The Finale of Critical Role, as the Epic Adventure Closes with Just the Right Amounts of Tragedy and Laughter

Genre: Fantasy RPG

Synopsis: A party of adventures called Vox Machina has achieved near god-like power towards the end of the campaign–so it’s only fitting they must save the realm from an actual god. The story is brought to life by a cast of professional voice actors, and the ever-present chance that bad planning or bad dice rolling will end their journey forever.

Series: 115 episodes.

I’ve Watched: All of it.

Verdict: I really do love this show–it’s unscripted, so it has its slow moments, but the dedication to character and storytelling always brings the story to fascinating places.

Available: All of the episodes are uploaded to the Geek and Sundry website. The show streams live on the Geek and Sundry Twitch channel, Thursdays at 10pm EST–though since the campaign is over, the show will be streaming one-shots for the rest of the year and a new campaign next year.

The original campaign that launched Critical Role is officially over. 115 episodes and several years later, the story of Vox Machina has come to a close. The show itself will continue–I’m excited to see the players start a new journey with new characters–but these characters are done.

The last leg of the story had some really cool stuff in it. The enemy of the arc was Vecna, an aspiring god who dealt in secrets. I personally, was highly amused by how he opened the door to his own downfall–it was great. Imagine if he’d used his power to remotely spy on anyone strategically, not revealing that he was listening to everyone’s planning. Our heroes wouldn’t have stood a chance, and it wouldn’t have been as much fun.

Instead, Vecna goes for the psychological aspect, throwing away a strategic advantage just to mess with the protagonists’ minds. Vox Machina hears his voice talking to them anytime they aren’t cloaking themselves from his view, and they’re completely freaked out by it. Their reactions are amazing, the sheer urgency for them to get out from under his attention potent.

The moment when the team slips up and lets him know where they are, while fully avoidable, led to an awesome, tense scene where they have one chance–and only one chance–to retreat. It could have succeeded or failed. And if it’d failed, they’d be forced into a difficult battle they hadn’t prepared for, after expending too many of their abilities.

The gamble they took by going to the Feywilds was also a great moment, with multiple potential outcomes seriously affecting the story. Traveling back from the Feywilds is risky. If they’d done it on their own, they could have arrived seconds after they’d left–or years. Vecna could have ascended to the full might of his power and become God-Emperor of the world in the meantime.

What they chose to do–seek out a powerful fey who could bend time for them–came with its own risks. He could have refused. He could have asked for something they weren’t willing to agree to (though with the fate of the realm at stake, they were willing to agree to a lot). What he did end up asking for had consequences both for the world, and for Vox Machina’s mental state. That deliciously twisted moment when he made his proposal, the capricious nature of an all-powerful being on full display…it was one of those things that stood out.

And there’s the beautiful tragedy of what this fight would cost our protagonists. Because there were really only two outcomes, after Vax made a deal with his goddess. He’d made a pact that would see him live until the destruction of Vecna, and only until then. So either Vox Machina wins, destroys their enemy, and Vax dies–the action of saving the world simultaneously destroying their friend. Or Vox Machina fails, and they all die–except for Vax, who would go on living as long as Vecna did.

In the end, the final moment was even more tragic than I imagined. Keyleth killed Vecna, sealing the death of the man she loved and leveling up as a result. As a level 20 druid, her lifespan instantly increased 10-fold. The same day that she achieves the power to live another thousand years, her significant other dies.

Vax’s goodbyes were heart-wrenching, especially his moments with his twin sister. The moment he revealed he’d taken a single level in the druid class, so that the last ability he used in his life was one of Keyleth’s…using it to coat the ground behind him with snowdrops as he walked to his death…that image really got me.

One of the amazing things about the Critical Role campaign was how it balanced meaningful, dramatic moments with enough comedy to release the tension. So it’s only fair to wrap up this post by highlighting some of the great comedic moments from the latter parts of the campaign.

