So last time I talked about tabletop games and how I got hooked into them, this time I’m going to talk specifically about a show that features a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors playing dungeons and dragons.
My wife and I discovered Critical Role years ago when browsing YouTube. We’d watched some D&D highlight videos, talks from people who made or ran the game about how they’d do things, and general jokes and memes around D&D. We kept seeing one group pop up over and over; Critical Role. As viewers of a lot of anime and cartoons as well I guess the algorithms of YouTube decided we would like them as they did D&D and their players voiced a lot of characters we love. We were curious.
They were staffed by a regular run of voice actors; Travis Willingham, Laura Bailey, Sam Riegel, Liam O’Brien, Taliesin Jaffe, and Marisha Ray. They’re all lead on their adventures by another voice actor and general legend; Matt Mercer.
When we first discovered them they were heading towards the end of their first campaign which was over 100 episodes long by that point. We liked what we saw, a few bits fans had cut out of particularly funny moments (some even animated!) but we didn’t have the time to re-watch 100+ episodes, each one around 4 hours long. So it was with a degree of sadness (but not much investment) we moved on.
Just over a year ago we read that they were starting a new campaign. We checked and, indeed, they had finished their last one! They were on a break running other random one-shot games until they were ready to run their next big thing; campaign 2!! This, we thought, was a good time to get on board! We could watch from the beginning, give it a few episodes, and see what we thought.
Let me tell you, Critical Role is big. It’s got a huge following, dedicated fans who are also generally nice people, and we didn’t realise how gripping a Critical Role campaign would be.
We started watching episode one and were introduced to a bunch of characters, the shy and stinky wizard Caleb, and his goblin compatriot with a penchant for pilfering; Nott. We met the tall southern half-orc Fjord and his recently-met ass-kicking monk associate Beau, and their joint bubbly Russian tiefling Jester. Lastly we encountered the Carnies; Yasha and Mollymauk; a half-angel Aasimar with a sword bigger than most people, and a flamboyantly, extravagantly, vibrantly enthusiastic tiefling, respectively.
We got hooked pretty bad. It’s been just over a year now (they celebrated running for a year just a few weeks back) and we’ve seen all of them. It’s a real problem.
So what makes Critical Role special? What makes us keep watching, and keep wanting to watch more? A bit of a mixture.
To start with the actors are great. They’re trained and professional voice actors which means they bring a real sense of personality to their characters, but in different ways. Some slip into it just with voices, some with their whole body, but they are each a different person when they play. They also get on with each other, with this game springing from a home-game they all played many years ago that just got bigger.
The second point is the game is good, Matt is the dream GM and under his rule the game is brilliant. The world is detailed and immersive, the story compelling, the NPCs always brilliant1There was an interview with Travis and Marisha where they were asked who their favourite NPC was, and they both responded that the problem they had was each time they picked a favourite Matt would introduce someone else who would take over. We’ve seen 3 so far in campaign 2; Pumat Sol, Kiri, and Orley., and the combat is gruelling and deadly but always interesting. Matt has a real talent for creating sessions that are the pinnacle of what a D&D game can be.
The last thing is their characters. None of them are particularly good people (save, perhaps, Jester) but they’re all so realistic and genuine. They have skills, flaws, quirks, personality, but also really importantly they have representation. They all struggle with different things but there are issues that touch so closely on real-world issues including sexuality and identity (hint hint), and they way it’s handled is always so perfectly it feels inviting, and genuine, and kind.
The interaction between them all is wonderful as well. My favourite interactions at the moment (episode 49) are between Fjord and Beau with Fjord acting as a reluctant, amused, and exasperated teacher of social graces to Beau, someone who at best can be described as “blunt”. There’s also the interactions between Jester and Fjord where Jester seems to have more than a little crush on him, spawning this wonderful (minor spoilers) fan song about a rival love interest.
Beau and Caleb have a wary respect for each other and deep frustration with their opposing points of view, and Nott and Caleb have a mother/son relationship that early on Nott highlights isn’t Caleb looking out for her, she looks out for him.
Some of the issues the show touches on (as I’ve hinted above) are quite poignant for me. The main one that stands out is Nott who is looking for a great powerful magic to change her. There are minor spoilers to follow, so if you want to avoid them (up to episode 49) stop here.
All good? Great!
Nott used to be a halfling woman with a husband and child, but due to a great big helping of backstory was transformed into a goblin permanently and forced to carry on in a different body to the one she knows she should have. She’s now spending all her time trying to find someone or something powerful enough to break this enchantment so she can return to her correct form and continue with her life with her family. Sound familiar?
Now Sam Riegel is brilliant acting this out, and Nott’s pain is heartbreaking, but he has also mentioned that there wasn’t necessarily a trans influence to his thinking about the creation of Nott’s story. That doesn’t stop me running wild with it though!!
So we have someone trapped in a body they know they shouldn’t have, who is seeking anything possible to try and regain the body she should have. I, and I know many other trans-critters, can sympathise with this. It’s touching to see a story about regaining the form you should be handled so well and thoughtfully, and it’s so encouraging to see the other characters be so accepting of it and trying to help.
Building on this there is a lot of support from the cast who, without much of a stretch, can be called great people. How do I know? Between the Sheets….
Brian W Foster ran a season of Between the Sheets, an interview show where each of the cast were interrogated for around an hour about their past, how they got to this point, and their careers and lives. Brian is a master interviewer, lord of active listening, and coaxes the best out of his guests. It was fascinating to see how the cast got together and how fragile and random the connections were until they all pulled together into this thing.
One thing Brian does not skimp on is the tears, he pulls a good few drops out of more than one person, but the two people I want to most focus on are Matt and Marisha (true nerd love). They are one of the sweetest, kindest, and also awesomest2Shut up, it’s a word! couples around.
In their respective interviews, and I really do encourage you to watch them, it’s clear just what decent people they are, and how supportive they are of people younger than them who are going through similarly tough times. Their support of charities like 826LA and a whole bunch of different charities, along with the generosity of their community, speaks volumes, but it’s the little things as well.
The Critical Role cast are the sort of people that make you feel okay in whatever body you have, whatever gender, orientation, disability, or ethnicity, they make you feel like it’s all okay and you’re welcome. And that’s pretty powerful. And it’s thanks to people like them that I can take steps with more and more confidence, bit by bit exploring who I am and can be, knowing that no matter who out there is a douche; these folk are going to be cool with it.
I’ll also add that I’m determined, one day, to see them and tell them this. To remind them that the effect they have on their fans isn’t just providing entertaining media to consume, or creating a thriving community to be a part of, but that wherever they go they leave better than before they got there. They came to Comicon London last year and I made extra effort to go (having dislocated a knee literally days before) but the outpouring of support from their fans completely swamped what the organisers had expected and meant neither I not many thousands of their fans couldn’t even get close because of the other thousands in lines. I’ll keep waiting for my change to strike, though.
Until next time, with love,