Last night was the premiere of the first episode of Critical Role by Candela Obscura–their latest Actual Play (AP) campaign. “The Cold Embrace” was directed by Matt Mercer, Critical Role’s reliable (and outstanding) gamemaster. The cast includes Ashley Johnson as Auggie James, Anjali Bhimani as Charlotte Eaves, Laura Bailey as Arlo Black, and Robbie Daymond as Professor Howard Margrove. Taliesin Jaffe is also part of the cast, but in a more mysterious role, that of Lightkeeper. This is the first full campaign Critical Role has undertaken that does not use Dungeons & Dragons as a game vehicle, and is, in fact, the first use of the original Critical Role game, Candela Obscura (written by Rowan Hall and Spenser Starke).
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Critical Role published an abridged version of Candela Obscura (the game) early yesterday morning, and I took a look at it after the first AP episode aired, digging into the mechanics, inspirations, and design of the work. It’s very similar to John Harper’s Blades in the darkan inspiration that Starke doesn’t hesitate. By analyzing this rapid edition of Candela Obscurait seems necessary to critique the game and the AP in conversation, as clearly the production is the point.
The story of the first episode of Candela Obscura Is simple ; Auggie witnesses a supernatural phenomenon. A clandestine society – Candela Obscura – brings together a circle of investigators, who have worked together before. The group follows clues to a haunted coal refinery and must battle the spirits that have been released into the factory, only to uncover a deeper mystery seeping from the bleeding edges of Newfaire (which is built above Oldfaire). The first episode of Candela Obscura faithfully follows the classic structure of the first episode of a lot AP Episodes – an intro, follow-up and fetch quest, combat, and an open door ending. It’s a standard story structure for a reason – it allows players to explore the mechanics without giving too much thought to the story at hand, while still giving them the opportunity to role play and flesh out their characters, to whom the public is introduced for the first time. This structure also allows the audience to learn the game while being able to follow the story. Although it’s predictable, there’s nothing wrong with this setup.
Matt Mercer is a amazing Master of the game. He sets scenes efficiently and thoroughly, his voices are great fun, he can easily switch between NPCs without overwhelming the game, and he really understands how to move a story forward. But there are parts of his playstyle that make me feel like the guardrails are maybe… a little too high. The moments when the game is so clearly guarded on the tracks make it seem like Mercer doesn’t trust its players to make hard-hitting, story-changing decisions. A clear example came early in the episode when Bhimani’s Charlotte Eaves invites a man into her office for a chat, and Mercer shuts him down, delivering his message and causing his non-player character to miss Eaves’ establishment. There are seldom questions of difference between the character’s decisions and the GM’s intention, because in this episode of Candela Obscura players and GM work in perfect sync. It is, after all, an improv performance, and everyone is working to make it as smooth as possible. Although this style of play can be conducive to a collaborative storytelling process, Candela Obscura, the result is a scrawny game that’s, at best, just plain good.
Another issue I have with this installment, which makes this game feel too off track, is that the mechanics of Candela Obscura (the game) are not really discussed on the air. Character creation isn’t part of the episode, there’s no detailed explanation of why people roll when they do, and when to use the golden dice mechanic – arguably one of the parts the most original design of the game – is not clear in the gameplay. The omission of these elements is detrimental to the on-screen introduction of a brand new game. they do best. Without much game crisis, Candela Obscura (the AP) turns into a sketch show, and like everything improv show, youthese sketches don’t have a lot of issues attached. Because at the end of the day, Mercer is there. And the show (game?) must go on.
Spencer Starke Presents Candela Obscura both before the stream begins, then reiterates the design structures during intermission. He says the system – Illuminated Worlds, designed by Stras Acimovic and Layla Adelman – is set up for “quick, easy-to-pick-up cinematic-style play”. In terms of game design, “cinematic style” is a very soft onomastic pun that doesn’t really mean much. But what this sentence makes clear is that this game, and this system, was always meant to be played in front of an audience. The target demographic group appears to be actors: Look how easy it is to play. Won’t your audience like this?
This is repeated over and over throughout the episode. Post-war Edwardian and occultist vibes; the setting which could be Rochester, or London, or even New Orleans if you squint; the ways the game was constructed to make it easy to riff on…because it’s scaffolded to circle beloved touchstones and derived from genre conventions that almost everyone understands. It is Sherlock Holmes, X-Files, Supernatural, Grimm, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scooby-Doo. It is, essentially, Blades in the dark. And who doesn’t love Blades in the dark?
There’s nothing wrong with Candela Obscura (the game), as if there was nothing wrong with Candela Obscura (the performance). But both, unfortunately, do nothing particularly new. With a lore-building that feels familiar, a horror vibe that lacks any real investigation into the deep history of horror storytelling conventions, alongside a production that at times feels underwhelming given that it’s is a four-hour first episode, and without any exceptionally cool mechanics. , neither attempt seems particularly innovative. It becomes routine.
The best part about this game and this production is the fact that it will introduce Critical Role fans to a new system and will probably encourage many players to play games outside of the J&D hegemony. Perhaps this will encourage actors to form their own Critical Role-esque troupes. Candela Obscura is, ultimately, a Forged in the Dark system that encourages group storytelling and introduces discovery as an improvisational process between players and GM. I encourage players to take the game, tell the fans to tune into the critical role, and then have a great time playing their own campaign. Just, maybe not on camera.
THE Candela Obscura The quick start is available now. Critical roles Candela Obscura the campaign is broadcast live on the last Thursday of the month. It will consist of four episodes and will be available via podcast and Youtube after his first Tic Broadcasting date.
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