A Book Review?
I was going to write a book review of the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount (EGtW). This article will still serve that purpose but will take a different route to most reviews.
I will begin by noting I have enjoyed the Critical Role show for a long while now, as well as Matt Mercer’s other work on Force Grey, Founders and Legends and elsewhere. My time playing DnD predates Critical Role by a few decades to the early 1980s and to original DnD, so I have a broad appreciation for all versions of DnD and its spin-offs.
Regarding the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount… it is a nicely set out book, art ranges from good to great, detailed maps and gazetteer, lots of organisations, NPCs and, better than most DnD world building books since the Forgotten Realms Grey Box, it has four modules and one to three adventure starting points for pretty much every location.
It includes the stats for almost all the races released in DnD5e so far so could well be the first port of call, after the Player’s Handbook, for someone new to the game. It is, as they say, a box in a book.
As I thought about the Wildemount setting, of various comparisons with real-world conflicts, whether geographically and/or culturally triggered and also of religions with reincarnation as a theme I realised that I had seen the Wildemount story before.
What follows will include a number of spoilers for both Critical Role (CR) Seasons 1 (CRS1) and 2 (CRS2) and Babylon 5 (B5).
Unless otherwise noted, Babylon 5 images are copyright Warner Media LLC and Critical Role images are copyright Wizards of the Coast LLC
Looking at the Same View Through a Different Lens?
Babylon 5 was a popular 1990s sci-fi series, which retains a great following today. The show’s originator, J. Michael Straczynski (JMS), is a prolific and award-winning writer, including for DC, Marvel, the Twilight Zone, shows like the Real Ghostbusters, various other TV series and films, including the Academy Award nominated Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie. JMS was also the creator of He-Man spin-off, She-Ra Princess of Power.
Babylon 5 itself draws significantly on the post-war reconstruction period following the US civil war, combined with the rise of national socialism across much of the West in the 1930s, either in political leadership, or in opposition to dominant parties. It also references the attempts at maintaining the Great Powers’ status quo, first with the Concert of Europe, then the failed League of Nations and United Nations.
Obviously, just as B5 drew on many themes from other literature and real-world conflicts, Wildemount could be drawing directly on the same or similar events. As I will highlight though, I think there is a closer similarity to B5’s prism then mere correlation would suggest. I therefore feel confident that Babylon 5 was a core inspiration for Matthew Mercer in putting the second Critical Role campaign and the continent of Wildemount together.
First released in February 1993 as a pilot episode, B5 would be picked up for a five season arc, with the first season airing nearly a year later in January 1994.
The Foreground Arc – The Minbari and The Kryn
The show takes place on the frontline of two interweaving narratives. The first is in 2248, nine years before the main series begins. Cultural misperceptions between a human military vessel and a cruiser carrying the ruling Grey Council of the Minbari, an elf-like race, spark a war.
The war nearly destroys Earth and is only ceased when, at the last moment before Earth’s final fight, the Minbari Grey Council believe that in Squadron Leader Jeffrey Sinclair, who they have captured, there is evidence Minbari are being reborn as humans. They asses this by holding close to him a Triluminary, a holy relic that detects the presence of their greatest leader’s soul.
The Minbari block Sinclair’s memories of his capture, though eventually he begins to remember, leading him to leave Earthforce and join with the Minbari against a greater evil.
Around fourteen years before CRS2, a great battle was fought between the Kryn and Dwendalian empires’ military at Nogvurot, south of the Dunrock Mountains on the Glory Run. A Luxon Beacon, that absorbs the souls of those attuned, or ‘consecuted’, to it, if they die within its reach, was brought with the Kryn forces and remained at the battle site afterwards.
Over the following years the beacon began to reincarnate Kryn souls into the local human population. As they grew into youth, these humans started to remember their Kryn heritage. The Kryn quietly helped them leave the Dwendalian Empire and return ‘home’ to Xhorhas, leading to stories of kidnappings in the area.
Minbari / Kryn and Religion
Both the Minbari and the Kryn are led by a Theocratic Oligarchy, both in the form of a council representing the religious, military and worker factions, with a single leader.
