17 March 2022
The world’s biggest Dungeons & Dragons campaign has changed the face of roleplaying forever – and its cast have had an absolute blast along the way. Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer and Liam O’Brien reveal how a birthday treat turned into a cultural phenomenon and what’s in store for season two
As Critical Role celebrate seven years, we take a #ThrowbackThursday look at our interview with them back in issue 17 of Tabletop Gaming Magazine.
Words by Matt Jarvis | Cosplay photographs by Pamela Joy
Could you and your friends run your roleplaying campaign with ten people watching? How about 100? Or 1,000? What if it was an audience of hundreds of thousands? Or even millions?
That’s exactly the daunting task faced by the cast of Critical Role, a Dungeons & Dragons campaign streamed live every week by Geek & Sundry, the web video network that’s also the home of Wil Wheaton’s hugely popular board game series TableTop. Since its all-star D&D show began, Critical Role has racked up tens of millions of views on livestreaming site Twitch and video library YouTube, including a staggering 6.7 million views of its first episode, Arrival at Kraghammer, which debuted in June 2015.
The game that would grow into a show watched by millions began like any other roleplaying campaign – a bunch of friends sat around a table, having fun. In this case, the organiser was Matthew Mercer, a professional voice actor with credits across video games, TV series and films, who put together a one-off simplified scenario for his friend and fellow voice actor Liam O’Brien’s birthday.
“When we started this campaign in our home game, it was for mostly a bunch of people who I’d never played before,” Mercer says. “It was supposed to be just a one-shot for my friend Liam’s birthday, and we invited a bunch of our compatriots who had never played before and they all got immediately hooked, and it turned into a campaign.”
Mercer, O’Brien and their friends – including several other actors – soon switched to D&D 3.5-based RPG Pathfinder and continued to play at home for two years, before one of the group, BAFTA-winning The Last of Us star Ashley Johnson, mentioned the campaign to Felicia Day, the cult actor who co-founded Geek & Sundry.
“Felicia was like, ‘Why don’t you... You guys should do that on our channel!’” Mercer recalls. “We went, ‘Ohhhh, I don’t know, playing D&D on the internet seems like a terrible idea. People will light us on fire.’”
Much of the group’s hesitation was down to a reluctance to change anything about the campaign they had been running in private for years.
“It was still our game, we playing for ourselves,” explains Mercer. “It wasn’t until Twitch became a thing that it was a scenario where we said, ‘If we can put us in a room, turn on cameras and not change any of how we play our game, then we’ll say yes.’ And so, for us, Twitch and streaming was the capability for us to just continue to play our game, not trying to change or alter it for an audience, just do it for ourselves and invite other people to come and watch if that’s something they wanted to do.”
Geek & Sundry agreed. The result is a friendly, genuine series of videos that captures the sparky creativity of the group in episodes that can last up to five hours or more, with the first campaign – following the Vox Machina party – split across 115 such instalments.
“There are less brunch platters and mimosas for us now,” O’Brien jokes about taking the campaign to the masses. “Things were even looser around our home table, although I think they’re still pretty loose. One of the best parts of the stream, though, is that live element. The game still feels very intimate, because it is still just the eight of us around a table. But the live audience gives things that little electric current of immediacy. We know once we say something, either stupid or amazing, it is out there in the ether. It’s part of what makes theatre so magical. You know that there has never been a moment quite like the one you’re currently in.”
Mercer, who takes on the role of the dungeon master throughout the series with the exception of a few special episodes, says that the cast’s familiarity with appearing on-screen helped with the leap to the public gaze.
“Because we’re all performers by nature, our home games weren’t all that different,” he says. “We were all shouting at each other over the table and getting way into character and standing and flailing about wildly. So it didn’t really change the game so much as far as the presentation of it.”
What has changed significantly, even from Critical Role’s beginnings, is its production values. The audio and video quality of the first few episodes – “It’s a little rough at the beginning,” admits Mercer – has since been polished by professional lighting, microphones and sets. As the person pulling the strings behind the world – not to mention providing dozens of unique voices for any NPCs encountered – Mercer’s own ability to layer in atmosphere and weave the group’s story has improved, too.
“I’ve definitely fine-tuned and honed things as I’ve played and learned, as you do as anyone’s GMing a game – the more you play, the more you define your techniques and get better at certain things,” he says.
