Fans of Critical Role, the Twitch and YouTube live stream and actual-play channel who have taken the Dungeons & Dragons and streaming world by storm over the past six years, always dread the end of a campaign because it means Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer’s weekly question: “Is it Thursday yet?” won’t be answered for some time. When CR announced “Exandria Unlimited” (EXU), an eight-episode mini series, would debut shortly after the conclusion of campaign two, aka The Might Nein, I was thrilled!
They announced their new Game Master (another moniker for a Dungeon Master) and live stream superstar Aabria Iyengar. Joining the show were new cast members Robbie Daymond and Aimee Carrero, returning cast members Liam O’Brian, Ashley Johnson, and Mercer in a rare player character role. The setting would be within Mercer’s now official setting of Wildmount. Everything was set up to be a fun, mini-adventure through a familiar world with new and familiar faces.
And it was…ok.
Pros and Cons
Iyengar is a great GM. She creates incredibly immersive stories and non-playable characters (NPCs). She admitted right away how nervous she was to be playing a campaign within Mercer’s world, joking, “But even if it’s wrong, it’s right now because I said so!” And her combat maps were insane.
O’Brian and Johnson are CR veterans from the beginning of their stream and never fail to entertain. Adding in Mercer, who typically runs the games at the DM and constantly rolled terribly with his dice, created a delightful new dynamic as well.
New cast members Daymond and Carrero brought their own flair for performance, role-playing, and storytelling to an already stacked cast of role-players. The choice to play in Wildmount, specifically Taldorai, 30 years after the events of campaign one and six years after campaign two, harkened back to the adventures of Vox Machina. This allowed both new and old fans to connect with the elaborate story Iyengar and the cast presented each week. Combat was nuanced and unpredictable, characters grew and developed quickly and effortlessly, and the eight weeks flew by in a heartbeat.
O’Brien, Johnson and Mercer played character classes they hadn’t before and it was clear they were having a blast. Daymond and Carrero added their own unique personalities and styles that brought something new and interesting to the stream.
Even as a viewer of the entirety of Critical Role’s episodes (which is 251 episodes, ranging from three to over five hours in length each), I felt lost in the world. I started watching the Might Nein in the summer of 2018, only a few months behind the weekly stream. I caught up relatively quickly once the show was also released as a podcast and I could listen while filing at my temp job.
After catching up, I went back to the beginning of Vox Machina and watched that as well in between the current episodes. While I never felt as invested in Vox Machina as the Mighty Nein, everyone was phenomenal and it was very clear why this show was/is so popular. It’s great. And while I mentioned above that the setting was ideal for fans to feel at home, as a casual-at-best viewer of Vox Machina, I didn’t get all the references.
Missed the Reference
There would be moments when Iyengar would say something, and O’Brien and Johnson would gasp! I’d scrub back 15 seconds and watch again, they’d gasp, and I’d still be lost. It was like if someone who had never seen any of the Marvel movies watched “Loki”. They’re just not gonna get it.
This disconnect led to a wavering interest in the storyline. If I didn’t know where they were, who they were talking about, or what was at stake, I ended up checking out until combat came around again. Never great for a tabletop role playing game live stream…
Lastly, and this is a tough criticism to give, but the lack of experience from the newer players flat-tired a lot of the action and was frustrating as a fan to endure. I say this is hard to critique because I love teaching people this game. I started two additional games during the lockdown and play in a third because I love this game. But I’m also not the most patient teacher (I leave that to my sister, the actual educator of the family).
So, when I’m watching a professional version of the thing I do with my friends on weekends and one of the professional players can’t grasp the basic rules and mechanics of the game, it gets very tiresome to watch.
And that’s not to say they were bad players. Far from it; both Daymond and Carrero took to role-playing like fish to water, being professional actors in their regular lives. But when we’re in the season finale and someone doesn’t understand their basic action economy in combat, I kinda want to scream. There were many, many instances when said player and the GM would playfully go back and forth with each other verbally and I wasn’t entirely sure it was all in fun from Iyengar. Several times during the latter episodes, she said, “We’ve been playing this for (x) weeks; you should know your character better than I do!” (pulls collar, uncomfortably)
Even Die-Hards Felt Meh
I chatted with friends who were die-hard Might Nein fans (they caught up with almost four years of episodes in about 10 months) and they gave up on EXU after two or three episodes. “I just couldn’t get into it,” one said.
There is something magical about the cast of Critical Role all together, either sitting around the table or socially distanced as they have been since last July, that can’t seem to be replicated with different folks at the table(s). Even with the various other shows and one-shot adventures they’ve done – and I hate to admit it – I don’t think CR can be CR without Mercer in the DM’s chair.
I hope their creative team continues to think outside the box and try new content and, obviously, I’m going to watch every second of whatever they do.
But I also know when something doesn’t work as well as one would hope. And that was “Exandria Unlimited”. Whatever may be next, I’m still eagerly asking, “Is it Thursday yet?”
Rating 2.5 out of 5
Lincoln L. Hayes is an actor, writer, and Dungeon Master living in NYC. His love for D&D inspired him to talk to all his other nerdy friends about it too, and even make a few more along the way. Check out SESSION ZERO on his website www.lincolnlhayes.com.