There are moments in any Dungeons and Dragons game that focuses on narrative and player decisions where the consequences of their previous actions come to the forefront. In the latest episode of Exandria Unlimited, titled “A Test of Worth”, the still un-named party of adventurers experience the repercussions of their decision to keep the Circlet of Barbed Vision in their possession. As they venture closer to the Qoniira ruins, the camaraderie they have developed over the previous episodes is tested repeatedly as the malevolent influence of the Circlet begins playing at their trust and friendship.
Spoilers ahead, obviously, so don’t read this if you haven’t watched the episode.
The party leaves Byroden the day after the festival and pageant, resupplying for the long journey ahead of them. Much of the first half of the episode is spent during the first night on the road to Qoniira. When the party settles down to camp for the evening, Dariax finds himself in a dream. Dark clouds roil overhead, with sickly green stars appearing behind the clouds and arcs of purple lightning breaking through. The visuals that Aabria Iyengar create for these dream sequences is chilling and foreboding, which fits considering the source of these visions is The Spider Queen, the demon goddess tied to the Circlet. As the evil deity of deceit, shadows, and spiders, the Spider Queen excels at crafting intricate webs of schemes and encouraging treachery.
While Dariax is perhaps one of the more foolish members of this adventuring party (Matthew Mercer plays Dariax as an impulsive person due to his low statistics in both Wisdom and Intelligence), he is a good person at heart. The Spider Queen states that she has selected Dariax to serve her, to use the Circlet to make himself more powerful. To his credit, Dariax’s main concern is not disappointing the friendships he’s developed with the others in the party, choosing them over the honeyed words of a deity well-known for her lies. When Dariax awakens from the dream, he wakes up Dorian (the character played by Robbie Daymond). The Circlet has caused Dorian to experience violent pain and spells of vomiting black sludge. From a game mechanics standpoint, this is due to Dorian’s alignment being Chaotic Good. The Circlet causes anyone of a Good-alignment to become violently ill, as if the mere presence of The Spider Queen’s essence in the essence pollutes their body.
The rest of the party awakens as well when Dariax and Dorian make a ruckus discussing the former’s dream. After a fair amount of arguing, particularly with Dorian focusing his ire on the newcomer Fy’ra Rai, the group eventually spills the details of their earlier mishaps to Fy’ra, including their acquisition of a Vestige of Divergence and their interactions with the Nameless Ones. During the conversation, Dorian begins to suffer damage from his latest encounter with the Circlet. The entire scene is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed Critical Role so much over the years. As a long-time player of Dungeons and Dragons, the combat encounters are cool and a lot of fun to watch to see how the Dungeon Master organizes the combat. But the real heart of these games is the role-playing, which benefits greatly from having professional actors that commit fully to their characters and playing to both the strengths and weaknesses they develop in those characters. Each of the members of this party are unsure of themselves and their place in the world, particularly since they’ve been thrust into a situation that is far beyond their capabilities. That’s an exciting place in which to tell a story.
Aabria’s decision to give the Circlet a level of sentience and influence is a brilliant move from a storytelling perspective, particularly since the party doesn’t have an easy way to get rid of the Vestige. Once the discussion settles down, the party goes back to sleep. Dorian begins to experience a similar dreamscape as Dariax, complete with the Spider Queen revealing a tableau with Fy’ra Rai being enveloped in darkness. When Dorian pleads for understanding, the Spider Queen reveals this is a lost memory from the week that the group spent in Emon that none of them remember. She states that she can return the memory to Dorian but only for a price: she wants someone to wield the Circlet. Dorian refuses to give one of his friends to the Circlet’s power but instead offers to give the Circlet back to Poska (the leader of the Nameless Ones that hired the party to retrieve it in the first episode). This deal brings a curious response from the Spider Queen, since it would likely condemn the city of Emon to someone with the worst intentions and the power of a Vestige of Divergence at her command. The Spider Queen accepts the bargain, restoring Dorian’s memory and shifting his alignment to Chaotic Neutral, since being willing to sacrifice an entire city isn’t something a Good-aligned person should agree to.
The memory Dorian regains shows that the party encountered Fy’ra Rai once before, outside the gates of Emon before the game started. Fy’ra Rai and the party found themselves in a demi-plane, a space in between the world of Exandria and the Feywild. They encountered something in that interspace and a battle ensued. Fy’ra Rai sacrificed herself to ensure the party could escape. Given how Mercer established the rules of the Feywild in Campaign One, a trip to the Feywild and back can cause memory loss to occur, which explains why the party lost a week’s worth of time and don’t remember Fy’ra Rai. But it also begs the question: what did they encounter and how did Fy’ra Rai escape back to Exandria?
The change in moral alignment of Dorian allows him to interact with the Circlet without the negative experiences he’s had up to this point, a fact that all of his party members see and recognize as a bad thing. The following scenes where Orym (played by Liam O’Brien) confronts Dorian over this change and Dorian’s increasing insistence to carry the Circlet leads to several tense moments, particularly when it becomes apparent Orym is outright threatening Dorian to give up the Circlet. Out of all of the characters, Orym is the one who understands the nefarious influence this item can bring to bear and he’s doing all he can to protect his new friends from it. Whether he will succeed or not is a different matter altogether.
The final scenes of the episode focus on the party reaching an obelisk near the Qoniira ruins. While dealing with a giant alligator in a combat scene that I’m pretty sure broke Aabria’s brain (in the best way possible), the party experiences another deity’s influence, this time Melora, the Wild Mother. Melora is not a good or evil deity, unlike the Spider Queen. As the goddess of nature and the seas, she is the embodiment of the natural world, a Gaia-type figure in the mythology of Exandria. Evil and Good are concepts the natural world does not take into account. Is a storm evil when it wrecks a ship? Is a lion good because it hunts to feed itself and its cubs? The encounter at the obelisk is a test of character as Melora seeks to understand why the party have ventured into the untamed wilderness of the Qoniira ruins. The goddess asks each of the party members why they are here and what they hope to achieve. When each of them gives some variation on trying to help others, Melora reveals that the actual ruins are further into the forest. The party begins to venture into the depths of the jungle to find the ruins, hopeful they can find what they need to help the people of Emon.