Last week there was a sudden burst of attention for that media juggernaut known as “Critical Role,” the Friends of the RPG community. They launched a Kickstarter to fund an animated show, and smashed through their goals and stretch goals and super stretch goals somehow within a negative amount of spacetime (or so it seemed, without actually paying that much attention), and the tabletop RPG corners of the Internet rejoiced.
Giving It Another Shot
I’ve known about Critical Role for years now. It’s sort of hard to be on Twitter without seeing it mentioned once or twice a day, even without following Geek and Sundry. I tried to watch it before, but never really got into it. I’ll summarize, if for some reason you’re one of the six people who don’t know what it is (probably the same six people who still haven’t played Fortnite Battle Royale): It’s a group of normally seven or eight voice actors who sit at a table every Thursday and play Dungeons and Dragons for about four hours. That’s it. That’s the show. That’s the media juggernaut.
These aren’t particularly famous voice actors, even. They’re far more famous for their, ahem, *roles*, har har, on Critical Role. Although admittedly most of their credentials are on anime shows and games that I’ve never seen or heard of, so maybe they *are* famous, and I just don’t know it.
The only voices I recognized among their credits were Ashley Johnson’s portrayal of Ellie in The Last Of Us, a game I’ve recently played. She’s a bit sporadic in Campaign 2, though, at least what I’ve seen so far, and doesn’t really say much when she’s there. Laura Bailey apparently voiced Jaina Proudmoore, the character who said all of her thoughts out loud as exposition in the Battle for Azeroth expansion, and also apparently sang that Daughter of the Sea song. Matthew Mercer voiced mercenary MacReady in Fallout 4’s Goodneighbor, which I definitely heard, though I barely ever spoke to him and spent little time in Goodneighbor and have no real memory of it. That was about all I personally have consumed from their voice credits. I got that information from Wikipedia, by the way, so it’s entirely possible it’s wrong. I can’t really tell from watching Critical Role, as their voices all sound entirely different and change constantly.
Anyway, with the renewed interest in the show, I thought I’d try to watch it again. I mean it’s not like there’s anything good on real television. I saw a bunch of people on Twitter one day “throwing shade” on it or whatever the kids say. There’s always a group of people who tries to act like *they* are really the cool ones for *not* being into the popular stuff, and I admit I do that sometimes myself. Sometimes it’s the right thing to do. But I find as I get older, the less I want to be one of those stereotypical old curmudgeons who automatically rejects pop culture, without at least putting some effort into it first, so I gave it another shot.
There are about 50 bazillion different spinoffs and variations of Critical Role, but in general, there is Campaign One, which is completed and consists of over a hundred episodes, and Campaign Two, where they all play different characters, which is currently in progress and is up to fifty-some episodes. The prospect of watching the over one hundred 4-hour episodes of Campaign One is a bit daunting. The first episode starts out with technical issues, so it’s kind of a big barrier to entry. So I started with the first episode of Campaign Two, Curious Beginnings.
It’s exactly what you would expect watching people play Dungeons and Dragons to be. Well, adults playing D&D, at least. Adults with voice-acting talent, who can assume different roles with ease, and slip into and out of accents unconsciously. Adults who are not so much role-playing as they are full-on acting. Adults who actually know how to work together and improvise a compelling story. So I guess in that way, it’s quite a bit different from what I remember of D&D.
Adults play D&D differently, even without voice acting. They are *way way more into it.* Kids don’t really do the role-playing part of it at all, at least I never saw anyone do it. They just roll superheroes who magically kill everything around them with the sentient vorpal swords they got at level 1 and amass mountains of gold without any effort. It’s a lot more amorphous and less restricted by, you know, rules and stuff. In kid D&D, it’s just assumed everyone will have all-18s for their character stats.
D&D Nostalgia Trip
On this most recent, dedicated viewing of Critical Role, I was immediately struck by a couple of things: First, the amount of advertising is ridiculous. This show is a jaw-dropping cash cow. We’re talking AMC’s The Walking Dead levels of cash cow. There is an aftershow for Critical Role. *An aftershow for a D&D session.* There is about 10 minutes of announcements and ads before each session begins. There is another 15-20 minute break in the middle of each show, during which they show more ads and fan art. I’ve never seen so much advertising in an “independent” show before.
It’s even more than when I watched shows on the TWiT network, back when people still thought it was possible to get viewers to watch video outside of YouTube. It’s so much that you’re almost desperate for a huge corporation to swoop in and take over the show just so they can cut down on the all the begging. (And that’s not even including the ads that YouTube drops on top of the videos.) It’s so much that the people on the show are clearly embarrassed about it when they’re doing the advertisements.
Next, after I got over the incessant groveling, I was struck by the amount of rule changes in D&D since the last time I played. (I’m going to continue to call it D&D by the way, because that’s what it is. It’s not “DnD.” We didn’t have computers when *we* played, so we didn’t have to worry about filenames.) (It’s funny how there are generation gaps in tabletop RPGs now, too.)
