The Legend of Vox Machina – Episode 5

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I thought we’d sidle back into The Legend of Vox Machina, wherein the party most recently set off for Percy’s ancestral home. Well, most of the party – Pike apparently broke her magical doohickey, and thus has to set off on a personal journey to “apologize to the Everlight.” This narrative development seems messy, but it’s precisely the kind of messy that embodies Vox Machina’s difficult negotiation between narrative and game, which in turn makes it of tremendous interest to me!

As I reflected in the last episode, the “primacy of the party” is one of the central tenets that defines D&D-format fiction, as it is the interplay of the party members that forms the backbone of any campaign. As such, any separation in the party must be undertaken for the most crucial of reasons, when the narrative absolutely demands it – and “my Everlight phone broke” certainly doesn’t qualify. Forcing a character to leave because an object that had been assigned no prior significance now needs attention is, quite frankly, hack storytelling – it’s the equivalent of a character exiting the narrative because they think they left the oven on, not because anything in their existing character or narrative demands it.

When I put together “breaking the party is a D&D cardinal sin” and “Pike’s reason for leaving is entirely disconnected from the ongoing narrative,” I arrive at just one reasonable conclusion: Pike’s actress was busy for a while, and had to step back from the game. This, too, is a natural quirk of D&D narrative design: sometimes the whole cast just can’t be there, and so your rogue or your druid will exist in a weird liminal space behind you, until the whole party can regather. It’s a very strange thing to see such a pragmatic design limitation translated into earnest narrative drama, but that’s precisely the sort of weird negotiation I like about this series. Let’s see what’s in store at Whitestone Manor!

Episode 5

We open on a chase sequence, as the twins and Keyleth sneak their way back to Gilmore’s place. Having the two leads be rogue/ranger twins was an inspired choice; they’re essentially a competent infiltration party in their own right, and their specialties naturally promote complimentary worldviews and sources of pride. Also always fun seeing the party combine their specialties in smart ways, like squirrel Keyleth making the final push here

Seeing all their neat combos is actually making me realize how relatively inflexible my own party is. With two members largely dedicated to combat, it’s mostly up to my warlock and our wizard to provide any utility support

I like this show’s clear color identity. While each of the characters are generally solid color blocks without too much shading, the show is heavy on incidental lighting effects, casting scenery in rich purples or reds as the sunlight dictates. This close focus on lighting further enhances the visual cohesion of each composite, as subjects and backgrounds are bound by their shared coloration

They sneak into Gilmore’s place, but a trap catches them immediately. Pretty sure both rogues and rangers are amazing at trap checks, so this is all on the twins

Gilmore and Vax really hammer on the “direct sunlight” vampire weakness, clearly seeding that as the eventual last-minute victory. Meanwhile, Keyleth has been defeated by a finger trap

A too-long held shot also informs us that Vax is developing some feelings for Keyleth. Man, we are seeding romances all over this party! That really is one of the most fun things about rambling party adventures, but capturing that in D&D requires a very game player pool

This CG cart with its two dimensional inhabitants is pretty messy

“And for the record, I have a magnificent bitch face. Lots of practice.” At this point, even the simple or crass jokes are playing off our understanding of the characters – we know very well that Percy has a magnificent bitch face, and so the joke rewards us for our time spent with the party. It’s also comedy as characterization, with this exchange fleshing out the unique dynamic of the perceptive yet blunt Vex and the prickly Percy

Apparently there’s a ziggurat involved in the enemy plans. No surprises there

Watching these paired dynamics is actually giving me ideas for my own house’s campaign. Forcing two party members to just shoot the shit for a while in-character seems like a great way to flesh out their designs

Their wagon reaches a nasty-looking swamp, with ominous figures lurking in the shadows. Another interesting quirk of D&D as narrative drama: the prevalence of narrative-irrelevant fight scenes, a necessary concession to the fact that combat is one of the most fun and easy ways players can express themselves in a campaign. A D&D campaign strictly translated to fiction would likely include a whole lot of “and then they fought some goblins, and then they fought some wizards, and then they fought some spooky birds” between the moments of genuine narrative importance

Some CG versions of the dog from The Thing attack their cart, carrying Scanlan off with them. These CG objects are definitely the show’s biggest visual handicap

“Did you just ‘hyah’ me!?” It seems the crew have correctly deduced that Vex continuously deflating Percy’s ego is extremely good content

Seeing Vax in trouble, Keyleth’s eyes glow green, and she roars like a bear before knocking the zombie dog away. This is the best kind of flirting – who isn’t a sucker for a good “I’d become a monster to protect you” dynamic?

The CG horses are flung off a cliff and into a ravine. Fare thee well, CG horses

The gang loses everything, including both the book and all of their anti-vampire preparations. I wonder if they actually could have kept those things, or if the moment they purchased them, the DM was thinking “alright, how am I gonna make them lose that quest-solving bag?” You have to maintain a certain degree of peril, and if your players successfully prep themselves out of that strike zone, fate tends to intervene

All of the Briarwoods’ minions have basically the same squat head, except applied to three different body sizes. It’s quite a striking aesthetic, to be honest

Apparently they’ve got some ritual planned, and have gathered some locals as presumed sacrifices. If I were a villager in a D&D universe I probably wouldn’t choose to live near the spooky vampire castle, but I suppose we don’t all have the luxury of job choice and mobility

Vax waves off Keyleth’s fire-conjuring flubs, while Vex quips “you’ll probably get your shit together eventually.” An easy source of tension there, as Vax’s accommodating fondness for Keyleth contrasts against Vex’s bluntly honest appraisal, and perhaps also her frustration with her brother’s known weaknesses. The twins being so aligned most of the time makes highlighting the things that divide them all the more important

Meanwhile, Scanlan’s fucking with a scroll he found in the dragon’s cave. The sense of purpose and cohesion you expect from a traditional narrative leads little room for those “let’s run down every item we’ve ever acquired and see if they help us here” moments of role playing games

“Kiki, I believe in you.” I love all their little internal nicknames. I’ve done my best in my own party to convey the different times my character would expect to be referred to as “Tae,” “Tally,” or “Taliandrel,” but I can’t say my teammates have come to appreciate those distinctions

We stop in briefly with Pike, then it’s back to the main group for campfire stories

“What’s the worst monster you’ve ever faced?” This seems like another excellent conceit for encouraging players to flesh out their characters. “What is your character’s life story and motivation?” can be an intimidating question for someone who’s new to writing fiction, but “think up a wacky anecdote in your character’s life” is a much easier one, encouraging spontaneity while still building up personality and history. This show’s giving me lots of useful ideas for whenever I start DMing myself

Vex warns her brother not to be seduced by Keyleth’s viney wiles

Hot damn. The Briarwoods dressed those villagers up as Vox Machina and then left them hanging off the city’s central tree. Quite the welcome!

And Done

Hoo boy, things are really cooking at this point. Removing Pike from the group ended up facilitating an episode rich in one-on-one character moments, doing a wonderful job of adding fresh nuances to all their individual dynamics. The show’s aesthetic limitations meant this episode’s action set piece was unfortunately a dud, but honestly, action scenes are the last thing I’m watching this for. This episode did an impressive job of translating mechanical necessity into dramatic momentum, and I’m already full of ideas that I’m eager to translate into my own campaign. Bring on the next one!

This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.