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Critical Role is the Nerdiest Thing Ever

Jana

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

…And you absolutely need to watch it.

Critical Role is a show streaming on twitch every Thursday. A bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors roll dice and play Dungeons & Dragons – in the words of Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, at least. It also just happens to be my current obsession, as I am in the fourth rewatch of it while also getting up at 4 AM every week to watch the newest episode as it is streamed. And sometimes even twice a week to catch the after show Talks Machina on Tuesdays.

(Sidenote: That’s 4 AM German time. It’s 7 PM California time where they’re filming, and you just do your own math from there.)

All episodes are available on youtube and Geekandsundry.com, the entity behind this shindig, where they’re uploaded on Mondays after airing, but only accessible via the Geek and Sundry website for about two months or so. They’re immediately available after airing if you subscribe to the twitch channel (which you can do at no additional cost if you have an amazon prime account) or pay for access on Geek & Sundry’s own streaming service, alpha, which has additional overlays, snarky written commentary, and half an hour of extra content of Talks Machina.

And I mean, if that one sentence premise already sounds appealing to you, my job here is done and you can just follow up on the links and get started immediately. Just, be warned, the series is a bit like TV Tropes, it will take over your life for a while, and demand a whole damn lot of time.

And they never even sit like this.

In fact, as I am writing this, episode 88 is coming up next Thursday. That’d already be a hefty number for your average hour long television series; almost 4 full seasons worth, really. The problem is that the episodes aren’t an hour long. They average in at around 3, with some pushing five hours – such as 2016’s final episode, 79 did, which featured the finale to a 40 episode story arc and had me seriously worried about whether I’d make it to my dentist appointment at 9:30.

As of episode 78, without the breaks and Q&As and “Critmas” segments during which the cast opens presents sent to them by the viewer base, there was more than 300 hours of pure story content available.

So, yeah, catching up takes a while, and the show isn’t ending soon, either. It’s a bit of a commitment. The sheer amount of time needed is prone to scaring off people from even starting the series, so this piece right here will be my attempt to counteract that.

If you like your content in a neat TL;DR slide form, there’s also a presentation you could watch.

The Lay Of the Land

So, first things first, the show has almost no visuals beyond people sitting at tables, rolling dice, fumbling with paper, eating, drinking out of occasionally oversized mugs, and making faces at each other. And everything except for the faces is completely unrelated to what is going on in the story at any given moment, unless Matt Mercer goes into full monster mode.

Doing what he does best.

Well, and in later episodes sometimes there’s really fancy battle maps.

And now while the cast interacting with each other is basically the best thing about this, they’re also all trained voice actors, and since everything lives and dies from Matt Mercer’s ability to tell a story and impersonate characters and monsters and whatever else you need, you can very comfortably listen to these episodes like you would to a very long podcast. I hear that’s very nice for a dedicated workout or something. Personally, I use them as audio books to go to sleep to a lot myself.

Sitting down and watching a 3+ hour episode in one sitting without being bored is also completely possible, of course. Even if you catch a slow episode and not much else is going on, the cast is very, very nice to look at.

Even though they only do costumes for the opening. Still really pretty without them.

Death is Cheap, Until it isn’t

One oddity out of the way immediately: This is a D&D campaign. In D&D, once you have access to a decently leveled cleric, death becomes a minor inconvenience so long as there’s a body left. Drag their cold, lifeless asses to the next temple, pay a fine for the spell maybe, bam, back to live they are. Those are the base game mechanics.

This is what DM means, by the way. It’s fun to say in public.

Matthew Mercer puts a homebrewed twist on that, in that there are dice rolls involved. There essentially need to be offerings to bring the soul back to the body, and you can fail these offerings. And even if you succeed, there’s a chance the ritual itself might fail, as it all ultimately depends on one last die roll made by the DM.

Now, mathematically speaking, this still makes resurrections easier than collecting all the dragonballs, but the characters don’t act like that at all.

Death has happened on the show, so much so that at the time of writing this, only 2 out of the 7 lead characters haven’t died, and several who have died more than once. But this apparent “cheapness” of death is never, ever felt, since every new instant of death reduces the actors to sobbing messes, sparks some of the most raw and intimate character moments, and deeply affects characters even after being resurrected.

And those are always some of the best moments and episodes – death may be cheap-ish, but it is never laughed off.

Where To Start?

Episode 1 is not very beginner-friendly. If you are familiar with tabletop RPGs at all, you are well aware that most adventures start with a group of characters who all kind of suck meeting at a tavern and going to kill monsters of little consequence. Or answering a post on a job board of sorts. Or meeting in a prison cell.

