Even with video. Even with the internet. Even with game streaming. Who would have EVER thought to put Dungeons & Dragons online? I mean, who would want to watch people roll dice, play at acting, and discuss rules instead of playing online card games and gladiatorial shooting grounds?
Turns out, quite a lot of people, if Critical Role’s 115+ episodes of their first season are anything to go by.
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Today, I’ll be talking about Critical Role, the show where nerdy-ass voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons. Once upon a time, a group of said voice actors decided they’d try it out for a friend’s birthday. They enjoyed it so much that they kept doing it. A friend of one of those friends heard about it from them, and asked if they’d like to start streaming it (said friend happened to be Felicia Day who runs Geek & Sundry). Since then, they’ve made their adventures public.
I felt it’s a good time to cover it as it’s one of the more recent things I got into, and it recently finished its first campaign. Season 2 and a new set of characters will show up next year.
To be sure, it is not the only one of its kind. In the first place, HarmonQuest covers mini-D&D. And besides that, I’m sure D&D has been on the internet for QUITE awhile. DEFINITELY in ‘tell your story online‘ form, and with some campaigns even making it in video format. In fact, both official D&D staff AND popular gamer streamers have gotten in on the act.
But Critical Role is arguably the show that’s played the biggest role in making D&D popular, introducing it to several new audiences: people looking into tabletop games, fans of streaming in general, and of course, fans of the voice actors. There are a mix of campaigns out there with different focuses and different casts, but Critical Role stands out as the most glamorous and popular. It has pretty good production values, a fun and relateable team, and members of said team which are prominent voice actors. So unlike assorted shows which only have “Wait, WHO is this comedian?” or “Is this person a LoL streamer or something?” to go on, this is easier for nerds of the animation/anime ilk because they get to go “Hey! Those are Gaara and Roy Mustang!” and such.
A Long Time Ago, In A Campaign Setting Far, Far Away…
So, that’s what it is. But what is IN it?
Critical Role takes place in the world of Exandria. It is, in essence, a Homebrew made by the GM, but with a good mix of original creations and pre-existing D&D gods, races, and artifacts. In essence, it’s taking what they are (for example Sarenrae, goddess of healing, redemption, and salvation), and creating a new creation myth for them, which some GMs are more than familiar with doing.
In a nutshell, the gods made the world, clashed over divided purposes, and after a few calamitous wars, civilisation stabilised and the gods were either corrupted into epic loot fodder or relegated to “super powerful being that only watches and empowers”. Now is the age of mortals. Of the children of the gods, the powers of the world and the divine, of nations and adventurers.
Now is the time of dragons and…places where you imprison people.
Character Select! Readyyyyy…GO!
Critical Role focuses on the adventures of Vox Machina (formerly the Super High Intensity Team), a motley band of adventurers who are equal parts clumsy, whimsical, dangerous, and ultimately, good. Their self-proclaimed selling point is that they’re “not good, more like neutral, doing the dirty things some won’t”, and perhaps that’s true especially next to your typical “justice and law at all costs” good types, but they’re actually a lot closer to more typical (if still WILDLY unpredictable) protagonists and characters. Not paragons of virtue, but ultimately still loyal to each other and quite likable. And unless stated otherwise, let’s just assume that they are all equally capable of balancing tactical decisions with character-driven ones.
The GM is Matthew Mercer, known for being a diverse voice actor commonly cast in gritty, manly roles like Overwatch’s McCree, Kiritsugu Emiya in the Fate anime series, and Deadshot in Injustice 2. He’s the guy who masterminded this campaign, the story and threats the party faces, and the characters they meet along the way. Does a great job, as while his encounters are tough, he’s fairminded, generous with the rewards, and great with handling the story and atmosphere. And, most importantly for a GM, keeping things on point and explaining things for his players if they’re stuck. And the cast, in the order they appear in the picture, are…
Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski De Rolo III, the Human Gunslinger played by Taliesin Jaffe, who got into acting from childhood and is now a fellow voice actor, having been a Morgraine in World of Warcraft and, more recently, Barry Allen/The Flash in Injustice 2. Percy is one of the primary brains of the party, and the one most at ease in negotiations and diplomacy with NPCs. A noble from a fallen house, dedicated to knowledge and the sciences, his family was destroyed, he went on the run and made his first gun, becoming a deadly master of the power of black powder (converted from Pathfinder!). The group encountered him in a dungeon and since then, he has been one their hardest hitters…assuming the enemy isn’t resistant to his one and only attack type. Percy’s charming and intelligent, but also prone to fixating on things to an unheathy degree, ESPECIALLY with regards to his family. This is, in fact, in contrast to the actual Taliesin, who despite being a goth, is actually a pretty chill and fun guy. He also has a tendency to roll REALLY well.
