Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote that bit that was defending Critical Role and how they do things? Sigh.
Up front, I want to make it clear that I have respect for the people on Critical Role. I don’t think they are bad people. They have done some work to use their fame to do good things, and they have spread the RPG hobby further than it was when they started. None of what I’m about to say is to say they are bad people, or that the concept of the show, itself, is the problem.
That said, I hope to never, ever reference Wendy’s in the context of RPGs ever again.
If You Don’t Live in Wendy’s Kingdom
If you haven’t seen the RPG news, Wendy’s paid some people at an ad agency to reverse engineer a D&D-ish game as a free product, complete with artwork and maps, as a distinct game, themed as heroes from a Wendy’s themed kingdom fighting the “evil” forces of thinly veiled analogies for McDonald’s or Burger King.
I’m not going to link to it, because they didn’t pay me to advertise for them, and they are already getting too much of my time.
In addition to releasing the game, Critical Role spend a whole night, over three hours, playing a one shot of this game. So, the most widely viewed example of the RPG industry, something that has a wide range of viewers, to the point that it draws viewers on the periphery of tabletop RPGs to watch people playing RPGs, did what is effectively a three hour commercial for a fast food place.
The Wendy’s Issue
Wendy’s is not a good company. They have bad labor practices, and they have dubious political ties. I apologize to anyone reading this, but I’m not going to dive into all of this because, honestly, this whole thing has me burned out, and all it takes is a Google search to find out that Wendy’s has opposed fair labor and sourcing practices that other fast-food restaurant chains had no problem implementing.
Initially, when all of this was brewing, I wasn’t all that bothered that Wendy’s put out their own RPG. Fine, they paid someone to do it, put it out for free, and charged it off as advertising. Cool. To some extent, D&D 5e managed to continue to justify its existence initially as “advertising” for the D&D brand, which Hasbro knew had name recognition, and which Hasbro wanted to monetize with movies and video games.
This isn’t meant to disparage the people that worked on the game, but here is the problem. Wendy’s didn’t hire people looking to design games. They hired an ad agency, and some people in the ad agency reverse engineered a game and put their own twist on it. This isn’t someone that wanted to design games, getting paid to do so. This is someone that gets paid to work on advertising, getting to work on advertising that happens to be emulating TTRPG rules.
So this is a free product, that gets a lot of visibility, that will likely take time away from people looking at other RPGs that they haven’t been exposed to, that didn’t even employ anyone that was aspiring to work on RPGs, but rather drew on people that already worked for the ad agency and happened to be conversant with the tropes of the hobby.
The Critical Issue
In the past, people have said that they wish that Critical Role would play other game beyond D&D, to get more exposure for other games and other designers and companies beyond Wizards of the Coast. I have often said that it is their show, and if they are comfortable playing D&D, that’s what they do, and it really is a game that grew out of the home game of a bunch of friends.
That said, Critical Role has played Grant Howitt’s games Crash Pandas and Honey Heist, as well as playing Vampire (not the current edition) and Call of Cthulhu. These are extended campaigns, but they are relatively well promoted one shot.
When it comes to promotional material, they have participated in the CelebriD&D program back when they were still with Geek and Sundry, where they played a one-shot with various famous celebrities that are associated with various genre projects. Additionally, they have performed product related one-shots for Shadow of War and World of Warcraft.
These one-shots never raised any red flags with me, because the celebrities were often people that had some interest in playing D&D, and the products being promoted were tangential to D&D. Additionally, many of the people on Critical Role have had voice acting roles in the video games they were promoting.
So why would I change my tune now?
Wendy’s is not a good company to promote but had this simply been a 60 second blurb discussing that the game existed, I don’t think I would have been that upset. I get it, you need money to do things, and all of us have purchased from, or even worked for, companies that don’t have the best track record of dealing with our fellow humans. We should work to change that, but there is a LOT wrong with the world, and sometimes you have to pick your battles.
But there is a big difference between selling 60 seconds of your soul for ad rates and spending three hours promoting a company that is not only dubious in their practices, but cynically made a product meant to suck up attention spans and consistently promote their products.
While I haven’t previously said “Critical Role should have played . . . “I can think of a ton of good RPGs that could have used a three-hour push with the size audience that Critical Role has, that would have been better for the community as a whole and not just further exploited the community for the purposes of crass commercialism.
It Was A Joke
If you somehow think that it would have been impossible to find another RPG that could have been played for a laugh for three hours, without utilizing a product designed as an ad campaign for a fast food corporation, it would not have taken much in the way of research.
Just off the top of my head, if they wanted to stay within the D&D framework, they could easily run a Dungeon Crawl Classics funnel. They could have run Pugmire or Monarchies of Mau. They could have looked up some of the more lighthearted offerings on the DMs Guild whose proceeds go to charity.
If they wanted to branch out to something humorous that wasn’t D&D, there is literally a list of RPGs too long for me to even contemplate typing out here on this blog. They could have even reached out to creators with projects on Kickstarter that might have a more humorous bent and helped to create something new.
Why Does This Bother Me So Much?
If I didn’t think the people at Critical Role were good people, and if I hadn’t seen them do good things with their platform, I wouldn’t get this upset by the situation. If Wendy’s had done this RPG, it would have been a quick odyssey in marketing that faded fast, but it’s got longer legs now that this one-shot exists.
What bothers me isn’t just that the Critical Role folks did this, it’s that a lot of people are reacting to this with the same defense I put in the previous section’s header. It’s a joke, so no harm can come of it. The problem is, “it’s a joke” is one of the reasons we continue to have bad actors and bad content in the TTRPG industry.
- “It’s not real racism, it’s fantasy racism.”
- “It’s not real misogyny, it’s just making fun of princesses.”
- “Sure, the people in charge of this company are terrible, but there are good people working there.”
It’s tricky to navigate things. There are so many fires, and only so much water to put them out. Every day we face the cognitive load of deciding what is the worst issue, versus what is the easiest issue to address. But the first step to dealing with any of it is actually addressing problems when they arise, instead of excusing or dismissing them.
I’m not calling for a boycott, and I don’t want to see personal attacks. I would love to see more thoughtful discussion of why this was a very bad idea, why RPG professionals are considered “successful” if they can actually pay moderate bills if they ply their trade full time, and why the level of legitimacy you give a company matters a lot for their reputation.
If you really need to eat, and the only place nearby is a Wendy’s? I’m not going to condemn you. You have a show that reaches hundreds of thousands of people, and that audience tends to say with you for three hours at a shot? That’s not a compromise, that’s a deliberate choice, and it warrants careful consideration.
For My Part
I have removed Critical Role from my podcatcher. I enjoy the show, but I’ve got plenty of other RPG podcasts and actual play to listen to at this point and freeing up three hours a week probably isn’t a bad thing.
Honestly, I don’t want my podcatcher automatically download any “paid advertisement” episodes and inflate the numbers that anyone sees about the effectiveness of the ad campaign. Will one person’s podcatcher make a difference? Nope. But I know I’m not a random number getting counted towards this.
I’m not saying I’ll never watch or listen to Critical Role in the future. I just want to be a little more intentional in my consumption.