Both religions are founded on the idea that the universe / demiurge broke itself into many pieces to aid their children’s (mortals’) understanding. The Minbari and Kryn, seek to understand their god, with the Minbari at least seeing this as their god, the universe, seeking to understand itself.
Both the Minbari and the Kryn also believe that when they die their souls rejoin their brethren waiting to be reborn anew. For the Kryn, as noted, this is through alignment to the Luxon beacons.
Fascist Human Government
As we delve further into B5’s future history of Earth (the story principally being set between the years 2257 and 2262) we find that the unified Earthgov, initially led by the diplomacy-minded President Santiago, has, following Santiago’s assassination, become an increasingly fascist organisation under his successor President Clark. Clark is trying to build strength to combat the perceived alien threats while expanding out into the universe.
King Bertrand Dwendal, leader of Wildemount’s Dwendalian Empire, could be analogous to B5’s President Luis Santiago, willing to use diplomatic talks to solve the threat of war with the drow of the Kryn Dynasty. Dwendal is, however, described in the EGtW as ‘[f]iercely nationalistic and proud of his heritage, the king harbors a disdain for outsiders and their challenges to imperial rule’. He could prove, like Clark, to be a tyrant in the making as events conspire to challenge him. If not, there is Princess Suria, wife of Eidys, Dwendal’s jaded son.
If not them, then most of the king’s court, in the good-evil axis of alignment, are neutral or outright evil, ready to tip over and rule as a dictatorship, in order to consolidate and protect their power and the empire. This is a reasonable DM campaign tactic that, even if the party becomes strong enough to remove one of these powerful NPCs, there will be another to take their place, and an army at the party’s backs seeking retribution.
Earthgov’s military is bolstered by a shadowy, at least morally grey, and possibly outright evil organisation, the Psi Corp, who carry out dark experiments and arranged marriages to improve their abilities. This group of powerful telepaths is embodied in the character of powerful Psi Cop Alfred Bester, played by Star Trek’s Walter Koenig (Chekov), who arranges the mental conditioning of B5 Station Security Chief Garibaldi, to turn him into his unwitting agent.
The Cerberus Assembly, a combination of powerful wizard houses, led by the likes of Trent Ikithon, a Mengele-like scientist-archmage, whose Volstrucker forces are Dwendalian’s Schutzstaffel (SS). The Volstrucker, also known as ‘scourgers’, as the EGtW notes, ‘are a clandestine organization of arcane assassins and enforcers in the service of the Cerberus Assembly’. Like B5’s Bester, Ikithon conducts sinister experiments into physical and mental conditioning, which ‘he calls the ‘awakening’’.
The Dark Arc – The Shadow War
B5’s second arc, which very slowly reveals itself, is the Shadow War. Long ago in the galaxy’s history, the First Ones arose. The Vorlon and the Shadows are amongst the last of these. Taking a hand for thousands of years in the development of the younger races (humans, minbari and others), the Vorlon and Shadows are shown initially to be of good and evil opposition. As more becomes known, they instead take on a spectrum of law and chaos. The Vorlon are paternalistic, whereas the Shadows encourage strength through conflict.
A thousand years ago the Minbari fought in the First Shadow War, alongside other races and the First Ones, including the Vorlons. The Shadows had made alliances with powerful allies and set the younger races on each other through discord.
The Minbari and their allies managed to fend off the Shadows and drove them back beyond the Rim of Known Space, albeit at the near destruction of the Minbari and others.
Across Exandria, and in particular in Xhorhas, mortal races fought each other, joined by the Prime Deities against the Betrayer Gods. The Prime Deities and their mortal allies won, but at a terrible cost of mortal lives. To prevent a recurrence, the Prime Deities barred gods from the material plane, behind the Divine Gate.
The Shadows / Tharizdun
Babylon 5’s Shadows believe that for races to grow to their full potential they must face cycles of adversity. ‘Chaos through warfare, evolution through bloodshed, perfection through victory’.
