Me/D&D — A Love Letter to Critical Role

Dungeons and Dragons can be played a myriad of ways. I’ve read someone describe it as “being the main characters in a fantasy novel”, but it’s even more open-ended than that. It can literally be anything you and your friends want it to be, it just so happens that most people value simplicity over anything else, and so they more or less stick to the rulebook (which, as Barbossa would say, are more like guidelines—especially the Dungeon Master’s Guide). I came to a realization about Critical Role today, and I thought I would share that realization with all of you in the form of a love letter… Buckle up, this one is going to be a long one.

268x0wCritical Role, a weekly livestream of D&D I’ve already dedicated one full post to, does just that. They play with the rules that they’re given, and only on rare occasion does the dungeon master, Matthew Mercer, ever cook up a new monster or a new character class/subclass. I would go so far as to say that they play a very vanilla version of D&D, and the only thing crazy about it is how gifted the players are at pacing out story beats and telling the tale of a group of people rather than getting from Point A to Point B. Of all the D&D streams I’ve watched in the past, that’s the #2 reason to watch the show.

What’s #1 you ask? Well, before I get to that, I want to step back and talk about why I personally love it so much. Not as the critical observer as I often am whenever I’m consuming media, but as the fan. As Kollin.

I’ve been watching the show since it aired 3 years ago now, and this only dawned on me today. Critical Role encompasses every aspect of my personality, and encapsulates everything I want to have and be. (If you’re lazy, just skim the paragraphs ahead—the bullet points are in bold.)

For starters: storytelling. Obviously, I love stories. I’ve fancied myself a writer for nearly a decade now, and I specifically love epic fantasy. I grew up with World of WarcraftLord of the RingsDragon QuestOblivion, etc. The romanticism of picking up your sword and shield and going on an epic quest is something so inexplicably baked into my being that I literally cannot describe why I love it so much. It’s simple, easy to understand, yet its breadth is endless. In order to tell a complex story in such a world, you first have to start simple and show the audience this new world—explain its rules—and seeing a world where our impossible becomes their mundane is always fascinating to me.

zrzut-ekranu-2017-11-29-20-39-17

That ties into the concept of what Dungeons & Dragons is. It is a literal, mechanical fulfillment of the Hero’s Journey. You kill monsters, you level up, you achieve goals, and so on. I love watching or being somebody who has nothing inevitably challenge literal embodiments of evil. By then, you’ve really learned about and grown with the character, and in many ways you’ve watched their life go by. What I like about D&D is that victory is not guaranteed. If I had my way, I would even go so so far as to say that it is less likely than defeat, for how can victory feel empowering if you feel it was given away? (Now, a Hero’s Journey and storytelling clearly go hand in hand here, but I think the distinction is important. Not all D&D needs to be a journey, and not all storytelling is D&D.)

116curiousbeginningsAs for aspects specific to Critical Role, and to explain why it holds a special place in my heart over any other D&D show, the first component to this is the cast of the show itself. Every player in the game is a notable and respected voice actor, and I knew over half of them when I first tuned in (by the sound of their voice if not their name and appearance itself). These people have all had a hand in creating the games and shows I’ve dedicated so much of my life to (the aforementioned World of Warcraft is certainly pretty high on that list). So because I recognized their voices, I was already familiar with them. I already know these people, and this is an opportunity to know them better.

But even more than that, they’re all actors. I’ve been a part of the theatre world for six years now (which is crazy to me), and it literally changed my life. I tell people I was the kid that sat in the back of class reading and hoping nobody would talk to me. They’re always surprised to hear that because I’m so outspoken (they don’t realize that all that’s changed is that I now sit in the front of the class hoping somebody will talk to me). It didn’t necessarily make me more confident—I’m lucky enough to have pretty much always had that—but it did teach me to have fun by not caring about looking cool, stoic, and professional. I’ve found that people will hold a lot of respect for those than can throw caution to the wind. It’s a skill not many have. So watching the cast put on silly voices and make dumb jokes really speaks to me. Not because I’m an audience member admiring their skills, but because I’m a fellow performer that appreciates their techniques and the obscure theatre-related jokes they sometimes toss out at each other.

Lastly, and by far the most important reason that this show is the best—these people are all best friends. It’s really heartwarming to watch a group of people have a blast with each other. To share in the absurd humor as well as the very real tears that have happened over the years. You see people who so overtly love each other and the community they’ve created, and watch as they empower each other every week, and it maxresdefaultreally has an effect on you. It’s really difficult not to feel like part of the reason that they do this show is for you—and not in that “we do this for the fans” sort of way, but in a genuine way. They show fanart on stream and have hired fans to be part of the tech and have quite literally built a community founded on love and respect for one another as much as D&D. Sure, not everyone is as loving or respectable as the cast, but the vast majority of voices I’ve seen in the YouTube comments or on Reddit have been supportive and, in general, awesome.

