Critical Role at 100 Episodes

June 8th, 2017 input via mattcolville

I met Liam O’Brien under unusual circumstances.

I was the Lead Writer on Evolve but I think at a larger company the title would be something like Narrative Director or some such nonsense. Titles never really mattered to me. I just wanted to be the writer.

We weren’t happy with the dialog we were getting from the publisher and–to their credit–they worked to make us happy. They said “We’ll find you a new VO director.”

It was Thursday morning, December 4th 2015 and I was at home participating in a live AMA on reddit for our new game. I was at home because the AMA started early and it wasn’t the kind of thing you needed to be in the office to do.

Around 10am I get an instant message from my producer.

Bennett: “Liam’s here.”
Me: “Ok.”
Me: “Who’s Liam?”
Bennett: “I dunno.”
Bennett: “I think he’s our new VO director?”
Me: “Wait, what?”
Bennett: “I dunno man. He says he’s only here for like an hour. So….”
Me: “OMW!”

I arrive at work ~30 mins later and burst into our little audio room looking like this because we’d all agreed not to shave or cut our hair until we shipped Evolve. So I come in looking like Dr. Hans Reinhart from The Black Hole.

Liam had this slightly bemused expression on his face like “What have I gotten myself into?” Neither one of us really knew what to expect in the coming days, Liam wasn’t hugely familiar with Evolve and obviously we were recording new and unannounced characters. I think Slim, Crow, Sunny, and Lennox. We’d go on to record new VO for 20 different characters.

So I just vomited four years of game development out and six months of character design and I didn’t really know what Liam knew, so I just gave him everything I had. You never know what will be useful in the booth.

I really had no idea what to expect when we went into the booth to record the next day. I didn’t know whose ‘side’ Liam was on, basically. Because the publisher picked him, he could be someone there to do their bidding and so far that had not gone well.

It became obvious pretty quickly this dude was the guy. Remarkably, Liam retained all the nonsense I spewed and carefully curated which bits to put in front of which actors. Which is another way of describing the job of a Voice Director.

As I got to know him, I started to understand him as an actor and see where his roots lay. Liam really is an actor’s actor. You cut him, he bleeds Pinter and Osborne. My kind of actor. 😀

The process of getting good performances from the actor was really the process of each of us learning the other, and how to communicate. Liam communicating to the actor was no problem. It was the two of us figuring out how we were going to be a team that was the work, and it was good work.

We had one actor who was delivering a great performance, but really didn’t understand the medium at all and it was INSANE how long it took to get a single line outta the dude. Like, he pronounced “Goliath” like Goalie-ath.

I turned to Liam, talkback off, and said “Liam it’s a real word! It’s from the Bible, Liam, I didn’t make it up! Am I going crazy?!”

And Liam was just sort of hunched over the talkback mic, looking at the desk and he reaches out and puts a hand on my shoulder and he says “It’s ok. We’re gonna make it. It’s gonna be ok.”

It wasn’t the actor we were worried about, he was completely clueless, it was US! We were the ones that had to like phonetically explain the lines syllable by syllable!

I remember recording dialog for our final hero, Kala. Kala was a very complex character and definitely had a Jekyll and Hyde thing going and we spent a lot of time on the Dr. Jekyll part and I had a very specific voice in my head and it was work, real work, getting there. But we got it.

Then the Mr. Hyde (not the Evolve character, the Robert Louis Stevenson character) part comes up and Liam and I are sort of…not looking forward to doing all that work again to get this new character.

But the actor just fucking nailed it out of the gate. I think Liam gave her one line of direction. “Like an Old Testament Prophet,” perhaps inspired by my current look, and she was off.

Liam and I are just marvelling at her performance. “Chills,” he says. That was a good day. We had lots of days like that.

So after a couple of sessions I’m feeling pretty relaxed and Liam “gets” my dialog. I am free to sit on the couch behind him and browse the internet while he sits in The Chair and tells the actors to stop acting and just say the lines. Stop trying to **make** the joke funny. The joke is funny, just say the line. Be a person.

We finish an AM session and as we wait for lunch he turns around and we start talking about D&D, about my game and Mercer’s game in which he was a player.

I knew Liam was a player in Matt’s game because a few weeks before this, I got this crazy email from Liam, reproduced here.

