Critical Role Why Critical Role is so successful...

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
I love the charisma of Critical Role, but their players are sooo bad it hurts. Just in the last few episodes a 12th level character only fired two eldritch blasts, the rogue forgot they had an elven cloak, the halfling forgot to reroll a natural 1, and the barbarian forgot they have reckless attack AND bonus radiant damage.

And people say CR is nothing like a regular game?! This is exactly what happens at my table because when people are in the heat of the moment and feel a sense of urgency, they forget stuff just like in a real fight.
 

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DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
You want to know if your game is like Critical Role? Keep track of the CR version of the Bechdel Test.

  • The Bedchel Test is the number of times two female characters talk to each other about anything other than a man.
  • The Critical Role version would be the number of times two of your players initiate a conversation with each other talking about anything other than the current plot.

How many times do your players do that? I imagine most of the time when the players "roleplay", it is their character having a conversation with an NPC that you, the DM, are speaking for and controlling. Usually about something the PC is looking for or needs. Either that... or they are talking with each other discussing the situation or plot they are in and what their plans are to do about it.

But in Critical Role? The players pull each other's character aside all the time and have complete roleplayed conversations about things as simple as how they are feeling. 3 to 5 minute improv scenes just talking about things that are bothering them, how the weather is, where they might want to go in the future, what is up with another PC... all kinds of stuff like that.

And this is exactly the result of having a game with professional actors. It's not that they are "better" at talking "in character" than normal players... but that as actors they have probably studied or taken classes in improvisation and actually know and understand improvisation techniques. And they use that understanding and desire to have unprompted improv scenes about anything at all. If you are an improv student or improv performer, you usually become pretty comfortable just talking in-character unprompted all the time, DM be damned. And that's why Critical Role can feel a lot different than your games at home. Because most likely your players are not.
 

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.
Spot on about the rules. Great observation.
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.
Mercer (among other great DM's railroad, especially in that type of story telling setting. Most well known podcasts have essentially a writer's table at work during some points in the game. Whether it is a question of, "How do we include this magic item and make it interesting?" or "Is it more effective if the NPC dies here or later in the story?"
Not saying there are not choices. There are. But they are choices A or B that leads to C. Not A, B, or C that lead to E, F, or G.
And there is another very important factor underplayed here - the players. Yes, they roleplay their characters very well. But the thing they do even better is make the story move forward. They do not spend thirty minutes stealing a piece of fruit from a vendor that has nothing to do with the game. They don't kill or instantly attack an NPC quest giver even though they are of different alignment. They definitely don't purposefully sabotage another player's move or spotlight. They are like a cohesive team working with the DM, not against him. When they are against him, it's almost done on purpose to better the story, not to antagonize the DM.
 

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.
I agree. But it is the DM's job to describe the setting concisely. Like an author, they need to figure out what to focus on that leads to the little clues players follow. Be it smell, sight, sound, taste, touch or feel. A DM that wants the players to understand and focus on something will use their time to craft those descriptors.
If the players are on a ship for days, and each day you describe how the ship creeks and groans in the morning waking the PC's up. Then suddenly you tell them specifically, "You wake up but there are not the normal creeks and groans of the waves against wood. Instead there is silence." That needs to be set up, and the more prep one does to set it up, the more likely your players follow the lead.
 

