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D&D General Critical Role: Overrated, Underrated, or Goldilocks?

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Once, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was a thread about a thread about a thread. And by "long time ago" I mean (defining!) yesterday, and by "galaxy far, far away" I mean here. Such are the words of an inscrutable and argumentative egg.

Anyway, at one point in a rather lengthy post, the following was stated by someone who most likely resembled me, or, at a minimum, some other crazed tea drinker:
You will learn as much about being a good DM for your home game from watching Critical Role as you would learn to be a considerate lover from watching adult film clips off the internet; it's just not in the same ballpark.

Admittedly, when I wrote it, I wasn't really thinking much about Critical Role specifically- I was being clever, but also making a throwaway point about how Critical Role isn't the same as your home game. Which I had assumed ... was obvious.

But as you and Tyler Durden recognize, and as the narrator and myself only caught on to at the last minute ... being clever ... it's not working out so well, is it? I am not always hip to the youth of today, and I did not understand that mentioning Critical Role on a D&D forum is somewhat akin to stating, "So, let's talk about whether 4e was a secret success, or a total fiasco," or "I feel this burning need to discuss orcs and alignment, because I have a new and hot take!"

So the thread immediately and unconditionally veered into Critical Role: There are no Neutral Positions! Oops.

In a likely futile effort to move the CR discussion to this thread, and to ensure that my full thoughts (digressions and all) on the subject are put forth in a post, I'm creating this. A diversionary thread, about a thread, about a thread, about a thread. Pretty soon, there will be no surfacing.

1. Understanding the Difficulty of a Job and the Distinction Between Fiction and Reality.
To lose one parent may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

A. Fiction isn't reality.
When it comes to the world of fiction, there are a whole host of things that people don't usually understand. And the reason why is that ... it's fiction. More importantly, it's entertainment. I certainly hope that none of the following comes as a shock to any person reading this:
i. Reality television is not just heavily edited, but is structured - which is to say, will often have particular bits that are emphasized, drawn out by the production team, or even scripted.
ii. The vast majority of what you see in a CSI-style procedural (or any police show that utilizes "CSI" technology) is either misleading, false, or (at best) changed to make dramatic sense.
iii. Medical shows will often be completely incorrect; when they are correct, they will emphasize incredibly rare but interesting conditions as opposed to the incredibly common things that are usually dealt with. The common joke on the differential diagnosis show, House, that "It's never lupus," should have been a stand-in for the truth; compared to what they were diagnosing, it was always lupus.
iv. And the common trope of a legal show with a masterful two-minute closing argument or opening statement before a jury is pure fantasy.

I could keep going on, but you get the idea. Generally, the concept that we are watching a performance, a fiction, is sufficient to have people understand that there will be difference between the fiction presented and reality for purely dramatic effect, but on occasion people have trouble understanding that; for example, the individual on a reality TV show isn't the character they were edited to appear to be. Sometimes, these misconceptions can actually be damaging. The public's belief in how forensics works in a typical case, information that is incorrect and based on fiction and entertainment, has been called the CSI effect, and can have deleterious effects on juries and on how people assume the police and the criminal justice system approach cases.

B. It's called work, and not happy fun time, because it's hard.
One common issue that people have when they look at what performers, entertainers, artists, and others do is to think to themselves, "Ha! That's easy. I could do that." But that's usually not true. One of the hardest skills in the world is to make something look effortless- usually, it requires a ton of talent, preparation, and sometimes years of repetition. In effect, most great performers are ducks; their skill is appearing to glide effortlessly on the water, so that you never see the feet furiously paddling beneath the surface.

On a base level, we should understand this, yet we usually only fully comprehend it when we are forced to confront it. Here are some easy examples-
i. You complain about the person doing play-by-play during a sports game. That's easy! However, try turning the sound off for an entire game and record yourself doing that play-by-play. Listen for the mistakes you make, the pacing, the ums and the ahs. Not so easy, is it?
ii. Watch a few episodes of SNL (or I Think You Should Leave, or any other comedy skit show). That's easy, right! I mean, you are smart enough to pronounce the good and bad skits. Now, go watch any high school, or college improv troupe. Better yet- go to one of those courses where they are teaching improv skills. Compare and contrast!
iii. Look at someone who has made it to the big time on TV or the movies that you consider a "meh" actor. Now, think about the last time you saw a true amateur appear- maybe a car salesman in a local ad? Or one of the extras in a low-budget MST3k movie? Or (and I always love this) when a famous person appears in Billions or some other show. They stick out like a sore thumb, don't they?