Hey Matt,

So Vex’alia and Vax’ildan got together for coffee this afternoon to reminisce over their formative years and wanted to keep you in the loop. Some added details from out youth. (Lala, chime in if I forgot anything)

Mom’s name was Margaret. She was a comely seamstress in a backwater village. Dad stopped to rest in her humble town, had a tumble in the hay with her, and rolled right on through. She struggled to raise us on her own. We were’t poor, but we lived a very simple life. The local human families avoided us.

At age 8, an elven traveler spotted us and instantly recognized our likeness to our father. A month later, a small group of elves showed up at our door and had words with Margaret. We’re too young to know why or how, but after talking to her, she wrapped us in her arms, told us she would always love us, but that we were being sent our father. The memories are hazy cuz we were so young, but it was a painful, tearful departure. Maybe mom felt father could provide for us like she couldn’t. Maybe there was something more. She told us we would be together one day.

We spent a the next 7 years being schooled, trained in combat, readied for possible emissary work. Father provided everything but love. Some of our teachers were polite, but we were never entirely welcomed as kin.

By age 15, we felt alienated and angry, and split in the middle of the night. There are touches of Theon Greyjoy, here. We said goodbye to our mother when we were very young, so the memories are distant. And we were never welcomed in Elf Town. SO they felt adrift between two worlds. So the twins leaned on each other, and roamed on their own for a year or so. They scraped by as best they could- Vex using her knack with a bow to hunt for food in the wild, and Vax using his childhood knack for sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, to liberate the odd coin purse from bondage.

Eventually, their loneliness become to heavy a weight to carry, and they decided to return to their mother. After they made their way back to the village they’d left behind so long ago, they found the unthinkable. Their childhood home, along with several homes around it, were nothing but piles of scorched rubble. The villagers told them a dragon (you pick the color?) fell upon the village in a fury, and scorched their childhood home to ash. When asked about their mother, villagers said that many had died. Whether their mother was one of the fallen, no one could say. They assumed she was.

The effect on the already troubled siblings was devastating. They felt they had no one to turn to other then each other in the world. No one was ever going to be there for them. They could only help themselves. Vex turned her anger toward dragons, learning everything she could about them. Reading about them, trailing them when she could. They were her prey now. Vax had always avoided a fight when he could. Now, he took up the knife, and turned its edge on anyone or thing that reeked of the chaos brought down on their mother and their home.

That brings us up to the start of our game. Sis hunted the wilds, filling their bellies, and brother secured what income he could. But eventually, they knew they couldn’t go on as they had. They began to hire themselves out for dangerous work. Teaming up with a rag tag bunch of adventurers for hire for a larger than average job, they found something they’d never encountered before. The beginnings of a family. it was a patchwork group to be sure, but over time, they have begun to trust someone other then themselves.

Also, some questions:

What is our father’s name again? Wife? Our half sister?

What is our father’s (and thus, our) place in elven society? We’re bastards. But what is pop again? A minor lord? Or a major player in the Elf Town?

I was like WTF am I having a stroke? Then it clicked, I realized what I was reading, and I responded accordingly.

Mr. O’Brien

I fear that of the D&D DM’s you know, named Matt, you have emailed the wrong one.

I can tell this because in my setting Elves and Humans can’t just mate any time they feel like it, because that doesn’t make any goddamned sense and it’s not what Tolkien meant by “half-elven.” In my setting your parents would have had to petition the gods to bless their union! As is right and proper!

Also, Vex’alia and Vax’ildan are clearly Dragonborn names.

But I can answer your questions anyway! Your father’s name was Vexikalisax, whence comes the root of your names. That was his only legacy to you. Because you bear his name, even as half-caste, the Elves will have to grant you some hospitality, though they will not like it.

His wife was Iridilex, who would probably plot to have you killed if she found out you were still alive. Your half-sister is Irilinor, she may not bear as much hatred toward you.

Your father was the Lord of Thorns, which is the equivalent of like the head of the FBI in Elven Town.

Good luck!

-Matt Colville

At this point, I’d never met Matt. He’d been voicing Abe, but his recording sessions were done in the Dark Times when no one from the Developer was allowed in the booth. So we’d never met or worked together. But Liam CCed us both and I got his response from Mercer;

Listen not to the False-Matt’s lies. He wishes to fill your mind with treachery and chaos!

