Below is an abridged version of the full paper. Find the full version of this essay and our data here.
Warning: Spoilers for Critical Role!
When I found out that Critical Role Transcript was compiling episode transcripts for my favorite DnD stream, I knew we had to write something analyzing the language of Critical Role cast.
To analyze the transcripts, I enlisted the help of our developer friend and fellow Project Derailed writer, Tom. Using the programming language C#, we created a program that would examine the transcripts and add up the number of swears and apologies for each cast member in each episode. Additionally, to find the individual utterances, the program would also list the line in which the swear or apology happened. This sorted the lines by who said them and listed them in the order in which they occurred. Because I could use the line numbers to find specific instances in each transcript, I was able to analyze the contextual information about the utterances in addition to the number of swears and apologies by each cast member.
For the purposes of this analysis, the program considered the utterances sorry, my apologies, and my bad to be apologizes. The swears counted by the program were shit, fuck, dick, ass, bitch, bastard, and damn as well as variations (e.g. fucking, goddamnit, asshole, etc.). It counted each individual utterance of a swear or apology even if multiple occurred in the same line. No swear or utterance was considered to be more or less severe by the program (e.g. fucking was considered categorically the same as damn).
Though tabletop roleplaying games have been around since the 1970’s, it is only recently that the hobby can be streamed to thousands of eager internet viewers. Gamers can use streaming programs like Twitch to reach this virtual audience.
Through over 300 hours (Crit Role Stats, 2017), the players have made many utterances that affirm both the identity of the player as well as their character or characters. When examining the cast of Critical Role as a community of practice, several linguistic features become prominent identity builders. Specifically, the linguistic acts of swearing and apologizing both in and out of character have helped to build this unique community of practice in front of thousands of eager viewers each Thursday night.
One of the most influential works in the project is Bucholtz’s (1999) “’Why be normal?’: Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls.” Although Dungeons & Dragons has become more mainstream, the associations with the game mirror Bucholtz’s nerd culture study. Within the article, the nerd girls at a particular high school are examined as a community of practice: a small group with shared identity and linguistic traits. The positive and negative identity-building practices of the group are examined through the context of language.
In the study, Bucholtz (1999) examined the community of practice in the areas of phonology, syntax, lexicon, and discourse. From there, the speech acts recorded by Bucholtz were categorized into positive and negative identity practices. The negative identity practices further distanced the group from coolness while the positive identity practices solidified their uncoolness. Put simply, “negative identity practices define what their users are not, and hence emphasize identity as an intergroup phenomenon; positive identity practices define what their users are, and thus emphasize the intragroup aspects of social identity” (Bucholtz, pp. 211-212). Through both the positive and negative identity practices, Bucholtz found that the nerd girls in the study rejected linguistic gender norms.
In the counter-culture communities of practice described in the article, identity for women can be built through a rejection of gender norms. To demonstrate their toughness (and therefore coolness), burnout girls would change their vowel systems and engage in more swearing. Conversely, the nerd girls would use non-standard lexical forms in order to both show off their intelligence and to reject femininity. Bucholtz (1999) described standard femininity as “at best incompatible with, and at worst hostile to, female intellectual ability” (p. 213). This deviation, regardless of community of practice, is important in building the identity of women. In both counter-culture groups, this rejection of femininity was a negative identity practice used to negotiate their place in a social group built into a larger patriarchal structure.
Several works in feminist theory focus on “The laboratory of dreams:” a theoretical space in science fiction where women can explore feminist utopias and patriarchal dystopias (Cross, 2012). Roleplaying games take this a step farther than prose and allow players to act out these utopias and dystopias through cooperative storytelling. In Cross’s work, she describes “a vision of the new world they would like to create, a world where some idea of justice would prevail” (72). Through these fantasy worlds, women can explore different aspects of the world and themselves through the safe space created by roleplaying games.
Still, Cross (2012) notes that the nature of playing roleplaying games in the same physical space as others is very different from playing in the same virtual space like with video games. Cross states that “the immediate presence of other, physical players could limit a person’s freedom to play with things like identity in a challenging manner” (pp. 77-78). Even so, this medium of roleplaying allows for more customization than a video game. While tabletop games may inhibit players by forcing reconciliation between their true selves and roleplayed character in a physical space, the players ultimately have more ability to interact with and change the world in complex ways. While the laboratory of dreams in video games may be confined by its programming, the confinement in tabletop games is simply the imagination of the players and the rules set by the DM and the rulebook.
