POP Archives Deep Thoughts: The Problem with the Cobalt Soul
Before we begin, some disclaimers and acknowledgements need to be hammered out so some corners of the Critter community don't outright attack me for daring to analyze Critical Role. I'm covering my bases now so I don't have to waste time clarifying things later.
This article isn't meant as an attack on the cast and crew of Critical Role. It is a critique of the depiction of archives and archivists within the narrative of the show as well as the supplemental written material provided in the Adventurer's Guide to Wildemount (AGW) campaign guide.
I understand that the world of Exandria is an amalgam of improvisation and pre-established outlines and story elements. Expecting the cast to remember everything they've said or done over the course of three years and 141 episodes is ridiculous.
I understand that Exandria is chiefly the brain child of Matt Mercer and we're all just playing in his sandbox. It is a fantasy setting, which means anything is possible within the rules presented to the viewing audience and in the written materials.
I understand that portions of the campaign guide are left deliberately vague in their descriptions in order to allow players and Gaming Masters (GMs) room to craft their own stories within the world. Also, if anyone's planning a Cobalt Soul campaign, let me know!
I understand that it isn't the job of the cast of Critical Role to educate people on what is and isn't an archives. They are human beings with knowledge of various topics of their own interests and expecting them to just know something that isn't in their purview is also ridiculous.
I will be utilizing some data collected from a survey sent out to the Critter community concerning archival representation and the Cobalt Soul. It's not a perfect survey, but some of the results are worth examining.
Does that cover it? I hope so because there's a lot to talk about, so let's get started!
I've been an avid viewer of Critical Role since the first campaign, starting somewhere in the Chroma Conclave arc. It's been a welcome distraction over the years as well as a source of inspiration that led me to playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) again after many years absent due to life and some sour GM experiences. Watching the stories of Vox Machina and the Mighty Nein unfold has been a joy as the cast moved from classic archetypes to messier characters with even messier actions and backstories. So, when I dive into the ins and outs of the Cobalt Soul it's primarily coming from a place of respect and admiration, but still with a hint of disappointment.
The Cobalt Soul has its problems, but that doesn't mean it's without merit, which I'll get into later. Just know that this is from the perspective of an archivist who had high hopes seeing her profession prominently displayed on a popular, far-reaching D&D web series but found the nuts and bolts of the institution somewhat lacking upon further scrutiny.
Within the world of Exandria, the first introduction to the network of Cobalt-related institutions of knowledge - CIK, if you like acronyms - were the Cobalt Reserve in Westruun and the Cobalt Vault in Vasselheim. They were surface level repositories for Vox Machina to utilize until they relied on Whitestone's vast library to compensate any information gaps. Not until campaign two did we get the Cobalt Soul as represented by Beau (Marisha Ray), a monk with attitude and a penchant for mail theft. In the first handful of episodes, we also meet Beau's former handler, Archivist Zeenoth, and her new trainer, Expositor Dairon, who represent other facets of the Soul's personnel.
It was early on in the second campaign when I reached out to Matt Mercer for an article on archives in roleplaying games (RPGs) for the Society of American Archivists where he was gracious enough to break down the Soul's hierarchy. According to Matt's descriptions, monks were sent out on expeditions to record their findings and expand the Soul's accumulated knowledge; archivists served an administrative function as caretakers of the facility while also mediating acquisitions of artifacts and records; and expositors were the clandestine agents of the Soul, extracting information from the corrupt corners of the Dwendalian Empire and beyond. The organization is ultimately managed by the High Curator of each branch of the Soul who acts as representative and advocate for the institution.
At the time, the Wildemount campaign guide hadn't been published and was likely in the early stages of being written. The descriptions provided by Matt, however, aren't far off from what was committed to print in the AGW and I regret neglecting a more thorough analysis. The issues I'd later have with the Cobalt Soul were already baked into the institution's DNA, but I was too giddy that Matt-fucking-Mercer had answered my questions. This was also before there was any indication that the Archives of the Cobalt Soul wasn't the primary institution.
I don't know if it was always intended for the archives to be nested within the larger Library of the Cobalt Soul network, but I have a feeling it was changed as an attempt to retcon the amount of times the word library was used by the cast whenever they were referring to the Zadash branch of the Soul. From the beginning of the campaign it was clear no one in the cast knew the difference between an archives and a library based on the sheer amount of interchangeability between the words despite the merchandise and Matt's initial descriptions referring to the institution as an archives - not that Matt is exempt from making that error as well. Pretty much any time the Soul was mentioned or utilized someone would make a comment about getting their "library card" ready.
