I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like Critical Role. I know that it’s not for me. It’s not all that entertaining to me, or funny, or compelling in any way. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what they do though. Like the band U2, Pathfinder RPG, A Clockwork Orange, or putting ketchup on hot dogs – there are many popular things I simply don’t enjoy but it doesn’t mean I can’t still recognize and appreciate their contributions to the whole.
|I’m writing this piece from the standpoint of a Freelancer who has been at “writing things for elf games” for nearly a decade. Also, spoiler alert, I’m in no way defending Wendy’s.|
Critical Role’s massive popularity has played an undeniably significant roll in 5e D&D’s meteoric rise to the game’s former 1980s levels of popularity, possibly beyond. We’ve got D&D slot machines in casinos, D&D jewelry, boutique D&D “premium” products, another D&D movie coming, D&D in many popular TV shows, documentaries, and D&D being talked about by plenty of celebrities on talk shows and more. We won’t get into my complicated ambivalence on celebrity D&D culture but it’s worth noting since the game itself seems to be at an all-time high in both popularity and acceptance.
Being a creative means you need to know what you’re worth. Nobody should work for free. “Pay what you want” is horse shit (most of the time). No one should devalue themselves, but especially not creatives who by-default are always undervalued because we live in a society that has de-prioritized art and the humanities so far below STEM, Law, and other areas of study and professions. That said, I’m pretty sure all of the CR folks are doing just fine for themselves right now, but that’s not to say that they should just up and quit because they’ve reached a certain level of prosperity.
Did they need the Wendy’s money? I’m not sure. On the surface I’d say no, but you truly don’t know. I know for a fact that some people exclaim “X Small Publisher is running another Kickstarter? They’re already rich from the last one!” because they don’t know the inside scoop as to how much those small publishers struggle. I don’t know the inside scoop of the CR folks so I’m not going to assume. As a general statement though, I don’t blame them for seizing the opportunity to potentially bring in a whole other demographic of folks into the RPG world with the cross-promotion and get paid for it. It could be good for the hobby, it could be good for them as creatives too.
Is this a “we’ve made it” moment? More than all of the other things I mentioned above about the game’s popularity, but is one of the most major fast food chains in America releasing their own D&D clone icing on the tabletop RPG validation cake? I’m not sure. What I am sure of though, is that it was an excellent PR move. Being able to goof about your character, BRO-ZONE, your Feast of Legends Order of the Frosty spell caster who’s kinda’ like Frozone from The Incredibles but he surfs around on a tasty chocolate dessert wave and is a dumb frat guy fighting to save the world from frozen burger clowns is a golden fucking opportunity for laughter. I’m sorry. Anyway. The game is a goof, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that nobody knows how to have fun anymore.
Hating CR for Taking A Sponsored Gig
When you look at it as “CR Partners with Wendy’s, notorious Fair Food Holdout and Trump donor shit lords to create tabletop RPG about spicy nugget adventures.” then I suppose it doesn’t look great. I get that. But hey, fuck Trump. Fuck not paying workers better, fuck refusing to align with the CIW just so you can save money on tomatoes. Fuck Wendy’s. Fuck the rampant over-commercialization of everything. Fuck all of it. But fuck Critical Role? Really? It’s as if some folks out there are envisioning Matt Mercer lying in bed on a pile of ill-gotten Wendy’s cash, smoking a cigar wrapped in workman’s comp claims next to some hedge fund Trump cultist. He’s everyone’s fucking hero right? Matt Mercer, praise be unto him! He saved Dungeons & Dragons! He gets paid to be in on a cheeseburger RPG goof and all his goodwill gets tossed out the window? Because the CR folks decided to get paid for doing what they do best? ENTERTAINING PEOPLE? I watched part of the stream okay, it was actually entertaining. Don’t tell anyone.
Critical Role is several steps removed from Trian Partners, the Trump-donor hedge fund who owns 12.5% of Wendy’s and its CEO Nelson Peltz himself. There are no writing credits in the Feast of Legends PDF (whoever wrote it btw, had a lot of fun doing it) and it was likely created by a PR / Marketing firm that Wendy’s hired. I doubt it was in-house. So should people be mad at the entire marketing firm / team? Or just the members that wrote this game? Should they be mad at the artists and layout folks who helped? The illustrators? Should they be mad at Wendy’s workers who are just trying to earn a living? Fuck. Working at Wendy’s isn’t “a living” for 85% of the people that work there either, and we all know that. So who deserves the anger here? I don’t think it’s any of the folks I just listed.