In her book Talking 9 to 5, Tannen (1994) examines professional groups of men and women. This work is highly regarded in the field of sociolinguistics. Though this book focuses on interaction in the workplace rather than in gaming, the principles of gendered discourse still apply. Tannen observes that, in the workplace, men are less likely to apologize and more likely to talk and interrupt. Likewise, women (though not in every case) are more likely to use ritual apologies. Tannen describes ritual apologies as “expressing regret without fault or blame” (p. 33). For people who do not use ritual apologies, this practice is often seen as self-deprecating (though, as Tannen observes, it is not).
With only a few deviations, the group used swearing and apology in similar ways. As the game went on, the players all began to have similar numbers of swears, in particular. Moreover, the players all began to swear more as the game went on. Even when simply looking at the numbers of swears and apologies in the episodes, it is clear if a big event happened in the episode and to whom it happened. Interestingly, swears and apologies would increase for players when a character had a major event, but for most male players, apologies would only slightly increase while swears would significantly increase. For women, both swears and apologies would increase significantly during an episode focused on their character. Travis Willingham, for example, in episode 85, which focused on the physical and mental fortitude of his character, swore 39 times and apologized six times. In episode 88, during a similar test with her character, Marisha Ray swore 42 times and apologized 28 times over the course of the episode.
Still, for both genders, in most instances, the players swore far more than they apologized. There were two exceptions to this: Matthew Mercer and Ashley Johnson. Both Johnson and Mercer tended more towards apology than they did swearing. Interestingly, both are somewhat separated from the core of the group. Mercer acts as the DM for the show, and Johnson is often absent. Ultimately, within the community of practice, though everyone more or less shares these linguistic attributes, there is a core linguistic group made up of Willingham, Bailey, O’Brien, Ray, and Riegel, while Jaffe, Mercer, and Johnson are on the periphery. Out of everyone, Jaffe rarely swore or apologized, though when he did utter these, he performed more like the core group than Mercer or Johnson; that is, he was more likely to swear than to apologize.
When examining the cast members of Critical Role as a community of practice, swearing is a key identity marker. The cast members swear frequently, occasionally in long strings of curses. Like in Bucholtz’s study (1999), the women on Critical Role reject standard feminine forms by swearing as much as the men on the show. Even if the women—specifically Laura Bailey and Marisha Ray—did not swear the most in an episode, the amount of swearing per episode was similar to the amount of swearing done by the majority of men in the episode. In fact, the women almost always fell towards the higher end of the spectrum of swears uttered during an episode, especially during the more recent episodes. At the beginning of the show, the men were much more likely to swear. This is closer to standard linguistic differences in regards to gender, but, as the show went on, the numbers evened out and Bailey became the most likely to swear more than anyone else during the course of an episode.
Swearing during the show happens in two categories: players swearing as their characters and players swearing as themselves. In both instances, swearing increases during moments of stress for the character. For instance, out of character, the player may swear when failing a dice roll, and, likewise, will swear at the monster they are trying to kill. The swearing uttered by the player positively correlates with their character’s involvement with the events of the game. This is sometimes during battles, but it is often in reaction to an in-game connection to a player character’s backstory. For instance, in episode 83, Ray swore 37 times: over twice as much as the person with the second most amount of swears (Laura Bailey, eighteen). In this episode, the group fought and defeated Raishan, a green dragon that annihilated the Fire Ashari, Keyleth’s (Ray’s character) people. Shortly after this battle, two NPCs were nearly lost at sea, leading to more swears.
Interestingly, Bailey’s and Ray’s rejection of feminine standards more closely align with burnout girls than with nerd girls. Even though their mutual interest is considered a nerdy pastime, they tend more towards swearing and slang than they do ultra-formal lexical forms. This difference may be due to the mix of gender in the group. Also, as stated with Mizer, historically, roleplaying games were considered to be for any man but only some women. Moreover, due to the combative nature of the story, there are frequent opportunities for the players to perform their toughness. Interestingly, Ray has the most in-character kills on the show by a significant margin. The least deadly characters on the show are all male (CritRoleStats, 2017). In addition to their in-game achievements, the women on the show use the positive identity practices of burnout girls to show that they are part of a nerd group–one that is full of tough adventurers.
