Archives in Art: Critical Role, The Chronicles of Exandria Vols. 1 & 2
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
The obsession is real, folks, but only in so far as I have a healthy dose of appreciation for those who can create such fantastic pieces of art in honor of a show where a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons. That same love is shared by the cast of Critical Role and The Chronicles of Exandria is their way of honoring the creativity of the Critter community by showcasing the overwhelming amount of art created over the course of 115 episodes. But while these books are technically an art lover's dream, they also serve as an extension of Exandria's world-building. Between the beautifully rendered pieces of heroes, villains, and memorable moments the books function as research submitted by librarians of the Cobalt Reserve and archivists of the Cobalt Soul chronicling the exploits of Vox Machina.
Volume 1: The Tale of Vox Machina
The first volume covers the beginning of the web series through the end of the Chroma Conclave arc and uses the library/archives angle to fill in the blanks on past storylines while also providing more background information on villains and allies. The characters often receive letters and other documents during the game that the audience rarely sees, which makes the art book a perfect medium to share as a means of fleshing out the unseen aspects of Vox Machina's adventures. In the first volume alone, we're treated to Lady Kima's vows as a paladin of the Platinum Dragon compared to her wedding vows to Allura Vysoren, Earthbreaker Groon's ruminations on being a monk in service of the Storm Lord, and Kerrek's letter to Keyleth complete with crossed out words and a tiny drawing of the ring he crafted for her.
As the DM/GM, Matthew Mercer definitely has a ridiculous amount of research and background information stored either in his brain or written down that never made it into the webcast, so seeing Lady Delilah Briarwood's diary entry that led her down the path to ruin is a fantastic way of giving the character more depth while opening the reader to feeling something akin to sympathy.
My favorite part of the book, however, are the researcher's notes provided that, once again, show the active nature of Exandria's knowledge management community. It also highlights how dangerous research can be in a world of dragons, vampires, and beholders. Based on some of the notes, it seems the Cobalt Reserve has lost quite a few researchers in pursuit of detailing Vox Machina's trials.
Volume 2: The Legend of Vox Machina
The second volume finishes the story covering the introduction of Taryon Darrington to the final battle with Vecna, the Whispered One. As a completed work, the second volume is more art heavy since it doesn't have to provide any catch-up information on the main cast of characters. The opening pages, however, show that the book is the culminated efforts of Cobalt Soul initiates work submitted to the archive.
Interestingly, the section dedicated to Taryon Darrington is a gloriously fascinating dive into the unreliable narrator as a subject. Tary's time with Vox Machina was brief, but the sheer amount of writings produced by Tary - or more accurately, Doty versions 1-3 - present an instance where researchers are required to suss out fact from fiction and half-truths. The book features frequent notes warning the reader that anything written by Tary should be treated with a heavy dose of skepticism.
There are also quite a few portions of the book wherein the researchers state their need to remain as "neutral" as possible in the course of recovering information or doing interviews. The most prominent example is the character portrait of Lionel Gayheart. The researchers attempted to speak with Kaylie Shorthalt about the duck worshiping barbarian, but were then asked by the interviewee to offer speculation. Their response:
It is against the mission of the Cobalt Soul to spread misinformation, rumour, or innuendo - no matter how intriguing the theories about Lionel Gayheart Marquesian mallard heritage are.
Like the previous volume, we're treated to more documents and journal entries as well as a full pull out of the completed clock tower Percy crafted in his later years. In wrapping up the story of Vox Machina, the book gives the gift of creation back to Critters with the hopes of more to come as the second campaign and the exploits of the Mighty Nein carry on the adventure-seeking and terrible-decision-making efforts of their predecessors.