Meeting Your Heroes: The Critical Role of Parasocial Relationships, Public Personas, and Safe Spaces for the Wonderfully Weird

Curator's Note

You are no doubt familiar with the old adage that you should never meet your heroes, as they will always disappoint you.

In Campaign 1, Episode 23 of Critical Role, young Kynan Leore learns this lesson the hard way when the well-meaning but unthinking rogue Vax’Ildan (played by Liam O’Brian) sneaks up behind and bludgeons him unconscious in an attempt to drive home the dangers that come with being part of the band of adventurers known as Vox Machina (to which Vax belongs and which Kynan, with the intrepid zeal of youth, is intent on joining). Kynan’s reaction, as delivered by Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, is heartbreaking. Fighting tears and feelings of humiliation, he replies despondently, “I thought you were heroes. I waited two weeks to meet you,” and with Vax calling after him to come back when he is ready, he slinks away, not to be seen again until Episode 68, when he is decidedly on the wrong side of the conflict.

This moment in Episode 23 is particularly poignant in contrast to the show’s opening minutes, during which Matt gives a shoutout to a fan of the show named Scott, who had sought out his and Creative Director Marisha Ray’s camp at Burning Man the previous week. It is also poignant when you take into consideration how often the cast of Critical Role skates the fine line of parasocial and social relationships with the show’s fans, colloquially known as “Critters.”

Just as Kynan in time developed a real and meaningful relationship with his once-idols, some Critters have developed real and lasting relationships with the cast of Critical Role. Dani Carr, the official Lore Keeper for Critical Role, began her journey with the very first livestream and quickly gained name recognition as a fan; when she later moved to L.A. to pursue voice acting, Marisha helped her find work at Geek & Sundry. Deven Rue, official cartographer for Campaign 2, keeps a Discord server where she and her Patreon patrons watch Critical Role together on Thursday nights. Marieke Nijkamp, another fan of the show, was recently tapped to write Kith and Kin, the novelized backstory of Vax’Ildan and his twin sister Vex’Ahlia (played by Laura Bailey). And a not-small number of fan artists have been tapped to contribute official character art for the show and illustrations for Critical Role merchandise—not to mention the enormously popular fan art collections lovingly curated by cast members Liam O’Brian (nicknamed “Art Dad”) and Taliesin Jaffe.

Such interactions blur the lines of the social and parasocial in a way that is not typical of most media properties or celebrities—just as the show itself blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction, fantasy and reality, and even between characters and players. Because after all, we must remember that even though the cast often bare a great deal of their selves on screen, they don’t bare everything. Fans are still seeing only their public personas, albeit ones that are often quite vulnerable and real in regard to their own personal struggles with mental health, loss, and other situations. In essence, the cast are playing not only their D&D characters, but also carefully curated versions of themselves on screen—versions that are not false, but simply incomplete.

Despite its limited nature, this very vulnerability is what draws many fans to the show and creates for them the feeling of connectedness, and numerous fans have spoken or written about how Critical Role helped them deal with personal struggles, or even kept them from succumbing to suicide. In acknowledging their own struggles, and in playing characters whose diversity and complexity reflect the kind of inclusive world they want to live in, the cast strives to create a safe space for those who often feel like outsiders—a place where even Marisha Ray’s current character, Laudna (whose uncanny Gothic mien results from a harrowing past), could find welcome and friendship. The upshot of this is that when Matt closes out the show every Thursday with the words, “We love you very much,” fans often feel it quite viscerally.

However, if they fall prey to the temptation to believe that what they see is the whole of what is, then they are bound to feel let down whenever a cast member behaves in a way that cracks the illusion. Just as in that first meeting between Kynan and Vax’Ildan, interactions with the cast are not always what followers hope for, and some have left the fandom filled with feelings of discontent. Yet as Campaign 1 viewers will remember, that meeting did not define the whole of their relationship. Disappointment in our heroes most often comes from forgetting that they're only human. If we can make space for that, they can still give us something to aspire to.

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