Disclaimer: I wanted to write this about a year ago, then around the time episode 100 came out, but hey Life, the Universe, Everything happens, then I just let it sit for a while, but here I am almost 20 episodes into Campaign 2 with too many messy words. Also before you read this there’s a way better written post about why this show is so wonderful. They’re one of the reasons I finally got my act together to finish this.
Let’s get down to business… (to defeat beholders!)
When I first started Critical Role I think I was in the perfect place for it. Weirdly enough, for me, personally it was a pretty shitty place. Interestingly enough, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Critical Role in a similar way. How it gave them something to latch onto when they felt adrift. I’m sure many others people found Critical Role in a perfect and happy time in their lives, and I think that’s great, I think that’s wonderful! I don’t think it makes you love it more or less, but maybe differently. Maybe not. I can only speak for myself. I’m not sorry to call myself one these people, because if anything I believe it shows how much this web stream reaches out and welcomes you into its fold. How much it gives those who find it a community when before they felt alone.
I first heard about the show through, shocker, the internet. A dear friend of my had been watching for a few months and others in my web sphere were doing the same. Or just talking about DnD, which I had never really encountered in my web sphere before. I think we can all thank Stranger Things for that visibility boost, but DnD, and Critical Role predates it. Still, it was a foreign concept for me. I knew what DnD was, again, thanks Stranger Things, and that one episode of Community, but it felt inaccessible to me. First, a tabletop RPG sounds a bit dated in the this age of video game with they’re shiny graphics and intricate storylines. Secondly, DnD has had a bit of a boys club cloud that hung over it which doesn’t immediately make it something I want to engage with.
So I never looked further into it. I’m pretty into many other things and to be fair, in my fannish circle it just wasn’t a thing. Until it was.
My friends were talking about— my almost exclusively female friends, which already made me rethink any previous ideas I had in my mind about it — and suddenly it felt more welcoming. It sounded interesting at the very least and I’m a curious soul. Even if I don’t end up liking something, I like to give it a chance. Six episodes with normal tv, an hour for movies usually. So I told myself, it’s three hours per episode, Ari, you can do one or two and see how it goes. I’m so glad I did with Critical Role.
Okay, okay, okay… let me rewind a little to when I first started watching and not why I suddenly did. I had just finished my degree, my work was part time, my social life was…. eh, and I know how I’m making myself sound, but the fact is, for me personally, fandom and media have alway been a good coping tool for mild depression and social anxiety I live with , and during that time I had too much time in the day to think about all the things I wasn’t doing right even as I looked for jobs, asked of more hours at work, and started to really build important friendships. I was doing all these things, but I had still had too much time to think about the stuff I wasn’t doing (right).
Clicking that first video was a bit of a question. Would I like it? Could I commit three hours of my day to it? (LOL, of course I could, I’ve binged entire seasons of tv in one sitting.) Could I commit three hours of my life of watching people play a game? How does that work anyway? Not knowing anything about Dungeons and Dragons would I understand it? Did I have enough snacks? Did I buy toilet paper when I bought the snacks?
The answers to these questions I pretty much figured out during that first episode. (I had to go back out and buy toilet paper.) Some answers took a little longer for me to be sure about.
Firstly, I was immediately intrigued about the dynamics of playing a character while also just chatting with your friends. RPing with friends online is easy… you can have two chats, plus parentheses, but you also have jokes and things people outside the chat just wouldn’t get. I was a bit curious how that would work on a streaming platform.
The brilliant thing about Critical Role (and DnD as I’ve come to realise) is not just the game, but the players. The trust they have in each other, the quality of performance they give, the care they take in making the moment authentic, they way they laugh together and sometimes cry together. So really, at first, I wasn’t paying attention to the game, per say, as a game, but to the actors as characters. To their interactions, their personalities, their relationships in and out of character. People after all are fascinating to watch when they’re good at something. I remember one of my first twitter posts (I live tweet a lot of what I watch) talking about how much I enjoyed the awkward lizard man and how the bard cracked me and everyone else up with his free styling of popular songs. I’d quickly learn everyone’s name, but that wouldn’t be for another four hours.
It was slow going. I took a break from that first episode at least three times, watched Dancing With The Stars and Masterchef Australia (aka the best one) in between, and go back to it. It was a wild ride. I don’t remember all the details of the episode, the battles, but I remember being interested and confused. Maybe more confused than anything, I’m not going to pretend. I didn’t think I’d wanted to do another episode, but I really wanted to finish at least one.
