All the world’s a stage: What old and new fans can expect as Critical Role embarks on its second campaign

On January 11th, 2018, an estimated 100,000+ people watched as eight (self-professed) nerdy ass voice actors played Dungeons & Dragons on the internet. Their production set at Geek & Sundry is simple: there’s one large table, a decent mic set-up, and the players bring whatever dice, binders, or snacks required to make it through each nail-biting session. The show, appropriately titled Critical Role, has been streaming live on Twitch, Alpha, and YouTube every Thursday for two years now. Despite it’s steady momentum in popularity (the series recently came out with an origins comic book through Dark Horse) nobody could’ve expected this: a fantasy improv hangout boasting actual TV show numbers.

Yet, here we are.

During the first campaign, viewers were dropped into a story that had already been running for two years pre-stream. Vox Machina were a dysfunctional family, full of self-sabotaging, reluctant heroes trying to understand their purpose. Most stories wouldn’t throw you in the middle of a sloppy rescue mission, but the show kept its focus thanks to Matthew Mercer’s guidance as the Dungeon Master. The players, which include Travis Willingham, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, Ashley Johnson, Sam Riegel, Liam O’Brien, and Laura Bailey, are all voice actors who primarily work in video games or animation. Orion Acaba was in the group pre-stream and left around episode 30 for various reasons, including poor health. Occasional guest players pop up as well, including recurring favorites Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Will Friedle, but the large ensemble never devolves into chaos. Similar to an improv or theater format, each actor is given their moment to shine and explore their character’s path without becoming too self-indulgent or derailing the narrative. Throughout the first campaign’s 115 episodes, sporadic one-shots, after show Talks Machina, and “Critmas” specials, something became clear: Critical Role was destined to only get bigger as time went on.

I started watching the show in the summer of 2017 while working a hospital job that often left me with 3-4 hours to kill every shift. Critical Role had been on my radar for months since I became obsessed with Laura Bailey’s range of vocal work, and by episode 6, I was hooked. D&D was unfamiliar territory for me, but I found a lot of comfort in knowing that other cast members had never played until joining the group. Battle mechanics and stats can be understood within a 5-minute Google search, but the storytelling is ultimately why I kept watching. Convincing other people to get into the series, however, was often difficult. C1 has over 100 episodes with the average session running 4 hours long. The material adds up to 20 seasons worth of a TV series, and while it is possible to jump in at different points in Vox Machina’s travels, there are countless references, inside jokes, and personal developments that affect the overall story. Basically, a lot of potential viewers felt alienated due to the amount of commitment and I don’t blame them for saying, “eh, I’ll check it out when the new campaign begins.”

Which leads us to a new year and new beginning. Vox Machina completed their journey and still exist within the lore of Campaign 2, but the actors will be playing entirely new characters. This is an ideal starting point for newbies, and with burning expectations from all sides of the fandom, it’ll be interesting to see how things play out. Episode 2 airs on the 18th, but to give you an idea of how intense the community is (dedicated fans happily identify as ‘Critters’), I’ve seen at least 50 drawings from C2’s premiere, numerous Jester cosplays, and even a pancake spread of the new line-up. The anticipation only builds from here, but I truly believe that we have yet to see best of Critical Role.

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Campaign 2’s official artwork, done by Ariana Orner.

Because we’re joining the new group from their humble beginnings, there won’t be any blank spaces to fill in. Vox Machina were seasoned adventurers by the time we met them in Kraghammer, leaving us with patchy spots of the group’s earlier days. Keyleth accidentally killed a child, Pike had a very dramatic resurrection, and we’ll never truly know how they acquired the magic carpet. So many unseen things, big or small, forever shaped the group, and while the defining moments have been answered via comic books and Q&A’s, it’ll be refreshing to be around since day one. It’s also important to remember that Campaign 1 originally began as a one-shot for Liam’s birthday, so everything from character names to backstories were not deeply thought out. Pathfinder was used pre-stream and the conversion to 5E provided a few hiccups, resulting in some players confused about their own abilities. Not only is everyone more prepared and experienced for C2, but Exandria, the world in which Critical Role takes place, becomes richer every session. With most TV series or movies, there’s a lot of worldbuilding and rule setting from the get-go, which can unintentionally hinder a story as it tries to expand (this is a problem The Walking Dead is facing, for example). In the first campaign, majority of the action took place in the kingdom of Tal’Dorei, but our new heroes will find themselves in Wildemount, modeled after the 13th-15th centuries in Eastern Europe. The government, law, and overall culture will differ from what we’ve come to know, but they’re not hitting a total reset button. Not only is this part of Critical Role‘s magic formula, but one of the reasons why D&D has remained successful for 40 years. You have the power to start over without erasing everything, and with each new campaign, there is more awareness of your lasting decisions as a storyteller. Matt literally creates all of the history, lore, and non-playable characters in the series (he builds many of the sets as well and everyone is waiting on confirmation if he’s some type of superhuman), and in C2 we can expect to have a more thorough story with consideration of the series’ future.

