Tropes, Intentions, and Critical Role

Whenever writers get criticized for invoking troubling tropes in their stories, there’s one excuse that crops up more than any other: “this was where the story needed to go.” Yes, many other stories have shoved girlfriends in fridges or killed off the lesbian characters or had the black guy die first, but they weren’t thinking of that when they were writing this story. The story told them that this needed to happen, for the good of the narrative, and so that’s what happened.

It’s almost as though the writers have no say in where the story goes. The narrative takes over their brain, and any critical thinking ability or chance of reflecting on things vanishes. There’s no editing, no critical thought, just the all-powerful Story.

This has always struck me as complete nonsense, since no matter how “in the moment” a writer might be when creating a first draft, they have plenty of editing time afterwards to consider a story’s implications. But I’ve been thinking about it in more depth recently, inspired by my new favorite thing to recommend to people, whether they want to hear about it or not, Critical RoleCritical Role is half improv show, half radio play, built around the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons. Not only is the story mostly improvised, but it happens in reaction to the randomness of dice rolls. Who lives, who dies, who tells their story… in the end, the dice decide. For once, the writers really don’t have total control.

And one moment sticks in my mind, from several months ago now. (Spoilers for episode 68, Cloak and Dagger). Once upon a time, a character called Vax struck a fanboy on the head, knocking him out, to show him how out of his league he was and warn him not to get messed up in the sort of stuff that the protagonists of Critical Role face. About 50 episodes later, that kid shows up again, allied with some of their enemies, and in the ensuing fight, he almost kills Vax’s girlfriend, Keyleth. She doesn’t die, but it’s close, and she only survives because the dice rolls come out in her favor.

It was a really interesting narrative moment for me, because it had great unplanned narrative symmetry, a consequence of Vax’s harsh actions coming back to bite him after so long. If it were planned, it would be compelling, but also troubling, as a female character was killed off for a male character’s story arc. Unplanned, it might actually represent that unseen pure case that writers often attempt to invoke, where “that’s just where the story wanted to go.”

The hypothetical has stuck in my head for months since the episode aired, precisely because I’m wondering how I would have reacted to this trope actually appearing by accident. Would it still have bugged me? Would the fact that she’s an independent character controlled by her own actress have changed how things felt? Intention isn’t magical, but to what extent does invoking a trope by accident excuse the troublesome implications? It didn’t happen, so it’s all hypothetical, and I won’t dig into it too deeply, because I think it’ll make my head explode with all its problems and contradictions.

But one thing I know is that, even if the story had come together completely randomly, it wouldn’t have stopped the idea that a female character dying to enhance a male character’s story is troubling. That the actors would have needed to handle things carefully, both during and afterwards, to ensure that Keyleth’s death had remained a key part of Keyleth’s story, and not been all about Vax’s mistakes and the consequences on him. And if pure random chance doesn’t completely override the context of troubling tropes, regular storytelling methods have no excuse.

One comment on “Tropes, Intentions, and Critical Role

  • LynMars , Direct link to comment

    There are some tropes the actors stumble into by accident; I do wonder if part of that is how steeped they themselves are in stories through theater and games and animation they help to voice and direct. The TV Tropes pages for CR are long and organized–they have to be, for the sheer amount of content the show’s produced in almost 2 years!

    But just as many times, the tropes are subverted or averted. There were a lot of fans terrified for favorite NPC Shaun Gilmore at the end of “Duskmeadow”–despite the cast’s clear and solid support in the wake of the Pulse club shootings–and then later, briefly, for Allura Vysoren in a more recent episode. Even with Mercer’s assurance he wouldn’t simply take such key figures offscreen for such important moments.

    In fact, the only character that can be said about, well, there were real life reasons outside of the dice’s control and arranged with the player involved, so that falls as well into the points above–how much is because “the story demands it” and how much is honestly due to outside events and dice rolls and how does that affect each character’s journey?

    There were fans upset Vax seemed to be affected more by another character’s (temporary) death than that character, that he had “stolen” a plotline from them, but his rash action in the ritual moment and roll of the dice, again, curved the story in a direction–though Liam does love digging into roleplay moments, and creating them with other characters, and exploring Vax’s mindset through those discussions and moments, too. Many of the other players find those moments fun as well, and love to give each other room to make them happen. Travis Willingham’s sheer joy at some of wife Laura Bailey’s scenes with another character have been as much fun to watch as the scenes and dice rolls and how they affect those interactions–like that story relevant natural 20 she recently rolled, harking back to her double 20’s the last time someone Vex loves was in such danger. Meanwhile, there’s Travis’ famous Natural 1 in “Desperate Measures” when a success might have turned the tide of the campaign a whole other direction.

    It’s certainly worth consideration as the show goes on, and perhaps into the next campaign.

What do you think?

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