Keyleth, the Half-Elf Druid of the Air Ashari, played by Marisha Ray, who…actually, I don’t see much on her list, but she’s been in a couple of Fire Emblems and Trails of Cold Steel games. Keyleth is one of the team’s main sources of magical damage, though as a druid, she has a fair degree of utility and healing, in addition to the versatility of shapeshifting. Her people are a druidic culture that take in all races and are divided into four elemental tribes, and as a chosen leader-in-training, she is undertaking a pilgrimage to all four tribes to learn their ways and how to unite them as a people, when she crosses paths with the group. Keyleth is the group’s innocent idealist, a country mouse in the big city who can shapeshift into a bear. She is wise, perceptive, and altruistic, often horrified by the more questionable actions they take, and also very socially awkward. Marisha herself, while newer to the group, is quite savvy in the nerd arena and has been quite involved in various short productions, in contrast with the shy character she plays.
Tiberius Stormwind, the Red Dragonborn Sorcerer, played by Orion Acaba. One of his bigger roles is Apollo Justice in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Tiberius is of the rigid civilisation of Draconia (how imaginative), and rather than consign himself to politics and scrolls, he’s on a search for mysterious artifacts said to be merely legends, both out of intellectual curiosity, and in order to prove himself to his people and his family, as he has a chip on his shoulder for being born red (for reference, traditionally, dragons named after colours are bad, dragons named after metals are good). Although he plays the buffoon (and is, in fact, also ACTUALLY one with low Wisdom), he has a sharp intellect and prodigious spellpower. Tiberius and Orion are arguably the most competitive cast members, as while they enjoy being part of the party, their playstyle is the closest to that of more traditional min-maxing win-at-all-costs D&D players, with an undertone of wishing to claim the biggest achievement they can brag about. They are destined to part ways with the show and pursue other things, but Tiberius is honoured as a founder of Vox Machina when he stumbles upon them and lends his considerable might and knowledge to their cause.
Grog Strongjaw, the Goliath Barbarian played by Travis Willingham, prominently known as plenty of big bombastic guys like Street Fighter’s Guile, Full Metal Alchemist’s Roy Mustang, Marvel animation’s Thor, and Knuckles the Echidna, but also heroic types like Warcraft’s Turalyon and even intellectuals like Karax of StarCraft. Grog was once part of a nomadic tribe until he refused to butcher an innocent, leading to his being exiled and beaten nearly to death. This brought him into the life of the cleric Pike, who helped save his life. He would travel and cross paths with Scanlan and later the group, where he serves as the group’s muscle, meat shield, big threatening guy, and overall goof, because his battle prowess is matched only by his love for ale, shinies, and just enjoying himself in life, damn the consequences, though he’s also out to avenge his disgrace. Grog may have the least baggage and is the most likely to talk the group into trouble, but he’s played smartly by Travis who finds a sweet spot of “playing dumb because it’s hilarious” and “actually coming up with a really good idea”. Travis, in turn, makes Grog a frequent source of the most direct combat and indirect humour, loving every moment of it, but can actually buckle down and stand by his friends, respecting when something dramatic is going on. Also, Travis IRL is actually SUPER fit, making him ALSO physically resemble his character, though he’s also a lot sharper and strategic than Grog’s intelligence of 6 would warrant.
Scanlan Shorthalt, the Gnome Bard played by Sam Riegel of…lots of shows. We’ll get to that in a sec. Scanlan is the group’s diplomat, but he’s also a practiced hedonist and man of the world who loves having a good time, whether it’s with a tale, an ale or some tavern wench tail. He’s got probably the most diverse spell list which actually expands into one that’s super powerful, having the most utility with not just his casting, but his ability to Inspire allies with an extra dice they can add to their rolls, though for a support guy, he packs a surprising amount of firepower. Scanlan is jovial, fun-loving, and a huge joker, the obvious comic relief, though it’s possible that he’s trying to sublimate the loss of his mother in ill-conceived self-medication. That won’t stop him from being a source of some of the smoothest or most hilarious moments of the game, though, and for all his buffoonery, Sam actually does main support REALLY well for his friends. He may not have a huge personal stock in the quest, but he’s best friends with Grog and has a one-sided crush on Pike. Here’s the thing: Sam has A LOT of roles to his credit, appearing in lots of cartoons and anime, and he’s even the voice of the titular Phoenix Wright. But none of them immediately come to my mind for one reason: the guy is just too damn hilarious for his own good, so the man himself is the first thing that pops up. He’s the biggest troll and the funniest of the group (though never to the point of inconsiderate disruption), and he is always entrusted with promoting their sponsors with advertising no REAL brand would dare approve nor agency propose, either because it’s too goofy or not inspirational enough. And I actually feel compelled to apologise to an actor who will likely never hear it, because his talent and diversity and achievements SHOULD be recognised. I’m sorry, Sam. You’re just too entertaining.