That being said, the biggest room for error lies within our new band of explorers. These are characters that we’ll be spending a lot of time with, but there is a chance that an exciting dynamic never materializes. Campaign 1 had the advantage of introducing us to a group of people who collectively found their stride. Awkward or tense moments will inevitably happen within the next few weeks, but a natural rapport is what holds everything together. Some of the new characters have already teamed up (Caleb and Nott have been acquainted for a few months) which at least hints at the possibility that all of them will form a cohesive group at some point. But with the events at the end of E1, how will certain problems like Mollymauk’s imprisonment be handled without the actors meta-gaming in some way? There’s no reason for the characters to put their well-being on the line for somebody they barely know, so it’ll be interesting to see how early problems like these will be taken care of. Will long-term viewers be able to not compare everything to the first campaign? I’ll admit, a part of me is terrified that it’ll go down like season two of True Detective. This campaign might be 20 episodes in when I realize the magic isn’t there, or I don’t love the group as much as Vox Machina. Not enjoying a new installment is a genuine concern for every fanbase, but for a series with such a vast amount of material, it would be heartbreaking to not care about the people involved. But really, what is the worst case scenario here? C2 falls short and we have a giant backlog of episodes to re-watch. Most importantly, we need to remind ourselves that not only is this show free, but it owes us nothing. These are a bunch of old friends role-playing and giving us the chance to be a fly on the wall. Yes, Critical Role has a chance of falling short, but you have to look at it like an internet campfire. There’s comfort in revisiting an old, favorite story, but nothing beats a compelling adventure you can’t predict. I’m grateful for the joy this series has given me over the past year, and while I do hope it expands and gains more followers, I hope it never loses the intimacy that makes it feel so personal. Whether you’re a new fan or have been watching since their set looked like a 5-year-old’s bedroom, Campaign 2 is here to make us feel like giddy children again. The nervous expectations are there, but at the end of the day, this isn’t just a show you put on as background noise. We’re here, we’re invested, and we’re ready for what the new dawn brings.

Is it Thursday yet?

 

PS, A few extra pointers for new viewers…

  • A lot of questions can be answered on the Critical Role reddit page, which is probably the most well-maintained source for news and fan interaction.
  • Cast members are pretty good with not posting spoilers on social media, but if you do follow them on Twitter, they often ‘like’ things, such as fan art, that could end up on your feed. Just something to keep in mind.
  • This community is unbelievable. I’ve been involved in numerous fandoms or am at least aware of how other groups can be, but Critical Role fans are on a whole different level. They’re dedicated, warm, genuinely loving people who will do anything to support the series and help out their fellow Critters.
  • Gift giving is a big part of the fanbase and while it is tempting to send the cast members presents, they’ve received everything from customized dice to actual replicas of their character’s weapons. Please donate to a charity in their name instead.
  • Some popular quotes you’ll probably hear or see often:
    • “How do you want to do this?” Matt’s signature catchphrase for whoever gets the winning blow on an enemy. This is usually met by all the players collectively losing their shit while the person decides to think of the most dramatic/coolest/brutal way to kill their foe.
    • “Is it Thursday yet?” Matt’s closing words every week, also often used by fans as a way to express their withdrawal grief.
    • “Bidet.” In campaign one, Grog had an…interesting way of greeting people that caught on. You’ll see this used as a greeting in every chat room, message board, etc.
    • “Do you spice?” Said by Scanlan in the first campaign when he was trying to find an illegal substance, also a popular greeting within the community.
    • “I would like to rage.” Another Grogism, Ashley borrowed the phrase in C2E1, but may develop her own saying for when Yasha goes into a frenzy.