Tharizdun, the Chained Oblivion, also the Angel of Irons, is a mad god of chaos, yearning for the end of all things. He is shackled in the depths of the Abyss by divine chains that are slowly weakening.
B5’s Shadows want growth through chaos, rather than Tharizdun’s all consuming destruction… at least that is what it appeared until the final battle of the story arc, when they and their rivals begin ending entire planets in their fight for supremacy.
Like Tharizdun’s exile, the Shadows are slowly returning.
Z’ha’dum [zah-ha-doom], pronounced similarly to Tharizdun, was the Shadows’ home for much of their long history. After repeated nuclear attacks to drive the Shadows away, the surface was left a blasted wasteland, plagued by dust storms.
Xhorhas is described in EGtW as ‘a valley that still bears the lingering scars of the final battles of the Calamity. Fields of broken earth and muddy paths weave around muggy swamps and corrupted forests, home to creatures twisted by the echoing shadows of the Betrayer Gods who once ruled this region’.
A great war, with earth shattering consequences, corruption and mutation, akin to the desolation of a nuclear weapons barrage. The Mighty Nein, in pursuit of their enemy, Orbann, had to press through a massive Xhorhasian dust storm, similar to those that plague the surface of Z’ha’dum.
In the Land of Shadows
Further to the mention of ‘shadows’ in the Xhorhas description above, this reference is repeated. In episode C2E104, ‘The Ruined Sliver’, the Mighty Nein faced infernal-speaking undead shadow warriors in black armour, whose spirits were tied to sarcophagi within a black jagged tower.
Matt noted they had seen something similar to this style of architecture before, in the Ghostlands, outside the drow city of Rosohna, ‘haunted by ghosts and shadows’ (as EGtW notes), in the wastes of Xhorhas.
The alternate name of Rosohna, from when the Betrayer Gods ruled here, was Ghor Dranas, which is Draconic for ‘gathering of shadows’ (as per EGtW). Z’ha’dum in Babylon 5 is also the gathering place for the Shadows.
Furthermore, beneath Xhorhas, the Kryn empire continues in the ‘Shadowshire’, a large subterranean cavern. Similarly, in the Shadow city on Z’ha’dum, a large pit heads down to where the First One of all First Ones, Lorien, resides.
A fiend, likely a cambion, Obann, served the Angel of Irons. He discovered too late that this was a front for Tharizdun, the Chained Oblivion who physically altered Obann as punishment for failure.
Prior to this failure, Obann travelled the continent bringing powerful allies over to his master’s side. For those who did not readily comply, Obann placed a magical sigil on the back of their neck, which duplicated the effects of a domination spell, enthralling them.
In Babylon 5, Mr Morden, a human who survived an exploration mission to Z’ha’dum, at the price of enslavement by the Shadows, travels the known worlds bringing powerful allies to his masters’ side, often with the question, ‘What do you want?”.
Individuals can be controlled by the Shadows through use of a Keeper, a genetically modified creature that forms a symbiotic connection with its master and then with its thrall, allowing the master control of the thrall. Like Obann’s sigil, the symbionts that Morden and his masters use, connect in the back of the neck.
Like Obann, Morden suffered a physical transformation as the price for failure. Present at a major allied attack against the Shadows on Z’ha’dum, he suffered a large amount of burn damage to his body, but survived. He finally died at the orders of one of the series’ main characters, the double-dealing Londo, who had been enthralled by a Keeper but suppressed its influence through alcohol.
Obann’s demise mirrors Mordon’s, though accidentally. Jourrael, an ancient assassin of the drow god, Lolth, had been enthralled by Obann with the neck sigil and freed in the final battle by the Mighty Nein. Matt, playing the NPC assassin, was embarrassed that he got the killing blow on Obann, a major villain for several months.
When the Shadows began to return they started to recall their ships, which they had left throughout the galaxy after the last war. One was hidden on Mars, a planet later colonised by humans.
Other ships began to appear elsewhere as they became unearthed. These were the first signs of the Shadows’ incursion into Known Space.