“I will say, having that big of an audience definitely teaches you to be much more conscientious with your world-building. Because it’s one thing to create a story and a world for your eight friends who are sometimes having a beer or two and won’t notice your mistakes and won’t notice your plot holes, it’s another when you have hundreds of thousands of people on Reddit and social media who are every week picking apart the minutiae of your storyline.”
One of Critical Role’s biggest draws is how much it feels like watching a Netflix or television series. The talented party’s impressive vocal talents mean that, even without much in the way of visual flair, watching or listening to an episode gets you immediately invested in the story and its characters. There’s a similarly passionate following, too, with fans drawing artwork based on the heroes, discussing story beats and binge-watching older episodes while waiting for the next chapter.
“It’s perpetually surreal,” Mercer says of the fandom. “It never stops and only continues to get more and more and more so. It’s hard not to fall into a trap of continuous imposter syndrome, ‘cause it doesn’t feel like we deserve this attention. It’s a phenomenon that even we don’t understand and we’re humbled by it, but we’re excited by it, too. Because it’s one thing to have a thing that people like, it’s another to have a community that’s so gracious and so happy to engage with each other and us. It’s special, it’s special. That’s the only way I can say it. I don’t know what it is, but I like it!”
The show’s likeable players and engaging story have even seen it break out of the roleplaying niche and attract a wave of fans who have never touched a pen-and-paper RPG, some of whom go on to try out D&D after watching.
“Part of the reason we even started Critical Role was the inevitably difficult conversation in a party or a co-worker scenario where someone asks, ‘What, wait, what is Dungeons & Dragons?’” Mercer enthuses. “And that horrible moment where you’re like, ‘Well, you know, it’s– You make a character and then it’s like a fantasy, but you can be like a spellcaster, or you could be like a fighter, and it’s like there’s a lot of you, and there’s a person who’s a– Y’know? Nevermind.’ I’ve had that scenario happen so much in my life that I wanted to put something on video that could be something to show people very quickly and be like, ‘Oh, it’s just friends around a table telling a story, I could do that.’
“So now that we’ve built off that, the community is now reaching out to people in their circle who they think might really enjoy this but never had the opportunity to be exposed to it and be like, ‘Hey, watch this,’ or ‘Hey, come over on Friday and see if you wanna jump in and give it a shot.’ I’ve heard story after story of people getting their co-workers into it, families – you know, those tenuous teen years between parents and teenagers absolved by having a family D&D night every week. That to me is the core of it; it’s bringing people together and sharing a really amazing experience that you all create together. That’s a very fulfilling experience and it just builds social skills, it builds problem-solving skills, team-building. I owe so much of who I am today to Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games, and it excites me to think that so many other people are now getting a chance to learn through that same lens how to better themselves.”
“I think we all continue to prove that it’s a game everyone can play,” O’Brien agrees. “Hell, I think tabletop RPGs are games everyone should play. I think they make us better people. Everyone has a story to tell, and the beauty is, you get to write anything you want. And anyone with kids? Run a game for them!”
Most friendship groups are unlikely to involve a line-up of experienced voice actors accustomed to embodying a character and projecting an alternate personality to a room of people – even close friends. But while Critical Role may be an idealised version of roleplaying for some people, its stars are quick to dispel the idea that it should be treated as the template for a perfect experience.
“First and foremost, there is no requirement for you to do voices or to be really into character,” Mercer reassures. “Especially at the very beginning of a campaign, that’s something that comes with comfort. Most of the people I’ve played with most of my life have not been actors, they’ve all been people that went on to become game designers or tech experts. I grew up with the nerd crowd, we were the computer club in high school. It was those people. So I was probably the more outgoing of most of my gaming groups growing up, so by no means do you have to be a performer.”
“Don’t stress. Embrace feeling foolish,” O’Brien adds. “The only goal you really need is having fun with each other, making each other laugh. And don’t wait ‘til you ‘feel ready’. Or perfect. It’ll never be perfect. But it will be great.”
For confident players that do want to introduce a little more theatricality to their games, Mercer suggests that even basic lessons in improvisation can pay dividends.
