To write, and to write about stuff that mattered to me, even if it strikes some as silly or lowbrow. The world changes fast, and life as we know it changes before we have time to register.
William Bradley, “On Soap Operas, or, We Read and Watch Our Stories in Order to Live”
“Is it worth it?”
A man whose smile takes up half his face is on the verge of tears.
Live, you almost would surely miss it; there’s a lot of focus-pulling stuff on screen; feeds from four cameras split the visual frame. His is one face out of nine. At left, Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer occupies a modest square. Below, another camera is trained on Mercer’s carefully-made battle map and miniatures, which loom in front of the players, rising on wobbly clear acrylic.
This is the penultimate episode of the first campaign of Critical Role, a game of Dungeons & Dragons that first streamed live weekly for tens of thousands of people from 2015 to 2017. Now, Critical Role broadcasts to hundreds of thousands of viewers, with an animated adaptation that just debuted on Amazon. Among the many “actual play” shows that have emerged, it is the biggest—in every sense of the word. Many, if not all of the viewers of this episode in 2017 would have watched most of 113 episodes that aired before it, a cumulative runtime of over 437 hours. To put it in perspective, you could watch the full run of Law & Order or Doctor Who in less time. You could watch every episode of The Simpsons twice. And unlike those decade-spanning episodic shows, Critical Role’s first campaign is a single story that aired over roughly two and a half years.
“Actual play” merges improvisational storytelling with the dynamic skill of professional sports. And in 2017, viewers watched the final fight against a potential world-ending threat. The villain was hurt and preparing to flee. If he could cast the spell Teleport and escape, this may not have been the penultimate episode—the game might have continued for weeks, possibly months. No one at the table knows. There is no script: only actions attempted and the random chance of dice to determine outcomes.
The smiling man, Sam Riegel, has been looking at his phone with the sweeping gestures of someone doing a very quick information search. As a magic user, he must keep track of numerous spells and how they work. He looks up, smile still plastered on, eyes heavy as he asks whether he has a reaction: the ability to act before the villain. He does. His character, Scanlan, casts Counterspell at the highest possible level—no dice roll needed. The villain cannot flee.
The other players at the table rear back in shock, pleased. It’s a home run, a touch-down, a fadeaway from beyond the three-point line. The Dungeon Master looks stunned. So does Sam Riegel, who now slowly folds into himself on the table.
In parallel, so softly the microphones almost don’t pick it up—wouldn’t have picked it up when the show first began streaming—Sam Riegel, still smiling, mutters “I was going to save Vax.” As soon as he says it, we see Vax’s player, Liam O’Brien, below him on screen whip his head around, presumably making eye contact across the wide table in real life. O’Brien murmurs something inaudible, reassuring, then turns to watch the next roll and attack, mugging and leaning over to his seatmate, Laura Bailey.
While the action continues Riegel looks down, runs his hand over his face and hair, tucks his face into his elbow. He looks up and across again and says, “Sorry Liam.” Across the table, O’Brien’s face goes sober, then smiles broadly, speaking softly, nearly inaudible. Captioning cannot pick it up, overwhelmed by the main action.
In the midst of many voices and lots of visual stimuli, Riegel and O’Brien’s exchange is an example of what narrative scholar Jennifer Grouling calls “table talk”—the stuff that doesn’t matter much for the game, the exchanges that occur between people instead of the characters they play. What’s typically important are the games’ narratives: the Dungeon Master speech and players’ narration, the dice rolls and player suggestions. As Robyn Hope has argued, however, livestreaming from the tabletop turns collaborative storytelling and play into performance. And it’s in the table talk where the greatest emotional impact occurs.
And it didn’t land live.
The emotional weight of this moment in Critical Role’s penultimate 2017 game is retrospective, even for most of the players who were at table. Matthew Colville later recorded a thirty-five-minute video closely reading this scene in his Running the Game YouTube series, calling it “The Climax of Critical Role, Season One” and hundreds of thousands viewed that, too. In his video of the video, Colville cuts away from replaying the scene. “Did you see what Liam says to Sam, what he mouthed to Sam there at the end? The thing that completely demolished Sam?”
