of representatives from a trading company that wrecked on the islands and decided to set up shop there. As you might expect, they’re mostly focused on trade.
As with any large-scale, living setting where a lot of adventures have taken place it’s difficult to pinpoint other things everyone needs to know. As with Eberron or the Sword Coast, there is a lot of history tied up in multiple different locations, although Exandria at least doesn’t have the issue of multiple editions of contradicting information to wade through. One theme that does run through almost all areas of Exandria, however, is an obsession with artifacts from the second and third age. During the second age there was basically unrestricted research into and use of magic, and then during the third age mortals were forging items and weapons that could literally affect gods, often with the gods’ help. The two major powers in Wildemount, for example, are basically in an arms race to see who can dig up more and more powerful magical artifacts from the ruins of and around Ghor Dranas.
Overall there are two major benefits to campaigning in Exandria. The first, obviously, is if there are Critical Role fans who love the setting and want to have adventures there, either in locations they’re familiar with or exploring new areas of the same world. The other draw is what we alluded to in the beginning; Exandria is very close to being a parallel universe of the Forgotten Realms. You may have noticed in the history a lot of names and creatures that are identical, and that carries throughout the setting. Exandria offers a place where people familiar with D&D won’t have to relearn a bunch of new names for gods, spells, creatures, and sapient beings, but the backstories and histories will be different enough that they won’t immediately know all the lore associated with it. The first Critical Role campaign, for example, focused on a fight with Vecna. The Vecna in Exandria functioned a lot like the one from Greyhawk in-game, but their histories are very very different.
Another benefit is that you don’t necessarily have to buy an Exandria-specific resource to run the games. As mentioned, the creatures and player races and so forth are all basically the same, and thanks to Critical Role being a 21st century phenomenon among geeks, most of the history and lore information is recorded online. If you are planning to revisit specific areas mentioned in the show then having the books to hand is probably a good idea, but if you just want to use the setting, then you can probably take what you already have and run with it.
Lennon: Okay, that is in fact more than I knew before. Thanks for that.
Ryu (annoyed): Yeah.
Ostron: What now?
Ryu: So I get that he wasn’t prepared because that always happens. What I’m wondering is why you just let him go with it without any attempt to help or correct him?
Ostron: Well I figured we’d just get to Vasselheim, he’d start blasting rodents, get arrested for unrestricted magic use and then things would sort themselves out.
Ryu: You were going to let him get arrested!? And what was going to happen when we had to come back?
Ostron: That part of the plan was still in the planning stages.
Ryu: Ohh you…you and I are going to have words after we clear out the scrying pool.