The Critical Role of 'Critical Role'
It’s any given Thursday night, roughly 9:50 pm Eastern Standard Time, and my house is filled with the scent of oven-fried chicken and the driving thrum of Celtic percussion and string instruments. The PS4 Twitch app is open, streaming an impressive flow of themed fan art over-scored by the aforementioned tune. My loved ones are gathered; we hunker down with our meals, eagerly anticipating the clock’s turn to 10 pm. It’s time for Critical Role.
Critical Role is a weekly Dungeons & Dragons campaign livestream, currently available on both its own Twitch channel Critical Role, as well as the Geek & Sundry Twitch. The series features live gameplay of a home-brewed world, created and made manifest by the talents of popular voice over artist Matthew Mercer, acting Dungeon Master, and featuring live unscripted performances by his equally-gifted friends. The core players are Laura Bailey, Taliesin Jaffe, Ashley Johnson, Liam O’Brien, Marisha Ray, Sam Riegel, and Travis Willingham; special guests also occasionally join in, such as Khary Payton, Mark Hulmes, Sumalee Montano, and Ashly Burch, who've all appeared briefly in this campaign.
If some of these names are familiar to you, that’s because the talent involved in Critical Role are renowned, tested, and aggressively committed actors/members of the production, animation, television, film, and gaming industries. Their varied skills, gravitas, and dedication combine with Matt’s ceaselessly creative mind and quick thinking into an amalgam so dense and compelling that it’s hard, as a viewer, to escape the show’s pull. Not that I’d want to; I’ve long since passed the event horizon and I’m in it until the end.
Currently, Critical Role is on its second iteration. Campaign 1 ran for several years as a private home-game amongst friends, then was translated into a format fit for livestreaming. It followed the heroic band of adventurers known as Vox Machina, made up of characters birthed from noble archetypes; imperfect yet admirable individuals with the heart and skill to face world-rending, inconceivably fearsome enemies; a story intricately laced with nuance and lore, but grander and more sublime for it.
Campaign 2 is quite different in flavor, though still seated in the same world as its ancestral adventure, some 20 years after the fact. The team is now The Mighty Nein, a name blithely transplanted from an in-joke made by the Twitch chat and the cast themselves. The new characters are deeply flawed, broken, and self-centered individuals brought together by aligned goals and a specific brand of apathy only possible in jaded, wounded souls who just want to do at least a few decent things in their blighted lives. Despite this somewhat bleak tapestry, Matt and the Players have managed to weave in glittering threads of love, charity, hope, and devotion. It's tragic and beautiful; both rough and soft to the touch, depending on which swatch you feel.
Given that Campaign 1 is so voluminous in its scope, breadth, and tenure, it is understandably overwhelming as a starting point for the uninitiated. For this reason, I recommend diving in at the beginning of Campaign 2, launched on January 10, 2018 and available for free on Geek & Sundry’s YouTube.
I’m aware that modern media is crawling with genre stories: you can’t walk three feet without banging your toe on some phylactery or superpowered humanoid. And while Critical Role takes place in an indisputably fantastical setting, where the characters level up and come into powers which they often don’t initially comprehend, this is not a “coming of age” tale. There are no “Hero’s Journey” tropes. The growing pains explored are generally relegated to the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. The Mighty Nein learn and develop in tandem, outside the constraints and moors in which storytelling often entrenches itself. That’s the beauty of Dungeons & Dragons. Regardless of what the Dungeon Master has planned for each session, if they’ve given the Player Characters enough freedom, the emergent narrative is wholly original.
Being a Dungeon Master is famously likened to wrangling cats, though I find it more like wrangling cats who’ve learned to use laser pointers and Roombas on their own. One of the areas where Critical Role shines is that Matt is always over-prepared for whatever path the characters may choose, not to mention remarkably quick on his feet in adapting this sandbox he's established in response to how the Players decide to play, and the Players do him the courtesy of self-regulating their out of character moments and the silliness which often accompanies the excitement of roleplaying with your friends. Each session accumulates calculable progress.
But now that I’ve described the scaffolding on which Critical Role is built, I’d like to talk about the more abstract reasons I feel the series is so important, and why it’s absolutely worth your time.
One obvious benefit is that the series is live. Live broadcast media, in recent memory relegated mostly to sketch shows, soap operas, and the exhausting 24-hour news cycle, has been reinvigorated by the podcast, vlogging, and gaming communities. It’s a special joy to be present when something momentous occurs — a precious time-locked thing you share with a community made up of those who love what you love. An intangible communion of experience: in this instance, one where you cannot rely on your knowledge of narrative structure, because not only are we learning new things about these characters with the passage of time, but the actors who portray them are learning as well; all of which is packaged in breathtaking improvised acting.
The Players who make up The Mighty Nein are unafraid to make bold choices, to do things which until that precise second they didn’t know their characters would do. They don’t pander to the audience in order to provide the story beats which will make us comfy and complacent; these actors are so dedicated to maintaining organic character growth that, on occasion, some of their actions will frustrate, annoy, or anger the audience. However, the beauty in this is that none of the Players’ calls are pre-fabricated to elicit a specific reaction from the audience. You’ll love some stuff and hate some stuff, but there’s no onus, no learned helplessness, no pretense or smugness or hubris: those very things which can drive us up the wall when dealing with a lot of media these days.
Like most fandoms, there are some bad apples here and there, but Matt and the Critical Role team are dedicated to creating and maintaining an inclusive, intersectional environment where we can all thrive. The Critical Role cast and staff do everything possible to step in on behalf of their core players, special guests, and fans alike, in order to defend against, mediate, and mitigate the sporadic flares of anger, cruelty, and general suckiness which pervade so many other fandoms. They are humble and grateful and express it often, with deep sincerity.
Fan artists and other creators are welcomed, embraced, appreciated, and encouraged. Cosplayers are readily provided reference images and showcased on the official series Twitter. The Critical Role production group is even working on programs meant to provide new players and novice DMs with guidance for the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons game system, as well as help navigating the more complicated aspects of RPG group dynamics. Every Critter is celebrated and bolstered in an open-source, accessible, super-fun community.
This show has brought pure, distilled hope and joy to so many, while also maintaining its initial purpose: a group of close friends who nerd out roleplaying and having a blast. The only thing that’s ever changed is that now we get to be part of it, too.
Critical Role airs Thursdays at 7 pm Pacific Standard Time on either the Critical Role or Geek & Sundry Twitch channels.