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Critical Role Why Critical Role is so successful...

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
Yeah it;‘s a click baity thread title but you know... :)

Anyway, I recently watched this YouTube video that makes the interesting, and entirely reasonable, claim that the exploration pillar is really the foundation of the game and the other two pillars (combat & social interaction) play supporting roles, and after watching the latest episode of Critical Role it got me thinking... Yes, Matt Mercer is a fantastic DM & voice actor; yes, the PC players imbue their characters with interesting motivations and role play. But I think the root of their success is Matt’s talent for dangling so many enticing invitations to exploration in front of his players and, as a side effect, their audience.

All three pillars obviously play their parts in the Critical Role campaigns, but I think (after watching campaign 1 and campaign 2) the exploration pillar is primary. There are just so many opportunities for the PCs to engage with the world and their backstories.

And given that and the original video (which is well done and the guy making them should really have a bunch more subscribers, so please check it out - I‘m thinking of him as the unholy love child of the AngryGM and Matt Colville, in other words insightful content delivered in a hyperactive mode, but without the misanthropy of the AngryGM or the high-speed-hirsuteness of Colville) it made me think. We really don’t need additional rules for exploration, we need more inspiration (not the mechanic, but actual, real inspiration). This is why the back of the DMs guide lists a library of reading to enhance a DMs ability to create interesting worlds. Rules or generators can’t do that, only a DMs mind, seeded with a fount of ideas.

And this also lead me to thinking about the age old argument regarding railroads vs sandboxes. These are, of course, the extreme delimiters of the exploration pillar. At one end, the DM brooks no deviation, in other words, exploration, from the path they have prescribed, and at the other, the DM offers little in the way of direction and lets the players chance their way to adventure. The most rewarding path, as evidenced by Critical Role’s success, is to offer a few intriguing paths to adventure and always make sure, once a path of exploration is resolved, an enticing new mystery lies ahead. How many episodes end with Matt dangling some new mystery in front of the players? In my opinion, easily the majority and that is why the players (and the audience) keeps coming back for more.
 

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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm going to push back, and say, no, we don't need inspiration - we need TIME.

Matt Mercer is a professional. He gets to spend time professionally creating that content, and then do 3 to 5 hours a week of play.

I have a day job. As do my players. When covid-19 allowed us to play, I cobbled together what I could in off time, and got a session every other week when we were lucky, for about 6 hours a month of actual play.

So, Critical Role has 2 to 3+ times as much time in play that my group did, to go through professionally-crafted game content. No stuff he's successful! Comparing him with most of us is like comparing what professional filmmakers with real funding can do with what my friends and I can do with no budget and our cell phones in our garages.

During these covid-19 months, there's an added issue that prolonged stress tends to rob us of our focus and creativity. Criticizing how many tantalizing mysteries we give our players right now is waggling a finger at us for something we really don't have much control over.
 
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I'm going to push back, and say, no, we don't need inspiration - we need TIME.

Matt Colville is a professional. He gets to spend time professionally creating that content, and then do 3 to 5 hours a week of play.

I have a day job. As do my players. When covid-19 allowed us to play, I cobbled together what I could in off time, and got a session every other week when we were lucky, for about 6 hours a month of actual play.

So, Critical Role has 2 to 3+ times as much time in play that my group did, to go through professionally-crafted game content. No stuff he's successful! Comparing him with most of us is like comparing what professional filmmakers with real funding can do with what my friends and I can do with no budget and our cell phones in our garages.

During these covid-19 months, there's an added issue that prolonged stress tends to rob us of our focus and creativity. Criticizing how many tantalizing mysteries we give our players right now is waggling a finger at us for something we really don't have much control over.
While an amateur filmmaker can't produce the same results as professional filmmakers, they can still learn from the pros. So GMs can still learn from Matt Mercer (I presume that's who you meant, rather than Colville) even if they don't have the same time, resources, or skills.
 


Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
While an amateur filmmaker can't produce the same results as professional filmmakers, they can still learn from the pros.
Yes, but you don't do so by comparing yourself to the pros, and seeing where you are wanting - because it will be everywhere, and, as in this piece, I think tends to lead to misidentifying issues. The OP suggests we are lacking inspiration, when I think there are more fundamental things we lack that we should look to first.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
I think your thread tile here is doing you a disservice, because the conversation is going to end up being about Critical Role itself, the alleged “Matt Mercer effect,” personal DMing style preferences, etc. when the real meaty subject matter here is the exploration pillar and a better framework for how to think about it.