In Wildemount, those working for the Angel of Irons, travelled the continent, using devices to weaken the boundaries between Exandria and the Abyssal planes, opening tears to allow Abyssal denizens to crossover and wreak havoc. It was thought by the Mighty Nein and their allies that these tears would weaken the overall boundary and could be the first signs of preparations for a large scale invasion.
The Babylon 5 station shares a number of similarities with Wildemount in how it is divided.
Hupperdook / Gray Sector
The industrial centre on Babylon 5, housing manufacturing and maintenance facilities best kept away from more populated areas is made up of thirty levels.
A missing level, Gray 17, was discovered by the station’s Security Chief. It had been sealed off by an ‘end of the world’ cult led by a human named Jeremiah, played by Nightmare on Elm Street’s Robert Englund. The cult had raised a zarg, a humanoid ‘perfect predator’, to help them understand the nature of existence, which inevitably turned against them.
Station Security Chief Garibaldi moved through the corridors trying to escape while the zarg came for him. He created a trap and killed the zarg.
Hupperdook is the manufacturing heart of the Dwendalian Empire, populated by gnomish construction workers. In a recreation of the zarg encounter, while in Hupperdook, the Mighty Nein go down into the prison’s deep levels to hunt a predator. This is a Gear Warden, a type of clockwork metal golem, constructed by the tinkerer, Cleff Tinkertop.
The prison and Cleff lost control of the golem, but managed to seal it in a deep, now forbidden level. Although the Mighty Nein destroyed the golem in direct combat, a prison cage that the golem could not breach was left by Matt for the party to trap the golem in, but this was missed.
As a side note, Dragonlance’s Mount Nevermind, the multi-tired gnome city of tinkerers and engineers, combines with Gray Sector to provide a physical and cultural blueprint for Hupperdook.
Menagerie Coast / Red, Green and Yellow Sectors
The Menagerie Coast and in the series’ particular experience, the port city of Nicodranas, is a place where trade and multi-culturalism mix. Nicodranas’ proximity to the Dwendalian Empire, leads to the military and ambassadors of the Empire and the Coast’s rulers, The Clovis Concord, mixing in this fairly neutral territory.
This makes Nicodranas most like the overall function of the Babylon 5 station and the red (leisure), green (diplomatic) and yellow (docks) sectors in particular.
Rexxentrum / Blue Sector
Akin to the core cities of the Dwendalian Empire, particularly Rexxentrum, Blue Sector is home to the station’s own employees, including administration and military.
Asarius / Brown Sector
Travellers, traders, other transients and those serving their needs, are located in what is akin to an airport and hotel. One of B5’s most famous areas is here, the Alien Sector. Alien’s with particular atmosphere mixes take residence. As the air is often noxious for humans and human-like aliens, there tends to be few of them in the Alien Sector, and when they are it is for a specific usually temporary, purpose.
Asarius, City of Beasts, is Wildemount’s alien sector. Its main inhabitants are goblinkin, who were created ages past from beautiful humanoids called Dranassar by the god Bane to fill his armies (as noted in EGtW). Others include gnolls and a smaller number of ogres, orcs, minotaur and others. As Asarius is part of the Kryn Dynasty, drow are also a prominent minority. For Rosohna itself, we would need to look to the Minbari Homeworld.
The unused parts of the Babylon 5 station where the homeless, also known as Lurkers, unable to leave the station, try and survive. Barter is used for most transactions.
A number of Wildemount’s cities have areas populated by poverty, sometimes extreme. This mirrors Babylon 5 in that Downbelow is spread throughout the station’s mass.
As noted in the beginning of this article, the book is well put together and all encompassing for those looking for a campaign world to make their start in.
Matt Mercer has noted he is a fan of Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms and it feels, even more so with this book, than with the previous campaign setting that Wizards of the Coast have something large and varied like the Realms, that they can give a corner to different authors and developers to expand upon or give greater depth to.
Regarding the use, if I am correct, of Babylon 5’s story arc as a basis, that is absolutely fine. People have used Tolkien, Lewis, Martin, Asimov and others for the near half century that DnD has been with us and will continue to do so.
Let me know what you think and…
Thanks for reading 🙂