Critter Corner: Discussing Critical Role Episode 1
“Welcome to Wildemount. The year is 835 PD, or Post Divergence.” – Matt Mercer
Hello, Critter darlings. Have you wandered my way because you haven’t yet caught the first episode of the Critical Role new campaign? Or were you perhaps one of the 100K+ plus live viewers, but now you’re out amongst the interwebs looking for analysis, fan theories, and/or gossip? In any case, I hope you’ll find something interesting here. Fair warning, this isn’t really a ‘highlights’ kind of article. I do give some character overviews and a session summary, but my main purpose is trying to build a case for a theory I have about the overall story arc we might see as the new season unfolds.
*mild spoilers for Critical Role, Campaign 2 Episode 1 ahead
A new Critical Role adventure begins…
The first session of this new Critical Role campaign began with Matt Mercer giving us a bit of geographical and historical detail about the setting – worldbuilding is one of my favorite parts of gaming, so I was already nerding out at this point. The party begins their story on the continent of Wildemount, which lies northeast of where Vox Machina spent most of their time on Tal’Dorei. More specifically our adventurers find themselves in the Dwendalian Empire, a country taking up the western half of the region known as Wynandir.
The monarch of this country is King Bertrand Dwendal. Those of you who watched the first campaign might recognize him as the man who exiled the Briarwoods for dabbling in necromancy, and discharged Dr. Anna Ripley from military service for her highly unethical research in weapons development. In this campaign Bertrand remains in power, but he definitely isn’t the most popular ruler on the planet. His empire lacks a separation between church and state (you can actually be arrested for worshiping the wrong deities), unease is growing between the poorer classes and their wealthier counterparts, and there are rumors of tension among the military ranks, some of which have been in recent skirmishes on the eastern border. What the empire does offer, though, is protection from neighboring territories.
Eastern Wynandir, also known as Xhorhas, is scarred from The Calamity (an epic, global conflict where both the Prime Deities and the Betrayer Gods led their respective followers into a war so terrible two-thirds of the world’s population was slain). This was the time in Exandria’s history when arcane powers had gotten grievously out of hand; necromancers were having their heyday, archmages were enthralled by the worst of the big bads, and some crazed woman even managed to overthrow the god of death and usurp his place in the pantheon (coughRavenQueencough).
The Calamity was the culmination of a long nightmare ending with the destruction of nearly every city on the globe apart from Vasselheim, which is why the people and powers of that city remain wary of arcane magic to this day. Current-day Xhorhas is still a foreboding landscape, and all kinds of “chaotic evils and shattered horrors” inhabit the area. So while Dwendal’s empire isn’t perfect, it’s understandable why the general citizenry view his autocracy as an acceptable price to pay for the security and protection offered by his imperial Crownsguard.
Sounds like a marvelous place to live, right? I’m toying with the idea of starting a betting pool on how long it takes the party to leave this side of the continent and head southwest for the Menagerie Coast. I hear it’s much more chill down there.
That bit of history and campaign lore out of the way, Matt Mercer then initiated the inaugural scene in, wait for it… an inn! Shocking, right? You have to admit, though, inns are a popular setting because they’re natural places for disparate groups to come into contact each other. The first few people we meet are Liam and Sam, and they are delightfully wretched. Apparently, their pre-stream starter session did not end well for Liam, and Sam ended up saving his life. Next to make an appearance is the Laura/Travis/Marisha trio, who also had a near-death experience the day before. As someone who recently went from a level 20 barbarian to a level 1 paladin, I can empathize. Finally, it isn’t too long before Taliesin and Ashley show up and we start to get a sense of how the various little subgroups will eventually come together.
Before I get any further, here’s a rundown of everyone’s characters:
- Sam: female, alcoholic, kleptomaniac goblin rogue named Nott The Brave. (I see what you did there Sam, *wink*). I’m guessing Sam is planning to go arcane trickster, because Nott mentioned her wizard companion is teaching her a bit of magic. A few tidbits are she speaks halfling, has a +8 modifier to Sleight of Hand checks, and conceals the lower half of her face with a mask fashioned from the head of a porcelain doll.