“Not only does it help keep you clever and quick, which is a great thing to have in a lot of roleplaying games, but it’ll help you feel more comfortable jumping and taking charge in a challenge – which as we all know when you’re playing D&D, sometimes you have that moment when everyone’s like ‘Urr, I don’t– Do you wanna? I don’t know– I– I’ll g– Oh, okay, you go ahead,’” he says. “Improv helps you feel more competent in taking the spotlight when nobody else will and just keep the story moving forward, so that is a helpful skill set to have.
“If that’s where your comfort level goes and you want ascribe to be that, then just clearly define your character’s personality, what their goals are, what their fears are, what their worries are, and try and add an element to their backstory that’s a mystery even to you as the player that the GM can play with. Because that helps you start the game with a strong idea of what the character’s decision-making would be based on and over time you’ll feel more comfortable in those shoes. Once you feel more comfortable, you’ll generally be more comfortable in stepping forward and embodying the personality of that character whether that be a voice or physicality or just a presence. It doesn’t have to be as big as us. We’re all actors, that’s our skillset, so of course that’s what we’re going to use to tell our story, but don’t feel like you have to do that by any means. Some of the best games I’ve ever played have been with non-actors and in hindsight, in memory I don’t recall it being any less magical. So please don’t feel that pressure.”
Although the quick wits and on-the-spot invention of its players provides many of Critical Role’s best moments, the show’s casual surface is held together by hours of work done in the background. As DM, Mercer reveals he plans between four and six hours of content for each episode, taking between an hour to an hour and a half of prep for each hour of actual gameplay.
“I have, when I’m preparing like a story arc, I’ll usually beat out the general arc – what kind of important beats should happen – and develop the in-between on a more immediate basis, meaning episode to episode,” he says. “When we have a session, as we play through that bit of the arc, I’ll try and prepare in advance where I think they might go within that session.
“If we’re going into another big story arc it’s going to be a lot more front-end prep to make sure I know where we’re going. I’ll beat out the loose locations and events that will happen, I’ll create a bunch of NPCs that are intrinsic to the storyline and some that are not that I can just plug in wherever – they can help kind of give them some direction – and then prepare some very loose possibilities if they go completely off the rails, which inevitably they do. That’s the nature of roleplaying games! As much as you prepare, it’s never enough. You’re usually pulling stuff out of your ass left and right, and that’s part of the thrill of GMing.”
Mercer laughs as he recalls plenty of times where decisions made by the rest of the group had resulted in his hard work going to waste.
“Plenty of social and combat encounters,” he says, when asked which of his plans had never come to fruition. “Y’know, whole possible dungeon-delve scenarios that just never ever came up where they completely skipped over.
“There would be NPCs – like, for instance, in the final arc of the last campaign, I’d created a creature that was going to be a Gollum-esque-type entity, where it was semi-neutral but it had information on the villain and they could encounter it and it was going to be one of the only social encounters in this dungeon they would have, as most of it was just a climb towards the big bad. So I had described it by itself, looking kind of pitiful on its own as it’s, like, feasting on this corpse, and the first thing one of our players did was throw his daggers at it and kill it in one round. I was like, ‘Alright! Well, moving on...’ He had a name! I showed him after the campaign, I’m like, ‘He had a name, Liam!’”
A FRESH START
After wrapping up its first season after two years, early 2018 saw Critical Role launch into a brand new campaign, with a new setting, new story and new characters – which, of course, means new voices.
O’Brien’s human wizard Caleb Widogast (accompanied by his unlikely goblin partner, Nott the Brave, played by Sam Riegel) replaces his fan-favourite half-elf rouge-paladin Vax’ildan from the previous season. He’s joined by Laura Bailey’s tiefling cleric Jester, Marisha Ray’s human monk Beauregard, Travis Willingham’s half-orc warlock Fjord, Taliesin Jaffe’s tiefling blood hunter Mollymauk and Ashley Johnson as aasimar barbarian Yasha. Where the group’s previous characters had established their backstories, relationships and personalities over hundreds of hours to the delight of fans (as lengthy wiki entries will attest), the second season sees the players starting completely afresh – an exciting but intimidating prospect.
