This week, the party set out on what Matt assured them would be a grueling, tedious journey. In truth, the journey was anything but. The tedium brought out every single one of the players’ most potent and delirious comic talents, and a surprise guest star sent the comedy rocketing sky high—and then brought it crashing back to the sort of panic and mortal terror that this campaign is known for.
Art by 우누 (@unoobang)
Previously on Critical Role, the Mighty Nein were dumbfounded by revelation after revelation of Nott’s true past. The resolved to save Nott’s husband, Yeza Brenatto, a halfling alchemist who had been kidnapped by Kryn soldiers in the recent Xhorhasian attack on Felderwin. The Mighty Nein descended into the gaping tunnels left by—what they assumed to be—the Kryn’s war worms.
This week, the party began a long, lightless journey through hundreds of miles of monotonous tunnels. They encountered a few enemies—ropers—but ultimately their journey was day after day of tedium. After several days, they stumbled right into a camp of kobolds! They tried to overawe the kobolds, Return of the Jedi-style, but eventually managed to avoid combat by bartering away “valuable” items.
That night, though, they were pursued by a particularly un-stealthy kobold. The party could hear the clanking animal cages and pouches strapped to his pack a mile away, and set up an ambush of their own. They subdued their hapless attacker, and learned that his name was Spurt, a kobold inventor—and that he was actually the guest character of Chris Perkins!
The party agreed to let Spurt join them for a time, but his tenure as a member of the Mighty Nein was short-lived. Only a short time later, they came across a mighty fire giant citadel… and Spurt was instantly spotted and instantly smashed by one of the guards. The tiny kobold suffered massive damage and was killed in a single blow, leaving little more than a gory smear on the ground. Chris stood up, clearly quite pleased with himself, and cheerfully departed from the table, to everyone’s uproarious laughter.
Spurt was gone… and very quickly forgotten. The Mighty Nein had a more pressing matter to attend to: the citadel of the fire giants stood between them and their goal. Such foes were clearly beyond them. Using their various magical abilities, they turned themselves invisible and tried to create a distraction to draw the guards’ attention—but things didn’t go according to plan. Initiative was rolled, Nott tumbled into a river of lava, and unchecked chaos ensued. Left on this cliffhanger, Matt informed us that Critical Role would be taking next Thursday off, forcing us to wait two whole weeks to see how this madcap crisis would turn out!
Art by Cornelia (@Davien_art)
Spotlight: Introducing Guest Characters
Introducing new characters to a D&D party is hard, especially when the party has an established dynamic and your players have all been playing together for three, ten, twenty, maybe even fifty or more sessions. This section also applies to introducing new long-term party members, but it’s especially crucial when introducing a guest player that will only be around for a single game.
The most common challenge when introducing a guest party member is how to make this whole contrived situation believable. If you’re a group of three-to-six highly armed adventurers living in a world brimming with doppelgangers, evil wizards who can cast alter self, and dragons who can cast polymorph, you honestly have no reason to trust a newcomer, let alone welcome them into your adventuring party at the drop of the hat. This situation gets even thornier if the character is, say, a kobold.
Now, the issue of verisimilitude is a tricky one. I like my games to be believable and recognizable as stories in the aftermath, with as little “it’s just a game” handwaving as possible. If you really want to have a seamless and narratively coherent reason for your guest party members to join the team, you need to have a conversation beforehand. This conversation needs to be between everyone at the table: the Dungeon Master, the guest player, and the regular players. Between these three parties, you all need to decide three things:
- Why the guest character would want to join the party.
- Why the party members would accept this guest.
- If one party member is particularly suspicious, that character’s player should help brainstorm ways their fellow party members can convince them to accept the guest.
If you can nail these three points down, you should be okay. The goal of this quick chat—and it should really only take about 15 minutes!—is to minimize the chaos and in-character handwringing. If you start play and get to a moment where one party member starts hemming and hawing over accepting the guest, just look back at what you all talked about earlier.
The Critical Role cast handled it differently, however. If you think your players are mature enough to handle it, your “all-hands” talk can be much quicker. It only needs to be a single point, and ideally everyone will just say: “got it!”
- When the guest shows up, just accept them into the party instantly.
This is the sort of “beer & pretzels” approach to casual D&D where you automatically accept that the fiction of the game serves one purpose: to get you and your friends together to play a game. But even a group that loves roleplaying and telling stories can get behind this. The Critical Role folks did. The goal of coming to a D&D game is to play the game, not stymie the other players—even if that means letting your characters’ suspicions be assuaged unrealistically quickly.
My apologies if this “solution” seem a bit flip. But in this situation, we all know that our friend is gonna join the party in the end. There’s no narrative interest or fun tension in prolonging the issue. So just cut the Gordian knot and skip all the pretense.
That said, I think we could even go further than the Critical Role cast does. Related to the issue of verisimilitude is when you introduce the guest character. Matt Mercer has a habit of introducing guest characters in the last third of an episode because he needs to wait for a time it makes sense for the character to appear. I respect that. But it also frustrates me, because I’ve been in a situation like this: invited to be a guest character at a friend’s (not streamed) home game, and I had to wait three hours on the side of the table before my character showed up. I just wanted to play some D&D! And frankly, my other friends just wanted to play D&D with me, too. It was awkward for everyone that I just sat on the sidelines for so long.
Art by Noelle Stevenson (@Gingerhazing)
This happened with Spurt the kobold in this week’s episode, but it was hardly an issue because of (spoiler). But this isn’t the first time this has happened. I think the most egregious example of this occurred with Noelle Stevenson’s character in Campaign 1, the werebear Tova. In that example, Vox Machina found her as a prisoner and freed her; a perfectly good motivation for her to join the party for a time! The only issue was that the party didn’t start in prison, they started wandering the streets of a city. And then they went to a bar. And haggled a contract for an hour. It was practically the end of the session that they actually found Tova.
Fortunately, Noelle was able to come back the next week and show off her character and her story, but not everyone is that fortunate. With a little tweaking, Tova could have easily been a patron in the bar Vox Machina visited. She could have been an escaped prisoner with a vendetta against the pit fiend that imprisoned her, giving her essentially the same motivation as before, but this time allowing her to join the party much earlier in the session.
In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a huge problem. It’s a minor quibble I have with what is otherwise an amazing D&D series. But I think you can learn from this, and make your own home games better as a result. If you sit down with your fellow gamers to hash out the details of the guest character before the session begins, you can save everyone a lot of heartache and awkwardness during the game itself.
What lessons can we learn from Matthew Mercer and the Mighty Nein next week (after a week's hiatus)? Is it next Thursday yet?
Unless otherwise credited, all images in this article are courtesy of Chris Lockey and Critical Role.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He loves watching Critical Role and wants everyone he knows to get into it, too. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his very own Frumpkins, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.