Colville looks directly in the camera, large brown eyes suspiciously bright.
“He said, ‘I love you.’”
This moment is a parasocial palimpsest. Uncovering the layers of meaning require that you know—as Colville’s audience does—that Critical Role began as a birthday gift to Liam O’Brien. The first public reference to that game was on a podcast begun by O’Brien and Riegel, who are best friends. There’s one layer that Colville doesn’t make explicit, but his audience might recall: O’Brien is Colville’s real-life friend too. In Colville’s video, we are not watching someone “outside” of this interconnected network of relations, but someone tied to it as well.
Colville explains that O’Brien’s character, Vax, is a dead man walking. In high-level D&D, Vax is a rarity: a character for whom death has real weight. Because of his bargain with the Raven Queen, the Goddess of Death and Fate, Vax will die irrevocably once the world-ending villain is defeated. Riegel’s character, Scanlan, has been saving his highest-level spell in the hopes of changing that fate. But to win their current battle, the last of a years-long campaign, he must sacrifice that ability for the greater good. To the audience, who doesn’t yet know Riegel’s intentions, what unfolds is a clear win. To Riegel, it’s a crushing loss.
In the middle of his analysis, Colville’s voice breaks. “Something like that would never happen in a game that I ran, because I don’t run a game that has that degree of emotional, I think, content.” He leans down, hands rising into frame with a tissue. He is in tears.
And so am I.
It’s difficult to recommend anything in a world where there is a constant drive to consume the latest piece of culture, where books and albums and movies feel less like touchstones or shared joys than like a syllabus for a course that never ends, where you will be graded and found wanting. We perform the rituals of stylized regret: It’s in my NetHuluzon queue. I’ve been meaning to read that….
In the case of Critical Role, it is even more complex. The transmedia phenomenon has the potential to either create new opportunities for other shows or suck up all the available resources in the space. It’s not entirely clear which will happen. With multi-million dollar success comes increased responsibility, especially for shows with all-white or majority-white casts, as scholars like Shelley Jones and designers like Jenna Yow have noted.
If Critical Role is a gateway, it’s to a wildly-experimental, hard to define mode of storytelling. The first D&D actual play to air on television, B. Dave Walters’s Invitation to Party, is D&D’s Whose Line Is It Anyway. HyperRPG’s KOllOK uses indie games and ambitious production techniques to tell a horror story worthy of David Lynch. Tanya DePass leads the development of show & game MotherlandsRPG to a “brighter, blacker future.” In the hands of Jason Carl, LA By Night offers city as character, as beautiful and uncanny as the vampires who play in it. Dimension20 offers miniseries tackling everything from the legacy of Harry Potter to a Jemisinian New York to Game of Thrones reimagined with candy.
Reason will never explain affection, and yet I seek to justify my pleasure. I can never entirely shake the eighteenth-century claim that enthusiasm can be dangerous, foolish, misleading. And I’m not sure I should shake it: as media critic Stitch reminds us repeatedly, fannish love can be violently allergic to critique.
A global pandemic comes and sweeps away all our usual rituals and routine, makes archipelagoes of friend groups. Suddenly, every human interaction is mediated by distance, nothing is convenient or easy. We make and reinforce bonds based on different measures. I play more games, with more people, more often than ever.
In that abundance, these networks of care and play, I see anew how hundreds of hours of a single story can feel like not enough, why hundreds of thousands of people might watch “nerdy-ass voice actors” tell a story online for hours and hours and hours.
Critical Role has built two imagined worlds: Exandria (the high-fantasy setting of their campaigns) and Critical Role LLC (an actor-owned company that “believes in the power of storytelling” and works to “leave the world better than we found it”). Both contain the stories of found families of friends, overcoming impossible odds, to do extraordinary things. Both are ever-expanding, as the cast-owners collaborate with producers, designers, writers, artists, animators, and more.
