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Critical Role Is All About The Characters

So where last we left off, I was just done explaining that while Critical Role has an amazing narrative, the probably biggest appeal of it are the player characters and players involved.

Now, the key thing to understand about all of this is that the point of the game, for both Matt the DM and all the players, is to tell a story together. This is sometimes misunderstood by people who are only used to D&D games that are basically spoken hack and slash RPGs with DMs that want to kill all the characters, and where getting attached to yours is just laughed at. The 300+ hours of content that we have are a pretty good balance between exciting battles and character development.

This also comes with the added bonus that all of these actors have been with their characters for almost five years by now, so they know what they’re doing, and what they want out of the game. And that just happens to be a fulfilling narrative for their characters; something Matt Mercer happily provides, but that a certain kind of viewers, even after as of writing this 88 episodes, are not happy with.

Oh, and I have previously mentioned that the external threats are almost always just embodiments of the characters’ internal struggles, right?

“We’re literally fighting the demons in your head!”

“THERAPY!”

—an actual exchange.

This is the true beauty of an excellent narrative, but I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about the amazing characters that make it all possible.

(Disclaimer: I have nothing but love for everyone involved with the series. I just also happen to have a very tongue-and-cheek style to my writing, and enjoy making fun of the things I love. Keep that in mind. It is all about love.)

Vax’ildan Vessar

Is anyone else seeing Action!Elrond here?

Half-elven rogue, played by Liam O’Brien.

Try to tell Liam on Twitter how his rogue abilities work, you will be the 1000th person that day. Liam is the guy who got all of this started, as he’s the one who called everyone up to continue the one-shot they originally created their characters for, as described on a podcast he has with Sam Riegel. They update roughly every election year, but might eventually get around to updating every Olympic year instead.

He is currently running three games for his two kids, has done several one-shots when too many cast members were out of town to Skype them all in, and also brought the serious shipping to the series. Hence I consider him captain of all the ships, and will be eternally grateful. Chances are pretty good that that’s also a reason for a lot of hate he gets, but hey.

Liam also seems to believe in the rule that once you get fake-married, you can never go back, which is part of the reason I strongly believe he actively browses the Critical Role AO3 tag on occasion.

Vax, in-game, is also usually the guy who starts things. By running into them headfirst while leaving the rest of the party behind, usually resulting into very close calls with actual character death. This habit has coined a catchphrase and running gag, as everyone in the group is supposed to say “Jenga” whenever shit goes down (which is a verbatim summation of how that plan was conceived). Baring one exception, this somehow always ends up being him.

He is bisexual disaster twin number one, and all of these things very aggressively. No, really. I know we replaced describing people as Martells by referring to them as dutiful princesses, but no. He and is sister are what happens when you make Oberyn and Arianne twins, and he is absolutely the Oberyn in this scenario. Down to where he occasionally seems to be attempting to actually die for his sister.

He’s also the one who keeps insisting that Vax and Vex look exactly alike, even when people with firsthand experience can assure us they don’t. Is, to date, I believe, also the only one involved with this show who never messed up the names.

No, really. Even Vex herself messed it up before. There’s a running tally for that.

Sam: If I ever roll a new character, I’ll call him Vix!

Matt: I will cut you.

And while we’re talking about the twin aspect, Liam and Laura here are truly amazing at playing that. They have the whole “I’ll either help you hide the body or yours will be the body I’m hiding” schtick down to perfection. So much so that you tend to forget that they’re not actually related, just born on the same day five years apart.

Vax is also aggressively bisexual. I don’t mean that in the usual way where he just hits on anything he can find (we have someone else for that), but just… Well… It takes a special kind of person to be under a charm effect or undercover and still assert that you do in fact swing both ways, and mention that both people who control you are really fucking hot. Twice.

And before someone brings out their insensitive jokes and queerbaiting sticks, I will discuss this more in-depth in a later piece. It is made abundantly clear that Vax is serious in his attraction to both men and women. Very serious. And I will defend all of this to death.

