Critical Role: Shaking Up the Status Quo and Internal Struggles

 

group-grog-final

Borrowed from geekandsundry.com

Genre: Fantasy RPG

Synopsis: A group of professional voice actors play Dungeons and Dragons, forming a party of adventurers. The party is currently embroiled in a conflict against an enemy from Percy’s past, a devious, cruel, and powerful couple who’d killed his family. Percy must face them even as they influence all of the people around him and his friends…while trying not to lose himself in the process.

Series: 36 episodes.

I’ve Watched: All of it.

Verdict: Amazingly engrossing.

Available: All of the episodes are uploaded to the Geek and Sundry website. The show streams on the Geek and Sundry Twitch channel.

The last time I talked about this show, I was 14 episodes in. I liked it, I liked the characters, and I fully intended to keep watching. But sometime around the Trial of the Take or Briarwood archs, I fell absolutely in love with the story. And now I can’t recommend it enough.

Critical Role opens up with the party undertaking an intensive rescue mission of a friend of a friend–the paladin Lady Kima, who went on some undisclosed quest, and never came back. They became progressively more entwined with the problem Kima has been sent to solve. It was an adventure story, with the party taking on different quests and growing in reputation. And it was fun, but there was also the potential pitfall of the story becoming static and repetitive. That..didn’t happen.

Because every quest is different, for one. Because the group will find different, creative ways of engaging with the narrative and going through the story. There might be a straight fight, there might be subterfuge, there might be diplomacy. And there might be tactics and tactical errors. There’s the character’s personalities shining through each move they make during an action scene.

But the Trial of the Take impressed me with how it managed to shift the format of the story. After the journey to the underdark, the protagonists find themselves embroiled in a series of quests for the guild, the Slayer’s Take. The party is divided in two and joined by guest stars, played by other voice actors and names in geek culture. This was a fun way to shake up the story, and play with different group dynamics. And throw in some characterization in the form of how these new guest stars get to know our protagonists.

And another cool thing about the Trial of the Take: I watch Tabletop and Titansgrave, so I’ve seen Wil Wheaton’s dice curse in action before–he has a reputation for rolling consistently badly. But either it’s way more dramatic in real time, or he was rolling especially badly during his two episode stint on Critical Role, because wow. He only ever rolls above a five often enough to keep the hope that he might start rolling better alive, only to crush it. Repeatedly. It’s actually really funny to watch, as a viewer. In-story, it really makes his character look amazingly incompetent, but the critical fails make for some great humor moments.

So, Wil Wheaton’s conquered probability. In case anyone was wondering.

But what really shines about the show is that the main characters themselves aren’t necessarily static. They can change, and nowhere is this more evident than in the most current questline, in which Percy’s unresolved past wanders back into his life. This arch is exciting in general–it starts with espionage and deception, then morphs into an insurrection story. But the personal nature of it gives it a lot more power. It quickly becomes dark and psychological, and Percy’s sanity becomes…questionable.

The main enemies for the questline are the Briarwoods, who have previously killed Percy’s family and taken over their holdings, while still managing to pass themselves off as the good guys. They’re powerful, and they’re twisted. Percy himself contends with not only the slaughter of his family and his survivor’s guilt, but a demonic presence with whom he’s made a pact for vengeance. This pact comes out to the foreground now that he’s in the process of obtaining said vengeance, and the rest of the group is getting a little unnerved at what is happening to their friend.

This show has been consistently entertaining from the beginning, and as a bonus, it is always on, rather than being divided into seasons. The storytelling is fun, the DM is amazing, and the cast is great. But wow is it amazing when the characters have to figure out who they are and who they’re going to be going forward, following an earth-shattering personal change. It’s a less conventional mode of storytelling, and also a less safe one. That’s cool in its own right, because the decisions you’re watching the characters make in the moment are changing the story.

This show is really good, and it’s now on my recommendations page. I’ve even started watching it live, because despite the convenience of being able to pause, I can’t bring myself to wait for it to be uploaded over the weekend. It’s on a hiatus for the holidays, but I’ll definitely be watching it live the moment it comes back.

