Episode 4: By The Road
After some brief struggles with the horses and cart the gang begin their long journey from Emon to the Ruins of Qoniira. Two weeks into the journey, Fearne begins to feel a strange call to diverge from the road and take a familiar path into the dense forest. The memories are still blurred around the edges, but she’s so sure that this is the path she took into Exandria from the Fey Wilds.
Fearne steers the cart off the main road, placating her party members that she’s still got them on the right path to the ruins. Several hours journey into the woods, Fearne finally finds the Fey gate she’s been looking for. Fearne and the surrounding forest seem to be oddly affected by the magic seeping through the gate. the colors are achingly bright, the flowers unnaturally blooming and Fearne’s eyes shift more wild and goat-like. The rest of the party watch as she approaches the shimmering field of energy. Fearne promises she just wants to pop in to the Fey Wilds just for five minutes to check in on her Nana and she’ll be right back. As she reaches her hand through the portal, the mirror image falls away and she sees a horrible new vision.
The Fey Wild is charred and dark. A demonic looking Fearne stares back into Fearne’s face. Faux Fearne’s smile twists into a sneer. “It’s time to come home.” Fearne realizes that this is a twisted version of herself, corrupted by the magic of the Circlet of Barbed Vision. Fearne refuses to give into the temptation of power and news of her missing parents. A fight breaks out.
Faux Fearne breaks through the Fey Wild gate, bringing with her several fiery scorpions. As the battle begins to wind up, a strangely familiar fire genasi monk steps into the fray and telling Faux Fearne to go back where she came from. As the fight heats up, the fire genasi falls into an easy rhythm with the rest of the group… almost like she’s been a missing part of them all along.
The fire genasi, Fearne and her evil twin face off blow for blow. Faux Fearne summons a Twisted Mister of her own and a dark version of Fearne’s serpent staff. Dorian, Dariax, Orym and Opal focus the fight on the fire scorpions. Opal suffers some devastating hits after still being unable to use her magic. She and Ted still refuse to budge in their fight. Even with Dariax’s healing help Opal succumbs to her wounds and loses consciousness on the battlefield. Her companions finish off the fire scorpions while Fearne and the fire genasi get the killing blow on Faux Fearne. As everyone rushes to Opal’s side, more voices begin to call from around a glade. Elves in purple robes shift through the trees and a woman calls out, “what have you done?”
The newcomers surround the gang while Fearne heals Opal back up on her feet. Fearne is still gazing in the portal at a shadowy figure standing sentinel. A voice in her mind tells her this is The Unforgiving High Warqueen of the Burning Vale. Matriarch of the Seelie Court. The connection fades as strange voices cut through her consciousness. “What have you done?”
In the moments between unconsciousness and waking, Opal hears Ted’s distraught voice calling out to her. Ted is outraged and frustrated that Opal would rather die than just apologize. Opal’s demeanor finally breaks and she unleashes a lifetime of anger and hurt onto Ted, ending their screaming match with saying that she never understood why she had to be punished for Ted never doing anything with her life. Ted reveals that Opal has no idea what she gave up for Opal to have these powers. Ted says she’s always been jealous of how bright Opal shines; she doesn’t care about always being Opal’s shadow but if Opal insists on burning everything Ted will have nothing left. The fight ends in outraged tears as both sisters promise to survive, whatever it takes. Opal opens her eyes to see Fearne, Dorian and Dariax staring down at her and strange voices interrogating her companions.
The elven rangers from Synghorn have never seen anything come through the Fey Wild portal like that and are rather upset that the forest nearly caught fire. The elves begin to surround the gate, jamming crystals into the ground to stabilize the magic coming through the portal. The group now turn to the fire genasi that so selflessly helped them in the fight. She introduces herself as Fy’ra Rai. They all agree that they all feel a strange pull of familiarity with each other that has something to do with the 6 days they’re all missing. Fy’ra Rai agrees to travel with the party and help them on the rest of their journey. Before they leave, Fearne asks the elves to keep an eye out for her grandmother, Morri Calloway and give her news of Fearne’s journey.
