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Part of the fun of Dungeons & Dragons is that nobody — not even the Dungeon Master — knows exactly how things are going to end. That’s part of the magic that comes with improvisation and dice rolls. But, everybody has some idea of how the latest miniseries from Critical Role, Exandria Unlimited: Calamity, is going to end: With a calamity.
Or, rather, with The Calamity, as the four-episode series takes place a thousand years before the events of the main Critical Role campaigns and tells the mythic story of the disastrous event that brought an end to the legendary Age of Arcanum in a whole new way. Six characters — mighty, respected heroes — will give viewers a firsthand look at a tragedy that they should have seen coming. Critical Role viewers have heard about The Calamity. They’ve never seen it.
In other words, as Critical Role co-founder and EXU: Calamity player Marisha Ray tells SYFY WIRE, “Just because you loosely know how something is going to end, it doesn’t mean it’s still not a great f***ing story in the process.”
Exandria Unlimited: Calamity, is the third series to bear the EXU mantle following two connected miniseries DMed by Aabria Iyengar (who appears as a player in Calamity). However, the earlier series were set in the same time period as the ongoing main campaign, and indeed two of the characters in Campaign 3 made their debut in EXU. In some ways, then, Calamity is the first EXU to really explore the full potential of the franchise.
“When we originally started envisioning what Exandria Unlimited could be, it really was, it has its name for exactly that reason. It was unlimited,” Ray says. “We had all of this worldbuilding and this incredible timeline that [Critical Role DM Matt Mercer] has worked so hard to create, and so much of it is, honestly, kind of untouched and goes unexplored unless we’re visiting it through the main campaign’s PCs’ eyes.”
Ray is joined at the table by Iyengar, Travis Willingham, Sam Riegel, Lou Wilson, and Luis Carazo. Brennan Lee Mulligan, the GM behind the popular Dimension 20 actual-play anthology series, joins the Critical Role family for the first time as the DM. Mulligan says he was inspired to set his potential EXU series in this mythical historical era following a conversation over dinner he had with Mercer in 2021 about the then-burgeoning idea for the spinoff series.
“He mentioned the Age of Arcanum and The Calamity and there was a little something in his voice. Like, ‘Not idly do the leaves of Lórien fall,'” Mulligan recalls. “With him saying it, I could tell it was a part of the world he had envisioned that EXU would explore.”
It’s an epic time period in the fictional history of Exandria, the world where Critical Role takes place. The Calamity happened a millennium before the events of the main campaigns when the outcast Betrayer Gods were freed from their prison, sparking a horrible divine war that brought an end to the heroic Age of Arcanum and killed two-thirds of life in Exandria. There’s a lot to keep track of, and Mulligan — who glowingly describes Mecer as “if you took a book with a map at the front and made it a guy,” — admits to being initially a little intimidated at the thought of stepping into Mercer’s established lore and building upon it. (He says he looked into getting Critical Role’s lorekeeper, Dani Carr, to stand just off-camera and activate a shock collar if he ever accidentally got any of the lore wrong. The idea was vetoed.)
Mulligan says Mercer was not just extremely generous with his time during the conception and prep-work for Calamity, he was also excited for Mulligan to flesh out and expand on a period of Exandrian history that Mercer had only imagined in broader terms. And, it took some of the pressure off Mulligan when he chatted with Mercer and the original cast and realized that the lore he’d been agonizing over, having approached it as a viewer for years, is “the stuff we made up” to the players. “They’re not coming into it with the weight of the canon, the lore. Everyone there is the most psyched to tell a new story.”
While Calamity is being billed as a standalone adventure that can be watched and enjoyed without having seen Critical Role before, it seems likely that it will be required viewing for Critical Role going forward. "I can tell you that my understanding of the Calamity was far more basic than what we’re actually looking at,” Willingham tells SYFY WIRE. “In my humble opinion, you’re only going to understand the way that this world was built, the way that it transformed and evolved, and what the major events were that shifted it to where it is today if you watch this.”
They’re not willing to reveal too many details about the characters or exact plot before the Thursday premiere, but Ray confirms that there will be “some races and subclasses that are new to Critical Role,” and that they will be playing high-level characters, as is befitting heroes of this stature during this era.
“We wanted to see heroes at their peak, who, realistically, should have been able to see this coming or thwart it in some way,” she says. “It truly is kind of the ultimate tale of hubris.”
“I think that’s also what’s so different about this particular type of storytelling is that, in a sense, you know what the basic ending is going to be, which gives you that feeling of dread, you just don’t know how that’s going to happen,’ Willingham says. “So, even as a player, endings be damned, I want to try to mess with the player and the story as much as I can. I want to give it the fight of its life. I want to break it and maybe make some brain bubbles happen if I can.”
“I need to hype up what, to me, the headline of this miniseries is. The six players at this table are conducting a masterclass in roleplaying” says Mulligan, heaping praise on his players (especially Carazo and Wilson, Critical Role newcomers). Dungeons & Dragons, which he has been DMing since he was 10 years old, is a game that’s designed on a rules, story, and narrative level, to help players “bond together and try to win.”
“To tell a story where you are trying to live and know you’re going to die, and you are trying to succeed, but in attempting to succeed and foreshadow the coming doom — that level of patting your head and rubbing your tummy as someone strapped into the point of view of a first-person character, is straight-up Oscar-worthy,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a harder trick to pull off in D&D than what these six people do.”
Even in the face of the inevitably of what’s basically the apocalypse, there’s an incredible story to be told — or, perhaps, especially because of that canon-created inevitability.
“If your only question is 'does the Calamity happen or not?' that’s a different series,” Mulligan says. “The question here is ‘What is the nature of mortal beings when faced with this?’ You just have to watch. There are different — and, in my opinion, more interesting — questions to be answered here than ‘does the doom come or no?’”
Well, the doom is indeed coming... unless Mulligan is not joking about his “special instructions” from Mercer.
“Matt told me, 'If you hit four nat 20s in a row, we get to avert the calamity,’ So, that’s the deal,” he kids. “Yes, it’s going to be a bummer for everyone that bought sourcebooks and they’re going to have to return them and get them redacted and reprinted with the new histories. But, I think four nat 20s, in a row you have to honor it.”