I have a lot of dreams for the future. Some of them I know I will never achieve, simply because it’s not what life has in store for me. But if I have one goal, it’s to be happy. And every week when I get home from work or school to watch Critical Role while relaxing with a cup of tea, I can’t help but think.

One day I’ll have that sort of life. I don’t envy them for having it, because I’m grateful that they’re willing to share it with the world. And one day I’ll surround myself with people who bring me nothing but joy and we’ll share tears of both joy and pain. I may not be there yet, but if they can do it, I can do.

Review — Wizard of Oz

 

There’s nothing I can say about The Wizard of Oz that hasn’t already been said — thousands of times. But after seeing it, I had to talk about it anyway. I thought about writing a different review and making up a conspiracy about how Toto was actually the antagonist of the story (he’s actually an evil wizard that cleverly and indirectly ruins Dorothy’s plans throughout the whole film), but honestly, it would have taken a lot more work that I didn’t have time to devote to it. So here’s just a basic review, with some fun stuff at the end.

It’s easy to see how Wizard of Oz (1939) became an instant classic in the film industry. It does a lot of things amazingly well, and I was genuinely surprised at how well the story telling holds up in the modern world, structure wise. Its use of parallels and symbolism, I feel, finally start to bridge the gap, and we start to see the true potential of what the cinema is capable of in a way an audience never has before.

We see that Dorothy is not satisfied with her life on the farm, for a number of reasons. (Interestingly enough, the cliche “This place is holding me back” actually isn’t one of them.) The whole set of the farm is colored a dirty brown. It’s gritty and messy, and Dorothy looks out of place here, as she’s pretty much the only clean thing here. She also sings, which brings a breath of color in the world, which is also out of place, since no color of expression really belongs here.

When she gets to the land of Oz, the world is now filled with color. What’s more, the munchkins and Glynda accept her here, with the implication being that she finds a sense of belonging here that she hadn’t felt at home. People sing here, like she did, and there’s tones of exploration and wonder that suit young Dorothy’s heart.

The whole form of this film, obviously, is the hero’s journey. The young hero(ine) accepts the call to adventure and finds themselves in the belly of the whale, adventuring a new world and gaining a crucial knowledge before returning home more wizened. Lots of stories follow this theme, and Dorothy’s eventual acceptance of her lot in life (living her days on the farm) shows a growth that she might never have learned had she not gone on her adventures in Oz.

Oz is colorful, musical, and most importantly, it isn’t real. Dorothy loves it, but the longer she is there, the more she misses and worries about her aunt. This place is wonderful, but she knows her purpose — she must find her way back home. Were she more childish, and not ready for life in the real world, she might have tried to spend her days in the land of Oz, forgetting her troubles and responsibilities. (With this in mind, we can also consider the function of Toto as a metaphor for staying young — he’s what spurred her to adventure to begin with, and he tried his best to make her stay in Oz once they were there, too.)

The content of the film is all about the contrast of color and wonder versus gritty realism. It’s a coming of age story about how Dorothy comes to accept who she is supposed to be. Her three companions on the way to the Emerald City were all characterized about what they lacked — a heart, a brain, and courage — but Dorothy didn’t lack anything. She was characterized by wanting to go home, right?

Well, in a way, yes. But even though Oz was discovered to be a sham, the three companions all got what they wanted, even if they expected some sort of magic to do it for them. In this way, Dorothy, too, got what she lacked — acceptance in two forms. She found that her family on the farm loved her, and that even if she wasn’t entirely satisfied with her situation on the farm, she could accept it and be happy there.

 

Anyways, this movie has some serious plot holes. What was the place called before Oz got there? “The land of He-Who-Is-Yet-to-Come?” Where was the Witch of the South, and why was she never even mentioned? What did the ruby slippers do, teleport you to Kansas? That sounds awful, and honestly, Dorothy should have given them up if that was the case. Sure, her family might have been killed by an evil witch, but the entire land of Oz would have been free of tyranny, and Dorothy wouldn’t have had to live with the knowledge that she was a murderer — twice over — I mean, that’s got to be traumatic.

Also, is Glynda really a good witch? She must have known Oz was a sham, and yet she let the entire populace live in ignorance, ruled by a fraud when she had real power at her disposal. Even Gandalf exposed the corrupt rulers of Men, I mean come on. She has to be guilty by negligence.