I think a lot of DMs rely on half-baked improvisation when responding to player actions because they’ve not spent time themselves imagining interesting aspects of their own setting (or WotCs) leading to a pillar that sucks at the table. For those running WotC adventures, I think Forgotten Realms feeds that ambivalence as the setting itself is worn out IMHO.
I agree with you entire premise on the exploration pillar - except this.
We recently had this discussion in another thread. (And I am going to apologize now for bringing it up everyone. You can just ignore me if you were part of that thread. Sorry.)
WotC does an excellent job at providing areas of exploration. An incredible job. Their 5e AP's are among the best written in the history of role playing. But (and it is a big BUT ;)), the DM needs to take time to cultivate those settings. They need to put in the work on their end. Not just read the AP and explain it (which is what most DM's do) to their players. They need to add the descriptors and add the interesting components. It will be different for all tables. Take The Rise of Tiamat and the episode Sea of Moving Ice. There is so much there for DM's to add and create a personal attachment for the characters. But, people that buy these feel like all they have to do is read the text box and "let the players do whatever they want." And then when the players don't follow the story, they insist it is a bad or boring product. In effect (not always), but I believe it is a DM that didn't put in the work - particularly in the exploration pillar.
The combat is all spelled out. But the exploration (and to some effect, the social) pillars need to be tailored by each DM to match their players.
 

He understands the role of the protagonists in a story. The story is about the achievements of his PCs, so he creates a world in which they can achieve. He puts hurdles in front of them that play to their strengths. He does not lament a high AC, a high damage capability … he celebrates it with the players. Vax was super fast - and he made a lot of opportunities for Vax to use that speed to great effect. He roots for them and creates opportunities for them to best the challenges that only they could face.
This needs to be said over and over. It should be a poster, like a teacher mantra, on the wall.
That said, the players should have one too. It should read: "The DM is here to support you. But bad things still might happen." ;)
 

I love the charisma of Critical Role, but their players are sooo bad it hurts. Just in the last few episodes a 12th level character only fired two eldritch blasts, the rogue forgot they had an elven cloak, the halfling forgot to reroll a natural 1, and the barbarian forgot they have reckless attack AND bonus radiant damage.

Only Liam has his ducks in a row.
I think this is part of the point. That they don't min/max or know all the crannies and try to use every rule to their advantage. The extra 5% doesn't seem to matter. I think when we see people talking on these forums, we all know the game so well, that using all the %'s one can comes naturally. But, by doing so, we also seem to lose a little bit of the wider scope of the game.
I mean how many times do you see them find a door and then wait around for the thief to check it for traps, and use their stealth ability to open it because they have an extra 10%. They don't. They interact with the world around them as their characters would naturally do. Not using a meta-game perspective to make sure the extra 10% always comes into play.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I think the point that they're actors would be stronger if it were some kind of scripted show or something edited, like Harmonquest. Sure, they're aware of the cameras and are ready to play a character but there really isn't anything conceptually or technically exceptional that they're doing that wouldn't translate to a home game. Yes, not every player in every game is interested in having a backstory or having a campaign that revolves around the characters' motives but there isn't an existential difference between an actor playing DnD for character development average Joe playing DnD for character development.

The following is not about Method Acting which can be pretty disruptive.

Former theater nerd here. I think this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the craft of acting. The best acting does not come from a performative place. The core skill of acting is empathy, being able to understand and embody the characters they are portraying. Actors usually do substantial preparation work to help build out and understand their characters so they can embody them. The Warner Laughlin technique encourages building a set of core knowledge about a character - events that have shaped their current perspective. It also uses what they call emotion with detail and flashes which are exercises in embodying characters during core moments and trying to feel what they felt so you can summon that energy in your performance.

Here's a video where Joaquin Phoenix describes embodying a character in the moment


Since this is just a D&D game I am going to guess they do not do the same sort of prep work that they would for an acting gig, but that experience of attempting to embody somebody else absolutely has a strong impact on play. Also an overall awareness of things like pacing, highlighting the other players' characters, and knowing how to drive to conflicts is beneficial.

Personally my experience as an amateur actor when I was younger and academic awareness of thing like Warner Laughlin has improved my GM skills and skills as a player when it comes to more character focused games. Right now I am using some Warner Laughlin stuff to help build out the character I just started playing in a friend's Vampire game.
 


Oofta

Legend
Given that fan outrage drove Matt Mercer to issue a public apology when a PC perma-died, I suspect the chance of bad things happening is lower than it used to be.

