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SYFY WIRE Critical Role

Exclusive: Brian W. Foster dishes on Critical Role’s new show UnDeadwood

By Lisa Granshaw
UnDeadwood Critical Role

Over the last year, Critical Role's growth beyond its humble beginnings as a home game-turned-weekly Dungeons & Dragons stream on Geek & Sundry’s Twitch channel hit new heights, fueled by the opening of a dedicated studio. Now fans don’t have to wait until Thursday for their weekly dose of Critical content —now they can enjoy a regular release of unique programming.

From short helpful series like Handbooker Helper to long-form interview programs like Between the Sheets, Critical Role is experimenting with formats and shows, providing a variety of options to fans and growing the brand. That expansion continues this fall with an impressive programming schedule that includes a new four-episode series called UnDeadwood.

UnDeadwood uses the Deadlands Reloaded RPG system for a show set in the town Deadwood. The series follows a group of characters “brought together to fight an evil they’ve never encountered—and will fight to save their souls in the process,” as the synopsis explains. Run by game master Brian W. Foster (Talks Machina, Between the Sheets), UnDeadwood features Ivan Van Norman, Khary Payton (The Walking Dead), Anjali Bhimani (Overwatch), and Critical Role cast members Marisha Ray, Matthew Mercer, and Travis Willingham.

The first episode aired Friday and will continue to air the next three Fridays on Critical Role’s Twitch channel, with the YouTube video available the following Sundays and a podcast form available the following Fridays.

SYFY WIRE has the first YouTube video of UnDeadwood that you can watch exclusively right now below.

We caught up with Foster to find out more about the show, what fans can expect as the series continues, and how this fits in with the growing Critical Role brand.

What sparked the creation of UnDeadwood?

I’ve been a fan of the Deadwood TV show since it was on back in the early 2000s. I loved the show so much, it’s one of the reasons why I became a writer and moved to L.A. in the first place. I always had a special place in my heart for it. Then Matt Mercer years ago had run a charity one-shot where he experimented with [Deadlands]. Deadwood is actually in the Deadlands setting. There is a version of Deadwood there that’s really fun and interesting. Matt did a mashup there. I thought that would be really fun to do, and he said, “You should do one of these because you’re such a Deadwood fan. You know all the lore and everything.”

I thought about it a little over a year ago, but we had just launched our studio and the only way to do this would be to do this very ambitiously. So I brought in Ivan Van Norman and I said, "Help me figure out how to do this," because he had done large-scale episodic high-production-value tabletop stuff before. I loved his work and knew he was the only person that could help us figure out how to make this go from a whiteboard to what you’re going to see. The two of us got together about eight months ago and started just talking story. Then building from there, he taught me the system and the rules and we started figuring out the cast. But it began with just my love of the show and then mashing that with both of us really love the Deadlands Savage Worlds system.

What about the system was appealing about using it for the show? How much did you test it out before jumping in?

We did a lot of testing. The folks at Pinnacle who publish the game were so awesome. We called them very early on and said, this is what we’re doing, but we’re going to homebrew some of it. We want to adjust it. For us, the story is the most important, and the players having fun while they’re doing it is the most important. That’s what translates to a good show. They gave us a lot of room to create what we wanted to. We played a few test games. Ivan played one with Marisha and I where we just made our characters one day in the conference room and ran through the game for a few hours.

What attracted me was that a lot of it is so success or failure. There’s not a lot of dice. You basically just use one or two dice the whole game and it’s a very “Can I do this?” “Well, roll and we’ll find out. Yes or no.” It’s very black and white. It’s almost very Western in that way. It’s very cause and effect. Very blunt. The dice act as an agent of chaos. They’re a blunt instrument in our world. They can give you the world or take it away from you in a moment, and with this game it’s so blunt. I just thought it’s the gritty harsh reality of a western and the wilderness. It made a lot of sense rather than making a version of a D&D fantasy where everybody plays a rogue or whatever. That wasn’t really appealing to us. The Deadlands system was exactly set up for people who wanted to play a game like we ended up doing.

What made you want to GM instead of being a player on the show, and what was the experience like?

I can tell you, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as they say. I’ve been DMing a home game for about a year and a half of D&D, and I actually have a split-off game, so there’s two. That I’m used to and it was a small group. But this is a completely different thing because you’re on camera and it’s a completely different game system that I wasn’t as familiar with as I am D&D, so there’s a big learning curve. I knew that I also had Ivan with me and I had Matt Mercer at the table, so I was in very capable hands if there were moments where I felt like, “Am I doing this right?” We had mapped everything out pretty well.

It’s really funny because I hate watching myself back on stuff, and as we’ve been editing this show I am so into the performances that everyone’s doing that I look angry for half of the show because I’m not even paying attention to my notes or what I’m supposed to be doing, because I also never DMed for anyone at that table. I had collected this all-star cast of extremely capable people and then had never run a game for them before, so I found myself continuously getting lost in their performances. I would say that was and is the biggest takeaway for me from this, running that game, was just being able to sit there and in a small way facilitate the absolute undeniable chemistry and magic and hilarity and sadness and triumph that is the performances that you’re going to see in the show.

You definitely have a great group of players participating in the series. How did the group come together?

Travis, Marisha, and Matt are all big Deadwood fans as well. The only other person in the cast that I think is a huge Deadwood fan is Taliesin [Jaffe], but he was just doing Call of Cthulhu when we shot this so I wanted to give him a break. So I pulled the three of them in for it, and Matt rarely gets to play because he DMs a lot. I wanted him to get a chance to do it, plus Matt dressed up like a western character is going to get all the [McCree fans] in the world here for it. Then I knew I wanted to do two guests to mix it up and not have the same CR people on everything to give them a break.