Compounding the issue is those same episodes featuring research by the Nein only involves books. No records or collections, just books; non-fact checked and opinion-based books, I might add. See episode 78, "Between the Lines," that features biased accounts with no conflicting resources for comparison, defacing of archival materials, an archivist adding notes to a book without fact-checking, and blowing dust off said book because why not?
Seriously, this is a world of magic and fantasy and no one in the Cobalt Soul uses a wind-oriented spell to just keep the place clean? But, sure, how else will the audience know how old and unused these tomes are? My mistake. Moving on!
Despite the continued terminology mix-ups it was still a disappointment to open the AGW and instead of learning more about the Archives of the Cobalt Soul, I was reading about the Library of the Cobalt Soul. To give some additional context, the second campaign made its broadcast debut on January 18th, 2018 while the AGW was first published in March of 2021. For more than half of the campaign, we the audience only knew of the archives as the primary institutional power, which makes the change in faction title perplexing.
An even greater disappointment, however, came when I read the description for the Library of the Cobalt Soul and arrived at this beauty of a line:
Temples to Ioun under the management of the Cobalt Soul act as massive libraries called archives, usually located in larger cities and cultural centers.
Mr. Mercer. Matthew. Matt.
No. Just, no. That's not how that works.
Long time readers of this site will understand why this is a cardinal sin of archival representation. To put it simply: libraries and archives are not the same thing. A library might have an archives or Special Collections and archives certainly have libraries and reading rooms, but they are not synonymous institutions. They have markedly different methods of curation that may overlap at times, but wildly differ when it comes down to the uniqueness of their materials.
I want to make it clear that I'm not disparaging the efforts of Matt Mercer, the artists, and the team at Wizards of the Coast. It is a monumental task to put a book together, let alone a campaign guide that has to balance the right amount of details with room for creativity. My issues and critiques are with a small portion of a larger whole, much of which I know very little about. I just happen to have very strong opinions about archives and archivists in popular culture. Go figure.
In an effort to clarify the issue I had with the AGW, I submitted a question to Matt during a Fireside Chat. I asked about the change from archives to libraries, specifically asking if there was public access to the Cobalt Soul or if it was by appointment only since monks accompany patrons during their time within the building. To which Matt answered:
It's both. It is an archive in the sense that it collects and is a repository to maintain historical record of everything that they can possibly hold on to. They are about the caretaking of and maintaining of information in the midst of all the worlds dangers and those that would not want it to be freely available. However, because there are many people that would want to see such endeavors deteriorated, the Cobalt Soul - while not necessarily appointment - although with certain more rarer, and more dangerous information might be appointment based and kind of an approval process but largely you can - most folks can go into it but you must be attended as you go through it.
Matt then explained that the Cobalt Soul within the AGW was a means of expanding on the faction after creating them for the Tal'Dorei campaign. He knew, roughly, how they operated, but the Wildemount campaign and book gave him the opportunity to flesh out the unique situation the Soul faces in Wildemount, which culturally differs from the other continents of Exandria in how it handles itself.
It's a fair point that archives are not a monolith. Each institution adapts to their unique circumstances, utilizing the tools and personnel available to maintain their collections. So, yes, the Vault, Reserve, and Soul might be connected as sister institutions, but their approach to collecting materials and interacting with the public are likely very different. I also want to point out that this campaign has an abundance of knowledge-based institutions. There's the Vellum Steeple Archive in Uthodurn, the Cinderrest Sanctum, the Marble Tomes Conservatory in the Drow city of Rosohna, and the other branches of the Soul in Port Damali and Rexxentrum. Wildemount has a vast selection of facilities that I don't think I've ever seen in a D&D campaign or in many fantasy settings. Usually, it's just the one caretaker in a tower of dusty scrolls, so I have to give kudos to Critical Role for at least having multiple sources of information spread throughout the campaign. However, it's the Soul that's, thus far, gotten the most fleshing out, so that's what we have to rely on for analysis.
But, continuing down this thread of unique circumstances and threats, it bears pondering that perhaps the Cobalt Soul has too many unique circumstances and threats that stymie its ability to be a functioning archival institution. According to the AGW, the Soul is a holdover from a previously conquered empire, incorporated into the Dwendalian Empire as a sign of good faith and as a means of observation. It's also a temple to Ioun, giving it a Vatican vibe with the monks following patrons around. The Soul also maintains a group of knowledge-gathering operatives in the form of expositors. And there's the normal day-to-day operations of a public-facing knowledge management institution. That last one is an assumption on my part. There's never a point in the show where we, as the audience, are privy to the actual acquisition or maintenance of historical records and artifacts.
