Games The Visual

How “Critical Role” Uses Role Play to Explore the Burden of Grief

Critical Role managed to weave character deaths that were not only impactful, but some of the most emotionally charged moments of character development in their series.

In the Dungeons & Dragons-based web series Critical Role, death is inevitable — and it happens a lot. Yet, despite its frequency over a five-year campaign, Critical Role managed to weave character deaths that were not only impactful, but some of the most emotionally charged moments of character development in their series. Free from the restraints of other mediums, Critical Role uses the unstructured nature of D&D and live improvisation to allow these moments the consequence and weight necessary for viewers and players to feel grief in a realistic, natural way, processing loss in real time. The series is built on the complex, sincere mingling of self and character inherent to tabletop games, where each action, reaction, and choice are weighed in the character’s reality rather than the player’s desires, and players mourn with fans in real time when those choices go wrong.

Critical Role’s game — like many D&D games — is a chaotic combination of pathos and fate, driven by a primitive, murderhobo id: kill things, get loot, repeat. Characters face off against increasingly staggering odds in hopes of loot, sometimes stumbling into the unlucky job of saving the world. The success of Critical Role lies in the series’ ability to create powerful, meaningful character arcs in an improvisational game system that can erase main characters in an instant. The series bills itself as a place where “a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors get together and play Dungeons & Dragons.” And that is, unsurprisingly, an apt description. Every week since March 2015, voice actors Marisha Ray, Travis Willingham, Liam O’Brien, Laura Bailey, Sam Riegel, Taliesen Jaffe, and Ashley Johnson have gotten together around a table to livestream their D&D game, headed by Dungeon Master (DM) Matthew Mercer. For up to four hours an episode, fans watch on Twitch TV, YouTube, and various podcast networks while eight people group around a table in t-shirts and jeans, rolling dice and role playing in character. Travis lowers his already bassy voice into the plodding, methodical speech of the goliath barbarian, Grog. Liam and Laura don English accents for the half-elf twins Vax’ildan and Vex’ahlia. Ashley speaks in the high, motherly tone of her gnome cleric, Pike. Sam riffs on pop music hits for Scanlan’s bardic songs of inspiration. Marisha lowers her shoulders, speaking in the shy, socially-awkward meter of Keyleth. Taliesen is the aloof, tortured Percival. And Matt populates the cities, shops, taverns, and dungeons with a host of non-player characters (NPCs), each with their own unique affectation and body language, sometimes seeing him hunched forward, one eye squinted into the approximation of a geriatric gnome bookseller.

That’s it. And, really, it’s enough.

Recalling the great radio dramas of the ‘30s and ‘40s, the cast embody the emotions of their dialogue and actions without flinching. The characters on Critical Role exist in the casts’ consistent dedication to the emotional soul of their portrayals, the actors growing alongside their characters as they play. Their choices, reactions, and emotions hold a raw honesty to them that does not and cannot exist in more structured mediums like novels, shows, or movies because so much of D&D games are unplanned. When plot is cast aside for character, death cannot be relegated to a simple plot point and must be portrayed in a realistic, lasting manner that impacts characters in the long term. Anything less destroys the credibility of the characters being portrayed, and, thus, a viewer’s investment in the story being told.

Critical Role’s first campaign, “The Campaign of Vox Machina,” included 17 deaths between its seven main characters, and almost 90 near-deaths. Ultimately, the campaign ended with the death of a main character that was 71 episodes in the making, becoming the only permanent main character death in the first campaign.  On that scale, it would have been easy for a character’s death, resurrection, and continued life to lose its natural weight in the story. We all know a TV series, novel, or comic that killed too many people we loved in an excess of tragedy, only to bring them back an episode later, rendering death meaningless as narrative wore on. We can become numb to the emotional language of grief when we are taught that grieving has no impact, our natural reaction to trauma now a commodity used in place of well-conceived plot or character development. However, the structured nature of that death, and the emotional ramifications it had on the players, give shape to how the entire cast craft beautiful, thoughtful deaths, driven by a deep, unerring respect for character.

Vax’ildan “Vax” Vessar, played by Liam O’Brien, was a half-elf rogue/paladin, over-eager prankster, and twin brother to Vex’ahlia “Vex” de Rolo, played by Laura Bailey. Separated from their mother at a young age to live with their uncaring father, the twins later returned to their village and found their mother killed after their home was attacked in their absence. In the game, Vax loved two things: his sister, and surviving. Woe be to anyone or anything that tried to change that. So, in episode 44, “The Sunken Tomb,” when Vax’s sister falls prey to a trap that kills her instantly, Vax offers his life in her place without hesitation in an unplanned moment that lead to his inevitable death at the end of the campaign.