Back on the road, the party spends another week and a half traveling to Byroden. The group is a bit quieter now, Opal dealing with her guilty feelings about Ted, Fearne wondering about the consequences of keeping the circlet. The party arrive in Opal’s hometown just in time for the town’s yearly pageant and festival. Fearne, Opal, Dorian and Dariax all find themselves signed up to compete in the pageant. Orym is carted around town to eat his weight in pie while everyone gets ready.
During pageant prep, Opal learns that Ted has gone off adventuring on her own, which surprises Opal. She grows worried for her missing twin. She decides to cope by throwing herself wholeheartedly into winning this pageant. The crew are joined by two other competitors: Cinna Brightbow, a lively dwarven woman, and Lisle Vester, Opal’s pageant arch nemesis. The pageant kicks off with a bang as the contestants answer questions, show off talents, and catwalk in their finest fashion. Hilarity ensues, as usual as the gang spread their lovable chaos through town. Cinna (piloted by Liam) quickly becomes a pageant favorite with her exuberance and ax throwing abilities. Lisle and Opal have a classic and messy feud fueled by Dariax’s well timed fart magic. Dorian, bumbles his way into endearing infamy as Byroden’s favorite awkward hot boy. To no one’s surprise, Opal manages to win the crown again as Gem of Byroden for another year.
The night’s festivities wind down. Orym wanders off on his own thinking of his past and how he ended up here. Fy’ra Rai is still feeling like she’s missing something important. Opal quietly sits in her empty home, looking at Ted’s empty bed. Fearne, Dariax and Dorian engage in round two of a drinking contest. Tomorrow the journey to the ruins will continue. Tonight, the party find comfort in their friendship.
Another whirlwind session for this limited series. A fast paced opening half with a mysterious encounter followed by an unexpectedly hilarious detour into Byroden. And a new cast member on top of all that! Let’s dive right in.
I started off feeling a bit mixed about this episode. The pacing of a limited series is still something I’m adjusting to and that can sometimes leave me feeling rushed through certain aspects of this campaign. This campaign and Aabria as a GM feature much heavier emphasis on story beats rather than the nitty gritty day to day story progression that often colors longform campaigns. I guess I’m still trying to decide if I mind that the party was able to skip almost a month of road traveling without a single ability check or die roll after being so heavily pursued through Emon. But again, pressed for time and Aabria’s on on hell of a mission to bust out a memorable story fo rus, so I think I can forgive rushing through unnecessary roadside travel.
We did get right into the party’s low intelligence antics from the onset of this session when….figuring out how to drive a cart of all things is what tripped this group up. I think someone has cursed Matt’s and Ashley’s dice because, they roll so abysmally, it’s painful. Natural 1’s make for great story improv through.
After the cart fiasco settles down and their trail of magical cart-glitter contained, we get launched face first into some Fearne backstory. While we got to enjoy some super interesting interactions with Fearne and her evil mirror self in the Fey Wild, I think I left this session with more questions than answers. Here’s what we do know though. Fearne is in Exandria on a mission from her Nana while looking for information about her missing parents. The Fey Wild portal somehow showed Fearne a version of herself that embraced the magic of the circlet Vestige Dariax carries (very a la Galadriel and the One Ring). What we don’t know is why Fearne’s parents are missing. Evil Fearne insinuated something of her parent’s misguided weaknesses or being essentially kicked out of the Fey Realm. Evil Fearne also mentioned that she had killed other versions of real Fearne and her friends before, possibly other multi-verse versions. You know, time is a weird soup or something. We also briefly met someone called “The High WarQueen of the Burning Vale.” And promptly got ZERO more bits of information about that. This fawn shaped onion has many many layers.
PLUS in other huge news, we have a new cast member! Anjali Bhimani has joined the second half of Exandria Unlimited! Anjali, of course, playing a fiery new character Fy’ra Rai. Anjali brings her usual gusto and vigor to the table. You may remember Anjali from another limited run series by Critical Role, Undeadwood (GM’d by the illustrious Brian W. Foster). While her commitment to character and story is 110%, Anjali is still a relatively new player to DnD in general. With that comes the usual fumbles and growing pains that dog any beginner player. Learning all the rules and terms and abilities on top of a completely new character can be daunting, and even sitting at a table with lifetime veteran players doesn’t give much advantage in that sense. But of course, this is Critical Role we’re talking about so the GM and cast members go above and beyond to make Anjali feel like one of the team almost instantly. I look forward to seeing what Anjali does with Fy’ra Rai. She’s already given us some nice flavor RP that sets her apart at the table. I was reminded a bit of Sumalee Montano’s guest character Nila and her smell bag when Fy’ra talked about her special sense. I will say I was not expecting Anjali to be our mysterious missing party member! I was thrown off by the red herring of townhouse owner Lothor way back in episode 1.
