Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D

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Eva Yojimbo
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Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D

Postby Eva Yojimbo » Mon Apr 22, 2019 7:09 am

I guess this could go under either Movies/TV or Games, but I'll put it here.

My only memory of Dungeons and Dragons was that a friend of mine in grade-school played. I joined him for one session, and when my parents found out they freaked because this was the height of the Satanic Panic and they were fooled like most gullible Christians into believing a nerdy game involving warriors and dragons was going to turn a kid into an occult-loving satanist, or something. Somehow, my playing video game RPGs, which were all based on D&D, completely escaped their notice.

Fast-forward 23 years later and I'm messing around on YouTube, and somehow I'm getting recommended some D&D stuff. I click and start watching some people play their first games. It's kinda fun and entertaining, so I click on some other D&D videos. Next I'm watching a guy teaching high school students how to play it and DMing for them. It's equal parts awkward, hilarious, but still very entertaining. I finish that, and then I discover Critical Role...

I've yet to decide if this was the greatest or worst discovery of my life.

Critical Role is a group of professional voice actors (including Ellie from The Last of Us) playing D&D. Each episode is about 3 hours long. There are currently about 175 episodes. I've spent the last 3-4 days doing little but watching it... and I'm only 11 episodes in. It's ridiculously entertaining, but I'm not insane enough to actually recommend this to anyone... but in case I disappear for the next several months and don't emerge until my hair's down to my ass with a beard down to my nuts and my whole body smelling of stale Doritos and Root Beer... you'll know where I've been.

With that out of the way, I think what I'm loving about this is that it combines so many different elements. One the one level, it's fantasy storytelling of the kind I loved as a kid with my heavy diet of novels by Tolkien and many others. On another level, it's gaming, taking everything I love about video game RPGs and making it even more complex because the options are only limited by how you can imaginatively use what skills, spells, items, weapons, etc. you have. On another level, it's acting and improvisation, people getting into characters and becoming them, so much so that you can really tell they're nervous at the prospect of characters dying during big battles, which can easily happen with bad planning or a day/night of bad dice rolling. At the end of the day, though, I can't remember the last time I've laughed this much, or been this dramatically riveted. There's a real element of danger here when you know so much comes down to chance and improvisation, and that very bad things happening is a real possibility.

Part of me regrets that it took me this long to discover D&D. What I wouldn't give to have gotten into this as a kid, and I'm rather pissed that my gullible parents that I couldn't. Of course, it's never too late, and I know there are ways to play online or find local people, and I may try it out. But for now I'm happy just watching and learning and probably raving about it into this message board void.
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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #1

Postby Raxivace » Mon Apr 22, 2019 8:16 am

D&D has never held any appeal to me, which is strange because plenty of stuff I do like such as Final Fantasy owes a lot to it.

I think the improvisational and open nature of it is precisely what kills it for me though. Well that and having to be around other people.
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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #2

Postby maz89 » Tue Apr 23, 2019 7:19 am

I only know of D&D through some episodes on Community. I don't know if the show presented the game accurately, but it was really fun to watch.
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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #3

Postby Eva Yojimbo » Tue Apr 23, 2019 12:40 pm

Raxivace wrote:I think the improvisational and open nature of it is precisely what kills it for me though. Well that and having to be around other people.
Do you think you could say why the improvisational aspect kills it? One thing I will say about that, as well as it being "open," is that both aspects are dependent on a lot of things. EG, the "open" nature can really be tampered down if you just follow the books with pre-built adventures.
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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #4

Postby Eva Yojimbo » Tue Apr 23, 2019 1:03 pm

maz89 wrote:I only know of D&D through some episodes on Community. I don't know if the show presented the game accurately, but it was really fun to watch.
Never saw the Community episodes, but I've heard them referenced a lot. It is surprisingly fun to watch, and all the better with professional actors roleplaying while they're doing it. This had me cracking up in the last episode: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW6GgFQg3kk&t=115m55s (until about 1:58:20) and then this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW6GgFQg3kk&t=170m8s (until about 2:51:20) -- A little backstory for this: one time Scanlan--the Gnome Bard the guy in the upper-far-right plays--got them into a guarded something-or-other by going up to a guard with a finger across his upper lip and said he was Burt Reynolds, and it worked! So it's kinda been a running joke ever since, but this is the best callback.