Cliff diving:

One sample of many awesome battle songs, courtesy of Scanlan the bard:

Learning to read:

Bathtubs:

Interpretative dance:

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4 Responses to The Finale of Critical Role, as the Epic Adventure Closes with Just the Right Amounts of Tragedy and Laughter

  1. Theo Promes says:

    Hah, I was kind of waiting for you to write a post about the end of the campaign 🙂
    What a ride! I watched the big finale live, and was totally out of it that weekend. Good stuff. To me, the craziest moment was when sam burned his wish and burst into tears, that was such a big moment on a meta-level, considering that Liam was the one who started the game in the first place… and now didn’t get to sit at the table at the end! Meanwhile, narratively a wonderful tragedy.

    Not to mention how epic that fight was to begin with… I have to admit, before the episode I was a bit worried that matt would have to “dumb down” the encounter, because VM did not do well in their first battle against him, at all, and I was a bit worried Vecna would have to make bad decisions so they don’t get immediately TPKed. That wouldn’t have been in character at all for a near-omniscient 30-int god…but wow, was I wrong, huh? I am still amazed how Matt managed to balance that very thin edge between a TPK and an unconvincing god-tier spellcaster, but he did amazing, imo.

    I’m curious and excited about the new campaign, as well – for my taste, Matt has done pretty well when it comes to villains, while most were unambiguously evil, they all had character and nuance to them, and in my opinion, the lack of morally grey opponents comes from the party being strongly heroic – Percy and Grog being the only exceptions. This is something I have found to be common for first-time characters, not always, but often new players tend to make relatively straight heroic characters, and that in turn means less nuance to play with for the DM when it comes to villains.
    It was interesting to see how both the players and their characters changed over the experiences, especially that last arc (there were some really dark moments in there, and it showed…poor keyleth) and I think the next group will be much more of a mixed bag when it comes to morality and outlook on life – it was already noticeable in the one-shots, and I think the darker mindset will also port over the three-month break, especially since they all seem to be working on their new characters already. Looking forward to it, it is so much fun to play with morality in D&D, and these actors/players in particular are certainly not hesitant to explore that.

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    • I’m honestly a little amazed I didn’t do my usual procrastination, and post this a month or so after the campaign’s end instead of a few days. I think the moment with wish would have hit me a lot harder, if I understood how it would’ve worked to save Vax. But I can’t wrap my mind around it–he has one use of wish every 24 hours, so why would he be able to do something then that he couldn’t do later? And how would a level 9 spell undo a deal with a god? Everyone’s reactions still shook me, but I was distracted by thinking about it.

      Even while the fight was happening, it struck me just how much came down to whether or not counterspells worked. Against a purely spellcasting opponent who has his own ability to counterspell the PC’s most powerful abilities…If I remember correctly, Mass Heal only succeeded because Vecna had disadvantage on the roll. And if Vecna had successfully banished or dominated or teleported, it’s easy to imagine the fight going completely differently. And I agree with you, that the battle has to be well-balanced to make all of those moments feel like they really count.

      I have a different take on villains and morality, though. First, I don’t think this was a strongly moral party without shades of grey–Vax might be the only one who’s never wavered in his morality. Sure, they try to be heroic–excepting Grog and maybe Scanlan–but it’s a struggle for most of them, and they can’t always figure out how to do it. Second, I don’t think it’s harder to make morally grey villains with heroic protagonists–in fact, it might be easier. The more morally grey your characters are, the more difficult it is to distinguish them from morally grey villains, and give them a reason to fight. Vox Machina has met morally grey characters, and tended towards negotiating with them. (Like the bounty hunter who kidnapped Tary.)

      …anyway, new campaign incoming. How the characters get by without counterspell or planeshift, I can only imagine.

