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Friday, July 12, 2024

'Candela Obscura' Stars on Magic and Play in an Oppressive World

With the release of the first few episodes of the new Candela Obscura campaign, Critical Role fans have gotten their first glimpse at the foundational Illuminated Worlds game system that underpins it, which will go on to structure future arc-driven narrative games designed by Critical Role. The reception has been so positive that the show has already been greenlit for a second season.

Candela Obscura is an accessible gothic-horror tabletop role-playing show about investigating eldritch disturbances in a turn-of-the-century setting, developed by Darrington Press, one of the arms of Critical Role Productions.

To learn more about it, and the world that the team is creating with this new project, we spoke to Anjali Bhimani and Robbie Daymond from the Candela series, with comments from the show’s other stars, to explore their experience.

Robbie Daymond is a voice actor best known for playing Peter Parker’s Spider-Man, Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon, and Persona 5’s rival character Akechi. Anjali Bhimani is known for voicing Symmetra from Overwatch and Rampart in Apex Legends, as well as playing Kamala Khan’s aunt in the Disney+ Ms. Marvel series.

Matt Mercer and Laura Bailey have been with Critical Role since its inception. Mercer is known for voicing Cole Cassidy from Overwatch, and most recently Ganondorf in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Bailey is known for voicing Lust from Fullmetal Alchemist and Abby from The Last of Us Part II.

WIRED: Could you introduce us to your characters on the show? What's your favorite thing about them?

Robbie Daymond: I just wanted to play a complete oddball. Howard’s such a mixed bag of neuroses, intellect, and violent tendencies. The last couple of characters I’ve played have leaned on some tropes that I tend to be cast in, so I’ve had a hunger to do something different. I think I ended up testing the boundaries of likability here. I wonder if people will like that, but if they don’t, I sure had a lot of fun.

Anjali Bhimani: I love Howard! And I love that he lets you explore something different. Charlotte is very shrewd and capable, though behind that facade she carries a lot of pain and fear. She’s also the longest-serving Candela investigator in this circle, so she’s seen some dark, dark things. All that weight has brought about a hard exterior. Thankfully, because these games are about crucial emotional journeys, we get to see Charlotte’s hard shell crack a bit as she starts to recognize that she can be tough without hardening her heart.

RD: I think that’s what creates the magic. We get to see parts of one another come alive in these characters. The way Critical Role set up these experiences is welcoming enough to bare that authenticity. You know that you’re participating to laugh, engage, and have fun.

Matthew Mercer: I think the operative word is play. I think as adults we’re taught that we leave play behind when we grow up, which is a really unhealthy idea. Play is so necessary for cultivating joy throughout life. Games, and perhaps board games specifically, are the modern, accessible trick for finding that again.

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AB: On a wider scale, I feel like that invitation to people has been the big switch in tabletop games and role-playing. It’s become clear that this isn’t an insular, gate-kept, weird interest, it’s a storytelling medium—and telling stories is a crucial human experience.

Neither the period setting nor the world of tabletop gaming have always welcomed people of color. What's the best way to go about changing that?

AB: I was a little Indian girl in Orange County playing D&D in the ’80s. I didn’t know a lot of people who looked like me who played too. I played anyway, because I loved fantasy and role-playing games, but I think a lot of other people like me—especially girls and girls of color—were nervous to try because they weren’t sure if they’d be accepted. The only reason we have a new normal today is because people from other backgrounds joined in, and creators involved their cultures in the characters and worlds they made.

RD: I’ll get saucy and say it goes both ways too. If you’re creating a story based in another culture, there should still be room to pull in traditional European coding if a player’s character needs that. We can preserve culture and be inclusive to absolutely everyone, whether you’re a traditional player from way back or someone new trying to bring something different. There can be bumps along the road with how we do these things, and maybe I’m getting a little out of my depth here, but I’ve seen very sensitive and forward-thinking people trying to realize this way of playing, plenty of them at Critical Role.