Personal favorites of 2017

I typically don’t write year-end lists, but man, 2017 was kind of a dumpster fire. So many terrible things are happening in the world right now, but the art of storytelling makes me believe in a better future. Maybe that’s naive of me to think, but I also feel like it’s more important than ever to talk about the things we love. I didn’t go too deep here, but the following list contains my three personal favorites from each category, including some rambling thoughts. Happy 2018, everyone!

Movies

  1. The Shape of Water. I was totally that weird, grown woman in the theatre softly crying throughout the whole movie. Guillermo Del Toro is known for his dark fairytales, but none of them have captivated me this much since Pan’s Labyrinth.
  2. Baby Driver. A lot of “fun” movies are usually too cheesy for me, but Edgar Wright’s work might be the exception. From the opening 6-minute car chase to the very end, I was completely immersed in Baby’s story and had the biggest smile on my face the entire time.
  3. Dunkirk. I also don’t really care for war movies, but Dunkirk is one of the few exceptions. Everything was so gorgeously done. Christopher Nolan has mastered his craft and it’s one of the few blockbusters I’ve watched in a long time that truly valued the art of “show, don’t tell.”

TV shows

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not exactly fun to watch, but it almost feels necessary. Margaret Atwood’s story resonates more than ever, and I think we’re only a few years away from our country potentially falling into the same trap. Also, this scene with Alexis Bledel’s character (warning: there is a hanging shown onscreen) was the most affective thing I’ve seen on TV in years.
  2. Legion. One of the first shows in a while where I truly had no idea where it was going, which somehow made the experience even better. Aubrey Plaza is a queen.
  3. Big Little Lies. Everything about this show was on-point. The directing, cinematography, soundtrack, acting, everything. To see a story so focused on the nuances of marriage, abuse, and motherhood was also very refreshing.

Video games

  1. Horizon Zero Dawn. Ugh…this game, man. It’s so perfect. Everything from the open world design, to its addicting combat system, to Aloy’s quest for answers made this one of the most riveting titles I’ve ever played.
  2. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. This somehow managed to improve on the small imperfections in the first installment and exceed all of my expectations. Don’t let the loot box controversy deter you–this game fucking rules.
  3. Nier: Automata. I’ll admit, I wasn’t as immediately smitten with this game as everyone else, but it has lingered with me months after playing. The story will leave you questioning just about everything, but Yoko Taro knows how to craft a story that will challenge and reward you all the same.

Records

  1. Lorde – Melodrama. My favorite pop record of all time. I tried writing something and I honestly couldn’t. It’s just perfect. Favorite tracks: “Supercut”, “Liability”
  2. St. Vincent – Masseduction. There’s a lot of Prince and Bowie worship on here, but Annie Clark continues to be a dazzling creative force in her own right. Favorite tracks: “Fear the Future”, “Los Ageless”
  3. SZA – Ctrl. One of the most personal records I’ve heard in years and SZA reminds us to keep it real in the way we express ourselves–even if that means being selfish or manipulating. Favorite tracks: “Prom”, “20 Something”

Comics

  1. Saga. Alana, Marko, and Hazel dealt with the aftermath of Alana’s miscarriage, which led us to a new, Spaghetti Western-esque planet! We got a peak at what The Will has been up to! Ghus is also still alive by the end, so I’d say it’s a good arc.
  2. Snotgirl. Get hooked on Bryan Lee O’Malley’s storytelling and stay for Leslie Hung’s gorgeous, anime-influenced artwork. Lottie continues living it up as a somewhat popular blogger in Hollywood, but there’s still some murder and obsession to worry about. The slow build-up of this comic is such a treat and I can’t wait to see where it goes.
  3. The Wicked + The Divine. The Imperial Phase closed with what was probably one of the best issues I’ve ever read in a comic book series. Seriously, Kieron Gillen is on some next level storytelling and WicDiv‘s upcoming, final arc will be one you can’t miss.

