Wizards occupy a unique niche in Dungeons & Dragons. for their reliance on intellect and tireless pursuit of knowledge, wizards gain their abilities in the arcane through study. The wizards are what you’d get if your local professor found out they could turn into a dinosaur on command through reading enough.
Well-crafted stories are wonderful vessels to explore moral questions of discovery and power. One of the most elaborate wizard stories exists in the Mighty Nein campaign of “Critical Role.” The second season of this long-form, actual play show features a band of chaotic but ultimately heroic player characters known as the Mighty Nein. A war between two factions, the Dwendalian Empire and the Kryn Dynasty, over two religious artifacts (“beacons”) stolen from the Dynasty and found in the hands of the Empire, shadows the campaign. With tensions already high, the Dynasty quickly assumed the Empire was at fault for the theft and declared war. In reality, the beacons were handed over by one of the Dynasty’s wizards: Essek Thelyss (Matthew Mercer, “Baldur’s Gate III”), a high-ranking spymaster and arcane researcher of the Kryn Dynasty.
Essek “Hotboi” Thelyss, as the protagonists and audience affectionately refer to him, has workaholic tendencies and a lack of conversational skills that make him appeal to depressed STEM majors everywhere. I first encountered him in 2020, when I started watching “Critical Role.” I was applying to college and was at the height of my disillusionment with the future. Growing up, I was told that if I got the titles and won the awards, I’d be happy. So I spent my tweens and teens taking AP sciences and winning a Science Olympiad national championship title (I wish I were joking). As I sat in front of my laptop, submitting applications for one biology program after another, the thought of medical school, residency and becoming a doctor seemed like the worst fate imaginable.
When Essek is first introduced, he’s in court as the right hand to the queen of the Kryn Dynasty. Essek, the steward of the band of protagonists, was initially presented as a neutral high-ranking authority with no interest in relationships beyond those that could benefit the Dynasty. However, as the Nein got closer to Essek, they found that his true passion was arcane research — heretical research of the beacons. Later, post-season discussions revealed that Essek harbored secret motivations to befriend and spy on the group that came to the Dynasty to return the artifact. But in Episode 97, when the players spy on a powerful Empire wizard in the city of Nicodranas, Essek’s deception is revealed. His newfound friends’ confrontation is one of the most hard-hitting scenes of the whole campaign.
Essek, as an non-playable character, exists in the story through his connections to the main player characters and as a character foil for Caleb Widogast (Liam O’Brien, “Starfield”), whose backstory likewise involved reconciling his mistakes and atrocities. Out of all the stories told about hubris and allegiances, there are not many that put the focus on what it means to recover after irrevocably messing up your life. Sure, characters mess up and learn their lesson, but a story rarely goes the route of, “Yeah, this is irredeemable. Now live with it.” That’s what makes the conversation between the two characters in Episode 97 so powerful — neither of them has learned how to move on yet. Caleb has progressed further, with the help of his friends, while Essek — in his determination to have no true personal connections — had no reason to believe that moving would be possible. At the lowest point of Essek’s character arc, Caleb offers him what the rest of the Nein offered Caleb — an opportunity to become someone beyond his mistakes.
When you suddenly are hit with the realization that you regret all the work you’ve done over the past several years, you first wish to go back in time and do it all again. For years after the realization, I rehashed my every decision, considering all possible options I could’ve made and the scenarios they would’ve led to. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish; maybe I thought I was learning from the past or maybe I was reassuring myself that a different decision wouldn’t have been better. These thoughts were little more than a fantasy. But when you’re Essek Thelyss, master male manipulator of spacetime and probability, the fantasy of a true do-over doesn’t seem unachievable. Dunamancy — the field that Essek specializes in — is the arcane study of time, chance and reality. Ironically, the wizard who specializes in manipulating chance doesn’t believe in second chances for himself, but he understands the hopelessness of changing the past. It’s the part afterward that’s hard. When probability is your life, it’s easy to fall into the fallacy of Occam’s Razor because there’s no one to tell you that complacency isn’t the only conclusion, even if it’s the simplest.
After parting ways following the events in Nicodranas, the party next sees Essek in the sixth and final arc of the season. Off-screen, Essek had taken Caleb’s advice to heart and became a semi-functional but still extremely guilt-ridden person. He journeyed with the party into the dangerous ruins and found the T-dock, a device that could allow the user to change their past. In the story structure, this is a final test of sorts for Essek — the T-dock represents the pitfalls that led to his mistakes: ambition, curiosity, knowledge and motivation to take the risk. Here, the risk is to rectify the consequences of his past actions. However, when he and Caleb return to Aeor to investigate the T-dock in the epilogue of the campaign, Essek said, “I accept my regrets, my faults now, and I’m here today with this knowledge, in this moment with you, because of those mistakes. And as much as they hurt me, I don’t want to change a thing.” Afterward, Caleb disintegrated the machine, setting both of their past mistakes in stone once and for all.
Seeing Essek learn to live and rebuild the Nein’s trust in him after wrecking his life hit a switch in my mind at a perfect angle to ignite a lightbulb. Essek admitted that “there is no path of redemption,” no way to reverse choices — even so, the sun will rise and the world will exist tomorrow, and you can only move forward. As Caleb argued, “Maybe you and I are both damned, but we can choose to do something and leave (the world) better than it was before.” That’s not redemption, but it is a path forward.
Essek and “Critical Role” came into my life when I needed to see possibilities, and through him, I made peace with never knowing or living all of mine. My regrets tend to be more self-contained and less war-crime-related, but sometimes it’s nice to see that there are possibilities beyond the choices you regret. The lessons of permanence were hardest to learn. Growing up in a family where a career in STEM was the end-all, be-all, my path was set for me before I even understood what it would entail. And despite my best efforts, I grew up to be someone who wasn’t suited for that path. Like Essek, I had a mindset of “I’ll keep all my emotions right here, and then one day I’ll die.” And like Essek, I eventually realized that the things I sacrificed to endure this lifestyle were things I couldn’t ever get back. I’m still figuring out the “afterward” part for myself, but I think telling my Chinese parents that their kid was no longer pre-med and was also minoring in history was its own kind of heroic feat. Maybe I wasted my middle and high school years on something I didn’t really want. Maybe I didn’t. That part is over now, and what’s relevant is what I can do now to leave the world better than it was before.
I find it especially wonderful that Essek’s story arc beat the odds set by the dungeon master. In the post-campaign wrap-up, Mercer revealed that “Essek was designed to not be, like, a major antagonist, but an antagonistic force in the world … at a certain point, (the party’s) interactions with him showed him he could be better.” That’s the beautiful part of Dungeons & Dragons — characters are allowed to grow and form relationships, and you can’t predict it. But there’s something wonderfully poetic in that, even though the odds were stacked against him and “God” literally made him a villain, Essek Thelyss managed to find a way to move past his regrets.
In the last notes of this piece, it’s fitting to once again quote O’Brien as Caleb: “You were not born with venom in your veins. You learned it, you learned it.” Maybe we can unlearn it, maybe there’s an antidote. But even if there’s not, we can learn to live, anyway.
Daily Arts Contributor Lin Yang can be reached at email@example.com.