Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep is the first major Dungeons & Dragons adventure book set in the world of Exandria. The mod was co-designed by Game Troop Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer and features something not yet found in the 5th Edition version of the game. Throughout their journey, players will compete with a rival group of adventurers, a group that can become either powerful allies or powerful enemies. Speaking to Polygon, game design architect Chris Perkins revealed some of their secrets — and some insight into how these non-player characters fit into the campaign.
[Ed. note: What follows contains mild spoilers for Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep.]
“The critical role, as you know, is very character driven,” Perkins said. “The interactions within the party, and then the interactions the party has with the NPCs in the world, run very deep into Matt’s campaign. And in order to give this story a new dimension, one that kind of relies on character development, Matt crafted a rival group of adventurers who would essentially pursue the same goals as the heroes of the story, but not wouldn’t necessarily approach the issues in the same way.”
The leader of this rival group of NPCs is called Ayo Jabe, a powerful young water genasi born to orc parents. But, like all of Mercer’s best animated characters in her actual play sessions, she has many different details in her backstory and layers of her personality.
“Once you start digging, there’s actually a bit of fragility, some uncertainty,” Perkins said. “She looks like she knows what to do, but a bit like Captain Kirk, if you dig a little bit she just flies away. And the other members of the party – the new ones and those who know her best – they can sense it in her, but they are determined to help her succeed. And so she’s basically the archetypal struggling leader, the one who’s always moving forward, but not always with both feet on the ground.
Perkins explained that DMs have many 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. These carefully orchestrated interactions allow the group to make their own judgment about each rival’s intentions, which in turn can lead to creative ways to interact with them. But that doesn’t mean the DMs will ultimately be responsible for inhabiting all of these characters to the same degree.
“In the intro, we give advice, which is ‘use it at the depth that’s right for you,'” Perkins said. “In some cases, you might not want to focus on all the rivals, because that’s a lot of NPCs to bring to life. You can basically shine the spotlight on one of them, then relegate the others back- And where that spotlight shines we tell the DM that you can move it over time. If the player characters turn to a particular character, like Ayo, then the intro tells the DM how you can focus on her and let the other party members kind of become shadows behind her.
Perkins said that as these interactions build up, rivals will each develop their own affinity towards players. This could lead to conflicts within the group of rivals, allowing players to tear 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 to the DM to decide how important a role he plays.
“These NPCs come and go,” Perkins said. “They have their own plan, so if they become too much of a burden, what we’re basically saying to the DM is [that] Ayo makes a decision, she leaves, and they kind of go their separate ways on any terms.