I had heard about it largely through word of mouth by friends. But I wasn't really interested in it because it was DnD. I've played a grand total of three sessions of Dungeons and Dragons. Not campaigns, singular sessions. My impression of the game had been...underwhelming to say the least, though most of it can be chalked up to lack of group synergy. I'd heard of Critical Role over the years, hard to do so as a fan of cartoons, animes and video games that all employ voice actors. I'd started listening after learning about some of the characters and don't regret the decision.
The biggest draw for me, going in and seeing their first episode was that these were all performers in a room with each other. The first thing about performers, there is a difference between performing for an audience and performing with each other. By the time the series had began, this troupe had already been playing for two years at the actor's homes. If this were a regular group, you'd probably feel closed out on a lot of things. Never happened here. They were accessible from the word 'go'. A lot of this has to do with that they were performers, and they got to perform now for each other AND an audience, which is growing with every week.
It also has a lot to do with the GM stylings of Matt Mercer, who many would know as the voice of McCree from Overwatch. Mercer has been playing DnD since a child, and his parents and their friends were DnD players before his birth. His stylings were highly immersive, using his narrative and vocal techniques to create a highly immersive experience with detailed settings and characters that make both the players and the audience care.
I'm not going to go too in depth, because I want people to see it (It's on youtube and twitch on Geek and Sundry) or hear it (it's on every major podcasting network). But it contains several elements that, as someone who has been running games for years now, things that I now have saved as reference points. They include:
- Several duels between one PC and an NPC that managed to be both epic and immersive for the entire table. No small feat, I've seen people at the table tune out the moment someone is getting prime spotlight like that. Because of their performative comfort with each other and the improv (and larping) motto of "Yes And" they don't see it as the spotlight being off on them. They just use it as a means of showing off their character with the fight being the centerpiece. There are three good times this happens, but I'll share the first one since it's so early in the series (episode 17 of 115 of Campaign 1) for the example: Grog vs Kern 1
- It handles death well. For a game that makes death easy to come back from, especially for higher level characters, it makes every attempt cost something. It also deals with power creep very well because the antagonists feel even more lethal as time goes along. Any time one of the characters dies, and a resurrection is attempted, it takes time to do and most episodes are spent dealing with the aftermath. I like this, and I plan on getting the setting book for the game (which is now out using d20 rules) just to see the rules for the resurrections. Death is easy, coming back from it should be hard.
- It has one of my favorite written characters. I didn't know Talieisin Jaffe (no relation to my friend's and game designs Sean and Josh...that I know of) before this, but he became one of my favorite players and his character of Percival De Rolo became my fast favorite. The first man in a fantasy setting to develop a gun. Intelligent, a bit posh, and a truly conflicted character. His character arc and Taliesin's acting and way of taking everything in his stride is something I now aspire to. He gave his GM enough rope with his backstory to create one of the darkest arcs in the series that set the tone for the rest of the game and beyond. In the new campaign, Taliesin now plays my new favorite PC: Mollymauk the Tiefling Blood Hunter (a new class created by Mercer, who also homebrewed the rules for firearms in game).
- It created NPCs that are memorable. A lot of this has to do with Mercer's sheer personality and talent. But the NPCs of Gilmore, Victor, and Kima are all recurring characters that the players are thrilled to see almost as much as their characters are. Likewise, the antagonists get some good reactions, especially the Briarwoods and Anna Ripley who manage to cause such disdain in the players that the performance is touching.
- It allows Bleed. Much of the ending is some very good roleplay, informed by years of gaming with each other as these characters. From the reactions to character deaths to enmities to the small triumphs. It allows emotional Bleed to happen.
I'm gushing a bit while writing this. I'm gushing because this show is a thrill to listen to, and to watch as well. I some times listen to the Podcast and then go back to Youtube to watch the players and how they reacted. After eight days worth of listening, which span for me about four months, I'm hungry to have experiences like this. I want to be in tabletop games like this, I want to GM games like this. I have three campaigns for three different settings cooked up just because I keep listening to this series. A friend has invited me to a DnD campaign and I'm already cooking up a Tiefling Wizard that is the cross between James Spader and Christopher Walken. Listening to Critical Role makes me want to play more, and that is something that I am grateful for.
So as I'm now five hours (two episodes) from catching up. With a backlog of audiobooks to make up for the lack of constant audio entertainment, I have to ask: Is it Thursday yet?