Critical Role Celebrates 8th Anniversary

Critical Role officially turns 8 years old today. The popular D&D webseries first aired on March 12th, 2015 on Geek & Sundry's Twitch channel, kicking off what would eventually become a multimedia phenomenon. Much has changed since the earliest Critical Role episodes – the early episodes were filmed in Geek & Sundry's all-purpose studio with hand-drawn battle maps and occasional pauses in the game to celebrating subscriber milestones – the core spirit and camaraderie of the show remains largely unchanged, which has fueled the franchise's ongoing success. For the last eight years, viewers have been fascinated by the engaging storytelling around the Critical Role table and the genuine friendships of the people telling those stories, creating a passionate fanbase that's not quite like any other.

Every episode of Critical Role opens with veteran voice actor Matthew Mercer introducing the show as "a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons." The game started when Mercer ran a one-shot Dungeons & Dragons 4E game for Liam O'Brien for his birthday. The group enjoyed the game so much that they kept it going, switching over to Pathfinder 1E rules while establishing the basics of the continent of Tal'Dorei and the character dynamics of the group that would eventually become known as Vox Machina. 

When Geek & Sundry co-founder Felicia Day heard about the TTRPG game, she suggested they start streaming it. The group switched to Dungeons & Dragons 5E for the stream to help with episode pacing. However, early facets of both Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons 4E could still be seen during the first campaign. For instance, the world of Exandria uses a variant version of the Dawn War pantheon of gods from Dungeons & Dragons 4E, while Percy (a Vox Machina character played by Taliesin Jaffe) uses a Gunslinger class that originated from Pathfinder and was then "ported" for use into 5th Edition play. 

It quickly became obvious that Critical Role was special. It wasn't the first tabletop RPG streaming show and at times it couldn't even be definitively claimed to be the biggest (both Acquisitions Incorporated and The Adventure Zone have had similarly sized fanbases to Critical Role at different points in history), but the show seemed to have a "secret sauce" that just made it click in a way that other shows haven't. Some pointed to Mercer's sprawling world of Exandria, with its layers of lore and competing cultures that was every bit as alive as classic TTRPG settings like the Forgotten Realms or Golarion. Others pointed to the genuine friendships that the cast (which also includes Travis Willingham, Marisha Ray, Laura Bailey, Sam Riegel and Ashley Johnson in addition to Mercer, O'Brien, and Jaffe) had with each other, leading to a level of trust both in Mercer to guide the story in ways that wouldn't make the cast unhappy and also with each other to cultivate tension and conflict with the characters that made for good on-camera drama but didn't impact their camaraderie when the characters ended. 

Whatever the reason, Critical Role quickly discovered its fans would keep up with 4-hour episodes on a weekly basis, building up an extraordinarily dedicated fanbase. That fanbase has followed the show through two full-length D&D campaigns that each total over 100 episodes, with a third campaign passing fifty episodes this month. For context, Critical Role has aired almost 30 hours of programming via 7 "main series" episodes this year. By comparison, Marvel's Phase 3 totaled less than 25 hours through 11 movies over the course of nearly 3 years. 

From the earliest days of Critical Role, engaging with the fans was a priority for the show's cast and producers. From the celebration of fan art and cosplay to answering fan questions on secondary talk shows, the cast developed a unique relationship with its fans. The fans, calling themselves "Critters," pore over every moment of every episode, debating on Reddit, Tumblr, and Twitter, with massive YouTube channels dedicated to carving out or recreating moments from the show. Within hours of an episode airing, fan art quickly makes its way onto the Internet. After the first episode of Campaign 3 aired in 2021, fans showed off their first cosplay outfits within hours of the character artwork appearing on Critical Role's social media channel. While jumping into Critical Role has a seemingly steep curve due to the average episode length, many a new fan has described getting "sucked in" and binging thousands of hours of content when they eventually decide to commit to the show. 

While parts of the fandom has grown toxic at times (especially in terms of the online discourse that constantly second-guesses and analyzes every in-game decision), Critical Role's investment in encouraging and building upon that fanbase paid off in 2019 when it launched one of the most successful Kickstarters of all time, raising over $11 million to fund the first season of an animated series based on Critical Role's first campaign. That series - The Legend of Vox Machina - was picked up by Amazon Prime, with two further seasons greenlit by Amazon Studios. Earlier this year, Amazon Studios announced a wider deal to produce more TV shows and movies based on the Critical Role IP and other concepts developed by Critical Role's new production company. 

Critical Role has grown tremendously over the last eight years, creating a Hollywood success story unlike any other. And perhaps the most fascinating part is that it seems like their story is just beginning. In addition to flagship show and portfolio of current and upcoming animated projects, Critical Role has also released soundtracks, an impressive array of merchandise, and a bevy of spin-off shows that periodically air on the channel. The business of Critical Role (led by Willingham and Ray, who are CEO and creative director, respectively) moves very deliberately, but they have yet to discover a ceiling for just how big the Critical Role empire can grow. The world of Critical Role is certainly a fascinating one, but the "motes of possibility" (to borrow a phrase from Campaign 2) of what could happen next might be even more exciting. 

Congratulations to the cast, crew and team of Critical Role on their big milestone!