Live performances

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, IL. I’ve gone to a few hundred shows at this point, but nothing could prepare me for the intense, blissful experience of what this band had to offer. I was in such humbled disbelief the entire night, constantly shifting from ugly sobbing to screaming with utter joy.
  2. Nine Inch Nails at Riot Fest in Chicago, IL. Trent Reznor and co. have been taking it easy on shows, but thankfully they made room in 2017 for Riot Fest. NIN are known for their tight, well-constructed live sets, and it was such a gift to finally see it happen during a beautiful, warm Chicago evening.
  3. Paramore at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, GA. Paramore has changed so much in the 10 years since I’ve first seen them, but their energy and passion onstage is unrivaled. The highlight of the evening was a stripped down version of “26”, dedicated to the shooting victims in Las Vegas. I don’t think there was a single dry eye in the room.

Playstation Experience 2017

Initially, I didn’t plan on writing about this. Video games are a newer passion of mine and there’s still so much I’m learning about the industry and culture surrounding it. I’ve gone to numerous conventions over the years, but PSX has more of an Expo structure. There are booths and set-ups ranging in sizes, but they all offer their own personal, hands-on experience. You won’t see towers of Funko Pops or get smacked by some cosplayer’s Overwatch wings here. Instead, you’ll walk through intricate displays that put you in the center of a game’s location, play exclusive demos for upcoming releases, and maybe take a 3D picture of yourself with Spider-Man. For this post, I’m going to focus on what it was like to actually be there. You can find news or recaps by far more knowledgeable people online, so I’m going to share things from my perspective as a newbie who left with their eyes wider than they were going in.

IMG_3224On Saturday morning, my friend and I lined up when doors opened at 10 AM, but it took a good hour for us to get inside. Thankfully, the Anaheim Convention Center was extremely organized with their line system and there were numerous security lines to keep the flow steady. One of the main reasons why I attended PSX was for The Last of Us and Uncharted presence. Both games are deeply important to me and I’ll be totally honest: I’m Naughty Dog trash. I love everything this company does and I have an endless amount of appreciation for Neil Druckmann. After checking out the Days Gone set-up (featuring hanging corpses, aggressive zombies, and a brown bear covered in barbed wire), my friend and I made our way to the Uncharted 10 year anniversary booth. Neil was checking out the display case with some of Nathan Drake’s props and I managed to snag a minute of his time. He was extremely gracious and kind during our brief exchange and signed my badge. I also somehow managed to make him laugh, so now I can cross that off my bucket list.

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The Uncharted booth was insanely cool and such a treat for the die-hard fans. They recreated Nate’s attic full of goodies from Uncharted 4, and instead of walking through the room aimlessly, the staff had you complete a timed puzzle with 4-5 other people. 5 trivia questions on the sheet correlated with objects in the room, and nearly every prop had a tag attached with a single letter. If the group solved the puzzle (the code word was DRAKE–big surprise, right?) you were rewarded with one of the 35 collectable Playstation cards. The booth also had stations to play each game from the series, a display case featuring iconic treasures, and a green screen photo booth where you could dress up as the Drake brothers.

 

As I circled the entire convention floor (which probably took a good half hour), I ended up watching a lot of gameplay instead of waiting in line. Some of the lines were a bit too long for my patience, but I definitely wanted to experience Night in the Woods and Detroit: Become Human for myself. NitW‘s dreamy visuals caught my eye as I walked around the indie section, but it’s snappy dialogue really pulled me in once I sat down. Detroit‘s set-up, which was probably my favorite from the weekend, featured a Westworld-esque room full of androids against a white background ready to be purchased and taken out like human-sized Barbie dolls. I mainly signed up for the Detroit demo because of my friend’s interest, but I’m officially drinking the hype kool-aid now. During its 20 minute run, you had to navigate a hostage situation, with your success percentage going up or down depending on what choices you made. I feel a little burnt out on those decision based games, but it was cool to visually see how it affected my goal.

