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In Dungeons & Dragons there’s a powerful spell called “Time Stop,” and it does pretty much what you’d expect. The Mighty Nein, a group of adventures from the web series Critical Role, might as well have been subject to an especially powerful casting of that spell, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the normally weekly Critical Role to go on hiatus in March. Last week, Critical Role announced that it would be returning on July 2, with a new episode pre-recorded in a revamped studio that had been altered to accommodate social distancing and other measures to prevent the cast or crew from getting sick.
It’s been a long wait for the fantasy adventurers and for the voice actors who play them, but the cast has been keeping busy, as three of their members revealed in a conversation with SYFY WIRE. They’ve released episodes of a narrative telephone game, where one cast member would, in-character, tell a complex story and then watch the story devolve as their castmates struggled to recount all the details — and their fellow party members’ various eccentricities.
“It’s a sad attempt at doing characters,” Laura Bailey, who plays the tiefling cleric Jester, says, adding that not everybody can pull off co-star Liam O’Brien’s accent as the human wizard Caleb Widogast. “He had a fabulous German accent and everybody butchered it horrendously.”
O’Brien, for his part, regrets not being able to draw upon Caleb’s “Keen Mind” feat, an ability that lets him just ask Dungeon Master Matt Mercer to remind him of small details, because Caleb’s encyclopedic memory would have recalled them even if O’Brien’s real brain didn’t. “I miss that in every other aspect of my life,” O’Brien says. “I am an average intelligence human being faking it as a highly intelligent human being and I will never do that again."
“It’s so much more fun to play stupid,” Bailey adds. “It really, really is.”
Bailey, O’Brien, and Mercer, who will appear with the rest of the Critical Role cast on SYFY WIRE's The Great Debate later this month on SYFY, caught up with us to talk about what they’ve been up to during their hiatus, the status of their upcoming animated series, and D&D’s latest push for better, more diverse representation.
How have all of you have been doing with the hiatus, and how have the Might Nien been doing with a dragon turtle chasing after them for months now? That’s a heck of a cliffhanger.
Liam O’Brien: Yeah they just freeze-framed, mouth agape staring and pointing off into the ocean as that thing heads towards the ship.
Laura Bailey: Yeah, what a way to stop.
Matt Mercer: It’s been tough. Every week Critical Role, for me, it’s my kind of emotional rock. It’s the thing I wait for every week to get to no matter how chaotic things are, so having that down has been tough. But, also we’re making sure that everybody’s safe, making sure that everything is done properly, and we’re making our way back towards getting in the swing of things.
O’Brien: It’s been nice that we’ve been doing other things — you know we’ve been doing narrative telephones so we’re still getting to communicate with each other and hang out virtually — but more than anything I miss our characters. I miss our characters' interactions.
Has anything about the hiatus taught you anything about your characters, or is it going to influence the way Critical Role looks when it returns?
O’Brien: Yeah when we come back we’re definitely going to have to keep in mind social distancing so everything has to be reimagined in a way that makes it safe to be working with each other. The production team has been doing phenomenal work with that and I’m really excited to see how it all looks.
Mercer: Everyone on the production team, every step of this, has been trying to get back to the table in a way that makes everyone safe. You know, for us the magic is being at that table together even if the table is a much larger table and we’re all much further from each other. Still being in the room together is kind of what really makes it for us so getting back to that stage the production team has done a phenomenal job.
Bailey: Being able to look at each other in the eye when we’re playing is huge.
O’Brien: We’ve shifted over the years with how we set things up. When we first started, at the very beginning of the show, we were further apart than we typically are now, and when we go and do live shows we’re often very far apart and all aimed out at a crowd. This new set up is going to be a new thing as well.
During all this time apart we do see each other through computer screens but there’s no replacement for face-to-face, even if it’s 20 feet apart. I knew how important this game and this family of people is to me, but it really hit home to have all this time go by and not gather together and do this magical thing we do together as a family. So, it’s long overdue. We’re so glad to get it back.
Have you guys played any D&D just for fun since the show has been on hiatus? Playing on a virtual tabletop or something?
Mercer: Not together. I’ve been in a few charity games online through Zoom and stuff like that but beyond that... We’re still kind of doing everything we were doing outside of the show from before the pandemic, but everything just takes two to three times as much effort and energy.
Bailey: Yeah, we’re all recording from home now, so sessions are crazy recording sessions.
O’Brien: I, however, have been running a game in Barovia for my 11-year-old daughter and her friends over Zoom for a couple of months and it has turned me into a folk hero with the other families. Because, let me tell you, the kids are getting punchy. It’s such a gift for them to be able to get together and horse around and pretend to be killing vampires.
And I know y’all still have the Critical Role TV series coming up. Without getting too much into it, has the pandemic impacted the creation of that show, or is that kind of on its own track?
Mercer: It’s impacted it in the way it impacts any industry. There are business elements that have to reshuffle and everyone has to figure out how to continue to do the things that they did normally but under these situations. So, it’s had an impact but it hasn’t shut things down thankfully.
O’Brien: The train was rolling, so they’re still moving forward. Luckily, we all have our own home setups so it hasn’t gotten in the way of recording anything. We just haven't been able to be in the same room as each other when we’re doing it this time.
Matt, when you and I spoke shortly after the Explorer’s Guide to Wildmount came out we talked about how one of the things the book did was remedy some of inherently racist or problematic ways that some races like dark elves or orcs have traditionally been depicted in Dungeons & Dragons. Recently, Wizards of the Coast announced a whole bunch of changes in order to further remedy that long-standing issue including changing some stereotypical descriptions from earlier campaign books and allowing for stat increases that aren’t tied to race. How do you feel about these changes and the direction that D&D is going, especially given the current movement?
Mercer: I think it’s long overdue and it’s a wonderful step in the right direction. I grew up a Tolkien nut, I grew up with original D&D, and I was blessed in many ways to be in an environment that didn’t have as glaring social issues where I could make these connections that were problematic with material that I was reading and consuming and playing.
As the years have gone on and I’ve learned about so many of these coded elements that are not great, it’s important to acknowledge it and important to evolve. I know that D&D has held these for a long time and I’m trying to do what little part I can even as I’m continuing to learn and be better about it too, so I’m glad that they’re making these big steps. I’m really excited to see them put actions behind the words and I’m happy to have in what small way I have help contribute to that so far.
O’Brien: In today’s climate we’re all trying to broaden our senses and our understanding so even people who feel like they’re trying to do well — there’s much more that we can do. D&D is this time-honored tradition, this game people love and nostalgia has played into it. I think a lot of people have probably felt like, ‘Well if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ but the thing is it was broke for some people you just might not have realized it. So I’m glad that change is on the wind.
Look for more from Bailey, O’Brien, and Mercer on SYFY WIRE and on the Who Won the Week podcast when it’s closer to the premiere of the Critical Role episode of The Great Debate, which airs on July 30.