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From Twitch to Wembley: My Evening at Critical Role LIVE

I wrote a piece for the Strand’s 2023 Freshers edition titled “The Arduous Quest for Tickets and Why it Sucks.” I delved into all the emotions—the stress and worry—that engulfed me in the days after the announcement of Critical Role’s London return after five years and their first live-show in three. I managed to snag two tickets before the announcement of the sell-out circulated on social media. Three minutes. They sold out in three minutes.

Now, a couple of weeks post-show, I’m still reeling. It was (avoiding hyperbole) one of the best nights of my life. This piece isn’t an overstatement; it’s my attempt to piece together my thoughts on an extraordinary evening. I witnessed my heroes—people I’ve spent over a thousand hours with through live-streamed campaigns over eight years—rolling dice, battling imaginary beasts, and weaving stories to an audience en masse. Come on the journey with me as I try to relive and relay it all (I can’t promise it’ll be tidy).

I’ve always approached my admiration for Critical Role with caution, wary of one-sided connections and parasocial relationships. When discussing my appreciation for the cast and the show, I stress my deep respect for their dedication to their craft, skill, and the immense joy they've spread globally. Their values, charity work, and enduring compassion over eight years as a unit, cast, company, or troupe command my absolute respect and admiration. Yet, after immersing myself in a group for so long, one that invites the audience to feel part of the stories, it’s hard not to form a tether—one I observe closely, steering clear of slipping into the perilous “parasocial” realm.


Event announcement poster, image courtesy of Critical Role


Forgive me, let’s get back on track—Wednesday, October 25th 2023, the day of the show. I awoke with a strange unease. Maybe it was disbelief, the surreal notion that I'd be heading to Wembley Arena that afternoon to see an event I never thought would happen. Regardless, I got out of bed and spent the morning reading for uni before travelling to King’s Cross to fetch my friend, my show companion from the great north (...York). To those who know me, you wouldn’t be surprised at the fact that I completed a bit of academic work on my “day off”—academic guilt is one hell of a thing. With the work out of the way, I freshened up, donned my Critical Role merch head-to-toe (yes, call me a shill), and set out, uncertain of my return time to Ilford thanks to the emotional rollercoaster that ‘leaving Wembley at midnight’.

After collecting my friend, we had some time to spare before showtime, so we ventured into town for lunch. A humble “mom-and-pop” shop in the middle of Leicester Square was the place—Burger King. Standing in line, we found ourselves behind a man I can only describe as the physical manifestation of America (‘Murica, for those that speak the language); tall, bearded, broad-shouldered, the type that breathed liberty and burped freedom. Mealtime adventures aside, Wembley beckoned. We knew we were on the right track as we encountered more and more people decked out in Critical Role gear—shirts, jumpers, jackets, onesies—and cosplay (oh, the cosplay), showcasing their finest Tiefling and Half-Orc guises.

Having trodden the Wembley Walk in August for a major Pro-Wrestling at Wembley Stadium, the vibe was familiar, albeit scaled down to one-eighth of the size for Wembley Arena. The atmosphere rippled with passion, excitement and that unique flavour of nervousness only us nerds possess. Approaching the venue, we noticed the hoard of geeks congregating nearby. There was slight worry about getting stuck in an hours-long queue, but we reassured ourselves knowing our seats were secured. Nothing to worry about. Or so we thought…


Before the show, Critical Role unveiled exclusive merchandise—a T-shirt and poster designed by their in-house artist Jordyn Torrence. Both items showcased the iconic red moon, Ruidis, the focal point of the show’s current storyline and the event we awaited. What we initially thought was a queue for arena entry turned out to be the line for merch, snaking and weaving its way around the open space in front of the arena. At the end of this winding path stood a stall no bigger than a food truck, manned by two brave souls hurling shirts, posters, and dice at the nerds before them. Joining the queue, my friend and I mingled with other fans and reunited with strangers we’d met earlier on the train. Time ticked away, showtime loomed, yet we still found ourselves deep in the merch queue. We followed the path dictated by consumerism and capitalism, but come on, the shirts were cool, we had to snag them. Crunch time arrived—20 minutes left until the show, and we were stuck. We debated whether to abandon ship to catch the introductions and the cast's onstage arrival, which we eventually did after navigating a (thankfully shorter) line at the North West entrance of the arena.

