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Critical Role’s best Campaign 3 arc yet just stumbled with a clumsy crossover

A mid-stream twist left viewers confused and lessened the gut-punch of a recent plot point.

Image credit: Critical Role

Critical Role’s Campaign 3 is remarkable in many ways. Tying in various characters, plot points and villains from across the previous two campaigns, it feels like the end to a mighty (and unexpected) trilogy, with the pressures, possibilities and narrative restrictions that can entail. But for the 92nd episode, which aired on April 18th, it’s clear that something went a little wrong.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the events of Critical Role: Campaign 3, specifically episodes 91 and 92.

Part of the show’s ambition in recent years was to expand the world of Critical Role beyond its core cast, and core system. We’ve seen Critical Role turn into a bonafide games publisher through its Darrington Press arm, release monthly streams of its spooky detective-fiction RPG Candela Obscura, playtest the alternative fantasy game system Daggerheart and tell D&D stories with a different cast of characters in its Exandria Unlimited spin-offs, run by Dimension 20 alumni Aabria Iyengar and Brennan Lee Mulligan.

Is Critical Role's Daggerheat a modern contender to D&D?Watch on YouTube

Iyengar has run two of these spin-off series - both the original EXU in 2021 and its follow-up EXU: Kymal the following year. These series are closely interlinked with the main Critical Role campaign, having marked the debut of Ashley Johnson’s faun druid Fearne and Liam O’Brian’s halfling fighter Orym, as well as the air genasi bard Dorian (played by Robbie Daymond) who featured in the first 14 episodes of Campaign 3.

It was a bold narrative decision right when the main cast were reeling from a finished mission and massive in-game loss.

Episode 92 of Campaign 3 marked something different. After the first half of the episode, in which Bells Hells fled from the moon and looked to reconnect with their allies on the homeworld of Exandria, Iyengar swiftly took over the action and pivoted the stream into a PvP battle between the cast members of EXU: Kymal, in which the ‘evil’ Spider Queen god sought to bend Aimee Carrero’s warlock to her will. Full of action, memory and interpersonal strife, while shifting the focus to another part of the world entirely, it was a bold narrative decision right when the main cast were reeling from a finished mission and massive in-game loss of party cleric FCG.

The problem? Not everyone had seen EXU.

Exandria Unlimited shares its universe with the main Critical Role campaign, but it hasn't always been required viewing to follow the story. | Image credit: Critical Role

There will be plenty of viewers who watch every crumb of content put out by Critical Role across Twitch and YouTube, and more casual fans who dip in and out of episodes on a whim - with most people being somewhere in the middle. But the decision to switch to this other cast of characters mid-stream, instead of creating a separate one-shot game that interested viewers could watch separately, is more than a little baffling.

The Critical Role Reddit sub has been full of confused viewers, faced with characters they weren’t familiar with, asking for summaries of the EXU spin-offs, or complaining about the lack of a lead-in or explanation for “people who didn't watch EXU”. Even as someone who watched some of EXU over the years, I still struggled to connect with what was going on.

Tuning in to see a bunch of unfamiliar faces, without knowing the backstories constantly being cited at the table, doesn’t make for a great viewing experience.

It was doubly difficult to watch given what had just transpired in the main campaign. The core cast had a riotous time on the red moon Ruidus, encountering new species, making new allies, battling telepathic enemies, transforming into balls of teeth that could burrow underground and learning lots of crucial information about the mysterious moon - all ending with a brutal, nail-biting fight against legendary fighter Otohan Thull, who had killed party members (and their loved ones) on various occasions already.

Critical Role DM Matthew Mercer with Exandria Unlimited DMs Aabria Iyengar and Brennan Lee Mulligan. | Image credit: Critical Role

Shortly after realising the party might be totally wiped out, Sam Riegel’s cleric robot FCG sacrificed their life in order to defeat Thull and save the rest of their companions, ending with a moving speech and leaving much of the table in tears. I can understand the desire to give the core cast members a break after such a harrowing finale - but it also felt like a particularly bad time to jump to a different cast, with their own tone and lore, when viewers were already reeling from the events of the past episodes, especially when the side story wasn’t signposted in advance. Tuning in to see a bunch of unfamiliar faces, without knowing the backstories constantly being cited at the table, doesn’t make for a great viewing experience.

Iyengar’s all-in-good-fun jokes about killing off characters land oddly in the context of the campaign right now, and it’s hard to understand why this disconnected story couldn’t have been a separate EXU stream, instead of a bait-and-switch for those looking to continue the main campaign’s plot and process its consequences.

Rewatch episode 91 of Critical Role's Campaign 3Watch on YouTube

Episode 92 will continue the side story, and presumably see it link into the main adventure, so there may be a substantial payoff yet - possibly with the return of fan-favourite Daymond at the main table. And it’s clear that Critical Role has more stories and arcs to juggle when it tries to expand its world into various concurrent adventures.

But if players are having to reluctantly tune into other streams to catch up on key plot points, or beg for information on Reddit, it’s a sign that Critical Role has forgotten how splintered its audience has become - and how its own media ambitions are likely to exacerbate the problem further.

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