Your Turn to Roll: The Story of Critical Role

If you’ve spent any time on the internet, particularly social media, you may have heard about a little something called Critical Role, particularly when their animated special Kickstarter is now the most funded video based Kickstarter in history, even more so than the Bring Back MST3K Kickstarter, and the 9th most funded overall.

But if you’re not familiar with the series, this whole affair might seem utterly baffling.

The Adventure Begins

Critical Role is where, in their own words, “a bunch of us nerdy ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons”. More specifically, it is a D&D liveplay show that streams live every Thursday night on Twitch at 7pm Pacific Time, 2am Friday morning in England, with the full show on their Youtube channel the following Monday and an audio only podcast available the following Thursday. The game is run by DM, that’s the Dungeon Master, Matt Mercer, who may be best known as the voice of Levi in Attack on Titan. His players consist of fellow voice actors Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, Ashley Johnson, Marisha Rey, Sam Riegal, Taliesin Jaffe, and Travis Willingham. The game began as a private game started for Liam O’Brien’s birthday, which later gained the attention of Felicia Day and the website Geek & Sundry, who offered to host the group as a stream in March 2015. Since then Critical Role has parted ways with Geek & Sundry and established themselves as their own production, with additional side content to the main show.

The first campaign, sitting at a whopping 115 episodes plus related one session bonus episodes, concerned the adventures of Vox Machina, a seasoned adventuring party on their various quests and dramas. The part consisted of half-elf twins Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan, a ranger and rogue respectively, gnome cleric Pike, goliath (giant) barbarian Grog, gnome bard Scanlan, half-elf druid Keyleth, and human gunslinger Percy, a custom, or “homebrew”, fighter class specialisation developed by Mercer. Also Trinket, Vex’ahlia’s bear companion. In their early adventures they were also joined by Tiberius Stormwind, a Dragonborn sorcerer played by Orion Acaba who left the show for private reasons that have been much speculated upon, but some of his later behaviour has meant he is not welcome in the fan community. The series also included several guest starts; including Felicia Day, Wil Wheaton, Jon Heder, and Joe Manganiello. The YouTube videos of the game sessions have over 17 million views collectively and the final episode, aired in October 2017, had 40,000 live viewers.

The second, or current, campaign follows The Mighty Nein, a much rawer and less tested group that unlike Vox Machina we get to see the difficult early days of the group meeting and learning how to work together. They are all highly flawed, but in spite of and even because of that they are also immensely likable. They are human wizard Caleb (plus Frumpkin the cat familiar), a tiefling (demonic race, think Nightcrawler from X-Men with horns) cleric Jester, half-orc warlock Fjord, human monk Beau, goblin rogue Nott The Brave, aasimar (angel descended) barbarian Yasha, and tiefling bloodhunter Mollymauk, which is another of Mercer’s homebrew classes. They are later joined by Firbolg (a type of nature based small giant) cleric Caduceus, but as for the circumstances of how and why he came to join the group, I will leave for you to discover for yourself.

art by @GalacticJonah, used with permission

There are many D&D and other roleplaying podcasts and video series out there, I recommend both Encounter Roleplay and The Broadswords, but what is it that makes Critical Role so special? Well, part of it is in the fact that all the players are actors, they know how to tell a story, make fully formed characters, and perform well. It’s also just a very easy listening experience which might sound surprising when over 100 episodes of listening, some sitting at over 4 hours, can seem like a very daunting task, yet you’d be surprised at how quickly the episodes go, especially if you listen with the podcast, and how easy it is to get drawn into the story.

The show can also help learning the game of Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t mean that it should be taken as a how-to guide, the show purely for entertainment purposes and the cast have frequently stated they are only to be taken as such, but it can be useful to see mechanics and abilities play out in real time that maybe you found hard to understand just reading it from a book, not to mention a little reassuring when you hear someone who has been playing the game for years forget the rules for sneak attack damage just like you do. Lately though the team has started a mini-series on YouTube called Handbooker Helper, which aims to fully explain things to new players in easy to watch chunks. It’s made the hobby of tabletop gaming feel fun and accessible to people unfamiliar with the game and who might feel intimidated trying to get into it because the don’t know a saving throw from an ability check. The cast have also used their popularity and platform to highlight various charities, including 826LA, an educational non-profit, Children’s Miracle Network, and Doctors Without Borders.

Art by @DeMarcoDraws, used with permission

Your Nerdy Best Friends

One of the biggest aspects of Critical Role and its popularity is the fan community, known as “Critters”. Fans of the show have really taken to the world and characters. You also only have to look at the hashtags #CriticalRoleArt or #CriticalRoleCosplay on Twitter to see the vast amount of creative content that fans put out, some of the former of which gets to be on the show itself in a montage during game breaks. The cast are also very involved in the fandom, particularly through social media, and in turn the good will and appreciation for the show has led to a very open and welcoming fan environment, something that can feel very rare online these days. There are also fans which help with the show in the form of making captions for the hard of hearing and translations for international fans that may not speak English.

I am myself a Critter, having started listening/watching with the second campaign. I enjoyed experiencing more actual D&D play, something I hadn’t done for a while at that point, and it was a good means of getting away from a few things I was going through in my life relating to my mental health and my dad’s ongoing cancer recovery. Getting to know these messy but generally well-meaning characters was a comfort, and much like other fans I became invested in their adventures, victories, and mistakes. I have now gone back to listen to the Vox Machina episodes, mostly when I need a D&D fix between current episodes, and whilst I am enjoying them tremendously my heart firmly belongs to The Mighty Nein.

The fan fervour for the show has caused some minor chaos, though. When some members of the cast appeared at MCM London Comic Con last October for a panel, the first European convention appearance for the team, the number of people almost shut down operations. Although part of this was the fault of the con organisers, as their decision not to empty the main stage between panels meant that people were camping out in their seats from 10am until the panel mid-afternoon. I imagine some of the earlier panel guest must have been very confused at the amount of elves, goblins, and tieflings in the audience. But it just goes to show the level of passion, not to mention endurance, that Critters have.

Art by @unoobang, used with permission

Put Your Fate In Your Hands

Which all brings us to Kickstarter. Originally the campaign, titled The Legend of Vox Machina, was to be a 22 minute animated special starring the characters of the first campaign, animated by the studio Titmouse, Inc. who make the Netflix series Big mouth. It went live on March 4 with a goal of $750,000 to ensure the best possible quality of animation and to cover the various backer rewards, including stickers, badges, dice (obviously), up to even getting a Producer credit and flown in for the special’s premiere. This was met within 45 minutes, with $1,000,000 being hit within the hour and, at the time of writing, now sits at $7,913,348.50, with over 20 days still to go. To say that it’s exceeded expectations would be an understatement, as the cast have had to rapidly add more and more stretch goals beyond what was originally planned for. This also means that what was a single episode is now going to be a series; with two episodes of original story and 6 episodes adapting the Briarwood Arc, one of the most popular of the campaign. There will also be bonus one-shot game podcasts episodes, including the very exciting possibility of the teams of Vox Machina and The Mighty Nein meeting and even doing battle.

Hopefully this has inspired you to give Critical Role a listen/watch and maybe even look into the possibility of trying Dungeons and Dragons for yourself. If not, then at least you might feel a little more familiar with this interesting show and the community it inspired.

Now, only one question remains.

Is it Thursday yet?

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