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The only major downside to PSX were the autograph opportunities. They were a featured part of the event and the Playstation Twitter, blog, and app made it seem like everyone was able to get at least one. You booked the autograph by going onto their app, and at 1 PM on Saturday, they would be released to everybody. What they didn’t disclose was that only 200 slots were available per session. 200 is really nothing when you consider the thousands of people in attendance, and when I hit the booking button the moment the hour turned, they were already full. I was really disappointed, considering the Uncharted and TLOUII sessions were a huge reason why I went. So my advice for anyone going in the future: don’t go just for the autograph sessions! The difference between you and someone else getting it comes down to a sliver of a second. But I promise there are so many other cool things worth attending for. Luckily for me, I watched the Uncharted signing and Emily Rose, who plays Elena, ran over afterwards and signed a picture for me because she’s an actual sweetheart.

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Which brings me to the best part of my weekend, the panels! All of them are conveniently available to stream live or watch later on YouTube, but you can’t beat the magic of actually being in the room. The Uncharted 10 year anniversary round-up, hosted by Greg Miller from Kinda Funny, featured all of the prominent actors from the series. Greg did a wonderful job keeping the panel balanced, light-hearted, and reflective without losing any focus. Most of the conversation focused on the early creative process, the fun challenges of motion capture, and how the series has affected the actors on a professional and personal level. Admittedly, I started crying towards the end when I realized how massive and influential Uncharted is. I’ll miss it so much, but I’m grateful they were given a platform to have one final discussion and that I got to be a fly on the wall for it.

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The Last of Us Part II discussion followed a half hour later. Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) opened with a stripped down cover of “The Wayfaring Stranger” in character, its lyrical content adding even more fuel to the speculation fire. Comedian and moderator Hannah Hart got the popular questions out of the way, but as expected, most of them were carefully dodged. The main cast, alongside Neil Druckmann and writer Halley Gross, focused on discussing the grim second trailer recently shown at Paris Games Week. I don’t know why, but I’m seriously obsessed with the siblings. I think they’re escaping a religious cult, which is totally my thing. Hannah did a great job maintaining a conversation about a game that can’t really be talked about, but we at least found out more about the setting and theme for Part II. For now, I’ll be re-watching those trailers on a weekly basis and counting down the days until E3 2018.

Overall, I was impressed with PSX and would definitely attend again. Aside from the booths and panels, there was also an opportunity to collect cards and unlock rewards on the app, some of which included free Playstation themes. The official merchandise area also had a lot to offer and it was refreshing to see feminine and more gender-neutral clothing. The prices were actually decent, too: $25 for most shirts, $50-$60 for sweaters, and there were even some really nice outdoor gear like insulated jackets. Nothing here felt cheesy or forced, and you can tell that Playstation actually cares about what their merchandise looks like. Oh, and I never really felt bored, either. You can sit and watch people play trivia, have your picture taken at countless booths, grab something to eat, or go for a walk outside since re-entry was very easy. There’s always something to do.

 

Hopefully this gives some insight as to what you can expect at PSX, but if any of you have questions, please let me know. I can’t wait to be back in California for SDCC next year!

CONVENTION CENTER RATING

  • Location: 10/10. The Anaheim Convention Center is honestly really beautiful. It’s also surrounded by every type of hotel imaginable and was really easy to find a restaurant or drugstore within walking distance. Getting a shuttle from the hotel back to LAX was also easy and affordable.
  • Parking: ?/10. I didn’t drive, but I also didn’t see a parking ramp or anything next to the convention center, so I’m not sure what the overall situation is like.
  • Accessibility: 10/10. Again, it’s hard for me to give this a confident rating because I only encountered one person in a wheelchair. However, the convention was really spacious and I don’t think anyone with a disability would have an issue getting around.
  • Cleanliness: 10/10. This place was spotless, but most of the booths didn’t allow food or drinks and anyone under 18 wasn’t allowed, which probably helped.
  • Bathrooms: 10/10. Probably the best bathrooms I’ve seen at a convention and majority of the time, a custodian was always in the room to fix up the stalls and counters.
  • Staff: 10/10. Probably the friendliest and knowledgable staff I’ve come across. I don’t know if they were all volunteers or paid, but they all seemed to actually care about making sure you had a good time.
  • Food: 7/10. I ordered a macchiato from inside the venue and got some weird, foamy latte thing instead. There are a lot of food options within the venue, but I recommend going into the hotel connected to the venue. They have chains like Baja Fresh and Starbucks without the convention surcharge. Being vegan usually means I’m packing my own meals, but I’m glad I didn’t have to worry about that here.