- Liam: grungy human wizard named Caleb Widowgast. Caleb studied to be a wizard when he was young, took some kind of extended break before recently taking it back up, and has lately been living on the outskirts of society with the aforementioned alcoholic klepto goblin. Also, he has an orange familiar cat named Frumpkin the he can summon/dismiss at will.
- Marisha: female human monk name Beauregard. Personality-wise, Beau is the polar opposite of Keyleth; she’s casual, salty, and unconcerned with the opinions of others. I can only imagine some of this stems from growing up knowing her parents named her Beauregard because they wanted her to be a boy.
- Talisein: fashion eccentric, tiefling blood hunter named Mollymauk. ‘Molly’ tells fortunes for a traveling circus, sports ostentatious clothing and a peacock tattoo, and wields a pair of scimitars. Side note; Taliesin revealed on Talks Machina Molly is NOT a fan of Beau, and he (Taliesin) is delighted about the opportunity to let that develop in their RP interactions.
- Ashley: badass aasimar barbarian who goes by the name of Yasha. She’s got the biggest sword in the party, an intimidating demeanor, and according to her own words her “arms are worth a lot.” Yasha is also part of the circus along with Mollymauk, and apparently Ashley and Taliesin where pretty tight-lipped about their character backstories. I’m hoping that means the other players will be quick to do some in-character digging.
- Laura: blue skinned, blue haired tiefling cleric named Jester. Despite what appears to be a burgeoning gambling problem, Jester is quite possibly the most adorable Dungeons & Dragons character ever. She’s also the same PC Laura used for the Critical Role at GameSpot Livestream, and you can find this on YouTube if you’re interested. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: I got you covered, internet. Check it out here.]
- Travis: half-orc Hexblade warlock named Fjord (although the southern accent Travis uses for his voice has already earned him the nickname of Texblade). Fjord carries a falchion as his weapon and wants to visit the arcane academy (which may or may not be the same academy where the Briarwoods met way back when they were both just a pair of young mortals). Entrance into the academy night be a difficult thing to accomplish though – apparently it’s known for being pretty upper crust.
In the beginning episode of this new Critical Role campaign the Caleb/Nott duo are working their way through a very awkward introductory breakfast with the Fjord/Beau/Jester trio – during which poor Nott makes the mistake of letting Jester teach her a card game – when Mollymauk and Yasha come onto the scene. The latter two are a pair of carnies, and they’ve hit the tavern on their way through town to build hype for the show that evening. Mollymauk is easily charming, and does a good job spinning tales of the daring feats and other wonders to be seen at The Flatchling and Moondrop Traveling Carnival of Curiosities, which makes Yasha’s reluctant and cool endorsement hilarious by comparison.
Of course the newly-formed party of five agree to go see the circus (because really, in what D&D verse does anyone miss out on a circus?), but they’ve got some time to kill before all that kicks off in the evening. There’s a brewery tour montage where everyone manages to refrain from getting falling-down drunk, and Caleb and Jester have a brief but fun scene where he unsuccessfully trawls a book boutique for arcane texts while she pays homage to her deity by stealthily rearranging numerous volumes.
When we finally get to the circus there’s the expected shenanigans arising from Laura’s PC not wanting to spend money on the entry fee. Jester doesn’t have the same persuasive talents as Vex though, so there’s no avoiding the expense. There’s also a good bit of back and forth when Yasha presents herself as security and demands they check their weapons before entering the tent. You can imagine how that kind of injunction would be received by a group of squishy, low-level adventurers, but Yasha manages to resolve the issue hilariously by carrying Beau into the show fireman style. If you’ve been anywhere near the fanart this past week you’ll know shipping these two is already a thing; I don’t know how likely that actually is, but the images are adorable.
The circus itself is really quite interesting. Matt Mercer goes deep into storyteller mode, RPing as the Carnival Master Gustav who serves as an on-and-off-again narrator weaving an overarching tale between individual acts. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure what Matt-as-Gustav is doing is using performance art to tell the history Wynandir. Remember how at the top of the article I made you slog through the local geography and history of Wildemount? Well there was reason for that folks, a good one. Stick with me here.
