This week, the cast of Critical Role managed to surprise their Dungeon Master in a major way. If you were their DM, how would you react to the bombshell they just dropped on you? Even with a two week break between sessions, what would you do to prepare for next game?
Art by Miloš_R3D (@milosr3d)
Previously on Critical Role, the Mighty Nein faced a harrowing encounter in a well beneath Asarius, the City of Beasts. A demonic artifact—some sort of planar anchor—had been left within the city, and a succubus and an incubus had taken advantage on the arcane tool to start creating more portals to the Endless Layers of the Abyss in the underground regions of the city. The Mighty Nein faced off against the two beguiling fiends and their Abyssal taskmaster in a bloody battle that ended with Caduceus’s death—only temporarily, however, thanks to Jester’s powers of revival.
This week, the Mighty Nein examined the demonic anchor they discovered, and looked over the arch of the portal that the demon they battled mere moments ago. It seems that the large demon that came through the portal arrived to check in on the succubus and incubus and their quasit servants, and to evaluate their progress on the new portal they were constructing. None of them knew exactly what to do with the device, save for putting it in a lead-lined box and hope for the best.
They warded themselves and spent the night within the well. The next morning, they emerged from the well—and Jester saw a symbol of the Traveler engraved on the door of a house near the well. Jester ran to the door and knocked hard; an elderly gnoll responded: “Are you a friend of the Traveler?”
The gnoll introduced himself as Korvak, and Jester immediately began pumping him for information about the Traveler. Apparently Korvak was old and lonely, and was visited by the Traveler—eventually he became the only friend Korvak had. They both chatted about a gathering that the Traveler had told them both about. The meeting was still several months away, and the Traveler had given neither of them a location to gather in, but they trusted that they would learn where to meet in time.
After departing Korvak’s rancid-smelling hut, the party traveled to the Aurora Hold and met with Lady Oleos, the drow governor of this city. They reported their findings from the well, and handed over the Abyssal anchor, and one of her servants disassembled it. They asked for a favor from the Bright Queen—Leylas Kryn—herself, which diminished their monetary reward. They would travel to her throne room to meet her. They decided to take the trip, and gathered their moor bounders and prepared to depart that very night. The party returned to the Aurora Hold with their moor bounders and made use of Lady Oleos’s teleportation circle.
Like they opened a door in the middle of a storm, they were blasted by a gust of frigid wind. When the Mighty Nein were able to open their eyes, they found themselves in another teleportation chamber. Lady Oleos welcomed them to the Underarches of the Lucid Bastion. She also declared that they would meet with the Bright Queen in an hour. Fjord asked about Lady Oleos as they waited, she explained that she was a den mother, and asked once more if any of them had been consecuted yet. She cryptically mused that, since they were not, nothing awaited them if they perished in this life.
Eventually, they were grant an audience with Empress Leylas Kryn. Her throne room was pyramid-shaped, and at its zenith was a glowing sphere, like a miniature star that washed the room with pure white moonlight. Eight thrones stood upon raised daises along the edge of the room, and the throne of Leylas Kryn stood higher than all the rest. She wore regalia of mithral and cloth, and her pure white hair tumbled down from a headdress of crystal and ibex-like horn. She imperiously down at the chamber from her throne of white crystal. A wire-frame construct of a polygonal dodecahedron rested nearby. All gazed upon them as they ascended the stairs.
“Welcome, Children of Light,” she said. The Mighty Nein trembled in her presence, and explained the task they completed for “Lady Zephrys of Den Oleos.” She asked of them their origins, and what their wishes were—and Nott and Jester blatantly lied to them, and Nott used the fragment of possibility from the Xhorhasian beacon to twist her fate. Empress Kryn’s face darkened, and she took note of the power’s use. One of the drow revealed that he had seen the Mighty Nein before—in the ambush just beyond the Ashkeeper Peaks, only a few days previously. Before they could react, they were apprehended, and countless blades were drawn.