I'm not going to keep belaboring this point, because (again) I assume it's obvious to most people. Talent, hard work, reps ... they are all needed to make things look easy!


2. Critical Role, Matt Mercer, and the Paradox of Easiness.
My therapist told me that I'm preoccupied with vengeance ..... well, we'll see about that, won't we?

The genesis of this post is the following quote from a person on the other thread (not to single any individual out, as this was representative):
For me, apart from the great voice acting of some, this is the only major difference that I see with the way have been gaming since the end of the 70's, the fact that there is no lull in the game.

It's not that this is wrong, so much as comments like this from people who love Critical Role, IMO, actually do the most to belittle the achievements of the Critical Role troupe. Think about it like this-
People who constantly assert that CR and Matt Mercer must be using scripts, or other similar techniques, to make the show as good as it is ... are implicitly saying that this level of quality is impossible without it.
On the other hand, those who keep saying, "Oh yeah, this is just like my home game, no big deal, guys in my high school did it all the time," are discounting the very real talent and efforts that differentiate Critical Role from 99.999999% of home games.

Let's be explicit here- the DM (Matt Mercer) is not just a voice actor. He is not just someone who grew up playing D&D. He has years and years of voice acting, along with continued experience hosting panels, public speaking, and so on. His entire gaming group for Critical Role was formed out of other professional voice actors. Think about this for just one second, before getting to any other issues; every single person in the group is a professional performer. Not just a performer. Not a high-school drama club member, or a community theater player, but someone with enough talent that it's their day job. And not just any type of performers! There are all professional voice actors ... and I believe that most, if not all, have improv training.

Right there, you have a major and salient difference between that table and the vast majority of D&D tables. Do you play with professional performers? I don't.

Next, there is the difference in time. We all know Matt is getting paid ... paid quite a bit ... for Critical Role. Here's an interview from 2016:

“That involves writing, story, preparing for future plots … basically creating enough content where the players won’t feel like they’re being railroaded,” {Mercer} said. “They always make weird-a** choices and always surprise me with where they’re going. I don’t want to be caught too off-guard.”

Mercer candidly admits to, in addition to the huge amount of work that goes into the campaigns and the production and the business side of things, into requiring at least twice the number of hours of prep time for each session that the session itself takes- which is another full day of prep for a four hour session. And that's for someone who is remarkably good at improv!

Finally, there's another crucial aspect- this is a performance, and they are professionals doing a job for money. Besides the banal points (yes, of course they have better production vales, microphones, etc. for streaming than a random group, and they have experience with what works now), there is the crucial issue that they are all aware that there is an audience, and they are all aware that they are performing for that audience. So all of those casual interruptions that you would normally deal with in a home game - the player that doesn't show up regularly, the dude on the cell phone, the endless digressions with the rules lawyer, the out-of-character talk about the beginning of college football ... that's all gone. More importantly, all of the performers are going to ensure that things are done in a dramatic fashion; again, stating the obvious- professional performers that are aware that they are performing will make choices that entertain.

The brilliance of it all is that they make it look ... easy. But that's why they are good. That's why they are professionals. That's why they get paid the big bucks.


3. Conclusion- Real Credit Requires an Appreciation for How Different Critical Role Is, and How Good the Performers Are.
I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not.

Far too often, I feel that many fans of Critical Role and Matt Mercer approach the show like Mark Antony- "For Matt Mercer is an honorable man" while the detractors of Critical Role are busy burying Caesar.

The simple truth, to me, is that a simple acknowledgment that Critical Role is not the same as what you are doing at home is not, in any way, a mark against the show; instead, it is the highest praise. I do not think that acknowledgment that Matt Mercer is an incredibly talented individual, with extensive training in improv and theater and a long line of professional credits in voice acting along with the ability and time to prepare for each gaming session (and get paid for it) that makes me envious is, in any way, a criticism of him. Nor do I think that acknowledging that he has a group of professional performers (with backgrounds in voice acting and improv) who have a game that is intended to entertain is a criticism either. Instead, I find it exceedingly weird that people think they can do this in their home game.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I will say this- I am not Matt Mercer. I cannot do what he does. I could not run this game; I do not have the time, and I do not have the group. As far as I am concerned, Critical Role might as well be magic. It is amazing improv entertainment built off of D&D, but it is as similar to my home game as my making breakfast at home is to a dinner at Major Domo in Las Vegas.

