In what was perhaps Critical Role‘s single most devastatingly intense episode yet, Mercer and co. show why failure can be astonishingly good.
Critical Role‘s latest episode broke the internet. At least the portions of the internet that Critters hang out in, which is a surprising amount. Critters are a lot like Furries in that once you know what to look for, they’re everywhere. Here is a Jocks Machina t-shirt. There is a Jester tattoo.
But the latest episode marked a significant turning point for Campaign 3, one with devastating consequences. Some are calling the episode shocking or saying it’s Critical RoleIt’s the most intense episode yet. Spoilers ahead, but we’re going to talk about why that’s incredible.
Seriously though, spoilers ahead Critical Role Campaign 3, and specifically Episode 33. If you don’t want to be spoiled, this is your last chance.
Critical Role‘s Most Intense Episode Yet – Here’s Why
So, to start with, a quick recap. In the most recent turn of events, the party of Campaign 3 had been pursuing a dwarven politician whose influence touched many of the folks in the party. While in the city of Bassuras, they came across a mercenary and stone cold badass, Otohan Thull.
She’ll be important in a moment. At first, things are pretty successful. They take advantage of an assault on Bassuras to infiltrate the dwarf’s hideout in order to capture him. As they escape, they take control of a Mad Max type vehicle known as a Crawler. But they also run into Thull.
Now, before we get into the battle with Thull, we should talk briefly about how combat-heavy the lead up to this fight had been. Bell’s Hells spent probably the majority of the episode in initiative rounds. And while not every fight was a deadly, out-and-out brawl, it did sap their resources.
Which is how D&D is meant to be played. If you show up fully fresh to every fight (as Critical Role‘s heroes often do) there’s little wonder that you wreck shop. But with their strength depleted, Bell’s Hells encountered Otohan Thull.
Thull, an experienced mercenary with mysterious and personal ties to Laura Bailey’s character, Imogen, proves to be the deadliest foe in any Critical Role campaign yet.
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What follows is one of the most intense fights the party has faced. Mercer pulled out all the stops to challenge this 7th level party, and it shows. Otohan Thull is a Psi Warrior with legendary actions, and more importantly, a magic item that grants her an ability like the Echo Knight’s “summon echo.” Thus, she is able to be in multiple places at once, which answers the problem that most “boss fights” in D&D have — being in only one place at one time.
Thull is also a canny fighter, who, after observing multiple PCs getting revived, starts hitting them while they’re down. But the PCs have some power on their side in the form of Strixhaven spells Silvery Barbs and Wither and Bloom, both of which play critical roles (pun intended) in the fight. Without silvery barbs’ ability to force an enemy to reroll even a critical hit, the party would have fallen much sooner.
Ultimately though, it isn’t enough. Otohan Thull drops and then takes out party member after party member. Thull kills Liam O’Brien’s character, Orym in round 4. Then in round 5, she kills Ashley Johnson’s character, Fearne, and by the end of the episode, another is dying, two more have single digit hit points, and one is hiding .
How Critical Role‘s Cast Rolls With the Punches
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Although the internet is despairing, and fans with parasocial attachments to their favorite PCs are wondering if they’ll have to generate new fan art, there’s no mistaking the enjoyment on the cast of Critical Role’s faces. Although this was a knockdown drag out fight, as the episode ended on an incredible cliffhanger, the cast was electrified. Yes it was intense, but as Mercer points out, these can lead to the best parts of the games.
In a thread, he addressed his own personal philosophy:
I’m genuinely afraid to watch the episode, knowing how it has gone. I’m waiting next one like a kid waiting their presents to be sure I can safely look at the peivous episode.
I’m so sorry for the storm you are currently receiving Mr. Mercer. You are amazing, no matter what.
— Ry’Riann – A Critter, Proud & Friendly 🏳️🌈🎲 (@TTRPGschangedMe) September 10, 2022
Later in the thread Mercer talks about dealing with the death of a character:
But whenever a player character is lost, the most important questions I ask a player are: “What do you want to do? Which direction is most fun for you? Do you wish to explore another character/story? Continue this story through a new character? Or seek to reclaim this character?”
Whatever they choose, I will find a way to make it work. Communication is key to such stressful and possibly dark moments in your game. If everyone isn’t onboard, it isn’t worth pursuing. <3
Which, if you’re an experienced DM you’ve likely faced. If you’re an experienced player, there’s the adage of driving them like a stolen car. As the meme goes, losing your first character is devastating. Losing your fifth character is hilarious.
But what’s interesting about this situation is that many of Critical Role‘s viewers are newer to D&D. And this edition, in particular, is the least deadly an edition has been. It is so hard to lose a character if their enemies are not actively trying to bring them down. As we saw, it takes concerted efforts to keep PCs out of the fight. And as things stand, even with two characters dead and two more dying (or very nearly) there’s still a chance they could come through this, not unscathed, but with everyone’s character intact thanks to revivify.
Which multiple people in the party have, and again, illustrates how nonlethal 5E can be. Death isn’t expected. But danger is. When it shows up, though, it’s an opportunity for exciting storytelling. There’s a reason this episode broke the fanbase. And why fans like the one in the tweet above are waiting, with bated breath, to see what comes next. When the stakes are high, and failure is a real possibility, you suddenly buy in.
If you’re feeling emotionally exhausted, or like you’ve been through the wringer, that’s because you care about the characters. But while we might say we want to see characters just having a good day (lookin’ at you Will from Stranger Things) audiences are sort of cruel sadists who get the most out of seeing characters suffer to the point of breaking and then triumphing anyway.
As Mercer put it: the darkest moments lead to the brightest epiphanies.
Next Thursday can’t come soon enough