As we navigated the concourse, located our section and stepped through the double doors, it hit us. We’d arrived. Settling into our seats, we absorbed the stage's details—the set dressing, the bookshelves, the table, the dice, the banners. Glancing around the arena, we beheld a sea of 12,500 “Critters” (Critical Role fans), all gathered to witness what the cast aptly termed "a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sitting around and playing Dungeons & Dragons" for five hours.

Familiar tunes from the streams reverberated through the speakers, setting the perfect tone as our nerves eased and heart rates returned to normal. Then, the countdown flashed on screen: "Show starts in '1:30'." Ninety seconds. I'd never heard a more resounding, passionate sound than the countdown from ten to zero. Even now, as I type, I can feel the shivers wash over me again, but like I said, I’m not one for hyperbole.

Photo by Tim White on Flickr (licensed under CC BY 3.0 DEED)


Daniel Sloss, comedian, Critical Role fan, and Master of Ceremonies for the night, took to the stage, delivering a perfect ten minute warm-up set. He established the superiority of British audiences over our American counterparts, poking fun at their inability to swear with the same vigour and vitriol as us Brits, Irish, and Australians do. Sloss knew his audience well, weaving much of his material around Critical Role fans and our specific introverted behaviours, namely our difficulty in making eye-contact with… well… most people. It was an impressive performance on his part.

Tension mounted throughout the warm-up, as Sloss eventually introduced the cast, ratcheting up the crowd to a fever pitch. He demanded we blow the roof off the venue and show the cast just how incredible the European audience was, how much we wanted to see them roll dice and play make-believe. The introductions commenced: Ashley Johnson, Marisha Ray, Liam O’Brien, Laura Bailey, Travis Willingham, Taliesin Jaffe, Sam Riegel, and Matthew Mercer stepped out one by one, donning outfits reminiscent of their evening's characters but with a Brit-Rock twist. The deafening cheers and applause of 12,500 fans echoed through the arena—fans from across the globe, gathered for Critical Role's first live show since before the pandemic, the largest live-show Critical Role had ever produced, their debut overseas. Safe to say, we made sure they knew just how thrilled we were.


I won’t spoil the show for you, but witnessing Sam Riegel dressed as both Freddie Mercury and Ginger Spice, skateboarding across the stage in a light-up cape, is an image forever etched into my mind. And honestly, I'm not complaining!


The show stretched beyond the venue's curfew, as expected from a typical Critical Role episode length. The funny thing is it didn't feel like a four-and-a-half-hour long show. It was more like a fleeting twenty minutes spent with 12,500 (or 12,508 if you count the cast) friends. For the first time in a long time, I was able to be myself—no masks, no shields—I was able to enjoy myself, be myself. We laughed, cheered, and cried together. I managed to keep my emotions in check that night (much to my surprise), but I think not breaking down into a mess of a man I am meant more to me than if I did. I soaked in every moment, from the grand introductions to the final curtain call—it’s a night of memories I will revisit for years to come.

That night served as a reminder—it's okay to be different, to feel the way I do about myself. I realised that others might share similar sentiments, yet through our shared love for the show, we can set aside those thoughts and revel in being our truest selves, even if only for a few precious hours each week. Community and a deep-rooted love for storytelling is what the show is all about.


Critical Role’s charity—The Critical Role Foundation—strives to “leave the planet better than we found it.” Yes, through their charitable acts they are succeeding in doing that, but after that live show, after seeing people like me fill an arena and bask in that collective happiness, that sense of belonging, Critical Role have well and truly accomplished that goal. It’s something we can all learn to do and carry with us: let’s leave the world better than we found it, in our own way.

 

Edited by Gio Eldred Mitre, Gaming Editor

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