He also starts out as the closest thing to a leader this group has, as the guy who brings everyone together for decisions in game, and who stands up for the people in the still 8 people group who are more easily talked over. In actuality, I’d argue that you can make a case for any of the core six cast being the leader of the group, and all of them are at one point or another, but especially in the beginning, Vax occupies that spot most often and most easily.

As a last thing, he also has a beautiful arc about finding religion, which is a lot less… What this usually is like in a setting where gods are an undeniably reality that will occasionally punch a dragon for you. Oftentimes, religious themes are belittled, especially in more recent and overly popular fantasy narratives we may or may not mention too often. Here, it is played out really respectfully and beautifully and rounds out a lot of things.

Vax the most often accused of being emo, while quite accurately portraying depression, but as I will cover later, too, online fandom can just be shitty that way. I will say, however, that a rogue/paladin hybrid with a black feather aesthetic is probably the edge-lordiest thing you can play, and in hands of less self-aware people, and more self-important teenage boys, this would be the premise nightmares are made of. Thankfully, Liam makes it awesome.

Vex’ahlia Vessar

The other twin. Is also a bisexual disaster, but less aggressive about all three attributes. Played by Laura Bailey, the resident 13-year old, who is what we should all aspire to be in life—in every video game ever, and the living personification of the “Get yourself a girl that can do both” meme.

Back to back episodes, people.

Whenever she is mentioned on Liam’s and Sam’s podcasts, there is harp music.

She plays Vex’ahlia, a half-elven ranger, because Liam called dibs on the rogue before she could. She still managed to multi-class into rogue eventually. Has a pet bear named Trinket (which eventually led to a life-sized bear being part of the set) who is really cute, but not the most useful in a fight, sadly. He did, however, provide easy puzzles on multiple occasions, especially during the very first arc. The puzzle being “how the fuck do we get a bear across that chasm?”.

After Annabeth Chase, Vex is probably the one fictional character I relate to the most. No, really. I mean, I am not even remotely as cool and do not share her nudist tendencies, but I too make inappropriate jokes to lighten up tense situation, will go to ridiculous lengths to save money due to shitty experiences in my personal backstory, have developed anxiety over being judged by fancier people whose standards I feel like I need to live up to, would probably roll a 7 for my strength stat, eat up every single shred of kindness someone throws me because I’ve been treated badly by other people for most of my formative years, and have been mistaken for the coolest and toughest chick in the world because I put up a very cool and tough front.

Oh wow, and here I thought I’d be done oversharing after the emotional finale to my Gilmore Girls reviews.

(Sidenote: Vex and Annabeth share a few of these attributes, and a complicated relationship with their fathers, and something else that I will not elaborate on because spoilers, but it’s a freaky coincidence.)

Anyhow. Vex also has a bit of an underlying guilt complex; Laura wrote the story of her getting Trinket, and it features a teenage girl excessively blaming herself for everything bad that happens to her and others, even though she is probably like 16 or something and being taken advantage of. It’s heartbreaking, really insightful, and a surefire sign of Martell guilt.

She is also more a Martell than a dutiful princess (though we will get to one eventually), in that she reminds me of Arianne the most, what with her guilt issues and her intense dislike for a distant father (who admittedly is still more of an asshole than Doran ends up being) that she still desperately wants to please, and her tendency to run away to hide behind tapestries, er, run out of libraries or fly up to the top shelves of wineries, rather than talk about her feelings.

Vex also has a minor obsession with flying, eventually leading her to… Acquire a flying broom in an incident we do not mention. Do not talk about broom gate. She can also charm the pants off anyone, yet between that and her apparent contractual obligation to expose herself every ten episodes or so, she never really falls into the stereotype of the seductress. Well. Her preferred way of seduction is answering doors while completely naked, so it’s probably a good thing she never attempts to weaponized that on the stream. And while we’re talking about getting naked, the way this is described is basically the opposite of fanservice; Vex is always completely in control of this and has full agency over what she does.

…Yes, it is only described. No one gets naked onscreen, shush.

