Critical Role: Campaign 2 — The Howling Mines

tl;dr A slow-moving cookie-cutter episode with a few cool combat moves, but not a lot of original action. Three combat scenes, which are fine, and two to three shop haggling scenes, which are interminable. This is a skippable episode unless you really hate gnolls.

Title: The Howling Mines
Campaign: Campaign 2
Campaign Episode: 6
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: ★★☆☆☆

Well, not every episode can be as good as The Open Road. This episode, the sixth of the season, feels much more static, like the party is stuck in the mud.

It opens the day after the events of episode 5 — an exciting battle with a horde of gnolls attacking a town. The party wakes up in an inn, and they spend the first half hour of the show talking back and forth. What are their plans? What will they do? Where do they come from? It feels like they get stuck and nobody has the momentum to get out of their conversation and their crowded bedroom.

They spend half a day drag-assing around the little town; going to the ruins of the tavern that they had fought to defend the night before, haggling over incense and pickles at a general store.

Critical Role this season, at least, has been a lot about haggling for, wheedling for, and stealing kind of valueless shit. Like, at the end of the last episode, Caleb the magic user negotiated with the GM to get 3GP worth of charcoal… from the burnt homes and businesses of the town they were in. The party doesn’t meet an NPC without hitting them up for some healing potions. Eventually Matt has to tell the party that asking for gimmes and handouts from people in the middle of a war zone might be a little tacky, and at best ineffective.

When the team eventually re-convenes with the constabulary, the chief of the little soldier troupe recruits them to go find more gnolls, and exterminate them. There’s a lot of genocide language in this particular story arc, by the way — it’s kind of dark. Especially since it’s revealed that the gnolls are attacking the town out of hunger. Now, they do eat the corpses of other humans, so they’re not exactly going to be on the cover of National Geographic, but still, they are intelligent humanoids, and it’s weird to talk about wiping them all out.

The offer from the police chief is good, and he’s paid well before already, so this seems like a good gig. But it’s also clearly a potential grind: having these characters fight the same monsters over and over again so they can level up and put some GP in their pouches.

“And think how good you’ll be at killing gnolls,” says Jester.

Nott comes back with, “Right, that 10,000 hour rule, is it?”

Let’s hope that something shakes the party out of that kind of rut. I think they could probably get a good spiral going, and hey, sometimes that is just what you need when you’re playing a video game and occasionally with a tabletop RPG. But with an audience? I don’t think I’m going to be able to handle it if the party goes out to fight gnolls a third, fourth, or fifth time.

On their second trip out, they have a pretty easy time tracking the gnolls back to their lair, an abandoned mine. There are blood-soaked wagons around the entrance and hyenas licking up the offal. One of the best scenes of the episode has Fjord attracting the hyenas with an illusion of a fat, delicious, injured rabbit, and then the party slaughters the whole pack.

Down the mine, the party has two encounters with gnoll parties and mixed gnoll-hyena packs. They’re well-constructed combats, and the party shines throughout. Especially Beau, whose monk abilities really stand out at these early levels. Anyway: the gnolls are really evil; they’re sacrificing humanoids to their demon-god, and all that stuff I said about maybe not genociding them is probably not going to be paid attention to.

This episode lacked the kind of forward motion that I look for in a narrative. There was a lot of chatter, a lot of repetition, and a lot of confused “What?” questions between players. I think this is partly party size — there are six PCs, and nobody is quite ready to start directing the game. Probably the likely candidate to do that in future episodes will be Ian’s Caleb; he laid out some good tactics for the combats in this ep.

But there was some great world-building, too. The gnoll den is well-described, intricate, gross and scary. There’s also a good scene while they’re all lounging around their tiny tavern room where Molly, the blood hunter, describes his origin as the child of a line of hereditary human sacrifices, and his parents’ daring escape, stealing the ritual blades used to kill their bloodline. They’re the same blades he wields now, and it comes out pretty badass.

Matt also makes a lot of very expressive gnoll and hyena noises. There’s one point that a PC says, “Is that a gnoll?” and I’m like, in my head, “That is clearly a hyena!”

Ultimately the details and combat couldn’t save the slow pace and marketplace minutiae of this episode. I’m really enjoying this series, but this episode in particular gets a lower-than-average rating.