Like many deaths in D&D, Vex’s  is unplanned and unlucky, the result of eager looting and a failed dice roll. This is the first time she has died, leaving the room tense. Of the entire crew, Vex puts up the strongest emotional front: Laura Bailey’s performance is tinged with a cool, flirtatious tone, masking Vex’s insecurities with frugality, and a quick, biting wit. With her character lying cold and motionless on a stone floor, however, Laura sits with her hands over her mouth, hunched over and stiff, waiting to see if her story ends here. Half of the team is panicking in and out of character, frantically searching through their notes for spells that can save her, yelling at each other to think of something. Vax forces a greater healing potion into his sister’s mouth, even though, as Liam, he knows it will not work. Liam watches Matthew Mercer, his DM, and waits. Matt shakes his head, saying, “It has no effect.” Liam-as-Vax curses, turning to the other party members around him, desperate. A hand shoots up, one half of the table grouped around Will Friedle, a guest on the episode. He has the spell “revivify” prepared. Matt gives the okay.

Every player around the table sits, hands clasped over their mouths, hunched forward, or else leaning their faces into each other for support. Matt explains that life and death magic like this isn’t guaranteed. The ritual requires three offerings, items of personal, emotional value to the characters offering them, and rolls from the players based on what spirit the items are being offered in. The first offering from Percy fails due to a bad roll from his player, Taliesen. Liam stares blankly at the table, at Laura beside him, past the camera, mouth half-open, brow furrowed. “I’m gonna throw up,” Laura says. The second offering succeeds, with an appeal to the character’s patron deity, and a successful roll. Matt describes a spectral image of a deity known as the Raven Queen—a deity in charge of the passage of life and death—appearing to watch over the proceedings, waiting to take Vex to the afterlife. Then, the third offering: stricken, Vax clutches his sister’s corpse and challenges the Raven Queen to take his life instead. It is a scene that courts melodrama as only fantasy can. Instead, the moments after Vax’s challenge are quiet, described in hushed tones by Matt as the cast sit, mouths still covered, eyeing Liam’s stony rage.

“Roll persuasion,” Matt says. “With advantage.” When Liam’s roll succeeds, Matt narrates the Raven Queen’s image drifting from an altar it hovered over, nodding to Vax, and disappearing. “A moment passes,” Matt says. “Another moment passes.” When he inhales sharply, the casts’ eyes go wide. “Breath fills Vex’s lungs,” he says.

As Vex, Laura looks around the table, confused. “I feel so cold,” she says. Then, brighter, “That was a close one. Did we find anything?”

The players around the table collapse into their success with audible sighs, some lay their heads on the table, others grab tissues. Liam sits with his head in his hands, Laura’s hand on his shoulder. He just traded his life to a Goddess, and she let him keep it. None of the players know when that debt will be called in, or how, but as long as Vax’ildan is alive, his sister cannot die. Finally, Laura allows herself and viewers relief with nervous, tired laughter. “Oh my god,” she says, falling forward onto the table. The mood shift is palpable, the exhausted joy of the actors mirroring that of their viewers. The character they love survived, a moment of peril escaped. But the rest of the episode is still tinged with danger. No one around the table forgets, in character or out. Percy, the one who set off the trap that killed Vex, tries to make reparations to Vax for killing his sister, and out of character, Taliesen apologizes to Laura and Liam for his carelessness. This is where the line between player and character draws thinnest. Here, loss is not only an imagined character, but a friend — years of playing and mutual investment and growth upended by a single, greedy moment. 

Fifty-eight episodes later, in episode 102, “Race to the Tower,” Vax dies, disintegrated instantly by the campaign’s villain, Vecna. As episode 103, “The Fate-Touched,” opens, Liam is not at the table with the rest of the cast. The players are solemn and confused. Likewise, viewers wonder where Liam is. Will they continue the series without him, his spot at the table left empty? It feels untenable, to finish a story he helped create without him. In-game, Vex struggles to reckon with her twin’s death, and Keyleth cradles Vax’s armor, refusing to let it go even as the team settles down to sleep in a tree for the night. For a little while, the group tries to figure out a way to bring their team member back, players half-heartedly searching through their papers, knowing that all of their spells are time-dependent. It has been a week out of game since Vax died, and there is no body to reanimate. They know there is no answer, but still, their characters try until sleep takes them. Matt asks the players to leave the table, bringing Liam in to sit, alone. These private moments between a single player and DM happen rarely, only for intimate character revelations, and are usually not divulged to other players, even outside of the game. Apart from the rest of the group, the Raven Queen appears to Vax, ready to claim what is hers. Vax fights, unwilling to leave his quest unfinished, and his loved ones in danger. Without him there, the bond protecting his sister is null. So, the Raven Queen offers him one, final extension. If he becomes her champion, she will allow him to return to his loved ones to defeat Vecna, his soul forfeit to her realm between life and death once the task is complete. Vax’s acceptance is portrayed by a solemn, quiet Liam, growing desperate only when it seems the Raven Queen won’t allow him to return. Viewers can’t know Liam’s thoughts, or Vax’s. Will he look for another way to dodge death when that time comes? Is Liam’s brooding stoicism characteristic of Vax, or a player lost in the repercussions of a choice he’s made? Liam leaves the table at Matt’s direction, and the rest of the cast are brought back to continue the episode, unsure of Liam’s presence, or what went on while they were gone.

