The challenge of Critical Role is staying on top of the fantastical details

There is one tenet to Critical Role, according to Dungeon Master Matt Mercer: ensure that, at its core, the show is about friends having fun together.

“Everything comes secondary to that,” Mercer tells Polygon over email, “and in doing so, we continue to surprise each other, get excited alongside each other, and genuinely look forward to seeing one another in the studio to play every time. While some aspects have adapted and changed over time, such as folks growing more attentive at the table compared to at home, and our adjustments to maintain a safe COVID gaming experience, the essence of our game really hasn’t changed that much at all. To me, that’s a huge success.”

Image: Gilmore’s Glorious Goods/Ten Speed Press/Random House

This fall, Mercer and his Critical Role cohorts released The World of Critical Role, the first comprehensive book to take fans behind the scenes of the actual play webseries, with pages of archival photos and new interviews with the cast. The book explores the ins and outs producing an epic fantasy, along with deep dives into the characters’ “most triumphant moments and darkest hours.” For viewers who’ve kept up with the series since its launch in 2012, it’s essential reading.

For Mercer, the book is likely to help jog his memory over the hours and hours he’s spent crafting worlds for his players to enjoy. As he tells Polygon, one of the bigger lifts in each campaign is the “near future,” hyper-detailed world building, which requires him to translate a sense for where the players might be going, and pre-building various tracks for them to go down.

“For me, advance prep means I have enough of a structure to just let it all go away and listen/improvise during the actual game. It’s a time-consuming safety net for me that also helps maintain in-world consistency in lore (which both the players, and the internet, will pull apart otherwise). While I rarely remember everything I had written or developed in advance, the moments when such things DO come up in game and I am able to recall those details (or even bullshit around them with confidence), it really helps to create a more immersive experience for my players, and for our audience.”

Then there are the maps. Oh, the maps! In this exclusive excerpt from The World of Critical Role, author Liz Marsham sheds light on just how serious and protective Mercer is about the maps. And if he’s going to put on a good show, he has to be.

LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING: THE MAPS

Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Random House

It’s the middle of a game, and Matt is describing a cavern, or a cathedral, or a cliff face. His words paint a gorgeous picture. The players are enthralled. But then enemies arrive on the scene, and suddenly the specifics are important. The questions start flying. “How high is the wall next to me?” “How far are we from the webs?” “Wait, there’s a pit?”

“Let me show you the space,” Matt says, rising to his feet. The cast break out in anticipatory grins, squirming in their seats, rubbing their hands together. It’s time for a map.

Leading up to this moment, there are hours of work that the players never see. Across the hall from the main set is a repurposed dressing room that everyone refers to as “the map room.” There, in tall banks of cabinets with carefully-labeled drawers, wait the 3D pieces that make up the caverns, cathedrals, cliffs, and so many other things besides. Many are made by a company called Dwarven Forge, some are finds from places like aquarium supply stores, and some are handmade by Matt. Other drawers hold rank upon rank of miniature creatures: soldiers and monsters and sentient plants, beasts for all occasions. Pieces that are too big to fit in the drawers, like rigged pirate ships and ancient red dragons, line the top of the cabinets or sit in an open shelving unit nearby. Spools of wire, lengths of tiny chain, craft knives, glue, and dozens of other handy tools hang off a pegboard or scatter across the work tables. This is where Matt makes his world visible.

After he assembles a map on a large board, Matt carries it across the hall. In the past, finished maps were stored in a narrow pass-through next to the set, surrounded by black curtains labeled CAST KEEP OUT. This worked fairly well, though sometimes the cast used the area as a shortcut anyway. “Twice a year,” says Liam, “I’d be in a hurry and walk through there and go, ‘Ah! Dammit! I don’t want to see that. Shoot! Shoot! Erase! Erase!’ ” Sometimes the slips were more intentional. “I have tried to sneak a peek,” Travis admits. “I was just walking through, and I could have stopped, but I kept going, and I was like, ‘I’ll just look really fast. It doesn’t matter.’ ” There was nothing in the pass-through, and Travis found that he was relieved rather than disappointed: nothing had been spoiled.

“Yeah, I don’t like to see those things,” concludes Travis, immediately after telling three stories where he tried to see those things. “Why ruin Christmas when it happens every Thursday night, right? Right.” Now the cast doesn’t have to resist glancing in the wrong direction: Flip This Bitch, Critical Role’s go-to set builders, have created a lovely, custom-built cabinet to store the finished maps, fronted with a heavy velvet cloth. If the cast peeks in there, they mean to peek in there. Not that they would. Anymore.

Reprinted from The World of Critical Role. Copyright © 2020 by Gilmore’s Glorious Goods, LLC. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

The World of Critical Role

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