😀  I enjoyed showing Liam’s email to my coworkers at lunch and saying “I got this email, no explanation, from our Voice Director” and watching them go through this whole journey of like “WTF is this?!”

Little did any of us know where this would lead.

Back to the recording session, and Liam comes and sits on the couch next to me and pulls out his phone and starts showing me, like, Vines of them playing. All these actors I’d known and followed, just playing D&D in Matt’s dining room.

Then Liam says “Don’t tell anyone this [a remarkable number of conversations with actors begin this way], it may not happen, but it looks like we’re going to be playing D&D live on twitch.”

I actually didn’t know what he meant. But I sort of assumed something like Acquisitions Incorporated? As we talked about it, he said “No it’s literally just going to be our D&D game, live. We’re not making any changes to how we do things.”

A light sort of went on over my head and I saw the future. “You guys are going to get a million viewers,” I said. Because it was the perfect storm of so many things. I knew, before they had begun, it would be impossible to duplicate and, 100 episodes later, I think I was proven right. Blessed are those who believed, before there was any evidence.

These folks are charismatic, fun, they’re playing D&D which is this unique experience among games. They’re inventing their story, their characters, live. It’s improvised, but there are actual rules, game rules. There’s a storyteller, but he has no idea what’s going to happen. Each player is a player and an actor and a writer. They are inventing characters they own live before us.

Of COURSE viewers get hooked and feel for these actors and their characters in a way I’m not sure they do in other mediums because the actors own and invent their characters live in front of us.

And D&D is sort of…optimized for streaming in a way no video game is. It’s social the way no other game is. It’s not a board game with all the players looking at a board, or a hand of cards, it’s this face-to-face thing that gets deep into the heart of what makes us Human. It may be that our sense of self, our awareness of our own identity, arises naturally from awareness of what’s happening in someone else’s mind. Our primate ancestors thrived and survived because they had profound social ties, they fought and struggled and died for each other, because they spent all this time looking at each other, face-to-face, and developed the evolutionary advantage that let them understand what the other monkey was thinking and feeling. That came first. Then the awareness of ourselves thinking, feeling, being perceived arises. Playing D&D, face to face, is the act of bonding with each other and reinforcing our own sense of self, and being part of a larger social group. It’s psychological and sociological simultaneously.

After the first episode, I tweeted at Mike Mearls and said “These guys are the best ambassadors for D&D out there.” No one else comes close.

I enjoyed having lunch with Liam every once in awhile for work purposes but also catching up on D&D. I was amazed, though I should not have been, at how intense the fan community was. One known metric for the health of a fandom is the amount of art they create, including stuff like cosplay. Well holy shit Critical Role’s fan community was already creating an insane quantity and quality of stuff. It reminded me of League of Legends. People think of the LoL community as being “toxic” but they mean chat. Chat is toxic. The community is amazingly creative and supportive. That’s an important lesson: the community is the people, not the live chat stream.

So I tell Liam “You have to feature this art on the show.” I think he sort of got it, but I was the writer at a small video game company, there was no reason to believe I knew what I was talking about. But I’d been playing close attention to how video game communities come together and interact, largely based on the fact that two of my best friends worked in Community at Riot and we talked about the sociology of this stuff all the time. Social media is something I think I understand better than most, certainly better than most people my age. 😀

“The way to strengthen the community is to feed it back to itself.” Showing off the art is rewarding the artist, and that makes more artists and more art, and a stronger community. Is it not obvious now that art is that thing we make to tell each other who we are? That we are part of the same experience?

In my memory, Critical Role and my YouTube channel launched at about the same time, but memory is faulty. Critical Role had been going for a full year by the time my channel launched. But it all mixes together for me because I’d been trying for a couple of years to record our D&D game and use it as B-Roll for a YouTube channel on how to run D&D. I figured I’d talk about how the session went, the decisions I made, and I’d cut to the footage of us actually playing to serve as the example.

