This week, Beau and Jester engaged in an anything-goes brawl at a rough-and-tumble tavern called the Four Corners. How did Matthew and his players manage to have fun in a combat where only a fraction of the party was fighting?
Previously on Critical Role, the Mighty Nein traveled to Asarius, the City of Beasts. They learned of an Abyssal infestation within the city, and of an imperial spy that might be related to this threat. Jester and Nott negotiated with the leader of the town for a mercenary contract to hunt down the spy and end the demonic threat—which would hopefully fund their future adventures as they journey to Ghor Dranas to save Nott’s husband, Yeza.
This week, the party spent their first night in Asarius. That night, Fjord dreamed of dry, empty plains. Water burst from the cracked ground and flooded everything around him. He tried to swim with it, but his feet were anchored to the ground and he was swallowed by the newly formed waves.
Uk’otoa’s form writhed about him.
The demigod’s giant, glowing eyes opened and gazed upon him.
His tendrils wove around him and crushed him.
And Fjord’s body burst and blood exploded from his flesh.
And he awoke, and vomited brine and seawater onto the ground around him.
Fjord talked with Caduceus about the nature of the gods—if the Wildmother cared about the affairs of mortals. He suspected that not following Uk’otoa’s wishes might lead him to harm, and if he should start planning a contingency.
Jester cast sending and talked to Yeza, who is still alive and imprisoned in a dark cell. Safe in the knowledge that he was well—for now—the Nein decided to follow up on the quests they received from the master of the town earlier that day. Before starting their investigation properly, however, they decided to meet again with Zorth and got their three moor bounder mounts. The three riders had to undergo some training and bonding exercises to bond with their new mounts; Matthew posed this as a skill challenge based around Animal Handling.
They began combing through the streets of town, interrogating townsfolk and searching in nooks and crannies for information about the imperial spy and the Abyssal rifts. They started with an ogre butcher—a relatively well-spoken fellow with a glinting monocle. He revealed that, in recent weeks, all of his meat has been spoiling remarkably quickly.
They next met with a local dragonborn fishmonger—possibly a refugee from the ruins of Draconia, to the south—and learned precious little from him. Madame Musk, a bizarre old hag, offered to help them make potions in exchange for more supplies (tumor moss). When they pried deeper for information about strange happenings in town, the lady told them about a boarded-up house that might be connected to a rash of nightmares that has been plaguing the town. The party—scared out of their wits by this old woman—scurried off to the house. Jester managed to peek underneath the illusion and found that the creepy old hag was actually just a group of kobolds putting on an act!
They investigated the house, but didn’t find anything particularly unusual about it. They made their way to the Four Corners tavern to eat and gossip with the locals. The Four Corners was a rough and tumble establishment, and the Mighty Nein did their best to avoid the scurviest of its patrons. They settled upon a somewhat refined-looking female dark elf, and several of them did their best to wheedle their way into a conversation with her. Ultimately, they decided it would be best to enter the pub’s fighting ring to catch her interest. The party anted up and jumped into the gravel-bottomed fight ring in the middle of the cantina. Beau and Jester took two of the “Four Corners” of the fighting arena, and the dark elf monk and a massive ogre took the others.
As the two combatants duked it out with their enemies, Caduceus ordered breakfast and watched, occasionally using spare the dying to protect fallen fights… and puzzling over whether or not he should use try to make a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check to use his Sentinel at Death’s Door trait when Matthew’s NPCs started dishing out critical hits. Nott, meanwhile, used mage hand to sneakily recover the diamond that Jester bet in the fight.
Beau and Jester lost their bout, but they learned that the “dark elf” was actually Beau’s old companion Dairon of the Cobalt Soul under an illusory disguise. Dairon had lied about being wounded and recovering in Bladegarden, and she had hoped to keep the Mighty Nein from following her into Xhorhas. Shocked, amazed, and pleased beyond words, Beau swept Dairon up into a powerful embrace.
