Every few months in social media, I see a post that is some variation of “I don’t like Critical Role because it’s scripted,” or “Critical Role is an unrealistic example of how a roleplaying game session looks.” By no means do I think that everyone needs to be a fan of Critical Role. There are so many variables about presentation, game style, and available free time, it would be impossible for this show to appeal to all gamers.
But I think that sometimes these broad criticisms can be unfair, and even for those that aren’t fans of Critical Role may get something useful from examining why Critical Role is what it is. That’s what I’m going to attempt to do here—look at the group’s best practices and how those practices, individually, if not as a whole, may provide tools for other games whose audience is only the people at the table.
The Unexamined Strength
Before I dig into anything else about Critical Role, one of the first things I feel I should mention is that it isn’t Matt Mercer that makes the game what it is, and this is perhaps one of the most important things to take away from Critical Role. Everyone in the group is engaged and proactive. It is very rare to get the feeling that anyone on the set is along for the ride. They all have character traits, ambitions, goals, and connections that they bring to the game, and this gives Matt more to work with as the campaign progresses.
One of the greatest things that Critical Role can teach any group is that a good game moderator isn’t going to make a game good if they don’t have players that are interested and active in participating in the content of the game.
The Obvious Strength
Yes, the entire crew are voice actors. This means that they are all very good at using their voices as instruments to add personality to their characters. Not everyone is going to be able to do this, and you should not expect your table to learn these skills to make your game better. Additionally, if you aren’t a trained profession (and even if you are), there are a lot of potential pitfalls to doing accents and hardcoded vocal performances.
However, there are aspects of the voice actor’s trade that people at the table can learn. When your character is emphatic about something, let that show in your voice. Change the register of your voice if it helps to reinforce the personality of your character. Vary the speed of your character’s speech to either show excitement or calm.
Not everyone even enjoys playing their character in first person, and I’m not implying that you are doing it wrong if you aren’t comfortable doing so. That said, even knowing that you, the player, is narrating the actions of your character in a manner consistent with calm or excitement can add additional excitement to the session.
In addition to all of this, voice actors are performers that are trained to work with one another. This means that they learn when to hand off the spotlight, and when to use their own voice to emphasize something that another character has established. Make sure you aren’t talking too much during the game session, and when it’s obvious that another character is having their moment, if you do want to participate, do so in a way that emphasizes that character’s moment, rather than digressing back to your own character’s perspective.
When someone finds out that their long lost relative is still alive, and they are showing joy, have your character express how happy they are for them. When another person’s character expresses their rage that an old foe is still alive, voice your support for them.
We’ll look at breaks in the next section, as that is a part of this as well, but in general, the game session has an established structure to it. The group makes introductions, reads through ad copy, has a few laughs, and then the formal theme music plays. After the theme music, Matt summarizes what happened last.
This is a call to attention that is ritualized. It is a reinforced structure. Depending on where you are playing, this may be harder to pull off. For example, if you play in an FLGS, you may not be able to play introductory music. However, of the GM regularly launches into a recap of the previous session at the beginning of a game, this can be a signal that we are at the formal start of the session.
This is another potentially unexamined aspect of what helps make Critical Role what it is—they always take a break halfway through the session. This may not seem like much, but taking that break allows them to recharge their batteries, and it means that they have time to check their phones, take care of children, grab a snack and a bathroom break, and come back to the table refreshed and undistracted by elements outside of the game.
This is one that I will freely admit I have a problem remember. I often get going into a game, and while I tend to be very cognizant of when the session is ending, I don’t pay as much attention to the halfway point, or those times when people seem to be flagging in their attention and may need to get away from the table. I tend to let them go on breaks on their own separate schedules, and while that’s fine, and no one wants to be the GM saying “nope, can’t go to the bathroom yet,” knowing that you will have a formal break coming up helps solidify in the player’s mind that they can hold off for another 15 minutes if they need to get a drink or stretch their legs.
This one is going to be trickier to recreate in home games, but having a formal set whose sole purpose is to play a roleplaying game really helps to get everyone on the same page. Having played in homes, conventions, and at the FLGS, it really does make a difference how familiar you are with a space, and how many other activities you associate with that space, when it comes to how easily you can slip out of the headspace of the game.