 Later on in the episode, Matt narrates the scene of a dark-haired, familiar figure coming into the clearing as Liam silently returns to his place the table. The players sit, mouths open, eyes searching each other, Matt, Liam, and their notes for a hint of what is going on. Laura breaks character once to ask if it’s Vax, catching herself with the reminder that her character is asleep and can’t know. Still, the excitement and confusion of the cast is infectious, each of them fidgeting, eager to wake their characters up and play with their returned friend. The viewers have access to what the players do not yet know: Vax is back, but not forever. This knowledge colors the players’ relief with a constant, creeping anxiety for the viewer — the same feeling of dread you get from having to tell someone a family member is in the hospital. The players will have to find out eventually, and waiting for that pain is agonizing. 

After Vex awakes, and the twins see each other alive, Laura-as-Vex breaks down, certain that Vax’s appearance is a dream, or worse — an illusion built by the woods they’re in. The other players are caught between distress and joy at being reunited with Vax and Liam — is it a trick? Something summoned by Vecna to torture them? Liam reaches out to Laura and pulls her into a hug, and, as Vex, assures her that it is him. He is alive. Neither players nor characters are sure. None of them were at the table, and no one knows what to trust. Herein lies the beauty of what this cast creates: the lines between player and character blurring. Laura sobs into Liam’s arms, Vax holds his grieving sister, and, in moments like these, they are as close to the hearts of these characters as possible. They are telling a story, yes. They are acting, yes. They are playing a game, yes. They grieve for the loss of a beloved character as a loss of their own. Yes. But as the characters and players will learn, pain is not just loss, but the consequences of having what they want most returned to them. Chance and choice and character motivation combine to turn the rules of the game on end, a safety net fashioned from piano wire.

In the penultimate episode of the campaign, episode 114, “Vecna, The Ascended,” Scanlan uses a spell to stop Vecna from teleporting out of the final battle. At the table, we see the realization of what he has to do strike Sam, his shoulders sinking down as he looks from Matt, to Liam. “Is it worth it?” he says. “To keep him here?” No hesitation: “Yeah,” Liam says. “He’s running away.” Sam is quiet for a moment, his hand covering part of his face. “Alright,” he says. He uses his only level nine spell to counter. You can see the same realization hit Matt in the gut. The hesitation and pain on Sam’s face. The only level 9 spell he has is Wish, a spell with a heavy physical toll in-game, and a chance to be lost permanently upon casting. Sam must have been saving it for Liam.

“Oh,” Matt says. “Okay.”

Sam and Liam both sink into themselves, Sam’s head in his hands, as the fight continues around them.

“I was going to save you,” Sam says. “I’m sorry.”

Liam shakes his head, mouthing, “I’m not sorry. I love you.”

The round continues with Sam, inconsolable, with his face buried into his hands, and then his arm, weeping. Other members of the table notice, a whispered game of telephone delivering the news, until each face is turned towards Sam, mirroring his sorrow. Viewers watch, torn between the harrowing fight, cheers when a successful hit lands, guest cameos, and the wanton grief of Sam. Vecna’s defeat is a wild, frantic moment of elation, marred by what is about to be lost. Five years leading to this fight, this triumph, a celebration of everything that brought these players and characters together to this point, all of them, momentarily, certainly, alive. But there is a quietness, too, in the players and viewers, because they know what comes next. It is a complexity of emotion made real by the players’ bonds to each other and their characters. By this point in the series, they are nearly inextricable from the other, players instinctively following their alter ego’s desires with the same confidence they have in their own. The adventurers that make up the Vox Machina have become a family in the same way that the players around the table are, and the sincerity of that spirit is what lends integrity to the emotional conceits of the series. Here are storytellers so deeply invested in their characters’ realities as to put them above their own personal peace of mind. Vax’s death is not a cruel DM, or a bad roll of the dice to be outplayed.  This is the end of Vax’s character arc and where he must go for his story to be resolved. And, despite the pain of that knowledge, or perhaps because of it, they know it is what Vax would want. 