The first performance is a halfling contortionist duo. Gustav’s intro describes their act as representing a pair of fey sisters who ventured into the underworld, and once there they convinced a mystical serpent creature to teach them unnatural abilities. I’m pretty sure this is representative of the the age of Arcanum, when magic users delved too deeply into dark arcane powers. Next on the program is a dancer who appears as a fiery warrior, and Gustav recites this poem to introduce her:
In a flash, beyond the ash
the gods all went and gone,
the darkness came, to grasp, reclaim
and suffocate the dawn.
But from that night, a burning light
dost keep back shadows bane.
The strength to fight, will set alight
the morning sun again.
If that isn’t about the survivors of the Calamity trying to make their way in a post-divergence Exandria I’ll burn my Nerdarchy T-shirt. Keep in mind Post-Divergence refers to the years after the Calamity when the Prime Deities had withdrawn from the material plane in order to guarantee the Betrayer Gods would also remain banished. *Matt Mercer said the campaign started in 335 PD on the live show, but both the video and the podcast have since been edited with a voiceover of him quoting 835.
The final act we see is a young singer, and Gustav specifically mentions Xhorhas in his introduction (remember that’s the neighboring territory chock full of Chernobyl-level beasties). I’m going to give you an almost word-for-word transcription of this part – despite the fact that in doing so I’m risking the ire of Nerditor Doug, as I’m already well beyond my assigned word count. [Nonsense, Gin – write away! I read your Twitter bio ;)]
“Even as the sun would rise anew bellowing roars would quake the lands of Xhorhas and beyond. Terrible beasts, now freed from their masters, scattered into our world. [One] crawls hungrily into the land of the free folk lording over nightmares… And what truth lies behind the eyes of this beast? What would be learned when the guiding heart of innocence pierces the hateful soul, that brings it to see beauty for the first time?”
Do you see it?! For the second time this episode (the first being the intro), Matt Mercer is referencing the terrible consequences of the Calamity, and how they’re very real dangers threatening the people of this empire. And do you know what happens next in the episode, before this performer even finishes her song? An audience member turns into a friggin’ zombie, and kicks off the fledgling party’s very first encounter. I’m reading this as a pretty clear sign the first major arc of the campaign is going to be learning about the Calamity, how dangerous the arcane arts can be, and dealing with the lingering effects of that magical hot mess.
So yeah, there’s a fight, the party triumphs, and then Mollymauk gets arrested because local law enforcement show up just in time to determine that of course this is all the carnies’ fault. Yasha managed to make a clean getaway though, disappearing alone into the forest, so at least we have an in-character excuse for Ashley not being in the next episode.
But seriously you guys, the Calamity. Sure, the near future of Critical Role will probably focus on the fallout from the hullabaloo at the carnival, but ultimately it’s all going to come down to the terrors left behind after the Calamity. And if Gustav’s last sentence from that final intro is any indication, the party is going to find themselves learning something unexpected about the nature of those terrors.
Tweet me @IfThenAnderson or leave comments below about your theories. I want to know what everyone thinks.
Behind the Nerditor’s desk
I’m really excited to work with Gin and share her writing here on our site. She’s a terrific writer and I love watching her and fellow gamers play D&D weekly in the Scarlet Sisterhood of Steel and Sorcery live stream game. As a fellow Critter, it’s great to have her voice here with Nerdarchy too.
Over on the Nerdarchy YouTube channel, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted began their journey to becoming Critters with the new Critical Role campaign as the perfect jumping on point. They’ll be sharing episode discussions and reviews every Wednesday, following along the adventures of Vox Mach…wait…the new party doesn’t have a name yet! Nevertheless, these videos will cover episodes with a two week buffer between the live stream and posting on YouTube, giving viewers time to keep up with Critical Role adventures. You can watch their discussion of Episode 1 below.
If you haven’t checked out Critical Role yet, do what the rest of the Critter community does and head over to Project Alpha where new episodes live stream Thursdays at 10 p.m. EST.
Whether or not it’s Thursday yet, stay nerdy!
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