The following article contains spoilers for The Mighty Nein campaign from Critical Role up through episode 100.
Being a tabletop nerd and a person of faith is sometimes an act of tension. Epic stories of adventure, journeys full of purpose and meaning are close to the heart of tales of paladins and clerics and monks. But at the same time, nerd culture has often struggled to represent faith in ways that are meaningful and nuanced. Dungeons and Dragons and tabletop RPG’s have especially struggled in this way. The Satanic Panic of the ‘70s and ‘80s still haunts the genre and to this day gamers and faith communities butt heads. This often plays out in harsh and caricatured representations by both sides.
That’s part of why I’ve found such joy in watching Critical Role’s second campaign. The Mighty Nein, this campaign’s adventuring party, contains profoundly religious characters, each with their own complex relationship with faith. Of the 7 party members, 4 are devotees of particular gods and entities and those faith dynamics are drivers of both the plot and the development of the characters themselves.
And the range of representation is stunning. Our first religious soul is player Laura Bailey’s Jester, the devoted cleric of a strange new deity called the Traveler. She is a trickster, honoring her trickster deity with acts of chaos and humor wherever she goes. But behind that aesthetic is a heart that is deeply in love with her god, who she calls her best friend. Her faith in the Traveler shapes her whole life. More than that, Jester’s faith is deeply evangelistic. Faith in the Traveler is something she wants to share with the world.
One of the most touching moments for me was in episode 91 “Stone to Clay.” After hearing Jester’s failed evangelistic overtures again and again, the party finally stops and helps her work through her approach. As a long time Minister to Youth and Children, this moment of a young believer trying to find the words for the most important things in their life was familiar. Jester isn’t a polished manipulator, she is an exuberant believer who sometimes can’t convey the joy she feels in her faith to those around her. But her friends support her anyway. As she concludes “Well, no, but well, I mean, ultimately, you know, I’m just trying to find, you know, like, where I fit in in the world, ultimately.”
The story of Jester and the Traveler becomes far more complex when she discovers that the Traveler is not a god in the traditional sense but an Archfey (one familiar to viewers of Campaign 1). Jester discovers that the object of her faith is not quite what she had imagined. She has to wrestle with the possibility that her faith has been misguided or misplaced. And the tension is never clearly resolved. Jester continues on in the tension between joyful faith and crucial questions of purpose and truth, an experience that many folks share.
The second Cleric of the party, Caduceus Clay, brings an entirely different vision of faith to the table. A devotee of the nature goddess Malora, also known as the Wildmother, Caduceus is a contemplative at heart. His faith is less evangelistic, slow and steady and infinitely deep. He lives contentedly in the midst of death and mystery and struggle. Caduceus’s faith allows him to stare into the hardest, barest truths of life with peace. When the party meets him he is the last remaining attendant of a family graveyard, consigning the dead to the earth and the growing things as an act of holy remembrance. A beautiful reverence of death and life that he carries with him everywhere. Caduceus is often the meaning maker, the one who re-narrates the muck and blood of their world into beauty and meaning, a core practice of every faith, fictional and real.
Though often not as centrally featured as her companions (due to the frequent absences of player Ashley Johnson), the wasteland barbarian Yasha is also a person of faith. Her subclass is literally Zealot. She is a follower of Kord the Storm Lord. But while the Wildmother and the Traveler are often close to the surface of the tale, Kord is more esoteric and distant. He is present and invested but rarely speaks, rarely shows his hand or his face. But for all of this, he is no less present.
Yasha’s faith is subtle and mystical, it’s often wordless, delivered to her in longings and callings, the oblique summons of rolling thunder and lightning strikes. And it’s also enmeshed in her own deep guilt and doubt. Compelled by magic and manipulation, Yasha has more than once been an agent of death and suffering and her faith in the Stormlord is often the only respite against her own internal struggles.
There is a crucial turning point in episode 98. Adrift in her self-loathing and doubt, the Stormlord drives Yasha into a vision, a lightning charged leap of faith. On the edge of breaking she experiences a religious epiphany, one embodied by the transformation of her skeletal fallen Aasimar wings into beautiful white plumage. And in his longest line of dialogue to date she hears
“You are worthy, both of my guidance and of your own acceptance. This path before you is long, and I won’t let you stray.”
The last of the four is Travis Willingham’s Fjord. Our story finds him wrapped in layers of half-truths and emotional brokenness. An orphan and survivor, he has given up his name, his origin, even his voice to try and find a place of purpose and strength. It is this same grasping that leads him into the hands of the monstrous quasi-deity Uk’o’toa (Uk’o’toaaaaa). It takes nearly releasing this horrific and abusive being into the world for Fjord to realize that his reckless pursuit of identity and power is destroying him.
And here we have an incredible moment in TTRPG live play: a conversion story. Fjord confronts the horrific U’ko’toa and its evil commands and flings his pact blade, the symbol of his devotion into a pool of lava. The sacrifice nearly costs him his life. But he finds redemption and a sort of resurrection in the Wildmother, a slow and gentle discernment led by his friend Caduceus. The Wildmother doesn’t abet him in another replacement of his identity but instead allows him to embrace who he is, his voice, his race, his own strength.
The Mighty Nein are all of us. Wrestling with both the deep questions of meaning and life and death and the everyday realities of the world. I look forward to continuing on into their journeys of faith and heroism and I hope we see this kind of thoughtful reflection spill over into other media to come.