When I did it was the moment I realised I wanted to watch the next one.
Before that moment I didn’t know, but as the game ended, they all grinned at each other and I went: Yeah, ok, I wanna know what happens next and I pressed play for the next episode. Slowly, again, I made my way through it. Couple pauses here and there. More Masterchef AU, some Supergirl, one or two Brooklyn Nine Nines. Then I started to pause less and less, you know, unless I had to go work, and even then I would play it on my commute, on my lunch, my break. People would ask me how I was getting through so many episodes so quickly. Well, I was immersed.
I didn’t think I would be, and I didn’t realise why I was right away. It’s like when you realise your favourite thing is your favourite thing because suddenly other things don’t make you giddy.
Slowly, again, I began to make sense of all the reasons I was becoming incredibly attached to the show.
I felt welcome in this space. I didn’t need to know the rules of the game, I was learning them, I didn’t need to feel confused about the story because it was evolving before me. The cast didn’t care that that I didn’t know the rules or the story. The rules were slightly new for them too, they had just come Pathfinder, and the story was evolving before their eyes too. All they cared about was having fun with their friends for three hours and that’s honestly what I needed at the time. Someplace to have fun, to enjoy something for a few hours before you went back to the real world. Watching them made me want that kind of safe space in friendship, something they extended into their characters. These people, these characters were a family. A messy one with histories and stories that made life complicated but at the end of the day they were there for each other.
Did Vax’ildan and Vex’halia’s sibling relationship in particular touched me, because I know what it feels like to have your brother be your best friend and the one person in the world you trust with everything? That’s a big yes, though to be honest we’re a little more like Pike and Grog; my brother is 100% a barbarian or fighter class. Then learning that Laura and Liam share a birthday with my mom somehow made me love them more. Keyleth’s awkwardness and search for self hit a little to close to home. Scanlan’s deflection in humour was all too relatable, and even Percy’s reluctance to let people too close, being too clever, while wanting to be in the room where it happen felt familiar. There was something in all these character that I could connect with. (By the way I’m from Draconia.)
It was really important to see, because as much as I love tv and film and the stories of self discovery, friendship and family you can find in them, here it was just a little bit different.
You’re not just watching their characters be friends and family. You’re watching people who have invited you into something they love, something that bonds them, something that made friends into family. It’s not something overt about the show, but it’s the core of show, and why I think it’s reaches so many people.
Now, as to why the show got to me and how it kept me company for hours on end, through long commutes, terrible shifts, moving house? It’s because how I began to connect with it as a form of media and community I had never really thought about before.
I’m not really someone who has time to play video games. I have played video games in my life, mostly in my ~youth~, sitting between my brothers and cousins, strategy guide in hand, figuring out the puzzles before the answer on the next page. A fun nickname I had in my house was “technical analysis” because even as I played it was my “job” to figure shit out. I liked that. I liked being part of a team, a worthwhile member of they party. Gaming is not foreign to me and I understand why people love it so much. And while I don’t remember which episode it was I know it was during a boss battle that the game as a game clicked for me. This is just like Final Fantasy but in RL, was the thought I had. My Eureka moment!
With that thought I didn’t just care about the characters, which I was already getting pretty attached to (my feelings on the twins, let me show them to you. No, really, I wrote about it.) I cared about the game too. I’ve loved the Final Fantasy games that I’ve played, I was pretty okay at them, too. Then suddenly it was dancing lights spark all over my head. I was like: I could play this! I could be good at this! I could create a character and have it join a party and have a story and maybe it’d save the world.
It was such a effervescent thought to have: I can do this!!
I mean, not really, it’s pretty hard to play DnD by yourself, but you get what I mean. It wasn’t a game I didn’t get anymore. I, not only got it, but I wanted to be part of it. (Cue The Little Mermaid “Part of Your World.)
I’m still figuring out how, but I’m pretty happy with my slow progress.
The other way I found Critical Role was special in a way I hadn’t considered for was it’s live nature. I’ve come to be part of fandom by way to tv and film and comics. From Livejournal to Tumblr to Twitter, I consumed media the way most of us do: a prewritten story I love to talk about and theorise over; see if you can get into the writer’s room heads. See if you find things they’ve missed and while Critical Role is a story you’re very much watching it’s quite different than those other things.
