Why the End of Critical Role Ep. 50 is PERFECT: A Writer’s Take

I was going to post reflectively this week on turning twenty-seven yesterday, and looking ahead, etc, etc … but screw that, cuz I just finished episode 50 of Critical Role and I need to talk about its brilliance.

(Spoiler alert should be a given, but just in case…)

If you’ve never heard of Critical Role, it’s a weekly show on Geek and Sundry where a bunch of voice actors play an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaign (which they were playing privately for a while before someone approached them about filming it and raising money for charity). It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but between the voices used by the players and the Dungeon Master, Matt Mercer (who has different voices for every NPC), the foibles and flaws of the players’ characters (which they don’t shy from,  even when that creates conflict in the group) and the immersive world that Mercer has created for their campaign, it is a brilliant program for a spec fic writer.

So I was finishing the 50th episode tonight, where the players are trying to rescue the city of Westruun, which is under siege by goliaths. The party’s gnomish bard, Scanlan (played by Sam Riegel) sneaks into town to draw out as many of their warriors as possible – and when the plan goes to shit, he escapes into a temple he passed on his way in, where a single face peered at him as he passed. Now, the players (and presumably most viewers) assumed this face was the grandfather of another character, who is MIA and whose fate has been speculated for about four episodes. When Scanlan gets into the temple, he’s met by an entirely different character – his old performing comrade Dr. Dranzel, who appeared earlier in the series. And with him is Scanlan’s daughter, Kaylee (another earlier character) who looks at her dad and says, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me…” before the episode comes to a close.

Now, you probably read that and thought, “Yeah, okay, who cares?” If you don’t know the show, the above has no emotional impact for you. But if you watch the show, the plan going to shit, Scanlan being in mortal danger, and then the appearance of these two unexpected characters is an emotional roller coaster. It’s basically like any of these moments (at least one of which I’m sure you know):

That’s the emotional impact that gets conjured frequently on Critical Role, and its a testament not just to the players creating characters we care about via voice work and stat sheets, but to the story that Matt Mercer has designed. Anything can happen in a D&D game, and there have been plenty of instances where Mercer is caught off guard and his plans to corner or decimate the players go up in smoke. But it’s the moments when you know that he’s planned things out to an inevitable conclusion, or maneuvered the story so that some emotional impact is guaranteed, that make this show a sight to behold.

And that’s the sort of thing that I want to do with my writing. I want that intensity, where a reader is witnessing a scene unfold and cheering in their seat when things go well, or weeping when a character is on the verge of death. That tightness in your chest when Logen Ninefingers faces the Feared in Last Argument of Kings, or Torin Kerr and Craig Ryder are unprotected in the midst of a dogfight in The Better Part of Valor. Or this scene, which still gets me in the feels no matter how many times I watch it:

Those are the scenes worth building toward. As both a reader and writer, they are so friggin worth it.

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