Eventually this proved so complex, I said “Fuck it” and just recorded the how-to video and that seems to be going well. Critical Role is about to hit 100 episodes and we’re about to hit 100,000 subscribers on YouTube. It’s a coincidence, two unrelated numbers, meaningless. But it means something. 😀

When my friend Jay Hill and I were competing to see who could get to 5,000 subscribers first–something we did as a lark mostly to motivate each other to make more videos–we each did EVERYTHING we could think of to get our subs up. I asked Matt Mercer to tweet about the channel, and that did the trick. I won. I hit 5,000 subs around midnight one Sunday…seven subscribers ahead of Jay. 😀

Ever since then, Matt has been a stalwart supporter of my content. A couple of times a year I find out Matt was at a Con somewhere and someone asks about how to be a better DM and in front of God and everyone Matt just says “Go watch Matt Colville’s videos.” I get emotional every time that happens.

I hope someday to be worthy of the friendship Matt Mercer has shown me.

Matt and Liam are now both big parts of my life. None of us get to see each other and hang out as often as we like, but we are joined by this incredible, bizarre experience of taking something we love, we’ve always loved, we’ve always believed in, and broadcasting it to the world. When I started as a teen in the 80s, and all through college, I never felt like my time invested in D&D was wasted. I knew, I was certain, that this had value. Even if hardly anyone saw it, even if it was deemed weird (it is) and nerdy (yes) and therefore deserving of contempt (it was the 80s) I knew it had value. Never once questioned it. Never occurred to me to question it.

It’s fun. It’s a fun game everyone. D&D is the most fun you can have with your brain. Come see how it’s done. We’ll show you it’s not as hard as it looks.

People now seem to know what Matt and I have always known. This thing has value. It is worth our time. And that is a revolution in the hobby, in streaming, that we’ve only now starting to see the beginning of. I firmly believe the history of tabletop RPGs will be divided in the years to come into “Before Critical Role” and after. And after is better, because now normal people get it. They see it, they see it’s fun, and hopefully they see it’s pretty easy to do actually. It may be that people look back on streaming and say “remember how we thought streaming was mostly about video games?” Video games are profoundly solitary. D&D is social. Which do you think is better optimized for social media?

Matt and I are each, separately, building our own little empires. Two Matts, both kings of these little, growing domains. But allied. Adjacent. Our kingdoms abutt each other. And, when need be, we defend each other.

I have in the past found myself on the Critical Role subreddit, which is quite good, explaining some of the shit Matt Mercer is dealing with. What a DM deals with and the on top of that, dealing with the audience, the expectations. The stuff folks say sometimes takes a heavy toll. I told him once “You could weather any storm, if it was just you. It’s when they slag your friends off, people you love, that it cuts.”

I had the pleasure of having dinner with Matt and Marisha a few months ago. I successfully navigated their “what would Ventura County look like if you stopped watering and mowing everything?” Nature Preserve where once (presumably!) there was a lawn, and Matt and I talked about D&D and CR into the wee hours.

I’d read a white paper from Riot on chat and how to improve it. He has power Riot doesn’t have, and I told him how I thought he could use it better. “Don’t respond to the trolls or the criticism. Pick the best, funniest, most insightful comments, and respond to them. Because your time, your attention, your response, is the currency all of chat trades in. Senpai noticed me! If you pick the comments you like best, and respond to them, you show everyone watching what they need to do to get your attention. And that encourages more comments like that. You set the tone, then let the community police the trolls.”

I think he already knew that, but sometimes talking about things helps us understand it.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about Critical Role, about how it could be improved. A big part of my own stream, which won’t really launch until August, I think, is me trying to develop these ideas in my own sandbox, so I can take the stuff that worked to Matt and Liam, and we all learn. Who knows? It might work.

It’s impossible to track the Brownian motion of a life. Which particles randomly collided to send this atom spinning off, in what seems to the atom to be a meaningful, foreordained direction. But certainly meeting Liam and Matt will go down as pivotal moments in my life. My YouTube channel affords me opportunities I’ve never had before. The future, for the first time, seems unlimited and I no longer live in fear. Isn’t that remarkable? I now feel secure that the stuff I make, there is an audience for.

But I cannot separate that in my mind from Critical Role. I owe a great deal of the channel’s success to that show in general (for without it, the pool of people wanting to learnt to DM would be much smaller) and Matt in particular for his support.

The funny thing is, when we were casting Matt Mercer’s character for Evolve, Abe, I sent two auditions to the publisher and said “Either of these two could do it, your call.”

The two Abe auditions were Matt Mercer’s and Liam O’Brien’s. Crazy to think how different things would be for me right now if Liam had been Abe, instead of our VO Director.

I love you guys. See you at Episode 1,000.