Critical Role's Liam O'Brien and Taliesin Jaffe Talks New Chronicles of Exandria - The Mighty Nein Artbook

Next month, Critical Role will release a stunning new artbook featuring over 250 pages of illustrations featuring the Mighty Nein. On June 2nd, Dark Horse Books will release Critical Role: The Chronicles of Exandria - The Mighty Nein, a new artbook showcasing the early parts of Critical Role's current campaign. The new book is written from the perspective of Beauregard (played by Marisha Ray) and her cohorts at the Cobalt Soul, a monastic order dedicated to collecting and preserving knowledge. The book will come with two editions, a standard edition and a deluxe version featuring a faux-leather cover, an annotated cloth map of the Dwendalian Empire, character sketches, flyers, invitations and other paraphanelia pulled straight out of the world from Critical Role.

To celebrate the upcoming release of Critical Role: The Chronicles of Exandria - The Mighty Nein, we spoke with Liam O'Brien and Taliesin Jaffe via email about the making of the artbook and seeing their Dungeons & Dragons group's adventure come to life through thousands of pieces of fan art.

-- One of the defining characteristics of the Critter fandom is the amazing amount of fan art produced on a weekly basis. Were you surprised at just how quickly the fan art around the series grew, and do you think that fan art has contributed to Critical Role's success?

Liam O'Brien: Oh, we couldn’t believe we were seeing fan art. To be fair, we couldn’t believe a lot of things happening in those early days.

Working in and around animation and games, we were all familiar with fan art as a phenomenon of modern pop culture. It was just something we associated with established and beloved shows and the like - Dragon Age, Metroid, that kind of thing. The ideas that people were so inspired by our D&D game that they would devote their time and passion to it like that… Yeah, it was pretty mind blowing. Still is!

The amount just grew and grew and continues to do so. I think in those early days, it gave visual touchstones for fans to compare. The game and its story exists in our brains, both the cast and their audience. No two people have the same Vex and Vax in their mind, not really. Having art of all our characters start to swirl around the community, even wildly different interpretations of them, offered some visual touchstones for folks for something that was born out of spoken word.

Art has always been a cherished aspect of the CR community and I genuinely hope it always is.

Taliesin Jaffe: To be fair, the fact that there was fan art in the first place was pretty surprising. But yeah, we did eventually learn that the show is strangely suited for fan art. It’s a grand narrative where little changes on screen, allowing a lot of interpretation, and it’s not a huge deal to stare at your work and just listen to the show for long stretches. As for the fan art's contribution, absolutely. It's a great way of communicating to the outside world what the show has to offer.

How do you keep track of all of the fan art for projects like The Chronicles of Exandria or the weekly fan art galleries on your webpage?

Jaffe: That’s all Liam. It’s a massive database that he constantly updates, keeping track of artists and subject matter, constantly sharing with the cast anything he thinks we might have missed.

O'Brien: I have spent the five year history of the show creating a vault of the art. Critical Role has definitely evolved over time and we are all constantly working on a variety of fronts for the show and company, but keeping track of Critter art is a daily constant for me. I’ve spent so much time doing so that I can jump around my Dropbox files and find things pretty quickly. It’s just second nature at this point.

How long has this project been in development? And to what point in the campaign does this new volume of Chronicles of Exandria cover?

Jaffe: Like the ocean tides, artbooks never go away, they simply rise and recede. In all seriousness we never really stop talking about them. I feel like this one got into high gear VERY early last year maybe? I’m not really sure I can say how much it covers, but it’s a nice big chunk of the current campaign.

O'Brien: We spent roughly a year working on the last art book and the book explores the Mighty Nein’s story from its beginnings to the close of their exploration of the Swavain Islands in the Lucidian Ocean.

Could you walk us through how you picked out what art was going to go into the book, and how you reached out to artists about featuring their work? It must have been quite an undertaking!

Jaffe: Liam can talk to more specifics of that process, but it’s a mix of trying to highlight as many artists, styles, and story moments as possible all while making sure that each piece compliments the next. And there comes a point when you've finally, heartbreakingly, narrowed it down to your favorite thousand pieces… and then you cut that number in half. And then in half again. It can be rough.

O'Brien: It always is and I do not do it alone!

As I chose pieces to spotlight each week on Critical Role, I would share them with Lauryn Ipsum, our excellent book designer and curator. Once we got started on the book, we had thousands of pieces to choose from. We know the story beats we mean to capture and spend a few weeks selecting the right art to visually retell the story. Then, with that loose framework of art in place, we start reaching out to artists to see if they’d like to be part of the book. Gotta give a shout out to Adrienne Cho on our team, who was air traffic control for it all.

While the fans have provided the artwork for this book, the cast wrote the recaps of the campaign. What was it like revisiting the early parts of the Mighty Nein campaign? Has it shown just how much the Mighty Nein has changed over the course of their journey?

O'Brien:Most definitely. Man, what sketchy bunch they started out as. They had to go through the crucible to become the tight knit crew they are today. Gotta love D&D.

Jaffe: The bulk of the writing for this book actually landed on me and Dani Carr, who possibly knows more about the show than the cast does. This book is very different from the last two. While the previous art books had a very specific voice, this book was a bit of an experiment. I’m sorry I’m dancing around the question so much, but I’d hate to ruin the surprise. This new book is absolutely about the growth of these characters, on a level that the previous artbooks were not..

Taliesin - while Mollymauk died just a quarter of the way into the series, he remains a popular character in fan art and cosplay. What was it like revisiting the character while working on this book? Do you ever think we'll get more of his story or are you happy with how his death and burial was handled?

Jaffe: I’m damn proud of my disaster tiefling, and I really appreciate how much love he gets. Honestly due in some part to the popularity of the character, he’s never really that far out of mind. As for how his story ended… happy is not a word I’d use. I’m content. Things happen and they hurt but they often lead to other things that are beautiful and wonderful and that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. I do hope that MAYBE we’ll get to see a little bit of what Matt had planned at some point but if not, it just means we were too busy seeing something else wonderful.

This might seem like an unfair question, but is there a particular piece of art in this book that really stands out to you?

Jaffe: There’s too much, it’s impossible to even keep half of them in your head! If I picked one, I’d go back into the book and rediscover fifty that had slipped my mind...



Critical Role: The Chronicles of Exandria - The Mighty Nein will be released on June 2nd. The book can be pre-ordered on Amazon or via Critical Role's website.