Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Secrets of Dungeon-Mastering: Critical Role

What is this? Matt Mercer ran a Pathfinder home game with his friends, all of whom happened to be voice actors like himself. Eventually they switched the campaign over to Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition and decided around the same time to start livestreaming their games on Twitch, partially to raise money for charity. It became the most popular Twitch Stream, expanded to YouTube and podcasts, released official DnD materials, then eventually got adapted into the Amazon show “Vox Machina”. Each campaign lasts for many hundreds of hours, and they’re now on their third campaign. The early episodes are just on YouTube and not on the podcast, for some reason, so I watched this in real time.

The people involved:
  • Matthew Mercer, Dungeon Master
  • Ashley Johnson as Pike Trickfoot (gnome cleric)
  • Travis Willingham as Grog Strongjaw (goliath barbarian / fighter)
  • Laura Bailey as Vex'ahlia “Vex” de Rolo (née Vessar) (half-elf ranger / rogue)
  • Liam O'Brien as Vax'ildan “Vax” Vessar (half-elf rogue / paladin / druid)
  • Taliesin Jaffe as Percival “Percy” Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III (human gunslinger)
  • Marisha Ray as Keyleth of the Air Ashari (half-elf druid)
  • Orion Acaba as Tiberius Stormwind (dragonborn sorcerer) (He eventually has a falling out with the group, gets written out and gets retroactively removed from Vox Machina)
  • Sam Riegel as Scanlan Shorthalt (gnome bard)
What I learned about DM’ing from watching it:

This is in some ways the most traditional of the actual plays I’ve listened to. This is the only one where they have no time limit and spend half an hour haggling over the price of rooms at the inn. It can be rather tedious, but I think that’s also the secret of its success. Each of these voice actors has created very appealing characters (including the non-player characters) and it’s fun to just hang out with them, accomplishing very little.

In terms of sheer number of hours of entertainment that a franchise has foisted on the world, this ranks up with “Days of Our Lives”, and the audience seems to be somewhat bizarrely insatiable.

This is the only actual play I consumed where I really got the feeling this story could go anywhere and the DM would be willing to follow it there.

You can throw out a lot of the rules:

Matt is very much a “rule of cool” DM, which annoys some of the people who watch the stream and comment live onscreen. (How he can read the comments and still DM is beyond me.) He warns the commenters: “For all you hardcore gamers out there, a lot of this is house rules, loosey-goosey, having a good time, so all you number crunchers, stop paying attention there, just have fun with it.”

One issue is that they transferred the game over from Pathfinder (where you’re allowed to have gunslingers) to DnD mid-campaign, so they have to loosen DnD up a lot to bring over the elements they want. (“I’m playing Percy the gunslinger so I’m the reason all the rules are messed up”)

Matt doesn’t require anywhere near as many perception checks as Brennan Lee Mulligan. He just tells them that they notice things.

You can juggle different motivations for different players

Percy wants to free his hometown. Vax and Vex (Yes, there’s a Vax and Vex and they’re both members of Vox. Yes, this is confusing.) want revenge against a dragon. Scanlon is just looking for love. You can see in the Amazon show that one character’s quest predominates at all times. Ultimately it works because these characters love each other and are willing to help each other achieve what they want. It’s much harder to juggle different quests if your players and their characters aren’t bonded.

Pets aren’t worth the trouble

One of them has a pet bear, which is a fun idea, but the PC keeps forgetting that her bear would be with her (freaking out every non-player character they meet) or having to leave it behind for long periods of time. It quickly gets ditched in the Amazon show.


McL said...

Yes! Pets are hard to make work. Not just remembering they are there, but become relevant for so many spells. Like if a fireball in your area deals you 36 damage, it does the same to your much-less-hearty weasel. If you misty step yourself 30' away, you can't take another creature with you (meaning no enemies or allies) that means leaving your hedgehog behind in the danger.

I like to have like a talking necklace or bag of holding or something else magical that can fill that role. They can be adorable, not too bright, need some feeding. Plus, they can allow the DM to have an in-character voice during a spot where the players are going off on a wild tangent that's taking over the game, or over-planning something like opening a perfectly innocent door. Like a Greek Chorus or something. They aren't going to rush into the scene and force the door open but they can Statler and Waldorf the party from the peanut gallery.

McL said...

Oh, and I liked how they did make the pet work in season 2, with Caleb's cat Frumpkin, which is actually a magical creation from the Find Familiar spell. It cuddled and was cute, but could die and be brought back, or shaped into an octopus or something else useful at the moment.