Critical Role’s Actors Discuss Play as Performance

Critical Role’s Actors Discuss Play as Performance

Exandria Unlimited: Calamity is a four-episode miniseries produced by the Critical Role team that explores a time just before an unavoidable apocalypse. Gizmodo spoke to three members of the Calamity cast — Travis Willingham, Aabria Iyengar, and Luis Carazo — about performance, improv, and how playing to an audience impacts the play.

Critical Role started in 2015 as a streamed improv storytelling series, using Dungeons & Dragons as a medium for inspiration. Now, seven years later, the cast has grown and the stories have expanded. As more of the world is explored and more ages in the timeline are revealed, new storytellers are stepping up to the tabletop.

“It’s interesting to play [Dungeons & Dragons] in a performative way,” said Iyengar. Unlike a home game, which allows people to spend longer amounts of time on group decisions, being on camera requires more flexibility from the table at large. “You have to be extremely locked into your character’s motives and drives… I might do something that we didn’t discuss before, so [the group] has to kind of go with me when I’m having a character moment.”

Within the performance, there’s a need to externalize a lot of moments in a more “novelistic way” than a player would in a home game, said Iyengar. “[You have to express an] internal monologue of the choice that you’re making for consumptive purposes… you have to treat gameplay more like a novel than a TV show, where in a novel you can see everything the character’s thinking and how they arrive at the decision when they move into action.”

“This is something you learn,” said Willingham, who is a Critical Role vet, having been a part of the show since it started airing. “If you haven’t streamed a game online before, you could just make a choice and not give all that extra info. But the audience will fill in.” Here’s the conundrum: these actors are improvising their character choices, decisions, and motivations in “bullet-time,” regardless of the planning they might have done beforehand. This is the big balancing act, the trapeze that these players have to swing on. How do you support your own vision for your character with what the audience sees? How do you create a narrative that is both emergent and narratively satisfying in retrospect? “You want to provide clarity,” Willingham said. “Especially since you can intend to do one thing, but then after one roll of the D20, it doesn’t happen. It’s good to be clear about what you’re going for so people understand what the process was.”

Staying true to the art of the process of performance is a novel way to think about tabletop roleplaying games. Sure, Critical Role has been streaming since 2015, and Adventure Zone, an “actual play” podcast of the McElroy family (comedians who also produced the My Brother, My Brother, and Me podcast), got its start in 2014, when Dungeons & Dragons’ Fifth Edition dropped, but TTRPGs are primarily built to be played as private, “home” games. How does the game change when it becomes an engine for consumption rather than a scaffolding for storytelling? Does it change that much at all?

Carazo said that he doesn’t see much of a difference between how he plays his home games and this game. For him the performance is part of the play, no matter where he’s rolling dice. “There is an awareness that an audience is going to be consuming this,” he explained, “and that does hang out in the back of your head. There might be a little voice that will tell me to stretch something out to create tension, but it’s all little things. For emphasis.”

“This falls very into that long-form improv pattern,” explained Iyengar, when asked about how to know what kind of lore to play with in the game. “You start building the world up top, and then once everyone knows what the game is, you have that sense of where we can go from there.” She described the necessity of understanding that the audience is looking for an interesting ending, an angle, some kind of depth. “The matter at hand is how do we make everyone, including ourselves, care about how we got to the end.”

Calamity is in an interesting position. Despite whatever happens in this miniseries, the apocalyptic ending is set in stone. But working within that framework — a condensed story structure, half improv, only slightly predetermined by the GM (Brennan Lee Mulligan, in collaboration with famed Critical Role GM Matt Mercer) — allows for a lot of freedom. Calamity is operating with an established timeline, and there are some canon things that can’t be changed. Instead, the players get to focus on the journey, the steps taken to get to that ending, the ways in which they have to make people care about that destruction. It feels like a remarkably clever way to tell the story, by creating an inevitability and encouraging all the characters to make that ending as poignant, desperate, and emotionally compromising as possible.

Sam Riegel, Aabria Iyengar, Travis Willingham (Image: Critical Role (Photo: Michael Schmidt))
Sam Riegel, Aabria Iyengar, Travis Willingham (Image: Critical Role (Photo: Michael Schmidt))

“There’s nothing more terror-inducing than playing in a game where you know that, at the end of the mini series, everything goes wrong,” Willingham added.“But you have the freedom. As soon as the end of the world starts, you have the freedom to do whatever you want, you know? Get an ice cream and waste time. And, you know, if that means the end of the world is on you, you have to live with that horrible guilt and responsibility.”

“I feel like I have agency,” Carazo said. “I think that’s part of what makes this story. And whether I do or I don’t [have agency], then it’s brilliant on Brennan’s part because I’m set up to think that I can make change.”

