Note – efforts have been made to avoid spoilers, but if you are interested in a completely fresh experience, please return to this article following your viewing!
By all accounts, Critical Role has “made it” – the Dungeons & Dragons stream that humbly began on Geek & Sundry 7+ years ago now features an expansive merch line, representation in various mediums, resounding success in the world of streaming, and one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns of all time, which gave birth to their animated series.
Yet, I would argue that with the conclusion of their most recent narrative, Critical Role is venturing into exciting territory, and has successfully delivered some of the most stunning drama the series has put out since its inception.
First, some context: after kicking off campaign 3 in October of last year, Matthew Mercer and his band of voice acting
victims friends were beginning to properly ramp up the next arc of their story when it was announced they would be taking a well deserved break. In their absence, another “season” of Exandria Unlimited – a spinoff inspired series first led by Aabria Iyengar in the summer of 2021 – would be aired instead. This 4-episode arc, titled “Calamity”, was advertised to convey the tragic tale of the end of the Age of Arcanum: a wondrous time period where mages commanded the skies, and the possibilities for mortals seemed endless. Yet, it was not destined to last.
Taking the helm of this weighty story was none other than Brennan Lee Mulligan: Dungeon Master Extraordinaire! While you may recognize him from his appearance on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? back in 2015, chances are if you stumbled across Calamity you were drawn in by his writing on CollegeHumor and his previous DMing on Dimension 20.
Brennan was joined at the table by a handful of talented players, including a trio of the core Critical Role family:
Marisha Ray plays Patia (Pay-sha) Por’co, Keeper of Scrolls and Archmage of the Librarium Incantatum (at the risk of sounding reductionist – imagine Wikipedia for magical stuff).
Sam Riegel plays Loquatius Seelie, the Voice of the Herald and general newsman and announcer for Avalir.
Travis Willingham plays Cerrit (Seh-rit) Agrupnin, Senior Sight Warden of Avalir (AKA badass detective).
Joining these familiar faces –
Luis Cavazo, playing Zerxus Ilerez, First Knight of Avalir. His first job is the safeguarding of the city, and as we find out in short order – he is very good at it.
Aabria Iyengar, playing Laerryn Coramar-Seelie, Architect Arcane. A genius archmage, she essentially oversees the infrastructure of the flying city. She was also previously married to Loquatius, which makes for some delightful scenes as the series progresses.
Finally Lou Wilson, playing Nydas Okiro – Guildmaster of the Golden Scythe. Formerly a pirate, Nydas gathered significant wealth and influence and, in time, founded the Sorcerer’s University in Avalir.
These six heroes, in sum, are the powerful and influential “Ring of Brass” – and Calamity is their story. The tale is set against the ceremony of The Replenishment, which sees the magical, floating city of Avalir return to its original, terrestrial home in order to bestow its gifts of collected magical energies to the lands of Domunas. Casting shadows on this otherwise joyful time are whispers of a seemingly botched ritual, which begin to reach the ears of the Ring of Brass, as they collectively realize that a countdown to apocalypse has begun.
From the opening moments of episode 1, Brennan Lee Mulligan weaves a story of immense emotional weight, but it also stands out because of the vast and deep history of this world. Credit for this rests at the feet of Matthew Mercer, who has dreamed up Exandria and breathed a rich life into it that is now being expanded at D&D tables everywhere.
There’s certainly a lot of pressure attached when dealing with someone else’s creative property – especially when that property belongs to Matthew Mercer. As it is, the “Mercer Effect” can be seen as an affliction for aspiring Dungeon Masters (and players), who unfairly hold themselves to the Critical Role standard.
While we dismiss the Mercer effect (after all, as long as you’re having fun at your table, you’re being a great DM!), when you see how Brennan so meticulously executes on a narrative as important as the Calamity, his demonstrated understanding of this world and the history behind it, you can’t help but feel comforted that the legacy of Exandria is safe in his hands.
Indeed, Brennan’s quick wit and piercing humor is well-balanced by his ability to incorporate his philosophical learnings, and further complemented by his deep knowledge of D&D game mechanics to create a real rollercoaster of performance – further enhanced by the other players at the table.
Another trademark of Brennan’s DMing style is the nuance with which he requests, and explains, rolls and checks. There is a wide range of styles that Dungeon Masters can adapt when running their games: some love having their players roll more frequently, to let the dice tell the story…while others reserve the rolls for more consequential actions. Brennan leans into the fact that these players are all well-established Guildmasters and Archmages. Actions that you might imagine would typically require a weighty skill check are executed with grace and skill, which actually feeds into the cinematic experience and immersion in a world that may well have been tripped up at the thought of a high-level wizard being unable to open a locked door, for example.
When he does call for checks, however, Brennan does an excellent job of navigating a fine line between a resounding success and giving just enough information for players to piece together as they work through a compelling and increasingly dangerous mystery. For those unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty, most checks in D&D have what’s known as a Difficulty Challenge (DC). It starts from Trivial, getting a total of 5 or higher between the die roll and any relevant modifiers, to Nearly Impossible, which commands a 30 to pass. Of course, there is a lot that exists in the gray areas between failure and success, and Brennan’s descriptions in the handful of instances where this is the case turns out to be a real masterclass that many aspiring and current DMs will likely borrow from.
One more unique element that Brennan integrates in Calamity, as he has done in the past on Dimension 20, is that he will typically roll the dice in front of the screen when it’s an inflection point in the narrative. This allows the players to react in real time if he hits, or misses, the number needed. This creates an even more engrossing experience for new viewers, and the excitement from the players is contagious.
Between his care for the world, command of the narrative, and depth of emotion in conveying the tragedy of this story, Brennan seemed to be the perfect choice to weave this cautionary tale.
Of course, while Brennan is piloting the broader narrative, like any good DM, he knows the game really shines when he creates circumstances for his players to do truly magical things. Indeed, each of the players has their share of secrets, weaknesses…all set against each other to build dramatic and authentic narrative tension that builds to a breathtaking crescendo and stunning finale.
In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t divulge them in detail here, but suffice it to say that hubris, pride, greed, mindless devotion and general envy all have equal parts to play among our heroes – and that when the curtain begins to close, there is a fair amount of blame to be shared.
While all of the players performed brilliantly, we did want to give Luis Carazo some particular recognition. His portrayal of Zerxus was masterful, and his scenes with Brennan, taking the helm of the chief antagonist, are among some of the finest that Critical Role has created in its many years on the air.
In short, the entire limited series is a true masterpiece. Splendid pacing, a well structured narrative that isn’t too rushed (episode 4 closing in on just under 6 and a half hours), and perhaps most impressively, a story that is entirely approachable by folks who have not seen a single episode of Critical Role before.
Sure, there are easter eggs a’plenty if you previously stepped into the world of Exandria, but what makes this series particularly appealing is the fact that this exceptionally produced, well acted story is one that is disconnected enough that you can sit someone down to watch it with you with no additional context needed.
Indeed – we hope you do. This was a phenomenal journey that Brennan and the others took us on, and it reinforces the idea that Exandria Unlimited can continue to broaden the world of Critical Role in exciting and fresh ways, with new DMs, new players, and deep, meaningful narratives to share.