In my last post about learning by listening I explored the questions that popped into my head while listening to the Critical Role podcast as they played through a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It was fun and interesting for me to listen in and learn how the DM and players react to different situations, how they use various roll checks, and the descriptive nature by which the DM handles the game. It has been a fun listen in. I am on episode 11 of season one and at a pretty interesting and exciting pivot point for the group – they just completed their main, specific mission they were on but aren’t quite out of the woods yet. The next step will be to see how the DM handles the end of a chapter or break in the excitement. There are still over 100 episodes left, all between 2 and 4 hours in length so there is a ton of content to enjoy. I already feel connections to all of the characters in different ways. It is even more fun and interesting as you start to understand the personality of the people who are playing the characters. It is a very interesting experiment.
I made the jump to pause on the first Campaign and start in on Campaign 2. The main reason is to be a bit more current – there are five episodes out currently so I can catch up easily. I can always go and revisit the first campaign when I am in a holding pattern for new material. The new campaign is with all new characters (but the same players) in a whole new setting so I am not missing out or skipping ahead in timeline. Campaign one will always be there but being a part of something as it happens has it’s own benefits as I can be a part of the conversation. I am also very curious how things have changed in the mood or style that they play by. There are some big changes and I have not been disappointed. I am going to share my experiences as spoiler free as possible with still getting my points across.
First off – the players are all role playing a lot heavier this time. They are using new voices and themes and have really dug deep behind the characters they are playing. Characters are doing things in this play through that are turning out to be bad decisions but being made for the right reasons – that it is most likely what their character would do in that situation. I respect that a lot but it also makes a lot of things happen that are unexecpected for the DM – which seems to be fine because Matthew Mercer is a very skilled and experienced one. I would have probably been thrown for a loop or two. The group can be a bit “joke heavy” at times in what they are saying and doing but that is who those characters are – and the DM is making modifiers based off of that. He made a character do a persuasion check, who rolled really high on it – but the words they used to persuade (the way it was presented) was very weak and he mentioned there is a modifier. That is fun and forces players to be sure about what they say and do. He also pressures them if they are taking too much time to make a decision if there is pressure on (in combat, for example) which forces players to think on their feet.
In this campaign the players do not all know each other and some have had side, introductory adventures to the city they are in – so there is reference and differnt understandings in the three different groups that currently exist. It is a challenge to get them to become a single cohesive group in a natural way. Part of the gameplay is very interesting and almost too open – a card game, for example, where both are attempting (and perception checks) against each other to cheat using sleight of hand. Each player knows the other player is attempting it but the characters don’t (as they both failed). This creates an interesting dynamic where the player knows that the character is cheating but the character doesn’t. How can you balance knowing you should mistrust someone but based on the in game rolls you can’t? There has also been a few times where there have been statements made by one player character to another and the recipient asks for a contested insight check to see if they are lying – and if the player loses the deception check has to admit to the player that they are lying, so the character doesn’t believe them as well. Again – it is just a layered dynamic that forces me to think how I would handle that.
The first episode starts slow as we are introduced to the different players and their small little groups, how they meet, and a central place they end up together where the action really heats up and sets the tone. I believe it was this event that should force them closer. However, the second episode is playing out really slow as the DM has given them a big sandbox to play in with little guidance or instruction and the actions the players are currently choosing is not moving the tale along in any obvious meaningful or tangible way. The DM seems to be really patient here forcing the players to sort through it to move the action along, and I am curious how long that will last before he gives them a big in game hint/nudge to support them. The way it is currently going I have a feeling it could be a lot of circles – but I don’t believe the DM will let it go that far. This episode (#2) has been a bit of a struggle for the players and you can feel it as a listener as well.
I will definitely sludge through this part and I am sure things will pick up. Regardless, it is a great listen and the new campaign is a good starting point for new listeners (or watchers if you prefer – it is broadcasted on Thursday nights and the podcast follows it up the following week). I still am very curious how the old campaign continues and for me it is like having The Walking Dead, and Fear the Walking Dead – two good, related shows, both at my finger tips. I just haven’t decided which is the better one yet – still too early to tell.