Critical Role, however, starts after the cast has already been playing together for two years or so. They’re around level 9, no one is introduced beyond

Kima would have a very pragmatic solution to this.

the character background videos (that you should watch once or twice no matter where in the story you’re going to start), and they’ve even already been given the quest they’re on (rescue a Halfling paladin called Kima who went missing during her vision quest in the Underdark).

I tried starting with the first episode once and was very annoyed and very bored with it all. It’s still an excellent episode, just not an excellent start. If you’re anything like me, you need to be invested in something to care about what’s going on. And while I wouldn’t recommend my particular route to catch up, there are several ways to go about it.

See, since the show has just SO. MUCH. CONTENT, it only make sense that is has various different things to offer. It’s all about what you want to see, really.

…Though no matter what that is, start with the character introduction videos, the write ups of the characters I will do next week, and also the backstory video they made, explaining what happened before the stream started.

And also this video to get you going.

I just want people sitting around and having fun playing a D&D campaign!

…That’s cool. That’ll be episode 1 for you, pal. Or literally every other episode ever. But the one thing you can say about the beginning is that it feels the most like the classic playing a game around someone’s kitchen table approach to these things. The story arc is very self-contained, on the shorter side with 13 episodes, the stakes are… The lowest they’re ever at until like where we are now (at episode 86, before the real new arc has really started), and it’s the closest to classic dungeon delving we ever get.

I want a quick start on the characters and then some light-hearted fun!

Well, who doesn’t? In this case, I’d recommend skipping the first 13 episodes, and catching the tail-end of things in episode 14.

That way, you meet all the characters in their natural habitat, whereas the Underdark has most of them out of their element in one way or the other.

Uneventful one or two episode long adventures like this.

Here, they’re all at their best and most natural, and the dynamics are easy to pick up on. You also get introduced to Kima, Allura, and GILMORE! Who are probably the most frequently reoccurring and most highly regarded NPCs in the entire series.

Another nice feature is that you first get to feel out how the party interacts with each other, and then see that challenged when they’re forced to split up for four episodes and play nice with different people. The entire Vasselheim arc (episodes 14-23) is just excellent for that, even though it’s mostly smaller adventures for 1 or 2 episodes at a time that are very much self-contained. Of course, that also means there’s not much continuity for you to keep up with, so you can basically dive right in.

I want intrigue, suspense, horror, and drama!

Then your starting point will be episode 24, my friend!

Shady characters from a party member’s past come a knocking, causing the party to try and play the political game for a bit to oust them on a public stage. When that plan goes tits up (like most plans do), they have to clear their names and find a city overtaken by undead and other dark shit, causing them to start a rebellion against forced darker and more evil than they could have anticipated.

Oh, also, not just the city is overtaken by dark shit, a party member’s mind is, too.

This arc, usually referred to as the Whitestone or Briarwoods arc, is where the show really came into its own, and where you really start to fear Matt Mercer because he is mean and brutal and probably some shade of chaotic evil. Well, neutral, because at least he sometimes feels sorry about torturing everyone.

Everything’s close and personal, the relationships between party members really start to pay off, and some of the most iconic moments happen during this time. It is also one of the most well-handled vengeance arcs I have ever seen, the effects of which are still being felt 30-40 episodes later.

Just get me to the big, exciting fights already!

Well, I mean, all of the fights are big and exciting to a degree, but okay, I hear you.

So, the biggest, baddest, and longest arc of the series starts in episode 39 (but starting at 37 helps for context). It’s the point where the series goes from some dungeon and almost no dragons to no dungeons and way too many dragons.

There’s a lot of build-up to the individual dragon fights, and a lot of character development happens in-between, and oftentimes, it’s not the actual dragon fights that hit the group the hardest, but the callbacks to their personal arcs.

Your road to all the important fights goes thusly:

50 – 55: Westruun/Umbrasyl, and also Grog’s personal arc.

64 – 71: Draconia/Vorugal, also Percy’s issues come back with guns for the most devastating fight to the group yet in 68.

79 – 83: Endgame. But I really don’t recommend starting there, because there’s a LOT of personal issues leading up to these episodes, and they just don’t pack the same punch without dealing with those.

How about some good, old fashioned fetch quests?

Oh, oh, absolutely! These intersect with the dragons, though, because why settle for one classic when you can have two in technically the same 40+ episode arc?