Despite those jokes, that battle was a good example of what I was talking about as two characters were literally one hit/die roll away from death. You can really see the tension on everyone's face as it's happening too, and I don't think it's acting either... some of these guys have been playing these characters for years. So, yeah, while they could come back and play a new character, killing a character you've played for years I've got to believe would sting like a motherfucker. You can see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IW6GgFQg3kk&t=198m38s
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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #5

Postby maz89 » Tue Apr 23, 2019 2:09 pm

Can you check out the two D&D episodes of Community? You might like them, even if you wouldn't know the characters (or the sitcom archetypes they somewhat fit into). I can kinda relate to all of this stuff about emotional investment in fictional D&D characters and improvisation and one-roll-away-from-death suspense kind of stuff because of the episodes the show did (by the way, a very underrated show; its zany sense of humor wasn't for everyone).

I'm at work but I'll check those clips out later.
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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #6

Postby Raxivace » Thu Apr 25, 2019 9:04 am

Eva Yojimbo wrote:Do you think you could say why the improvisational aspect kills it? One thing I will say about that, as well as it being "open," is that both aspects are dependent on a lot of things. EG, the "open" nature can really be tampered down if you just follow the books with pre-built adventures.
Honestly I think it probably comes down to the kind of people I've known over the years who were into things like D&D always seemed like they had bad taste when it came to other things like movies/books/games etc. So the idea of sitting through their Tolkien fanfiction for hours upon hours on end just makes me think of how I'd rather drink sewer water.

So between that and the actual game itself seeming like it can change on a dime if the person doesn't like how you're playing it, it just doesn't sound that enjoyable to me. I prefer some amount of consistency- so while there's maybe some version of D&D that's fair and balanced when the nature of its storytelling itself is already an uphill battle for me to not completely hate, I guess I just don't see why I wouldn't just play a video game I'd have a much higher chance of liking instead.
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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #7

Postby Eva Yojimbo » Fri Apr 26, 2019 12:21 pm

maz89 wrote:Can you check out the two D&D episodes of Community? You might like them, even if you wouldn't know the characters (or the sitcom archetypes they somewhat fit into). I can kinda relate to all of this stuff about emotional investment in fictional D&D characters and improvisation and one-roll-away-from-death suspense kind of stuff because of the episodes the show did (by the way, a very underrated show; its zany sense of humor wasn't for everyone).

I'm at work but I'll check those clips out later.
Yes, I'll make them a priority ASAP. Right now I'm plowing through about 4 of these CR episodes a day, and that's not easy considering they're about 3-hours a piece. I guarantee I won't be able to keep this pace up (though the recent arc I'm on is reaaaaaaaally good... so far from about ep. 23-33), and as soon as I slow down I'll check out the Community eps. I've always thought that Community seemed like a show I'd like from what little clips I caught of it, but it's just one I haven't gotten around to watching. I don't hardly watch any TV anymore.
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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #8

Postby Eva Yojimbo » Fri Apr 26, 2019 12:43 pm

Raxivace wrote:
Eva Yojimbo wrote:Do you think you could say why the improvisational aspect kills it? One thing I will say about that, as well as it being "open," is that both aspects are dependent on a lot of things. EG, the "open" nature can really be tampered down if you just follow the books with pre-built adventures.
Honestly I think it probably comes down to the kind of people I've known over the years who were into things like D&D always seemed like they had bad taste when it came to other things like movies/books/games etc. So the idea of sitting through their Tolkien fanfiction for hours upon hours on end just makes me think of how I'd rather drink sewer water.

So between that and the actual game itself seeming like it can change on a dime if the person doesn't like how you're playing it, it just doesn't sound that enjoyable to me. I prefer some amount of consistency- so while there's maybe some version of D&D that's fair and balanced when the nature of its storytelling itself is already an uphill battle for me to not completely hate, I guess I just don't see why I wouldn't just play a video game I'd have a much higher chance of liking instead.
Yeah, I can definitely see how the experience could be completely ruined by other players or (especially) a bad DM wanting to do nothing but Tolkien fanfiction, but it certainly doesn't have to be that way--and, let's face it it, it's not like most fantasy fiction in any medium rises above the level of bad Tolkien fanfiction anyways. I'm thinking that most of your concerns--and really my own in terms of actually starting to play it--could be alleviated with a good talk both with the DM and other players before starting, basically setting the ground rules for what kind of experience everyone's after. It seems to me that a good DM would want to do a few things: 1. Create a fun, imaginative world for the players to play in. 2. Be prepared for a range of options/routes they may take. 3. Basically act as a fair/impartial referee for what they want to do.

