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Critical Role, the media company built on Dungeons & Dragons campaigns and video streaming, is launching its second-ever limited series tonight, Exandria Unlimited: Calamity, exploring a bad moment in a different place and time in the tabletop world created week by week by the group’s members.
Without fear of spoilers, Marisha Ray, who is both Critical Role Productions’ creative director and one of the players in Calamity, said there won’t be more than four episodes of Calamity, because, well, it doesn’t turn out well for the characters playing in the time just before a climactic turning point in the narrative world’s history.
“It’s definitely a limited series,” said Ray. “But just because we know that the ending is going to be tragic, it’s not necessarily about the conclusion. It’s about all of the in between, of telling the story of how we got there in the first place. And (Game Master) Brennan (Lee Mulligan) has absolutely woven just an incredible, complex, layered story of just hubris and disaster. It’s fantastic.”
The Calamity story is set about 1,000 years before the Dungeons & Dragons campaigns that Ray and seven Critical Role co-founders have been playing live on Twitch and YouTube for much of the past decade.
The pre-recorded four-episode limited series, which debuts tonight and appears weekly in place of the parent campaign, will serve double duty. It both expands fans’ opportunity to explore a new part of the narrative universe, Exandria, that the Critical Role team created, while giving the performers a break from the weekly grind of their core campaign.
Think of it as something like the tragic Star Wars one-off movie Rogue One, perhaps crossed with the game Knights of the Old Republic, set 4,000 years earlier in the same narrative universe.
Critical Role has a ways to go to match George Lucas’ vast and vastly well exploited/explored universe across many, many kinds of media. But it’s branching out, including the recent hit animated Amazon
Mulligan (also Game Master on College Humor’s Dimension 20) pitched and then developed the story arc beginning early this year. He in turn said the miniseries’ success depends greatly on the performers, the “PCs,” or player characters. Besides Ray, they include Critical Role co-founders Sam Riegel and Travis Willingham, along with Aabria Iyengar, Lou Wilson, and Luis Carazo.
“All of the layering in complexity and hubris is to the immense credit of the PCs at the table, who are doing something that’s really genuinely hard to do in this format,” Mulligan said. “There’s always that relationship between you as the player and your character. And because you’re improvising, you want the best for your character, you want to see them succeed, you want to see them win. Watching these six master performers play characters that are not always making the right decisions, from a place of hubris, or arrogance, or even things that are so deeply human that you relate to them, even as you see, tragically, that this is leading to chaos and disaster.”
The Calamity, as it’s known in the game’s world is “this inciting incident of this big smash between the betrayer gods and the prime deities, and the events that happen in this moment in time ended up informing really the rest of the history of Exandria and the world itself and what gods (fans following) Vox Machina are familiar with.”
Ray said the mini-campaigns are designed to feed fan appetites for more kinds of stories within the world.
“Exandria is capable of having just an unlimited amount of stories and storytellers,” Ray said. “So much of what we’ve seen of this incredibly vast and rich world that (Critical Role Dungeon Master) Matt (Mercer) has built, realistically we only get to view it through a select amount of adventures. But the world itself is continuing to go on and things are happening on the other side of the globe that we don’t get to see. You also have this element of time that we get to play with.”
One challenge is creating an experience with a closed-end story line delivered in a live, randomized improvisatory setting. Mulligan gets philosophical about the result.
“There’s nothing I believe in more than honoring the dice at the table,” Mulligan said. “And there’s nothing I believe in more than the ability of people both in fictional worlds and in our real world to make a difference. So with all those beliefs about agency and the ability to make a difference and all that, how the hell do you tell a story with a foregone conclusion? Your question is kind of at heart a philosophical one: what is the nature of freedom? What is the nature of people to make choices? I think you’re observing a contradiction, which is in this game, but it’s also a contradiction, I would argue, in real life.”
And that is how Exandria Unlimited: Calamity will unspool on Twitch and YouTube over the next four weeks.