The Beav according to Beav

Still crazy after all these years.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Greatest Story Ever Told

    In 1974, two guys in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin made a game. Not unlike the table-top war games they were playing, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) revolved around combat. But instead of pitting army against army, players would create individual characters to pit against mythical beasts. This game has grown a rich role-playing tradition, and in recent years has spawned several series online where one can watch people play. One of these shows, Critical Role, is my favorite media property of all time. Critical Role’s characters, actors, story, and sincerity make it one of the most compelling shows aired anywhere.

    What first drew me in were the characters. Each one is thoroughly distinct and very fleshed out. Vax’ildan (Liam O’Brien) and Vex’ahlia (Laura Bailey) are half-elven twins whose human mother was killed by a dragon while they were being raised by an indifferent elven father. Pike (Ashley Johnson), the gnomish cleric rescued and nursed to health a goliath barbarian named Grog (Travis Willingham), who had been beaten and left for dead by his uncle Kevdak, who ruled the herd they both called family. There is depth and nuance, even from the outset. Lord Percival Fredrickstein Von Mussel Klossowski de Rolo III, or Percy (Taliesin Jaffe), is an aristocrat whose entire family was murdered by the mysterious Lord and Lady Briarwood, which eventually led to him inventing guns - a good man continually haunted by the evil he fights and the evil he fears he has become.
    Behind the amazing characters lie phenomenal, talented actors. They completely embody their characters on Critical Role, even though they don’t act them out in the traditional sense. Sam Riegel regularly breaks into song in order to activate the powers of his character Scanlan, a gnomish bard. Marisha Ray, who is normally assertive and gregarious, is convincing as the perpetually insecure Keyleth, a half-elven Druid who hopes to find her confidence in time to lead her tribe. Matthew Mercer is the dungeon master (DM), who created the world and sets the stage these characters battle on. He consistently astounds, not only the audience, but his friends and cast mates, by continually coming up with distinct and memorable characters for the players to interact with. No one who has seen them could possibly forget Viktor, the black powder merchant’s three-fingered advice: “Learn from my mistakes!” Nor could he be even remotely mistaken for Vecna, the Undying King that the group must stop from becoming a god.

    Because the players were well-established actors before the show, or the home game it grew out of, began, they all have a good sense of storytelling that helps inform their choices. Not only do character decisions make sense for the characters making them, but they also drive a supremely entertaining narrative. The relationships between player characters grow organically from the things they do and experience instead of being imposed on them by the DM. The story is so compelling that thousands of people from all over the world watch them air D&D live every week despite broadcasting four to six hours per episode. Those who absolutely cannot watch live watch rebroadcasts and even rewatch the more than eighteen days of runtime.

    Beyond the story that has captivated so many people who watch, is the truth that what we’re actually watching is a group of good friends who are playing a game. They played this game for years before it was a show. Were it to end today, they’d go back to playing it in their homes. Unlike almost any other show I’ve ever seen, one gets to see the actual people that one is seeing. When a person watches Ashley Johnson on NBC’s Blindspot, there is little of Ashley on the screen. She is 100% Agent Patterson. When she is on Critical Role, Pike Trickfoot is evident, but one also sees Ashley reacting to events or making jokes out of character. These are people who genuinely care for each other. When Sam, in the final showdown with Vecna, is forced to use an ability that he had hoped to save to help Liam’s character, Vax, he can’t contain his tears, even though from a game standpoint, it’s a triumph. He’s absolutely gutted because he feels like he’s failed his best friend. And we weep with him — when we realize what has happened.

    There are shows with characters that draw you in. There are shows whose actors impress you with their ability to embody their roles. There are shows with rich storylines. There are even shows with real, genuine people bringing the fun of Dungeons and Dragons to your living room, or bedroom, or that quiet corner of the library where you plug in to watch. But these characters, by these actors, in this storyline, behaving this sincerely, set Critical Role apart as one of the most compelling shows on any medium.

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