 

PLAYSTATION EXPERIENCE RATING

  • Guests: 10/10. Again, from my perspective of being a shameless Uncharted and TLOU fangirl, it was nearly overwhelming sitting in the same room as the directors, writers, and actors who made these games come to life. It would’ve been cool to meet some of them, but I get that direct fan interaction isn’t a part of PSX.
  • Panels: 9/10. The panels were arguably the highlight of my weekend and I like that they were all professionally ran since some fan panels can be a little awkward or underwhelming. It would’ve been cool to see a little more, though. I think there were less than 10 panels altogether.
  • Content: 8/10. It’s hard for me to judge this year’s content since I haven’t really paid attention before this, but I was overall impressed with what I saw. However, a lot of things people were expecting to see here had already been shared overseas at Paris Games Week, so a lot of the suspense was gone.
  • Organization: 8/10. My rating isn’t perfect because of the whole autograph fiasco. However, the rest of the event was ran pretty smoothly, which seems to be a huge upgrade from previous years.
  • Affordability: 8/10. Early bird badges were $65 and my roundtrip flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles was $185. $40 to pay for a roundtrip shuttle to the hotel in Anaheim, but my friend was very awesome and covered the hotel expense. I think the convention was worth it, but you will definitely save a lot more if you pay for everything when it’s first announced.
  • Staff: 10/10. Staff was incredibly nice, patient, and actually knew what they were talking about.

Walker Stalker Atlanta 2017

Hey everyone! I wasn’t planning on having this as my first post, but here we are. Walker Stalker snuck up on me again (per usual) and I wanted to discuss everything while it’s still fresh in my mind. There will be a fancy introductory post later, but until then, I’m going to shamelessly geek out and offer some advice for anyone thinking about attending the convention in the future.


 

Some quick backstory: This is my fourth Walker Stalker. In 2015, I attended my first event in Chicago last minute, unaware that it would eventually become such a staple in my life. I knew absolutely nothing at the time, showed up with $50, and still managed to have an unforgettable weekend. Let me just say this now: I don’t think you need to have a lot of money to have fun at WSC. There are panels happening all day, rows of artists and vendors to sort through, and many of the cast members will do meet-and-greets for free. So many things have changed within the last couple years and it keeps getting bigger, but there’s still a level of intimacy that I don’t find at other conventions. Something about Walker Stalker will always be special, and if you want to go big, you go to Atlanta.

This specific weekend is kind of a big deal. Many refer to it as the Walker Stalker Super Bowl for various reasons. Tucked within Building B of the massive Georgia World Congress Center, the guest line-up is stacked compared to other cities. The Walking Dead cast take up majority of the attendee list, but you can also expect to see talent from Fear the Walking Dead, Lost, Sons of Anarchy, Z Nation, Ash. vs Evil Dead, and more. Aside from London, this is the only WSC Andrew Lincoln attends, and even the busier and more reclusive cast members will sign on for at least one day. There’s something grandiose about the whole thing. People travel from all over the world for this and it’s not unusual to hear passing conversations in French or Chinese. Nobody “looks” like a Walking Dead fan, either. You’ll see all ages, colors, sizes, and backgrounds. People will go through so much to meet a person from a TV show, but that’s when you realize it’s not just a TV show anymore. Crew members and volunteers wear shirts that read “it’s not fandom, it’s family” and there’s a humbling truth to that. This series has begun a movement, and like the mindless zombies on The Walking Dead, we’re all here to feed on something that keeps us alive. It’s why I keep returning, despite telling myself that it’s getting too popular, or that the magic has worn off (it hasn’t), or that I don’t have the money for it (which is usually the actual truth).

