You’re new to Dungeons and Dragons, and like me, watch a lot of Critical Role (and other streaming roleplaying games) on Twitch and YouTube. The story is compelling. The comradery at the table is obvious and comforting. This is something you want to experience.
You asked around and finally have been invited to play at your first table. This will be your first real D&D game. You’re nervous and feeling a lot of anxiety, but also excitement. How do you, the new player, make the most of your seat at the table to experience what you feel when watching Critical Role?
Rich characters, player bonds and friendship, and first-rate table etiquette propel the narrative in the Critical Role campaign. As new players and old, we all want to find the same level of emotional meaning in our own games. We can explore the emotional impact of Critical Role and other streaming games to help us reach such lofty goals all the while managing expectations when we realize we’re not all Liam O’Brien.
So, where do we start?
It’s important to acknowledge what makes us happy. As fans, what we find most enjoyable from our favorite streaming show varies from person to person. We leave our Thursday’s open to watch the stream live because we want to talk to like mind people in real time. Maybe we happen to own both Critical Role art books (collector’s editions of course) because the art inspires us. Shared experiences connect us. How you choose to engage with the Critical Role community or the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game is a personal decision. Only you can decide what engagement works for you.
First, it’s crucial to maintain perspective. It is important to differentiate between consuming content and building a shared narrative. We connect with the world building at an emotional level, but that connection is largely passive. There’s nothing wrong with this connection, but it’s not the same investment and vulnerability required to build a collaborative experience. Engaging the hobby through streams is a generally singular experience, but the emotional impact we feel is shared with the people on the screen. They are not reacting to you, but we are reacting to them. This is a perfectly normal experience, whether you’re watching Critical Role with friends in Alpha’s chat or you’re cheering your favorite sports team at the local watering hole.
Trusting is hard.
Participating in the shared narrative at the table is a different experience than reacting to what you see on the screen. Making emotional connections we love so much in Critical Role takes work and trust. When one is consuming the game one’s actions or behavior are not impacting anyone but oneself.
When building the game with other players you should allow different parts of your personality to emerge and express themselves at the table. This exposure can lead to feelings of vulnerability. General feelings of anxiety can emerge. This is perfectly natural and if you have these feelings, it’s okay to step away or communicate with the DM how you’re feeling. If you think other players would be receptive, talk to them about your needs when roleplaying at the table. This will require some faith in your fellow players and trusting your vulnerability will not be used against you, but such a leap will assist in building trust at the table.
This is crucial because trust at the table is an important component for creating a shared narrative, story-driven game. The narrative components that likely hooked you into Critical Role were generated from these feelings of trust. Without a narrative arc or a compelling story, a game of Dungeons and Dragons is nothing more than a poorly implemented tabletop tactical miniatures game. While there’s nothing wrong with such a game, this experience doesn’t have us clearing our calendars on Thursday nights for months at a time. Building these relationships will take time. Be patient.
These relationships are important to not just finding the chemistry between characters in the game, but between the players at the table. These players will help you build your tower of storytelling. Pay attention, take notes. Try to identify the Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws of the other characters. 5th Edition is often criticized for the weak mechanical link between Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws and the game engine under the hood. This criticism is misplaced. Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws are not there to impact the mathematical aspects of D&D, but rather to remind the player of their character’s behavior. Practice using them with your own roleplaying to see if you’re giving a consistent character for others to work with.
Generosity can also arise from what you don’t say, or don’t do. Allowing another player to have the spotlight is critical to having a harmonious table. This is often best accomplished by saying nothing. Think of it as a scene in a movie. Your character doesn’t have any lines, so you wouldn’t step in and intrude as another character has their moment. Support dramatic roleplaying by letting your silence create moments for other players to fill with something interesting and wonderful.
Liam O’Brien is exceptionally good at this. As a professional actor, he knows when a long pause or a furrowed brow is all the commentary a scene needs from his character. Sam Riegel has a very different approach. He is skilled using humor to fill in those gaps without drawing spotlight directly to himself. His sense of comedic timing is incredibly well honed, so this works to the table’s advantage. Just as the rules in D&D are just guidelines often requiring a subjective application, so does roleplaying off another person’s performance. Learning when a moment between two people is over and the table needs to rejoin the scene takes time.
There are differences between watching professional actors play D&D and sitting down to play around the table with ‘everyday’ people. While it is true the Critical Role table is full of professionally trained actors, their skills are learnable by everyone. Body language and posture are good non-verbal clues to the scene’s maturity. Actively working to perceive the mood and tenor or the table are _active_ processes. Start by taking your cues from the Dungeon Master. Are they locked onto a single player? Or is their gaze actively moving from player to player, searching for a spark? The Dungeon Master is probably glancing at all the players at the table to see if they are engaged, so be sure to distinguish a quick glance from an active invitation to move into the scene.
Manage your expectations.
All of those wonderful moments you see on Critical Role didn’t happen overnight. There were culminations of months of work. It’s easy to overlook the fact they had been playing together for a year before streaming. Even after a year of on-stream play, the strong character bonds we associate with CR’s strengths were, at best, in their formative stages. The cast spent months learning to work together, both on and off camera. While the magic happened at the table, so much work happened between games. And it didn’t all work. There were failures. A troublesome cast member was removed from the show, likely because he wasn’t working within the table, but tried instead to work on top of it. Clear adjustments and evolutions in character arcs were made by the players as they grew more comfortable together, even dipping into the minefield of character romantic relationships.
As a new player and a fan of Critical Role, which performances impact you the most? Are there any performances you don’t identify with, or understand?