I am not immune to the appeal of either. Like the cast of Critical Role, I play with midcareer folks first brought together by a shared strange profession that consumes every waking moment, fogging boundaries between colleague and friend, love and work. For the cast of Critical Role, that profession is acting. For me, it’s academia, another profession that transmutes passion into anxiety and unexpected drudgery. For both, securing a livelihood is a major victory, often bittersweet.
Instead of luring the ambitious to Los Angeles, academia yanks you to one college town before depositing you (if you’re very lucky) in another one. The idea that the majority of your friends, colleagues, collaborators, would all live in one time zone, let alone one major metropolitan area, is a fantasy so mind-boggling it feels more remote than any fey-realm.
I begin to write and teach about roleplaying games. In a way I’m no different from anyone monetizing their hobby in the Hustle Economy. It’s fitting that the first reference to the home game that became Critical Role was on Riegel and O’Brien’s sporadically-produced podcast, “All Work, No Play”–a show in which two busy midcareer dads desperately try to maintain their friendship in a creative profession that would consume their entire lives if they let it.
And it turns out a career spent studying very long novels and readers at the dawning of the genre is a good vantage point from which to try to understand roleplaying games and actual play today. Like actual play, the early novel was experimental, with wild variations in form, buoyed by new technology, popular (in all the varying connotations of the word), and slow to enter the realm of academic study.
Long drives, innumerable loads of laundry, inbox cleanups, miles under my feet, and nights of pandemic insomnia all feature one cast or another of actors, comedians, writers, nerds telling stories to one another. As B. Dave Walters put it, many creators assume this kind of split attention. We could decry it as a corruption of modern life, but that’s also a throwback to the world before mass literacy, inexpensive books, and public libraries. Until that point less than three centuries ago, we heard stories more often than we read them—and we were probably doing something else while we listened.
I often watch streams of actual gameplay on the same dual-monitor setup through which so much of my pandemic life has been filtered. The videoconferencing boxes that cage my students, family, and friends also frame conferences, live theatre, poetry readings, book events. Even when shows like Critical Role returned to studios, the cast appeared in virtual squares for months, seated at socially-distanced individual tables. I watch those episodes with two friends, one hundreds of miles away, the other ten minutes down the street. Both might as well be on Mars. Their faces, and mine, are additional boxes—the same size as the players we watch.
The fourth wall between viewer and viewed breaks months later, when I tweet about my games course and creators offer to visit my students. When I’m contacted by fellow academics, I know how to reciprocate: I visit their classes, we plan grants and symposia. The fact that we have never met in person means little. But with the non-academics who visit, I am unmoored. There’s a mutual respect, tinged with bafflement. What are we doing here?
I’m on Zoom with Aabria Iyengar, the most in-demand roleplayer of the year, fresh off a run as the first ever guest DM for Critical Role. She calls in from her home studio, where many of her streaming appearances have also been recorded. I blink for half a beat. Her performance space becomes part of my classroom, while we are all at home.
What follows feels no different than any other conversation with a like-minded colleague from a field near your own. You’ve done the same reading, brain buzzing with overlapping questions. It’s perhaps more disorienting for how familiar it feels.
This is a performance—all teaching is—but it is unscripted. Improvisation.
We make it up as we go.
Emily C. Friedman is Associate Professor of English at Auburn University, where she directs 18thConnect.org and the Manuscript Fiction Project. Her current work connects new media phenomena with their eighteenth-century echoes. She is at work on two books, Before Fanfiction: Alternative Circulation in the Age of Print, and Actual Players: Networks of Digital Performance. Her edited cluster for Post45 Contemporaries, “Beyond the Dungeon: Tabletop RPGs, Actual Play, and Very Longform Storytelling Now” is forthcoming.