Soft feelings aside, I always attend the cons at General Admission level. There are four tiers to this madness: GA, VIP, Gold, and Platinum. Each of them have their own perks, and it usually takes you one or two cons to figure out which one works best for your needs. Personally, I like going the photo op route, in which you get a professional picture with whomever you choose, but the downside is that you don’t get to have a conversation. Usually it’s a “Hi, how are you doing?” type of exchange before the volunteers usher you out of the curtained room. If you’re a nervous wreck like me, you might actually prefer the brief interactions since it gives you minimal room to embarrass yourself. Some cast members are known for being very affectionate and talkative, while others will keep the exchange short and sweet. Thankfully, I haven’t had any negative experiences yet or have caught an actor on a bad day. If you think you’ll lean towards doing mainly photo ops, attending the con with GA or VIP will probably be good enough for you. Gold and Platinum holders will go first in photo op lines, but it really doesn’t make much of a difference since the lines move so quickly.

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My photo op with Melissa McBride, who plays Carol Peletier on The Walking Dead.

Depending on the actor’s popularity, photo ops may range anywhere from $50 to $100. You can pay an additional $10 for a digital download and $5 for a plastic hard case, which I strongly recommend. As for preparing for your photo op, I tell everyone to wear make-up (even if you typically don’t) and apply setting powder to your face right before your op. Nobody wants to look like a sweaty bowling ball next to Lauren Cohan. I also wear neutral colored clothing to not distract from the overall photo and practice my smile. I know that sounds kind of weird, but seriously, you don’t want to pay all that money for a picture and end up hating it.

I got four photo ops this year: Jon Bernthal, Melissa McBride, Danai Gurira, and David Morrissey. I tried to wait and get an autograph with Jon, but this is where my General Admission wasn’t enough. Jon’s line was so busy that they wouldn’t let anyone with GA through, so I ended up getting the photo op. It’s important to be aware of things like this, or else you risk missing out on meeting somebody altogether. Don’t ever be afraid to check in with the volunteers who are monitoring their booths. Majority of the time, they will not tell you what’s going on or bother putting signs up because things can happen and change so quickly. It can be frustrating, but consistently asking for updates (without being a nuisance) is vital if you’re at a lower admission and you’re trying to meet a popular cast member.

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My photo op with David Morrissey, who plays The Governor on The Walking Dead.

If photo ops aren’t your thing or you’d rather have more time to meet the cast member, the other option is to wait in their line for an autograph or selfie. All of them will have their own designated booths with four different lines to wait in. This is when the four tiers of whatever admission you go with will affect you the most. Say, for example, you want to meet Chandler Riggs. Depending on your admission tier, your wait in General Admission could be 2 hours on a Saturday, while someone with a Platinum badge only waits 10 minutes. If you want to meet a lot of people at Walker Stalker, you’re going to have to pay up. I typically only meet a handful of cast members per con since I plan on attending these for a while, so I’m not exactly racing to cross everyone off my list. Go with what’s best for you!

The autograph and selfie prices range per actor. Some of the bigger names, like Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus, won’t do selfies at all because their lines are too busy getting through autographs. Selfies are generally way cheaper than photo ops, but you should also take into consideration that 1) it’s not professional quality and 2) the lighting is usually awful and will probably make you look like garbage. Sometimes you might have an unflattering background, too. These are things to keep in mind, but I highly recommend getting selfies with Josh McDermitt, Michael Cudlitz, and Alanna Masterson because they all take like 8 pictures with you.

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My selfies with Josh McDermitt, who plays Eugene Porter on The Walking Dead.

Most of the actors will offer standalone prices for a selfie or autograph, but most offer a combo package that will shave a few dollars off. For example, Josh’s selfie and autograph were each $50, but getting a combo is $70. Everything adds up quickly and prices change the longer someone’s been on a show, so if you like one of the lesser known or newer characters, I recommend meeting them as soon as possible.

Another nice thing about meeting someone at their booth is that you can give them presents! I gave Josh a couple pins in Chicago earlier this year, one of which had Eugene photoshopped as a Packers fan. I mentioned the pins this past weekend and it helped him remember me. Little things like that can help you stand out amongst the hundreds of people they meet every year. Try to give them something small and unique, like a hand made trinket or fan art. Avoid anything bulky or food-related, because they probably won’t take it home.

In terms of what you should talk about, I recommend keeping it light. Depending on the cast member, you might have anywhere from 3-8 minutes to talk with them. Have a general idea of what you want to talk about, but don’t plan the entire conversation in your head. If it’s a Walking Dead cast member, sometimes I’ll bring up their work outside of the show. It shows that you care about their entire filmography and gives them a break from talking about the same thing all day. Just go with what feels right. It’s okay to be nervous, but don’t be that person who screams or hysterically cries.

