I know, I know, that’s pretty harsh. But keep in mind: Critical Role is a multi-million dollar business. With the 10 million dollars they’ve earned on Twitch and the 11 million dollars they raised to make their own TV show, (and whatever they end up getting paid through merchandise sales and Amazon Prime), this is no longer a game of friends playing D&D for fun. This is a business, and that means hitting certain marks.
Diving right in, Bertrand Bell needed to die for the purposes of the story and marketing. This was planned in advanced by Matt Mercer and Travis Willingham, not as Matt the Dungeon Master and Travis the player, but as Matt Mercer, the Chief Creative Officer, and Travis Willingham, the CEO of Critical Role.
It’s a good move. Bertrand Bell was a very funny character for Travis previously, and a good story tie-in to help merge the leftover characters from Exandria Unlimited to the new characters of Campaign 3 while tying all of that together to Campaign 1. That was a fantastic way to create buzz in the media without spending dime. By virtue of using Bell again, invested viewers and media reviewers would inevitably watch parts of Campaign 1, the one-shots like “The Search for Grog”, and tie these together for articles about Campaign 3. And since Exandria Unlimited didn’t do as well for Critical Role as they had hoped, mixing Bell in the first few episodes with three of the characters that were played in Exandria Unlimited helps generate curiosity about the events in ExU as well.
None of this is by accident. With the Legend of Vox Machina coming up soon on Amazon, it’s a damn good idea to bring Campaign 3 back out of Wildmount and closer to where interactions and mentions of Vox Machina, the characters from Campaign 1, can be brought up more frequently in the narrative. And as a business, the more you can do to self-promote the material you’ve already done, the more you can focus on the quality of the new material.
There were signs that Bertrand was slated to die. Coming in at Level five in episode one, (two levels above the rest of the players who were at level three), and using Bertrand to introduce the rest of the group to the first quest giver was a great story hook, but also a large tip-off that Bertrand’s place in the narrative was ordained. This means the starting point of their first arc is a very predetermined, tactical move from behind the scenes to start this campaign off in a manner that pushes the narrative in a singular direction immediately.
Because of his higher level, most viewers were waiting for the penny to drop and Bertrand to die. This also generated a lot of curiosity and buzz about who Travis’ actual Campaign 3 character would be and when they’d be revealed. I thought Travis’ work with Bertrand was stellar, but the level difference really convinced me that Travis’ time with the character was only temporary. And there is no way to kill a player character in this fashion without planning it in advance; despite some folks wanting to believe that everything that happens on the show isn’t scripted, this couldn’t make it more clear that some elements very much are. I’ve mentioned frequently in my answers on Quora, but I want to reiterate that here. This is a business after all, and with more and more money on the line, there is more pressure to deliver a product that continues to keep the interest of the current fans while also gathering new ones. To a certain extent, there has to be product control. Even though the game is mostly improvised interactions, there still needs to be certain story beats to hit. A lot of improvisation in Los Angeles, especially for long form, use structures like, “the Harold” to give a format to how to structure the improv scenes. All of the cast critical role are professional actors who have all done improv, and as the business has grown, have likely accepted that some of their game has to adhere to a bit more structure than when it was just a home game.
Campaign 2 had a really rough start: most of the characters designed by the cast were antisocial loners and introverts, and if that didn’t hamper conversation enough, most of them had tragic backstories, trust issues, and were not necessarily good people. The campaign also started without a clear villain, no real starting arc, and it wasn’t actually till Mollymauk, (played by Taliesin Jaffe), lost his life and was replaced with Caduceus Clay that the show felt like it was picking up steam and heading towards more concrete goals. In fact, that death ended up being the catalyst for their final arc and endboss. In many ways, Campaign 3, story-wise, looks to be addressing the major starting issues that occurred in Campaign 2. Three out of the eight characters were already workshopped in ExU, Bertrand Bell was also a workshopped returning character used to tie narratives together, and that left only four characters that needed introduction in the first episode. This greatly sped up the action and introductions; in short, Campaign 3 got right to business.
So it makes sense to me that Campaign Three needed Bertrand Bell to die. It solves a lot of problems right away: it gives the group a catalyst to become a team, it gives them a few launching points for starting quests, and introduces them onto a slightly more heroic and driven path than they might have taken otherwise.
And then killing him off? Also a great move for the story. Just like Spider-Man losing Uncle Ben, now our heroes are bound by a common tragedy and united against a single enemy. Regardless of their backstories and goals, they have one common goal in avenging the death of their fallen friend.
That’s a good way to kick off a story, and that is why Bertrand had to die. It’s just good business.