If you’ve spent any amount of time watching the livestream chat alongside each week’s Critical Role episode, you’re probably no stranger to chatroom hate. Whether it’s rules lawyers freaking out about Matt’s artistic/DM liberty or min-maxers losing their shit because someone used a magic item at the wrong time, chatroom hate is something we all have to deal with. Most of us have made our peace with the fact that sometimes negativity is all that certain shitheads have to offer, and most of us have also found our own ways to deal with it.
But in all honesty, we shouldn’t fucking have to. Because chatroom hate is inherently illogical, especially considering the basic components of Critical Role’s composition. Much of what follows will focus on the character of Keyleth, because (in my own experience) she’s generally been the subject of the most egregious and unnecessary hate. The underlying principles still apply fairly broadly toward Critical Role hate in general, though.
Much of the criticism leveled at Keyleth/Marisha is couched in terms of tactical and strategic blunders at the table. Both the player and the character have made mistakes in the past that caused drastic consequences. Most of us can probably describe a couple of those incidents in detail. However, none of those incidents form a valid foundation for criticism of either Marisha or Keyleth.
Episode 43 brought us this fantastic phrase, and I’m going to drag it into a slightly metagame argument, mostly because it fits so well. For those who didn’t see it, or who need a refresher, go watch it now.
Back? Good. Follow me.
The idea that someone’s harmless entertainment can be empirically and justifiably criticized and degraded by someone else is simply untrue. Devaluing another human being, especially for something that has absolutely no ethical impetus, simply makes no logical sense.
If I lost you with that last statement, you need to read up on human rights and stop contributing to a goddamn toxic society. That’s a subject for a much broader article than this one, however.
The point is, there are a multitude of ways to enjoy D&D. The game initially evolved out of the tabletop wargaming scene (think Warhammer 40k). Those games emphasized tactical acumen above all else – the strategic destruction of an opposing force. It’s no surprise, then, that early D&D publications tended to follow that sort of vein.
“Hi, my name is Gary Gygax and tonight, we’ll be taking a field trip through a dungeon that I’ve specifically designed to murder the ever-loving shit out of each one of you dumb fuckers.”
I’m paraphrasing, of course, but early D&D tended to be just a wee bit on the unforgiving side. This, in turn, produced a bevy of rules lawyers and min-maxers – and why not? It’s fucking natural selection at work, just around a table at your FLGS instead of out in a swamp somewhere. And if that’s what makes D&D fun for you? Good on ya, mate!
I have a bit of an anvil to drop on you, though. Rules lawyers, min-maxers: Critical Role is not entirely intended for you.
Note: I did not say you’re playing D&D wrong. You’re just not playing it our way. We still love the fact that you love D&D. We’re glad you exist, because more players means more games, and more games means publishers will make more stuff, and the games we love will reach more people and soon there will be a FUCKING SOCIAL UTOPIA WITH D&D AT ITS BEATING HEART!
Okay, maybe I took the thought experiment a bit too far, but you get the idea.
Inter-movement conflict is inherently illogical. It’s like white feminists looking down on POC feminists, or LGBTQ+ activists refusing to acknowledge bisexuals. There’s enough opposition to tabletop gaming as an acceptable hobby from without. We don’t need to be tearing each other down from within.
Story vs. Strategy
So where was I? Critical Role, as Mercer and others have repeatedly said, is a narrative-based game. The story being told is far more relevant than the tactical decisions players make in the heat of conflict. Sure, we all get a visceral thrill when Grog double-crits a couple punk-ass bandits in the ruins of Emon, but that’s because WE FUCKING LOVE GROG – the doofy, vaguely-illiterate barbarian who’s currently having apparent one-sided conversations with his new shiny-pointy. We equally (if not more) love pub crawls with Vox Machina + Gilmore (because Gilmore, for fuck’s sake), wherein nothing dies, nothing is fought, no treasure is found, and Keyleth hurls into the gutter as Vax holds her hair.
All of which brings us to the thing with Keyleth.
