English, Opinions

Today I Recommend: Critical Role

It was October 9th, 2017. As every Monday for some years now, I sat down in front of my trusty old computer—named “Narsil” because it’s as old and broken as its namesake—and started pounding the keys. I don’t remember it well, but I was probably working on some RPG related project. Then, I decided to watch—or actually listen to—some YouTube in the background. To my surprise, Matt Colville had uploaded a video entitled “The Climax of Critical Role, Season 1”. I pressed “Play” without any idea of what I was about to watch/listen to.

Just for context: at that point in time I had started a new RPG campaign with my regular gaming group. After a somehow successful—but ultimately frustrating—1-year campaign running Werewolf: The Apocalypse, my friends had asked if I could run something more “classic”. By “classic” they meant medieval fantasy or, in other words, Dungeons & Dragons… But I didn’t want to run D&D. As a matter of fact, I refused to do so. My last experience running D&D (it was using the rules from the Beta Playtest of the Pathfinder RPG, but that’s neither here nor there) had been a disaster. I tried D&D 4th Edition, ultimately didn’t like it and moved on.

So, in this case, I had decided to run Labyrinth Lord—a retroclone of D&D me and my friends had never played—with the hope that maybe it could reignite my love for D&D overall. We played a short session after creating some characters, but I was already feeling the itch to drop the campaign. “D&D isn’t my thing,” I thought, for the umpteenth time. I could only remember bad experiences with the game. The numberless, unfinished campaigns. The friendships that didn’t exist anymore. The stupid rules that always got in the way and never created the fiction I expected them to.

And then I watched Matt Colville describe, with honest and heartfelt words, what he deemed to be “a Great Work of Art”. And that “Great Work of Art” was the end of a D&D campaign.

I was hooked, of course. That same day I started watching Critical Role—and I still do, to this day. In the following months I transformed my campaign from Labyrinth Lord to D&D 5th Edition, which I’ve been running for a year and a half—and counting. Since then I’ve spent more time and money that I dare to admit in D&D 5th Edition products, as well as being subscribed to Geek & Sundry and now the Critical Role Twitch channel.

In short: I fell in love, once again, with my oldest RPG flame—D&D. And I couldn’t be happier for it.

And it was all because of Critical Role.

What’s Critical Role?

Critical Role (CR) is a group of self-proclaimed “nerdy ass voice actors who sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons.” They’ve been doing so for a long time now and, for the past 4 years or so, they’ve been sharing their D&D campaigns with the whole wide world through Twitch, a streaming service.

Why I Love Critical Role

I’m well aware that there were groups of people streaming their D&D campaigns before Critical Role started, and that many more began doing so after witnessing CR’s success. Hell, if I had the chance I’d streamed my own games! So, what makes CR something special?

The first thing is that everybody at the table are amazing voice actors who are, in the words of Matt Colville, “professionally charming people.” Everybody there is comfortable with the cameras and, more importantly, they are comfortable with honestly expressing their emotions about the game for all the world to see. What’s more, however, is that their game sessions don’t feel like a performance. Don’t get me wrong: these people are performers, but they come across as just playing D&D with their friends—and having the time of their lives while doing so.

The second thing that drew me to CR is the way they play D&D. Out of all the RPGs I’ve played, run, or read about, D&D is the one that offers the widest possible experience. What I mean by that is that some people sit down to play D&D for the tactical challenge of their characters surviving against a difficult but fair strategy game. Others play for the opportunity of indulging in a fantasy where they get to do awesome things and, in time, become better and better at doing those awesome things. Yet another group of people plays to tell together an epic story resembling those found in other storytelling media, such as books, films, animation, etc.

Of course this categorization is totally arbitrary and evidently false; people usually fall in more than one of these camps, and our tastes evolve and change with time. But, in essence, I’ve always felt more comfortable within the third group. I play RPGs to tell a story with my friends, one we create together and whose memories will live with us for the rest of our lives. And that is something that I always tried to do with D&D, but never could—until I discovered CR.

Matt Mercer, CR’s Dungeon Master (DM), along with all his wonderful players—Ashley Johnson, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, Travis Willingham, Sam Riegel, Laura Bailey, and Liam O’Brien—play the game the closest to my preferred style of play. In short: they play to tell a story cooperatively. They actively listen to each other, respect other people’s turns, cooperate to have dramatic moments (instead of undermining them), and are not afraid to show emotions when the situations call for it. They don’t pretend to show emotions just for the cameras; instead, they just allow themselves to feel, express, and live those emotions in front of them.

