In early fall, the hugely successful Dungeons & Dragons “actual play” series Critical Role announced plans for their third campaign, set in the fictionalized world of Marquet. While the campaign would draw inspiration from real-life SWANA [Southwest Asian/North African] cultures, the group would work together with sensitivity consultants to craft a fantasy continent free of appropriation, Dungeon Master Matt Mercer said in a blog post. Mercer sounds earnest enough, and it’s nice to see them be proactive about hiring consultants right off the bat instead of waiting to be called out on a misstep. So why were some people so mad at them?
When the campaign was initially revealed, the criticism from the tabletop role-playing game sphere and from SWANA creators like myself boiled down to Critical Role making a financial killing off the aesthetics of cultures not represented in the actual cast makeup of the show, which is made up entirely of white people save for a new guest member. There was also a healthy amount of apprehension as to how respectfully this world was being built.
After the campaign was announced in October, critical attention gradually ebbed away as the discourse wheel continued to turn. But on December 10, Critical Role released the intro sequence for their third campaign, a dramatic music video that cuts between the cast members at the table and themselves in costumes, exploring an unseen fantasy environment. It appears to be an innocuous, silly video where the cast members sing, make over-the-top expressions, and roll dice in intense slo-mo. But the overlying aesthetic is what plays the critical role in the reignition of this discussion.
This attire might seem inspired by franchises such as Uncharted, The Mummy, and Indiana Jones (and the classic adventure serials that influenced those stories), but those are charged, colonialist stories for people of colour. Yes, these costumes are functionally harmless, as anything is on a purely aesthetic level. But they speak to a legacy of disregard and disrespect to colonised cultures often robbed — literally — of their material heritage and ancestry by the outside “explorer” who represents a larger power structure.
The desire to protect and preserve history in a museum is an admirable one. But even the most heroic and selfless of the fictional explorers in those classic tales is still stealing from the people indigenous to the “foreign” lands they explore. Removing these artifacts from their homeland to be displayed elsewhere also suggests that the people of these cultures are incapable of being responsible for the preservation of their own history. The consequences of these narratives, both real and fictional, persist to this day, with many museums in the Western world boasting catalogues of artifacts acquired through colonialist means.
The intro video that CR has created feels a little too on the nose in that regard. Rather than dressing as characters that reside in the world they’ve created, they are instead dressed like colonial explorers of the 19th and 20th centuries. With a lantern in hand to help them dispel the fog, they are fully embracing their roles as voyeurs. They are cementing their perspective as that of the outsider, even in a fantasy setting of their own creation.
Despite being the defining publication of an entire field of literary, artistic, and academic criticism, Edward Said’s Orientalism famously fails to account for the multimillion-dollar-earning Critical Role. (Said was at something of a disadvantage here, as the book was published in 1978.) Regardless, the seminal text provides a helpful framework for understanding the issue at hand in this controversy.
For those who aren’t fellow art school escapees, Orientalism is both a book by Edward Said and a critical concept describing the Western view of the colonised world (specifically the Orient, referring to Asia and North Africa). It’s a method of literary and artistic analysis of works made by the West that portray the Orient, frequently from a viewpoint that exoticizes the region and its cultures to create a colonial fantasy. With the West wielding imperial power over the Orient, they’re subsequently able to categorise and define portrayals of the Orient in whichever way they please, even if they aren’t aware they’re doing it.
One of the core concepts of Orientalism as a field of study is that even the most well-meaning scholars from the Western world are unable to present objective truths about the Orient. The Western view of the Orient is forever tarnished by the legacy of colonialism and fictionalized history. It’s like trying to get an accurate reflection from a funhouse mirror; you can polish the surface until it becomes clear as much as you want, but it does nothing to fix the distorted reflection of the truth that forms the foundation of the image. And even though it’s a fictionalized, fantastical version of the Orient, Marquet is not exempt from being built on a warped foundation.
This may seem like an overly cynical and bad-faith interpretation of what Critical Role is doing with this new campaign. But real, respectful depictions of the Arab world and of SWANA cultures are few and far between. And we aren’t the ones who have the resources to tell our stories yet. We’re hired to help white creators avoid mistakes and to absolve them of guilt, to shield them from criticism and feel grateful we’re even allowed behind the curtain. Four months later, nothing has worsened, but nothing has assuaged this feeling either.
