hey, can you break down the differences between the adventure zone and critical role for me? i haven't listened to either and now i'm curious
Oh gosh, okay. They’re delightful but… very different approaches to the same general idea (broadcasting a D&D game), and I think the fans of one show tend to have a sort of skewed impression of the other show, so here’s my thinking.
Just the basics, to begin with: The Adventure Zone started running in late 2014, and it’s an audio-only podcast in which the McElroy brothers and their dad start a brand-new D&D campaign from scratch. Critical Role started running in early 2015, and it’s a video podcast in which a bunch of best-friend voice actors started filming the D&D campaign they’d already been playing for years at home with the same characters. TAZ is (generally) prerecorded and lightly edited down, CR is 100% live. Both have a lot of howlingly funny and surprisingly touching moments, both get a lot more intense the more you get into them, and both are good shows that are a Good Time, especially when they make you feel things you didn’t sign up for. The main canon of TAZ is currently 56 one-hour-long episodes, with new episodes every two weeks, and CR is currently 85 four-hour-long episodes, with new episodes every week. Most of the reason for CR’s absurd length comes down to (a) three times as many players, and (b) no editing.
The DMs both put a ton of work into the world, but they also have very different approaches. Griffin (TAZ) is DMing for the first time, while Matt (CR) has talked about how DMing D&D games for the past 20 years is what got him interested in acting in the first place. The world of TAZ is much more of a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, while CR sticks more to traditional fantasy.
TAZ plays fast and loose with the rules, which can be both a delight and a frustration for storytelling reasons—for instance, until the latest arc both spell slots and HP were not really tracked, which means (a) Griffin has had to come up with incredibly creative ways of introducing risk and limitations to the game, and (b) those incredibly creative ways can start to get pretty damn brutal. The mechanics of the game feel like an imposition on the story, most of the time—it’s rare that you get a dice roll that makes a huge difference to the plot (but when you do, as in the most recent episode, it’s pretty darn cool). As a result, the biggest spanner in the works of Griffin’s plans tends to be in the form of out-of-the-box thinking from his players, which they excel at; I think there is a tendency to railroad the plot as a result, but it’s a good story and it’s well worth a little bit of elbowing to keep everyone on track. Magical items also play a huge role, with viewers of the show submitting awesome new trinkets for the heroes of the story to use/abuse/completely forget about.
Because CR tilts more towards the rulebook (although Matt gets more than his fair share of shit for homebrewing and letting things slide and defaulting to the Rule of Cool), chance plays a much bigger role in the story. Matt’s simultaneously battling some incredibly creative players and dice that seem determined to roll as dramatically as possible. Entire subplots have been wiped out by a strategic roll, and in order to be able to adapt to that on the fly, Matt has to be hyper-prepared and have a lot of possible branching points. It’s absurdly open-world, especially now that the characters have the ability to travel instantly through different planes of existence, and Matt keeps pace with a story that feels more character-led than DM-led; railroading is practically nonexistent, which means you get incredible plot developments and super-deep characterization… but it also sometimes leads to long circular conversations trying to figure out what to do next. Because the players are all actors, there’s also a lot more that’s just straight-up improv theater: it’s not unusual (especially lately) to go for verrrry long stretches of riveting conversation without anybody rolling dice (I can think of a moment where Matt could’ve just had everyone fail a charisma saving throw against an NPC but instead just straight-up charmed them all in real life with words).
I’ll put it this way: CR is a basketball pickup game between friends who’ve been playing together so long that they kind of have their own home rules going and stick to them. TAZ is out there playing fuckin’ Calvinball. Both are great fun, but if you go into one expecting the other you’re in for a bad time.
Both shows have a lot of great NPCs, although Critical Role’s format gives them a lot more time and depth to shine (there are episodes where an NPC will have as much or more “screen time” than some of the player characters). Both shows have LGBT representation among player characters and NPCs alike that, while not perfect, is generally improving as the show goes on. For me personally, one of the more frustrating things about going from CR to TAZ was going from three female player characters and a metric fuckton of extremely deep characterization for all the female NPCs to no female player characters and many great and memorable female NPCs who nevertheless don’t get too much screentime or development just because of the the structure of the show.
TAZ is pretty shaky throughout the first arc (Griffin’s fighting a bit of an uphill battle getting everyone to sit down and actually play the game, which is funny in and of itself), but things slowly start to come together and the real potential of the show becomes clear once they break the heck out of the 5e Starter Set. I think the “Murder on the Rockport Limited” arc is what started to pull me in, and it’s not until the latest arc that I’m starting to get the character development I really crave in that show. Critical Role also takes a little while to find its footing, and to me the Briarwood arc (starting around episode 24) is where the mood of the show starts to solidify, with episode 40 and beyond really pushing from “this is cool, I’m enjoying how these interpretations of fantasy tropes are sometimes kinda unusual and off-the-wall!” to “how is this the most honest and genuine character development I’ve ever seen in media what the heck is happening here”.
So yeah. TAZ isn’t total chaos with no plot or effort put into it, CR isn’t a humorless wasteland of mathematical minutiae and rigid formulaic approaches. Both shows are great fun, both are IMO in an upswing and getting better and better as they go along, and I heartily recommend them both if you know what you’re getting into. Have fun!