On January 11th, 2018, an estimated 100,000+ people watched as eight (self-professed) nerdy ass voice actors played Dungeons & Dragons on the internet. Their production set at Geek & Sundry is simple: there’s one large table, a decent mic set-up, and the players bring whatever dice, binders, or snacks required to make it through each nail-biting session. The show, appropriately titled Critical Role, has been streaming live on Twitch, Alpha, and YouTube every Thursday for two years now. Despite it’s steady momentum in popularity (the series recently came out with an origins comic book through Dark Horse) nobody could’ve expected this: a fantasy improv hangout boasting actual TV show numbers.
Yet, here we are.
During the first campaign, viewers were dropped into a story that had already been running for two years pre-stream. Vox Machina were a dysfunctional family, full of self-sabotaging, reluctant heroes trying to understand their purpose. Most stories wouldn’t throw you in the middle of a sloppy rescue mission, but the show kept its focus thanks to Matthew Mercer’s guidance as the Dungeon Master. The players, which include Travis Willingham, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, Ashley Johnson, Sam Riegel, Liam O’Brien, and Laura Bailey, are all voice actors who primarily work in video games or animation. Orion Acaba was in the group pre-stream and left around episode 30 for various reasons, including poor health. Occasional guest players pop up as well, including recurring favorites Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Will Friedle, but the large ensemble never devolves into chaos. Similar to an improv or theater format, each actor is given their moment to shine and explore their character’s path without becoming too self-indulgent or derailing the narrative. Throughout the first campaign’s 115 episodes, sporadic one-shots, after show Talks Machina, and “Critmas” specials, something became clear: Critical Role was destined to only get bigger as time went on.
I started watching the show in the summer of 2017 while working a hospital job that often left me with 3-4 hours to kill every shift. Critical Role had been on my radar for months since I became obsessed with Laura Bailey’s range of vocal work, and by episode 6, I was hooked. D&D was unfamiliar territory for me, but I found a lot of comfort in knowing that other cast members had never played until joining the group. Battle mechanics and stats can be understood within a 5-minute Google search, but the storytelling is ultimately why I kept watching. Convincing other people to get into the series, however, was often difficult. C1 has over 100 episodes with the average session running 4 hours long. The material adds up to 20 seasons worth of a TV series, and while it is possible to jump in at different points in Vox Machina’s travels, there are countless references, inside jokes, and personal developments that affect the overall story. Basically, a lot of potential viewers felt alienated due to the amount of commitment and I don’t blame them for saying, “eh, I’ll check it out when the new campaign begins.”
Which leads us to a new year and new beginning. Vox Machina completed their journey and still exist within the lore of Campaign 2, but the actors will be playing entirely new characters. This is an ideal starting point for newbies, and with burning expectations from all sides of the fandom, it’ll be interesting to see how things play out. Episode 2 airs on the 18th, but to give you an idea of how intense the community is (dedicated fans happily identify as ‘Critters’), I’ve seen at least 50 drawings from C2’s premiere, numerous Jester cosplays, and even a pancake spread of the new line-up. The anticipation only builds from here, but I truly believe that we have yet to see best of Critical Role.
Because we’re joining the new group from their humble beginnings, there won’t be any blank spaces to fill in. Vox Machina were seasoned adventurers by the time we met them in Kraghammer, leaving us with patchy spots of the group’s earlier days. Keyleth accidentally killed a child, Pike had a very dramatic resurrection, and we’ll never truly know how they acquired the magic carpet. So many unseen things, big or small, forever shaped the group, and while the defining moments have been answered via comic books and Q&A’s, it’ll be refreshing to be around since day one. It’s also important to remember that Campaign 1 originally began as a one-shot for Liam’s birthday, so everything from character names to backstories were not deeply thought out. Pathfinder was used pre-stream and the conversion to 5E provided a few hiccups, resulting in some players confused about their own abilities. Not only is everyone more prepared and experienced for C2, but Exandria, the world in which Critical Role takes place, becomes richer every session. With most TV series or movies, there’s a lot of worldbuilding and rule setting from the get-go, which can unintentionally hinder a story as it tries to expand (this is a problem The Walking Dead is facing, for example). In the first campaign, majority of the action took place in the kingdom of Tal’Dorei, but our new heroes will find themselves in Wildemount, modeled after the 13th-15th centuries in Eastern Europe. The government, law, and overall culture will differ from what we’ve come to know, but they’re not hitting a total reset button. Not only is this part of Critical Role‘s magic formula, but one of the reasons why D&D has remained successful for 40 years. You have the power to start over without erasing everything, and with each new campaign, there is more awareness of your lasting decisions as a storyteller. Matt literally creates all of the history, lore, and non-playable characters in the series (he builds many of the sets as well and everyone is waiting on confirmation if he’s some type of superhuman), and in C2 we can expect to have a more thorough story with consideration of the series’ future.