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8 Responses to Critical Role: Shaking Up the Status Quo and Internal Struggles

  1. theo promes says:

    I’ve been watching CR for a while now (iirc I caught up shortly after the underdark storyline) and, yeah, this show is so goddamn good I have watched three live broadcasts by now because I didn’t want to wait – It airs at like 4 AM in my timezone, my sleep schedule got wrecked and…worth it.
    I’ve found it hard to put my finger on what exactly makes it so great, I think it’s a combination of Matt Mercer’s DMing, the actors being incredibly good at playing their characters (fairly obvious why, but its still a step up in terms of investment compared to “normal” acting, and it really shows) and the whole show format that allows a scarily deep emotional connection as a viewer. I usually watch things somewhat detached on a second screen, but even in a cinema I don’t really get *that* immersed – I’ve been glued to my seat at home staring at my second monitor and only during the in-episode break I’ve noticed that I’m being stupid and put the stream on my main screen. It took me two hours to notice, seriously.

    While I was catching up, having a background from some of the shadier parts of the interwebs, at first I was somewhat alienated by Zac’s occasional comments or reminders about people misbehaving in (twitch-)chat, but now that I’ve gotten a better understanding of how invested the people on this show are and how closely they interact with their viewers, I can actually understand why they are trying to keep anonymous people on the internet from being dicks – the events on critical role are sometimes eerily personal, and the tears that have been shed on this show were utterly real.

    My personal favourite actor/character is probably Grog, because Travis has a brilliant way of portraying a somewhat simple, but still very deep character. Keyleth and Percy are close seconds, they were especially shining in this most recent arc and had incredible moments. I did like Tiberius a lot, too, but well…
    Anyways, I completely agree with your recommendation! 🙂

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    • We do seem to like a bunch of the same things, don’t we? Keyleth is probably my favorite character now that Tiberius is gone, but they all add something to the show and the group dynamic. And then Matt Mercer creates all these fantastic NPCs who pretty much always have some degree of depth…I’ve noticed myself getting more critical and pickier with what I watch with each passing year, so it’s both exciting and relieving to find an engrossing project like this.

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      • theo promes says:

        [Minor spoilers ahead]
        Matt’s NPCs are glorious (have you seen the fluff/fundraiser guest episode with the princess and the young boy that became a level 10 PC? amazing what he did there, completely improvised) but what I also really love are his villains. K’Varn didn’t have too much dialogue, but the trial of the take contracts and onward, those characters had motivation and depth to them. Even the minor ones, like that druid in ep. 26, and then the Briarwoods…I had a moment where I felt quite sad for Delilah, toward the end of ep. 34, only to change my mind when, well, Vex happened. One of the episodes I got to watch live, woah, what an emotional rollercoaster. But yeah, what I meant to say, I’ve read actual printed books where the villains had a lot less backstory and agency to them than Mercer’s brainchildren. Always makes me happy to see some good villains.

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      • Yeah, I’ve seen that hilarious fundraiser episode, though I remember no princesses in it. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, given that I’m very picky about straight-up comedy–it was helped a lot, I think, by Mercer taking it seriously and therefore grounding it. And complex villains can often be a good litmus test for the depth of characterization in a work, though in this case, the collaboration dynamic of RPs make it hard for me to figure out what to compare it to. As for Delilah, I think giving the villains the tragic romance story is a really good take on a familiar concept here.

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  2. theo promes says:

    hm, seems I can’t reply to your last comment, but the timestamps should prevent any confusion.

    [Major spoilers ep.35]
    The romance story was not the main thing I loved about the Briarwoods, though it did give them more plasticity – Matt made them smart, they did prepare ahead and show some real, dangerous intelligence in their traps for the party, especially the part about planting cassandra, I did *not* see that coming (at least after the way they met, I did think about the possibility of her being a vampire beforehand). of course this was Matt being devious, but it made the villains so much more scary in my opinion – not because they were powerful, but because they played their strenghts and VM’s weaknesses… the ambushes in the city, the spying, turning the PCs…
    maybe I’m somewhat biased there because dumb villains is a bit of a pet peeve for me, but it made me happy 🙂
    You are quite right that it is difficult to compare to other mediums, though – it has the exposition and detail of a novel, but in terms of character development and dialogue, it is more like a movie or maybe a TV series, with no internal views etc… well, it seems like there are more shows like CR popping up, so maybe we’ll get some good comparisons done in the future.

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    • Oh, yeah, there was no way I would ever have seen Cassandra coming. I’m way too trusting. I did have a moment, when the party was trying to touch all eight gems to open the door, when I wondered why the Briarwoods would make a mechanism like that when clearly they couldn’t use it themselves (numbering only two). But then I just went with it, because sometimes puzzles like that do exist in these kinds of games for no apparent reason. Little did I know…

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