A Puzzle and A Plan Revealed – Review of “Exandria Unlimited” Episode 7 “Beyond the Heart City”

One thing that can be said about any Dungeons and Dragons game is that it doesn’t always fit the typical narrative structure of a novel, movie, or television show. By the very nature of the game’s structure (and how any given Dungeon Master chooses to run their game), the narrative cohesion may be episodic in nature or a long-form story with many twists and turns. Over the last five years, Critical Role has excelled at the latter, crafting intricate story threads from the disparate starting points of the player characters.

Exandria Unlimited, on the other hand, was designed to be a short story as a game session, focusing on a small group of characters in a specific arc. In the penultimate episode of that arc, titled “Beyond the Heart City”, the group finds themselves at the mercy of a returning non-player character who has been hounding the characters since her appearance.

Spoilers ahead, obviously, so don’t read this if you haven’t watched the episode.

Picking up immediately after the fight to save Opal from members of Syngorn’s Verdant Guard, the party begins to rest but are uneasy after the fight. Dariax and Dorian both have an interesting encounter during their time keeping watch. Both of them choose to wander through the city, each searching for something that neither of them quite yet understands. In Dariax’s case, he finds himself before the statue of the Observer, one of the deities in Exandria. While Dariax is not the quickest at picking things up (preferring if statements are blunt rather than opaque), the Observer informs the dwarf sorcerer that his intuition is sound and his greatest gift. As a Divine Soul Sorcerer, Dariax is connected to a divine being and as we find out here, it is the Observer that he is tied to. She imparts a blessing on him as well, making the spear he acquired from Gilmore’s shop a bit more deadly.

Dorian, however, is experiencing his own dark night of the soul in this episode. Having come under the influence of the Circlet of Barbed Vision, he is now connected to the Spider Queen, the evil deity the Circlet is associated with. She calls him out on his cowardice in the fight to save Opal and on his inability to really contribute to the fight. As he rubs at his eyes, a strand of spider silk comes out, making it clear that the connection he now has to the Spider Queen is slowly changing him and not for the better. I have been continually impressed by both Aabria’s commitment to influencing her players’ decisions as well as Robbie Daymond for devoting himself to portraying Dorian’s shift in personality. When a powerful creature takes notice of you, it is difficult to turn away from the promises they make. Dorian is facing that moment and it’s still uncertain if he will succeed in throwing off the Spider Queen’s influence.

The party decides to head south rather than return to Emon. During their meeting with Tetrarch Thrascuur in the previous episode, they discovered that one of the Tetrarchs had traveled south to investigate the Iron Authority, a burgeoning military dictatorship that could have designs on moving northward to expand their empire. Thrascuur directs the party to the southern-most city of Niirdal-Sarqet and to head further south from there if they wish to follow the path taken by Tetrarch Umeji. Upon reaching the ruin a few days later, they find a floating cube rotating in section of the ruins. Intrigued by the odd displacement of gravity around the cube, the group decides to investigate further.

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I know in my first essay on this show I stated I wasn’t going to critique the rules or how the game mechanics are applied. With that being said, I have to give massive props to Aabria Iyengar for her work here. The set up for the cube and the Dwarven Forge landscape she unveiled shortly before the break were breathtaking. As someone who has spent the better part of twenty-plus years in this hobby, it was an inspiring moment to see everyone at the table react in genuine delight at the set piece they would be encountering.

The mystery of the cube and the runic writing found on it are not yet explained, which I rather enjoy as well. I like a good mystery and not having everything explicitly broken down. What the etchings on the cube mean for the larger story are unknown at this point. It’s entirely possible that they have no bearing on the story as a whole but are a way to build more mystery into the world of Exandria. To borrow a line from one of my favorite television shows, “I am both terrified and reassured that there are still wonders in the universe, that we have not yet explained everything.” A game world that still holds mysteries to be uncovered is one that will endlessly fascinate both the fans and the players of Critical Role.

The ensuing battle sequence was fun and lively, mainly because Aabria began giving out bonuses that each of the players could utilize. The standout would have to be Dariax receiving glorious wings and the awkwardness that comes from a dwarf learning how to fly for the first time. For the most part, the battle was rather brisk, comparatively speaking. The ending of the episode, however, was where things began to take a significantly darker turn.

During the course of the battle, Opal begins to feel residuum darts attaching to her body. Eventually she’s able to see where they are coming from and decides to pursue her attacker. It’s revealed that Myr’atta Niselor, the elf from Syngorn the party encounter in episode four, is attacking Opal and begins to pin her to the ground using residuum spikes. With Opal restrained, Myr’atta begins to speak, claiming she will free her from this little girl. When Opal asks what Myr’atta is talking about, the elf smugly reveals that she wasn’t talking to Opal. Instead, she was talking to Ted, Opal’s sister and the source of Opal’s arcane abilities. I’ve been speculating for a while now that Ted is lost in some kind of extra-dimensional space and as the source of Opal’s power, she is perhaps magical in her own right. The episode ends with Myr’atta getting ready to forcibly separate Ted from Opal, potentially bringing her to the physical world.

That is a hell of a cliffhanger to end the episode on. I can’t wait to see how the story of Exandria Unlimited ends but I’m willing to bet it’s going to be as bombastic as the previous finales for Critical Role have been in the past.

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