[Warning: This story contains spoilers for episode 33 of Critical Role’s Campaign 3. The video on demand of that episode will not air until Monday, Sept. 12, with audio-only podcast available on Thursday, Sept. 15.]
The dust hasn’t even cleared yet, but as the session came to a close on Thursday night, two characters — Orym (Liam O’Brien) and Fearne (Ashley Johnson) — lay dead, and two more lay dying. The fifth, a clever automaton named Fresh Cut Grass (Sam Riegel), was left hiding in an alley while the streets of Bassuras exploded all around them. It looks an awful lot like Matthew Mercer has created what may be his most lethal, and possibly purposefully unwinnable, fight in CR history.
The set was washed with the colors of fire and sunset reminiscent of Exandria Unlimited: Calamity — a subtle foreshadowing of just how intense this episode was. The episode was unprecedented for more than just its body count. At many points last night, the cast noted that to have even that many characters unconscious at a given time was uncommon.
Episode 33 started in the middle of a prior surprise combat, as the fortress the party was infiltrating was attacked in the middle of a blinding dust storm. Acting as nominal allies to the fortress’s defenders, Paragon’s Call, the Bell’s Hells split the party to use the cover of the chaotic battle to complete their intended heist. The first half was eventful but often lighthearted, as Chetney (Travis Willingham) missed a tripwire and bounced downstairs “ass over teakettle,” and Ashton (Taliesin Jaffe) and Fresh Cut Grass did donuts in a Mad Max-inspired crawler. But the party did take some serious hits, as they came up against rival bounty hunter Artana Voe. While they managed to subdue and negotiate with her before betraying her all in a matter of minutes (Did I mention it was a chaotic episode?), the encounter was just one of the ways in which the party’s strength was sapped in the first half.
In the second half of the episode, they had just one adversary: Otohan Thull, the legendary leader of Paragon’s Call. While non-player characters are impossible to align with player character levels or classes, it’s clear that Otohan Thull is remarkably formidable. As Ashton told the party in Episode 27 about her reputation: “Back when I was a kid, if you wanted to talk about the most fucked up, crazy, insane motherfucker in the history of this town, who just killed and fucked everything up, this was the person. This was nightmare fuel, this person.” Otohan lives up to her reputation, stacked with legendary actions and stiff resistances.
Luckily for the Hells, they also had some clutch magic up their sleeves, courtesy of Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos, published in December 2021. Silvery Barbs, which both forces an opponent to reroll their attack and gives advantage to an ally — all as a reaction, which is effectively a bonus action that players can wedge into many situations. Silvery Barbs has quickly become the new go-to spell for high-level play: last night, it allowed Laudna (Marisha Ray) to diffuse a critical hit on the party. Ray also used Wither and Bloom, a second-level area of effect spell which similarly allows allies to reroll hit dice while foes make saves. Twice in the night it allowed Laudna to stand up a character near death, a key move that meant that Ashton and Chetney were still barely alive at the end of the episode. As Tal’Dorei Reborn co-lead and MCDM managing editor Hannah Rose noted an hour into the second half of the show. “If this session were taking place even 10 months ago, the Wither and Bloom and Silvery Barbs spells wouldn’t be around, and this combat could be going even worse!”
But it just wasn’t enough. Bell’s Hells were in combat rounds for nearly the entire episode — three hours and 30 minutes — a punishing fight only previously experienced in the final episodes of their previous campaigns Vox Machina and the Mighty Nein. When Vox Machina battled for four hours at the table in 2017, the characters were firmly optimized for D&D’s capstone fourth tier of play. At Level 15, The Mighty Nein were lower in 2021, but still near the top of tier three. In both cases, the parties had also collected and powered up a handful of wondrous artifacts. The Hells, by contrast, are still at the comparatively modest seventh level, in the middle of tier two and barely considered Heroes of the Realm. They just don’t have a bunch of big, shiny magical objects to hand.
But it may turn out that many of these characters contain even greater power within. In recent episodes, we’ve discovered the lethal capacities — enough to kill a whole party of adventurers — lurking behind the shiny, chipper exterior of Aeormaton Fresh Cut Grass. We have seen glimpses of the magical power Launda and Ashton have within them, and a large part of the party has connections to Ruidus, the mysterious red second moon of Exandria that is looming large in this campaign. In recent episodes, those latent powers are bringing the Hells to the attention of very powerful forces.
Last night, Imogen (Laura Bailey) was the prime target. We’ve known Otohan closely resembles the woman haunting the disturbing, red-washed dreams we’ve seen during prior episodes. In this episode, we also had confirmation that Otohan was involved in the mysterious, violent death of Orym’s husband. Otohan’s goals are still unclear, but her moves in this fight were calculated to break Imogen. She delivered repeated, unnecessary coups de grâce to downed party members, even after Imogen repeatedly cries that she will give herself up.
But what Otohan wanted wasn’t submission, but explosion — and as the episode ended, that’s just what happened. The remaining Hells watched as the world around them turned red and their gentle, shy friend levitated, her pale skin turning red & crackling with glowing purple energy. As she screams, space warps, buildings turn to rubble, and the world goes white… just as Mercer calls the session.
The cameras kept rolling for the cast’s reactions, a mix of confusion (Marisha Ray asking “Am I dead or alive?” and Sam Riegel yelping “Did we go somewhere? Did she disappear? Are we dead?”) and appreciation (Travis Willingham and Ashley Johnson declaring “That was awesome!” and Liam O’Brien declaring “That was a great game, Matt”). Mercer had a broad smile on his face at the stunned faces of his players. Unlike in prior character deaths, no player left the table, though table talk suggests that this is as bewildering to the players as the audience.
Unlike the one irrevocable death of a prior campaign — Mollymauk’s early death in Episode 26 of Campaign 2 — the Hells do have access to the kind of magic that would allow for a Revivify — and through Orym’s connection to Campaign 1 archdruid Keyleth, potential access to still stronger resurrection spells. Or that all may be unnecessary: Viewers already speculate that this might be a dream or something else beyond the typical logics of the game — not unlike the bloody vision that Brennan Lee Mulligan opened EXU: Calamity with.
Many viewers took comfort in the fact that this is a fairly “early” episode (compared to the 100+ runs of prior campaigns), trusting in Mercer as DM and storyteller. And Mercer in turn seems aware of this trust, posting on Twitter, “If you need to take some time to process, that is ok. Just know there is trust and agreement at our table for this game and the challenges it offers. The darkest moments often lead to the brightest epiphanies. Love you all. <3”
If you’d just like to watch the Otohan fight, I recommend hitting up the stream — which is due out on YouTube Monday, or is available to Twitch subscribers now — right after the mid-game break at the two hour mark. Critical Role airs live each Thursday at 7 p.m. PT on Twitch.