On March 12th, 2015 Geek & Sundry released a new show: Critical Role. Born from a Dungeons & Dragons homebrew game consisting of a bunch of voice actors in the Los Angeles area, Critical Role took off soaring as viewers tuned into Twitch weekly to watch famous voices play a seriously nerdy game. Dungeon Master Matt Mercer (Overwatch, Fire Emblem: Awakening) introduced the audience to the world of Exandria, a creation of his own making, and the hero team of Vox Machina.
The rest, honestly, is history at this point. After 115 episodes, Vox Machina’s story came to an authentic closure and the team picked back up with a new campaign earlier this year. Now there are a lot of tabletop gamers out there sharing their worlds with listeners and viewers, but there’s something particularly remarkable about Critical Role that makes it stand out.
This article is going to endeavor to crack the secret sauce that made Critical Role‘s first campaign so endearing and why it continues to be a hit.
The Dungeon Master
Matt Mercer has probably set unreal expectations for dungeon masters everywhere, but his storytelling and world-building are really something. I know as a budding dungeon master I aspire to emulate even a fraction of the creativity he brings to the table every week. A good dungeon master creates a playground, laying out the swings, slides, and merry-go-rounds for their players to go hog-wild with.
Mercer’s playground does that in spades because he does not stop at the usual. His playground has the basic equipment, but it also has the cool kids you used to run into when your parent would take you to the park. His villains are curious with a side of dark and fascinating. His playgrounds have tempting dungeons that don’t just throw monsters at his players over and over again but challenges them to think creatively and outside of the box.
He also allows mistakes. He revels in them. Celebrates them. His mistakes, his players’ mistakes, all of it adds to the depth and joy of storytelling. The best stories are filled with mistakes made right and Mercer leans into that and encourages his players to do the same.
I’ll be honest. Before I started watching Critical Role I didn’t know who any of these people were. My only reference for Matt Mercer was “that guy who created the Blood Hunter class,” which I use for my character in the main campaign I play. So my analysis comes from that of an outsider knowing the team only through their work on Critical Role, even though I know a lot more about all of them now.
For those who don’t know, the cast consists of the following: Liam O’Brien (World of Warcraft), Ashley Johnson (Blindspot), Laura Bailey (Uncharted 4), Travis Willingham (Halo 5, Sophia the First), Taliesin Jaffe (Sagas of Sundry), Marisha Ray (8.13) and Sam Riegel (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). I have only listed few of the long, long list of accomplishments they have behind their names. Odds are if you think about a video game you have played, one or more of their voices graced your ears while you were playing.
But as it is with homebrew games, what makes Critical Role great is the response from this amazing cast of players. Mercer’s willingness to lean into mistakes and use them as tools for deeper storytelling wouldn’t work if the cast didn’t also revel in their own moments of failure.
Of course, I don’t want anyone to think that Critical Role is all about failure because it isn’t. It is about joy, too. The bonds the characters built over the first campaign and the ones they are building in the second are made all the more compelling by the player’s love for each other. There is something beautiful about watching a bunch of people who genuinely, authentically, completely love each play a tabletop game together.
The love is contagious, honestly.
Everyone knows the first rule of improv is “yes, and…” which refers to how to respond to prompts from an acting partner. There are no “no’s” in improv. You roll with the punches, you take what is given to you and react, and that is why improv is such a pure and enjoyable form of acting to witness. I think improv more closely follows the truths of life. There is a lot that can be learned by looking at a wild situation that someone has proposed an equally wild solution to and saying, “You can certainly try.”
I think Critical Role‘s use of improv in this way has actually helped me on a personal level as much as a professional one. I’m a social worker, I am always looking for the social value in entertainment, and when it comes to Critical Role the cast models some great behaviors that make life a little more bearable. As someone prone to anxiety, for example, making mistakes is one of my bigger fears. I do not like the thought of the unexpected and not having a response.
But if you look at Critical Role, and honestly if you play Dungeons & Dragons yourself for any length of time, you start to learn an invaluable lesson: mistakes are not the end. Whether it is Keyleth leaping from a thousand foot cliff and turning into a goldfish, or me forgetting a meeting with my supervisor in the middle of a busy week, mistakes have solutions. They may not be perfect solutions, but the world doesn’t end.
Somehow this concept of “yes, and…” in Critical Role and in improv has given me the confidence to give new things a chance. What’s the worst that could happen?
(Other than death in real life of course, since we don’t have revivify spells at the ready in the case of Keyleth’s goldfish plunge).
To conclude I want to wrap back to an earlier point, which I think is actually at the core of why Critical Role has become so intriguing to me: love. In this world of mass media, where there is a smorgasbord of entertainment choices, I always find it refreshing to see shows based on core human relationships garner so much attention.
What the Critical Role team provides is a model for what healthy relationships and friendships look like. Perfect? Nah. But so damn good nonetheless in their authenticity and openness. They do it on two layers, too. One, they demonstrate it through the characters they play and the relationships that form through role-playing and storytelling. Two, they demonstrate it through the love they show each other week after week and even in between.
You know what, there’s a third layer too: the love they show their fans and those who interact with their show.
Critical Role, however cheesy it is to write these words, is a lovefest, man. People loving each other, people loving their characters, people celebrating together when things go right and crying together when they go wrong, people being authentic, responding to the excitement with more excitement. You don’t really get that with a standard television show, movie, or book. The closest any of us get in terms of entertainment that goes this deep are stage shows, where the audience has a direct connection to the live performance taking place on the stage before them.
This, above all else, is what keeps me coming back to Critical Role week after week. If there was no love or joy or the celebration of human relationships in this silly game of Dungeons & Dragons put on by a bunch of nerdy ass voice actors… I don’t think it would be as nearly compelling as it is.
Critical Role is amazing and if you have any interest in Dungeons & Dragons, good storytelling, improv, or need a good laugh and cry, you should watch it. You can catch up with their new campaign through Geek & Sundry’s Youtube channel (episodes are a week behind) or you can subscribe to their Twitch channel to get video on demand and watch them live every Thursday at 7 pm PDT.
All your other questions about how to watch can probably be answered through the Geek & Sundry: Critical Role website.
Go, enjoy, love.