"ALONG THE WAY, YOU FOUND A HEART": ON CRITICAL ROLE, AND THE STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES
by Jordan Sutlive
Critical Role, a Dungeons & Dragons podcast and show that was streamed live on Youtube and Twitch, ended its second campaign earlier this month. Over the course of 141 episodes, or over 480 hours of storytelling, I've watched the Dungeon Master (or DM), Matthew Mercer, describe to his audience the gradual rise and fall of civilizations across his fictional world of Exandria. As I watched, a consistent diagnosis became clear: often, downfall is due to the faulty stories that societies forcefeed their citizens. The people are told by religious and political leaders alike that—for example—sacrifices are necessary for the sake of scientific advancement. They're told that their lives are expendable, at least as compared to those of the "deserving" elite. They're told how to monitor their daily routines: which gods are worthy of worship, and whose marriages are valid or invalid. And these expendable citizens, in turn, are burdened by these stories, along with those of their own making, and allow said stories to control their lives and bonds with others.
To get some basic explanation out of the way: Critical Role is one of many D&D podcasts and livestreams that have gained prominence and popularity over the past decade, and that all offer an enthralling new form of storytelling that I'll talk more about in a moment. While many of these D&D campaigns skew heavily towards the comedic, employing improv comedians and sketch writers as members of their lovable casts, Critical Role differs not only in that its cast is composed of career voice actors, but also in its insistence on immersion and its aim towards High Fantasy. The Dungeon Master, Matthew Mercer, sets their second campaign in a world where each location is vibrant and lush with detail, and where every city is given an economic system and social hierarchy and official flower.
(Above: Building Your Own Campaign Setting (with Matthew Mercer) │ Adventuring Academy.)
Mercer offers a masterclass in worldbuilding here, folks; through the sheer power of narration, he is able to construct a setting in which his players can feel the harsh blast of sea air across their faces as they scan the horizon for enemy cult-worshippers atop their pirate ship, The Squall Eater (which they quickly rechristened The Ball Eater—because, yes, despite its novelistic structure and serious tone, there's still plenty of room in Critical Role for lots and lots of dick jokes).
Best of all, however, this is a teeming and populated world that refuses to be static, that offers the dizzying possibility for its inhabitants to rewrite its systems and stories. As a classical prose writer, one who's been taught that every published word you've written is permanent, I've found that D&D's storytelling, its potential for mutability and quick rewrites, where long-held plot outlines and character arcs can be thrown out at a moment's notice based on your players' whims, provides its own intoxicating power. D&D allows you and your players to collaborate on a narrative that feels electric, alive, in ways that I've never felt with any form of traditional writing—a story that's both object and organism. Or, in Critical Role's case, it's a narrative form like the Cognouza Ward, a living city district adrift in outer space made of teeth and eyes and flesh, where the towers and homes sway and blink like the bobbing stalks of anglerfish, and whose infrastructure can quite literally be rewritten by the players' imaginations.
Early in this campaign, Matt Mercer gives his players a chance to rewrite this intricate world that he's created. After an eerie opening arc, in which our cast of characters investigate a series of supernatural murders within a traveling carnival, they soon find themselves acting as unwitting intermediaries between two warring nations: the Dwendalian Empire, a militaristic monarchy that rigidly controls all forms of religious worship, and whose town criers holler out propaganda throughout the industrial city of Zadash; and Xhorhas, whose rulers are the Kryn Dynasty, a theocracy of dark elves whose access to ancient technology allows them to become reincarnated again and again, becoming literal repositories for millennia's worth of memories and stories. Each side swears their way of rule is true and just; each side provides gruesome stories of cruel depravity that their enemies have enacted. As compared to Critical Role's first campaign, whose players and villains fit more neatly into a Good vs. Evil dynamic, the morality within this second campaign is murkier, less prone to an easy binary—with whom do you ally, after all, if both sides believe so strongly in their own self-righteous narratives?
Yet this campaign isn't all warfare and political intrigue on a large scale. Due to the collaborative nature of D&D's storytelling, the players' characters (or PCs) are also able to interweave and interject their own story arcs throughout this larger campaign. Each member of this adventuring party, otherwise referred to as The Mighty Nein (it's a long story), begins the campaign with their own embedded narratives, most of which are riddled with self-loathing after years and years of trauma. Caleb Widogast (played by Liam O'Brien), for example, is a mud-slick wizard who suffers from PTSD, after a horrific childhood in which he was fed tales of the Empire's glory by his abusive mentor, eventually being asked to spy on (and inevitably punish) his own "dissident" parents. Or: look at Beauregard Lionett (played by Marisha Ray), a lowly member of the Cobalt Soul, an order of diplomatic monks to whom Beauregard was sold off by her distant and callous father, and who acts out and commits crimes in order to give herself daily evidence of the story she's believed to be true: that no one, most of all her family, will ever want to want her. Every member of The Mighty Nein walks into Episode One with stories like this. At the campaign's onset, they are the outcasts, the exiles, the dregs of society, who carry false names and false identities, who prickle like urchins at the first hints of friendship. It is their entwined journeys of self-forgiveness and redemption that propel this campaign forward. And it's the ways in which The Mighty Nein are able to cultivate and demonstrate their profound empathy for each other that is this campaign's greatest reward.
