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I’m only 65 episodes behind the curve, but I’m a fast learner when it comes to the fun, entertaining, and surprisingly heartfelt Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) web series, Critical Role. A live broadcast and weekly peek into a world beset with ancient dragons, barbarian hoards, and some rather unconventional gnomes, Critical Role follows the exploits of Vox Machina, a group of mostly heroic adventurers as they traverse the fictional land of Tal’Dorei. The intrepid band of misfits, however, are brought to life by an equally, and mostly, heroic group of dice-slinging voice actors, all of whom have been playing their characters for three years; two on the live stream and one year prior to the inception of the show. The characters and their actors are as follows:
And guiding our heroes in their exploits is the world-building powerhouse of a Dungeon Master (DM) that is Matthew Mercer. Pulling some impressive double-duty, Mercer not only crafts the realm of Tal’Dorei but he also effortlessly voices all of the non-playable characters (NPC), running the gamut of high-born ladies, lowly orcs, and a thoroughly confused bear.
I’ve only played D&D, and some other tabletop games, a few times in my life with varying degrees of DM and party performance, but I can say wholeheartedly that this is the first time in a long time that I’ve ever wanted to get back into gaming. Hell, this is the first time in a long time I’ve wanted to join somebody else’s game just to experience the energy and absolute fun they have for roughly three hours every Thursday night. The camaraderie of the players and the DM is infectious because they’re just as invested in the welfare of their characters, just as shocked when a plot twist occurs, and just as devastated when events go horribly, horribly wrong. To put it another way, they love their characters and it shows to the point where even a husk of human emotions like myself can get a little teary-eyed.
So, really, this is just an overblown, non-ranked list of reasons why I’m now obsessed with Critical Role. Trust me, it doesn’t disappoint.
Oh, and SPOILERS for the series. Just in case.
This seems like a no-brainer, but a significant portion of what makes Critical Role such a success comes from how the players, and by extension the characters, interact with their fictional environment. Setting aside the little character moments and exploratory missions (we’ll get to them in a bit), when Mercer tells the party to roll initiative to battle some greater foe, they’re in it. No one slouches, everyone pulls their weight to support the success of the group in destroying beasts and baddies alike. The physicality of the players speaks louder and louder as the battle rages: eyes wide, mouths agape, everyone fidgeting with nervous energy at each role of the die. Full sessions have been devoted to taking down one enemy (to be fair, it was a dragon) until Mercer asks, “How do you wanna do this?” and the whole group explodes with excitement knowing that the killing blow is just moments away. I’d be lying if I said my own erratic movements didn’t mimic theirs. Even smaller, more desperate, moments are rife with tension as the characters struggle against mind control or frantically try to resurrect one of their own.
There are a couple of episodes that stand out in particular regarding moments of triumph and potential tragedy. In the case of the former, I’d recommend episode 52, “The Kill Box,” wherein Grog, unable to defeat his uncle, leader of the barbarian herd, in single combat, calls upon his friends for help. There are plenty of moments where each character shines but the best bit of teamwork comes when Vex flies in on her broom (long story) and sucks a badly beaten Grog into her necklace (just go with it) to get him somewhat out of harms way. She then releases Grog from high up in the air, giving him the advantage needed to deliver the deathblow to his uncle. It’s definitely an engaging three hours of fictionalized combat and by the end even the players look exhausted. In the case of the latter, it would have to be episode 44, “The Sunken Tomb,” that finds the party searching for enchanted armor beneath the city of Vasselheim. Neglectful in the wake of defeating a Beholder, Percy accidentally sets off a trap that kills Vex, but the party, joined by some guest adventurers, springs into action to bring her back. It’s really more about Laura Bailey’s reactions as well as the other players. The second she realizes what negative hit points means there’s this gutted look on her face as the others search for spells to resurrect Vex. Everyone’s practically in tears until Mercer informs them that she’s alive again.
It would either be awfully dull or too stressful to watch a group in a constant state of combat. Luckily, the players are actors and they act the shit out of these characters. While some episodes are combat heavy, there are others where the most action that happens is the group goes shopping and some epic haggling ensues. The breathers are needed, though. It gives the party time to rest and recuperate and it gives us, the audience, a few moments alone (so to speak) with the characters, all of whom have their own little story arcs, wants and desires, that tend to overlap with the main story. There are too many character moments to name, and all of them have landed some fantastic one-liners or shared some tears, so here are a few favorites:
This can’t be effectively described in words. You have to see and experience just how great of a DM Mercer is. Just know that his character work, as well as his world-building, is phenomenal.
The cast and crew of Critical Role have been supporters of the charity 826LA since the beginning, encouraging fans to donate during the broadcast on Geek & Sundry and thanking those who do on air. However, due to the overwhelming generosity and creativity of their fans that made for some sweet Critmas day unwrapping, the players each chose a charity for fans to support in lieu of the money going to smaller items like dice bags or gigantic bear statues that take up space and are hard to store.
We’ve definitely come a long way from the days of Mazes and Monsters, but there are still certain stigmas associated with gaming and gamers that keep people who might find RPGs to be a pleasant experience. Currently, we’re in a bit of a cultural upswing in regards to D&D-style role-playing. I don’t know what, if any, influence Critical Role has had where the bigger picture is concerned, but it’s certainly at the forefront of the pro-gaming change to the status quo. Not only do we have Critical Role, but Matt Mercer and Ashley Johnson are part of the Force Grey filmed RPG show for Nerdist. There’s also Dan Harmon’s Harmon Quest on Seeso that mixes live role-playing with animation and one of the best shows on Netflix, Stranger Things, features the main characters playing D&D as bookends to the series. Small steps, yes, but important nonetheless.
So those are the reasons why I’m currently obsessed with Critical Role. Maybe this encouraged you to check it out or maybe you’re already a fan. Either way, what are your thoughts on the show? What are your favorite moments? Characters? I’m eager to know.
Oh, and…Is it Thursday yet?