Critical Role’s Loquatius Seelie would know all about you before you opened your mouth. As voice actor Sam Riegel explains when I catch up with him about the Calamity miniseries, his character doesn’t do anything halfway. In addition to having smoky answers ready to go at the slightest whiff of scandal, he “would discover [your] predilections, and perhaps even weaknesses.” For Loquatius, it’s about controlling the narrative.
Except there’s no Calamity control. An event that took place generations before the current Critical Role campaign, this apocalypse has been a cornerstone of the series’ lore since its debut in 2015. It means fans know exactly how the miniseries (directed by Dimension 20’s Brennan Lee Mulligan and featuring Riegel, Marisha Ray, Travis Willingham, Aabria Iyengar, Lou Wilson, and Luis Carazo) will end.
It’s going to end badly.
A more civilized time
In a sense, at least. I’ve watched my fair share of Critical Role, the live-action series where a “nerdy bunch of voice actors” perform some of the best tabletop RPGs together, but Calamity feels different. He feels… bigger. Not because of the new cast, or even because of the scale of the adventure. Rather, it’s because everything feels more connected than ever.
“I think it’s actually going to affect our current campaign in ways that we haven’t even predicted yet,” Riegel tells me. “Some of the things we talk about, the calamity, echoes even 1,000 years into the future. It’s like going into a time machine.”
Because it’s set hundreds of years before the current era of Critical Role, Riegel says the actors “were encouraged to plan characters steeped in magic, surrounded by magic every day of their lives.” As a result, his idea was to play “a Fox News host-type character. Or a propagandist, should I say. And it would be great if he could spread his image and his voice across town. And Brennan said “What if we had these magic crystals that looked like televisions? We just sort of fed off of each other.”
These relationships are already beginning to bear fruit. Calamity villains have been named throughout the main Critical Role campaign, and Season 3 setting – Marquet – has been referenced several times throughout this miniseries. Additionally, Marquet and his Calamity Era story appeared during Tal’Dorei Reborn and Call of the Netherdeep. It’s reminiscent of Marvel Cinematic Universe-style storytelling in the best way; there’s a sense of shared mystery, of plot threads that we all pick up together. And because critical role-playing master Matt Mercer helped create this adventure, it’s also not told in a vacuum. Something is clearly brewing.
It makes me excited for what’s to come. Mostly due to the fact that Calamity explores a time period that I thought was off limits – the era was always kept vague, a source of intrigue instead of an active story. Pulling back the curtain allows the show to innovate; rather than “the ancient Greek horse-drawn carriages and stuff like that”, people of that time “were actually much more technologically and magically savvy than they are today”. This gives us our first quasi-modern or sci-fi-tinged campaign. It also opens the door to genres beyond standard fantasy.
For Riegel, it was a surprise. However, exploring the time in person grounds this part of the critical role story in something relatable.
“Since I’ve been playing the critical role, I’ve been hearing about the calamity,” he says. “But when you hear about it from Matt [Mercer] in the game or even mentioned in the books we’ve published, it sounds like ancient Greek mythology. It’s like, ‘oh yeah, I’ve heard those stories, but they’re not really about me that much’. So it’s really fascinating to be in it, to realize that this cataclysmic event was actually populated by real characters, and that it had an effect on the world. It affected families and children. It makes it more visceral.”
It’s a change of pace for Riegel; he’s known for his sense of humor, and anyone who’s watched Critical Role will know that spontaneity or unexpected curveballs are a specialty. And while there are still moments of levity (a good example being the now infamous Bolo, a surly Loquatius guest that Riegel and Mulligan invented on the spot), Calamity allowed him to lean into something different. .
“I haven’t really done an entire campaign like this, or an entire storyline where it’s just dramatic all the time. That’s not to say that Calamity is 100% dramatic throughout – there are jokes, and there’s a lot of tension – breaking moments – but it’s a really cool thing that I’ve never done before and I don’t think a lot of the cast have done anything purely dark and purely tragic. It’s a cool new muscle to exercise.”
Naturally, things weren’t so bleak when the project started. Even though Calamity is set in the end of the world (or the “old” world, anyway), its creation was a more collaborative process than normal. Unlike other critical role stories where characters are created solo, the actors have joined forces this time around to build their adventurers together. This allowed them to find pre-existing relationships between the heroes.
“It was different from preparing for other campaigns,” says Riegel. “Because in our main campaign, we have so much time, you know, years and years to tell our stories, flesh out our characters, and figure out what their goals are. But in this series, we knew in advance that that was only going to be four episodes. So any backstory, any interpersonal relationship, we had to have figured that out and also out in the open pretty quickly. Our characters come in with some secrets, but those secrets come out in two or three episodes, which makes for some really great twists, and just a much more urgent, fast-paced story.”
These preliminary sessions also allowed the cast to come off the tracks in unexpected ways. Right off the bat, a higher level cap allowed them to be more fearsome and established than before. Knowing that this was a tragedy set in a time of unprecedented arrogance also helped them have fun with character flaws. Mulligan emphasized to the cast that this is “not just a tragedy because of outside forces”; rather, calamity stems from fatal flaws in individuals like our heroes. As such, there’s a morbid fascination (or shades of a disaster movie at the very least) to behold. whenrather than “if”, they bring about their own downfall.
Off the cuff
However, the cast did not prepare everything. Far from it, in fact. While their interactions with non-player characters help make the world of Calamity so vivid, Riegel informs me that none of this was planned. They simply had a list of names that their adventurers would know.
“Brennan is a really gifted improviser,” says Riegel. “And so when I started my scene with him with my assistant character [in episode 1], I just assumed we were familiar with each other, and I assumed a relationship. And he just rode with it and came up with a character on the spot that would complement that. We had not practiced it in advance. And a lot of that was sort of spur of the moment. And for most of the characters, the NPCs we interact with in this game, that’s it. We just start talking and see what happens, and Brennan rolls with the punches.”
If Sam Riegel were to do his own mini-campaign for Critical Role, what would it look like?
“While this campaign miniseries was amazing, and I’d like to think I could do something like that, I don’t really think I’m good enough as a GM, or good enough at building a fantasy world, to be able to achieve what Brennan has achieved here… [But] a mini-campaign that I would design would be much more about chaos and unpredictability, and also silliness. I think I would challenge players with the unexpected, but in a weird way, not necessarily in a dark way. So yeah, I think a comedy campaign is somewhere in my future.”
The following is a memorable thread for the two veterans of the critical role and newcomers who have only a passing interest in TTRPGs or board games. Grenades of live improvisation are thrown left and right, and there’s an infectious energy as the actors do what they do best: perform.
“Being at that particular table, with Brennan as general manager, and with those six players, it was like being at a major league baseball game where everyone is a star, you know?” Riegel said. “And so you like to throw curveballs at you because you know they can hit it just as well as a fastball straight down the middle. Like, these guys are experts, experts in D&D, experts in improvisation, with years and years and years of So absolutely, we all had fun challenging each other and pushing each other in weird directions and seeing what would happen, because those are the coolest stories. fun to watch your peers, you know, do their thing.”
More surprises will no doubt drop with the finale, so it’ll be fascinating to see where the latest installment of Calamity leaves Critical Role. What’s next for the show? The cast remains low-key, so we’ll have to wait and see. Is it Thursday again?
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