critical role and the tender gift of story

You want to know people care about the stories they tell you.

Even I do. I who take such pleasure in divorcing a text from its context; who resented so much, in school, having to wade through the tales of an author’s real life as backstory to what we read. I don’t want this, I would argue. I don’t care who they were. Like with musicians and live recordings, miring a work of art within its own time and culture trapped it, I thought, from flapping free and extending its reach beyond the narrow confines of the world in which it was produced. “I wasn’t in that world, I’m in this one, and this text is speaking to me NOW!”

Critical Role turns that decades-long prejudice of mine on its head, though. And it’s not as though I haven’t engaged with fiction whose creators are still alive! I’ve stood in line with shining eyes waiting for David Mitchell to sign a book, swallowing the lump in my throat as he bought, with doodles, time for my husband to speak to him through his stutter. I’ve blushed five shades of crimson when Guy Gavriel Kay stumbled onto my post about A Song for Arbonne, and read it. I’m aware that there are living breathing people in the world producing work I admire, and that they want me, us, people everywhere to do so.

But that this started out as a work of love rather than as a career, or a path to one…I don’t know, I guess that’s unfair. I’m not knocking people who pursue artistic projects in the hope of bettering themselves in other fields. But the fact that this artistic came about, like DM Matt Mercer says, as a gift to his players…like “all roleplaying games are”…and then for all of them to be willing to expand the number of people allowed into that world, by such great numbers…it’s generous. It feels generous, and in a way that in one’s adult life one doesn’t often have the luck of encountering.

So many of our interactions, after all, are a bridging of gaps, a drawing closer of hearts and of minds, and then a polite cough and a closed door. There are spaces we reserve only for a handful of people — thoughts or emotions, reactions or experiences we share only with those we love. Or only with a handful of select friends. And whereas childhood is about, or can be about, finding as many people as possible to explore those avenues with, adulthood is realizing how many of those avenues are closed to you. And about learning to take that with good grace.

But here, we are allowed in. Not just as paying spectators, even, but as participants of a kind whose welfare…matters, I guess? I dare you to come to any other conclusion after watching DnD Beyond’s interview with Mercer about the end of the campaign. He attaches a hope to this project, above and beyond any success it may create for himself and the cast. All of the cast’s interviews speak to this — and they are all fantastic — but I point to his because he addresses it the longest. (And to be honest, because his crying is infectious.) It isn’t just a hope that the story pleases people. It’s a hope that…people become better as a result? That people are better to each other and themselves as a result? But such sentiments come from somewhere utterly un-self-righteous. Wishing to better people is an easy slogan to slap on your shitty website or church pamphlet. It’s harder to mean it, on- and off-camera. And yeah, I know, most of the 35k+ people watching (live) aren’t in a position to speak to the truth of that, but it kinda feels like he means it? Like they all do. He says he’s protective of this world, very much so, and for once, someone is saying it not out of a desire for IP infringement protection; the material concerns of lawyers and HR teams. He and they appear to mean it out of love. And out of the wish that good might come of it, bolstered by the knowledge that some good already has.

And that’s so goddamn touching. To be cared for, however tangentially, and to be believed in as a possible agent of good in the world. The number of people willing to believe in you like that drops off drastically as you grow older. It’s absurdly moving to be told otherwise, long past the age when you were supposed to stop wanting it.


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