Recently there was that “exploration is the worst pillar thread,” and I said I had thoughts on the matter but needed time to gather them and write them up, but that the short version was that if you want to improve exploration in your game, you have to change how to think about it. I wasn’t able to find the words I wanted to elaborate on the matter before the thread lost momentum, but this guy NAILED it! I’ll definitely be giving more of his stuff a look.

For those who didn’t watch it, what he basically says, and what I failed to say in that other thread, is that exploration is the core of D&D. The books themselves actually define exploration as the back-and-forth between the players describing what their characters do and the DM determining the results. In other words, the rules themselves define exploration and the core play loop the same way. Exploration as the rules define it isn’t just traveling from place to place, it’s the fundamental mode of play.

The first step to improving exploration in your games is to understand this framework. All Interaction between the players and the environment is exploration. The second step is developing and honing your process for facilitating this exploratory play. Describing the environment in a way that invites exploratory interaction, resolving actions in a way that makes the exploratory process feel rewarding, and then repeating the loop with a new description that takes into account the way the characters’ actions have impacted the environment, and invites further exploration.
 



NaturalZero

Adventurer
The table at Crit Role just runs differently than any table I've played at. The DM is interested in fleshing out EVERYONE's backstories instead of just running his plot. Each player is deeply invested in the story of their character AND everyone else's, instead of just killing stuff.

In most of the games I've played in during the past 20 years, I often find myself bored during the monotony of shopping or wandering and more engaged during combat. When I watch CR, it's the exact opposite - the characterizations and exploration is engaging and the combat scenes are often less engaging. I would love to play in a game where the DM was as invested in developing all of the character threads the way Mercer is, and that's the kind of DM I'd like to emulate.
 


CapnZapp

Legend
Yeah it;‘s a click baity thread title but you know... :)

Anyway, I recently watched this YouTube video that makes the interesting, and entirely reasonable, claim that the exploration pillar is really the foundation of the game and the other two pillars (combat & social interaction) play supporting roles, and after watching the latest episode of Critical Role it got me thinking... Yes, Matt Mercer is a fantastic DM & voice actor; yes, the PC players imbue their characters with interesting motivations and role play. But I think the root of their success is Matt’s talent for dangling so many enticing invitations to exploration in front of his players and, as a side effect, their audience.

All three pillars obviously play their parts in the Critical Role campaigns, but I think (after watching campaign 1 and campaign 2) the exploration pillar is primary. There are just so many opportunities for the PCs to engage with the world and their backstories.

And given that and the original video (which is well done and the guy making them should really have a bunch more subscribers, so please check it out - I‘m thinking of him as the unholy love child of the AngryGM and Matt Colville, in other words insightful content delivered in a hyperactive mode, but without the misanthropy of the AngryGM or the high-speed-hirsuteness of Colville) it made me think. We really don’t need additional rules for exploration, we need more inspiration (not the mechanic, but actual, real inspiration). This is why the back of the DMs guide lists a library of reading to enhance a DMs ability to create interesting worlds. Rules or generators can’t do that, only a DMs mind, seeded with a fount of ideas.

And this also lead me to thinking about the age old argument regarding railroads vs sandboxes. These are, of course, the extreme delimiters of the exploration pillar. At one end, the DM brooks no deviation, in other words, exploration, from the path they have prescribed, and at the other, the DM offers little in the way of direction and lets the players chance their way to adventure. The most rewarding path, as evidenced by Critical Role’s success, is to offer a few intriguing paths to adventure and always make sure, once a path of exploration is resolved, an enticing new mystery lies ahead. How many episodes end with Matt dangling some new mystery in front of the players? In my opinion, easily the majority and that is why the players (and the audience) keeps coming back for more.
Yep, what Umbran says:

The tldr of your post is:

Having a DM with unlimited time and creativity is better than either of
a) a DM prioritizing a coherent narrative and/or trying to make do with limited creativity (and therefore runs published adventures) at the expense of giving the players free right to explore where they want, as well as the cost of the characters' backstories being only superficially connected to the plot
or
b) a DM prioritizing giving her players a free reign to explore wherever they want and/or trying to avoid having to spend much time on prep (and therefore running a sandbox, whether a literally geographical one, a social interaction one, or a character introspective one), at the expense of the plot becoming disjointed and episodic

No stuff, Sherlock, to reuse the mod-approved euphemism

No stuff he's successful!
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I can't say that I'm a professional DM (and to be clear, that was not always Mercer's job) I do try to make my game personal and give plenty of opportunity for non-combat encounters and decisions. Someone who enjoys Critical Role is exactly the kind of person I want in my game as long as they accept that I am not going to run my game exactly like Matt. I like doing voices, but I'm not a professional voice actor. I will never have prepared battle maps as awesome as his. I do focus a bit more on combat than he does, but that's at least in part personal preference and the fact that my current group doesn't have a weekly session.

But when it comes to time to prepare ... I actually find that I need less time to prep most exploration than I do combat. For exploration and interaction I just have to figure out personalities, motivations and overall goals. It's stuff I do while I'm getting ready for bed or trying to fall asleep. Used to be stuff I'd do on my commute to work. I figure out possible NPC story lines, randomly generate a bunch of names and I'm off to the races.

Combat? I have to think about what monsters are appropriate, if I can set up interesting environments, how can I switch up the goals to be something other than "kill the monsters", at least now and then.

So I rely heavily on improv, on having relatively minimal preparation because the PCs probably aren't going to do what I expect anyway. I let player's imagination fill in a fair amount of detail and then build on that. At the end of sessions, if I'm not in the middle of a set piece I give the players options of what they want to do next so I can prep for it.

But exploration, discovery, social interaction and making decisions outside of combat are just as important if not more important than combat in my games.
 

dnd4vr

The Smurfiest Wizard Ever!
Honestly, I tried watching an episode once... and found CR utterly boring. I couldn't even finish it. :sick:

Encounter design/ combat prep by far takes the most time IMO. Exploration can be made up on the fly. As for social, I have a list of randomly generated names to pull from when I need to introduce an NPC or something. I make a couple notes on the NPC when I use the name, but that's it.

Creativity is a major factor. Some people have it, others don't. If you have a creative bend it isn't usually that hard to come up with adventure ideas and hooks and get a game going.

I find a larger issue is the players. If the players aren't outgoing and have a direction for their characters, there isn't much for a DM to do but try to get them involved, sometimes even railroading them into it.

We often end our sessions either at the climax of the adventure or at a key stopping point. We all agree, "Ok, this is a good place to leave off and pick up for next time." It doesn't have to be like a novel where the author wants to dangle something to bait the reader to want to keep going. I play because I want to play, not because I feel "Oh, I wonder what will happen next!?" I suppose because that is something we are always wondering, just because we enjoy the game.

Now, one of our newer players joined about a year ago. He loves CR and listens to it while walking, etc. I also, after browsing through their book, find their campaign and play test way over the top and not something that appeals to me at all. But, everyone has their own tastes of course. :)

Regardless, I am glad they have helped with getting more people involved in the game--which is no small feat--so kudos for that.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
I have a day job. As do my players. When covid-19 allowed us to play, I cobbled together what I could in off time, and got a session every other week when we were lucky, for about 6 hours a month of actual play.
I too have a day job, so prep time is very limited, but when I ran adventures from the 5e books I found myself wasting that precious time trying to make head or tail of them and making the necessary adjustments to keep them aligned with natural deviations my players had introduced. Once I allowed myself the freedom to create adventures that suited my players I found my time was being used much more productively. Dyson Logos‘s maps providing a major assist for encounter locations!

As Oofta notes, enriching the exploration pillar is primarily a matter of letting your mind get creative with the various inputs from the story so far (NPCs, backstories, quests). I use pinterest for environment cues and Dyson’s maps for location maps and voila, an original adventure to dangle in front of the players.

I find WotCs efforts to be exceedingly dull. Only two locations over the 5? hardback adventure series that we ran made a lasting impression on my players: Xonthal’s Tower in RoT and the Storm Giant’s underwater lair in SKT.

