clock menu more-arrow no yes
A formal photoshoot on a gray background. Photo: Heirlume Photography

Filed under:

Critical Role’s new D&D show is great but still challenging for newcomers

Exandria Unlimited feels fresh, but its length and series lore are still daunting

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Halfway through its eight-episode run, Exandria Unlimited is shaping up to be a wonderful little Dungeons & Dragons adventure set within Critical Role’s world of Exandria. This latest actual play series features a new host, new cast members, and a new pre-recorded format. But it’s actually tracking towards longer episodes than its predecessors. While it’s a lot of fun for existing fans, it might not actually be the best place for newcomers to get started with this franchise.

Critical Role is a company founded by voice actor Matt Mercer and his close friends, who also happen to be professional voice actors. Their main product is a livestreamed show where they play D&D, also known as an actual play series. Once a week since 2012, they’ve shown up on Twitch to run through two different campaigns called Vox Machina and the Mighty Nein, both of which are set within their own high fantasy world of Exandria.

The cast of Exandria Unlimited at play, in a composite image from YouTube. Image: Critical Role/YouTube

It’s hard to understate just how much Critical Role there is in the world already. It is massive, with 256 shows over just two seasons and over 1,000 hours of existing content. (For context, Grey’s Anatomy — a 17-season medical procedural — is only 363 hours long.) There’s also a Critical Role sourcebook from D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast, a line of miniatures from WizKids, a middling board game, and two seasons of an animated series on the way at Amazon Prime Streaming.

Despite Critical Role’s commercial success, criticisms of the show have been mounting over the years — first, that the cast wasn’t diverse enough and, second, that there was really no easy way in to understanding this world without starting all the way back at the beginning.

There still isn’t.

In pitching the show to new audiences, Critical Role said newcomers “can jump in completely fresh” to this adventure. That isn’t exactly true. New fans might easily feel as though they’re joining an adventure that started without them. The series begins with a party of characters who’ve already known each other for a week, appearing to have existing relationships but experiencing shared amnesia. That’s hardly a smooth onramp for new viewers.

While this is different from the classic “you meet in a tavern” trope, it can leave newcomers feeling as though they’re missing something. Rather than creating a sense of mystery for viewers to eagerly unravel, it almost feels as though you’ve jumped in an episode too late, like you’re scrambling to understand what’s going on. It leaves you with the old cliché that “it gets good in a few episodes,” but sitting through a few episodes here is no mean feat.

The bigger problem is the show’s length. Three of the first four episodes clock in at over four hours — longer than the average running time of Critical Role’s previous episodes. To put that in perspective, you can watch the entirety of Loki in less time than it takes to sit through the first two episodes.

While this kind of sprawling style is understandable when streaming live — which has always been the group’s preferred format — it can be hard for viewers to find that much uninterrupted time. And yet Exandria Unlimited has been pre-recorded, suggesting it could have been a more streamlined experience. It feels more than a little self-indulgent and represents a missed opportunity to make the show more open and engaging.

Be that as it may, Exandria Unlimited is still a big step in the right direction. Until now, Mercer has been the only Dungeon Master (DM) to take charge of this Tolkien-esque world. The series’ new DM, Aabria Iyengar, is extraordinary. Despite having exceptionally large shoes to fill, she manages to create an incredibly detailed and beautiful world while having her own unique style.

Aabria Iyengar sits near the edge of the backgrop, the rigging visible in the background.
Aabria Iyengar
Photo: Heirlume Photography

It is a very different style of play, however. Iyengar lets her DM mask fall much more often than Mercer ever did, openly saying when her players have diverted her and bringing ridiculous references from the real world into Exandria’s canon. She’s much more off-the-cuff and relaxed, although that’s not to say her stories aren’t going to hit you as hard as Mercer’s do. Some of her descriptions are more beautiful than some fantasy novels and, without saying too much, the way she brings back old characters and gives them a new lease on life is beyond enjoyable. Some fans of the series have become wedded to the idea that Mercer’s way is the only way to play, but Iyengar’s work here goes a long way toward proving that Critical Role doesn’t always need Mercer at the head of the table to succeed.

The world-building and the characters in Exandria Unlimited are also a delight. Not only does Iyengar bring viewers to a detailed, rich, and vibrant place, the player characters fill it with spontaneity and life. Perhaps the most enjoyable to watch, unsurprisingly, is Mercer. The mastermind has truly switched off for this adventure, diving into his single character and speaking first without bothering to think things through. In the role of Dariax Zaveon, a sorcerer with a criminal past, he has set himself free with a kind of childlike abandon. He’ll say whatever pops into his head and wreck whatever Iyengar and the gang have planned, always with delightfully outlandish consequences. After over five years of being derailed by his players, the boot is now firmly on the other foot.

Aimee Carrero (She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Elena of Avalor) is also a highlight. The actor was originally due to join the cast for a cameo in Critical Role’s second campaign, but she had to miss out due to the pandemic. Her character, Opal, is a naïve warlock, and Carrero fully commits to the doe-eyed, small-town girl character, letting the audience view the world of Exandria through the eyes of a true newcomer. Unlike fellow newcomer Robbie Daymond (Marvel’s Spider-Man, Sailor Moon), Carrero is a true novice, and it’s great for people nervous about D&D to see that you can play with literally no experience. While the more seasoned players like Liam O’Brien (Star Wars: Rebels, The Last of Us Part 2), Ashley Johnson (The Last of Us, The Avengers), and Daymond are the more sensible members of the group, often trying to drive plot forwards, Mercer and Carrero delight in the ridiculousness that D&D can afford its players. This is arguably what the show should have more of.

Through four episodes, Exandria Unlimited has been able to retain what makes Critical Role so beloved by so many fans, while bringing new voices to the table. It still feels like you’re watching a close group of friends playing around, all while getting to enjoy a high-stakes fantasy adventure.

Is it a bit meandering? Yes. Will newcomers be put off by the sheer size of the time commitment required? Absolutely. This isn’t the fresh start that we expected. It’s not an adventure for the uninitiated, but instead an interstitial adventure filled with pre-existing lore and in-jokes to old campaigns, and no clear starting point for new fans to connect with. But it’s still a lot of fun.