Critical Role: Campaign 2 — The Open Road

tl;dr The party moves on from their first mystery arc to life on the open road. Amidst maybe a little too much camping-and-carting logistics, the team has some interesting exposition, dream visions, and aesthetic encounters. The session’s final battle comes out of nowhere but manages to be interesting and complex as only D&D combat can be.

Title: The Open Road
Campaign: Campaign 2
Campaign Episode: 5
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: ★★★★☆

Hey! Check it out! I got caught up on Critical Role!

I had a trip from Montreal to Toronto earlier this week, and I soaked up all my travel time listening to Critical Role, Campaign 2. I didn’t think I was going to get all the way to the present, but I finished my second time through on episode 5 on Wednesday night… just in time for episode 6 to come out on Thursday.

My last review covered episode 1, in which three diverse groups come together in the fantasy town of Trostenwald, where there is a zombieism outbreak at a traveling circus. Suspected of having a part in the outbreak, the PCs must find the real cause and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Ep 1 is definitely the most solid in this arc. Each episode has some impressive D&D combat, well-scaled for the level 3 characters in the party. When they finally take out the Big Bad — a giant toad demon — you’ve definitely been on the edge of your seat. But the investigation in eps 2-4 is a lot less compelling than ep 1’s quick introduction.

Some of the things that bugged me about episode 1 seem to have been fixed, at least a bit. For example, the taciturn character of Yasha, who was barely in episode 1, sneaks out the back of the circus tent at the end of that episode, and isn’t seen again until episode 4. She ultimately chooses to do something else besides join the party, and we don’t have her in this ep. So the party is now down to a manageable (?) 6 instead of an unwieldy 7 PCs.

Episode 5 opens with the party leaving Trostenwald to go north to another city, Zidash. Riding together in a horse cart inherited from the now-defunct circus, they spend a lot of time arguing about road-trip minutiae. Should someone climb a tree to scout ahead on the road, or should Caleb send up his bird familiar? Who’s driving? How far off the road should they push their cart if they’re stopping for a bathroom break?

That said, there are a couple of really lovely scenes on the trip. In the first, the hexblade warlock Fjord has a dream vision in which he visits his underwater patron. Fjord wakes up coughing salt water, and confesses to the party the origin of his new arcane powers and the provenance of his barnacle-encrusted blade. It’s a nice scene, played really well by GM Matt and Fjord’s player, Travis.

Another bright visual moment comes in the middle of the night, when intruders set off a magical alarm that Caleb has set up around their campsite. The goblin girl thief, Nott, goes to scout out what the threat is, and finds three majestic buffalo moving slowly through the field. Matt does a good job making buffalo-like noises, and a few of the other PCs get up to go see the buffalo together; then they all go back to bed.

The party gets back on the road the next morning, carts along all day, and comes to a small town just after sundown. They find it in the throes of a gnoll attack, with fleeing villagers streaming out of the centre of town, and an overwhelmed constabulary cowering behind a wall, promising gold to any adventurer who could take on the hyena-like humanoid gnolls.

We go into a well-planned battle sequence in a burning tavern. It’s a good battle, since the gnolls are on their way out the back door as the party charges in the front, so instead of having a convergence at a battle line somewhere between the two combatant groups, there’s a general pursuit through the funnel out the back door. It’s nicely played.

The PCs play a good game and take down a number of gnolls, while a boss gnoll directs the others to gather meat and corpses into a cart in the back. As it fills, the boss leaves the battlefield, taking a number of the gnoll combatants with them.

This actually causes some problems in the narrative. Matt’s classic GM move is to invite the party to role-play out the last kill of an encounter. When he says, “How do you want to do this?” everyone knows that they are out of turn order and into story time again.

But this time around, there’s one gnoll lying on the ground, and the others are already off-screen with their spoils and cart. When Matt offers the kill shot to the group, Nott, the goblin thief, takes the opportunity to leave the battleground and chase after the cart! As he’s about to die from a counterattack by the boss gnoll, the rest of the party intercedes, and the entire scene has to be rolled back so they can do the chase in turn-time instead. It’s disconcerting.

Altogether, the play in the episode comes together nicely. There’s something in me that’s disappointed each time they start combat, since the way Critical Role commences combat is for Matt to unveil a large miniature scenario to the oohs and aahs of the party. It feels like, when this happens, that there’s an inevitability to these combat scenes, so meticulously prepared ahead of time. I realize that that’s usually the way D&D works, but it feels like the party is on rails, hurtling from combat to combat.

One game-play problem is that Sam Riegel plays a female character, Nott. There are a few times in this episode, and previously, where players use masculine pronouns for Nott, causing other players not to know who they’re talking about. I hope this smooths out soon; this is the kind of mistake that should probably not happen this far into a new season.

The other game-play problem that’s hard to listen to is Marisha’s characterization of Beau. She’s reflexive and contradictory, constantly bucking against the GM in building the story. When told she has to leave her weapons at the circus door, she tries to sneak them in. After the zombie breakout, told to stay put, she sneaks out of the circus, and gets caught. She even gets a major solo scene later in the season, as her monastic organization catches up to her and works to continue her training. She fights against it, and refuses to comply, which is really against that monk character class.

And, frankly, having a six-person party still causes problems. When there are action cues, there’s a lot of side chatter from the peanut gallery, and it’s sometimes hard for the party to come to a decision. They discuss and re-discuss trivial subjects because nobody quite feels empowered to move forward and decide for the group.

But mostly I’ve found this season really enjoyable. The production values of Critical Role are top notch, although occasionally the background score can be jarringly at odds with the emotional tone of the scene being played. The party and GM are all very good voice actors, and it’s really a pleasure to listen to the show.

This is a funky episode with a weird place in the narrative flow, but the combat scenes are so good, and the character development so creative, that I needed to give it an above-average rating. Well worth listening to!