I want to do better than that.
 

jmartkdr2

Adventurer
Thought from early in the video: I actually really like the two pillars (Dungeons and Dragons) model...

Mostly it just rolls fighting and talking into one thing: encountering npc's - but the labels help reinforce why these things are in the game.

The rest of the video is pretty good and I'll be checking out more of his stuff. Thanks for sharing!
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
Encounter design/ combat prep by far takes the most time IMO. Exploration can be made up on the fly. As for social, I have a list of randomly generated names to pull from when I need to introduce an NPC or something. I make a couple notes on the NPC when I use the name, but that's it.
I think this is how most tables diverge from the example set by Critical Role. Matt does not make up his exploration on the fly, he actually invests some time for it and presents rich descriptions that set his players eyes aglow with interest.

I find writing a paragraph to richly describe the environment the players are encountering, sights, sounds, smells etc provides good words that would escape me if I just tried to find them in the heat of the moment. It really helps to set the tone and get their minds in the right place. It doesn’t hurt to have a good storytelling voice of course. :)
 

Hexmage-EN

Adventurer
Personally I find exploration to be the most difficult pillar because I'm not terribly good at improv when the players go beyond what I've prepped. In the past when I have been forced to improv I've often come away disappointed with what I came up with and wished I had somehow been able to prep something better. Combat is much more clearly defined, structured, and simple to prep.

The biggest example from my last campaign was that I had a combat encounter prepared, during which an illithid emerged from a portal to join the fight. One player, the party wizard, decided he'd rather go through the portal to the Underdark city where the illithid came from than contribute to the combat encounter everyone else was fighting in.

The idea that someone would want to go through the portal somehow didn't occur to me. The party was in Geryon's Citadel Coldsteel in Stygia and had an immediate goal. The illithid (an ally of Geryon) and the portal were there just because they were present in the module "A Paladin in Hell" (I wasn't running the module as written, instead using it for inspiration for this part of my campaign).

I could have said that the portal was temporary or that it didn't work for him, but I figured that would be disappointing. I could have said "you can go through the portal, but we'll have to pick back up with your character next session once I've prepared something", but there were still two hours left in the session and I didn't want this player having nothing to do for the rest of the time (in hindsight, saying that might have convinced him to stick with the party for the combat encounter and delayed his trip through the portal until near the end of the session).

I let him go through the portal, putting his character in a "theater of the mind" space while everyone else was using maps and minis. I had nothing prepared for where this enemy mindflayer had come from, but the player knew a lot about mindflayers, what spells he could use to avoid detection, and that there was probably an elder brain somewhere. While the rest of the party was finishing the combat encounter the wizard (this was a high level PC, btw) used a combination of spells to get to the elder brain's chamber undetected and killed it. The player explained his (secretly evil) wizard's long term goal was to become a lich and come back to this mindflayer colony later to establish himself as their new leader.

This player had a knack for doing unexpected things with magic that forced me into situations where I was unprepared, beyond the example I just gave. As such I've spent about two months so far trying to anticipate and pre-plan as much as possible for the next campaign I want to run. One of the first things I did, for example, was create a five page document detailing the last ditch defenses and countermeasures the planned BBEG would use if the party somehow teleported right to her inner sanctum.
 
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robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
The biggest example from my last campaign was that I had a combat encounter prepared, during which an illithid emerged from a portal to join the fight. One player, the party wizard, decided he'd rather go through the portal to the Underdark city where the illithid came from than contribute to the combat encounter everyone else was fighting in.
Lesson here is: don’t leave doors open you don’t want your players to go through :)

But yeah the players can always surprise you. That’s why it’s good to at least spend a moment to think about what might happen if a player went through the portal would they find and what would be the consequence? If you‘re not able to do that then shut that portal PDQ!
 

aco175

Hero
I would think that players have a role to play in the exploration pillar. The DM can try and describe things and even write text boxes and are great at coming up with descriptors, they still miss some things. The players have a role in asking questions to fill in details and help shape the story.
 

Ristamar

Explorer
Critical Role, like most other forms of entertainment, succeeds in large part due to the large group of engaging and marketable personalities and talent. Mercer is a good DM, but if he had a flat, boorish group of players, the show would probably fizzle. If he was a mediocre or even subpar DM with a charismatic group, they would have likely still found success.
 
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