Written by: Cameron Deslaurier
Spoiler Warning: this post contains spoilers up to Episode 2: “Bitterness and Dread” of Exandria Unlimited: Calamity.
For those unaware, the world is ending in Exandria.
Exandria Unlimited (EXU) is a collection of miniseries set across time and space in Mathew Mercer’s fantastical world of Exandria. Exandria is host to Critical Role’s major campaigns, including the current Bells Hells and original Vox Machina, the latter of which was recently adapted for television into the wildly successful The Legend of Vox Machina on Amazon Prime (give it a watch—it’s not to be missed).
EXU: Calamity is a story “…where Exandria’s greatest minds could not—or would not—see the truth before it was too late,” (Critical Role). The miniseries dives back over a thousand years to explore a pivotal night at end of the Age of Arcanum, the height of Exandria’s magical innovation. The miniseries is set in the City of Crowns: Avalir, one of the brumestone-powered sky cities epitomizing the era’s achievements. The Calamity was the Age of Arcanum’s fiery dusk: a cataclysmic war between the Prime Deities and Betrayer Gods that wiped out two-thirds of Exandria’s population, terraformed the continents, and ultimately resulted in the banishment of the Betrayer Gods and the Prime Deities’ creation of the Divine Gate and subsequent exodus from the Material Plane.
Brennan Lee Mulligan (best known for Dimension 20 and CollegeHumor) will be the Game Master, recreating the night alongside talented players Aabria Iyengar, Luis Carazo, Marisha Ray, Sam Riegel, Travis Willingham, and Lou Wilson. The first episode, “Excelsior,” introduced their characters: six eminent city dignitaries comprising the Ring of Brass—aka the unofficial group of people not quite at the top who “actually get shit done.”
The question of how much Ring of Brass can trust each other in the time they have left—even as it becomes increasingly clear they may be Avalir’s only hope—is everywhere in EXU: Calamity, and it’s one of many factors that create a tense, tightly paced air of suspense. The Ring of Brass’ high status within Avalir and their out-of-game power as level 14 adventurers means they’re all extremely competent from the get-go. Sam’s bard/warlock Loquacious Seelie is a magic-age influencer on everyone’s screen and waterfall; Marisha’s “boss bitch” Petra is the granddaughter of the elven mage who raised Avalir; and Aabria’s Laerryn Coramar-Seelie is, quite literally, keeping the city afloat as the Architect Arcane. Players are rolling ridiculous dice numbers like 31 left and right—all while Avalir seems destinated to spiral to the ground within hours. It’s a refreshing thrill to watch such badass characters try to put together the pieces as history-changing events occur in the space of single breaths.
For long-time fans of Critical Role, EXU: Calamity offers a treasure-trove of easter eggs: potential proto-adranachs (Tempus!), a visit from the then-campion of the Matron of Ravens Purvan Suul (sons Deathwalker’s Ward, of course), and automatons abound. The ruins Bells Hells found in the Marquesian wilds contained fragments of one of the very cities the Ring of Brass now finds itself on.
Thanks to its length, EXU: Calamity is also a great way for those curious about or new to D&D actual play to get a taste for the medium without committing to hundreds of hours of watch time. EXU: Calamity is self-contained in four episodes, and while knowledge of the world of Critical Role may enhance the experience, it is not necessary to enjoy it. EXU: Calamity is, to the end of Episode 2, also more intrigue and mystery based than combat-oriented, making it easier to understand for those less familiar with the rules of D&D.
We know how this story ends. Brennan started by asking Luis to describe his character “…with the understanding that your mouth is filled with blood.” When Travis asked if it was too late to get off the ride, I originally had similar thoughts. And yet, the cast’s superb acting, penchant for adding levity, and ability to capture tender moments amongst the rubble yank you in and make you hope. Despite knowing that this is the end, you hope that somehow it doesn’t have to be.
Each character’s life is so enmeshed in the roleplay. When Travis’s noir eisfuura detective Cerrit Agrupnin takes a call on a sending stone from his son, who’s using the codename “Talon Two,” it hammers home that the people who died in The Calamity had lives just as rich as modern Exandrians. Sam and Aabria play ex-spouses whose banter is hilarious, but when it sweetens to reminiscence on what could have been, it leaves you praying we don’t have our hearts broken by betrayal or a selfless act right before the end. I want the Ring of Brass to survive, but, barring that, I’m hoping we get to see them go out in a blaze of fireworks and fury. Because, in the span of only two episodes, I’ve already come to love these characters—and that’s good storytelling.
I feel very lucky that Mathew Mercer was willing to trust Brennan Lee Mulligan with such an integral part of Exandria’s history, and that Brennan clearly did his homework so that we could experience the end of the world in real time. If you’d like to join me watch the world fall, the first two episodes are available now on YouTube. Episodes stream live on Thursday nights at 10:00 PM EST on Twitch, with the finale airing Thursday the 16th. Episodes are also available immediately after streaming ends for Twitch subscribers, and for free on YouTube the following week.
See you at the end.
Featured image sourced from https://www.pexels.com.