The last time I actually *played* Dungeons and Dragons, I’m pretty sure I was in middle and/or high school. That was, um, many years ago. We called it “D&D.” No, actually, we didn’t. We called it “AD&D” because we were much cooler than those old geezers who played the simplistic “D&D” before us, in those flimsy little soft cover books. My older brother had a set of those rule books in a box, and as far as I know, he still does. Sometimes we would look at them and chuckle. They weren’t even in color! They were like tin type photographs to us.
But *we* were *advanced* players. We had hardcover books, and far more complicated rulesets. We were legit. I’m not sure what it would be called in today’s “DnD” terminology, but according to Wikipedia, what I played was prior to the 2nd Edition books, so I guess it was AD&D 1st Edition rules. Which sounds weird to me, because there were at least two D&D editions *before* that. (Casually perusing the history of D&D reveals a very complex production path, with lots of forks and merges that are hard to follow.)
I don’t know specifically what ruleset they are using on Critical Role, but I think they’re up to 5th Edition rules now, so I assume it’s something along those lines. All I know is there are a lot of things in the game now that weren’t there before, which makes it seem both more complicated and more simplistic at the same time.
We didn’t have tieflings, for starters. Those now-ubiquitous folk, which always seem to be female and behave just like the jovial Neeshka from Neverwinter Nights 2, didn’t exist in the 1st Edition. There are two of them just in Critical Role Campaign Two. We didn’t have “dragonborn” either, whatever those are.
We also didn’t have 50 bazillion different sub-classes. We had the basic fighters, magic users, clerics, and thieves. In the “advanced” rules we added barbarians, illusionists, druids, and assassins. I think there were also bards, but they were hard to achieve. You had to level two other classes before you could “become” a bard, or something like that. I can’t remember if monks existed or not. (Editor’s note: Research indicates that monks did exist, and also rangers and paladins.) There definitely weren’t any “blood hunters,” and there weren’t any “warlocks” or “wizards” or “rogues.” We were thieves, damn it.
We didn’t have “bonus actions,” or “key points,” or “max” hit points. We just had hit points. We didn’t have advantages and disadvantages. I’ve only recognized a handful of the low-level spells that they’ve cast so far. (Prismatic Orb was one, an *illusionist* spell in my day, and I guess the cleric’s Cure Light Wounds, and I guess Detect Magic too.) I can’t remember if we even had free cantrips. I don’t think we did, unless maybe that was a “new-fangled” thing that arrived in a supplemental book, toward the end of my days with it. Possibly Unearthed Arcana, one of the last books I ever saw, but I don’t think I had anyone to play with by then. We had to cast our spells the old-fashioned way! And our clerics didn’t have any ability to make illusionary duplicates of themselves, either. They wore chain mail and hit people with maces and they cured wounds and turned undead, and that was that. You kids and your fancy-schmancy tiefling trickster clerics!
We didn’t have “natural 20s” or “natural 1s,” either. We didn’t have “natural” anything. We had dice rolls, and that was it. We never used the “natural” prefix. As I recall, the “natural 20” and “critical hits and misses” thing began with an article in Dragon Magazine, which I guess eventually made its way into the ruleset as a staple. I remember referring to a xerox copy of that article late in my playing days.
(I used to have a stack of dozens of Dragon Magazines going back to Issue #1 but they’re long gone now. I remember I particularly loved the comic at the end of each issue, which I can’t remember now. Ah, Phil and Dixie, that was it. Wait, it’s on archive.org! Now *there’s* an Internet rabbit hole of nostalgia!)
Dice rolls seemed to be much easier in the old days. We rolled a die and looked at the number and we knew the result immediately. We had the combat tables right in front of us. Sometimes we added one or two from our magic swords or whatever. (And as kids, of course, we just re-rolled if we didn’t like the result.) In Critical Role, they roll a die, look at the number, then bury their heads in their character sheets or tablets for a minute to find whatever appropriate modifier to add before they know whether it was a success or failure. Some of the newer changes in D&D seem to streamline the game, but that one seems a lot slower and more cumbersome to me.
Our character sheets were vastly more complicated than the pathetic things with eight numbers that they put up on the screen in Critical Role. Ours were front-and-back, in teeny, tiny print, with numbers, more numbers, and even more numbers after that. We had a WILL on our character sheets!
Obviously it goes without saying that we didn’t have ridiculously detailed painted scale models we pulled out at a moment’s notice to plop down on the table for every combat situation. If we were really lucky, we had a piece of graph paper in a plastic cover that we drew erasable marks on with grease pencils. Occasionally we used lead miniatures. If we were lucky! Otherwise it was paper and a #2 pencil or a lot of hand gestures. And it snowed! Both ways!
I actually painted a few lead figures myself. I found some of them this past week. I hope I didn’t get lead poisoning taking this picture.
I also found all my dice, which now look exactly like beat-up antiques from the 80s, the points worn down so much that the 20-sided dice look nearly spherical.
One thing that definitely *hasn’t* changed in D&D is the utterly ludicrous monetary system and economy. “That incense will cost you 100 gold pieces!” A little while later: “Here’s a silver piece for that horse! Now we’re off to collect a 30 gold piece reward for every gnoll ear we bring back!” Nice. Brings back memories.
