The Rise of Critical Role: How a Team of ‘Nerdy-Ass’ Actors Became Dungeons & Dragons Rock Stars

Radio-Canada specials8:41The rise of the critical role

It started as a bunch of self-proclaimed « nerdy-ass voice actors » playing Dungeons & Dragons, trying to make each other laugh.

Ten years later, the people behind the popular live gaming experience critical role rose to rock star status among tabletop game fans, helped popularize the game that was once stigmatized as satanic, and through it all became as close as family.

« I think it’s the most creative and enriching experience of my life, of all of our lives, » said Liam O’Brien, one of the eight founding members.

Millions of people watch the group participate in tabletop role-playing on live streams on their Twitch and Youtube channels.

Armed with pens, paper, dice and their imaginations, players take part in a fantastical story, known as the campaign, full of adventures, battling monsters – and of course, dragons. Mathew Mercer takes on the role of dungeon master, narrating the campaign for all seven players, describing locations and creatures, and using the rules to determine the results of all player decisions.

The team’s success has since extended beyond streaming their game sessions.

In January, Amazon Prime will release the second season of The Legend of Vox Machinaan animated series based on Critical role, where all characters are voiced by the actors who originally created and played them during their D&D sessions.

The show kicked off its first season in 2022, following a Kickstarter campaign they hoped would fund a single animated special. After raising US$11 million, the pilot was expanded to a full season of 12 episodes and picked up by Amazon.

WATCH | The Legend of Vox Machina trailer:

O’Brien, who plays Vax’ildan in the animated series, says the idea that they’ve created a world that matters to them and to fans who tune in is hugely rewarding.

« Not a day goes by that I don’t pinch myself and say, ‘Be worthy of the gift you have in life.’ «

The adventure begin

It all started in 2012, when O’Brien was dubbing with Mercer on the video game Resident Evil 6. O’Brien mentioned that he wanted to come back to D&D, that he loved growing up but hadn’t played in a while.

For O’Brien’s birthday, Mercer offered to be the dungeon master and run an abbreviated one-night campaign for O’Brien and some of their comedian friends.

Marisha Ray received an invite and says the game night was a success.

A screenshot from Critical Role’s second campaign shows the excitement and emotion that accompanies their Thursday matches. (Critical role)

“There was definitely like the first 15 to 20 minutes of a lot of laughs at the reality that we were a bunch of grown adults sitting around playing Dungeons & Dragons,” said Ray, who is now the creative director of critical role. In the anime series, she plays Keyleth of the Air Ashari.

Mercer, who is always critical role‘s Dungeon Master, also felt there was something special about their first game together.

« The electricity was so strong on all levels that even though my subconscious was wondering if they would ever want to come back to play again, in the next few days everyone wanted to know when the next session was, » he said. he declares. said.

What we do together is my heart and my soul and my everything.– Liam O’Brien

The group continued to meet and play together for about two years, before actor Felicia Day approached them to stream their games on his Youtube and Twitch channel, Geek & Sundry.

Mercer says there was some trepidation about sharing their home game.

« If you put something on the internet, there’s a good chance it’s set on fire, » he said.

« Especially if it’s a relatively niche passion that’s largely misunderstood, which historically tabletop games have been, since the Satanic Panic. »

In the 1980s, some labeled Dungeons & Dragons a danger to society. Alarmists feared the game, which debuted in 1974, could lead players to commit torture, murder or even cannibalism. Many parents forbid their children to play it.

With that in mind, the team agreed to stream their games online. But they certainly didn’t expect to attract a large audience.

WATCH | Throwback to how D&D was once considered dangerous:
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The critters

the first live broadcast on June 24, 2015, was riddled with audio issues with players talking to each other and snacking mid-game. But the number of viewers still increased exponentially – this first episode alone has more than 20 million views.

In 2018, the critical role cast parted ways with Geek & Sundry to form their own company. They have since released over 300 episodes across three D&D campaigns, garnering hundreds of millions of total views.

Mercer credits the team’s chemistry and talent for storytelling for why the streams became so popular so quickly.

« We were all trained performers who had spent our lives honing a skill set that allowed us to take an improvised narrative with no real visual specialty, no effects, no costumes, » he said.

The eight cast members of Critical Role pose in front of a wooden backdrop.
Cast members say they became as close as family while playing Dungeons & Dragons. From left, Taliesin Jaffe, Liam O’Brien, Marisha Ray, Travis Willingham, Ashley Johnson (front), Sam Riegel, Laura Bailey and Matthew Mercer have been playing together since 2012. (Robyn Swank/Critical Role)

Fans of the show, known as Critters, can purchase apparel, graphic novels, action figures and more, in addition to watching live streams or attending live broadcasts at conventions.

Laura Bailey, who plays Vex’ahlia in the Amazon Prime series, says she hopes fans can use their game as an escape. She says she definitely did.

« It may seem frivolous, but life is stressful, and it’s good to have something to distract you a bit, it can also maybe open up your life experience a bit and make you think differently, » said Bailey.

« I think this game is a really powerful way to increase your empathy and put yourself in other lives’ shoes. And if we can make that easier for other people, that’s a pretty cool thing. »

The game evolves

As critical role has grown in popularity, as has the game Dungeons & Dragons.

Steven Edmonds, co-owner of The Bard and Bear board game cafe in Hamilton, says many of his customers were introduced to D&D by critical role.

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« They’ve been a catalyst for an extreme expansion of D&D’s popularity, » said Edmonds, who has played the game himself for a decade and is a huge fan of D&D. critical role.

He credits their popularity to a simultaneous rise in nerd culture, the appearance of D&D on TV shows such as Community and stranger thingsand a new, more user-friendly version of the game itself.

« It provided…the first point of contact for a lot of people to suddenly be like, ‘Wow, that sounds interesting. Maybe I want to try,' » Edmonds said.

O’Brien and the others don’t take their popularity lightly. He remembers it was hard to find people to play with when he was growing up.

A group of people sit at tables in a board game cafe, listening to the store owner.
Steven Edmonds, far right, hosts Dungeons & Dragons games at Bard and Bear, his board game cafe in Hamilton. (Submitted by Steven Edmonds)

Now, D&D groups like those organized by The Bard and Bear are packed.

« The idea that our kind of shenanigans and silliness and love for each other spreads, and other people can do the thing that we fell in love with, it’s magical, » O’ said. Brien.

And after?

For players, gambling is more than just a business.

Bailey admits there are a lot more responsibilities now that their business has grown, but when they’re seated at the table, they’re just a bunch of friends playing D&D together.

This image shows the production set up with microphones and cameras around a table as the cast prepares to start a Critical Role stream.
Critical Role, which is in the midst of its third Dungeons & Dragons campaign, has expanded beyond streaming game sessions with The Legend of Vox Machina animated series, based on Critical Role characters and streaming on Amazon Prime. . (Chris Lockey/Critical Role)

« Ten years ago, 12 years ago, 20 years ago, if I had thought this was the direction my life would take or my career would go, I absolutely wouldn’t have understood or believed it. “, she said. « But it’s so natural to do it with this group. »

In the new season of the animated series, coming in January, O’Brien and Bailey play brother and sister. And O’Brien says the whole cast has become a family.

« What we do together is my heart, my soul and my everything, » he said. « I’m so happy to be in it and do it every day. »


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