But honestly, I am wasting my time here. The best way to sum her up is this: The cast so far has made two personal playlists about their characters and their development, which you can find on Spotify. Keyleth’s, an upcoming character’s, playlist featured a song for Vex. It’s “Boys Wanna Be Her” by Peaches, the Full Frontal theme song. And if that’s not the highest endorsement you can give to a character, I don’t know what is.

Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III

Someone had the unholy idea to use the entire name for his AO3 tag. You can just call him Percy, though.

Played by Taliesin Jaffe, one of the two people who had actually played D&D on a regular basis before this particular campaign began. To sum up Taliesin Jaffe, I will use three anecdotes. During one of Liam’s one-shots, the (completely different) characters break into a creepy but powerful sorceresses’ house. They eventually end up in her workshop, which features lots of creepy shit, including but not limited to a pickled unicorn fetus, a set of eerie dolls with no eyes, a fifteen foot long eel skeleton, and chandeliers shaped like downwards pointing fangs. Liam describes this room as Taliesin Jaffe’s wet dream.

Second anecdote: Most of the cast recently streamed playing a new video game that just came out called For Honor. Taliesin spent most of his time on the stream talking about medieval weapons. And in that throwing cream at each other’s faces video I mentioned before, his last words are “we who are bound to die salute you”—the thing Roman gladiators used to say before, you know, dying.

He’s also a serial cuddler, with usually Marisha as the target, but he will cuddle with anyone, and according to commenters, destroy a few marriages along the way.

He also has the best fashion sense.

Oh, and after being a child actor, Taliesin, in his own words, went into voice acting because he wanted the right to a horrible haircut. His haircut and color are the easiest way to date gifs and screencaps from any given episode. There’s also a tracker of his numerous hairstyles.

If you couldn’t tell from the name, Percy comes from money and is a bit of a snob. He also frequently brings a gun to a sword fight. Or two. Or three. There’s an in-universe backstory for that involving demons and shit, so it all makes sense. Sort of.

Other than that, Percy as a character is the definition of a slowburn. You hardly notice him during the first arc (posh nobles don’t do well underground), but he quickly became a fan favorite due to his story going to really, really dark places, and Taliesin not being afraid to ham it up accordingly.

“Your PTSD can not be what ends Vox Machina!” — “I’m sorry my issues have guns!”

Also, he must have made some weird pact with the goddess of luck, or sacrificed a few small children for his dice, because the nickname “No Mercy Percy” was earned by basically rolling all of the natural 20s forever. There’s an episode in which Taliesin threatens, and then charms, Marisha’s cursed dice into working. But only for him.

Other features of his characters are a, in his words, horrible mind that comes up not only with the first guns in the history of this fantasy setting, but also numerous other creative things to tinker that may or may not kill people. Especially the invention of guns, however, and the subsequent spread of them due to circumstances gives him guilt issues to rival if not fundamentally overshadow Vex’s.

Oh, yeah, and even though his personal arc is technically over by episode 36, Matt Mercer is a cruel god and brings shit back to an extremely devastating extent thirty episodes later. It’s amazing. Now, twenty more episodes after that, Percy is still dealing with his issues, and is slowly coming down from a manic into a depressive phase. Again, quite accurately so, since that’s something his actor may or may not be personally familiar with.

…Did I mention that the subtle depiction of mentally unwell characters is also an amazing feature of this show? Mostly because it comes from people who actually know what they’re doing? Yeeaah.

Keyleth of the Air Ashari

Played by Marisha Ray, who can just never win.

Remember when Overwatch revealed its first LGBT+ characters? And there was a meme going around that Matt Mercer had a secret notebook with all the reveals in it, and he would give it to you if you defeat him in single combat? Marisha is the one you’d be fighting. She’s the one who defends his honor.

And therein lies the tragedy of both her and Keyleth. Marisha is the DM’s fiancé as of last October, and girlfriend before that, which makes her by default the worst nightmare of most people who have played tabletop RPGs before. Without even doing anything at all, just by being the Dungeon Master’s significant other, because many a game group went to shit over this set up.