Critical Role Won Me Over
Anyway, back to Critical Role. I’ve now watched and/or listened to over a dozen episodes from Campaign Two. At first I was kind of embarrassed to watch it. Watching grown people act like silly children is a bit awkward, almost a bit voyeuristic. They’re all inside a shared fantasy, while you’re peeking in through a window. It’s like watching your parents make out or something-kind of weird. The first episode of Campaign 2 wasn’t all that great, either, comparatively speaking. The half-orc has a Texas accent for God’s sake.
But toward the middle or the end of the second episode, some six hours after I started from the beginning, it started to feel more “normal” and a story started to emerge. The gameplay became “emergent,” as it were. I started to wonder what would happen next to these characters, what would be revealed next from their “hidden personal backstories,” and that was the hook that led me to keep hitting play on each successive episode, while I waited for video files to render, or ate food, or before bed, or whatever. I hate to admit it, but Matt Mercer is a hell of a good storytelling DM (he goes a bit too far for my tastes, but it’s all in fun), and of course all the players are pretty good at it too.
As another comparison to the D&D of the 80s, we didn’t have several decades of RPG computer games to fall back on for story ideas. Our stories were basically, “You go to the crypt and disarm traps and kill skeletons and get some experience points and gold.” In Critical Role, they are basically acting out a mix of a Bethesda game and an early Dragonlance novel, and the combat is almost incidental.
I do wish there was a faster way to go through the shows, though. I feel like with all the money they’ve surely made (even before the Kickstarter) from merchandise and whatnot, they should commission someone to make a 20- or 30-minute edit of each session, cutting out all the dice rolls and rules checks and laughing and pointless sidetracks and just leaving in the important story beats. For every hour of D&D played, there’s only about 5 minutes of real story progression that takes place. As much as I might like to see the first campaign, watching 115 four-hour sessions is a bit much to ask. Maybe that’s the whole point of the Kickstarted animated show in the first place.
Then again, I know I’m going to be super annoyed whenever I do finally get caught up and have to wait *a whole week* for the next episode, so maybe rushing through it is a bad idea anyway.
My favorite part though is when a player says they’re going to do something that’s obviously a terrible idea, and Matt Mercer, the DM, kind of stares for a second in disbelief, then says, “Okay!”
I also like how there’s a pretty good cross-section of every D&D player archetype in the group, from the super-dedicated role-player to the casual fun player along for the ride, from the excitable one jumping up and down and yelling all the time to the laid back quiet one, and everything in between. I feel like there’s someone in there that every D&D player can relate to.
How To Like Critical Role
Here are some handy tips for other skeptical folks like me who think they’re too cool for the show:
Any D&D experience within the last forty years is probably a huge help in liking the show. Playing a D&D-based computer game probably doesn’t count as much.
It probably also helps a lot to find the craft of voice acting really interesting.
They use a lot more modern vernacular and cussing than you usually find in most fantasy settings and make infantile dick jokes sometimes, so you’ll have to have some tolerance for that in between the deadly serious stuff.
I certainly would NOT recommend starting at Campaign 1, Episode 1. The audio quality is awful at the beginning. It was recorded back when Twitch quality was intensely awful, even more so than just the moderately awful it is today. You’ll probably be annoyed within 30 seconds and give up, saying, “This sucks, I knew it, people are dumb for liking this.”
After starting here myself, I don’t even think I would recommend starting at Campaign 2, Episode 1, either. You’ll have to make a deliberate, concentrated effort to sit through many, many hours of what will turn out to be prologue and backstory before the “real” story picks up steam. It took me a long time to get through that part, in half-hour and one-hour bursts that I didn’t pay much attention to. The players don’t know their characters at first. They don’t know where they’re going. They don’t know what they’re doing. The stakes are low and inconsequential. They’re feeling everything out. It’s a pretty slow burn, story-wise.
I would probably suggest starting on Campaign 2, Episode 12, Midnight Espionage, if you want to see a pretty good sample of the best the show has to offer. That episode has some amazing storytelling in it-it represents almost everything that is possible in a D&D game, but is only achievable in a typical group’s wildest imagination. I doubt there are very many D&D groups that are as trusting and in-sync as these folks are.
I haven’t listened to the podcast so I don’t know if they do a different mix or anything, but I don’t think I would have liked it as much starting out in an audio-only form, as opposed to the videos. These are pretty good voice actors so it’s hard to tell who is talking at first without *looking* at where the voice is coming from. They shift in and out of character a lot. It takes a bunch of episodes before you can identify which voices go with which people.
If you want to cheat and pretend you watched the episodes without *actually* watching the episodes, there’s a show called Critical Recap for Campaign 2, but it’s just someone sitting there telling you what happened in a 5-minute monologue, which is not terribly compelling, no matter how excited the host sounds about it. Show, don’t tell. Showing us 5 minutes of carefully-chosen clips from the show would have been a much better recap, in my opinion.
Anyway, it was a surprise bit of compelling entertainment. Very fun and addicting for binge watching purposes. A rare situation in life where the hype is actually deserved. I can definitely see now why people might watch the show and suddenly want to play D&D. The siren call is strong… must… resist… roll saving throw!