The current Critical Role podcast episode I am on is over 4 hours long and they are fighting a Beholder. This is an advanced Monster that graces the cover of the Monster Manual and throws all sorts of challenges at players. The interesting part for me is that I have been learning higher level D&D play and the impact that prior DM choices have on the game itself. Not to put things into spoiler territory but one of the players has an attack that imposes the disadvantaged state to who it hits. That player has successfully used that skill on the Beholder twice in the battle (it’s still not over, I get it in chunks) and while it has been an epic battle that disadvantaged state has trivialized some of the scary things the Beholder can do. (Disadvantage, as explained here at DnDBeyond, forces a player or creature to roll twice on an attack or check and take the lower of the two)
As an aspiring DM this example forces me to think about how I would deal with that situation. I could, of course, just ignore that or impose an advantage situation to the Monster to nullify the disadvantage. I could fake rolls, behind my screen of lies. There are many things I could do to make my big evil bad guy more of a challenge. Truth is, as I think through it, is that that player chose that ability for this exact reason and him/her being able to use it would be highly satisfying – regardless of what intention the DM had. My personal take on this is that the game is there for the players to enjoy and ensuring there is a balance of them being able to have their moment to shine for the group. Giving them a real challenge becomes a bigger difficulty the higher level they get, the more items they get, and the more skills and skill checks they get. But in the end the adventure is for the players and the DM is one to help that enjoyment along.
I have two other examples of things that trivialize some of the game play I am experiencing that perhaps as a DM I would have been very careful not to give players – especially after I see the effects that it has had on the current adventure I am taking along with them. The first is a bag of holding. They have an awful lot of things in there that are convenient to have in specific circumstances but also things they would most likely not have on them if they were restricted on items and weight. The idea of being mindful of the exact items you have for a deep dungeon dive – and the scarcity that could create – is gone when you can throw in the kitchen sink. The Barbarian lost his Great Axe on a bad throwing attack, but no worries, I have a Giant Sword here in this bag too. Chances are he isn’t carrying both if he has limitations.
The second is a magic carpet. I don’t know where or how they got it (must be from a prior adventure!) but the carpet is huge – 10’x15′ and they neatly store it in the aforementioned bag of holding – so it is not an issue to lug it around everywhere. They have already used it three times in the first ten or so episodes to trivialize what would otherwise be a really interesting problem to solve. Of course they are going to use it and I don’t begrudge them to doing so but it makes me very aware that if I DM a group and give them something really good they will use that to their full advantage. So I need to have the adventure prepared to understand how prior loot found impacts future adventures. Again, I believe this is less of an issue in the early game when getting a +1 sword is a huge deal. This is also not as much of an issue if they didn’t have the bag of holding as carrying it around a dungeon would be cumbersome. So the combination of two items makes for the problem, and something I would need to be prepared for.
I personally don’t like how the DM does Stealth checks on the podcast as well because players have a good idea of whether or not their stealth is good. A sneaky rogue that rolls a 5 knows he isn’t sneaking well, and could alter what he does based on the roll. I suspect there is some argument there that they can tell if they aren’t stealthing well (hear their own creaking on boards, etc.) but I feel like if the DM rolled for them it could create some better stories. They think they are stealthed and unseen but are noticed (etc.). If I roll a 2 on my stealth check I will be far more careful than if I rolled a 19. The challenge here is if I should know that or not. I do agree with the idea that players should “own” their own results and rolls and the DM already gets to roll for a ton of things so this is an area I am curious for advice on from people who DM. This is similar to other checks that players can trivialize by hearing what they shouldn’t know. In one episode the DM forced a perception check. It was a low roll, and the person didn’t see the thing. One of the other players (with better perception) went to where that person was and then decided to “look around”. If the player didn’t know they rolled poorly on the Perception check then it wouldn’t have encouraged the other player to go and try and see what they may have missed. I am guessing these aren’t new problems to D&D but sorting through how I should deal with them.
Vox Machina, the name of the group of these adventurers are a fun and varied group of personalities and this greatly enhances the enjoyment I get from the podcast. Their Gnome Bard, Scanlon, sings renditions of current songs and alters them to the appropriate time period or event they are trying to influence and he gets a lot of them bang on and really funny. Grogg plays like a character with a 6 Intelligence, and his actions reflect that. Their Wizard is absent minded and plays the part amazingly. You can tell there are novice players when they are asked to directly role play out a situation – like when Pike, their Cleric, asked for Divine Inspiration for their God. The DM pushed her to be specific on what she asked, and in the tense moment she said something along the lines of “Come help us kill this thing!”. The God didn’t come, and as a DM if she would have been more specific on how and what she said I would have influenced the roll based on that. I already feel like the effort put into how and what is said would influence the outcome via modifier as the roll as well.
I think I am going to jump ahead and get in on the new campaign which is lower level characters. I’ll be able to keep up with the new releases and learn better how to run my lower level campaign ideas, and can jump back and listen in on the old campaign when there is no new campaign material available – as they are releasing weekly. I have never been much of a Podcast guy but this is very entertaining and engaging.