What Is 'Critical Role'?

A popular web series is making mainstream news headlines following a record-breaking day of Kickstarter funding.

Yesterday, ComicBook.com, MSNBC, Fortune, and countless other news sites reported on Critical Role's record-breaking Kickstarter campaign. In less than 24 hours, Critical Role raised over $4.25 million to produce an animated special featuring characters from their first Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

In many ways, the success of the Kickstarter represents the growing success Dungeons & Dragons has found in nerd culture in recent years and the value of building a non-toxic and inclusive fanbase. While Critical Role wasn't the first streaming D&D show nor was it the first D&D show to feature celebrities, it's undoubtedly the most popular D&D/tabletop show out there, as evidenced by the show's quick march into Kickstarter's record books. But how did a web show become big enough to generate over $4 million in funding in just a day? And why is it so popular?

At its heart, Critical Role is a show that features a group of voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons, a collaborative storytelling game that uses fantasy tropes and dice to determine the success of actions. The world of Critical Role was created by Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, who also serves as a narrator, referee, and voice to the many memorable NPCs of the game. Watching an episode of Critical Role is both like watching a very polished and fun "Let's Play" video and like watching a memorable, long-running TV fantasy drama.

The players of Critical Role are all experienced voice actors with decades of experience in video games and cartoons. If you've watched dubbed versions of anime like Naruto or Fullmetal Alchemist, watched the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, or played games like Marvel's Spider-Man or The Last of Us, you've heard at least one of the cast members' voices. In addition to Mercer, the cast includes Ashley Johnson, Liam O'Brien, Taliesin Jaffe, Laura Bailey, Travis Willingham, Sam Riegel, and Marisha Ray. The group are also longtime friends, as the show started off as a home game played at O'Brien's birthday party.

And despite the fact that Critical Role is now filmed in a studio, the show still feels very much like a group of friends playing D&D. In fact, it's the genuine friendships that the cast shares together that makes the show so compelling. Fans are attracted to Critical Role for its strong storytelling and fun characters, but they stay invested because of the cast, all of whom feel very genuine, fun, and humble on screen. It's one of the reasons why Critical Role successfully broke away from Geek & Sundry last year and successfully founded their own production company with a weekly slate of shows. These non-D&D shows are almost always built around harnessing the personalities and friendships of the cast for additional weekly content, and they all seem to resonate with their ever-growing fanbase.

In a way, that friendship even resonates into the core storytelling of Critical Role, as both campaigns have centered around a group of misfits who found a family and saved the world in the process. The Vox Machina campaign (which the animated feature will bring back) starred characters that started close to standard fantasy tropes but eventually grew into compelling and unique characters. The show's current campaign focused more around "broken" characters with secrets, but they too eventually found themselves functioning as a supportive family unit. It makes for a compelling story, and each episode features as much character growth and interaction as it does fighting dragons or dark elves.

While the cast and crew of Critical Role might have underestimated the financial power of their fanbase, the "Critter community" has always been a positive and generous one. Critical Role has successfully run donation drives for various charities in the past, and charitable giving was a core part of their initial show when it first aired in 2015. Critters have also showered the cast with plenty of love, ranging from impressive fan art to homemade gifts to huge crowds at their public appearances. A previous Kickstarter for Critical Role miniatures generated nearly $1.2 million, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised that a push to fund an animated special has proven to be such a runaway success. More importantly, the Critter community is also EXTREMELY passionate about the show, and they love sharing that passion with anyone even moderately interested in fantasy or D&D.

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Critical Role has undoubtedly made an impact of the wider tabletop gaming community as well. The show has pushed thousands of people into trying Dungeons & Dragons, which is an easy gateway for both tabletop RPGs and board games in general. Critical Role has also pushed other RPGs including the indie RPG "Honey Heist," which has now appeared on three specials for the show. Artists and creators featured by the show have also benefited, as evidenced by artist Kit Buss drawing lines as long as comics legend Frank Miller at the London MCM show this year.

At this rate, Critical Role seems destined to break the Kickstarter record for the highest funded TV/movie project, a record currently held by the revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And given the success of the Kickstarter, some major distributor will likely be looking to pick up the show and fund additional episodes. It seems like the real question is not why Critical Role is so successful, but rather just how big will the show get in the coming years.