See, to properly fight way too many dragons, you need the appropriate swag. And the so-called Chroma Conclave arc is basically a steady back and forth between getting the swag and fighting the dragons. And of course, the required items are spread far and wide between fun locations on several planes of existence, which more often than not cause amazing shenanigans.

43 & 44: This is your fetch quest, go forth and get started!

47 – 52: Get more information and almost die for few cool things.

59 – 63: Feywild arc

65 – 67: Ank’Harel arc

74 – 76: Elemental Plane of Fire arc.

As you can see, it is pretty intimately intertwined with the dragon fights, so you can basically just start with 39 and keep going from there for the most context and best character moments, but, after all, this piece is trying to get you to start the series in a way tailored to your personal tastes, so if you find any of these things individually appealing, more power to you. Speaking of which…

…uhm, I actually would like some romance? If that’s okay?

Oh. Oh friend, there is nothing wrong with that. And unlike most tabletop RPG campaigns I have sort of witnessed at one point or another, this series actually has romance in it. Two. Three. Maybe four. Sort of. It’s complicated. Oh my god, technically five. Six. Aaah, I need to stop counting.

Okay. So, first of all, the romance angle is what got me actually invested enough to watch from start to finish. I mean, not that I don’t appreciate a good narrative without any romance in it, but in case it has been too subtle so far, apparently I am also the go-to person for shipping on this site now. Not that I don’t actively encourage that.

There’s a few ways to go about this. Thing is, the romance arcs between the actual player characters are very closely tied to their personal development, so it’s all interspersed with the crazy amount of episodes we have. This is why I’d argue that the couples that do end up being sort of canon at some point very organically developed out of the narrative, but as is always the nature of things, party of the fandom will violently disagree with that. Violent disagreements will be covered in another piece on this, though.

At this point, there’s even been ship wars about the ACTUAL real life couples.

If you want the most bang for your buck, you kind of need to start with episode 14 and go along for the ride (which ironically was also the episode I recommended for the most character development, amazing how that works, isn’t it?), but I understand if that’s too early for you and you want to be caught up eventually.

Now, for some reason, when left completely to their own devices, the cast somehow managed to have their characters hook up in like a Pride and Prejudice/Much Ado About Nothing formula:

There’s one pairing that is established kind of early (if you call the early thirties kind of early), and then delayed for another thirty episodes because of drama, misunderstandings, and other stuff like the world ending. They take up some space in the narrative, and in-universe, are basically the main ship up to a point. It’s just that for that pairing you’d have to start at like episode 20 and wait 45 episodes for a resolution, so, uhm, as much as I love them, it’s not what I’m recommending here.

No, what I’m recommending is starting at episode 57. Both because it is one of my absolute favorites ever, and because from there on up until… Uhm. It’ complicated. 72, 78, 87, ongoing? You get the most neatly condensed little romance arc the show has to offer so far. It’s not the main plot, ever, at all, but it’s the most condensed build up and payoff in that regard.

Technically, that particular ship canonically (as in, the actors said so) started way early, like episode 5, and you can also see it coming (if you’re paying attention, as a lot of viewers inevitably don’t) from the early 30s onwards, but yeah. This would be the secondary pairing that sneaks up on you, and yet ends up being the fan-preferred one. But unlike in the examples I listed, there’s not even a little initial dislike. For any of these.

Boy, don’t ever let me ramble about romances, I have a series to sell here, dammit.

I want adventure in the great wide somewhere!

Full speed ahead, not knowing what’s coming? Well do I have a suggestion for you!

See, that 40+ episode arc we had just wrapped up. The episode coming up the next Thursday from when this was written is 88. And right now, it’s actually kind of easy to just jump right in.

Like, I’ve seen people recommend starting with episode 86 and then catching up, but I’d actually say, for maximum catch-up in minimal time, watch the first half of 84, the second half of 85 (timestamped here for your convenience) and then just watch from there. Admittedly, the second half of 84 is a nice illustration of how shell-shocked and paranoid the party has become after years of adventuring and betrayals, but nothing really happens, so you can skip that. The first half of 85 is a really cool one on one fight though, so watching that is fun, and makes the second half hit harder even if you have no real idea what’s going on.

Your catching up can then also be finding out all the things Scanlan Shorthalt willfully misconstrued, which is a fun perspective to have.

But besides that, the stakes have never been lower, and the character literally embark on a side adventure far away that is related to one of them personally, but not in a way you necessarily need to have any more context for than this. It’s Aang going to the northern water tribe, in more ways than one. Strap in and have fun!