Art by John Taylor (@johnktaylorart)
Spotlight: Partial-Party Combat
It’s hard to run combats where only a few of your players are participating. Arena fights, duels of pride, combat when the party has been split, ambushes in the middle of the night when some combatants have armor to put on… all of these scenarios can cause frustration when one or more party members just aren’t able to take part in the fight.
This week, the cast of Critical Role engaged in a two-on-two arena fight and managed to make it work. This is hardly the first time they’ve showed prize fights on their show successfully; Grog Strongjaw fought not once but twice in an arena called the Crucible in episodes 17 and 24 of their first campaign. Both of the Crucible fights and the bout in the Four Corners were intense combats that had all players at rapt attention—even though only one or two of them were actually in the fight! How did they manage that?
There are several secrets to their success. Some of these elements can be manipulated by the Dungeon Master when intentionally designing a partial-party combat. However, the burden of fun largely rests in the lap of the players. Here’s what you can do as a player or as a Dungeon Master to have fun in an encounter where only part of the party is actively engaged.
The one big trick Matthew had up his sleeve this week was that the encounter was short. It was only two characters versus only two combatants. His foes’ actions were—mostly—quite simple, since the ogre was a melee-focused brute. The monk was a tricky opponent, using several of the off-turn reactions and abilities that monks are known for, but he knew what those abilities did in advance and was able to adjudicate them quickly. This rarely disrupted the flow of combat. Likewise, both Marisha and Laura knew exactly what their abilities did—with one notable exception regarding an edge case with spirit guardians—and were able to keep their turns snappy, too.
Art by Bailie Rosenlund (@bailierosenlund)
Obviously, the more combatants and encounter has, the longer it goes. There are diminishing returns to reducing the number of combatants, but a two-on-two bout caused the fight to zip by with lightning speed. By keeping the action dynamic and frenetic, everyone at the table had a reason to stay engaged with the fight to watch the moment-to-moment changes of the encounter. There were several disruptions from the players sitting on the sidelines, but we’ll return to those later.
One more DM trick. Last campaign, when Grog returned to the Crucible in C1E24 for a rematch with the half-orc barbarian Kern, the fight was fraught with emotional peril. The same could be said for Grog’s (mostly) one-on-one duel in Westruun later in the campaign. His pride was at stake. Even if he survived, there would be dire consequences if he lost. Good stakes make for good drama, which will help your other players stay engaged, even if they aren’t actively participating in the fight itself. If you’re DMing and plan to have a partial-party combat, think about the backstories of your players’ characters. How can you draw from it to create a dramatic encounter? Better yet, talk with your players and work together to create a scene that will engage everyone around the table.
While a good Dungeon Master can craft a fight with interesting circumstances, the burden of finding fun rests largely upon the players’ shoulders. Despite what others may say, the DM is not a fun machine. They aren’t equivalent to the game cartridge or the game console that fun comes out of. Part of your job as a player is to find a way to entertain yourself and find the fun of D&D. This week, the players outside of the fight were able to find the fun by engaging in small disruptions outside of combat.
Caduceus had a micro-storyline going on in which he got some breakfast. It was a fun character beat, but also one that allowed Taliesin to contribute a little bit to the story at large. Likewise, he was able to use (or at least consider using) his life-saving Grave domain features to help his friends. Meanwhile, Nott used her spells to try and recover the bet money that Jester anted up before the fight. Both of these actions were incredibly minor, and had little to no bearing on the combat at hand, but they gave two players who clearly wanted to do something a little something to do, and helped break up the action with a bit of comedy.
It helps that the Critical Role players have developed a keen sense of comedic pacing over their acting careers. These disruptions that Nott and Caduceus wove into the fight were the sorts of comic asides you would see in an action-oriented motion picture or television show.
What lessons can we learn from Matthew Mercer and the Mighty Nein next week? And... is it 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.