First of all, Critical Role is not prewritten. Brian W. Foster’s crack team aside.
Sure, the cast has ideas about their characters backstories and thoughts about what they’d like happen, but they don’t know if any of that will come to pass. You can theorise and try to get into Matt’s head or the players head about what they want to happen but again they don’t know if it will or how it will come to bare fruit.
In that way, Critical Role is truly one of the purest forms of storytelling. It’s literally happening as you watch it unfolds. If you’re watching live you can’t fast forward to see how the episode ends, because the end isn’t written. You can’t preview the next week’s episode because nothing about it has happened yet. You’re not just watching a story you’re experiencing it with the people creating it. There’s no editing process, there’s no going back to fix mistake or flubs, unless Matt is kind. They then have to live with those flubs. They can try to fix them but, again, they can’t be sure of the outcome.
There’s a level of absolute creation and that is so engaging. From the joyful moments to the heartbreaking moments. It’s constant forward motion.
It was truly something that took me about 30-40 episodes to absorb and understand as to why I was so hooked on how the story progressed. It was a growing process for everyone involved, characters, players, and me included. Which is another interesting thing about the show, how character choices help create player dynamics, how player dynamics help evolve character dynamics. It’s an immersive process. Improv and storytelling at its peak. From Sam’s quick wit informing Scanlan’s bard abilities to Travis’ love for Grog’s beard becoming an defining character trait, especially in the fan art. Not to mention how welcoming these people were with the fandom that grew around them. The slide reel of all the fan works, creating shirts, hoodies, dice, and books for their fans. Their thanks and an appreciation for their Critters was and still is so lovely to see.
Personally speaking, they made me want to start drawing again after months of just not feeling my art, any art I made was good enough, and I’ve done a few little sketches here and there though I’ve never posted it the show’s art tag, but that’s me being a shy weirdo who still doesn’t feel quite good enough.
Still, it made me want to create. Something I hadn’t felt like doing and I’m still struggling with. It helped give me something back I thought I misplaced or lost touch with.
They didn’t need to know me for me to feel like they had accepted me. They accepted me the minute I clicked play on that first video. They had opened the door after all and told me and many others, sit with us, have fun with us, laugh with us, cry with us, you don’t need to do anything else but show up because we’re just happy to see you here. And when I first clicked that video that’s what I wanted. I just needed something/someone that was happy to “see” me. Personally, my life is way more together than it was when I first clicked that episode, but it’s nice knowing that every week I, and others, have a place you feel welcome and encouraged to engage with even if you do have to do it 10 hours later because timezones suck.
Now quickly, I just want to talk about something I mention above but isn’t necessarily show related, though the show completely influenced it:
The brand new group of people and artists that it’s introduced me too.
When I say that Critical Role helps build a community, I’m not joking. The amount of support I’ve seen not just towards the show but each other within the Critters is one of the most heartwarming things to witness. The output of art is truly inspiring to the point I know it’ll be a long time before I ever feel comfortable sharing my doodles on the actual tag. When I say there are true artists out there in this community I mean it. By the nature of the show there’s very few frames of reference in terms of character design and setting that it truly allows artist to just do pretty much whatever they feel like, and not only does the show encourage it, they praise it. They love it, they made a book about it!
Everything about this show is an infinite loop of creation I adore. Life needs life to live and Critical Role needs Critters to roll.
I mentioned I had one or two friends who introduced me to it and now I follow and keep up with their personal DnD Campaigns. Seeing them talk about their characters is Pure Wholesome Content. And as I made my silly over the top-way too many CAPSLOCK twitter liveblogs I slowly, somehow that’s been my pace within this community, got to know their friends who introduced them or already were part of the show’s community. .
Fandom overall is almost always a welcoming place, but I’ve met some people who not only liked seeing my tweets, but welcomed me into their personal DnD circles. They’ve me watch them develop their campaigns and characters, let me like their art, introduced me to a plethora of on online artists, let me talk to them about their characters, encouraged me to play? Not a single thing I ever even considered would happen that November afternoon I clicked on a Youtube video.
This all made me feel all fuzzy and warm and welcome. I thank them as much as I thank Matt, Laura, Liam, Marisha, Sam, Travis, Talisen, and Ashley, because they didn’t have to open those doors and welcome me in, but they did, and it never stops meaning any less.