A disclaimer is in order.
I love Critical Role, and I honestly think Matt Mercer is a wonderful DM and a great storyteller.
I’m watching the end of the series right now – and I will try my best to not include spoilers in this post. I, myself, have not yet finished the series…and as of writing this I’m on episode 111. So I’m actually trying to avoid end-game spoilers myself.
What I will say is that, currently, the party of Vox Machina is inside an impossibly humongous structure attempting to climb to the top in order to face off with a BBEG. And the reason I’m revealing that much is because I’m finding myself having a problem with how this climb is being handled.
The issue mainly occurs within episode 110 (slight spoilers ahead, mainly on the events that happen, nothing truly story-based).
So Vox Machina is inside this thing…and the build-up to it is incredible. There’s really high energy. The episode before, where they try to get inside the huge thing, is action-packed and full of tense and awesome character moments. It was really, really great.
Then they got inside the thing, and are immediately attacked by stuff. I get that, because I was kind of expecting there to be some resistance for the party. Matt pretty much set that up when he described what the nature of the giant thing was. So, fine, they can do with that encounter.
However, this encounter takes a really, really long time because of the abilities of what they’re fighting (lots of earthgliding happens, making the enemies impossible to target). After the combat is finally over, Vox Machina moves on and finds a large underground crypt.
Okay. Why would there be a humongous distraction for the party set right there in the path, when they need to hurry and get up to the BBEG as fast as possible? A few of the players even comment on this as an obvious distraction. They are literally on a time-table, and their allies are literally outside doing aerial battle with a slew of enemies.
So why are we stopping down on the action for a dungeon-crawl-esque crypt excavation?
What follows takes up a gigantic chunk of the episode’s run-time as the party argues over how to approach the crypt, how to interact with the crypt, and what to do with what they find in the crypt. And, after seeing what they found, I can hardly say it was worth it. Sure, Percy has something kind of cool now, but it seems really pointless especially when you see what happens with what Grog keeps.
Especially considering that over 75% of the searchable stuff in the crypt were empty.
After that, there’s a bit more exploration, and then the party seems to be making some progress! Oh, wait, here comes another combat encounter. More undead creatures, this time, but now they can regenerate, making it so that after the party downs an enemy, it can get back up and keep fighting.
Here’s a bit of set-up for you…. The players and Matt are all coming off of a week at GenCon, and they’re all very obviously tired and strung out a bit. I get that, and I’m not necessarily harping on them for that. However, Liam and Laura had agreed to “jaeger-pilot” for Pike while Ashley’s out, so they’re both having to run an unfamiliar character sheet while also running their own while ALSO being tired and a bit loopy.
Matt, himself, is tired enough that he completely skips over one of Marisha’s turns in this fight, and the players eventually figure out that the creatures are weak to fire…which happens to be Keyleth’s wheelhouse. If he hadn’t forgotten her turn, the encounter could’ve been over MUCH quicker.
Instead, it got drawn out, and I became more and more frustrated watching this episode as it seemed to – pardon my language – edge me along just to completely stop down for a pointless combat encounter or useless dungeon-crawl event.
Episode 111 had similar stuff, too. This bronze and iron room that is very much a death puzzle that the party has to figure out how to get past. Given what this underground place was, it seems really out of place, and I’m wondering why the heck Vox Machina isn’t already up top fighting the BBEG!
Perhaps my frustration stems a bit from my disappointment in how the climb is being executed here. I was picturing a much more action-packed, tension-building, Shadow-of-the-Colossus-style ascent through this enormous structure – while the actions and consequences of what’s going on outside (the aerial battle) occasionally interrupt and spill over to the inside. I was expecting something more cinematic and challenging.
Instead, it’s a slog, which SEEMS to be meant to drain the players’ resources before they can get to the BBEG to make them nearly completely drained during a pivotal battle. And that’s not cool.
Several of the players, throughout the two episodes, even said out of character that they did not want to spend spells, or abilities, or take long rests. They wanted to save everything, as much as they could. Instead, they’re finding themselves having to blow huge, 5th-level spells on things like Greater Restoration and the like.
Liam even jokingly (maybe?) told Matt that, “it’s a slog, we’re gonna slog our way through this!”