I think Mercer had to do an apology but it kind of comes across as a fig leaf acknowledging that some people are upset but not saying it will never happen again.

But while PC death happens in my campaign as well it is extremely rare because of player preference so I wouldn't be surprised if there is not another death.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
Given that fan outrage drove Matt Mercer to issue a public apology when a PC perma-died, I suspect the chance of bad things happening is lower than it used to be.

That’s not really an apology about the PC dying, though. It’s more of an “I’m sorry you feel this way” kind of apology. There is no implication that it can’t happen again.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I think the point that they're actors would be stronger if it were some kind of scripted show or something edited, like Harmonquest. Sure, they're aware of the cameras and are ready to play a character but there really isn't anything conceptually or technically exceptional that they're doing that wouldn't translate to a home game.
I disagree strongly that the CR cast isn’t technically exceptional at portraying their characters. Whether it’s scripted or not, the cast is much better at convincingly portraying complex or intense emotions than the average untrained person. Acting is the art of expressing genuine reactions to artificial scenarios, and that is a far more difficult art to master than it may seem to an outside observer, but the cast of CR does it quite proficiently.

Yes, not every player in every game is interested in having a backstory or having a campaign that revolves around the characters' motives but there isn't an existential difference between an actor playing DnD for character development average Joe playing DnD for character development.
I’m not sure what you mean by “an existential difference,” but the difference between a (good) actor playing D&D for character development and average Joe playing D&D for character development is a high-level understanding of narrative structure and character arcs and a trained talent for convincingly portraying the character’s mental and emotional state.
 

I think this is part of the point. That they don't min/max or know all the crannies and try to use every rule to their advantage. The extra 5% doesn't seem to matter.
I think there's a difference between using every rule to their advantage, and just remembering the basic abilities of their class. Everyone forgets things now and then, but the CR players are really really bad about it.
 

I disagree strongly that the CR cast isn’t technically exceptional at portraying their characters. Whether it’s scripted or not, the cast is much better at convincingly portraying complex or intense emotions than the average untrained person. Acting is the art of expressing genuine reactions to artificial scenarios, and that is a far more difficult art to master than it may seem to an outside observer, but the cast of CR does it quite proficiently.

I wasn't referencing their ability to portray their characters exceptionally. Conceptually, the idea that players come up with backgrounds and play at a table where both the DM and other players are invested in those backgrounds is not a special exception that only exists on a streaming show. From a technical standpoint, there is no special app, or minis, or terrain, or table that makes the CR game an exception that exists outside of what another table can do. Being on camera doesn't change the technical make-up of physically running the game.

I’m not sure what you mean by “an existential difference,” but the difference between a (good) actor playing D&D for character development and average Joe playing D&D for character development is a high-level understanding of narrative structure and character arcs and a trained talent for convincingly portraying the character’s mental and emotional state.

There isn't a hard, black and white distinction between what a voice actor trying to invest in character interaction can do vs. some other guy who is invested in character development. I was replying to the implication that the actors at the were table were cherry picked for the show like the Monkeys.

You can't come to the conclusion that no one in your pick-up game of basketball will slam dunk because you believe the pros who slam dunk are fundamentally different from regular human beings. Actors are trained at inhabiting and developing characters but some people are acting like no one in a street game of DnD has a chance at slam dunking because the CR are meaningfully different from "regular" people.

Umbran is certainly correct that we need understand that CR is a show and that people are performing. The show is an extension of their home game, but they've said that the nature of the characterizations has certainly come to the fore as the game transitioned to streaming. That said, many of the discussions seem to veer into a strange place where some folks simply dismiss any valuable table concepts from CR because "it's just a show" or "but they're actors" as if there is something fundamentally different happening that can't apply to a home game.
 

MarkB

Legend
I think there's a difference between using every rule to their advantage, and just remembering the basic abilities of their class. Everyone forgets things now and then, but the CR players are really really bad about it.
They're about average compared to most tables I've seen.
 