That being said, the biggest room for error lies within our new band of explorers. These are characters that we’ll be spending a lot of time with, but there is a chance that an exciting dynamic never materializes. Campaign 1 had the advantage of introducing us to a group of people who collectively found their stride. Awkward or tense moments will inevitably happen within the next few weeks, but a natural rapport is what holds everything together. Some of the new characters have already teamed up (Caleb and Nott have been acquainted for a few months) which at least hints at the possibility that all of them will form a cohesive group at some point. But with the events at the end of E1, how will certain problems like Mollymauk’s imprisonment be handled without the actors meta-gaming in some way? There’s no reason for the characters to put their well-being on the line for somebody they barely know, so it’ll be interesting to see how early problems like these will be taken care of. Will long-term viewers be able to not compare everything to the first campaign? I’ll admit, a part of me is terrified that it’ll go down like season two of True Detective. This campaign might be 20 episodes in when I realize the magic isn’t there, or I don’t love the group as much as Vox Machina. Not enjoying a new installment is a genuine concern for every fanbase, but for a series with such a vast amount of material, it would be heartbreaking to not care about the people involved. But really, what is the worst case scenario here? C2 falls short and we have a giant backlog of episodes to re-watch. Most importantly, we need to remind ourselves that not only is this show free, but it owes us nothing. These are a bunch of old friends role-playing and giving us the chance to be a fly on the wall. Yes, Critical Role has a chance of falling short, but you have to look at it like an internet campfire. There’s comfort in revisiting an old, favorite story, but nothing beats a compelling adventure you can’t predict. I’m grateful for the joy this series has given me over the past year, and while I do hope it expands and gains more followers, I hope it never loses the intimacy that makes it feel so personal. Whether you’re a new fan or have been watching since their set looked like a 5-year-old’s bedroom, Campaign 2 is here to make us feel like giddy children again. The nervous expectations are there, but at the end of the day, this isn’t just a show you put on as background noise. We’re here, we’re invested, and we’re ready for what the new dawn brings.
Is it Thursday yet?
PS, A few extra pointers for new viewers…
- A lot of questions can be answered on the Critical Role reddit page, which is probably the most well-maintained source for news and fan interaction.
- Cast members are pretty good with not posting spoilers on social media, but if you do follow them on Twitter, they often ‘like’ things, such as fan art, that could end up on your feed. Just something to keep in mind.
- This community is unbelievable. I’ve been involved in numerous fandoms or am at least aware of how other groups can be, but Critical Role fans are on a whole different level. They’re dedicated, warm, genuinely loving people who will do anything to support the series and help out their fellow Critters.
- Gift giving is a big part of the fanbase and while it is tempting to send the cast members presents, they’ve received everything from customized dice to actual replicas of their character’s weapons. Please donate to a charity in their name instead.
- Some popular quotes you’ll probably hear or see often:
- “How do you want to do this?” Matt’s signature catchphrase for whoever gets the winning blow on an enemy. This is usually met by all the players collectively losing their shit while the person decides to think of the most dramatic/coolest/brutal way to kill their foe.
- “Is it Thursday yet?” Matt’s closing words every week, also often used by fans as a way to express their withdrawal grief.
- “Bidet.” In campaign one, Grog had an…interesting way of greeting people that caught on. You’ll see this used as a greeting in every chat room, message board, etc.
- “Do you spice?” Said by Scanlan in the first campaign when he was trying to find an illegal substance, also a popular greeting within the community.
- “I would like to rage.” Another Grogism, Ashley borrowed the phrase in C2E1, but may develop her own saying for when Yasha goes into a frenzy.