“Fire. Everything feels slow. There’s movement and there’s heat, but the only noise you can hear, despite all this chaos, is breath. It’s yours, but it’s also a stranger’s. It’s like someone else is using your body to breathe. You’re stumbling. Luis. I need you to describe your character and tell us your character’s name, but I would love for you to do that with the understanding that your mouth is filled with blood.”
These are the very first words spoken by Brennan Lee Mulligan in the first episode of the most recent Exandria Unlimited miniseries, EXU Calamity. Intense, frightening, tragic—these words sum up this story, but they are also words rarely applied to the fantasy tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. Although D&D has gained traction in the past decade through streamers like Critical Role and Netflix’s Stranger Things, it remains the purview of…nerds. It’s a fantasy RPG, not Tolkien. Don’t get me wrong—Tolkien is nerdy, and fantastically so—but D&D streams I’ve always typically categorized as, well, generic. Trite heroes meet trite monsters. Start in a tavern, end up saving the world. While entertaining, D&D adventures can sometimes amount to little more than a wish-fulfillment fantasy cliché. But this is not EXU Calamity.
For avid D&D fans, EXU Calamity is the crossover of the ages. It’s where Critical Role meets Brennan Lee Mulligan, two titans of the current D&D industry. Set in Exandria’s Age of Arcanum, the four-part miniseries expands upon the world created by Matthew Mercer, which he has immortalized in D&D legend through Critical Role since 2015.
Even for non-D&D fans, Critical Role is a big deal. Leaked Twitch Data back in October 2021 revealed that Critical Role had received almost $10 million in the past year—a revenue that excludes earnings from YouTube views, advertisements, merchandise, etc. They were the top Twitch earners on the list. If D&D once belonged to social outcasts still living in their parents’ basements, this fantasy role-playing game continues to rise in value to the entertainment industry.
How does one DM Exandria’s Rogue One series, a tragic, world-altering catastrophe? Apparently, one hires Brennan Lee Mulligan. Mulligan is not a regular Dungeon Master (DM) for Critical Role, however, but another popular D&D production company, Dimension 20. To take over from Matt Mercer in EXU Calamity is no easy feat, and Mulligan might not have been the expected pick. Dimension 20 shows tend to be shorter, quicker-paced, more comedic. EXU Calamity, on the other hand, is anything but. During the infamous beginning of Episode 4, the first in-game second lasts an hour and 15 minutes of real time. Characters get seriously, seriously hurt. “People think I’m nice,” Brennan admitted a few minutes later, “but really I just conform to the genre.” With his ominous, gravelly voice it really hit home that no, I am not watching a fun Dimension 20 adventure: I am watching the Calamity. Mulligan absolutely killed it.
EXU Calamity stars three main Critical Role cast members and three guest stars. All six demonstrate their roleplaying expertise, both in terms of D&D knowledge and the convincing improvisation required for such an intense plot. Familiar faces Marisha Ray, Sam Riegel, and Travis Willingham play Patia Por’Co (elven Enchantment Wizard), Loquatius Seelie (changeling Warlock/Bard), and Cerrit Agrupnin (eisfuura Inquisitor Rogue) respectively. Though I’ve seen much of Critical Role’s second campaign, Marisha’s roleplaying deeply impressed me. Patia is a character crafted thoughtfully with the Age of Arcanum in mind. Brought in from Dimension 20, Lou Wilson brings serious energy to the table as Nydas Okiro (Bard/Sorcerer). I’d never heard of Luis Carazo before, but his commitment to playing out his character, Zercus Ilerez’s (Oath of Redemption Paladin), flaws left me undone. That leaves Aabria Iyengar—the star, in my opinion, of the whole EXU Calamity cast. Her intensity as Laerryn Coramar-Seelie (elven Abjuration Wizard), a character who exemplifies Exandria’s Age of Arcanum, brings convincing emotional depth to the series—one of the reasons why these four episodes will remain fixed in my mind as the best D&D gameplay for a while.
In Critical Role lore, the Age of Arcanum ends with the Calamity, a catastrophic event that leads to the loss of two-thirds of all life on Exandria. (This is known going into the show.) Not only does Mulligan explore the darker, more tragic potential in D&D, but the miniseries also provides a glimpse into a controversial age. What takes place on the floating city of Avalir, we assume, takes place across the world. It is said—and on EXU Calamity, it is seen—that the proliferation of arcane knowledge during those times was not always for the better. Access to this much power is dangerous. Watching these six characters, we are torn between admiring their abilities and fearing their pride, how they believe themselves capable of trespassing the limits determined by the gods. We are left with deeply flawed characters whose actions await our scrutiny.
Any D&D campaign relies as much on roleplaying as on luck—the rolling of dice—and although the stakes are so high, EXU Calamity’s storyline does not feel forced. The level of excellent gameplay makes it difficult to assess what is planned and what is improvised. In Episode 1, for instance, Laerynn discovers the “final” piece for the machine she is building. Mulligan immediately incorporates this into the plot so smoothly, I could never have guessed, without his admission on the Game Masters of Exandria Roundtable, that Aabria had made that up on the spot. Obviously, prior to the game both the DM and the players had thought significantly about their characters, their relationships with one another, and their place within the city of Avalir. The Ring of Brass (so their party is dubbed) is so vibrantly fleshed out from the get go that any spontaneity feels logical and sincere. Some cast members held several private “nasty” meetings in advance much to the chagrin of those who were uninvolved. But for me, it was a joy to watch these talented actors unravel their and each other’s secrets.
I’m so grateful that Mercer, Mulligan, and co. had the guts to bring us EXU Calamity. It was as much of a treat, for seasoned Critical Role veterans as for those new to the show. Once again, Brennan Lee Mulligan’s wise words are fitting: “Why do we tell stories? To try to make sense of a world that can be terrifying and enormous.” That’s what EXU Calamity does. This miniseries showcases the epic side of D&D not just as entertainment, but what entertainment really should be. Through the cast members, collaboration and creativity, it tells a story of characters facing their mistakes as the shape of the world shifts around them—and perhaps because of them. And if we find ourselves in our own Age of Arcanum—though this thought belongs to another article—EXU Calamity reminds us that telling such stories is both a catharsis and a lifeline.