That she never gets preferential treatment because of this, and doesn’t really try to get some anyhow, is completely beside the point. Hell, I’d argue this doesn’t affect the gameplay at all, but if anything, Matt might treat her harsher than the other players, either subconsciously or to prevent her from getting even more hate, but that just never really stops.

And why is that? Well, because in a group full of cool and funny characters, she plays the uncool and socially awkward one with a tendency towards the moral high ground. Keyleth is a combination of Aang and Britta from community, thrown in with a sheltered upbringing and poor people skills. And I say this as someone who actually rather enjoys Britta depending on how she was written that week (and totally shares our own Matthew’s take on her), and has, ah, reservations about Aang as a character (that have actually nothing to do with the piece I am linking here, this is shameless self-promotion, I am not that shallow, shush).

I feel pretty confident in that assessment, by the way, since Keyleth’s entire backstory is explicitly based on AtLA, and in a very recent episode, she shoved a blue feather into her hair and declared this to be the darkest timeline.

Keyleth is the dutiful princess I mentioned above. Basically, she comes from a tribe of druids that maintain balance between the material plane (the “real world” so to speak) and the elemental planes (D&D multiverse shit is weird), her home tribe being the one of the Air Ashari. To eventually lead the tribe, she has been sent on her Aramente, a trip to all the other Ashari tribes where she has to fulfill various quests to understand balance and shit. She also has to prove herself a hero in the process, something Keyleth… Struggles with.

See, she holds everyone, but especially herself, to an insanely high moral standard, which just does not compute with how a D&D world works, so she has come to the conclusion that she is a horrible person and will never be worthy of that title and gets panic attacks when people call the party heroes.

In consequence, she is  most likely to argue for the non-violent solution and keep the party from killing shit. And that, combined with her fumbling awkwardness, just isn’t cool enough for people, hence most of the hate she gets.

“This is a safe space, unless you’re Marisha or Liam.” —Sam Riegel, summarizing the situation nicely.

Grog Strongjaw

The aforementioned big guy who hits people. Or turns them into raspberry paste. Goliath barbarian. Played by Travis Willingham, who looks like the kind of guy who’d beat up the kids playing D&D in high school, and is my personal fancast for a young Robert Baratheon during Robert’s Rebellion.

He even has the right shirt. In the wrong colors.

I joke about Travis not looking the part, when he actually was a nerd before he got big, as revealed on Liam and Sam’s podcast. And then he got into fights with the people beating his fellow theater nerd friends up. He’s also the one most frequently dropping Harry Potter references, has read all Twilight books, and seen some of the movies on his own, after his wife Laura Bailey refused to go see them.

When your wife gets the romance arc she deserves.

Oh yeah, those two are married, which is another thing the hardened D&D players in the audience struggle with, but it hardly ever affects their roleplay. Just their Halloween costume on occasion. And has led to the absurd situation where Laura had to tell her real life husband that she has a fantasy boyfriend. And every time she gets to a romantic scene with said fantasy boyfriend, Travis is cheering. Or squealing.

#RelationshipGoals

Grog is the big guy of the group. The only dedicated tank they have, with an intelligence of 6 that keeps him from being able to read, write, or even count really. And even though that’s a few too many character tropes I seriously dislike about most fantasy media, it helps to have the really stupid guy be played by someone who is actually really, really smart.

One of my favorite scenes is in episode 40, in which Grog manages to outwit the two cleverest members of the party over an artifact in what is one of the tensest sequences on the show ever, that got very close to being an all-out fight between player characters.

Due to not being one to hide behind words or overthink things, Grog is also quite open with his feelings and his earnestness is what brought me to tears on occasion. He just has a lot of heart, okay? And always hits you with it when you least expect it.

Well, uhm, and then there’s the bit in his background narration video that already hints that he’s one of the two characters to frequent brothels. Though with so far three visits in 88 episodes, I’d say frequent is maybe a strong word, apparently they toned that down for the stream. The bit in episode 1 is really the most uncomfortable that ever gets, and at least all sex workers are portrayed with as much agency as that position allows for, so… Well. It’s a thing in high fantasy. Not my favorite bit, either, but it’s really easy to skip, so hey.

