Critical Role Spotlight: Episode 54

This week, the Mighty Nein planned with an unexpected ally, Beau had a one-on-one duel, and the party fought a strangely beautiful duo. On top of all this, Matthew Mercer provided an in-universe explanation for providing some mechanical tweaks to one of the homebrew subclasses one of his players was using in-game.

Art by Lauren Rowlands (@larn_draws)

Episode Summary

Previously on Critical Role, the Mighty Nein investigated Asarius, the City of Beasts, for an imperial spy. After throwing down with a mysterious dark elf in the Four Corners tavern, Beau learned that the spy was actually her previous mentor: Expositor Dairon of the Cobalt Soul!

This week, the Mighty Nein tried to encourage Dairon to travel incognito with them to Ghor Dranas, but she flatly refused. She worked alone, and she would not budge, no matter how fiercely they cajoled her. She did, however, remark to Beau that her fighting impressed her. It was powerful, but it still needed refinement. She asked Beau to meet her after sundown to train, just like they did back in Trostenwald, so many months ago.

The Nein spent the rest of the day continuing their investigation of Asarius, searching for the Abyssal portals rumored to be popping up around the city. Despite speaking with several suspicious bugbears, and Jester judiciously using detect evil and good, they ultimately learned precious little of importance, and retired back to their rooms in the inn. While the others slept, Beau scurried out and sparred with Dairon. Their secret training unlocked new knowledge in Beau’s mind—and allowed Matt to give Marisha a few playtest-driven updates to her Way of the Cobalt Soul monk subclass.

The next morning, they continued their investigation and climbed down into a bugbear den. There, they encountered a seductive duo of fiends, an incubus and a succubus that had been charming the bugbears and filling their dreams with strange thoughts. The battle quickly turned against the fiends, and they fled deeper into the earth. The Mighty Nein steeled themselves and leapt down after them, into darkness, and wound their way deep underneath the City of Beasts.

Spotlight: Modifying the Way of the Cobalt Soul

This episode featured more of the fun and unique NPCs we’ve come to expect from the grim-yet-quirky city of Asarius, but the real standout moment of this episode was Beau’s sparring match. In a game where characters tend to gain new powers for no concrete narrative reason (only linked to the game mechanic of gaining a level), Matthew giving his characters specific, in-narrative ways to enhance her monk powers is a welcome treat. Fjord gained new warlock powers when he consumed the orbs of Uk’otoa during his chapter exploring the Menagerie Coast, and Beau has now twice gained new power by sparring with a mentor.

This is a tool you can steal for your home game to help weave your mechanics and narrative together in a more cohesive manner. It requires you to be very cognizant of what your players and their characters want, and it also requires for your players to be forthcoming about their motivations. Beau’s Way of the Cobalt Soul subclass grants her character an instant link to an organization with specialized powers, while Travis’s Hexblade patron also provides an instant narrative link. A paladin’s Sacred Oath subclasses also provide a similarly instant narrative hook, but you may need to do a little more work to create a narrative niche for other classes to feel like their powers are grounded in your campaign setting.

Beau’s sparring was especially interesting because it gave Matthew a narrative way to not just grant Beau a new power, but to buff a power that he had originally made too weak. Since the Way of the Cobalt Soul is a monk subclass of his own creation, it’s up to him to tweak its power and make sure that it has mechanics that are fun for both him and his players to play with. He had the added benefit of seeing this subclass published in the Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting and receiving community feedback on these class features for the past year and a half, which has allowed him to refine and iterate his core concept. And while the book isn’t going to receive any revisions (probably), he can make changes for his own table. This is no sin; even the D&D designers at Wizards of the Coast modify their own rules and homebrew new ones for their home games to better fit the game they’re trying to play!

Don’t be afraid to tweak homebrew content that you’re using in your game. Your homebrews don’t have to be perfectly balanced in the way that official D&D content ought to be, since your homebrew only needs to apply to your game. Official content needs to be reasonably balanced enough (and generic enough) to be used by hundreds of thousands of gamers around the world. You don’t have to worry about that, and you also don’t have to go through the arduous process of submitting revisions and playtesting—your game is your playtest! Embrace that, and feel free to constantly make changes.

Grounding your homebrew tweaks in your game’s narrative isn’t required, of course. If you or one of your players created a homebrew item, it might actually be a better idea to hash out your changes together, so that you don’t surprise your player with an unwanted and irksome nerf. Since a character’s class abilities are essentially divorced from their character concept already, most players can simply suspend their disbelief and ignore how a character suddenly lost a few powers and gained some new ones in their place. You could also take both roads at once, and have a conversation with your player, and then create an in-game scenario to explain away the altered class features.

Have you ever made homebrew changes in the middle of a campaign? How did you weave it into your story? 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.


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