As always, IMO, YMMV, etc.
 
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robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
If it’s any consolation I was also beaten up for saying nice things about CR. So I guess it‘s now in the same bucket as “railroading”. :)
 

SkidAce

Legend
I agree with most of what you say.

I also see less then optimal choices, bad puns, tangents, pop culture references, and innuendo.

Soo if I say "Critical Role is just like my home game", those are the things I am speaking off.
 


jgsugden

Legend
Man, you need to learn to be succinct. Seriously. These massive posts get in the way of your message. And this is me calling you out here on lengthy posts. You could cut that post down by 90% and get your message across more clearly.

We learn by exploring. Watching Critical Role, and trying to emulate it in a game, will be educational for you. You can learn that some things you thought you'd dislike are fun, you'd learn that some things you didn't consider are big hits with players, you'd learn that some of it does not work for you. But, you'd learn, nonetheless.

I'm a much better DM now than I was in 1980. The biggest leaps I took as a DM were after observing a great DM and stealing from them. Something it was a direct lift and shift into my game - and it was a hit. Other times I twisted what I saw. Other times I tried it out and learned it was not for me and my group.

As for the claim that Critical Role is a highly staged theatrical event - piffle. Watch the limited video of their home game from before they streamed. It was substantially the same. The only player to substantially alter their 'game' for entertainment purposes is Sam, and Marisha is a bit self conscious after all of the attacks so she puts in a different level of effort to be better at the game. The rest are just playing D&D for the most part. They do some production work to make the materials for the game awesome - but during the game, they're just playing.
 

jgsugden

Legend
Another excellent post! As a professional performer myself, I agree wholeheartedly. To claim that Critical Role is fundamentally the same as one’s home game is to do a disservice to the incredible talent and work that goes into the show.
When I see a statement like this, I see people saying Matt's style of game is similar to what they run at home. FEW of us have the resources to have the terrain or the time to flesh out a world like Matt does - and very few of us have his level of skill. But the style of game is run by many groups.

Saying that home games can't be in the style of Critical Role is a disservice to those games.
 


Lyxen

Great Old One
The genesis of this post is the following quote from a person on the other thread (not to single any individual out, as this was representative):
For me, apart from the great voice acting of some, this is the only major difference that I see with the way have been gaming since the end of the 70's, the fact that there is no lull in the game.

It's funny, because I stand by that quote, but you have to remember that this is me from just watching the original video and only 5 episodes of the first season of Vox Machina, where it was just a small stream with very few means, so everything else that you are mentioning is not present at all yet (at least, I think I have not seen anything special in terms of means, people are sending them pizza, and they have a few hundred subscribers, hardly a huge budget).

If I ever get to watch more episodes (I really lack the time) and get to a point where it changes, I'll possibly revise my perspective, but from what I've watched, apart from the streaming equipment, it really looks like a band of friends having great fun, and without a lot of acting from most of the crew, actually.

Does anyone share my feelings ?
 


Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
When I see a statement like this, I see people saying Matt's style of game is similar to what they run at home. FEW of us have the resources to have the terrain or the time to flesh out a world like Matt does - and very few of us have his level of skill. But the style of game is run by many groups.

Saying that home games can't be in the style of Critical Role is a disservice to those games.
Home games can certainly be in the style of Critical Role, but that doesn’t make them just like Critical Role, even setting aside the products of their budget like terrain and prep time.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
If I ever get to watch more episodes (I really lack the time) and get to a point where it changes, I'll possibly revise my perspective, but from what I've watched, apart from the streaming equipment, it really looks like a band of friends having great fun, and without a lot of acting from most of the crew, actually.

The greatness of a good performer is that they make it look easy.

If it didn't just look like a band of friends having fun ... then they wouldn't be great performers. If you have the chance, try watching a recorded game of pure amateurs (not performers) playing D&D some time and contrast what you're seeing. :)
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
It's funny, because I stand by that quote, but you have to remember that this is me from just watching the original video and only 5 episodes of the first season of Vox Machina, where it was just a small stream with very few means, so everything else that you are mentioning is not present at all yet (at least, I think I have not seen anything special in terms of means, people are sending them pizza, and they have a few hundred subscribers, hardly a huge budget).