Scanlan Shorthalt

Played by Sam Riegel, Liam’s common law husband, and on that podcast with him. Do not trust this man. He will destroy you and laugh about it. To the degree that not only did his fellow cast members yell at him, the crew shot him with nerf darts, and a recent Talks Machina episode opened like this.

Too bad they had no actual shame bells.

Scanlan is the little guy, a gnome bard to be exact, who hits on people. Mostly women, but there have been instances and word of god on twitter that confirmed him as not entirely straight. No one in this party is, and I will fight you about that. We can witness the creation of his character on the second episode of the podcast I keep mentioning:

Sam: “Can I just be the worst? I want to be the worst!”
Liam: “Well, you can be a gnome.”

(Shut up, Liam, gnomes are awesome. Sam, by the way, is the second tallest cast member, to the confusion of many)

Sam is every DM’s best dream and worst nightmare. With no background in D&D, he comes up with… Creative ways to use his spells. Over the course of 85 episodes, Scanlan has taken on an entire house of guards on his own while transformed into a dinosaur, killed a vampire by peeing on him, turned the entire party into flying cows, fisted a wound, read out limericks so dirty they made an ambassador from the 9 Hells blush, turned the entire party into sexy nesting dolls sextuplets, and shamed one of Percy’s ancestors to death. Again.

You can’t make this shit up.

If things ever take an unexpected turn for the absurd, it’s usually his fault. He, Grog, and a possessed sword were a good cop, bad cop, no cop trio for a while. He has several fake identities, including but not limited to Burt Reynolds, the Meatman, and Francois Bertrand Jean-Luc Australia. And because bards are amazing and crazy that way, can due to game mechanics make anyone believe anything, talk them into anything, and get away with it unscathed.

He’s also the guy who frequented brothels with Grog, and, well, constantly hits on people. That changes over the course of the character development you wouldn’t expect this type of character to have, but the signs of which were always there because Sam Riegel is an evil genius.

Basically, he’s birds of a feather with Vex; where she puts on the front of being the coolest chick in the world (her words) or the girl at the rock show (Marisha’s), Scanlan is technically a sad clown. That goes to places darker and more emotional than you could have ever anticipated and I have had to delete a “I will fight him” about five times by now.

WELL NEITHER WERE WE, SAM

Phew. Okay. Oh, and also, he does songs and they do something in combat. That’s also why he recites seriously filthy limericks. Occasionally, Laura also writes less filthy but unfailingly hilarious limericks for him.

Pike Trickfoot

Played by Ashley Johnson, at least when she’s not busy filming Blindspot in New York, which is the reason she more or less leaves the show after episode 17. She occasionally comes back, or skypes in though. Usually when someone has died, because she’s the cleric and has to take care of it.

“You have one job, Ashley!” —Sam, after Ashley was skyped in to resurrect someone.

Speaking of Blindspot, after she asked to use a Critical Role mug in a scene, several crew members started watching Critical Role, leading to someone sneaking a reference into the script where it’s established that her character, Patterson, plays D&D, and is a gnome cleric who takes great offense to being called an elf.

Pike is the cleric the party is missing most of the time, the mom friend, the good influence on everybody, but basically down for everything. She has a very cute friendship with Grog, whom she and her great great grandfather took in after he was abandoned by his herd.

She is also the object of Scanlan’s affections, and I use that phrase deliberately, since this is invoked, addressed, and dealt with in basically the best way it could have been. I just hope the show will handle Scanlan treating the new woman in his life in a similar fashion just as aptly.

Since she’s not around a whole bunch, it’s hard to say more about her, really, just that she’s a complete badass when she is there, and the personified reason why you should always respect and appreciate your clerics.

Tiberius Stormwind

A befuddled dragonborn sorcerer played by Orion Acaba, on a quest to find legendary magical items. Much like Keyleth, not so good with the people skills, due to rolling really, really low wisdom.