At what point does the DM realize that the players don’t seem to be enjoying this? I, as an audience member, am definitely not. It went from epic and cinematic, very SotC and God of War style…. to a DOS-run point-and-click adventure. I think the jarring gear-shift even gave me a light anxiety attack as I was watching.
In a previous post, I talked about the reasons for having an encounter:
- A way to add to the current story or plot
- A way to introduce a secondary goal or plotline
- A way to showcase your world to the players, and their characters by extension
- A way to force your players to make a difficult choice
In that same post, I did mention that stalling a party from getting where they’d rather be is a tricky line to walk. It can be incredibly effective if you stall them with a very difficult choice to make.
Vox Machina ascends through the tunnels of this enormous thing, hoping to reach the BBEG soon, when… their MAJOR ALLY that brought them here, and was leading the charge in the aerial battle outside comes CRASHING through the walls of rock, landing in a heap in front of them. He’s beaten and bloody, black veins criss-crossing over his body and spreading from sickly wounds oozing black ichor. He’s not sure if they can win the fight outside, he tells the heroes.
This forces the group to make a choice – continue climbing or return outside to help in the battle. Or maybe spend some resources to heal their ally enough to get him back in the fight. That is an example of a reason to have a diversion, something to stall the party from reaching their intended destination. This also shows the players how against them the odds are stacked, shows them that there’s a lot at stake, and the danger their allies are currently facing.
Throwing the party up against undead monsters and resource-draining traps for no reason seems irresponsible. What was the point of the regenerating creatures in Episode 110? Did the party learn anything new about their enemy? About their environment? Something that might help them on their way up? Something about how things are progressing outside?
Yes, in my previous post, I do mention that having undead monsters come out of the ground to attack the heroes approaching the lair of a necromancer as the evil wizard attempts to complete a ritual as being a sufficient and appropriate encounter to have.
However, that makes sense if the necromancer KNOWS the heroes are coming. In Critical Role, the characters have taken measures to – or at least were told that taking these measures would – ensure that the BBEG doesn’t know they’re coming. I get it if these measures end up not being strong enough to ward off the BBEG’s foresight, but that would feel cheap, like Matt’s robbing the characters of their dutiful preparation.
No, what these encounters placed in their way feel like are literal stalling. And I can think of two reasons why this would be.
- That Matt actually does want to drain as many of their resources OR TIME as possible so that the upcoming battle can go exactly how he wants it to go.
- That Matt is stalling for himself because he needs another week or two to finish preparing the upcoming encounter, which I get because he’s a busy man.
The former option seems really cheap and slap-in-the-face-ish. Railroady. Not just to his players, who have been doing all that they can to prepare and save for this encounter, but to the audience. I get it that the game isn’t about the audience, but it is for us in some small way, or they wouldn’t have agreed to keep broadcasting it. It’s also our time that’s being wasted on these encounters.
The latter option feels a little less cheap, but also a bit cheap, and again that’s because of the audience watching. I’m trying not to get too preachy or judgy here, because I do really enjoy the show, the story, the players, the characters…all of it. I do. I understand what a massive undertaking this is for Matt (I did buy the Tal’Dorei Campaign Guide, after all), to come up with and prepare all of this for everyone involved. I understand that there’s a lot more that he’s doing outside of Critical Role, and I can only imagine what his daily life is like.
So I try not to complain, I try not to judge, and I try to be empathetic.
What I don’t understand is why this ascent through this thing couldn’t have taken just one episode, and felt a hundred times more cinematic and epic. The lead up to the BBEG, the rising action toward the climax, should indeed get more and more grand, more and more tense, more and more challenging. That’s storytelling 101.
It should not be a stop-down for trapped crypts and puzzle rooms.
What are your thoughts on Vox Machina’s climb through Thomara? Were you as frustrated as I? Have you finished the show’s first story run, and now see why Thomara was done as it was? (If so, try to keep discussions spoiler-free!)
How do you handle the party’s final dash toward the BBEG? What obstacles do you put in the way, and why? What kind of encounters could there be? Do you try more for the “rule of cool” to make things feel more cinematic? Do you even have players roll for initiative?
Let me know in the comments!
Until next time – Well Met!