Despite swearing being fairly gender neutral, apology is still somewhat gendered. Especially at the beginning of the show, the women will apologize much more than the men. However, in later episodes, the cast member most likely to apologize the most times in an episode is the DM, Matthew Mercer. Unsurprisingly, Mercer often has the most demand for apology on the show. As the DM, he controls the story and the enemies they face. Though the anger and calls for apology are mostly in jest (all of the players understand that the game is make believe even though they are attached to their characters), he still responds with apologies. His apologies especially increase during big story moments—similar to the swears uttered by the other cast members. This is the clearest way that Mercer sets himself apart from the other players.
In nearly every aspect, his role in the show is far different than the rest of the characters, and he sets himself apart linguistically. While other players will use ritual apologies out-of-character for individual indiscretions (e.g. not listening, miscalculating a check, etc), Mercer will apologize for the direction of the story or the rules. For example, in episode 91, Mercer apologized to Ray because, in the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition rules, she can turn into a creature, but not understand its language.
MATT: You get their abilities, their physical abilities and things they can do.
LAURA: Oh, but that’s different than knowing their language.
MATT: Yeah. So I don’t think you’d pick up a language.
TRAVIS: Yeah. You get to suck.
MARISHA: All right.
Despite the fact that Ray accepted this without argument, Mercer still apologized even though he doesn’t set the rules by which they play. However, the DM interprets the rules and technically has the ability to change the rules to best fit the game. Still, changing the rules is not utilized often as it can make the characters in the game too powerful. However, these types of utterances are most likely the ritual apologies described by Tannen (1994).
Even within this community of practice, he is clearly different. He is also the most linguistically consistent. In the 34 episodes analyzed, he has the most apologies in seventeen of the episodes. In the others, he often has the second or third most apologies. Rarely does he have few or no apologies during an episode. It is also worth noting that it is unusual for a man (especially a man in a position of power) to perform ritual apologies the most in a mixed-gender group. The dynamics of this D&D group have more or less managed to reverse traditional gendered discourse as described by Tannen and other linguists.
While feminist utopias often bring to mind a world free from the oppression of women, this type of society would also have a profound effect on men. In this sense, Mercer has created his world in the laboratory of dreams described by Cross (2012). More than anyone else on the show, Mercer plays with gender and sexuality. He plays characters of all genders (including non-binary), and each is equally likely to be powerful and successful. Though he is the most in power of the story and the rules, he rejects the masculine trend of assuming power and wielding it without apology. Instead, he does the opposite. He frequently utilizes ritual apologies, and he continues with the story.
In the early episodes of the show, Ashley Johnson, in many episodes in which she appears, apologize the most. Though Johnson can often not appear on the show due to her filming obligations for the NBC show Blindspot, she still manages to participate in the game and perform in their community of practice. In the first eleven episodes, Johnson appeared six times and apologized the most four of those times. In her first two appearances, Johnson apologized the most in each episode. In her second appearance (episode five), she uttered a string of apologies.
ASHLEY: I roll, I roll four. Hold on. 19.
MATT: Okay, what’s the DC? What’s your spell DC at the top of your spell sheet?
ASHLEY: Eight plus– Or– No, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.
MATT: DC should be–
LIAM: That’s better.
Normally, multiple instances of apology in a single utterance would be different variations of an apology. For instance, “My bad. Sorry,” is much more common than Johnson’s “sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.” Even if this was counted as a single apology, Johnson would still have third-most apologies in the episode and more apologies than any of the men.
The discrepancy with Johnson’s amount of apology in comparison to the rest of the cast could be due to several possibilities. The first possibility is simply that it is Johnson’s conscious or unconscious preference to perform ritual apologies more frequently than the other cast members. The second possibility is that it is based on her character. Johnson plays Pike, a gnome cleric who is a kind and compassionate healer. Pike’s role as a healer could theoretically prompt Johnson to perform more ritual apologies in-character. Finally, due to Johnson’s filming obligations in New York, she sometimes uses video calls to appear on the show remotely. Due to technical difficulties, there is often a delay on the video call of a few seconds. Moreover, the video quality has the potential to affect what she is able to see, particularly on the maps during battles. These factors could lead to an increase in apology and explain a decrease in swearing. Often during these episodes, she will keep her character in the background, choosing to not participate as much in conversations and decisions compared to if she was physically present.
