Three hours into the fourth episode of Exandria Unlimited, the party enters the town of Byroden, hometown of Opal (Aimee Carrero). They are greeted by Ruby Lee Beckfort, the wife of the War Ringer. She’s “kind of the head of the festival” though she “don’t like to brag.” As part of their introduction to the town, they’re told that “Byroden is known for three Ms: militia, mining, and merriment — and we’re doing all three today! So come on in, we’re a very pie-based culture.”
In the sprawling world of Critical Role's Exandria, Byroden was previously only known as the birthplace of Campaign One characters Vex’ahlia (Laura Bailey) and Vax’ildan (Liam O’Brien). Like many half-elves, the twin siblings were portrayed as torn between two cultures: the humble one of their human mother, and the isolationist, elitist one of the elven father. Only their father’s home of Syngorn was depicted in the game, as their mother was killed off-screen when the town was decimated by Thordak, an ancient red dragon and one of the major adversaries of the first campaign.
Byroden was thus a site with meaningful connotations, but no canonical details. That made it ideal for Exandria Unlimited, a summer miniseries that served as an experiment in alternate cast members and guest Dungeon Master, as well as secretly debuting three player characters that would go on to appear in the third full campaign this fall.
Exandria Unlimited Dungeon Master Aabria Iyengar, a Southern California native, has spoken of her desire to “make everything Southern,” drawing on the mythic quality of the South as well as the specifics of the lived realities of people who make the South home. While she has been a part of a number of radically experimental actual play shows this year (this summer was dubbed #TheSummerofAabria in honor of her many high-profile gigs), Exandria Unlimited is the first to air with Southern content of this sort. When my Alabama-based university students and I got the chance to talk to Iyengar about her work, she likened the South to “my Middle Earth” — a place of connection but at a remove. She’s likened it to fellow Dungeon Master Brennan Lee Mulligan’s depiction of New York City in Dimension20’s The Unsleeping City, a depiction that feels deeply indebted in turn to the work of novelist N. K. Jemisin.
She formed her depiction of Byroden in conversation with cast member Aimee Carrero, who imagined Opal as from the Exandrian equivalent of Laredo, a border town in South Texas known for the pageantry of the eighteenth-century-inspired debutantes Las Marthas. For Carrero, this meant “flashy, a little curious, and full of rich culture." For Iyengar, this meant showing how a place was transformed by disaster, depicting “what kind of people stay and rebuild? What culture flourishes after a bottleneck event?” This meant retaining the established lore about the town’s industry (mining), adding strong local defense (militia), “unshakeable pride,” and “radical joy” (merriment).
As such, it’s the first time that significant elements of the U.S. South appear in the landscape of Critical Role, which had previously drawn primarily on elements of Tolkien-inspired Western European high fantasy for its settings, non-player character accents, and other details. Notably, this infusion of Southernness comes from someone whose connection to the US South is at a generational remove, not from one of the several performer-creators born in the region.
Meanwhile, the current campaign of Critical Role is certainly drawing on a fuller range of influences from "Earth cultures and locations that I have a deep appreciation for," as Matthew Mercer wrote. As with Exandria Unlimited, this is facilitated by increased collaboration with other writers, designers, and performers, as well as cultural and sensitivity consultants. It will be interesting to see if this incorporation remains a one-off, or whether further signs of the South will be present in the worldbuilding of Exandria.
In these early episodes of the campaign, what we do know is that Byroden's pie culture is still on the mind of at least one player character.