How Critical Role Taught Me to Play D&D

I’m not a creeper. I’m just interested. In the middle of the room is a group of five individuals. They’re sitting at a rustic wooden table that I swear the coffee shop’s owner bought exclusively for this group. On the table lays a map with small figurines on top of it. Sometimes one of the members will move one of these pieces, but it is only after the all-important roll. The roll. Those are the best parts to watch. Everyone at the table pays attention when one of the players picks up a die. Every now and then, the group will groan or exclaim together. One of them picks up a die now.

I’m not close enough to hear what they’re saying and when I consider switching tables, I embrace the fact that, okay, maybe I am creeping a little bit. But the die is cast, the group cheers, and now multiple people in the coffee shop are looking over with interest. The game they are playing is Dungeons & Dragons. I decide then and there that I am going to play too.  

That was a year ago and I’ve yet to find a group “IRL.” Disheartened, and following my millennial blood, I turned to the Internet. I came across an article that suggested an intriguing idea: why not play a mock version of Dungeons & Dragons by following along with a Critical Role session? Critical Role is a show about a group of voice actors that live stream and record their D&D sessions. I opt to follow along from the beginning of the campaign as Beauregard Lionett, a human monk played by Marisha Ray. I printed off a page with Beauregard’s ability scores, and a cheat sheet for the different dice. I load the video, set out my sheets, pull up an online dice roller and the 5th edition of the player’s handbook, and sit down to play along. 

Three and a half hours later, not only do I finally understand the basics of playing, but also I have more conviction than ever to get my own game of D&D underway. 

Here is what I got from the experience: 

The Right Questions

There is an overwhelming amount of information on Dungeons & Dragons available. The problem I consistently ran into was that, when researching how to play, any explanations were full of jargon that meant nothing to me. It should be noted that I don’t believe anyone in the community is gatekeeping information, I just wasn’t able to fit the puzzle pieces together without actually interacting with the material. While watching the Critical Role episode I realized which pieces of the game I didn’t understand. These gave me specific points to jump off from. I began breaking apart the game and digesting it one piece of information at a time. 

The character I was “playing,” Beauregard, asked to do an Insight check. I looked down at my character sheet. I assumed these were my abilities, but Insight wasn’t listed. I paused the video, and with an explicit question in mind, quickly found the information. Ah, so my abilities had a set of 18 corresponding skills. Insight was a skill listed under Wisdom. I had to roll my die, and then add that number to my modifier, which is based off of an ability score, to see how well I would complete a task. I checked the dice cheat sheet I’d printed off. It looked like I had to roll a D6. I tabbed over to my online dice, and rolled. I got a 3, and adding this to my wisdom modifier of 3 gave me only 6. A horrible first roll. The real Beauregard got 13. This brings me to the next benefit of playing a mock game. 

A Low Stakes Learning Curve 

Over and over again, none of Marisha Ray’s rolls made any sense. How could she be getting a 14 on athletics if her strength modifier, the ability the athletics skill is attributed to, was 0? Either I’d missed something, or there were rules at play I wasn’t aware of. 

Turns out it was a little bit of both. The dice sheet I’d printed off was for a specific type of combat known as Greyhawk initiative. It was not intended for generic D&D use, and also, I’d read it wrong. Instead of using a D6 when rolling for ability checks, I was supposed to use a D20. Every number I’d gotten up to this point was completely wrong. Had this been a real game, all of the mistaken numbers I’d reported would have to be rectified, since the outcome of one character affects the entire group. It was comforting to me to be able to make mistakes like these without worrying about how these affected other players. My blunders weren’t interrupting the flow of the game, or ruining the overall experience. Now, I’m not saying that allowing a novice at your table inherently slows down or takes away from the experience. What I am saying, is that eliminating these factors allowed me to focus on myself and the game completely. Because I did that, I actually kind of get how to play.   

What to Prepare for in the Future

I’d pictured epic battles fought on the outskirts of a forsaken town like the ones you might see in an episode of Game of Thrones. Elves fighting against orcs, goblins grappling with humans. What I did not expect was to spend an hour and a half in a tavern drinking, and playing betting games. That is exactly what the characters of Critical Role did, followed by an extra forty minutes of enjoying a carnival.

A battle did eventually happen, and I immediately understood that this was an area I couldn’t learn from second hand. If I was ever going to learn how to fight and survive in D&D I’d have to do it from personal trial-and-error. 

The seemingly innocuous moments, though, revealed a lot about the intricacies of the game. First, all of the players took some form of notes or another. They came equipped with binders, notebooks, and calculators—all items I did not have at the ready. They kept track of their coins, who they met, and what they learned about the town they were staying in. It was the job of each player to retain the details they deemed important, and these players questioned everything. They’d roll for Insight checks to see if a troll they’d just met was telling the truth, or if there were hidden enchantments on a stack of cards. It seems that anything can happen in D&D. It is the players, taking action and interacting with the story, who influence the course of the journey.

The one regret that I have from the whole experience is that I didn’t find Critical Role sooner. I know it sounds hyperbolic, but it was as educational as it was entertaining. Although it is a game of strategy and quick decision making, it also allows for slipping out of character to banter and shit talk with friends sitting around the table. I think that is one of the aspects I appreciated most about imitating a game. I got to witness how enjoyable a campaign can be, and now I’m determined to find that experience for myself. Unfortunately, you’ll never become an expert simply from watching. You can bolster your skills through observation but you can’t defeat an army of undead skeletons unless you sit down and play a game. Now, more than ever, I am looking forward to casting my first die.


Devin (she/her) is a columnist for Collective Realms Magazine and is obsessed with shadow, movement, and human interaction. She enjoys an overindulgence of coffee and wine in South Minneapolis. Sun Yung Shin awarded her with the Patsy Lea Core award in 2015. Her prose and essays can be read at Mookychic, Moonchild Magazine, and Occulum among other places. Devin and her twin sister run a Bookstagram where they geek out with other readers, and discuss why Hemingway talking about boobs is boring. London’s Ravenmaster liked her review of his novel.

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