That’s why, I think, one gets so attached to this group of nerdy ass voice actors. They sincerely play the game like adults, without paying attention to the stupid restrictions society tries to impose on us when it comes to fiction. They cry, laugh, and cheer the deeds of imaginary people overcoming imaginary obstacles in an imaginary world because that’s the most human thing to do—at least in my opinion, of course.

They are my golden standard for an RPG group not because they’re voice actors who can do funny accents consistently—which is an amazing skill to have when one plays an RPG, for sure—but because they care about the game. They aren’t late or miss a session unless it’s an emergency. They don’t interrupt or intrude on other people’s moments unless they absolutely have to. They love each other… and they are brave enough to share that love openly with us, the audience.

They also aren’t afraid to approach complex topics in their campaigns. Their characters fall in love with one another, cry for each other, and get separated when it makes sense in the fiction. They ignore information that’d be beneficial when their characters don’t have it, respect the DM’s decisions and rulings, and are very good winners—and even better losers. They don’t lash out or blame the game, dice, or each other when something goes wrong.

In short: they play the game as seriously as any form of fiction worth its salt. Or, paraphrasing M.C. Escher—one of my favorite artists of all time—:

Their work is a game. A very serious game.

How to Watch Critical Role

If anything that I’ve mentioned above as piqued your interest, you may want to give CR a try. If so, congratulations! Keep on reading because I’ll mention a few ways you can introduce yourself to the crazy and wonderful world of Critical Role.

I have to mention two things here. The first is that to watch CR costs no money; you don’t need to subscribe or spend any amount of money to start watching. What it costs, however, is the most precious thing we human beings possess: our time. Each episode is around 4 hours long—as most RPG sessions—and, as such, it will take you at least 4 hours a week to stay up to date with the most recent episode.

I think most of us spend much more than 4 hours every week watching our screens, but we usually do so, I believe, in shorter sessions. So, that’s my first piece of advice: if you can’t spend 4 hours watching Critical Role, then just watch it in shorter sessions. We all have time we can dedicate to this. When we commute, clean our homes, do the laundry, etc.

With that in mind, let’s get started!

Method 0: I Just Want to See If I like It

Go ahead and start watching Episode 1 of the second CR campaign. It’s a long video—almost 3 and a half hours—but you don’t need to watch it completely. Just watch it until you’re sure you will enjoy CR—or not. If you want to keep on going, refer to the following methods depending on your disposition.

Method 1: Fastest Possible Way

If you want to watch this week’s episode—they stream every Thursday night at 7 PM PST (you can check this website to make sure of your local time)—then all you have to do is to go to the Critical Recap playlist and watch the latest episode available. That should take you from 5-10 minutes and then you should be ready to join the streaming on Thursday or to watch the latest episode in full.

Method 2: As Much Context as (Reasonably) Possible

If you want to invest a little bit more time—but not too much—go the Critical Recap playlist and watch all the episodes you can. Dani Carr is a fantastic host and her summaries are invaluable and to the point. If you watch the whole playlist you should have a solid foundation to comprehend most of what’s going on in the next episode.

Method 3: All the Juicy Details

Warning! This will take you some time. Like 240 hours or so, at the time of writing.

Watch the whole Campaign 2 playlist from beginning to end. Once you’re done, you will be able to watch any future episode and will have all the information available about the NPCs, PCs, the adventures they’ve been a part of—and everything else.

Method 4: All the CR campaigns!

Warning! This will take you a long time. Like 640 hours or so, at the time writing.

Watch the whole Campaign 1 and Campaign 2 playlists from beginning to end. Now you’ll have most of the information available about the world of Exandria and will understand all the Easter Eggs and references about both campaigns.

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I hope you enjoyed reading this article! You can help me out by commenting, sharing it with someone who may like it, or by becoming a patron over at patreon.com/nuevafantasy Just for $1 a month you can listen to new posts before anybody else does, as well as voting in polls to decide which new content I’ll publish! Thank you in advance for your support.

This post was published thanks to the support of Paulette Rompeltien, Marley Clevenger, María Consuelo Gómez Martín, Alberto Peña, and the rest of my wonderful patrons.

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