With the exception of Mercer, the male cast members are unlikely to apologize as much as the women. Moreover, they are much more likely to apologize in-character than out-of-character. In the only episode where Travis Willingham apologizes more than any other player (episode 85), he apologizes a mere six times. Excluding episodes where the most apologies were made by Mercer, this is the third-highest amount of apologies made by a male cast member during an episode (The most apologies during an episode when sorting by all male players excluding Mercer are Sam Riegel with 13 apologies in episode 86 and Liam O’Brien with eight apologies in episode 14). Interestingly, in that episode, there was a low apology rate for each cast member, including Mercer. In this episode, Sam Riegel’s character Scanlan chooses to leave the group because he believes he is not appreciated. In the episode, he asks the other characters if they know his mother’s name or other important facts about his life. Despite being unable to answer, the apology rate for the cast members is still extremely low. Because most of the episode was focused on roleplay rather than rolling dice for combat, there were very few out-of-character apologies. Still, it is surprising to see very few in-character apologies.
Three of Willingham’s six apologies were in character, and only one of them was sincere. In the only sincere instance, he apologized for not knowing Scanlan’s mother’s name.
TRAVIS (as Grog): …I was gonna ask you what your mother’s name is.
SAM (as Scanlan): It was Juniper.
TRAVIS (as Grog): I’m sorry I didn’t know that.
SAM (as Scanlan): Thank you for asking.
Though this set of utterances was late in the conversation, it was the first time any of the characters had tried to rectify the situation by learning about Scanlan’s history. Still, this was Willingham’s only in-character apology for the situation. The character who apologized the most in character during this was Ray’s character, Keyleth. It is interesting to note that this is not a ritual apology, but an admission of guilt.
Still, many instances of apology are character-dependent, especially for player Sam Riegel. He is the only player besides Mercer to have more than one character during the course of the show. After his character Scanlan left the group, he began to play Taryon Darrington, a wannabe adventurer and artificer. When looking at the number of apologies uttered by Riegel, it is clear when Taryon joined the show. While Scanlan rarely apologized, Taryon apologized frequently. In episode 86, he apologizes several times in a short interaction.
MARISHA: Wait! You’re not related to the Briarwoods, are you?
SAM: I’m sorry, no, I don’t know them.
TALIESIN: He doesn’t look like a Briarwood.
MARISHA: Have you ever heard the name Briarwood before?
SAM: I have not, I’m sorry. Is Antlers okay over here?
LAURA: She’s quite all right.
SAM: All right. She seems a bit drunk already or
LAURA: She always does.
SAM: All right.
Because Scanlan had only left the show the episode before, this was likely an easy way to differentiate the two characters. Because they are simply sitting around a table with no costumes nor props, the players depend heavily on verbal cues. Additionally, while Scanlan was a tough, womanizing character, Taryon is much more effeminate. While each character curses, Riegel is much more likely to apologize as Taryon than as Scanlan.
Riegel uses ritual apology as a negative identity practice. Though he uses apology out-of-character for small errors like miscalculating rolls, he also uses apology to define what his characters are not. As Scanlan, Riegel used a lack of apology to play a character who was goofy, tough, and angry. Conversely, Taryon was Scanlan’s opposite. Taryon is also goofy, but he also lacks self-awareness. Moreover, he is focused more on the grandeur and flourish of heroism than of actually adventuring.
Critical Role’s set-up lends itself to discourse analysis. The players are all voice actors, who, by the nature of their profession, rely on only the verbal to perform their characters. Even so, in the game, they fluidly switch back and forth from in-character to out-of-character utterances. Still, the influence of their community of practice permeates their game. There is a clear linguistic shift about half way through the game that shows the amount of swears uttered by the women to dramatically increase while their apologies decreased. Despite gender differences, most of the players performed their swearing and apologies in a similar manner.
Still, the linguistic habits of the outer player group give interesting insight to the group dynamics and gaming culture as a whole. Despite the dragons and other fantasy villains, Mercer has created a feminist utopia where people of all genders and sexualities are provided equal opportunity, though there is still some social stratification. Even so, the group seems unable to avoid the toxic hyper-masculine influences of parts of the gaming community—at least in their language. With the popularity of Critical Role, perhaps this will be combated even more. Regardless, the popularity of the show means that there will be an influence on at least the language and terminology of the fans. Mercer’s signature saying when a player kills a villain or monster–“how do you want to do this”–is already frequently uttered at gaming tables and conventions and emblazoned on t-shirts. Even with the more subtle aspects of their discourse, such as their use of apology and swearing, the cast members of Critical Role build their identities as a player as well as a character.