There are a lot of bad things in the distant past that players might want to confront and thwart at the table in empowering battles, and there’s also space for a more digestible fantasy setting that’s light and fun, where problems aren’t so deeply rooted in issues we continue to face today. It’s about what works for the table.

AB: Absolutely. I love seeing how people can realize themselves in fantasy—how many characters we have inside us, how we identify and fight our battles. Make-believe has a wonderful way of bringing that to life, and hopefully you can bring the power you feel in these fantasies with you out into your real life.

Unlike Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, Candela Obscura seems to be more about pursuing a mystery than fighting people. How did you explore alternative solutions to violence?

AB: I find there’s more room for story. Gamified fighting can be empowering, but it’s not the only way to interact. I like when there’s more narrative ground, to forge more intricate dramatic immersion with intrigue and mystery that I can talk to my vibrant party members about. For some people, combat can boil down to rolling dice and juggling numbers, so I understand how that could get alienating at a table where there’s no other way to engage.

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RD: I dug the puzzle-solving. Even though I created a combat-heavy character, I never really felt punished for it. We all had plenty of opportunities to lean into our strengths.

AB: I feel like there are people in life like that, with specific strengths that, of course, don’t define them. The system doesn’t typify one-note characters, just as real life shouldn’t.

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RD: I think it speaks to how good Matt is at what he does, that we all get to contribute meaningfully, regardless of skill level—to the extent that people think what we’re doing is exhaustively planned.

MM: Thank you, Robbie. Yeah, when designing Candela, we wanted to build a system that was story-forward and had options for customization that fit the genre of occult detective and gothic-horror experiences. In every character sheet, you have both the class and the role, all your selectable capabilities. That means you don’t need to refer to books to figure out how your stuff works, it’s all right there in front of you.

Laura Bailey: It was nice as a player in Candela to feel like an expert in under an hour. As we gained momentum moving through the world and navigating obstacles, it started to feel more and more natural, until the mechanics felt so much less visible behind the theater we were in.

MM: I will say that as a GM who’s grown up on D&D, having a system that requires me to roll pretty much no dice at all allows me to be entirely present with the players. I wasn’t sure if I would like that at first, but it turns out that having the players define the action gives them an extra aspect of immersion.

RD: When combat did show up, it felt fresh, exciting, and high-stakes. Since it’s a horror game, combat is often dire and can be punishing, although it’s clear that care has been taken to avoid that feeling disheartening.

AB: It’s very cool that you explore the consequences of actions beyond hit points going up and down. Walking away from big incidents with lasting repercussions adds a huge point of character definition. But there are still ways to persevere, which makes vital room for hope.

MM: I think you touched on something really important Anjali—embracing the lesson of failure. For so long, games have been obsessed with winning. Tabletop game experiences are starting to reimagine failure as the opportunity for a pivotal moment. That makes the rest of the experience more memorable and provocative. That’s something we often try to push forward, that rolling low on the dice can be more exciting than rolling high. In confronting failure, you’ll often find so much more meaning in victory.

What’s your impression of Candela Obscura’s themes of hope in the darkness?

MM: Beyond a celebration of horror, Candela is about confronting evil with ingenuity and learning the mistakes of the past in hopes of a better future. Through spooky adventures, we learn that even in the direst of times we always have the power to change things for the better.

LB: The world feels oppressive sometimes. We have so much access to these sensational developments all around the world, that everything can feel like it’s spinning out of control. That’s why it feels so affirming to face something at the tabletop with your friends or family that you know you can deal with.

AB: I love dark worlds where there’s a way to shine a light. Even if much of the tale is tragic. Tragedy is a big part of the real world, and I don’t want it sanitized from play, but when there’s enough hope left that I can leave a session feeling empowered, that’s a beautiful thing, and that’s exactly what Candela and the wonderful friends I played it with did for me.

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