The art of the storyteller

I’ve talked on here a few times about storytelling. It’s my favorite thing after all. I think that stories are something magical. It’s an artform just like music, painting and even modern things like video and digital art. There are obviously many artforms out there because there are many different kinds of people. For me though, a good story will always be paramount to anything else. This can be through a movie or a song, or even some good artworks, but for a long time my favorite kind of storytelling has been through books. This has changed. Not because I like books less, but because I discovered something I like even more. I’m sure many of you are familiar with it in some sense, seeing as Critical Role was (or is) the most subscribed Twitch channel and highly popular, but just in case, let me explain.

Critical Role, amongst other similar shows like Dimension 20 or High Rollers, is a show where people play Dungeons & Dragons on camera. Dungeons & Dragons, for those unfamiliar, is a pen and paper social game where you play a group of adventurers solving mysteries, fighting monsters and becoming heroes (or villains). You use dice and a big rulebook to decide the outcome of events, which causes some situations to be great when the dice either work in your favor or the opposite. I’ve been playing it myself for almost a decade at this point with some good friends, and it’s something I want to do for at least another decade if schedules allow for it. Critical Role consists of several professional voice actors, actors or people who have other experiences with improv. This makes the storytelling part of the show a lot more potent than what most groups of friends will do in their living room. Not to say that this makes it more fun to play, because our bumbling sessions are absolutely amazing, but it is a big boon when it comes to making a show out of it. People adept at telling stories will tell good stories.

That brings me to their latest miniseries: Exandria Unlimited Calamity. This miniseries of four episodes recently finished airing on the Critical Role twitch channel and subsequently their youtube channel where I watched it. Normally Critical Role is led by Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer. He voices Levi from Attack on Titan amongst a million other roles. The miniseries are not DMed by him and this one in particular is led by Brennan Lee Mulligan who is known for Dimension 20 and other shows at College Humor/Dropout. Having been given a moment in time in Matt’s universe with a limited scope of story has allowed for him to create something truly beautiful. I want to talk about it a little bit but if you want to know what it’s about I highly recommend just watching it. You can watch the miniseries on its own here

Calamity tells the story of the floating city of Avalir. The city travels through the world but right now it’s the eve or replenishment. It’s an event where the city touches down on the city of Toramunda where it was originally from. When doing so, they replenish some of the energy of the city back home and celebrate, before taking off again. It’s a big festival and the ring of brass, a group of six people who actually keep things running smoothly, are celebrating as well. But something dark and dangerous is in the air. Robots are malfunctioning, a strange evil mage appears and the gods are getting uneasy. Amidst all this chaos we follow these six members of the ring of brass as they try to keep the calamity at bay. Since this story takes place in the past, we as viewers know that the calamity will happen at some point, but it doesn’t have to start here in Avalir, which keeps suspense high. Although deep down we all know that something bad is going to happen here. The first word Brennan says is fire after all.

What follows is a magical tale of six lives interwoven. Everyone has their secrets and has their ambitions, but they still care about each other, they’re friends after all. And Brennan, knowing everyone’s ambitions and secrets as well, leads them perfectly, misleading them where he can and slowly causing them to spiral into distrust and chaos. The ending is bittersweet and I have to admit I cried several times during the final episode, which was almost  twice as long as a regular episode. Weaving from person to person, group to group, secret to secret, this story fills you with a real feeling of immersion. At least it did for me. 

And I think that’s where the beauty of storytelling shines. When things feel unpredictable in a good way. We all like to meme on Game of Thrones for being unpredictable for the hell of it, which is fair, but it knew that this is important. We want to figure out the mystery, but not too much of it. Then if the story changes and it goes in a completely different direction, but we realize the foreshadowing was there all along, we feel rewarded for paying attention. Where Game of Thrones went wrong was that the foreshadowing was not there. They foreshadowed things and then abandoned them.
In Calamity, we feel rewarded for paying attention and on top of that it’s just a really good story played out by amazing improv actors.

As someone who writes stories, and has been doing this for a very long time, it is fascinating to see the different ways someone can tell a good story. I used to be very rigid and think books were paramount but as I got older and stopped being dumb I realized there are many ways to tell a great story and I’m glad I became more open to it. Watching Critical Role for these past six? Years has been a boon to my writing. Hearing other great storytellers motivates me to try better and improve too and if anyone is even slightly interested in what I’ve been talking about it I once again highly recommend you check it out. And if you do like it, the rest of Critical Role is amazing too, even the first campaign of Vox Machina, which feels more casual (because it is) than the second and now third. I also recommend Dimension20, which Brennan normally hosts. I’ve only seen the first season of that so I can’t speak for all of it, but I’m hoping it’s only up from there. Thanks for reading.

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