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Critical Role's heartbreak prince helped make 'Dungeons & Dragons' cool. Now he's coming for the gothic horror gaming scene.

Cheryl Teh   

Critical Role's heartbreak prince helped make 'Dungeons & Dragons' cool. Now he's coming for the gothic horror gaming scene.
  • Critical Role recently released "Candela Obscura," a gothic horror roleplaying game.
  • At the helm of the game's new live-play iteration is main cast member Liam O'Brien.

In October, Critical Role, a crew of eight self-professed "nerdy-ass voice actors," played their long-running "Dungeons & Dragons" game at a sold-out Wembley Arena.

So talking to Liam O'Brien, one of the eight cofounders of Critical Role, feels a lot like sitting across from the nerd world version of a One Direction member. If the gang's regular game master Matthew Mercer is their bright-eyed band leader, think of O'Brien as the brooding, poetic one — the one who writes the sad songs that'll break your heart.

These qualities make O'Brien ideal for stepping into the game master role for "Candela Obscura," Critical Role's new gothic horror game, and he's leaning hard into the tragedy.

"I think I've gotten myself a reputation in our company for being good with the bizarre and the horrific, and I've been looking forward to this," O'Brien said.

It's also one of the more punishing gaming systems he's played in, O'Brien told me during our video call. That made for some "pretty brutal, and pretty perfect" moments in-game, he says, especially because he was trying very hard to kill his players — though that hasn't happened in-game. Yet.

And while Critical Role's 1.3 million fans on Twitch have watched them stream their games live for over 1,300 hours, "Candela Obscura" bears little resemblance to "D&D," the game that made them nerd-famous.

Released in November by the company's publishing arm, Darrington Press, Candela Obscura is set in the Fairelands, a fantasy world similar to post-WWI Europe, with the trappings of eldritch horror, art nouveau, and Victorian-era aesthetics and symbolism. Picture a Victorian "X-Files," or "Ghostbusters" if it was set during the Great Depression.

Instead of rolling 20-sided dice and casting reality-bending spells as they would in "D&D," player-characters are far from superhuman. Each adventuring party comprises human investigators trying to solve mysteries and unravel nefarious plots. And every failed gambit results in player-characters taking wounds and racking up scars — with a tragic death awaiting anyone who tangles too long with darkness.

O'Brien has spent most of his time in "D&D" games as a player — a budding adventurer on a hero's journey. Mercer, the team's designated game master, is the one who crafts the narrative and controls how the story develops.

Now, O'Brien is taking his turn in the game master chair, and getting to unleash his inner chaos gremlin on the cast's Twitch stream.

"This is just a fun playground to be in," O'Brien said. "With all the games we play, I really like characters that are stuck between a rock and a hard place because it makes interesting things happen."

Make it Victorian

With the "Circle of the Crimson Mirror" — the latest chapter in Critical Role's live-play broadcasts — O'Brien got to wreak some havoc as game master and push his players to the limits of fear.

While the main cast of Critical Role usually hangs out around the table in T-shirts and hoodies on Thursday night, the live-action role-play version of "Candela Obscura" looks more like a full-scale theater production. O'Brien's four players — Taliesin Jaffe, Imari Williams, Aimee Carrero, and Alexander Ward — are in full costume.

"This game of 'Candela' is unlike anything I've ever done before because it's so involved," O'Brien told me, crediting the production crew who helped piece the set together. "Everyone is roleplaying as a Victorian at the table, the set, the lighting — it's like weaving magic around us."

The first episode of the three-part series on February 29 involved a maritime sojourn to an island that O'Brien says was inspired, in part, by his trips to Ireland.

The second episode, which aired on March 28, saw O'Brien drawing on his experience as a young actor in the New York theater circuit, with threads of inspiration ranging from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" to the work of the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh.

"You can find the monstrous both in the literal monstrous in these stories, but also, we're exploring the nature of humanity and our deep, deep flaws — and the things that we will do for power," he added.

As for the last installment of the "Crimson Mirror" series scheduled to air on April 25, O'Brien said things are about to get intense.

"I always prefer complicated narratively satisfying endings to a neat little happy ending," O'Brien told me.

"I went into this game with a mindset of how I would run it," he added. "But the characters surprised me, and the story we ended up telling is not where I saw things going — and I think it's all the better for it."

The long game

Spenser Starke and Rowan Hall, the lead designers and cowriters of the "Candela Obscura" game at Darrington Press, told me they worked on the rulebook for 11 months, writing the lore and ironing out the game mechanics with multiple rounds of playtesting. Since August, multiple game masters — including Mercer, Starke, and Aabria Iyengar of "Dimension 20" fame — have run their iterations of "Candela Obscura" and helped flesh out the game's background lore.

"We wanted to make 'Candela Obscura' accessible to pick up for people, from experienced players to those who have never played role-playing games before," Starke said.

He said "Candela Obscura" is best described as an investigative paranormal horror game based on simple mechanics. People who want to play the game don't have to memorize "200 pages of lore," he explained.

"It's designed as a scaffolding rather than an entire metropolis," he told me. "It is a place where you can get the bones of what you need to be able to make the game work for your table, have enough of a foundation that you know where you are, what things look like, and that you can build your play space with your group collaboratively."

Hall, who wrote the mythology and lore for "Candela Obscura," said she thought of the rulebook as an ode to Mary Shelley and "Frankenstein," and their take on a world where regular people can "face the demons of this world, and make a difference."

"This game is very unlike games where you're leveling up to God mode," Hall added. "The longer you play, the more likely you are to die. And so it is a story about regular people facing insurmountable odds and choosing to get up and face them again every day."

A different kind of fun

Critical Role is certainly about telling big stories, but it's also about the big gaming business. The company is now a key part of a larger industry where major players like Hasbro's Wizards of the Coast rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from tabletop gaming.

Now, the Critical Role team is angling for a big chunk of that pie, and building a gaming and animation business empire that should make Hasbro very afraid.

The team is juggling the "Candela Obscura" rollout, an open beta for their new game "Daggerheart," and not one but two Amazon-backed animated series based on their "D&D" campaigns. The 2019 Kickstarter campaign to create their animated series raised more than $11.3 million, a fundraising run so successful it compelled Amazon to back them.

I asked O'Brien why he thinks the fan base remains so invested in their work.

"At the start of CR, we just gave a very simple way for many people to see how much fun sitting at a table and playing 'Dungeons and Dragons' is," he said.

But there are so many ways of enjoying games, not just "the Critical Role way," he added. And what his crew wants to continue doing is to "make things that we love, in the hopes that other people will love it."

"We're using some of our own systems now," he said. "And we're showing people a different kind of fun."

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