Like many people, Critical Role was one of a few things that originally got me interested in DnD. I am a sucker for starting things at the beginning, and got to witness the intrepid group build and grow, getting their sea legs beneath them as they forged a new path in the streaming space. Their contribution to DnD is undeniably positive, and when coupled with the approachability of 5e it is hard to argue against Critical Role helping a great deal with growing the DnD playerbase. There are of course things that not everybody likes about Critical Role though, be it things to do with Matt Mercer's DM style, group dynamics, or the nature of their campaigns. But not all DnD shows are like CR. A show that plays the exact same game in a completely different way is Dimension 20.
I was introduced to Dimension 20 through a series of excellently placed clips across my social media. The clips were short and hilarious, and so different from not only Critical Role's style of play, but my own, that I wondered how they were possibly playing the same game. Being a cheapskate, I opted to watch Escape from the Bloodkeep, since the entirety of it is free on YouTube. Also, it had Matt Mercer as a player, who I thought would prove to be an apt bridge between CR and D20. What I found was something as beautiful and entertaining as the short clips promised it would be, without losing the emotionality of a well-executed RPG. Despite all its differences from Critical Role, Dimension 20 clearly does what it sets out to, which brings us to the question of today's comparison: what do these two shows do differently, and what do they do the same?
Yes, this article essentially boils down to a high school compare and contrast essay.
Both shows run similar episode lengths, especially when you cut out the breaks that CR takes since they are streaming live and uploading after. Both shows tend to feature groups of similar size, somewhere around 6-7 people. Two stylistic components are present in both shows as well: humour and growth. In both campaigns both the DM and players show impressive improvisational abilities to include moments of hilarity and depth. These few similarities really mark the through-line that connects these two shows, because other than those broad-strokes things, the two shows are very different.
First I want to mention that while both shows have both humour and growth, they are present in greatly differing degrees. This is the first and most palpable difference between the two shows. Dimension 20 comes across as an improv comedy show with players saving/dooming the world as a matter of happenstance, Critical Role comes across as an epic fantasy tale within which players sometimes joke around and crack wise. Where Critical Role is presented as a longform, grand scale adventure with an incredibly fleshed out world where things are happening all the time, Dimension 20 leans into what's happening in any given moment. That is not to say Dimension 20 doesn't have fleshed out worlds, simply that whatever the players are doing tends to be the most important thing. This makes Dimension 20 incredibly compelling to watch at any given moment, not only because there's a high chance someone is going to do something ridiculous and funny, but because that ridiculous funny thing will probably have consequences drastically greater than they expected. For Critical Role on the other hand, tuning in to a random moment could result in sitting through elaborate plans or shopping sessions, but witnessing those small moments build and build into the conclusion of a storyline makes you feel as though you have witnessed something indescribable. Growth in CR seems to be the focus. Personal storylines that incorporate not only what a character used to be, but what they have grown into. Comedy seems to be the focus of Dimension 20, taking a genre which often takes itself too seriously and reminding everyone that sci-fi and fantasy is inherently goofy and fun. And that's a good thing.
Once again I want to emphasize that both shows have enough of both elements to be works of excellence, but the differing focus is what makes for such a drastic change of styles. Brennan Lee Mulligan had at least one of his players in tears by the sixth episode, and Critical Role consistently has me laughing aloud alone in my room. If the message you take from this is that D20 is funny and CR is a drama, you've missed the point. The point, for clarity's sake, is that one of the beautiful things about DnD is the variety that any given game has to offer. It is fun to change things up, to switch pace, to lend more or less impact to PC actions. Just because you have a particular DMing style doesn't make you better or worse than another DM, and it is okay to switch styles.
Because there's only one way to win at Dungeons and Dragons.