Sure! Why is Taz Ethersea validating why a pre-calamity campaign would be a bad idea?
Okay first off I do want to thank you all! I think I probably would have eventually made a post, because opinions are stored in the Tumblr blog but I don't think I would have thought through it beyond the simplest answer of "actual play D&D is uniquely unsuited for a narrative with a foregone conclusion" but I think it goes beyond that and getting these questions led me to think about it much more.
Also: this post will be full of spoilers for prior TAZ and Critical Role campaigns.
That simple answer is still the right one. I'll admit I have many biases - I don't like stories where the ending is total failure, vs. something bittersweet and mixed; I am very picky about my cataclysm/apocalypse narratives; and I like to avoid spoilers and be surprised by endings. But in particular, one of the greatest elements of D&D actual play is that the long shot is possible. You can roll that 5% chance of becoming conscious instead of dying, or 15% chance of divine intervention, or what have you in a desperate situation. You still might fail, but there's a chance.
Which is one of the other great elements of D&D actual play is that the long shot failure is also possible; the 5% chance of dying sooner than expected or fumbling what should be an easy hit (or an enemy succeeding when they shouldn't).
A big part of why I'm struggling with TAZ Ethersea right now isn't actually the forgone conclusion. A big part is the mechanics, which just don't come off as terribly suited for an audio-only medium (even with the shared map, we don't get the images drawn in sync with the podcast which is what you'd need to really follow along properly). But it doesn't help that I know that when the Storm comes, they at least in some capacity make it. A lot of what appeals to me in the Quiet Year is the map-making and description of a small community and the idea of worldbuilding as the end-goal rather than a starting point, but a significant part of the premise is that the community has a year, but does not realize it. They know they have to prepare for winter, but they don't know that winter will be marked by the Frost Giants. And I don't begrudge the McElroys for using this for worldbuilding, for a number of in-game and out-of-game reasons, but the fact that they do know they have a year and that we as listeners know that obviously some kind of undersea society is able to be built after that year due to the premise of the main portion of the campaign has taken out most of the tension.*
We know how the Age of Arcanum ends. We don't know details, but we know what happens. We also know the Calamity is generations long (Halas being both a few generations after Aeor's destruction and also pre-divergence), and ends in the Divergence, and afterwards the world slowly rebuilds.
Any campaign therefore has a couple of options. Either it would have to be long before the Calamity to allow for some degree of freedom of choice in what the players are doing (which is generally not the vibe I'm getting from people interested in a pre-Calamity campaign), and also...I don't really get what that accomplishes that a new relatively unexplored location wouldn't. The other would be that it's either a campaign that never gets to any kind of significant catastrophe aversion goal (which...while I do not believe actual play casts are in any way obligated to cater to the fandom other than general sensitivity towards other people, stopping some kind of large-scale terrible event and/or big bad is a pretty central concept of the genre even when other elements of it are played with), or one that we know fails in that goal (or at least...only succeeds in saving about a third of all people) before it starts.
It's true that usually, we as viewers go into a D&D story expecting some measure of success (I could write a whole separate essay on why TPKs aren't great viewing for a long-running campaign) but CR in particular has made it clear that there is still a capacity for some amount of failure, or mixed success; there is still perma-death, or victory at great cost, or initial failure that has consequences that cannot be avoided even by later success. Something all actual play DM/GMs (and in many cases, regular old home game DM/GMs) have to do is walk that nearly invisible line where truly, success and failure are both options but total all-consuming failure is extremely difficult to achieve while still not making things seem too easy or unearned. A pre-calamity story puts that already monumental balancing act on Extremely Hard Mode because a large amount of failure as well as a small amount of success is inherently built in.
It also makes it much harder for stories like the one we had in C2 about Aeor, or for that matter, C1 about Vecna, to resonate in the same way, since both used the mystery of the pre-Calamity/Calamity eras to tell those stories. I love dramatic irony but there's a limit; there should be some mystery for the audience and players, not just the characters. If a creator puts a huge mysterious cataclysm in the past, there's a reason for that! Ethersea could have just been "it's an underwater society because it's fantasy" and that would have been perfectly fine, but it's not! That's a creative choice! The mystery of the Calamity is almost certainly by design!
In the end the thing that gets me about TAZ Ethersea is that I usually love the worldbuilding/character concept episodes of D&D shows that have them, and the Q&A/talkback episodes...but I'm learning that I want people to talk about those finished products in a big-picture way. I may be guessing here but I think people want pre-Calamity lore, but they would not actually enjoy a full, 100+ episode campaign of pre-Calamity happenings that is both hamstrung by forgone conclusions and may hamstring other stories that are to take place in the future. I think some comics, or a novel, or a small scope EXU mini-series, or like...a really long tweet thread from Matt about some pre-Calamity lore would actual satisfy that curiosity more effectively while also allowing them to preserve the important mysteries. Or, building from previous campaigns, having C3 exist a few decades after C2, where the consequences of the many archaeological expeditions and the return of the Aeormatons are becoming widespread, would similarly give us the ancient lore while still providing the open, unpredictable world actual play is uniquely suited for.
*just to make it clear: I'm complaining about the Ethersea setup epidosdes because I love complaining about things but if I actually found it wholly unenjoyable I would stop listening and skip ahead, completionism be damned. There are plenty of bright spots, mostly when they stop following the rules of the game and introduce specific character beats, and I am excited by the consequences, it's just...almost 5 hours long and still going.
25 notes · View notes