The latest episode of Geek & Sundry's Critical Role launches today, and that seems like justification enough to share some of our conversations with the show's stellar cast, which we did way back in the ancient times of Comic Con International: San Diego in July.
The series started like few traditional hits, although it's a story that's more and more common in the age of YouTube channels and other webseries: done initially as a group of friends who were just having fun with it. Not long after they got started, though, they were approached by Felicia Day's Geek & Sundry, and offered a spot in the eclectic lineup of fan-centric, web-based video.
The series, created by Matthew Mercer, centers on a group of friends -- all professional voice actors, some of whom you will probably recognize -- who play Dungeons & Dragons, with cameras on, props, and the like. The series has evolved from a pretty simple and low-fi operation in the early days to something much more elaborate and with better production values as time goes on -- not surprising, when you consider its path to production and the fact that most (if not all) independently-produced podcasts and webseries tend to go that same route.
"We had a year or practice before we went live on the Twitch stream, just playing amongst ourselves at our houses," actor Sam Riegel told ComicBook.com during Comic Con International: San Diego. "We'd get together every month and roll some dice and drink some booze, and so we developed an affinity for the game, a comfort zone with each other, and sort of all the things that go into a great improv show or sketch comedy group -- sort of a dynamic of knowing what each other is going to do before they do it."
That dynamic serves the show well: while most series have to figure out what archetypes they want to use and then cast for them, Critical Role centers on a group of friends with different personalities and diverse interests...but since that group was already together when they decided to start the cameras rolling, there wasn't that moment of trying to put the pieces together.
"This isn't a show that we built," series creator Matthew Mercer told us. "This isn't a show where we sat in a room and went, 'Okay, we need this character and this character.' It was something that we were just doing for fun and then we just put it on a platform with cameras. It was nice to have a show that you didn't have to cast anything, but at the same time, whenever you have a group of people who genuinely like each other and like what they're doing together, the energy and the rapport is going to be there automatically."
Even so, anybody who's tried to create entertainment with their friends -- think about that time you sat around drinking and trying to riff on movies a la Mystery Science Theater 3000 -- you know it's hard to do. As often as not, you've got one guy who thinks he's being hilarious and a room full of friends just waiting for him to stop talking.
Critical Role is not really so much different, except that their chemistry and the high concept tend to rescue it from that audience side-eye.
"We f--k it up as often as we get it right," Mercer laughed when asked whether or not the actors know in the moment that something is working. "Even if it goes horribly wrong and your character's not cool and he falls on his dick and everything goes wrong, that is just as entertaining and valuable as when everything goes great and you're Legolas and you're shooting arrows off some giant mastadon, right?"
"Part of the appeal of the show is people feel like they're kind of sititng with us around the kitchen table and seeing it warts and all," agreed cast member Liam O'Brien. "That's one of the charms of D&D, is you're feeling like a badass hero but then also you can make an idiot of yourself in front of your friends, and that's fun."
O'Brien said that the whole project started as a one-off gag between himself and Mercer. Realizing that he never had much time to play with his friends because he spent all his time working, the pair figured out a way to transform D&D time into work time, making it easier to justify taking the hours out of his schedule.
"It was a one-off, except that everybody got snake-bit and we loved it," O'Brien said. "Way before the show, we slowly became kind of a little family. We were friends already, but if you pretend you're traveling to Mordor together long enough, it makes this sort of Stephen King-esque bond amongst the party."
"If the cameras weren't on, we'd still be playing," Riegel said. "And I think that sort of comradery bleeds into the show."