With Anjali, I obviously love her in Overwatch and her work, but I had seen her specifically in Ivan’s other shows and I found her to be a magnificent roleplayer. Probably the top three of people I’ve ever seen do it. She has a way of immersing herself in a character and not stepping on what anyone else is doing while still being so in character. That’s so hard to do when you’re making everything up on the fly and reacting to what everyone else is doing. She does that in a way that blew me away. 

Then Khary I’ve known for years from the voiceover world and been a friend and a fan of his forever. He’s on Walking Dead and obviously a very super busy guy. I would have him in here every week if I could doing something with us because he’s such a good dude. He absolutely totally gets what we’re doing here, and he’s one of the best actors alive. He does such great work on Walking Dead, but I feel like people are going to see a whole different side of him on this show. We gave everyone free rein to make up whatever they wanted with their characters. We gave them no parameters.

We told them just come up with whatever you want, and Khary brought us a character that blew me away. It was like he had a binder's worth of info he had already come up with for this person. He was going to show up with his research, and I would say Khary turns in a performance that I think will profoundly impact people. He can do so much with just his voice. It’s so powerful. When you get to hear and see all of them and their chemistry all together, I think we picked the perfect group of people for this journey.

UnDeadwood Critical Role

It sounds like there’s a lot for fans to look forward to, but now that you’re looking back at the episodes, editing them, and starting to release them, what are you most excited for fans to see?

When I was GMing it, my head is in a hundred different places, so when we went back and started to cut this I forgot so many moments that had happened. We shot this over two days. We shot episodes one and two in one day, then three and four in another day, and I don’t even know how many hours total of gameplay it was originally. We were there for a long time and I forgot so much. So I watched this and it’s very funny. Probably one of the funniest pieces of content consistently throughout the whole thing that we’ve put out and again, that goes back to the chemistry.

The other part of it is the depth that each character had before they sat down at the table. We were working on this for months and these people were thinking about and working on these characters for months. When they sat down at the table, it wasn’t like five minutes before we’re filling out a character sheet. They had sent us extensive backstories. Ivan and I then worked on how to bring those into the game. We had done a lot of work and you’ll [see], there’s no warm-up period when episode one starts. They are in character the second it starts. They are locked in. It doesn’t take until episode two for them to figure it out.

Also something that people don’t know that they’ll see in the premiere is this looks completely different than anything we’ve ever shot before. We used probably three times as many cameras. We added a lot of different effects anytime magic or anything like that is used. We’ve added some stuff that’s made it really unique and hopefully very easy and fun for people to watch and to follow what’s happening. That was the idea with this thing in the first place to make it something really unique and special so we’ve had a team of people working literally around the clock for the last two months getting this thing ready for everybody to see it.

How does this show fit within how Critical Role wants to continue to grow as a company and what you want to continue to offer fans with your programming?

Since the very beginning, a question that fans asked us was when are you going to do a second campaign running alongside the main Thursday night show? That’s not really something that’s ever appealed to us because we’re already asking people to commit to keeping up with one show and one story. It’s a lot of stuff and we knew with this channel we wanted to make a lot of different types of content, not just people sitting at a table playing games for every show.

When we launched the studio, we started making all the ideas we had and then knowing that we want to do other games, other systems, other shows, just not another regular weekly four-hour show. That doesn’t appeal to us. If we’re going to ask people to spend that much more time with us we want to make it really worth their while, so event series like this, some of the fun one-shots and stuff we’ve done are more in line with what we want to do here.

This type of thing is a short, four episodes, but a super high production value four episodes. That’s really more of the direction we’d like to go in rather than “OK, now we have three D&D shows all running at the same time and we’re just a studio that puts out people playing D&D.” We can do that, but if we’re going to ask people for their time, we want to make it very specific and provide something unique and different. With this, we just have never tried to do something like this before. It was, is, and will be an experiment. I think it’s going to work. We’re watching it, we’re thinking this is really good, but it was a way for us to challenge ourselves and to branch out a little bit too.

With this being only a four-part series, and of course we don’t know how it ends yet, but is this a system you’d like to experiment more with or a story you’d like to continue?

It's so funny because it took so much work for all of us to put together. You get tired and you go this is a lot of work. Then I think back to the night we finished episode four. I went home and I couldn’t sleep. I was wired. I was up until 6 am writing ideas for if this story ever continued and where I would want to go with it. I’m so glad we have this show because I miss those characters so much. I’m glad I can just pull them up on my computer and spend time with them whenever. I would love to do something like this again. We’ll see how the people like it and how it goes. As it is, it is a beautiful story and an amazing story as a standalone, but I think it could lead itself to more. We’ll see what the cast wants to do. I’m hoping it’s well-received. I know our fanbase for sure, it’s a mixture of so many things they love. I can’t wait to see all the art. I’m dying to see all the art.

Is there anything else about the show that you want fans to know or about what’s coming next for Critical Role as a whole?

I think that’s all I can tell you without spoiling anything! I can tell you this place is buzzing. We’re all really excited. I have never in my life worked with a group of people on a project and seen them work so hard and with so much heart at the same time. I think you’ll see that from frame one.

The second episode of UnDeadwood will air Friday at 7 pm PT on Critical Role's Twitch channel.