Reflecting on Critical Role (Season 1)

I love RPGs. They’re a unique form of communal storytelling, a great way to spend time with friends, and at best they’re a fantastic creative outlet. Whether you’re sitting at a physical table or playing online, it’s enormous fun for everyone from the GM to the newest of novice players.

This next bit has nothing to do with Critical Role, yet. But I love this show. It will make you want to be a better GM and player.

My greatest regrets about RPGs are that it long me so long to discover them, and that there aren’t enough hours in the day. I came to the hobby quite late, partly because of where and when I grew up. This was in the days when South Africa’s police force had an official, state-sanctioned, bona fide anti-satanism department. Like, what the hell? Of course, this ‘department’ was essentially a one-man roadshow who travelled around the country, warning people against Iron Maiden and Dungeons and Dragons. Seriously. It was a strange time. (He quoted unironically from The Seduction of the Innocents, for what that’s worth.)

There were other reasons, of course. But that kind of sums it up. During high school, I would have been as likely to come out as gay as I would have been to play D&D. It was just that inconceivable. At any rate, I was in my mid 20s when I joined my first RPG group, and I’ve been hooked ever since. In fact, my first stint as GM was for that group, taking over the White Wolf campaign that my first GM started. It was great. The players loved it, I loved it – everything worked out swell.

Eventually, one of my friends invited me to join a D&D group, set in Eberron, where I played a hobgoblin bard. Good times. Since then, I have played constantly in one or more RPGs at a time. It hasn’t always been painless, but I have always loved being in an RPG group.

I have been running a campaign for some friends of mine for just over a year now. Before then, I hadn’t run RPGs for several years. My first attempt at running a D&D game was such a disaster that I wondered whether the first time was a fluke. Fortunately, I have since made peace with that awful first attempt at running D&D. And that’s mostly because of Critical Role.

What’s so great about Critical Role?

Okay, a few disclaimers:

  • Not every RPG needs to run like Critical Role
  • Not every GM needs to be Matt Mercer
  • Not all players enjoy roleplay as much as Vox Machina

But holy crap, is Critical Role a joy to watch! It’s the most enthusiastic group I’ve ever seen, from the GM to the players to the fans. The enthusiasm is catching, and inspiring as hell.

I started watching when the show was already on episode 40, and I didn’t even expect to stay for the whole thing. But by episode 2, I was hooked. (It says a lot that I managed to catch up to the current episode despite a 40 episodes backlog, when they kept recording 3 or more episodes a month.) Each episode is 3 or more hours, and they’re up to 114 today. That’s a lot of time. But it has so been worth it.

Watching Matt run a campaign for this group completely changed my attitude to GMing. Before watching this show, I wouldn’t have tried running a campaign again, to be honest. Two episodes in, I thought: I want to GM like that guy.

That’s not exactly what happened, of course, because, wow, that’s a high bar. It certainly gave me something to aspire to, though, which was exactly what I needed.

One of the great things about the way Matt runs the game is that it’s focused on the players. Each player has their story moments, where the campaign revolves around something intrinsic to their character’s backstory or personality.

But GMs can only be as good as their players, and Matt really lucked out. Each of the party members brings something different and special to the table. (And none of them act like dicks.) Even though they all have different levels of experience and enjoy the game for different reasons, it never feels like any of them is sulking or just waiting for their turn.

It’s easy to underestimate how good Vox Machina is as a group, though. If you watch enough of the show – can you ever watch enough of this show? – you’ll realise that they each have very different gaming styles. Some of them are serious, some of them are high-spirited, and some of them just want to hit stuff. All of that is fine. But it takes a bit of patience and good will to give everyone else around the table their space. And for a group of actors, there is remarkably little ego at that table.

Everyone has their favourite player, of course. (Personally, I have a soft spot for Keyleith, because she’s such a dorky screw-up sometimes. And it’s beautiful to watch, especially when too many people think you need to be the perfect player.) But to me it’s the group dynamic that’s amazing. So I’m going to miss the continuing adventures of Pike, Keyleith, Percy, Grog, Vax, Vex, and Scanlan every week, but the most important part will remain. Because it’s the people at that table that make Critical Role such a god damn joy.

So Matt, Sam, Liam, Laura, Travis, Taliesin, Marisha, Ashley – thank you, so much, for this amazing journey. I can’t wait for the next adventure.

From Critical Role Ep. 114

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