So, if I have this right, the Cobalt Soul is an imperialist, ecclesiastical, pseudo-CIA, socio-political faction with the higher aim of rooting out corruption in addition to serving the people of the Empire and upholding the ideals of truth through knowledge above all else. Hoo boy, that's a lot of things. Maybe too many things. Now I really want to see their collecting policy.
It's at this point that I put together a survey about archival representation as depicted by the Cobalt Soul. I managed to get almost 400 responses, most of which came from the Critical Role group on Reddit. It's a very small sample size when compared to the audience numbers. The Reddit group, as of the writing of this article, has three hundred thousand members, just to give you an idea of the show's expansive audience. My initial worries were that, with so many identities, the audience might be confused about what makes up an actual archives. Given the initial numbers, the majority of respondents were familiar with the archival profession but that same majority also hadn't employed the services of an archives nor did they work in the profession.
It came as a surprise, however, when presented with different options as to what best described the Cobalt Soul, the majority of respondents actually picked the most basic description of an archives! Unfortunately, the second most picked answer was "All of the Above," which included descriptions for libraries, archives, museums, and even the concept of a dark archives - a repository that stores materials without the intention of providing access. So, pluses and minuses, but it was still an unexpected result!
Getting back to the varying identities, I want to follow through with the imperialist angle because it's the most prominent in the show and the campaign guide. The religious aspects of the Soul are barely examined within the narrative, which is odd given that the Soul is a temple to a goddess and the ranks of monks and expositors are supposedly the "enlightened" classes. One would think that enlightenment would somehow be tied to a connection with the Knowing Mistress, but I think Beau prays once in the entire campaign and it has no connection to her developing monk/expositor abilities.
It isn't a surprise that imperialism is a huge part of the second campaign. The Mighty Nein start in the Dwendalian Empire and eventually journey across the border into the lands of its long-time enemy, the Kryn Dynasty, so yeah, imperialist and colonialist practices are fundamental to the story. It's an interesting theme to explore in a widely viewed show; displaying the depths of the cast's storytelling abilities as they examine the impact of cycles of violence and their effects on people within institutions of power. Both Beau and Caleb (Liam O'Brien) are victims of this cycle on the macro and micro levels via the Cerberus Assembly and the Cobalt Soul as well as their own families - biological and chosen.
As described in the AGW, the Cobalt Soul's idealist mission statement "is hampered by the realities of life in the empire: politics, propaganda, and the dangers of the wilderness." It's the wilderness part that caught my eye because referring to anything outside of an established civilization as the "wilderness" is a way of Othering and dehumanizing another group in order to justify any atrocities committed. See all of American history regarding First Nations populations. In the case of the Wildemount campaign, the wilderness is essentially describing anything outside the Dwendalian Empire and is most likely a reference to the Kryn Dynasty and "monstrous" races in general. There's even more to deconstruct if you want to critique the connection between D&D and racial essentialism, but that's a conversation for another day.
Early in the campaign, the Mighty Nein encountered a Kryn soldier after an attack and Matt described the armor of the Kryn creating a cricket-like sound that led the Empires, previous and current, to refer to the Kryn as "cricks". The slur was expounded upon further in a text found by the Nein called The Courting of the Crick and it was later used by Dairon while in conversation with Beau, which demonstrated to the audience and the cast that even members of an "enlightened" group like the Cobalt Soul could fall prey to propaganda. Dairon eventually reexamines their prejudices, but it's an important lesson in presenting the extent of imperialist thought embedded in society.
This is further validated in the AGW's text regarding the duties of archivists specifically within the Soul. While monks and expositors are "enlightened" information gatherers, archivists are administrators tasked with "overseeing the training of new members, and even negotiating for or purchasing artifacts and records — often from those unaware of their true value."
So, yeah, that's just straight up they-know-not-what-they-have, Indiana Jones-style "It belongs in a museum!" imperialism and the archivists are apparently the prime actors on such practices. Don't get me wrong, this is in no way differs from real life imperialist methods developed and exercised by museums, archives, and libraries, but it's odd that only the archivists are singled out as engaging in the most corrupt actions. When stacked on top of the later revealed corruption of the only archivist the audience has any attachment to - Archivist Zeenoth - it paints a scathing portrait of the archival profession through the lens of this D&D campaign that has an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
To be fair, Zeenoth isn't the only archivist the Nein encounter but he's certainly the one they spend the most time with and have any connection to via Beau's contentious relationship with him and, by proxy, the Soul. Archivists Delan, Jennah, Galesh, Madeer, and Desaund are either there to serve as gophers while the Nein research or treated with outright contempt by Beau. Archivist Demid Sunlash is the only other archivist with any meaningful interaction with the Nein and Beau, but he's treated as a joke for his enthusiastic research into the "lesser" of Exandria's two moons. Caleb even goes as far as to mess with him regarding folklore about the moon being made of cheese, saying it's something people in Tal'Dorei believe. Sunlash accepts this without question, which leads one to believe that fact-checking isn't a thing they like to do in the Soul.
