Dungeons & Dragons is the granddaddy of tabletop RPGs and has long held a special place in "nerd" and genre culture. However, in recent years, the game has enjoyed unprecedented levels of popularity in part due to Stranger Things and its antagonists, which are all named after various classic D&D villains. But the Netflix show isn't the only reason for the game's resurgence.
Another major factor into D&D's recent success is the rise of groups streaming their games online. Since Dungeons & Dragons revolves around strong storytelling, a great DM and group of players can arguably be just as compelling to watch as a scripted television show.
There is perhaps no better example of this than Critical Role, a weekly series that airs on Alpha and Geek and Sundry's Twitch channel. The series stars seven voice actors (almost all of whom you've probably heard in at least one video game, cartoon, or anime series) playing Dungeons & Dragons for about three hours a week.
Led by Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer (the voice of Levi in Attack on Titan, McCree in Overwatch, and Chrom in Fire Emblem: Awakening), the cast also includes Travis Willingham (Roy Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist, Thor in various recent Marvel games and cartoons), Sam Riegel (Donatello from the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon), Liam O'Brien (Gaara from Naruto), Laura Bailey (Nadine Ross from the Uncharted series), Ashley Johnson (Ellie from The Last of Us, also a regular on NBC's Blindspot), Marisha Ray (Margaret from Persona 4), and Talisen Jaffe (Blanka in Street Fighter IV and The Flash in Injustice 2).
Critical Role's Secret Origin
Critical Role started off as a home game, with most of the cast having never played D&D or a tabletop RPG before. After several years of playing in dining rooms and dens, the fledgling Geek and Sundry convinced the group to stream their show live every week in late 2015, sparking a full-on D&D revolution.
"We had no idea that it would become what it has," Mercer told ComicBook.com during a recent phone interview. "And it continues to blow us away in that regards."
Critical Role's first campaign followed a ragtag team of adventurers known as Vox Machina as they battled against dragons and beholders in Exandria, a world created by Mercer. Fans loved the surprisingly deep characterization the cast brought to their characters, helped along by the fact that the group all adopted accents and unique voices while playing.
Critical Role quickly attracted a fanbase of passionate fans (known as Critters) that created a huge portfolio of impressive fan art depicting the campaign's weekly antics. "We owe a lot to the community," Mercer said. "They made this the incredible, life-changing experience that it has been."
All of the cast is active on social media, and many actively interact with fans on Twitter, showing off fan art or answering questions about recent decisions in the game. "Thanks to Twitter, Reddit, web media, and social media, we have the opportunity now to kind of blur that line between the people who produce the content, the people that watch it, and instead make it a conversation, make it a real community," Mercer said.
That community can be seen every week via the always active Twitch chat, passionate Reddit community, and loads of talented artists. One Critter, Olivia Sampson, was even tapped to draw Dark Horse's six-part Vox Machina: Origins comic series.
Fans never got to see Vox Machina come together, because the series started literally in the middle of one of group's adventures. And some potential viewers were turned off by the prospect of trying to churn through 350 hours of content just to catch up to the group's new adventures.
However, fans now have a second opportunity to jump in fresh with Critical Role, as the show just began its second campaign. After Vox Machina's adventure ended in late 2017, the show shifted into a series of one-shot games before starting its new campaign in January.
Set on Wildemount, another continent in Exandria only briefly visited by Vox Machina, Critical Role's new campaign is almost totally independent from the previous story. Each of the cast has picked out new characters, all of whom are wildly different from the ones they played before. For longtime fans, part of the fun is watching the cast assume entirely new roles, but the new campaign also represents a chance for new viewers to jump into the series without needing to have watched past episodes.
But Vox Machina's past adventures won't be entirely forgotten. "I want there to be some elements of the choices, the things that they did in the last campaign, to have a distant effect on some elements of this campaign," Mercer noted.
Carrying D&D to New Heights
For many fans, Critical Role represented the first time they had seen D&D played... or at least presented in an accessible way. The show has inspired thousands of players to either start playing or put their own exploits online, fundamentally changing D&D culture in its wake.
It helps that Critical Role plays to the strengths of D&D's current edition, which simplifies gameplay and encourages strong storytelling over complicated game mechanics. Mercer implied as much during our interview.
"I consider myself a better storyteller than a Dungeon Master," Mercer said. "The rules, I think that's one big thing that people seem to get caught up in, is that I have to know all the rules... But, one thing you have to consider as a new Dungeon Master is you do not have to know the rules like the back of your hand."
Today, there are countless D&D podcasts and streams, including an official Twitch channel run by Wizards of the Coast, but Critical Role is still considered to be the gold standard. "It's really inspiring for us to see so many people connecting with it," Mercer said when asked about the show's strong tie to D&D culture. "And it has a responsibility that comes along with it that we weren't expecting, but also we're happy to take up the torch for."0comments
Critical Role airs on Alpha and Twitch on Thursdays at 10 PM ET. Episodes can be viewed afterwards on Geek and Sundry's Twitch channel with a subscription or for free when Geek and Sundry posts the episodes to YouTube on Mondays.