While you may not be able to build a set for your games, or even have a dedicated room in your house for it, you can do things that dress up the physical space just for the game. Even before you get out a battle map or miniatures, you can have “set dressing” that indicates the current function of the space you are in. For example, in my Star Wars games, I would often bring my two-foot tall Darth Vader action figure, or have a centerpiece that was a starship of some kind. For my 7th Sea game, I had a wooden pirate ship that I would set in the center of the table. It’s a signal that this space is currently “consecrated” to this particular game.
Game moderators are players too, but in traditional games, they do have a different set of responsibilities than the players. In this instance, we’re talking about setting the tone of the game. Specifically, Matt is very good at not falling into digressions when they come up.
I will say, one of the reasons I often don’t fully understand the argument that Critical Role is “scripted” or “fake” is that many of the things that happen in everyday games happen in their game as well. One example of this is that the players fall into digressions. Modern-day songs break out, jokes about video games will happen. Comparisons between a current situation and a similar situation in a pop culture work will be made.
What is interesting is that Matt very rarely participates in these digressions. He doesn’t cut them off immediately, but he has asked his players to get back to the game a few times, and he very rarely adds his own perspective to a given digression.
I will admit, this is a difficult one for me as well. Some pop culture references are just too hard for me to resist, and if the GM starts to digress with the rest of the group, it does tend to make it more difficult to pull the rest of the game back on track.
There are definitely times when the players end up looking up their spells or special abilities in the middle of a game. There are even times when Matt has changed a custom class feature and he has to reference that change.
On the other hand, when it comes to the “infrastructure rules” of the game (“does this provoke an opportunity attack?,” “what kind of check do I make to do this?,” “How long would it take me to make this thing?”), Matt answers quickly and gives a ruling.
There are two important corollaries to this. The player’s don’t often dispute how to resolve something once Matt has stated it. This isn’t because Matt, as the GM, is god, but because the Game Moderator’s job is to facilitate the game moving forward, and discussions about why the GM has chosen to adjudicate a rule a particular way slows the process down. However, Matt often mentions through various venues when he has looked into how he adjudicated a process, and the input that others have given him, and what will happen going forward.
Ending on a Cliff-Hanger
Some groups will prefer more episodic play, where everything is introduced in the session, and gets resolved in that session. There is no right or wrong when it comes to episodic versus serialized structure in campaigns, in general. That said, having the ability to end a game on cliff-hangers does give the GM some tools to jump into the next game session.
Critical Role doesn’t always end on a cliff-hanger, but it happens enough times that it is worth mentioning that it is a tool that Matt uses when running his games. Cliff-hangers give the GM a situation that is immediate to introduce at the beginning of a session. The decisions that the group will make will have more immediate importance at the start of the session, and will start the game with momentum.
You don’t always need a cliff-hanger, but having them on a regular basis can make the campaign feel like it’s always moving forward, and not waiting for more ponderous decisions and interactions to happen.
Best Practices Where You Find Them
I think a lot of emphasis is put on Matt Mercer’s storytelling ability and the voice acting of the group, but not as much emphasis is placed on how many overall “best practices” they have in place at this point in their gaming careers. Some of these practices are obvious when pointed out, but can be invisible if you aren’t watching the game intentionally looking for them.
Additionally, I’d be remiss in not pointing out that you can learn a lot of this by reverse engineering some of your favorite streaming RPG shows, but you can also learn this from any number of valuable resources written on the subject. For example, much of what I’ve been pointing out from Critical Role is also called out in Engine Publishing’s Focal Point.
Disclaimer—Engine Publishing is Gnome Adjacent through the Gnome Stew/Encoded Designs/Misdirected Mark enclave of content producers, and I’m a writer for Gnome Stew, but I wasn’t at the time Focal Point was written, and am totally endorsing it as a fan that read it long before my dreams of gnomedom were realized.
I’m mainly looking at criticisms of Critical Role and analyzing what they do right in this article. This doesn’t mean that I would run my game the way Matt Mercer does, or that I think everything that the group does is the way it should be done. I will say that I don’t think nearly as much is done “entertainment first, game second” as some people may assume.
Personally, I wish the cast were more diverse, I think there are times when they get a bit ponderous with their character development segments when they could wrap things up more concisely, I got REALLY nervous about how hand’s off Matt was at the beginning of the second campaign regarding player on player conflict, and I wish the show did more to showcase active safety tools at the table. Even with all of that said, I’m a fan, I enjoy watching, and I think that there is a lot to learn from the experience.
Nice perspective on the criticisms that show receives. Lots to take and use in home games to improve them as well.