Though I mean, at the end of the day, you could probably tune into just about any episode of the show and get something out of it, no matter at what part of the story you jump into. Because…

It’s all about the Characters

Remember how someone did the math that there’s over 300 hours of content for this series? About two thirds of that is entirely devoted to character interaction and development.

Just think about that for a moment. That’s more character development than anything but the longest running procedurals or soap operas ever got in – and with the same cast, mostly. That means that literally everyone, even the side characters all played by Matt Mercer, gets in hefty amounts of development, even the ones that are more easily brushed off as gag characters. Like, my first reaction to the first episode was “Oh, great, everyone’s elves, why the fuck is there a guy with a gun in a fantasy setting, and oh, wow, they have a giant guy who hits people, and a tiny guy who hits on people. Really original, that.”

The latter two are archetypes of characters, especially in a fantasy setting, that I just loathe. The latter two are the only characters on the show to date who have made me bawl my eyes out. And I basically never cry about fictional stuff. I will yell about it, a lot, but not cry. So, kudos.

And I mean, proper investment in the characters can make any crap show of a narrative work. Ask me about my decade in the Naruto fandom some time, oh boy that’s going to be fun. But the thing is, the narrative Matt Mercer creates is just an almost perfect balance of external and internal threats; we basically alternate between taking down threats to the world and facing the characters personal demons. And the narrative is excellent in challenging the characters to grow as people and as a group.

In a quick aside, while there is bad and dark shit happening a lot, it seems to me that the narrative as a whole actively defies the grimdark. There is always brightness, always hope to be found, and that is something assured by both the DM and the characters themselves. There’s entire episodes devoted to them finding levity in the darkest moments, and encouraging each other to hold on hope and all that mushy stuff that never feels mushy but entirely earned.

There is no grimdark here. Only dick jokes.

But it’s also kind of about the actors

So there’s no real script. Matt Mercer has the external threats, the overarching narrative planned out to a degree, but if you have any experience with tabletop RPGs at all, you are fully aware that you can never account for what curveballs the players are going to throw your way.

Hence, every interaction and all that delicious development I mentioned, is improvised. It’s improv sessions with dice. It’s a group of predominantly voice actors (though most if not all of them have some experience with stage and screen acting as well) improvising what their characters would do or say in any given moment.

This is a thing they used to do. More than once.

The thing is, they have been with these characters for almost five years now. And this is something I say both as praise and out of exasperation with the fandom – they know what they’re doing. They know their characters really, really well, and have been working on them constantly, every week, since the show started almost two years ago. They know their shit, and seeing how they have acted in all kinds of narratives before, they know what appeals to them, what doesn’t, and what they’d like to try out for their characters.

What I mean to say is, watching this show makes an excellent case for just trusting your actors with the material, even in a show that isn’t all improvised. I know many a scripted show that might have benefitted from that on occasion.

The other side of the coin is that these people have also been playing a game together for almost five years now, and they were friends even before that. This is weird, I know, but part of the charm of the show, and one of its biggest strengths in my experience is just how much these people love and respect each other, in-character and out.

At its core, this show is about a group of friends having fun together. Usually while playing D&D, or while on their own talk show. There’s copious amounts of footage of them just unwrapping presents from the audience together. Sometimes they play Just Dance. And sometimes they throw cream at each other’s faces for a good cause. They also basically constantly mock each other over twitter, so you know where the casts of most shows have falling outs over the years, these guys are still as tight as ever.

Conclusion

So, yeah. Critical Role is my favorite thing right now, I adore almost everything about the story and the people involved, so much so that I can’t shut up about it and next week, will deliver a lengthy introduction on all of the characters and actors, because as described above, it’s a bit of a package deal.

 


Images courtesy of geekandsundry.com
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  • Katie

    Oh, man. My reaction to this is part glee and excitement and part horror (because I am a completionist, and if I watch this at all I have to watch from the beginning).

    I absolutely love watching people play D&D, especially if they’re already actors / improv comedians. I always enjoyed Dan Harmon’s Harmonquest, but that was very light and had a quick run. This sounds more intense, in a good way.

    • Jana Wolf

      Well, if it makes you feel any better, the beginning is not really the beginning, and not more of a beginning than the start of any other arc, really… But I understand the feeling and have been there 😀

      I’ve never heard of Harmonquest, but isn’t Dan Harmon the guy who wrote the good seasons of Community? Including the D&D episode?

      • Katie

        Yes! That’s him. He’s a big D&D nerd and he and some friends have a short, light campaign. The NPCs are played by guest improv comedians and the whole thing is animated. It’s a fun little show (you can watch it on Seeso)

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