On June 3, 2021, Critical Role wraps up its wildly successful second campaign of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Since Critical Role was first streamed in 2015, it took tabletop gaming by storm and joined the mainstream in ways that it hadn’t been for years. It also led to a media empire with two different sourcebooks based on Exandria, one released third-party and one with Wizards of the Coast, as well as a prequel comic through Dark Horse, and an animated series through Amazon that was the result of the largest media-related Kickstarter campaign. So two worthwhile questions are why, and is it worth investing about 500 hours to catch-up (Assuming you wait for the upcoming third campaign)?
Campaign 2, which follows the adventuring party The Mighty Nein, started on January 11th, 2018. Apart from holiday breaks and a hiatus forced by the pandemic, the show has put out a new multi-hour episode on Twitch every Thursday since. This adds up to 141 episodes, each a minimum of three full hours. Suffice to say, there is too much plot to talk about. Instead, this article will discuss the important recurring symbols and themes of the piece.
Critical Role stars a group of 8 acclaimed voice actors playing a modified version of D&D Fifth Edition. Laura Bailey plays the tiefling cleric Jester. Travis Willingham plays the half-orc warlock Fjord. Liam O’Brien plays the human wizard Caleb Widowgast. Marisha Ray plays the human monk Beauregard, Taliesin Jaffe plays both the tiefling blood hunter Mollymauk Tealeaf and the firbolg cleric Caduceus Clay, Ashley Johnson plays the aasimar barbarian Yasha, and Sam Riegel plays the goblin rogue Nott the Brave, with Matthew Mercer as the Dungeon Master. These eight are veterans of the voice acting industry, and close friends who had been playing the first campaign off-camera for some time. The chemistry of this cast, which includes two married couples, is infectious. These actors have played the characters for so long, without scripts, that they’ve become second nature.
Mercer’s worldbuilding and storytelling is imperative to Critical Role. The world that Mercer created, Exandria, was handcrafted to almost the smallest detail. It reminds me of the works of fantasy genre titans like J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Ursula Le Guin, or Terry Pratchett. Every culture, both on page and onscreen, is given a distinct and vibrant tone. Countries have distinct and recognizable architecture, governmental bodies, and cultures to them both among the poor and the rich. But what stuck out to me among them compared to Martin or Tolkien is a distinct feeling of optimism to the world. Corrupt, oppressive kings and horrifying criminal elements exist along with the sense that with enough effort, things can change and improve for the better among dangerous roleplay circumstances.
Another major draw of Mercer’s world is the inclusivity of his world. Figures of many ethnicities are regularly portrayed, as well as the disabled and the LGBTQ community. This extends to the player characters as well, with Beauregard being a dark-skinned lesbian, Mollymauk being confirmed as bisexual and gender-fluid, Yasha having once been married to a woman, Caduceus being asexual and aromantic, and Caleb being bisexual.
An important theme for the group’s storyline was family. Many characters in the group had a strained relationship with their family due to abuse or separation, and others had no home to go to. The bonds of family became an important aspect of the story because of this – finding one’s father, making up for past sins, or dealing with the trauma of abuse. Due to the time they spend with each other and the struggles they face in their time The Mighty Nein became a found family, with bonds stronger than blood.
Abuse, be it of a person or of power in general, is a common topic in the series. Villains abusing their power or influence, or the pursuit of such things, is a common occurrence. This can be as grand as those that sit in a position of governmental authority or as simple as a parent to his child. As some members of the Mighty Nein gain fame, positions of political influence, and the ability to bend time and space they must explore what power means. Can they trust those in power, or even themselves with the power they wield? As the stakes rise, the questions become much harder to answer.
Because D&D involves classes that get their powers from their gods, faith is a theme of the game, too. Many games don’t focus as much on this aspect, but with multiple characters empowered in such a way it becomes one. The nature of faith in an unknown being, oppression of religion, and religious groups manipulating and abusing their followers are touched upon throughout.
The final theme to note is identity and redemption. Most of the Mighty Nein either came from nothing, had blood in their past, or were motivated by money at the beginning. However, as characters move on, they analyze who they are and whether they are what they started as. Early on, they spend time performing jobs for the criminal element, before holding themselves to a higher standard later. The Mighty Nein spend many points with their back against the wall as they become surrounded by shades of gray, falling into political intrigue that changes the nature of the story. One of the biggest lessons they learn is that you are not your past, and you can become better than you were before.
Critical Role’s Campaign 3 has been announced, but no concrete date has been given for its release. The entirety of both campaigns is archived on Youtube the Monday after it airs, and in podcast form on Google Play, iTunes, and Spotify one week after the episode airs.