Orion left the show after episode 27 (which, incidentally, is the only episode I will not recommend watching. Watch 26 and then 28, it’s a much better last impression of him), officially due to wanting to spend more time with his own projects. He has a twitch stream and a podcast called Draconian Knights which continues Tiberius’ story in ways that are extremely canon divergent at this point.

…you sure do.

There’s a lot of conspiracy theories going around about his departure, just scroll down into any youtube comment section on an episode featuring him, with… Varying degrees of plausibility. The only thing I’ll say about this is that episode 27 gives a good impression of how he was maybe playing a different game than everyone else, and we’ll leave it at that. Avoid the comment sections, always.

His character got about 4 different send-offs, all of which were nothing but respectful, and all sides insist there are no hard feelings, soI think we should leave it at that.

Matthew Mercer, the illustrious Dungeon Master

The guy in whose brain this story is happening. Man of a thousand voices. Casually passes the Bechdel test by talking to himself. Very frequently, actually, since he just as casually makes half his NPCs female and it’s never awkward, cringe worthy, or a big deal, even.

Has DM’d for more than half of his life, knows his shit, and I am perpetually afraid of the day his brain will melt due to keeping track of this 300+ hour story, every silly NPC voice he came up with, plot thread dangling somewhere in the distance, and ridiculous tangent the player characters went off on.

Also, his hips don’t lie.

Honestly, how he manages to prep the story and battle maps, and still have a day job just astounds me. He also finds the time to engage with people on twitter and reddit and at the numerous conventions he and Marisha travel to. And even when the internet screams at him for getting rules wrong or homeruling stuff, Matt is never anything but courteous. I hear his hair is insured for ten thousand dollars. One time, he answered my question on twitter. It was awesome.

He’s also now doing a third set of videos on tips for people who’d like to master a dungeon themselves and is the main reason I am currently knee-deep in writing my very own campaign.

Matt is usually a merciful god, giving out plenty of magical items (remember that fetch quest series I mentioned? You get an overpowered item! And you get an overpowered item! EVERYBODY GETS AN OVERPOWERED ITEM! And Vax gets two because he’s special that way), and allowing for the more creative uses of spells and abilities. Talks Machina has a segment titled “Lord Have Mercer,” devoted to the absurd requests he deals with usually gracefully.

Usually

And then he will throw in items that wreck utter havoc for shits and giggles, mess with your emotions, destroy his own creations, make you fight the demons inside your head, literally, and be complicit to the greatest con ever pulled on the players. I’m pretty sure if he were a D&D god, his domain would be trickery.

Brian Wayne Foster

The host of Talks Machina. People have assumed he’s only there because he’s Critical Role’s Make A Wish Kid. My personal theory is that he’s the Bad Idea Friend™, and they gave him this job to keep him from having bad ideas while his girlfriend Ashley is away filming in New York.

Be that as it may, he has a delightfully absurdist kind of humor, is in a constant pissing contest with Sam over gags, and nothing I could say about him here is half as mean as the things he says about himself on the show. Be nice to him, he sorts though fans’ questions during his free time, which include asking about whether characters are having sex on a flying broom and are frequently asked by someone named arsequeef.

He also has an unseen sidekick named Denise, who is either an actual woman that may or may not be a captive at the studios they film at, or a sentient camera plotting to take over the world. The jury is still out on that one.

So…

Alright then. This has been my second sale’s pitch in an attempt to get more people into this fandom. Check out the first part for an idea of where to start watching, and then join the amazing if also emotionally devastating ride this show has been so far. We need good people in this fandom, because as I have been alluding to, and as I will most likely cover in a later piece, having most of your content available on twitch and Youtube, and extremely high creator availability, comes with… Issues.

Now, mind you, the vast majority of the fandom is made up of wonderful, talented and generous people. It’s just that the very vocal minority are usually the first and sometimes only impression people ever get, and also kind of interesting to talk about.


Images courtesy of geekandsundry.com

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Jana should be studying for her law degree right now. She prefers to obsess over pop culture instead.

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