Critique Role: Cooperation not Collusion

Welcome to my new article series: ”Critique Role,” an irregular critique of live gaming. In this installment I’ll be talking about “Critical Role” - a D&D game. Because we all know D&D and you can always watch the episodes for yourself, I’ll skip the details here. Suffice it to say that several weeks ago the Critical Role crew set out to play a social adventure in the big city, but like most D&D games, it turned into a bloody combat. No biggie, that happens all the time, right?

Last week though, the game took a weird twist. Out of nowhere Marisha Ray, who plays the group’s druid Keyleth, began questioning the group’s bloodthirsty approach. She pointed out how one character had shot an armed coachboy and claimed his soul, and how another killed a old mercenary lady who was asleep at the time. The group debated this issue and agreed that they needed to dial things back. Soon the adventure got on its way again. Over the next two and half hours, GM Matt Mercer and Marisha put the group in one situation after another that called their ethics into question: Uriel the City Sovereign questioned their actions and banned them from court; at one point they realized that they had the boy in their own personal dungeon, and later they debated with another druid over the party’s mission to kill a roc that was simply following its nature. You can see the whole thing if you don’t believe me at http://geekandsundry.com/critical-role-episode-26-consequences-and-cows/.

Now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s talk about the gaming. My first criticism has to do with the style: I feel that Matt really approached Sovereign Uriel in a heavy-handed sort of way. Although we did have some hints last week about the vampire controlling Sovereign Uriel, I think he could have been subtle about depicting this control. For example, Uriel could have agreed with the party at court only to have them socially ostracized later, instead of outright banning them from court. When they found that no one would talk with them, this would have created a mystery to be solved rather than a simple resentment of Uriel, and the vampire’s role would have been kept under the radar.

The big elephant in the room, however, is the whole questioning of the party’s morality. I’m a big fan of moral choices being thrust upon the players in investigative settings, but in the 26-odd episodes done so far, the “Critical Role” campaign is basically comprised of dungeon crawlers. So this seems out of character for this group. What really sent up the red flag for me is the fact that Matt and Marisha are a couple. When you look at the adventure Matt put forth, Marisha’s actions all seemed to force the rest of the party into questioning themselves. I’ve said in the past that I’m a big fan of cooperative play and player input, but what I see here is collusion, not cooperation. Collusion is a secret agreement to do something dishonest. In this case, it really seems that Matt and Marisha had a talk and agreed to drag the rest of the group kicking and screaming into the conversation. This had the effect of forcing all the players to step out of character and out of immersion to be something they’re really not.

Again, I think subtlety is the best approach. Let’s say Marisha had the ethical problem with the previous week’s adventure and told Matt. They could have agreed to play the Roc adventure in order to let her explore her druidic values. This could have led to other adventures in which she began to question her own actions and those of the group. It would have made for a more immersive experience. On the other hand, if it was Matt’s issue, he should have brought it up to the whole group to let them decide what their goals were in gaming. So in conclusion: aim for cooperation, not collusion.

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