While I have grown to love "Critical Role" and appreciate how influential Matt Mercer has been on "Dungeons and Dragons," I learned more about being a game master from Aabria Iyengar
I guess I should back up a bit.
Hi! I'm Joe Hadsall, digital editor for The Joplin Globe. I used to write a column called "Geeked Out" which covered all the nerdy, geeky forms of entertainment that got me excited about creativity. But then I stopped, because reasons.
Maybe I just wasn't geeking out as much. Maybe I was tired. Maybe I struggled with confidence or value of what I wrote. I don't know.
Best I can tell, the last column I wrote was in 2019, about Tool's newest album. Things have certainly changed since then. But a lot of things haven't:
• Until mid-November, The Lovely Paula and I still geeked out about shows together. We just took more naps than we used to. And yes, she's still the best thing that ever happened to me.
• Creativity hasn't stopped. People are still creating exciting books, TV shows, music and other works of art.
• I still love the New Orleans Saints, "Destiny," local restaurants and all the other stuff I used to write about weekly.
• Despite depression complicated by the politics and practices of today, I still find things worth geeking out about.
So Geeked Out is back, y'all! Partially because of a plan to develop other offerings at the Globe, partially because of my vanity, partially to justify looking at geeky things while at work, partially because there are still amazingly awesome things out there that deserve some irrational exuberance — we're back on this weekly wonderland, and I'm honored to have you diving in with me.
With that in mind, let's get back to my point about the best "Critical Role" GM — actually, I still need to keep backing up, don't I? OK.
Though I have been a geek all my life, I never played "D&D" until a couple of years ago. I am, technically, a product of the new fan base brought to the game by "Critical Role" — my youngest stepkid is a huge Critter. Mercer's merry band of voice actors and his wonderfully evocative playstyle grabbed him and didn't let go.
Because he knew I was good at voices, he asked me to DM a game.
Guys, when your kid asks you to run a game, I don't care how much it stresses you out and fills you with insecurity. YOU. SAY. YES.
And I'm so glad he did. Over the last two years, I've been opened up to an incredible new style of gaming, where the story is the victory, and we all win together. It has brought our family together in new ways (people, find a spouse who will play role-playing games with you, and you'll be in heaven the rest of your life), and has given us a new way to see different, previously hidden parts of each other.
It has also given me a new way to spend money. I have a shockingly large collection of dice, books and minis — the things I feared owning.
The dice alone — remember how I collect playing cards, and have hundreds of decks at home? In what world did I think that I, a person with hundreds of versions of the same gaming implement, think that one or two sets of dice would satisfy me?
ANYWAY: Now I'm running one weekly campaign and irregular family sessions, and I think I've become a pretty competent GM. I have dragonborn fighter and leonin bard characters ready to go, for when I get to play as a character.
I fully acknowledge that I'm in the youngest generation of "D&D" players. I don't have any experience with previous editions or variations such as "Pathfinder." So I realize that I'm speaking while standing on the shoulders of giants, here. I have never rolled up a character on paper without DnDBeyond to automate my modifiers.
In other words, I'm a noob.
"D&D" is currently in its fifth major revision of its rules, and this has been good for business. "Stranger Things" may have given people some nostalgia that led to a bump, but "Critical Role" has brought a flood of players to a version of the game that is surprisingly easy to get the hang of.
In a nutshell: "Critical Role" is a show where you watch voice actors play "D&D." That's it. And that's everything. You get the storylines, the role-playing and fantastical game experience, as well as the side jokes, innuendos and laughter that comes from friends having fun.
Getting its start with Geek and Sundry, it has become wildly successful on its own. Thanks to a leak, it was revealed to be the top moneymaker on Twitch. Mercer has become the world's most famous GM — and he has earned it.
"Critical Role" is a showcase for Mercer's gifts, from world-building to running a game. His voices are incredible, his command of the rules is almost flawless and his storylines are every bit as compelling as TV shows on Netflix. His world of Exandria is so popular that Wizards of the Coast, the owner of "D&D," has published a sourcebook, and will release an adventure next year.
His impact on the game can't be overstated: I try to create a similar atmosphere at my tables, and I regularly use Mercer-isms such as "You can certainly try" and "How do you want to do this?"
But I learned much more from Mercer when he became a player in a game run by Iyengar.
"Exandria Unlimited" was an eight-episode spinoff that ran over the summer, and this was the first version of "Critical Role" that I invested serious time into.
Mercer moved to the players' side of the table and let Iyengar drive the bus, and man, did she take us on a trip. Her time spent behind the screen has been incredibly influential and inspirational to me as a GM, and her influence is all over my game and game prep. That's mainly because "Exandria Unlimited" feels more like my games than "Critical Role," which has plenty of space and time to stretch out over years.
• Innovative uses of skill checks. I struggled with these, but Iyengar demonstrated new creativity with them.
• Sharing moments with the players and being more rewarding for player creativity. The players were challenged, but it never felt like the GM was their enemy.
• Incorporating and drawing out back story. She regularly made players confront inner demons.
I could go on, but that's probably best saved for another column.
Other Critters could argue with me, and I'd understand why. They watched hundreds of episodes of "Critical Role," so the eight "Exandria" episodes were probably jarring, from their point of view. They'd probably also argue that Mercer does all those things really well — I just noticed them first from Iyengar.
And that's fine! You can think that! I'm new to this whole thing, anyhow. But we can both be right. Already, Iyengar has dramatically changed the way I run games for the better, and that's really all that matters.
Campaign 3 of "Critical Role" features three characters from "Exandria Unlimited," which means the promise of more of that game influencing the current campaign is strong. I'll be watching: I'm a Critter now.
Ultimate reason for writing again
I know geekdom, especially over the last few years, has become defined by toxicity. I've watched more than one thing I love get mired in it — looking at you, "Star Wars" fans.
So maybe that's the biggest reason I've started writing this column again. It's my way of fighting back against the entitled undercurrents that use the anonymity of the internet to destroy exuberance already labeled as irrational. I'll plant a flag for geekiness to represent unbridled joy again, and share the things I'm geeking out about. "D&D" is just my newest "battleground."
Guys, there's a lot of cool stuff coming: New "D&D" rulebooks, the final season of "The Expanse," new albums from Sungazer, Dream Theater and others, new expansion for "Destiny," new season of "Locke and Key," and so much more will keep me excited and looking forward to the future. Can't wait to share 'em all with you.