Anger And Where To Place It.
Should you be mad at Wendy’s? Sure. Should you be mad that businesses have sway in politics? Absolutely. Maybe whoever wrote this game didn’t want their name on it for these reasons, but they still wanted to get paid for their talents. It’s hard to not be able to find something you don’t like when you peer behind the curtain these days. Look at any company, person, celebrity or otherwise and if you look long enough you’ll find something or someone adjacent to them that’s not going to line up with your beliefs. You’re likely going to find something nasty. I’m not saying that it’s okay to be complacent, and I’m not saying that it’s okay to turn your head to injustices in the world. I’m saying when you meet your heroes / see how the sausage is made you’re likely bound for disappointment. Especially in an age where information about everything is everywhere and readily available.
The real questions is how deep do you have to go before you’ve lost sight of the entire point of the original thing you were partaking in? In this case it’s a silly RPG about spatulas and ice clowns that takes place on a burger-shaped island. Yeah, Wendy’s has questionable things about it but I’d challenge you to look at everything you own and consume and not find something unsightly after 20 minutes of googling. Your clothes, the books you read, your soap, your favorite actor/actress, where your food comes from. The list of things you may find that disappoint or upset you is never-ending.
Investments & Introspection
I know that as a creative, getting paid for our work can often be grueling. You add up the hours you’ve spent poring over every nook and cranny of your words, your layout, you play test, you develop, you re-play test, and so on. By the time it’s all said and done, your $/hr rate likely isn’t much better than someone working at a Wendy’s, and that’s if whoever you’re freelancing for is actually faithful on paying you properly. I’m sure a lot goes into making shows like CR, and those people rehearse and hone their craft just like anyone else. When presented with what was likely a decent payday to go do something they love, I honestly can’t blame them for taking the opportunity. I can’t blame whoever wrote the damn thing either, they probably got paid a lot better than most RPG freelancer vets (which is another topic entirely). Especially under the sentiment of it just being clean fun about a cheeseburger RPG. Maybe they didn’t know about Wendy’s practices before hand. Hell, maybe they aren’t even in total control of making those decisions, I’m sure they all have talent agents. What I’m getting at is, I don’t understand all the hate going their way for this.
We’ve got to choose our battles. Right now there’s much bigger things happening on the world’s stage that need our attention. The fucking ice caps are melting, people are still being deprived of basic human rights the world over, women are still being treated awfully, children are starving, and a ton of other abhorrent shit. Before you jump me on all that, yes, I recognize that the Wendy’s hedge fund folks are precisely the smaller cogs in the wheel of these much bigger problems I just mentioned. However, we’ve got to prioritize where we place our disdain and how we dole out activism to make the world a better place, and I seriously don’t think hating on some folks who tried to get paid for loving RPGs is a good place to spend that energy.
Good call. Corporate sponsorship is a minefield for progressives these days, and it is important to look where your consumer dollars get spent (and ends up politically). But you put it exactly right — if one looks too deep into anything, one is bound to run into something problematic.
So address the problem. Critical Role is not the problem.
Well said. I realize that you don’t even have to look too deep on this one, but this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. There are a lot of unsettling things surrounding D&D, as well as well…most everything. You can take this and just ignore it, or not support it, or try and do your part to boost the signal of other adjacent projects/products you feel are more worthy. I ignore endorsements for things from people that I like on a regular basis, it doesn’t mean I have to boycott, shout, or pretend all the good they’ve ever done is somehow negated. It’s a balancing act. I just don’t feel like the punishment fits the crime here when it comes to how people are acting toward Critical Role.
How about we all just download the free stuff, enjoy it, and not buy the crappy product.
Better yet, hack the game into a pro-living wage, vegan, etc. rpg (I’m guessing MANY people are already doing exactly this). Use the game to tell the story YOU think needs to be told. That’s what our hobby does best. Sure, you can take a Fugazi stance on this kind of thing. But taking their campaign and using it as a platform to discuss real issues is, in my mind, more effective.
Our guys got paid (game dev, illustrators, Mercer and co). Now stiff the suits and walk away with the goodies. Maybe Wendy’s gets a good PR bump, but if it doesn’t result in sales, they (and their marketing agency) will just move on to strip-mine some other culture nugget. And if we can turn it into an opportunity to push the cultural discussion forward at Wendy’s expense, all the better.
Learn from the art world- take the rich idiots money, and keep pushing your art forward. And don’t punish the creatives just trying to keep the lights on.
I am standing and applauding at your comment.