Critical Role: Campaign 2 – Curious Beginnings

tl;dr Long and theatrical first episode with a massive number of party members and way too many world-building details to keep track of. The PCs are interesting and well-played, maybe a little heavy on the tieflings, but the colour seems to depend more on improv chops than collaborative world-building skills. GMing this show seems exhausting.

Title: Curious Beginnings
Campaign: Campaign 2
Campaign Episode: 1
Podcast: Critical Role
Gamemaster: Matthew Mercer
Liam O’Brian as Caleb Widogast
Sam Riegel as Nott the Brave
Laura Bailey as Jester
Marisha Rey as Beauregard
Travis Willingham as Fjord
Taliesen Jaffe as Molly
Ashley Johnson as Yasha
Game system: Dungeons and Dragons 5E
Rating: ★★★☆☆

So, I’ll admit this straight off: this is my very very first ever episode of Critical Role. The podcast has more than 100 episodes in its first campaign arc, Vox Machina, and a lot of people who love actual-play podcasts really enjoy this show. But I’ve never really gotten into it, and cllimbing my way through 100 episodes to get caught up seemed pretty daunting, so I stayed away.

But now that there’s a brand new campaign with a new setting and new characters, it’s like I’ve got a new chance to jump on and figure out this show. And there’s a lot to take in, so here we go.

First and foremost, this is a Twitch video broadcast that is also released in podcast form. I’m not usually a fan of that kind of thing, but it happens to work with this party and their play style. There were only a few times that I felt left out of the visual feed, like when they talked about their insane custom gaming table or their complicated minis setup. Overall, they seem to be good enough to avoid visual jokes that leave podcast listeners out in the cold.

Second: this is a loooooooooooong show. Three hours of show. Fifteen minutes of ads, credits, and intros. I listen to every show I review at least twice, so I have spent almost an entire workday on Curious Beginnings. That is asking a lot from listeners.

Mostly, though, I notice how big the party is. It’s seven people. That’s a big number of PCs to manage, both for listeners and for the GM. We’re introduced to them in drips and drops, though, so it doesn’t really strike you all at once.

First are Caleb, a down-on-his-luck magic user, with a little goblin girl as his companion, Nott, a thief. They meet up with another group at breakfast at their inn: Jester, a tiefling; Beau, a monk; and Fjord, a big half-orc. All of them share an interest in cards, grifts, and magic, so they pick up a good conversation quickly.

It’s when the next two walk in the door that I started to question the format of the show. Could these just be NPCs voiced by other actors? That happens, right? Molly is (another) tiefling, who, with his companion Yasha, is promoting his circus, with an opening show in town tonight. All the party members agree to go.

One slightly confusing aspect is that all the groups seem to have done an initial introductory session off-camera. Although it’s definitely solidified their characters and relationships, it also leads to a lot of references that don’t get paid off. Caleb and Nott, for example, are battered and bruised, assumably from a combat encounter that didn’t go well.

There are some nice interactions between the PCs at this crowded tavern (although they hog the table for a long time, now that I think of it). Nott and Jester play a poker-like “card game” with some d6s, which results in drawn swords and then soothing words. Molly reads Jester’s fortune, with just enough of a good cold read to get Jester to tell about her quest to find her father.

This is clearly a group that knows each other and plays together well. If only there weren’t so damned many of them!

Once the party gets to the circus, things go in fits and starts. First, weapons are not allowed in the circus tent. None of the party likes this at all, and they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to sneak weapons in, or negotiate some kind of way to wear them openly. The solution they eventually land on (Yasha carries all their weapons and stands close by during the show) seems more like a product of GM exhaustion than any reasonable resolution.

(Also: this is exactly the kind of situation that other RPG systems build narrative bribe systems, like FATE points, for. Just as a signal: “It is going to be cool if you just go along with this weird request, I promise.” “I will acquiesce to this request.” “Here is a mechanical bribe to compensate you for your troubles.” “I accept your bribe.” As far as I know, D&D doesn’t have any such mechanism, which is why we get gameplay like this.)

The circus itself ends up being one long GM monologue, describing each act, the crowd, the tent, everything. Fortunately, Matt Mercer is a skilled writer and actor, so it’s a pretty pleasant ten minutes or so. But having listened to so many shows that use engines with more collaborative world-building, I was surprised at how much work this was. In a Powered by the Apocalypse game, the players and the GM would have used Q&A to make the show awesome together. It seems almost mean to put it all on one person.

It all goes to poop, though, when an audience member breaks out with a spontaneous case of zombieism. He infects another audience member… and we’re rolling initiative. Woohoo, let’s play some D&D!

Yasha quickly deals out everyone’s weapons. They throw some spells, they slash some zombies, and they work together to make each other look awesome. It’s a great first combat for a new group working together.

When the dust settles, the cops finally show up, and start pointing accusing fingers at the party. Why did this zombie sickness break out just now? Who’s going to take the blame? Why do all you weirdos have falchions and fireballs and so on? The Crown Guard puts the whole party on report, with a threat to arrest them if the real cause of the breakout isn’t found.

Overall, it’s a good, listenable episode. Although there are eight voices on mic, only two (Matt’s and Taliesen’s) sound very similar. The rest of the group do distinct character voices and include enough plot references that it’s easy to tell them apart. They do occasionally run over each other, though, and there’s probably more chortling asides than with a smaller group.

I give it three stars. It’s a well-produced episode with an interesting story hook, and although I disagree with some of the structural framework, I’m interested enough to try to get caught up for the next episode. Twelve hours of catchup listening, here I come.