He explains something I’ve been dancing around this whole interview: the fact that this is a consumptive piece of storytelling founded on a medium that was not initially built for this kind of story making, and the fact that Critical Role is a franchise of storytelling that has become beloved and treasured by millions of listeners and fans. Exandria Unlimited: Calamity is a part of a company by design, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of these stories, nor does it take away from the players at the table. Regardless of how the miniseries is “supposed” to end, Carazo explained that this belief in the story itself is a “necessary part of the game, because the characters we’re portraying believe that [they have agency] to a variety of degrees within each of them. They don’t know what’s coming.” It’s not, he implied, totally hopeless. He’s got a way to stop this, if only he can find the right door, the right god, the right sword. “I feel like sometimes I wonder if I’ve been completely, 100% gaslit by our Dungeon Master,” Carazo said. “I’ve given him total permission to do that to me in this campaign, because I think it’s part of an essential ingredient in the story. I feel like I still have a great amount of agency.”

It makes sense to keep that sense of wonder and tragedy in this kind of game. It has to be fun for the players too — having that kind of playfulness, that ability to stare the apocalypse in the face and say “fuck you.” Within this game there has to be a sense that the rules of the real world might not apply to you, after all. Calamity embodies a poignant fantasy of playfulness and fearlessness. At its core, that’s what Dungeons & Dragons is about.

I ask about the fandom. This is, after all, a streamed show that was made, first and foremost, for the fans, and I wanted to really dive into the thought process these actors have about what they’re doing. I sensed a kind of hyper-awareness that they know they are performing for the audience. More than anything the actors seem to want to make the fans happy, to create a game, an experience, a story that fulfils the audience’s desires, while also staying true to what they as players want to do. There is a part of this that feels like audience management, even though that’s not a perfect term for what Iyengar, Willingham, and Carazo are doing when they explain how they play the game.

“You can only really worry about your piece of the puzzle,” Willingham said. “You want to make sure that people know the shape of what you’re trying to show, because once you’re in the game, you can get lost in the sea of everything else that’s happening. If you have some control over the things that you want people to know about your character, that’s great because once it’s in the ocean, it’s all up for grabs.”

Iyengar said that she’s cognisant of the fact that their fandom will take whatever they give them and run with it — and she loves that. She thinks it’s wonderful that they have a fan following that will “fill in the gaps” with fanfic and fan art, but there is also a part of her that wrestles with this kind of interpretation. “I think that’s the struggle of the idea of death of the author. But when you’re so intimately tied to it still, you’re like, I’m not dead, I’m still here. I’m still creating this character.”

All the cast seems willing to let art go. “That’s part of the gift of this,” Carazo said. “You get to take this [character] and put some of yourself in it, and this can become part of your own art. I think that’s what we give every time we do this.” He talked about the necessary pain of sharing your art, and part of yourself, with an audience. “As soon as [the audience] makes contact with it, it becomes part theirs in a way. It really is an exercise in feeling rooted in what you have to say and that artist part of you.”

Lou Wilson, Marisha Ray, Luis Carazo (Image: Critical Role (Photo: Michael Schmidt))
Lou Wilson, Marisha Ray, Luis Carazo (Image: Critical Role (Photo: Michael Schmidt))

While this game is rooted in Dungeons & Dragons (and much has been made of all the DMs who run games on Critical Role, as they are all very good at what they do) I wanted to know if Dungeons & Dragons was the reason that all these stories worked. Does the game system matter when it comes to this kind of performance?

Iyengar immediately said yes. “A well-designed system will help you tell exactly the kind of story you need to tell. And yes, a good player can do anything anywhere. But the reason that we have a world full of amazing indie games is because there are systems and mechanics that will help you craft exactly the kind of emotional cadence that you want or need when you’re telling a certain kind of story.”

Carazo was quick to agree. “I believe that no matter how far you go outside of the boundaries of the system, the system will provide the frame. And if you’ve played games that are vastly different systems from one another, then you will see that the texture of the game, the entire experience is influenced by the system itself. You can take the same story and put it in a completely different system and the experience is going to change.”

Willingham, however, had a different take. “No. System does not support a good story. I feel like it’s a challenge to adapt to whatever the rigid skeleton of the system is.” (He’s very serious. Focused. He’s about to start shit in the TTRPG scene and I’m sure he knows that this is his chance to present an argument with nuance.) “I’m pretty sure if you give me a deck of Uno, and three talented performers, we could give you a crazy good story… And for us, just looking at the way these actors create their characters, there’s no shortage of material. System is just a way to execute it.”

There’s something to be said about character decisions, emergent creation, and improv, and I want to dive into this, I want to ask more about how these performers think about performance, about how dice work in storytelling, about how games have been built up to support their intentions, but we’ve run out of time and Iyengar is really keen to say something, I can tell by the look on her face, and when Willingham sits back, I don’t even have to ask. “That was so eloquent, but you’re wrong,” Iyengar laughed.

Carazo intervened, quickly attempting to stop a blood feud between his castmates. “I think we’re all right,” he said. It all comes down to the stories told at a table, that all of these moments and interactions are about playfulness and breaking down structures that attempt to cage that in. Flexing the parts of your character, the emotions, the motivations, the intent, that are important to the story itself.

So here it is, I think, the point of this interview: that all of this work is not just a struggle against the inevitable Calamity, but a struggle for authenticity in performance constrained by the system, and that playfulness can happen even within the constraints of the machine that is Critical Role. The other two stop talking long enough for Carazo to finish mediating. “I think it’s an interesting exercise to take the same story and then put it into different systems… We’re all saying the same kind of thing.”

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