For Critical Role, 2022 has been about breaking the timeline. Exandria, Matthew Mercer’s campaign setting, has gained new life this year. Exandria Unlimited: Calamity, which kicked off in May, tells a story about the end of that world, thousands of years before Vox Machina ever wandered Tal’Dorei. Campaign 3, on the other hand, is where past and present characters have begun to collide. Now the past is getting even more room to breathe thanks to a brand-new novel about a rather surprising character. Critical Role: The Mighty Nein - The Nine Eyes of Lucien explores the life of Lucien, one of Critical Role’s most memorable antagonists.
[Ed note: This article spoils key elements of Critical Role’s second campaign, which concluded in June 2021.]
Unlike the somewhat cut-and-dried villainy of earlier Critical Role villains like Vecna, Lucien posed a particular problem for the party during his tenure, which officially began in episode 111, “New Homes and Old Friends.” His body had previously hosted a player character, Mollymauk Tealeaf, played by Taliesin Jaffe. Even before Mollymauk’s death early in the campaign, multiple non-player characters in the game world mistook Jaffe’s character for Lucien. After the Mighty Nein buried Mollymauk, they returned to his grave only to find Lucien in residence inside the newly resurrected body, now played by Matthew Mercer as an NPC.
Initially Lucien shared elements of Mollymauk’s personality, but it quickly became apparent that he was a different person entirely. He was ruthless, cruel, and arrogant. The player characters’ interactions with him were accordingly fraught, as they were forced to weigh the atrocity of Lucien’s actions against the preciousness of his body.
The author of the new novelization, Madeleine Roux, is no stranger to adapting Dungeons & Dragons stories, having written the Dungeon Academy novels. But when I spoke to Roux about the project, she was excited by the willingness of Matthew Mercer, Taliesin Jaffe, and the Critical Role team to experiment.
“Those are not the kind of words that get thrown around in these meetings — ever,” Roux said in a recent interview with Polygon. “You’re encouraged to be like, Here’s the brand, let’s be safe — let’s keep this as whatever fans need to feel warm and fuzzy! Whereas this meeting was like: OK, how can we make this a completely bonkers nightmare patch?”
In bringing Lucien’s story to life, Roux had a unique set of challenges to work with, well beyond the challenges inherent in adapting Mercer’s sprawling world and characters. Specifically, she had to balance the fun elements of Lucien’s character with his role as the villain.
“He’s not a good guy,” Roux said. “That was actually one of the best challenges of the book. How do you flesh this person out and how do you explain their life without excusing their behavior? How do you build in these steps where he has all these opportunities to do the right thing, change for the better, self-reflect in a way that might move him down a better path?
“Showing that there were ways out and showing that it wasn’t just a foregone conclusion that he was going to be a villain, but always making it a choice that he’s making, to do the selfish thing or to do the easier thing,” Roux continued. “That was sort of my approach — we have to keep his sense of humor. We have to keep his sort of smugness. We have to keep these indelible things that make him a fun villain. You know, the monologuing and the sort of wickedness that he has. Those things have to remain. But always keep in mind, at the end of the day: I don’t want this to be an apology.”
Jaffe’s tiefling blood hunter Mollymauk Tealeaf emerged as a fan favorite in the early episodes of Campaign 2, thanks to his irreverence and charm — elements that were echoed in Lucien the first time he appeared during a livestream, played by Mercer. According to Roux, the interweave of Lucien and Mollymauk in the novel was an inevitability.
“I don’t think you can do it correctly if you don’t take into account that this person is an amalgamation of these different souls that end up inhabiting this one body,” Roux said. “And what would that do to you, and does that mean that there’s crossover? You try slipping in juicy little hints here and there. Maybe they’re all meshed together in some sense — or maybe when the spell was cast they were broken apart.” She relied on Jaffe’s performance and Mercer’s improvisation and dialogue to nail down Lucien’s persona. One of the biggest throughlines she identified was Lucien’s reliance on theatricality.
“It’s just performance all the time,” she said, “and how exhausting that is and how draining that is, and how ultimately it’s kind of what leads to his isolation.”
