Since I started watching Critical Role a few months ago, I have become quite obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons. I quickly realized that while playing D&D is a lot of fun, what I really wanted to be is a Dungeon Master. It unites some of my favorite creative outlets: writing, drawing, acting, and directing. Despite my enthusiasm, it seemed quite daunting at first because there appeared to be so many aspects to it, so I started reading the source books and searching the internet for tips and advice. There is a lot of great stuff out there, so this might become a series of sorts, and I want to start today by talking about one of my more obscure finds—a series of YouTube videos titled Dungeon Master 101 by Acreletae. She has a lot of great advice on the basics of DMing: from organizing your notes and planning strategies for sessions and campaigns to creating non-player characters and cities.
Once upon a time I was one of the many people trying to catch up with Critical Role. During this fantastical, entertaining slog (and it was a slog at times) fellow fan Noodle suggested to me that I take a different route with my catch up plans: instead of watching each 3+ hour episode, I read the summaries of the episodes instead. “What a perfectly logical solution!” I thought. While my stubbornness eventually saw me through the 20-some episodes I was behind on, I ended up enjoying the site Noodle linked me to, Project Derailed, for its other nerdy content and reviews.
In mid-2016, the U.S. presidential election had just kicked into high gear with the announcement of Orange Cheeto Dust as the Republican presidential nominee, and I started looking for a comical podcast to take my mind off things. A friend of mine recommended The Adventure Zone, a podcast by the McElroy brothers, without really telling me what it was about. Mostly what I knew about the McElroys was that they were from my own home state and had some well-known podcasts, so I went in with absolutely no knowledge of the game they were playing, laughed at some jokes, and listened to an episode or so when I had the time. Before I knew it, I had somehow gone from “an ep whenever” to “three or four eps a day” because I was so invested in the story, and it’s definitely one of the few things that keeps me laughing even in this news vortex of despair. Now that The Adventure Zone is hurtling towards a sure-to-be hilarious and heartrending finale, I feel like it’s past time to try to get some of you to jump on this train with me.
Minor spoilers below!
Finally having caught up with Critical Role, I found myself with a hole in my schedule that I didn’t quite know how to fill. Luckily enough the internet was there in my time of need, and while several other D&D streams and podcasts failed to grab me, I managed to find one that did. The Adventure Zone is a D&D podcast put out by the McElroy brothers (also known for My Brother, My Brother, And Me and their various other podcasts on the Maximum Fun network) that follows three quirky characters—Magnus the warrior, Merle the cleric, and Taako the wizard—as they do everything in their power to derail all that Griffin, the DM, creates for them. Despite the fact that I’m nowhere near caught up with TAZ, I decided that this was a perfect time to look for fic. The obvious choice would have been to look for AU fic where I wouldn’t necessarily need to worry about spoilers. What ended up grabbing me, though, was the complete opposite: a post-canon fic that explores the struggles, tragedies, and joys that come with being an adventurer.
Warning for potential spoilers—not like I would know—and discussions of depression and self-harm.
Over the past few months, I’ve gotten really into Dungeons & Dragons, a role-playing and story-telling game that relies on improvisation and dice. A game of D&D is led by a Dungeon Master who provides a fantasy world for the players to interact with, and together, they build a story. I discovered D&D through Critical Role, which is a weekly livestream showing a group of people playing the game. It’s quite unlike any other media content I consume, as it doesn’t have a team of writers and is largely improvised. Moreover, it started as a private home game, so it wasn’t even initially created with an audience in mind (although the players did make the decision to continue their game instead of starting a new one for the broadcast).
However, since it started streaming two years ago, it has become quite a phenomenon, inspiring people to play D&D and to create. I wrote about the show several weeks ago while I was still frantically trying to catch up and as such didn’t really stop to think much about anything. I was very excited, for instance, about the mere fact that the show includes LGBTQ+ representation. Since then, I’ve finished catching up and had time to reflect on and look at this representation a little more critically. While Critical Role does have characters of differing gender identities and sexualities who are portrayed with care and respect, some of the actions of the players show a lack of consideration towards the LGBTQ+ characters and the people they represent.
Some spoilers below.
… Okay, okay, I’m joking. Just a little bit.
In all seriousness, though, this week I want to share my love for Critical Role, a weekly internet broadcast from Geek & Sundry, which basically shows how a bunch of nerdy voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons. The series features some of the most compelling storytelling and some of the best acting I have ever seen, as well as some excellent queer characters. It’s really difficult to speak about this show—this phenomenon, really—without descending into an incoherent blubbering mess whose feelings boil down to “OMG OMG it’s amazing!”, but I shall try.
A couple vague spoilers below.
I’ve mentioned before that fantasy is an important tool for analyzing and commentating on reality. Many social conventions that exist in reality are reflected in fantasy, with varying degrees of abstraction, and this allows for some pretty accessible metaphors. I have realized recently, however, that there is a significant difference between the place religion occupies in society and the way it is typically represented in fantasy. The most critical thing is that in reality, of course, religion is a matter of faith: the results of prayer or ritual are not measurable and the existence of deities is not provable. In fantasy, on the other hand, it’s quite common for deities to appear unambiguously and for religious rites to produce clear and repeatable results. That’s generally convenient for the characters, but excluding some or all of the “faith” element makes fantasy religion a much less useful metaphor for real religion. When religion is an important element of a fantasy world, therefore, it does serve a purpose, but generally a less direct purpose than representing or commentating on real religion.