If I ever get to watch more episodes (I really lack the time) and get to a point where it changes, I'll possibly revise my perspective, but from what I've watched, apart from the streaming equipment, it really looks like a band of friends having great fun, and without a lot of acting from most of the crew, actually.

Does anyone share my feelings ?
It absolutely is a band of friends having great fun. But also, those friends are all professional actors with a great deal of talent and training, performing for an audience (which, for actors, is great fun to do). I do think the early episodes have more of that low-fi charm that makes it feel like a home game as opposed to the more highly-produced show it evolved into, but I think anyone who doesn’t believe that feeling is intentionally curated is, again, doing a disservice to the talent and work of the performers, as well as their off-camera crew.
 
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CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
Far too often, I feel that many fans of Critical Role and Matt Mercer approach the show like Mark Antony- "For Matt Mercer is an honorable man" while the detractors of Critical Role are busy burying Caesar.

Yep, the poppies are pretty high in that field. Matt Mercer is the best Dungeon Master in the entertainment industry, and that's why his show is so entertaining to watch. That is not to say that the entertainment industry is better* than the gaming industry, or that there isn't a good amount of overlap. It's just different.

But D&D gatekeepers insist that only Certain People should have the privilege of representing the hobby. They've been doing it for decades...gamers must look and act and dress and play a certain way, and those who don't aren't "real gamers." You've seen the threads, you've read the arguments, you've seen the moderator intervention. A common opinion--however unpopular, however false, however quietly held--is that Entertainers aren't "real" gamers, and should be removed from the room.

Matt Mercer and his players are all good-looking, personable, accomplished, professional actors, they are the "cool kids." And that's several strikes against them in certain well-guarded circles.

-----

*for whatever meaning of "better" you choose
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
The greatness of a good performer is that they make it look easy.

If it didn't just look like a band of friends having fun ... then they wouldn't be great performers. If you have the chance, try watching a recorded game of pure amateurs (not performers) playing D&D some time and contrast what you're seeing. :)
Very much this! It can be hard for people to recognize great acting work when they see it, because great acting work is supposed to look natural. If you watch a performance and think “wow, they’re doing such a good job acting,” they probably aren’t. If they’re doing it right, you shouldn’t be seeing the work that went into it.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Matt Mercer and his players are all good-looking, personable, accomplished, professional actors, they are the "cool kids." And that's several strikes against them in certain well-guarded circles.

Well, that's just stupid.

I mean, everyone knows that the theater kids aren't cool! :p


C'mon, it's a joke! Seriously though, there is something really wrong with those self-appointed gatekeepers. I think it might be like those fans of bands who are like, "Oh. I totally like that band before they were cool."

Ugh. Hate those guys. And yeah ... it's usually guys, isn't it?
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
Well, that's just stupid.

I mean, everyone knows that the theater kids aren't cool! :p
But see, that's the cool thing to say. So by saying you're not cool, you're actually asserting how cool you are. Like smoking clove cigarettes, the irony is that you know it isn't cool and therefore, you're cool.

Ugh. High school was a hellscape.

Yes, it's usually guys.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Well, that's just stupid.

I mean, everyone knows that the theater kids aren't cool! :p


C'mon, it's a joke! Seriously though, there is something really wrong with those self-appointed gatekeepers. I think it might be like those fans of bands who are like, "Oh. I totally like that band before they were cool."

Ugh. Hate those guys. And yeah ... it's usually guys, isn't it?
Unless you went to an art school. In that bizarro world the theater kids are the cool ones (because they’re the only social people in an environment full of highly introverted artists).
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
But see, that's the cool thing to say. So by saying you're not cool, you're actually asserting how cool you are. Like smoking clove cigarettes, the irony is that you know it isn't cool and therefore, you're cool.

Ugh. High school was a hellscape.

It's interesting- I wonder how much the social hierarchy has changed at high schools.

I have the following theory- it's changed, but not as much as we might think.

I would stipulate that there will be regional differences, and urban/rural differences, and difference for private, public, and specialized schools.

But here's an actual example I heard of from the local high school- one of the kids (who is on the football team) has been doing everything possible to keep the fact that he is also in band secret from his friends.

Once you're past it, the social hierarchies of high school seem profoundly weird, don't they?
 



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