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A pale man stares into the middle distance as a spotlight makes him look even more gaunt. From the premiere of Candela Obscura.
Taliesin Jaffe as the Lightkeeper in the premiere of Candela Obscura.
Image: Critical Role via Twitch

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Critical Role’s new RPG is a whole cabinet of curiosities — and familiar mechanics

An interview with the cast of Candela Obscura

Critical Role continues the ambitious expansion of its particular brand of storytelling with a taster of its new role-playing game, Candela Obscura, based on Darrington Press’ new Illuminated Worlds role-playing game system. On May 25, the troupe kicked things off with a free quickstart guide, released in advance of the full game’s publication at the end of 2023. Audiences got a first look at Candela Obscura in action with a new streaming series of the same name that premiered the same day.

While Darrington Press is not branding Illuminated Worlds as a system nor Candela Obscura as a game specifically intended for performed play, it’s clear that the rules are designed to get out of the way, avoiding lengthy rules lookups that can bog down live play. Mechanics took a backseat to character intros and world-building in the first half of the episode, but even once dice started rolling the system felt particularly well suited to fast, improvised action. Polygon spoke with several members of the cast prior to that premiere via email to learn more about the design inspirations and player experiences in this new system.

Miniatures of the four main characters approach a crevasse, or a curtain, in the intro into to Candela Obscura. Image: Critical Role via Twitch

Candela Obscura is explicitly billed as a Forged in the Dark system, taking inspiration and some key mechanics from John Harper’s beloved heist RPG Blades in the Dark as well as Free League Publishing’s Nordic horror game Vaesen. While popular actual plays like Friends at the Table and The Adventure Zone have run highly praised campaigns with Blades, it’s notable that both are edited podcasts, where moments of looking up rules and the like can be pared down. Indeed, there’s a minor trend toward actual plays so heavily edited that they lean away from the sportslike pleasures of actual play and become nearly indistinguishable from scripted audio dramas. Consider Critical Role’s most recent acquisition, “semi-improvised” Midst, in that part of the fiction podcast spectrum, as well as Fool & Scholar’s upcoming horror adventure Dark Dice: Shores of the Silver Thrum. That project notes in its Patreon announcement that “there are scant references to the fact that this improvised podcast was originally a game at all.”

In contrast, live and live-to-tape actual plays don’t have the luxury of post-production edits, so concision comes from trimming rule sets, as in Hyper did with Kids on Bikes for Kollok and Gabe Hicks did with his Mythic Lite for Dimension 20’s Shriek Week. It shouldn’t be surprising that these examples, and Candela, are based on systems that use a single kind of die (usually d6 or d10) in great numbers rather than an array of multiple shapes that could be confusing either to new players or fumbled in the heat of play.

Speaking to Polygon, cast member Taliesin Jaffe (Lightkeeper) was reticent to make any claims about how mechanics impact play and performance (“I’m still learning”). But he would concede that Candela Obscura was among the “performance encouraging” systems, wryly likening the system’s use of role-based character sheets to “commedia dell’arte,” a form of theater known for its use of stock characters. As those familiar with co-designer Spenser Starke’s other blockbuster TTRPG Alice Is Missing, working within such constraints can be transformative in play.

A game of Till The Last Gasp set up for play, with both players facing one another across a small setting board. A player sideboard filled with dice sits before each player.
Player boards from Till The Last Gasp laid out for play.
Image: Darrington Press

Even so, Candela Obscura presents a style of play and performance that focuses on character as the place for player agency — as game designer Navi Drake noted on Twitter during the premiere, it’s “a hidden rails game with expanded player agency” ideally suited for groups with great trust in their GM, who in turn has a taste for auteur-style story construction and pacing. Viewers familiar with the quickstart guide will be able to spot the narrative phases built into a Candela assignment, the reveals that propel players from one scene to another, and how game master Matt Mercer extends or accelerates each phase depending on role-playing choices. In that respect it is similar to Darrington’s genre-crossing Till the Last Gasp, which Polygon praised earlier this year for its approach to improvised storytelling. In a similar fashion, Anjali Bhimani (Charlotte) described how scenes and situations served as jumping-off points for internal reflections: “Getting to search inside for the ways some of the situations [presented] would affect the mental, emotional, and spiritual state of a character was a very fulfilling challenge to take on.”

And indeed, when asked about the benefits of the system, Bhimani and Laura Bailey (Arlo) were quick to praise what they were able to do in both collective character creation and individual performance. Bailey noted the way the system “makes you think outside the box,” adding, “It’s easy in other systems to feel like a superhero. But this game system makes you understand how mortal you are. It raises the stakes of any encounter. Which means that the successes flood you with relief!” Bailey used the shorter-run series as a chance to create a character with more “extreme personality traits [...] that may be intimidating for a long run. Arlo is always half in, half out [of her own awareness]. There’s a ‘head tilt’ aspect to her that is super fun to experiment with. She leans into her weirdness as opposed to trying to hide it.”

A composite image from the Twitch broadcast of the premiere episode of Candela Obscura. Clockwise from upper left we have Matt Mercer in a trademark, and surprisingly period-accurate, vest; Ashley Johnson in fingerless gloes and a slouch hat; Anjali Bhimani in a blue Victorian dress; Laura Bailey in a purple jacket with epaulets; and Robbie Daymond one monocle short of a dapper man in a striped suit. Image: Critical Role via Twitch

The Candela Obscura set is a good visual representation of the show (and game)’s goals: making a rich and impressive experience while still working within the constraints of the multi-camera layout that has been Critical Role’s trademark since the earliest days. The depth of the set gives the sense of full rooms with tantalizing glimpses of curiosities behind the players, while keeping a more minimal space in front of them, with custom dice trays and glassware to match the set, no tablets or computer screens anywhere to be seen. Lighting highlights active players while keeping the rest of the table and their reactions still legible. The production team (including director Steve Failows, co-producing with Maxwell James) experimented with “dozens of atmospheric tools,” Jaffe noted, though which of those tools will show up on stream in future episodes is still under wraps.

Indeed, Jaffe was keeping quite a few secrets up his sleeve, including the nature of his own role as Lightkeeper, described in early press as “a steward for viewers” and in the quickstart guide as a non-player character used by the GM to introduce assignments. We see him in the beginning of the first episode as an introduction to the circle, addressing not the players but the audience seemingly in retrospect of the events we are about to witness. When asked if the Lightkeeper was indebted to Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone, Jaffe noted the parallel “is a great touchstone for our Lightkeeper. I’m not sure how soon we’re going to be showing our hand on that one, but it is very intentional.”

It seems as though Darrington Press and Critical Role are running a game of Candela for all of us this summer –—we’ve heard the hook, made our arrival, but there’s more reveals to come before full illumination. They know the ending, but what we as an audience and potential players do with this world is yet to be seen.

Candela Obscura’s stand-alone episodes air during Critical Role’s dark week on the last Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. PDT on Twitch and YouTube channels. Twitch subscribers have access to video-on-demand versions immediately following the broadcast, and podcast and YouTube VOD will be available two weeks later.

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