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      • Theo Promes says:

        Well, as far as the wish goes – of course you are right, mechanically speaking he could just take a rest and then wish vax back from the dead or something, but if you think about it narratively, it makes perfect sense, and Matt has (rightfully) given the narrative precedence over mechanics when it comes to death, and vax’ death in particular. When he got killed, technically all they would have needed to do is shell out the 25k gp for a true resurrection and move on, but – the chosen champion of the raven queen, killed by an ascending vecna? Instead, they went with the narrative choice of the revenant bargain, which makes total sense dramatically and narratively, I mean, getting disintegrated by big V himself in the shadowfell should carry more narrative weight than tripping and falling down a cliff. To me, the same logic applied to the wish – scanlan, having saved a large chunk of his power through the fight against vecna ascended, to prevent Vax from dying by using the most powerful spell in existence? Sure. Blasting it in the fight and then, after a break, trying to go back on a bargain made with Death herself to steal her champion out of her grasp? weeeell… thats where the “wish gets fulfilled or not according to DM” comes in. It makes sense to me, that there is a different narrative weight to the situation.

        Regarding heroism and morality, for me what makes a character heroic is not necessarily that they always act like a hero, but that they aspire to be one – over the campaign, I think all of them had their dark moments, but even in those, they mostly aspire to do good, not act out of self-interest. As opposed to, well, Grog I think is a good example, who was in it for Glory, Battle-lust and to protect his friends, the fate of the world or even the larger society was never something he particularly cared about (or at least, thats how I’d see it.) Compare VM to a band of mercenaries who fight for money, personal power or because they are coerced into it, that s what I mean. They are closer to the fellowship of the ring than to Logen Ninefingers or Geralt of Rivia.

        And I guess you might be right, it isn’t necessarily harder to have morally grey villains with a strongly heroic party, but Matt chose not to – in my opinion, because the players wanted for their characters to be heroes, and that is a lot harder if the villains are very ambiguous. I am talking about the major plot villains here, by the way, so K’varn, the Briarwoods, the Conclave and Vecna; there was a mixed bag of smaller stuff in there, you are right, but the big ones were pretty firmly evil, even though they all had depth to their characters, it was pretty unambiguous as far as morality goes.

        Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dislike this, the whole campaign was amazing to watch, and it all made perfect sense from a narrative standpoint. But I think D&D and fantasy in general is great to play with morality, and I think the CR cast would be amazing at that, too. Matt is so devastating at mindgames, I would love to see him tempt some morally grey characters bit by bit, and then have them face an opponent that is not necessarily worse than they themselves… things like that.

        But yeah, we will see what happens in the next campaign. I wouldn’t bet on nobody having counterspell, anyways, although Lore Bards are hard to beat at counterspelling in particular.

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        • I guess it just threw me, that I didn’t know what Matt and Sam had discussed about the wish spell. You’re right about the narrative needs and the DM’s decision coming first, naturally.

          The morality thing depends on how you choose to look at it, I guess. With the whole end-of-the-world quests VM has most recently on, it gets a bit obscured that they essentially are a band of mercenaries for most of their campaign. As opposed to what you said, I always thought of them more like that, than the fellowship of the ring. As a group, I consider them more good than bad, but not strongly moral in the least. Maybe it would be different if I were separating them into individuals (depending on where those individuals are on their personal journey), but there are plenty of times when they act as a group. Since someone is always neutral and the players want to be fair to each other, that keeps the party from being strongly moral for me.

          Grog has intimidated innocent people with the sanction of better members of VM, because they want to let him get to do his thing too. They also had the flying carpet in the first place because they stole it from Allura. When they’re about the town doing smaller tasks, they’re generally rude to everyone and will make other people’s lives harder for just doing their jobs. They’re basically a bunch of jerks who abuse their power just enough to be annoying, but not enough to take it away, and people put up with them because they also save cities and defeat gods. So I’ll accept calling them a moral party, but the word ‘strongly’ sits wrong with me–and to be clear, I’m fine with that, because it leads to plenty more hilarious situations than if VM were less obnoxious.

          You’re right in that the villains have been pretty unambiguous about it, but I always kind of thought that was because VM couldn’t be counted on siding against morally grey parties, like the Clasp or the Slayer’s Take. I mean, they literally arranged for the bounty hunter who kidnapped Tary to still get her pay–to me, that was because they didn’t think of themselves as so different from her.

          With respect to counterspell specifically, I was mostly thinking that they’d have to do some leveling before anyone had access to it. If someone doesn’t play a druid, though, I can’t even imagine how the party would deal…though that might be part of the fun.

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