Only Caleb’s quick thinking saved them—he drew the dodecahedron from the bag of holding and claimed to bring it to her, saying that he was a child of the Empire, but held no love for it. He laid the dodecahedron down, and tears formed in the eyes of everyone present. Leylas Kryn knelt down and picked it up. “You bring us hope. And you have undone one of many great wounds done against us. I have no words. If you are no friend to the Empire. Then you have certainly become heroes of the Dynasty.”
This week’s spotlight is, unfortunately, filled with spoilers. Something major occurred in this episode of Critical Role, and discussing its implications without at least obliquely mentioning the event itself is impossible. Continue on only if you've seen this episode, or if spoilers don't bother you.
Art by Meggie Fox (@meggiebfox)
Spotlight: Gray Morality and Twists
The Mighty Nein have never been good at taking sides. For many of them, even though the Dwendalian Empire was their home, they didn’t trust it enough to work for it. When faced with the option of working for a shady and unscrupulous crime lord—the Gentleman—or work for the Lawmaster of Zadash, they chose the Gentleman! When given the choice between Avantika and the Revelry pirates, they chose an option that led to Avantika’s death and their permanent exile from the pirates!
This speaks not just to the Mighty Nein’s suspicious nature, but also to the gray morality of the entire land of Wildemount. Most of the Nein have had their trust broken. Caleb suffered terribly at the hands of the Cerberus Assembly, the empire’s most powerful and most ambitious wizards. Fjord was betrayed by a fellow crewmember, and lost both his father figure, and gained a horrific bond to an eldritch monster. Beau found a family in the Cobalt Soul, but only after being betrayed by her own family.
Every institution in Wildemount seems to have blood on its hands. The war between the Dwendalian Empire and Kryn Dynasty has been framed as an incredibly murky conflict, morally speaking. Why did the Kryn steal imperial children and ignite this war? Why did the empire steal an object that—we now know for certain—is an object of not just great power, but also of immense cultural significance to the Kryn? When Caleb produced the stolen dodecahedron in Empress Leylas Kryn’s throne room, tears welled in the eyes of onlookers. Its mere return was enough to have Caleb and his companions decreed heroes of the Kryn Dynasty.
Does this mean that the Kryn are the good guys?
The Mighty Nein might be forced to accept the mantle of heroes—and with that, their streak of not getting involved will come to an end. But the entire reason the Mighty Nein didn’t want to get involved was because they were never sure who the good guys were…because there never were any. All of their previous employers have been selfish at best and manipulative at worst, save for a few small farming villages who just needed help with the local monsters. If the Mighty Nein are really going to make this relationship with the Kryn work long-term, they need to be sure of one of two things. They either need to know that the Kryn can help them in their goals, such as Caleb unlocking ultimate power or getting revenge on the people who wronged him…
Or they need to know that the Kryn are the good guys.
Both Matthew and the players have next week off, so they have two whole weeks to think about their next move. Fortunate, since Caleb returning the beacon to the Kryn was probably the most momentous event of the campaign so far. This event could not only change the political landscape of Wildemount, affecting the campaign on a 30,000-foot scale, but it could also help the party unlock the secrets of the mysterious magic known as dunamancy, which could affect direct change on the powers and moment-to-moment tactics of the party.
Art by HitorikiChibi (@HitorikiChibi)
Ingratiating themselves to the Bright Queen herself may be one of the best decisions that the Mighty Nein could have made—for us, the audience, at least! Matthew’s best-kept secrets about Wildemount, such as the mysterious act of “consecution,” the cryptic process of rebirth hinted at by certain Kryn, and the secrets of dunamancy, are all locked behind the opaque culture of the Kryn. Now that the party has pulled back that curtain, we’re free to really unwind these mysteries and kick the main plot into high gear. After 56 episodes of masterful character stories, I’m excited to see the conflict between the Dwendalian Empire and the Kryn Dynasty take center stage—and now that the characters are relatively high level, for the Mighty Nein to start to figure out what their role in shaping the destiny of Wildemount is.
Critical Role just got a lot more exciting. What do you think will happen next? What will Matthew and the players scheme up over the next two weeks? And… is it (next) Thursday yet?
Unless otherwise credited, photographs 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.