My Concerns about Critical Role Realized

Articles Dungeons and Dragons

Despite its longevity, Dungeons and Dragons has remained a curiosity to most people.  Over the last two decades, the slow rise of geek culture has given the game some new exposure.  Popular TV shows like Community and The Big Bang Theory have used the game as a prop.  But arguably, nothing has given the Dungeons and Dragons exposure like Geek and Sundry’s Critical Role; a D&D live played every week on  I remember the first time I watched Critical Role. Considering its popularity at that time I thought to myself, “Oh crap! People are going to think this is what a D&D looks like.”  Well, now my concerns about Critical Role have been realized.

The Matt Mercer Effect

Recently, a Reddit user named Mister-Builder posted a topic titled “How Do I Beat The Matt Mercer Effect“.  In summary, his post details the unrealistic expectations of his group. He said, “I’m running a campaign for a lot of first-timers… A third of my group first got interested in D&D because of Critical Role. I like Matt Mercer as much as the next guy, but these guys watched 30+ hours of the show before they ever picked up a D20. They all expect their game to be like Critical Role…” I read that and was immediately taken back to the first show episode of Critical Role I watched. Realizing then what is true now – newcomers to the game don’t understand what it takes to run a game of D&D.  Additionally, they don’t understand that not all players are voice actors with at least some professional exposure to formal acting techniques. Critical Role is also heavily produced. The more dramatic sequences are colored with music and a fair dose of melodrama from the players.

Impact of Success

Critical Role is both a blessing and a curse I suppose. On one hand, it’s showing people what many of us have known for a long time, tabletop role-playing games are not satanic rituals and even pretty people play them. Thanks to Critical Role and other popular mediums, many old players are “out of the basement” so-to-speak, and no longer walk in the shadow of gamer-shame. Matt and crew are great examples of what really good role-play looks like. Ironically, role-play is a component of tabletop role-playing games that is often overlooked. The idea that a DM with far less experience will deliver the same game a veteran with Matt’s experience has is unfair.

Where are the Dungeon Masters?

D&D’s new found fame hasn’t been able to address a major problem with the game. Despite all the new players, there is still a lack of people willing to take on the mantle of a Dungeon Master. It’s not for a lack of trying on the part of the game makers, Matt Mercer, and other popular online personalities. There are many great tutorials online and in book form – much more so than when I ran my first game in the early ’80s. Still, many people are unwilling to run their own game. Are there potential DM’s out who resist taking up the challenge because they use Matt Mercer as a measuring stick or because it’s what players expect? That’s a problem if there is. Running a game can be intimidating at first. There doesn’t need to be more impediments to taking on the task. To Matt’s credit, he has been one of the most encouraging personalities for aspiring DM’s. Still, that message is often overlooked or never heard.

A Players Role

Critical Role unwittingly manifests another problem – the players don’t know the rules very well. I haven’t watched many Critical Role episodes beginning to end. I do like many other viewers I know of. We watch the first thirty minutes or so of an episode. We go away and come back. I’ve watched only one four hour show in a single sitting, but I have watched enough to know that most of the cast is not up on the rules. I can point out many examples but I need address only one. The one glaring example is that despite years of playing they often fail to automatically apply bonuses to their die roles. It happens all the time. This sets a poor example for new players.

It’s a Group Effort

Quite often a DM has as much or less experience than their players. A good group will collectively work together to understand the rules. It’s not unusual to hear stories of groups who started at the same time. Those groups learned the game together. They supported each other. It’s more common than not to learn that the person chosen to be the Dungeon Master didn’t want the position. They simply drew the short straw. The Critical Role cast is free from such cares. It’s really not their job as Critical Role goes though now is it? They are there to deliver the personalities of the characters on the sheets in front of them in a fashion that attracts viewers. If turnabout is fair play then an equally compelling argument can be made that players should be expected to role-play like the Critical Role cast.

The cast of Critical Role

Cast of Critical Role First Row: Liam O’Brien, Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham Second Row: Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, Matt Mercer

Matt Mercer

I can’t write about this without pointing out that Matt Mercer posted a reply on Reddit regarding his ascribed effect on Mister-Builders game. He begins his response with: “Seeing stuff like this kinda breaks my heart.” As I read the rest of Matt’s response I quietly thought of things he needed to say – things I wanted to say or heard said. Matt addressed every single topic I wanted to be addressed.

Kudos to you Matt Mercer. You’re not the world’s best dungeon master, but you are a great example of humble, self-awareness and an asset to the community of dungeon masters.

Agree or disagree? Do you have some better examples? I’d love to hear your opinion. Feel free to leave your thoughtful comments below. If you like what you read, please consider sharing on Twitter and check out my other articles here 

I can be reached on Twitter. Link here.

Gravy Kingpin exists in two gaming worlds - Pen & Paper and console/PC. He's a part time guardian, part time Dungeon Master, and a full time husband and father of two.

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