I'm guessing 2. and 3. are the hard parts for the DM, since no matter how well you set the world up and try to nudge the players in certain directions there's always the option for them to do something completely differently and then you just have to improvise. As for 3., that would require any DM to take their ego out of the equation, which wouldn't be easy for any who'd want the players to do what THEY wanted them to do and impose only THEIR imagination onto the game/world. I think Matt Mercer (Critical Role) DM is exceptional at all three of those, and the only time I've ever seen him get even slightly mad at players is for meta-gaming, basically trying to relay information or plan for things their characters wouldn't know or couldn't plan for.
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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #9

Postby Eva Yojimbo » Sun Apr 28, 2019 3:27 am

maz89 wrote:Can you check out the two D&D episodes of Community?
OK, I saw these. I liked the second one better than the first one, but they were both enjoyable. Kinda reminds me of how poker gets portrayed in movies/TV in that it's all drama but no mechanics, though the second episode was better at mentioning certain mechanics... like, I don't think the first episode even had them rolling to hit enemies.
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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #10

Postby maz89 » Sun Apr 28, 2019 12:26 pm

I'm glad you enjoyed them. Yeah, I recall there were more dice rolls and battles in the second one too, and maybe a goofier ending. One thing I remember liking about how the episodes rendered the D&D universe was the usage of audio cues. It's a simple, obvious device but it effectively sold the idea of just how absorbed the group became in their fantasy/make-believe. What did the episodes make you think of Community?
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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #11

Postby Faustus5 » Sun May 19, 2019 8:41 pm

I just noticed this thread today, the same day I was supposed to get back to work on writing up the next session of the D&D campaign I run. I should have completed the next stage months ago but I've been too distracted by binge TV and Netflix rentals. No, I will not let this serve as another distraction. It will have to wait until I've gotten off my lazy ass and written enough to invite my pals over. But thanks for posting this.

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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #12

Postby Eva Yojimbo » Sun Jul 21, 2019 4:14 pm

OK, so I caught up with this series a while ago... all 180 episodes and ~700 hours of it. I can honestly, unequivocally say it's one of the best things I've ever seen. Explaining why cogently is another matter entirely though.

Though I think I touched on this in my first post, I don't think I fully articulated what makes this show so compelling. Yes, it's part oral storytelling, part acting/improvisation, part gaming... but when you put everything together it's basically an entirely new artistic medium that's quite unlike anything else I've seen. In what other medium do you have a narrator who sets up the world and outlines the story while others create characters, act as them, and allows the narrator to react to what they do? In a way, it has the feel of an almost archaic form of storytelling, perhaps one where tribes would gather around a fire and take turns telling the same story. This makes everyone involved both artist and audience, and it's fascinating trying to disentangle the threads of where these various relationships come together and fall apart: how many choices and reactions are coming from the characters? How many from the players? There's also this fascinating dynamic where, because it's improvised, so much happens that you'd never, ever see in art that was pre-written and edited.

Sometimes, an example can say more than a thousand words, so just watch this scene:

Keep in mind, this scene came immediately after a really big emotional climax where one of the characters met their family who'd basically tried to trick/rob the entire group... and they're just trying to retrieve a fucking a diamond. You'd never, ever see a scene like that, which basically amounts to a pointless suicide spurred by a weird mix of stupidity and ignorance of the game's mechanics, in a work of fiction where a writer were actually trying to use some semblance of logic in terms of character and plot; but that's part of what makes this series brilliant, because sometimes people do completely irrational things, and the fact that you can see that play out because this stuff is improvised in real-time makes it incredibly unique and special (and painfully hilarious at times). Beyond all that, though, it's also amazing to essentially watch the rest of the cast be an audience to this. Just watch the reactions of Travis (top right), who is probably expressing the same mix of amazement, delight, and shock as most everyone who watched it.

There's also something about the spareness of the setup... No costumes, no sets, just a group of friends gathered around a table. I was reminded of something a YouTuber once said about the improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway: most shows are about the performance of reality, but Whose Line was about the reality of performance, and that rings so true of Critical Role as well. Without all the stuff that goes into creating the illusion of watching reality, you can just focus on the performances, and because those performances are able to develop without the time constraints of film or TV they end up being, in their own way, more real--certainly deeper and more complex--than just about any you'd see in more typical fiction. I mean, there have been times when characters have done 10-20 minute monologues, stuff that you don't even see in Shakespeare. Where else in fiction would you ever see/hear a backstory like this:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7Ll6EoJ6Po
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToLYb5TEIWs
If you watch both parts, that's a 20 minute monologue, something you'd almost certainly never see in film or TV or video games... and I was riveted for every second of it.