For a narrative-based game, the only logical criticism to levy is that which is based on the story being told. Coming down on a character or a player for strategic decisions only makes sense if that character is invested in a tactical mindset. All the Keyleth hate I’ve thus far encountered is based on two things:
- Poor strategic choices in combat.
- Choices resulting in inter-party conflict.
Let’s have a look at Keyleth, though, because those criticisms only hold water if the choices are inconsistent with the character herself.
Various references have been made to Keyleth’s childhood and younger years. She’s a talented druid from the beginning – albeit one initially left to her own devices and then suddenly pushed into rigorous and traditional training. No reference is made to any friends, siblings, or companions from her early days. Apparently, she was a fairly solitary child who had an abrupt and extreme change to her lifestyle as she began her education. This education, mind you, is described verbatim as endless spell memorization, teachings from ancient traditions, and exceedingly high expectations. This is not a field study with practical application; this is rote memorization with only ceremonial context.
Also, it’s stated that her mother left her life at a very early age, leaving Keyleth in the sole care of her father, already the archdruid of the Air Ashari. This event likely served to isolate her even more from what little community she possessed. This type of loss frequently serves as both a formative and a traumatic event in a character’s development. For additional examples, see Every Single Superhero Origin Story Ever.
Keyleth’s basically a fucking dyed-in-the-wool conservative religious homeschooler. And speaking as a former member of that system, it’s goddamn amazing the druid’s as well adjusted as she is. Neither tactics/strategy nor effective socialization is a big part of Keyleth’s childhood.
We don’t have a lot of detail on Keyleth’s first years out in the wider world, (or at least, I don’t. Marisha, wanna fill us in?) but we do know that self-doubt was something of a cornerstone for her at the time. By all accounts, it doesn’t seem that she was gently ushered out of her Ashari village with a decent safety net in place. It seems more of a go-find-the-other-tribes-and-you-know-“IMPRESS”-them-or-something vibe was in place. Therefore, Keyleth stumbles out onto the road on a quest (the same quest, mind you, that her mother attempted and, that’s right, NEVER FUCKING RETURNED FROM) and somehow lands in the company of:
- a murderous, towering village idiot,
- his very pious tiny friend,
- a nymphomaniacal musician with a diagnosable fecal fetish,
- a dysfunctional, borderline-codependent set of effectively orphaned twins and their pet bear,
- a half-lizard magician convinced he’s finding the lost tools of creation, and,
- a demon-ridden mad scientist on the run from Pelor-knows-what.
If THAT’S not a recipe for establishing healthy psychological habits, what is?
Like Percy says, of course, Vox Machina is greater than the sum of its parts, and these broken people manage to help fix (or at least stabilize) each other in meaningful ways. But they leave a gory trail – and not always intentionally. Hell, one of Keyleth’s defining character habits is her ritualistic internment of any innocents she accidentally kills, complete with the ceremonial pronouncement “I bury my shame.”
I know that Mercer’s universe is fictional, but it’s also populated by characters meant to be comprehensible and relatable. Keyleth, sweetheart, I’m not even a medical professional and I can tell you THAT’S BLOODY NOT A HEALTHY WAY TO HANDLE YOUR FUCKING GUILT.
And yet you’re going to demand that this girl has keen tactical combat skills and insightful interpersonal interaction? Wake the hell up.
Looking In From the Outside
Let’s be honest, here. The social rules in Tal’dorei are only vaguely approximate to those in our world. Keyleth and the rest of Vox Machina aren’t that different from most of the people they probably pass on the street every day. Plus, I really like hyperbole, so the last section may be a shade on the extreme side.
But as an inhabitant of her reality, Keyleth makes sense. She’s learning as she goes, and she’s doing her level best. Sure, from a tactical perspective it’s more efficient if the team always stays together, going the same direction, and cooperating like a well-organized military squad.
But that ain’t our Vox Machina, people.
Critical Role could easily be summed up as damaged people with great power facing bad situations and doing the best they can. That’s the whole show. Keyleth’s (and everyone else’s) fuck-ups are exactly what you’d expect. You can’t criticize them on a storytelling basis, and as a inherently story-focused show, that’s the only yardstick you can logically measure them by.
And that’s why we’re still always asking, is it Thursday yet?