The splintering that comes with a shared body also played a huge role in the book, according to Roux, who credits her background in horror as a reason she was approached for the project.
“It’s pretty rough — we’re gonna scare you a little bit. We’re gonna freak you out,” Roux said. “When we were in those first meetings, they brought up House of Leaves. And I was like, We can go there. There’s some pretty weird stuff in this book. I wanted it to feel as disorienting at parts as it was for him. Obviously his body is fractured, but also his mind at points. I was trying to show that in the text, visually as well as psychologically.”
By the time most readers arrive at the new novel, they’re almost certainly going to be aware of Lucien’s eventual fate — in the way of Dungeons & Dragons villains, he fights the heroes and loses, his grand schemes crumbling to dust. Reexamining his story means excavating a character whose ending is well known, much like EXU: Calamity did with the Ring of Brass. Not only that, but it means unpacking a villain’s narrative from his own perspective.
The storytelling at Critical Role has been getting delightfully weirder over the years, in the sense that the team has seemingly been willing to take bigger risks — not just in form, but in the depth and complexity of the stories that they tell. Lucien is a great example of that progression. In the show, his connection to Mollymauk made his existence itself a tangled, messy trap for the Mighty Nein, which was only heightened by the world-shaping nature of his ambitions. He was also deeply entwined with Aeor and the malevolent influence of the Somnovem, which fans have been seeing more of throughout EXU: Calamity and the third campaign. Getting to explore his story in a novel meant that Roux got to flesh out Lucien’s connection to the Somnovem and how he became the Nonagon, as well as the sinister impact that those changes have on his psyche and his body.
“What would it feel like, to stumble across something like this that has its own magical sway over you?” Roux said. It also meant reshaping the established understanding of other villainous NPCs, including the Tombtakers and Cree, the catfolk who Lucien seemed to be closest with in the actual play.
Roux acknowledged that crafting a story with a foregone conclusion — a story where beloved protagonists appear in totally reframed roles, and antagonists drive the plot forward — created some interesting tensions as she was writing.
“He didn’t come out of the womb monologuing,” she said. “I think what you’re trying to do is find little nuggets of surprise and revelation that you have along the way, so it doesn’t feel like a retread of what’s on screen. You can’t get away from it, but I wanted to stay away from [that] as much as possible because it’s not a book about the Mighty Nein. They are the antagonists of this book in a sense. Although I would argue that it’s mostly [Lucien] himself, it’s man versus man, man versus internal dialogue.
“But, you know the ending, right? You have to build in surprises,” Roux said. “And not just outside of this new biographical information, which is fun and good. I think what people want to see is: What makes this guy tick? And how did we get here? How did we get to this place? Let’s never lose sight of what people want out of this, and what’s interesting. But I think just [biographical] information is not necessarily compelling. I think we need the heart of him and the heart of his relationship with Cree — she’s the most steady presence in his life. And eventually the other Tombtakers as well.”
Between the novel’s form and the team’s willingness to explore all the twisted, strange avenues possible in Lucien’s story, Roux has high hopes for the project’s reception.
“This is a bold statement,” she said. “I’m gonna make it because I’m trying to enter my villain era: I think this is the most experimental and riskiest IP book that has been published to date, that has a brand name on it. I really don’t think a lot of people are doing this stuff, and it’s what makes me respect the Critical Role team so much is that they were willing to do that and willing to say: Nope, let’s break the rules. Let’s not get stuck in this [idea of] what an IP book is.”
“I’m excited and nervous to see their responses because I think people go into these sorts of books expecting a very straightforward experience, expecting something very rote, something very predictable,” Roux said. “I think it’s exciting to know that we’re not doing that this time.”
In a surprise announcement a few weeks ago, it was revealed that not only will Robbie Daymond serve as narrator for the Critical Role: The Mighty Nein - The Nine Eyes of Lucien audiobook — the entire cast will return to voice their respective members of the Mighty Nein as well. Polygon will have an excerpt later this week.
Critical Role: The Mighty Nein - The Nine Eyes of Lucien will be available on Nov. 1, 2022.