Critical Role is about to embark on a new journey tonight as they launch another miniseries event entitled Exandria Unlimited: Calamity. Much like they did before, this show will be a mix of familiar faces and new players as they tell a different kind of story. This one revolves around the world of Exandria, where most of the show's campaign is set, in a period long before any of the characters you know and love ever existed. Recounting how exactly it all went wrong with the gods who used to rule the world. We chatted with three of the new people involved as we briefly talk to this show's DM Brennan Lee Mulligan, as well as two of the players, Lou Wilson and Luis Carazo, about the campaign and what to expect as the show airs tonight on YouTube and Twitch starting at 7pm PT.
BC: How did the opportunity come about to work on this particular project with Critical Role and what about it did you find most appealing?
Mulligan: I have the unreal good fortune to have been pals with Matt [Mercer] and Marisha [Ray] for years now (met them back when I was the primary question writer for Um, Actually) and have been lucky enough to have them both as guests on D20! Towards the end of last year, Matt mentioned his ambitions for bringing other GMs into Exandria, and off-handedly referenced wanting to see an ExU set in the Age of Arcanum, which immediately kicked me into high gear about that fabled time period, and a month or two after that Marisha invited me to come pitch the basic outline for ExU: Calamity. I think what got all three of us the most excited about this concept was the chance to tell the kind of story that would thrive in this specific format: "The medium is the message," as McLuhan said! Tragedy tends to work best in feature-length as opposed to the saga: teasing out inevitable dread over dozens and dozens of weeks can run a whole host of risks, but to jump into the anthology format of ExU, and tell a short, impactful story that leans into its time constraints was a really exciting opportunity for all of us!
Wilson: You know I'm not entirely sure. I've been playing with Brennan for several years over at Dimension 20, so I'm assuming that had something to do with it. I'd like to imagine Brennan walked into the Critical Role offices, slammed his fist down on the desk and said, "I'll tell you right now, either you put Lou Wilson in Calamity, or I walk!" And then Matt stomped out his cigar into an already crowded ashtray and was like, "Fine Sweet Cheeks, but if he doesn't deliver it's your ass!" It was probably way more congenial and nice than that, but a man can dream. Whatever the case, I'm glad they did because the concept of this season is really exciting. The comedic side of actual play comes pretty naturally to me but I really enjoy sinking my teeth into the drama. And I mean what's more dramatic than a season where you know you gotta die by the end of it.
Carazo: I have actually known Matt, Marisha, and Taliesin [Jaffe] for many years. We played in a home campaign together that lasted a few years which started before Critical Role, and we've kept in touch since. They had been hinting for a while that they might have something around the corner for me, and when Kyle, one of CR's producers, reached out to me and explained the premise on ExU Calamity, I was all the way in! A tragedy set in the distant past when the Calamity occurs? Give it to me!
Considering this is canon that even Matt Mercer hasn't explored in-game, what kind of talks did you have with him about the world prior to all of the campaigns?
Mulligan: Constant talks! Poor Matt! I bent Mr. Mercer's ear endlessly about the nature of Exandria's cosmos, and especially those elements of lore most sanguine to the story at hand: The Betrayer Gods, the Schism, the Ascension of the Raven Queen, the history of Flying Cities and the Age of Arcanum, and the Folly of Vespin Chloras! I must also shout out real-life Mentat and superhero Dani Carr, whose encyclopedic knowledge of Exandria was indispensable! Truthfully, early on I asked that Dani be present at all tapings just off-camera to feed me canon corrections a la Cyrano de Bergerac, or at the very least have access to a shock collar so that I could be zapped if I messed up any important pieces of lore, but I was informed that this was "off-putting" and "probably illegal," so I retracted my request! Special shout-out also to Kyle Shire, our producer, whose ability to seamlessly weave deep lore knowledge with production know-how kept this whole ship sailing smoothly the entire time!
Carazo: I only spoke to Matt through Brennan, that is to say, that I didn't speak to Matt at all even though I knew I could have. Instead, I ran everything through Brennan and trusted the efforts Brennan was putting forth to keep all the parts together. Brennan and I did talk extensively about the setting, the lore, and the history, and from there a character concept started to take form for me.