Pike Trickfoot, the Gnome Cleric of Sarenrae, played by Ashley Johnson, who’s been Gwen Tennyson of Ben 10 and Ellie in The Last Of Us. Pike comes from a family known to be tricksters, but was raise by the white sheep of the black sheep family as a cleric of immense compassion seeking to heal and redeem others, though she behaves in a more down-to-earth manner than such a personality would suggest. She was the one who helped save Grog’s life, and like all true clerics, she would end up becoming the group’s main healer as well as a potential support caster. Pike is the subject of a lot of flirtation from Scanlan, but always rebuffs his advances. She’s often away from the group as she feels compelled to help restore shrines and temples of Sarenrae…which is a convenient reason to smoothen the fact that Ashley herself can’t be around as often because she’s involved in other shows and can’t always be around for the group.
And finally, the twins, starting with Vex’ahlia, the Half-Elf Ranger, played by Laura Bailey, and her trusty animal companion Trinket. These twins, children of an elven diplomat and a human commoner, were discovered by their father and raised in elven lands, only to find they were ostracised for their lineage. They learned well, but decided they hated it there, so they left, found their old home was burned down, and struck out on their own. Vex’s response to this was to have a massive chip on her shoulder: she worries if she’s a good person, and tries to put on an air of superiority and nobility thinking it’s the mark of success…but with her friends, she’s a lot more tender and motherly. Her coming from nothing has also left her with a heavy sense of frugality, being the one of the group who most looks out for treasure, making her their unofficial treasurer…though naturally, as a ranger she can put out an incredible amount of damage while directing her trusty bear to run interference. Laura, better known as Jaina from Warcraft, Chun-Li in recent times, Supergirl in Injustice 2, and various other throaty, sultry characters like Full Metal Alchemist’s Lust or Catwoman in Telltale’s Batman, weaves in her story points as much as she can, though she also delights in the small things like how adorable she finds her animal companion and her obsession with the ability to fly. She finds so much delight in it, in fact, that she can often forget about crucial abilities like Hunter’s Mark. Fun fact: She’s married to Travis, and shares a birthday with Liam, who plays her twin!
And last but certainly not least, Vax’ildan, the Half-Elf (I am sensing a pattern here) Rogue, played by Liam O’Brien, who many of you may know as Bleach’s Ukitake, Gaara from Naruto, Warcraft’s Illidan Stormrage, one of the more recent voices of Doctor Strange, War in Darksiders, and…Gollum in Shadow of War. Yes, seriously. But where his twin seeks approval, Vax learned to not care what anyone thinks, instead preferring frank honesty and stealthy discretion. He’s more concerned with his own code of right and wrong, but deeply values the bonds he’s forged, firstly with his sister, and later those with his team; he’s a lot more at ease in his own skin and with his friends, as he’s got nothing to prove to anyone. And as a rogue, Vax is, again, one of the group’s main damage dealers (huh, it’s like they’re all focused on damage or something), deftly weaving into fights to Sneak Attack while being able to throw three daggers a turn and have them teleport to a holster (because MAGIC ITEMS). However, deep down he’s after some purpose, some cause in his life, and of all the group, despite his shady looks, he’s actually the one most prone to reckless heroism and self-sacrifice. Some may call this a death wish, but it’s down to Liam’s prerogative as a player; he’s a firm believer that it’s better to make an in-character decision that makes for a better story, than to cautiously protect them from all harm with a fixation on logic and efficiency. Liam was actually the one friend whose birthday the group got together for, and he’s also best friends with Sam.
Role An Insight Check
So that’s the group! And yes, I do enjoy the show very much, hence the post. I enjoy the production of it, the interactive storytelling, and the fact that they’re voice actors AND great roleplayers. It scratches A LOT of my itches for fantasy and nerddom.