When talking about Vax’s death, and the possibility for bringing him back for one-shots after the main campaign, Liam said that “all of [Vax’s] decisions had to have a cost. And the cost is that I don’t get to do these one-shots with the group in the same way they do. Which is melancholy for me.” That melancholy and self-segregation is, arguably, a small price, but still a real one. It would be easy to make an excuse to bring Vax back and allow Liam to play the game, telling stories alongside his friends again with his character, but it would be gratuitous, and a breach of the values they built into the series. There can’t be another answer that still respects Vax’s autonomy as a character, and Liam’s portrayal, except honoring the finality of his death. Letting a character stay dead is not a unique act, but it ignores gratification, and the desire from viewers for more content with that character in it. This commitment marks Critical Role as a series apart. Liam was adamant on and off the show that Vax remain dead. “He’s not at summer camp … or gone to Connecticut. He’s dead, and he could never come back — not really. Not the same.” So, the cast of Critical Role shared viewers’ pain, mourning Vax in the series’ conclusion, episode 115 “The Chapter Closes.”

As the party steps out of the Sanctuary of the city they have saved, Matt’s face becomes grave, his mouth pushed into a firm line. He speaks gently, quiet enough that at first he only has Liam’s attention. “You feel a cold pain in your chest,” he says. “Then another.” This is when the rest of the players pay attention. They knew. The viewers knew. This has been coming for 10 episodes now, but still, no one is ready.

“Now?” asks Sam, or maybe it’s Scanlan. “We don’t even get a night together or — or anything?”

The others begin to plead in character, trying to appeal to the Raven Queen’s mercy or sense of justice. “I don’t accept this,” they say, one after another. But the decision is made, and they, the characters and players, know that.

When asked if he is afraid, Liam takes a moment to answer, his breath shaking in, as Liam, then out, steady, as Vax. “I am going to visit my mother,” he says. “And I’ll see all of you again.” As Liam continues in character, speaking to each party member in turn, the players begin to break, hanging onto each other, or staring at the table, the triumph and hope of their ending swallowed in a tangible grief.

“I will tell our mother that you say ‘Hello,’” Vax says to his sister, Liam clasping Laura’s hands in his.

When Laura says, “It is like she is taking a part of me,” it’s difficult to know who is talking, her English accent slipping, voice cracked raw from crying.

Then, Matt, his voice breaking for the first time in the scene, describes Vax’ildan passing into the Raven Queen’s cloak, and the two scattering into feathers, until all that is left at the table is the quiet grief of the cast and those watching. As Matt calls for a break, Liam finally begins to cry.

The scene is painful to watch in more ways than one. The cast sit together around a table covered in notebooks, dice, and papers, leaning into each other for comfort and solace, many in unabashed tears, mourning for an imaginary character. They don’t stop to think about the thousands of people watching and sharing their pain. Instead, they lean into their emotions with a seriousness and respect that has always been present in their approach to the series. The emotions are real, because the characters are deserving of that validity, and, by extension, the cast validates the pain felt by the audience. Through their dedication, the series and its characters become more than something produced for consumption, but a meditation on real, human emotion.

When talking about character death, Matthew Mercer said, “Death hurts. Death is awful. But death is also very important, and I think, in a weird way — as is in a lot of D&D and role playing games — there is catharsis and there is therapy that comes from us grieving and dealing with a fictional character in a fictional world’s death.” This truth is intrinsic to the care taken with Vax’s character arc and his final passing. Each time someone dies in a Critical Role episode, it is an event, often shaking the players as much as the characters. They grieve alongside viewers, as unprepared as anyone else for the emotional hole that can be left behind. At the core of the casts’ portrayals is the real love and dedication for their friends around the table, their characters, and the trust they built in each other over five years of storytelling. It is there, in the safe grief for the unreal, that Critical Role seeks to build emotion and empathy in its storylines. There is an art and earnestness to how death is enacted by the players and their DM, rooted in respect and love for the characters they’re playing, and the people behind them. They take the time to remember the power and weight of grief, even gathered around a table to play a game made of paper and dice. Death is inevitable, but what we leave behind, the moments we share with others, the families and bonds we build, carry on. For the stories told by the cast of Critical Role, death and grief remain reminders of the power of emotion and the necessity of human connection.

Dan is a SoCal writer and poet with a flare for the nerdy. Most often concerned with the intersections of Queer Identity and Class, his work is an attempt at contextualizing reality on the page. When he's not writing, he's reading; when he's not reading, he sleeps.