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The Strange Allure of Critical Role

I’ve talked about how much I’ve enjoyed Titan’s Grave and some of the ways it’s got me thinking about my potential future gaming. It also meant I discovered Critical Role, something else I’d never heard of before. Critical Role is quite different to Titan’s Grave. The former is very much a produced and edited show, the latter is very much a live stream of a weekly Dungeons and Dragons campaign right down to players being missing or arriving late due to coming back from conventions or routine train delays.

If I was doubtful about Titan’s Grave I was certainly doubtful about this: a live, raw stream of a Dungeons and Dragons game being interesting? Really?

I’m not going to be watching the entirety of Critical Role as there are a lot of episodes and each one is three hours long as that is how long their gaming sessions are. That’s way too much stuff to watch historically. I’ll admit, I’m probably not going to watch every episode moving forward either, primarily due to the three hour length. It’s like a whole evening gone each time you do it. Despite this I’ve watched three episodes in the background while doing other things: one was interesting, one was a real awesome ride and the other was very…random. They best one was engaging, funny and enthralling.

The second episode I watched had them fighting a white dragon and I’ve never wanted six people (the group is usually eight, but the party was split with two guest stars for the week) sat around a table to kill a white dragon so much in my life. I felt like cheering when they defeated it. It was…oddly emotional. In contrast, one episode featured a character shitting in a temple to use it as a ‘scrying poo’ a random attack on a town and some sort of guild dispute. This one wasn’t so interesting. It’s a bit like a grand gaming story, which are usually terrible to listen to, but ins some cases these ones actually work and you experience as it happens.

A lot of why this works comes down to the participants. Like Titan’s Grave, all of them are voice actors. They appear in a variety of animated shows and games, including Ashley Johnson, who is probably one of the more famous group members, due to her playing Ellie in the Last of Us (though I believe she’s now left the show due to her schedule). This means they are better at doing a lot of things than the typical gamer at the table: accents, conveying emotion and doing all sorts of acting related stuff that is just substantially more engaging and substantially less silly than if the typical gamer tried it. Basically, while they may not show their faces in their roles, they are actors. This doesn’t work at all times, as we have Scottish dwarves, always comedy, and the odd accent used by the DM occasionally does not work. The accent is fine, it’s just jarring to me. The accents used by the players are great though. This surprises me, as I hate accents and character voices by and large. It also results in some great moments, the portrayal of the white dragon being inspired.

The enthusiasm at the table is also…immense. This also sells it. We’ve all been at some tables were the atmosphere is subdued or focused on the specific, tactical play. They laugh, have fun, enjoy the crap dice rolls and the good ones, get so enthused by stuff like the creatures they meet and the situations. They are obviously having so much fun it is naturally infectious. There must be Critical Role episodes out there were they all turn up, have had a crappy work day and just aren’t firing on all cylinders? Surely?

The stream is almost certainly doing a tremendous amount in terms of getting people to try out the game. If I’d never been involved in a role-playing game it would probably be this feed rather than Titan’s Grave that would inspire me to investigate how to get involved.

What am I getting out of it in terms of my gaming? Well, it’s sort of feeding into my previous post about things I’ve taken from Titan’s Grave. It’s related to expectations again really and it comes down to expectations of narrative.

You see Critical Role certainly seems to conjure up an exciting ‘narrative of events’ as a result of the interactions of the players and the DM. They do funny and exciting things, some of them planned and some of them not. Travel to places. Interact with people. Kill exciting monsters in exciting places. It is obviously great and fun stuff. In what I’ve seen so far there isn’t really significant character change and purpose in the narrative of events. There isn’t really any aggressive scene framing either, which means they consume material quite slowly, spend ages doing complicated plans and the like. The characters are played and acted and they are the vehicles through which to enjoy the narrative of events. I guess I am always trying to make things work like fiction (be it a TV show or a novel) and for it to be a narrative of consequential events which results in significant character change, primarily focused on characters realising their premise for existing, the personal story they are there to tell.

It’s quite possible, from the player perspective, this isn’t nearly half as important and they’re just having tremendous fun enjoying a series of exciting, absorbing and on occasion, ridiculous events and just playing the character is fun enough.

It wouldn’t make a great TV show or book, but what the hell.

About Ian O'Rourke

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