But that just about sums up why I love it, which are pretty mundane reasons all things considered. I’d highly recommend it if you’re into all things voice acting, roleplaying, and fantasy, of course. Not much else I can add to that…except, perhaps, the aspect of roleplaying often-advertised but seldom-addressed: the SOCIAL aspect.
The heart of why I love this show, after all, has little to do with the rules or the rolls, though those are things I find pretty fun to see. Instead, I’ve focused on the characters and the acting, talking about it as if it was an actual conventional series.
Ironically, while D&D, like any gaming system, attracts its share of people focused on stats, Critical Role’s cast and focus is on the story and characters instead. True, the characters are specialised into roles as best as they can manage, and they aren’t comically inefficient like other people might make them just to prove a point. So yes, they are VIABLE and they do their best to win and be smart.
But at the same time, they aren’t obsessed with stomping every encounter with peak efficiency using the most imbalanced spell-sneak-attack-stun-get-an-extra-turn combo. They get by with what they have using their own wits, and their main goal is to have FUN, whether that’s through winning an encounter or just having a blast playing a character. If anything, efficiency-wise, they’re bound to be a nightmare; know-it-alls often call in to say that they got such and such a rule wrong, or that their tactics are not optimised.
And the reason they’re so charming is that they’re organically dysfunctional, instead of coldly efficient; they bicker about merchant prices and battle plans, instead of reducing a game about fantasy to “I make my character use the +3 technique which deals 3d6 damage which removes the enemy from play and take an (Average) Potion of Healing to restore 6 hit points bringing me to a total of 35.” Like the difference between watching a streamer play a game for its campaign mode, and watching a streamer play the Legend Rank multiplayer build.
So while you can certainly check various sources for how to get started in D&D mechanically, Critical Role is probably the counterpart to that archetype. It’s the perfect intro to D&D as a SOCIAL activity. You’ll pick up stuff about how to play the game, sure, but you’ll also see what happens when people actually let go and enjoy themselves by being characters. Sure, you’re seeing voice actors at work and learning from that, but you’re also seeing it in action in two vital contexts: on the tabletop, and with others.
If I had any quibble with the show, it would be that while this represents D&D socialising at its BEST, it is also IDEALISED and far from the norm. Meaning this represents the sort of GM every player wishes they had, and the sort of players every GM wishes they had.
In Critical Role, the GM Matt McCree, uh, Mercer holds most of the lore knowledge and makes use of his excellent acting range to bring dozens of NPCs to life in distinct, memorable ways, in addition to being a tough but fair arbiter with good knowledge of the rules and how to weave interesting encounters. In real life, GMs are merely human with their own preferences: some are story-only, some fixate on rules, some are dull actors, and some are malicious beings out to kill the players. Some insert themselves in The Ultimate NPC Of Godlike Importance and essentially end up talking to themselves with little player input.
In Critical Role, the players are quirky and mad with a high potential to derail plots, but they are also close, good sports, and all on the same page with each other and the GM: They are all in agreement of their goal, which is to get together and have fun forging this story. In real life, players come in all shapes and sizes with various goals, whether it’s to have the most powerful build or the most central role in the story, and some get very salty and argumentative if they don’t get what they want or feel they’re being treated unfairly. Some fixate on the most insignificant detail, others rudely brush off NPCs and demand only the facts of the quest.
Critical Role features both great gaming AND great acting from BOTH parties who all agree on what they want to do and where they want to take this. When most D&D groups start out, they wind up with only one or the other with plenty of conflicts along the way: players who only see their characters as stats instead of stories, or GMs who overdo acting but make the fights dull. Weaknesses that take weeks to discover, months to work on, and years to overcome.
But then again, it’s not like it’s all roses for Critical Role, either. What some people might overlook while getting lost in the details are a few vital things:
Firstly, these are professional voice actors, so of course they have a leg up in acting.
Secondly, their gaming group has been going on FOR AWHILE NOW, and had already survived two or three other encounters off-screen before the show even started.
And finally, the finished product LOOKS fun and effortless, but it is a MONSTER to pull together: They need to have their weekly schedule, they need the studio and filming set up for Twitch broadcast, they have sponsors and merchandise and announcements, they have fan communities to address, and of course, they have ACTUAL JOBS to worry about.
So perhaps it’s a little unfair to say that this represents an idealised utopia of D&D, because the fact is they had to WORK for it. Perhaps what I SHOULD be saying is that Critical Role represents what your D&D session COULD become. A place where everyone comes to the table with a shared vision and a great attitude, and they get comfy enough to let loose and have fun, all while managing their other responsibilities in life.
Just give it time, learn and grow together, and always remember to have fun with it.