Intermixed with the Fearne heavy session and new player intro we got some cute friendship building between Dorian and Dariax too. I dunno what’s going on between those two but it’s adorable. Dorian is still shielding his backstory like it’s precious cargo. But I’m sure Dariax’s unending charm will crack through that locked door before too long.
Opal also had a WILD role play moment during the first half of the session. I know some more sensitive Critters found the Ted vs Opal showdown to be a little too…aggressive for them. But I was living for that twin angst drama! Holy hells were Aimee and Aabria on fire with that back and forth. Such trust and emotion between the GM and player. We got to see a whole new damaged side of everyone’s favorite hot mess. It’s going to make the rest of Opal and Ted’s story that much more impactful if and when it get’s resolved. LOVED this scene!
We got a second flash forward in this session right into the insanity that was the Gem of Byroden pageant. The second half of this session was just gratuitous and unabashed party time role playing. Story be damned, our heroes are out for a good time! And boy did we get it. Now, my recap portion for this second half was pitifully short, but that in no way reflects on how funny the antics actually were. If I got into every level of that pageant this article would easily be double the size. If you’re into this mini session for the action, story, and mystery then this second half may feel a little out of place for you. But if you’re a sucker for improve DnD RP at its best… then this portion of the episode is 100% your cup of tea.
The Byroden insanity kicked off with Opal being welcomed back into town with enthusiastic and open arms. The pageant director Ruby features prominently, but the rest of the town makes a subtle appearance as Orym does his epic Pie Crawl. The best part of the pageant for me was Aabria’s decision to enter Liam and Anjali in as random pageant competitors. The two cast members had to imbue notecard character sheets with real live personalities in a matter of minutes and BOY DID THEY DELIVER. Anjali picked a bold but wonderful arch nemesis rival to Opal and the pranking antics were absolute gold. Liam leaned hard into his lively dwarf rockstar Cinna Brightbow and… I think I have a new favorite ExU character. My gods Cinna is a gem and she deserved to win the pageant hands down (sorry not sorry Opal). This may have been our one and only chance to see an angst and tragedy free character from Liam and it will forever live in my heart.
Beyond the two jaegered pageant competitors, we got to see Opal, Fearne, Dorian, and Dariax in top form as pageant queens. Fearne played heavy into manic fey realm dream girl with her flowing gown and musical number. Dorian, who you’d think would absolutely slay as this kind of thing, ended up being the surprise socially awkward underdog when nerves and a disastrous disguise spell tripped him up early on. I cannot get enough of Robbie’s RP with Dorian. I was expecting another charisma dripping sex idol bard, but this fumbling, insecure, almost shy air genasi is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. Then, there’s Dariax. Where to even start with chaos gremlin Matthew Mercer. I think he gets a special kind of glee from sewing absolute mayhem at the table now that the reigns are securely in someone else’s hands. He laid the antics on thick during the pageant and left me in absolute stitches several times throughout the night. His himbo RP, the only viable use of prestidigitation I’ll accept, the way he stole Dorian’s first look without any shame at all. Priceless. Finally, we’ve got Opal, who brings exactly the same level of intensity and attitude to the pageant as she does to everything in life. There’s sass, confidence, a little bit of yelling, and a whole lot of spice.
The episode closed on a warm, fuzzy note as the friends all take a moment to enjoy each other’s company and think about what brought them together this far. We are officially at the halfway mark of this campaign and if the story so far is anything to go by, we’ve got quite a lot of rollercoaster left. I’m eager for some more Opal and Dorian character development and backstory. I’m living for everything Dariax brings to the table. Orym and Fearne seem like they’re just along for the ride but I’m sure there will be some interesting surprised in story for them to. And Fy’ra Rai is still a giant, juicy mystery we get to unwrap. Lots to look forward to in the next session and beyond. Into the Ruins of Qoniira! Don’t worry Critters, it’s almost Thursday.