How I discovered the show
One magical day in the ancient year of 2008 I discovered the glorious Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I was familiar with Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion from their film and TV roles but I didn’t know anything at all about Felicia Day. After discovering The Guild and The Flog I was sold – her quirky, nerdy brand of humor fit in really well with my own. When those shows ended/went on hiatus I continued to watch her YouTube channel (Geek & Sundry) for Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, which hit my love of board games and Star Trek nostalgia, and Titansgrave, which reminded me of the sci-fi comedy RPG my friend Ian and I created in middle school.
So it was no surprise about 18 months ago when my recommended videos included Critical Role Episode 1: Arrival at Kraghammer. Despite my relative unfamiliarity with D&D and the daunting 3 hour run time I gave it a shot. And 82 episodes later I’m here to tell you why I love it and why you should watch it too.
First, some background: Critical Role describes itself as a show where every Thursday “a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons.” But it’s so much more. The show stars, in order of the picture above:
- Travis Willingham as the goliath barbarian Grog Strongjaw
- Marisha Ray as the half-elven druid Keyleth
- Ashley Johnson as the gnome cleric Pike Trickfoot
- Matthew Mercer as the dungeon master (DM)
- Laura Bailey as the half-elven ranger Vex’ahlia (Vex), twin of Vax
- Taliesin Jaffe as the human gunslinger Percival F.V.M.K de Rolo III (Percy)
- Liam O’Brien as the half-elven rogue Vax’ildan (Vax), twin of Vex
- Sam Riegel as the gnome bard Scanlan Shorthalt
- Orion Acaba as the dragonborn sorcerer Tiberius (25 episodes) (not pictured)
Critical Role isn’t great simply because of the impressive talent of the cast members; it’s great because of the camaraderie and humor, the incredible world-building, and the community that has grown around love of the show. I’ll go into much more detail below, but first, here as usual is River Song to warn you about:
The adventures of the group, styled Vox Machina, began two years before they ever considered streaming it on YouTube. It was intended as a one-off game for Liam O’Brien’s birthday, but they enjoyed it so much that they continued playing. And this enjoyment definitely shines through – it’s clear that each cast member loves their character and that they’d still be playing in someone’s living room if the show hadn’t worked out. Everyone is super invested in the story, they rarely break character, and they practically explode with excitement when they finally take down a big baddie and Matt Mercer asks them “How do you want to do this?” The beginning episodes admittedly have a pretty low production value, but the friendship and roleplaying make watching them worthwhile. And they are so, so funny, which is what keeps you coming back for more.
It would be difficult to list all my favorite moments from the series but I’ll gladly provide some of the best. When Travis Willingham plays true to Grog’s low intelligence by reverse haggling or getting a reading lesson from his best friend Pike (Ashley Johnson) it’s impossible not to smile. I often actually laugh out loud when Sam Riegel bursts into a parody of a pop song, reads a made up message from their sponsors (Lootcrate), or has Scanlan try to buy what he thinks is an illegal substance in an unfamiliar country. Laura Bailey and Liam O’Brien believably play bickering and competitive siblings, Taliesin Jaffe consistently comes up with killer aristocratic one-liners and Marisha Ray does a fantastic job displaying the emotional growth of a naive but extremely powerful magic user.
Beyond the cast are great guest appearances from some pretty recognizable names – Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, game designer Chris Perkins of Acquisitions Incorporated, author Patrick Rothfuss, and actor Vin Diesel have all played characters on the show.
As fantastic as the cast is, it would be impossible to imagine the overwhelming success of Critical Role without the amazing dungeon master, Matt Mercer. It’s hard to grasp the amount of time and effort he puts into creating the history and geography of the world of Tal’Dorei and in keeping a handle on what 7 or 8 characters are trying to accomplish during tense battle sequences. The number of non-player characters that he has written detailed backgrounds and created unique voices for is astounding. He even plays along with voicing Vex’s pet bear Trinket and puts up with the ongoing jokes about his mispronouncing the word sigil.
If you want an example of the level of detail Matt Mercer goes to, I remember one episode where Vox Machina jokingly asked which guard was on duty at their keep at a specific time of night and he almost immediately gave them the answer because he had a guard rotation schedule in his notes. It’s even more incredible to think about his preparation and skill at improvising when you realize how unpredictable the cast can be. And in the vein of a truly great storyteller, NPCs and allies often return to the narrative with new character development, and past decisions made by the group often turn out to have unintended consequences.
The fan community
Maybe the most impressive accomplishment of Critical Role is the creativity it’s inspired among dedicated watchers of the show, aka Critters. Every week Geek & Sundry displays dozens of pieces of fan art, some of which are truly professional level creations. As you’ve seen above, other fans have created animated videos of the funniest moments of the show and tributes to the various characters, such as the best of Scanlan Shorthalt. Critters often send handmade gifts to the cast members and make charitable donations in their names. Volunteers at Crit Role Stats track not only dice rolls and character attributes, but also ridiculous running stats like how many times Vox Machina has caused Matt Mercer to facepalm. Demand for additional content has even been high enough to support an aftershow (Talks Machina) where they discuss their hilarious decision making from the previous episode. And of course, fans dress up as their favorite characters for Halloween.
I hope my description of Critical Role has inspired you to give it a shot – if you’ve watched it and love it as I do, feel free to share some of your favorite memories of the show!