The Critical Role of Critical Role…

It has been… an interesting time since last I’ve decided to put some thoughts to paper. The world, as it does in my life, has turned and changed and shifted – for the better, for the worse but all round for good. When my courage returns to me and I find the space in my head to talk about this journey that I am on, I will do so – but… not today.

Today, I want to talk about something that has occupied quite a significant portion of my time in the past 6 months. Almost 390 hours of it to be exact. Staring at it now, it is actually quite shocking but, still absolutely worth it. The new addiction and drain in which my attention has spiralled down is a web series called Critical Role, a show about – quote, unquote – a bunch of nerdy ass (professional) voice actors who sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons.  It is live streamed on every Thursday evening at 7pm Los Angeles time or, for those of us living on GMT + 2, 4am on a Friday morning.

And it is very addicting.

I never really thought that I would be interested in something like this. My history with Dungeons and Dragons as a game had been quite shaky, as I had been the odd girl in a group of boys who was unanimously forced to become the cleric. “Because you girls like that sort of thing… Right?”  No, in fact – I did not and I soon abandoned the game, thinking that the RPG world just wasn’t for me. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t play well with others and being the ditz who had to run around and heal other people of their stupid actions, left a lasting dark, granted mistaken, impression of the genre. It was only when a friend of mine, StillDormant, persistently nagged me to look at the episodes on YouTube that I finally caved – if only to tell her I did watch it and I did not enjoy it.

I was proven wrong.

A hundred episodes later – which equates to over 19 Seasons of a normal television show – my whole opinion of not only Dungeons and Dragons but web series in general has been changed forever. Which is a big thing or me, because I don’t normally like to invest that much time or energy into television. I might be off a little with my math, but I think that the show has taken up more time than both my two favourite television shows (and I’m showing my age here) Stargate and X-Files combined. I think the way it sucked me into complete submission is due to a few reasons.

It might be a television show, but it feels a bit more real.
Despite the fact that it has no graphics, no script and no other visual prompts except for 8 to 9 people sitting at tables and rolling dice, it is engaging. The lure is in the story telling, one of the first things that caught my attention. I started watching Critical Role last year October in a time that I was truly struggling to keep myself together. Work was taking its toll on my energy which in turn drained all off my own creativity. My writing, which had already been struggling for the past two years, had come to a grinding halt in the months before and I often found myself sitting around listlessly in foreign hotel rooms with absolutely no place in my head to escape to. Watching this show, proverbially sitting with them around the table and watching the campaign unfold, gave me something to hold onto in the loneliness that was forced upon me by my work and my own depression.

It is about the story…
This, I should add, has a lot to do with the core mechanic of Dungeons and Dragons. In the RPG game, one person – the Dungeon Master, takes several other players on an adventure with characters that they created. No technology is needed, no high tech graphics or a ton of money (unless you are the Dungeon Master and want to buy ALL the books and ALL the miniatures…). It is simply a game played by people face to face and it is as good, or as bad, as the players and Dungeon Master tell it to each other. With Critical Role you are taken into the world of Exandria – an original concept created by the Dungeon Master, Matthew Mercer. His imagination and dedication to the story is palpable in every scene, every sentence that he speaks. The way he told the story made me remember what it was like to have my own world, my own story and listening to their adventures gave me the energy and the yearning to return to my old writing. And my own vision of completing my own fantasy story. It made me remember why I wrote and that it didn’t matter what I wrote as long as I enjoyed it. And, listening to Matt Mercer unfold his story, seeing the love he had for his characters gave me a sense of security, because I knew that this was a man (along with the other players in the game) who loved the world and what they were doing so much that they weren’t going to let something like popular demand or community opinion or their misshapen idea of art (I’m looking at you Mass Effect 3) destroy the world. They want a happy ending as much as I do.