Since the intro sequence was released, the campaign has continued and now has over 12 episodes. It thus far exists in a strange half-space between SWANA-inspired set dressing and the standard, familiar high-fantasy naming conventions of the show’s previous campaigns. There haven’t been any outright offensive descriptions or actions taken, but the way the cast members role-play through the world has felt exactly the same as their previous campaigns. Nothing signifies Marquet as a unique world other than the aesthetic of it. In the end, despite their dedication to creating an appropriation-free world, they fail to present us with anything of substance. All their research and sensitivity efforts pay off in a world that is little more than window dressing.
This isn’t a problem unique to Critical Role, in my honest opinion. Predominantly white TTRPG games — both the systems and the individual campaigns — are frequently void of cultural specificity. By cultural specificity, I mean the unique traits of a culture that are present on a personal and environmental level. In role-playing games with predominantly white players, even with the most intricately built worlds there is still a lack of connection between the cultures they play in and the way they play their characters. The characters (and people playing them) are untouched by the world in which they exist, with most of their specificity coming from individual conflicts and unique backstory elements rather than an overarching, connected system of cultures. Even when inoffensively borrowing from European and Scandinavian cultures, these settings are built on the foundation of aesthetics rather than any specific cultural touchstones or unique characteristics of the cultures they borrow from.
Even though they hired consultants to help build the world of Marquet, the consultants aren’t the people through whose eyes we’re seeing that world. We will only ever experience Marquet through the lens of the Critical Role cast members, who have already positioned themselves as outsiders. As Orientalism has proved, the reality of who made a culture has less control over how it’s portrayed than the ones who hold the power. Consultants may have helped shape the world, but they will not be the ones to guide us through it.
In October and even now, most arguments in the show’s defence tend to rely on the ever-popular phrase “it’s just a game,” simultaneously chastising critics for overreacting and watering down the reality of what Critical Role actually is. Each episode opens with Matt Mercer welcoming the audience and referring to himself and his castmates as “a bunch of nerdy-arse voice actors,” with an ease of self-deprecation that humbles and endears them to an audience of millions. The way the show is filmed and presented works incredibly well, inviting audiences to feel like they have a seat at the table with these old friends while they play a game.
But it’s never just a game, especially not with Critical Role. These are inordinately wealthy people who have branded themselves into relatable creators who play tabletop games like everyone else.
Around the same time as the campaign announcement, Twitch leaks revealed the earnings of the site’s highest-paid channels. Among them was Critical Role, which was shown to have earned a whopping $US9.6 ($13) million in 3 years. That’s just what the show has earned from Twitch itself, and doesn’t account for the considerable profits made from merchandise, books, or original published game content. This also doesn’t account for the Kickstarter campaign to raise money for an animated series of the first campaign, which wound up bringing in $US11.3 ($16) million. (That series, The Legend of Vox Machina, has just premiered on Amazon Prime.) Needless to say, there’s a lot of money being made here. Despite the impression they strive to give off to their audience, Critical Role is undeniably a franchise before it is a group of friends.
Their fanbase has only grown over the years, and as the show has gone on, much of the lore created by Mercer for Critical Role campaigns has been turned into official expansions for Dungeons & Dragons by Wizards of the Coast, the company which currently owns and publishes D&D. It’s no exaggeration to say that the show wields an immense amount of influence over the Dungeons & Dragons community as a whole.
With Critical Role being as influential to D&D as it is, it’s highly likely that Wizards of the Coast will release official Marquet-branded content which will then become the de facto SWANA-based fantasy setting for mainstream tabletop gaming for years to come. And this is understandably worrying to many SWANA people working in games, particularly in tabletop circles. Some express their discomfort only to immediately be hounded by defensive fans.
Much of that defence manifests as fans insisting that the cast members are good people, which they very well may be. But good intent doesn’t matter when the end result is harmful. It doesn’t mean jack shit if you promise to be moral and responsible with your depiction of other cultures and then publicly condemn anyone who is made uncomfortable by your actions.
With a platform as large as theirs, the members of Critical Role must understand that every action they take is one that will echo and reverberate across their fans and tabletop communities as a whole. The Critical Role team has a responsibility to acknowledge the colonial origin of the exploration aesthetics they perpetrate and, if they are as devoted to doing good as they insist, a responsibility to dismantle their legacy.
You can’t act as a company but expect to be forgiven like a person. If content creators like the members of Critical Role continue to profit at this scale, they have to understand that they will become beholden to public opinion. Material wealth has material consequences. It is no longer just a group of friends. It was never just a game.