Last night was the premiere of Critical Role’s first episode of Candela Obscura–their latest Actual Play (AP) campaign. “The Cold Embrace” was led by Matt Mercer, Critical Role’s reliable (and exceptional) Game Master. The actors include Ashley Johnson as Auggie James, Anjali Bhimani as Charlotte Eaves, Laura Bailey as Arlo Black, and Robbie Daymond as Professor Howard Margrove. Taliesin Jaffe is also a cast member, but in a more mysterious role–that of the Lightkeeper. This is the first full campaign Critical Role is undertaking that does not use Dungeons & Dragons as the game vehicle, and is, a point of fact, the first use of Critical Role’s original game, Candela Obscura (written by Rowan Hall and Spenser Starke).
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Critical Role released an abbreviated version of Candela Obscura (the game) early yesterday morning, and I took a look at it after the first AP episode aired, digging into the mechanics, inspirations, and design of the work. It’s very similar to John Harper’s Blades in the Dark, an inspiration that Starke does not shy away from. While analyzing this quickstart edition of Candela Obscura, it feels necessary to critique the game and the AP in conversation, as it is clear that the production is the point.
The story during the first episode of Candela Obscura is straightforward; Auggie witnesses a supernatural phenomenon. A clandestine society–Candela Obscura–convenes a circle of investigators, who have worked together before. The group follows clues to a haunted coal refinery, and must fight the spirits that have been released in the factory, only to find a deeper mystery seeping out from the bleeding edges of Newfaire (which is built on top of Oldfaire). The first episode of Candela Obscura faithfully follows the classic first episode structure of many AP episodes–an introduction, a follow-and-fetch quest, combat, and an open door ending. It’s a standard story structure for a reason–it allows players to explore the mechanics without thinking too hard about the story at hand, as well as giving them an opportunity to roleplay and flesh out their characters, who the audience is being introduced to for the first time. This structure also allows the audience to learn the game while being able to keep up with the story. While it is predictable, there’s nothing wrong with this setup.
Matt Mercer is an incredible Game Master. He sets scenes efficiently and fully, his voices are very fun, he can easily switch between NPCs without overwhelming the game, and he really understands how to push a story along. But there are parts of his style of play that make me feel as if the guardrails are maybe… a little too high. The moments when the game is so clearly kept on train tracks makes it seem as if Mercer doesn’t trust his players to make impactful, story-changing decisions. A clear example came early on in the episode when Bhimani’s Charlotte Eaves invites a man into her office for a chat, and Mercer shuts it down, delivering his message and having his non-player character run out of Eaves’ establishment. Rarely are there questions of difference raised between character decisions and GM intention, because in this episode of Candela Obscura the players and the GM are working in near-perfect sync. It is, after all, an improv performance, and everyone is working to make it as seamless as possible. While this gameplay style can be conducive to a collaborative storytelling process, in Candela Obscura, the result is a gaunt game that is, at best, just good.
Another issue I have with this episode, which lends itself to my impression that this game is too on-the-rails, is that the mechanics of Candela Obscura (the game) aren’t really discussed on-air. Character creation isn’t a part of the episode, there’s no in-depth explanation of why people roll when they do, and when to use the gilded dice mechanic–arguably one of the most original parts of the game design–is not made clear within gameplay. The omission of these elements hurts the on-screen introduction of a brand new game. It feels as if most of the gaming parts of the game are left out, leaving the stage clear for the actors to do what they do best. Without a lot of game crunch, Candela Obscura (the AP) turns into a sketch show, and much like any improv show, these sketches don’t have a lot of stakes attached. Because ultimately, Mercer is there. And the show (game?) must go on.
Spencer Starke introduces Candela Obscura both before the stream starts and then reiterates the design structures during intermission. He states that the system–Illuminated Worlds, which is designed by Stras Acimovic and Layla Adelman–is set up for “fast, easy-to-pick up, cinematic-style play.” In game design terms, “cinematic-style” is a very soft bit of onomastic wordplay that doesn’t mean much. But what this phrase does make clear is that it was always the intention of this game, and this system, to be played for an audience. The target demographic appears to be actors: Look how easy this is to play. Won’t your audiences love this?
This is reiterated again and again throughout the episode. The Eduardian, postwar-occultist vibes; the setting that could be Rochester, or London, or even New Orleans if you squint; the ways that the game has been built to make it easy to riff on… because it is scaffolded to encircle beloved touchstones and derived from genre conventions that just about everyone understands. It’s Sherlock Holmes, X-Files, Supernatural, Grimm, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scooby-Doo. It is, essentially, Blades in the Dark. And who doesn’t love Blades in the Dark?
There is nothing wrong with Candela Obscura (the game), much like there is nothing wrong with Candela Obscura (the performance). But both are, disappointingly, not doing anything particularly novel. With lorebuilding that feels familiar, a horrorcore vibe that lacks any real investigation into the deep history of horror storytelling conventions, alongside a production that feels, at times, underwhelming considering this is a four-hour long first episode, and without any exceptionally cool mechanics, neither endeavor feels particularly innovative. It becomes rote.
The best part about this game, and this production, is the fact that it will introduce Critical Role fans to a new system, and likely encourage many gamers to play games outside of the D&D hegemony. Perhaps it will encourage actors to form their own Critical Role-esque troupes. Candela Obscura is, ultimately, a Forged in the Dark system that encourages storytelling as a group and introduces discovery as an improvisational process between the players and the GM. I’d encourage gamers to pick up the game, tell fans to tune into Critical Role, and then have a good time playing their own campaign. Just, maybe not on camera.
The Candela Obscura Quickstart is available now. Critical Role’s Candela Obscura campaign airs live on the last Thursday of the month. It will encompass four episodes and be available via podcast and YouTube after its initial Twitch airdate.
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