It has diversity, in a very non-forced kind of way.
Characters of various races, sexuality and shapes appear on and off the scene. Matt’s array of Non Playable Characters (a term used for any person that shows up in the campaign that is governed by the DM) add constant flavour in the most natural way possible: By acting normal. We’ve entered a strange phase in humanity’s development where I almost feel as if we are moving backwards in our sense of self and our place among people. In my own country, sexual diversity is described as ‘un-african’ and on the continent on which I reside, people are still killed for their preference in sexual partners. America, the country of supposed dreams – whose leaders are of global importance – has seen a marked decrease in tolerance towards the LGBT community as well as gender roles (and plain god damned humanity, Donald Trump! Pulling out of the Paris Agreement? You unmentionable word…) It is such a blessing to watch a show that eases the concept in so seamlessly. Women are given equal roles to men without losing what makes them a part of their gender in the beginning. Male characters embrace the range of their own capabilities, from being burly warriors who are constantly seeing houses of ‘lady favours’ to delightfully gay shopkeepers. It links into what I had said at the top – that the story feels real, but perhaps even more so, it feels as if the characters are living in a world that we should aspire to.

For all the drama, the story and actors give themselves the space to act just a little silly sometimes and not worry about how it will affect Ratings…
I think that is part of the charm of it. Thoughts are followed through and sometimes, every human moment appear on screen – not because it was put in there for dramatic effect, but because it was fun. It has made me laugh and cry and yell in frustration. I’ve watched three hours of characters shopping and loved every moment of it and I’ve watched 40 minutes of gut wrenching terror as cities were destroyed and people decimated.  I’ve watched characters I care for die, live and perform deeds I deem to be unforgivable. In a strange way, it has taught me to live again, to see these moments in my own life. To enjoy the moments of the mundane to forget about the moments of disaster.

All of these components have woven itself into a story (and now obsession of mine) that taught me a few lessons about my own life. That you should:

  • Listen to friends when they tell you to watch something.
  • Find joy in the small and simple things in life.
  • Believe in the story that you tell. Do not just write it because you want to become famous or because you want to get it done, but believe in it. It won’t matter if you don’t.
  • Make time. Make time for friends and family. Make time to look at each other.

I want to finish this lengthy post with a comment on my last lesson.
Urged on by what I saw on Critical Role, I started my own home game, Dungeon Mastering for my Other Half and family as well as for a group of friends of mine. In the time that we play our game, we all sit around a table and listen to each other. No phones, no background noise, nothing. We could play this game with no power in the middle of the desert, because we are engaged with each other. That is what Dungeons and Dragons gave to us, because it wasn’t something that happened often. Our lives have become so rushed that I think these opportunities become fewer with each passing day of increasing technology.

Critical Role played a critical role in the journey that I’ve been on in the past few months, in giving me a safe haven for my thoughts but also to remind me what I had wanted from life and what I was missing out on by allowing it and my work to drag me under.

Image Credit: Amanda Oliver Elm  @flyboy_elmImage Credit: Amanda Oliver Elm  @flyboy_elm

3 thoughts on “The Critical Role of Critical Role…

  1. pixeljen June 19, 2017 / 4:44 pm

    It’s great, isn’t it? The one thing that bugs me is that sometimes, Matt Mercer narrates things that I think should be within the player’s purview to decide/narrate. For example, sometimes he’ll narrate their moods/feelings, expressions, or reactions. But they’re excellent RPers! Let them do that, right?

    • Alyssa June 19, 2017 / 6:49 pm

      I think that time is often a constraint and knowing how people digress, Matt tends to keep them on the right path. Reminding them that however their reactions are, their characters need to stick to a certain course to remain true. There are a few things I would have liked to see play out more – NPC interactions that gets cut short due to time. Or certain characters doing something silly like turning into a goldfish in a really bad time…
      But all round, I don’t mind all that because I think that Matt does what he does for the story and to make it the best it can be – through guiding his players to be true to their characters.

      And yes, the show is fantastic. How long have you been watching it?

      • pixeljen June 19, 2017 / 7:22 pm

        Yep, I know in some cases he has to cut stuff off. I just worry about all the future DMs out there who think t hey can seize that degree of roleplay away from players, because MM did it.

        I’ve been watching for hmm… well let’s see. I think I jumped in with the Briarwoods plot. Before that I listened to a bunch of episode summaries (Matt’s intro) so I could get a feel for what had happened recently.

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