This has also lead to a fascinating aspect of the first campaign that reminded me a lot of NGE. Essentially, the fan-reaction to the character of Keyleth is eerily similar to that of Shinji, and I don't think that's accidental. She was also, essentially, playing this meek, moral, introverted, socially awkward character thrust into the role of hero thanks to her family, and had a lot of the same flaws and failings of being a very sensitive human trying to play the role of a hero they weren't really cut out for. Now, I don't think Keyleth quite had the complexity of Shinji, but the similarity is undoubtedly there. Some of the criticisms of her were a bit more justifiable--the idea that a character with a Wisdom of 22 would suicide-dive off a cliff doesn't make much sense--but I still think most of the hatred comes from the same place of insecurity that drove most of the hatred of Shinji.

Another interesting aspect is how radically different the two campaigns are/have been. The first was essentially traditional high fantasy with a group of flawed heroes that essentially become a family of their own fighting vampires and dragons and wannabe-necromancer gods. Now, it's high fantasy done at an incredibly high level from a master storyteller in Matt Mercer and an incredibly cast, but traditional nonetheless. The second campaign has been much darker and weirder by comparison. In it, the characters border on anti-heroes most of the time, often with a deep-seated mistrust and paranoia of each other and the world in general. As much as the first campaign had a classic good VS evil vibe, the second thus far has felt much more ambiguous as to who, exactly, are the good vs the evil sides and characters (with many of the cast's actions being quite morally ambiguous themselves). The second campaign is still ongoing so it's hard to say where it'll go, but it's been every bit as good as campaign 1 and even better in many respects (it's certainly nice that the production values have gone up).

As for the actual game aspect, I think what surprised me most is how well-integrated into the story it is. Sometimes entire episodes go by with no battles, and even most battle episodes are often dominated by dialogue and character moments. I think this is for the better because many of the big battles tend to be quite tense, and a big reason for that is because Matt and the cast have done such a great job of building our attachment to these characters that we genuinely fear losing them in these battles. If the gaming aspect started dominating the runtime, much of that tension would be lost. As is, some of the best battles have vividly reminded me of watching my favorite sports teams in the playoffs when it gets late in the 4th quarter of close games. I don't think any art has ever really managed to replicate that kind of heart-pounding tension that sports can have at their best until I saw Critical Role, and because the actual gameplay is pretty slow it's often damn-near torturous how tense some battles can get. I remember Marisha even saying once in a Q&A that she went into another room and just cried after one of the battles because of how stressed she was, and I think the fact that you can see that in players says a lot about the uniqueness of the show in general.

But at the end of the day I still think it comes down to the greatness of the storytelling. The above is mostly my pontificating about what makes D&D so unique as a spectator-medium, but at its core it's still the fact that I can't think of any film or show I've watched that made me laugh, cry, and be riveted to my seat that much. It's certainly not just the fact that it is such a unique medium, as I've since seen other D&D streams and haven't felt compelled to stick with any of them. No, there is very much something special about that DM with that cast and those characters that made this compelling for a viewer rather than just being fun for those involved.

Yes, it's still an incredible time-investment, but even with that in mind it would still get my highest recommendation. Keep in mind this is coming from someone who often complains that long-running TV dramas don't warrant their length... yet here's this series that's 10x longer than most TV series and I don't regret one second spent with it. At least I'd recommend trying out some of the self-contained episodes or couple-episodes to see if it's your thing.
"As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." -- Carl Jung

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Re: Critical Role, Or: How I Learned To Stop Living and Start Loving D&D   Reply #13

Postby Eva Yojimbo » Sun Jul 21, 2019 4:28 pm

Faustus5 wrote:I just noticed this thread today, the same day I was supposed to get back to work on writing up the next session of the D&D campaign I run. I should have completed the next stage months ago but I've been too distracted by binge TV and Netflix rentals. No, I will not let this serve as another distraction. It will have to wait until I've gotten off my lazy ass and written enough to invite my pals over. But thanks for posting this.
Really cool that you're a DM! If I got into playing D&D I think I'd be more drawn to DMing than playing anyway. Though it's certainly different, I've at least been able to play RPGs thanks to video games, but the whole world/story-building aspect is something I haven't done since I was a kid, and it's something I really loved to do back then. I imagine it's pretty awesome to build these worlds that your players get to play in... though I can also imagine it's probably a lot of work!

Anyway, I think you could check out Critical Role as long as you don't binge on it. I just get obsessive about this stuff and spend way too much time doing it and nothing else for long periods of time. You could easily manage an episode a day and be caught up in half-a-year or so. I also watched the episodes on 1.75 or 2x speed with closed captioning on, which made the length more manageable while still being able to hear/understand everything.
"As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." -- Carl Jung


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