They're about average compared to most tables I've seen.

I'm getting to the end of campaign 1 and the players still haven't figured out how holding an action works. Including the time before they started streaming, that's probably 120 sessions of 5e where every week Matt has to explain to Liam how readying an action works like it's a new concept. :ROFLMAO:
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I wasn't referencing their ability to portray their characters exceptionally. Conceptually, the idea that players come up with backgrounds and play at a table where both the DM and other players are invested in those backgrounds is not a special exception that only exists on a streaming show. From a technical standpoint, there is no special app, or minis, or terrain, or table that makes the CR game an exception that exists outside of what another table can do. Being on camera doesn't change the technical make-up of physically running the game.
Ahh, ok, I see what you mean now.

There isn't a hard, black and white distinction between what a voice actor trying to invest in character interaction can do vs. some other guy who is invested in character development. I was replying to the implication that the actors at the were table were cherry picked for the show like the Monkeys.

You can't come to the conclusion that no one in your pick-up game of basketball will slam dunk because you believe the pros who slam dunk are fundamentally different from regular human beings. Actors are trained at inhabiting and developing characters but some people are acting like no one in a street game of DnD has a chance at slam dunking because the CR are meaningfully different from "regular" people.
Yeah, I got you now. It came across less like you were saying “you don’t have to be a professional basket ball player to be able to slam dunk” and more like “professionals aren’t that special, anyone can slam dunk.” My mistake, carry on,

Umbran is certainly correct that we need understand that CR is a show and that people are performing. The show is an extension of their home game, but they've said that the nature of the characterizations has certainly come to the fore as the game transitioned to streaming. That said, many of the discussions seem to veer into a strange place where some folks simply dismiss any valuable table concepts from CR because "it's just a show" or "but they're actors" as if there is something fundamentally different happening that can't apply to a home game.
Agreed. It’s important to recognize both that Critical Role, as a show, naturally has different concerns than a private game would, but that doesn’t mean nothing in there games is applicable to home games, or that nothing of value can be learned from watching them play.
 

Agreed. It’s important to recognize both that Critical Role, as a show, naturally has different concerns than a private game would, but that doesn’t mean nothing in there games is applicable to home games, or that nothing of value can be learned from watching them play.

I think it's also important that everyone realize that the ability to play a character as a great actor and the table-intention of investing in character development/plot are 2 different concepts. Most players certainly won't be great actors with great voice acting but the assumption that we're all coming to the table with the interest of promoting character-driven plots is certainly something any table anywhere can seek emulate, if that's the kind of game they want to play.

For me, the thing I'd wish to emulate from CR is not the accents or the acting but the eagerness to explore character backgrounds as a fundamental foundation of the plot. Most games I've played in usually revolve around the DM's plot concept with little nods to characters' backstories, at best. I'd like to run in and play in games where everyone gets a serious story arc that connects with other threads.
 
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I'm getting to the end of campaign 1 and the players still haven't figured out how holding an action works. Including the time before they started streaming, that's probably 120 sessions of 5e where every week Matt has to explain to Liam how readying an action works like it's a new concept. :ROFLMAO:
Liam gets much better in C2. He even comments that the internet teasing him, and his time as a DM, pushed him to learn the rules. Marisha also does better with a more straight forward class. Curiously, Sam gets worse. He has a really good grasp of Scanlan's abilities, but struggles with Notts.
They're about average compared to most tables I've seen.
I honestly think it's disrespectful for a player to fumble the rules that much. I totally understand being new to the game, and that everyone forgets now and then, but if you haven't figured out the basics of your class by month 6 then you're making the entire table wait on you while you flounder. :cry:
 

BRayne

Adventurer
I would note that they played Pathfinder pre-stream (sans the initial Birthday one-shot which was 4e) and also it seems to me like Sam knows what his class/race allows but often purposefully avoids certain things, he notably has said the Halfling luck "seems dumb" on a few occasions
 

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