And make no mistake: it's this empathy, ultimately, that allows The Mighty Nein to rewrite their world and its stories. Over hundreds of hours, through a campaign that features a bagpipe-playing turtle, a madcap heist to graffiti a dragon, legendary ghosts that linger within undersea shipwrecks, a magical cupcake vs. a primordial hag, a tropical island that absorbs people's memories, and body horror that'd make Cronenberg blush, the consistent device that allows this team of outcasts to survive enemies and obstacles alike is simply this—a basic, radical kindness. As Mollymauk Tealeaf tells the rest of The Mighty Nein, "I left every town better than I found it." This offhand quote becomes a sort of motto, a moral credo, for the rest of the party. It's this kindness that also serves as a universal solvent: it allows us to dissolve the hateful stories we've compiled from our personal histories, the stories we tell ourselves over and over again, and instead permits us to forge newer, better ones.
Later on, Caleb Widogast acquires a spell that provides us with a symbolic representation of this empathy-driven process. He's able to build an illusory tower, nine stories tall, to offer warmth and shelter in which his friends can reside during their long, arduous journey. This tower is filled with a kitchen staffed by cats (another long story), but also filled with rooms and rooms for his dear friends, each decorated with trinkets and artwork of the new memories he's formed with each member of The Mighty Nein. In an upper floor of the tower, however, there still lingers a secret, sinister room: an exact replica of the room in which his former mentor tortured him, implanting crystals beneath his skin for the sake of experimentation. The lesson here is clear: trauma does not leave us. It never will. But perhaps, instead, we can form newer, stronger memories of perennial love from our friends and family. We can create more and more ways, more doors, through which we can instead choose to walk into joy.
In D&D, in Critical Role, stories can always be rewritten. In the latter half of the campaign, The Mighty Nein meets one of the primary instigators of the bloody conflict between the two nations, a traitor and "literal war criminal" (as described by Beauregard). He is alone, having just confessed to his past sins, at the party's mercy. He is one of the reasons so many of The Mighty Nein's loved ones have been kidnapped, or killed. It is a prime opportunity to enact revenge. At least, that's how most people would tell the story. Instead, Veth (played by Sam Riegel), whose husband was tortured because of this traitor, tells him this:
You are a broken person who had ill intentions and wandered aimlessly into a path that you had no intention or no idea how to complete. And yet, somehow, along the way, you found a heart. You sound like all of us. Welcome to the Mighty Nein.
This person, apparently, was a character meant to serve as The Mighty Nein's main antagonist. But they instead offer him a rare gift: a familial love he'd never thought he deserved to earn. He becomes, instead, one of their closest allies.
And that's the beauty of this show, y'all: these characters, and the players who command them, hold just as much sway over Critical Role's larger narrative as Matt, our Dungeon Master, does. This is collaborative storytelling the likes of which I've never seen before. It is both rehearsal and performance. It is a story with the seams exposed. It is a tale told through an x-ray. On occasion, this shaggy, meandering, group-based form of storytelling coughs out brief moments of frustration or boredom—players will occasionally take long pauses to mull over or overanalyze the ramifications of their choices, and sometimes plans fail disastrously due to a roll of the dice, and sometimes narrative beats occur far too early or late—but the positives far outweigh these rare lulls of drudgery. At day's end, this is an incredible gift for any writer. You can witness firsthand the act of creating a story. You can see the ways in which offscreen events, such as the birth of Travis Willingham and Laura Bailey's first child, or the mercurial success of their record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, affect the narrative itself. You can watch a group of friends eat snacks and riff on inside jokes and allow those jokes to bleed into the actual plot. And when this kind of storytelling works (and it often, often does), it's akin to watching people build a car and drive it at the exact same time—an impossible feat, like a newfound school of magic. Or, perhaps, it's more like the oldest form of storytelling we know: a group of companions that sit beside a fire, swapping stories to while away a dreary evening.
You might be skeptical of the intense commitment that Critical Role requires. I won't blame you. But if you meet this story on its own wandering terms, you will be gifted with one of the best fantasy epics of our generation, an anthropological study of civilizations that span millenia, an intimate character drama in which we watch and cheer as these beloved characters dismantle the cycles of abuse in which they were once imprisoned. It is a soaring, living tale, thrumming with laughter and heartbreak—and, seriously, just a metric ton of dick jokes. It is, quite simply, the greatest story I have ever experienced, in any medium.
At the end of each broadcast, Matt reminds us: "Don't forget to love each other." I will keenly remember the love I've experienced as I've watched the adventures of The Mighty Nein.
And now, I hope to offer it to all of you.
Farewell, Mighty Nein. Long may you reign.