Obviously, the interaction with Sunlash is typical of the cast's treatment of many non-player characters (NPCs) from both campaigns. There's always an air of mischief and underlying assholery that goes with these conversations and Matt certainly plays into them for the fun of the game and following a tangent with his best friends. The optics, however, of Beau's barrage of disparate questions, her demands for answers, disappointment with the lack of answers and access to a non-Cobalt Soul run facility, and Caleb's needling while Jester (Laura Bailey) looks bored out of her mind makes the encounter cringeworthy in hindsight.
But then one must recontextualize Beau's antagonism towards authority and the Cobalt Soul given her unorthodox recruitment. As revealed to Dairon, Beau's father essentially sold his problem child to Zeenoth to make the problem go away. Being young and helpless to do anything, Beau assumed the Soul had always done things this way and that Zeenoth's actions were the norm. A formal apology from High Curator Yudala Fon and the arrest of Zeenoth with a trial pending barely scratch the surface of healing Beau's pain, but it's a start.
From an audience perspective, Zeenoth's arrest and subsequent trial was a turning point for how they perceived the Cobalt Soul. The last question of the survey conducted asked if the respondent's opinion of the Soul had changed over the course of the campaign. There were only about 100 useful responses, but the majority of them commented that the Soul believing Beau's story and holding Zeenoth accountable changed their opinion towards the favorable.
Now, I don't want to diminish the impact of actually holding a corrupt individual in a position of power accountable for their despicable behavior. It's sorely needed in this world and in Exandria and I'm glad that it happened within the narrative. However, it comes so late in the game with Zeenoth's trial covered as part of Beau's epilogue that I'm worried it's a case of too little, too late. Does Zeenoth's punishment mark a sea change for the Cobalt Soul or was it merely a case of course correction when the cast realized the ramifications of Beau's induction into the faction? Because, quite honestly, the Soul didn't lack for corrupt members before Zeenoth and given the lack of oversight and, again, fact-checking, I'm surprised there aren't more members of the Soul pending trial. As one prescient commenter said in the survey:
When an organization automatically assumes that it is a lawful and neutral space, there's no framework for critical self-examination or accountability. Zeenoth was not a bad apple, he was enabled by a fundamentally problematic framework to commit abuses of authority.
To put it another way, if an organization asserts themselves as the authority on checks and balances, under the assumption that they are above the same scrutiny, they're just as likely, if not more susceptible to corruption.
It doesn't help that the idealistic values and self-appointed arbitration of the Cobalt Soul are reinforced by a membership that leans heavily towards neutrality as their alignment. A second cardinal sin of this site: archives are not neutral. Neither are libraries or museums, for that matter.
And while I understand that alignment in D&D is nebulous, the fact that the majority of characters associated with the Cobalt Soul have a neutral alignment is disconcerting. Even more disconcerting were the survey questions asking respondents what they thought the Cobalt Soul's alignment was as shown in the web series and what they thought the Soul's alignment should be based on their own conclusions. In both cases, a neutral alignment won out over the other options.
I cannot stress enough how neutrality as a concept needs to be eliminated from archival thought and processes because there's absolutely no way a person can make an unbiased decision. Inaction is still a choice and if the Cobalt Soul wants to take a back seat and watch how things play out in a given situation, then the end result is just as much determined by their decision not to get involved.
It's also the height of hypocrisy to claim a neutral alignment when you have agents engaged in espionage and potentially shady practices involving cultural records and artifacts. Dairon, Zeenoth, and especially Beau prove how impossible neutrality is to maintain based on their actions alone.
Thus concludes this extensive look into the Cobalt Soul. Yes, I was disappointed by quite a bit, but there's definitely room for improvement. It's also important to point out that even the most well-intentioned creatives can still misstep or fall back on old stereotype, whether they're conscious of it or not. Who knows if Campaign 3 will include any additions to the Cobalt-based Institutions of Knowledge, but I'm sure Matt Mercer and company could certainly try.