What kind of prep work did you do ahead of the miniseries to get your characters/story together and ready to roll?
Mulligan: Oh man! Tons! Fleshing out the City of Avalir, its arcana, its history, its denizens and neighborhoods and factions, conspiring with PCs over background and history, finding ways to connect deep world lore to the specific stories of these six heroes, designing flow-sheets of likely event sequences, tracking mysteries and secrets being intentionally kept, and statting out monsters and NPCs. Shorter seasons can be deceptively hard to prepare – With only four episodes, there is no room for error: Beats need to land within slim margins of error, and you might not have organic opportunities in later episodes to make up for being unprepared with a piece of lore, a character motivation or a mechanical game element at the moment you really needed it!
Wilson: I've watched Critical Role before so I'm familiar with Exandria but in order to get ready for the series I took a few steps into the deep end. I lost hours to the Explorer's Guide to Wildemont and watching CR's lore videos on repeat. Then there's also prep on the personal side of things – Meetings with Brennan, Aabria, Marisha, and other cast members to talk about our characters' shared schemes and backgrounds. Only having four episodes, we really wanted to make sure we had shared backstory so that everything really felt lived in, and we could hit the ground running from day one.
Carazo: I love prep work. I watched videos on the history of Exandria, read through some of the source material about Tal'Dorei, and then I got myself to work on creating a character whose story might in a sense mirror some of what was happening in the core conflict of this time. What makes a character exciting to me are their flaws, blind spots, and drives, and the Calamity seemed a real fertile ground for that kind of character work.
What was your experience like filming on the set with members of the cast that already had experience in this story?
Mulligan: An utter delight. Travis, Sam, Marisha, and Aabria couldn't have been more welcoming to those of us who had never had the joy of playing in Exandria before. I will never forget the excitement of getting to NPC characters and phenomena that these incredible storytellers have spent years breathing life and meaning into. A surreal honor. There's one reaction in particular towards the end of Episode One that will stay with me for a long, long time. It was also deeply exciting to be diving into an unfamiliar part of a familiar world as well: The idea that this series gets to answer some deep questions about a world that some of the cast have spent the better part of a decade building is just unbelievably cool!
Wilson: Really special. I had a bit of trepidation walking into a world that they've so thoroughly explored, but they went above and beyond making me feel comfortable at the table. Plus, elements of the world we're playing in made me feel like we were all on the same foot. Calamity is so far removed from everything they've done in Exandria up to this point. It's exciting and new territory, even for people who've been playing in this world for years.
Carazo: It was really great! Everyone made me feel at home and like I belonged, and they readily embraced what I threw into the mix. I think we were all on an equal footing in terms of this particular setting because we were all at the mercy of mastermind Brennan who just threw us for a loop immediately and never stopped!
Without giving too much away, any favorite moments from filming and playing you'd like to share?
Mulligan: I think there are actually too many to mention. My mind immediately shoots to a scene with the incomparable Lou Wilson where he as my Guildmaster and I as his arithmetician troubleshoot our financial relationship to a sphinx. (The half-hour sitcom pilot of these two characters is forthcoming!) Aabria Iyengar is simply beyond a gift to any GM: The definition of "understanding the assignment." Watching Travis, Sam and Marisha work their magic at the table after years of watching them from home is something I am still reeling from and likely will be for a while. And I'll say this as well: The world is simply not ready for Luis Carazo. Jaw-dropping. What he does with his character staggers the mind. You have been warned!
Wilson: Sam gives a fully prepared speech within like 30 minutes of starting the show. It's really something.
Carazo: Oh my gosh… so many. I am truly humbled to share the table with such powerful storytellers. They have moved me, and have made me laugh hysterically. I love the character introductions and watching the banter my castmates have with the NPCs Brennan plays. Bolo/a is a particular favorite. There are also a few pretty cool enemy kills, let me just say we have some pretty badass wizards…