If I’m going to be honest, though, the best part about these cons are the other fans you’ll meet. Writing this has made me realize that I spent majority of my time hanging out with people that I met in lines or on social media. That’s the beauty of this thing. You end up having these organic and truly special interactions with everyone, famous or not. My favorite memories from this year were in the presence of new friends, honestly. Don’t ever be afraid to attend the convention alone and talk to a complete stranger.

If any of you have questions or comments, please let me know! I wrote this pretty much off the cuff, so I apologize if it’s hard to follow. I put together a rating system for both the convention center and Walker Stalker to help break down what I think are crucial things to know before attending.

CONVENTION CENTER RATING

  • Location: 10/10. The Georgia World Congress Center is in the heart of downtown and gives you access to a genuine Atlanta experience. There are a lot of hotels close to the venue, but I stayed at an AirBnB 15 minutes away last year and payed $300 for 4 days.
  • Parking: 8/10. There is no free parking, but there are many affordable garages/lots surrounding the venue. I paid $9 per day by booking in advance, but many lots were $20 if you paid the day of.
  • Accessibility: 10/10. GWCC is very spacious and extremely accommodating to everyone’s needs. I’ve heard no complaints from anyone with a disability.
  • Cleanliness: 10/10. Cons can get disgusting really quickly, but in the two years that I’ve attended, nothing has grossed me out.
  • Bathrooms: 9/10. Occasionally the toilet paper will run out, but this is pretty much as good as it gets. There are also a ton of bathrooms, so you don’t wait in line too long. If you can, try using the ones outside of the convention hall, they’re way nicer.
  • Staff: 10/10. Majority of the staff you’ll see are with WSC, but if you ever need help, the actual venue staff are equally as helpful.
  • Food: ?/10. I’ve never eaten here because the prices will make you cry. Walk an extra 5 minutes across the street to the CNN center food court instead.

 

WALKER STALKER CON RATING

  • Guests: 10/10. Atlanta is the pinnacle of the Walker Stalker. There might be one or two notable Walking Dead cast members missing each year, but it’s typically because they are too busy filming something else. It’s not just people who are currently on the show, either. Everybody from the series comes out for it. The con also brings in a consistent amount of actors from other fandoms.
  • Panels: 10/10. Most of the panels will make your stomach hurt from laughing, honestly. I don’t think I’ve ever attended one that felt underwhelming or tedious. Everyone is very interactive with the fans and you can even go up to a mic and ask questions.
  • Photo Ops: 9/10. Getting your photo op can be stressful, but Celeb Photo Ops, the company who run it at Walker Stalker, do a remarkable job. There were a lot of system issues this year, but overall they make everything run smoothly. My only gripe is how badly the photographers rush you.
  • Artists and Vendors: 8/10. Whether you want a life-size cut out of Negan, a homemade cookie telling you to look at the flowers, or want to take a picture with stunning cosplayers, the vendor hall has so much to offer. In the future I would like to see more original artwork and less overpriced shirts.
  • Events/concerts/after parties: 7/10. Walker Stalker Atlanta has plenty of things to offer once the con wraps up. In the past, there have been shows with Emily Kinney and Halloween parties thrown by Norman Reedus and Tom Payne. I personally don’t care for the after shows and most people say they’re boring and overpriced.
  • Organization: 7/10. The convention floor is very well laid out and easy to remember. However, WSC could really benefit from having more signs and maintaining better communication amongst their staff.
  • Affordability: 6/10. This one is tough. On one hand, WSC has made the four tiers of admission to suit different needs and expectations. And as I mentioned before, I don’t think you need to have a lot of money to have fun. The biggest downside about the entire con are the prices to meet the cast members. This is a very, very expensive convention. I’ve met far more established actors and artists who charged half the price of a relatively unknown Walking Dead cast member. I don’t know if there’s a way to fix this, but I worry that the con will become too expensive for my budget.
  • Staff: 8/10. Majority of the staff and volunteers are friendly, personable, and will go above and beyond to help you out. Some of them seem undertrained, though, and it’s not unusual to be given the wrong information.