“Dungeons & Dragons has so much range, I’m really just wanting to try out some of those other avenues I haven’t had a chance to explore yet,” O’Brien says. “I was almost magic-free for the entirety of the last campaign, and when I did acquire some, it was fairly light. I’m both nervous and excited to wrap my head around all the ins and out of the wizardly path. Plus, I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy inhabiting a different headspace than Vax in the last campaign. He was very rash, headstrong, and uncompromising in the ways he strove to do right. Which I loved playing. Caleb is not cut from the same cloth, however. Not by a longshot. And every actor likes to try on different hats.”
The group first meets in an inn in the city of Trostenwald on the continent of Wildemount, a more politically incensed region than the land of Tal’Dorei explored by the Vox Machina party. With the players taking on new roles, the different landscape – both literally and metaphorically – similarly provides their dungeon master with the opportunity to paint on a blank canvas.
“I’m curious,” says Mercer. “I want this campaign to have a different narrative flavour to it. It’s going to largely depend on what the players want to, what they want to pursue and what threads catch their attention. This continent is designed to be a little more politically involved, it has a lot more moral grey I think they may well encounter in this campaign versus the previous one where it was a very clear, like, good versus evil. It was pretty easy to pick which side you’re on. It may be a little less easy in this campaign, which I think will be very unique for them at the very least. For those players, who are used to very much like, ‘Oh, that’s the bad guy, we have to fight, let’s go kill it!’ Y’know. So I’m curious to see how that plays out.”
REMAINS OF THE PLAY
One and a bit seasons in, there are already more episodes and hours of Critical Role than many long-running television shows. (By way of comparison, the 143 videos counted as part of its ‘Campaign 1’ YouTube playlist is over twice the number of episodes in total for Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and The Wire, even without taking into consideration the RPG show’s much longer individual runtimes.)
The Vox Machina campaign ran for more than two and a half years, hinting at a possible length for the second season, but Mercer admits he has “no idea” how long the latest story will last.
“To kind of show the microcosm of it, you’ll prepare a session and be like, ‘This will feel like a good solid four to five hours of gameplay, I feel pretty good about this,’ and then the players will get through the first page and that one session prep will last you three sessions,” he says. “Comparatively, I’ve prepared a similar amount of work and they’ll breeze through it in an hour and then we’re all living in this blank space where I loosely have an idea of where we’re going and we’re just making it up as we go along. So it’s hard to gauge a length when the nature of the game is to be so amorphous and open. I don’t really feel there’s a need to ascribe to a specific structure or a specific length, I just kinda wanna see where the story takes us, and when it feels like it naturally has ended then that’ll be the end.”
His players are equally clueless about where the sprawling tale could go next.
“I’ve no clue,” O’Brien says. “And that’s the beauty of it.”
With Critical Role’s audience only continuing to grow and its cast’s creativity seemingly endless when it comes to bringing their world to life, there’s no end in sight yet for the story that began as a one-off birthday scenario and was propelled into the cultural stratosphere.
“It was kind of an unexpected opportunity that we didn’t think was going to go anywhere and, thankfully, we were very wrong!” Mercer says.
“As far as I know, I’m going to keep doing this as long as we want to keep playing together and telling stories. I’ve been playing roleplaying games for over 20 years and I haven’t got sick of it yet. So we’ll see. It’s such a fulfilling creative process to do this with your friends and so I don’t– There may come a day where we stop because of life reasons, health reasons, who knows? But for now, I haven’t even looked that far ahead, I’m so focused on the now and what’s happening with the story now.”
Critical Role is all about Dungeons & Dragons, but what other roleplaying games do the cast enjoy? We asked two of its stars
Matthew Mercer: D&D was my introduction to it [roleplaying]. I grew up a hardcore Tolkien high fantasy nerd, so it’s definitely my preferred place, but I’ve played a lot of other RPGs that I enjoy thoroughly. I’ve played a lot of Traveller, I’ve played Exalted, I’ve played Deadlands, I’ve played the Warhammer Fantasy roleplaying game, I’ve played Diaspora, Paranoia, the old Star Wars RPG. I’ve played a lot of them throughout the years but D&D has kind of been my go-to comfort food, if you will. For me, I think I just like telling stories and swords ‘n’ sorcery tales. I just love fantasy races, I love the idea of small individuals becoming heroic characters in this high fantasy setting, so D&D is just a natural fit for me, I guess. As much as I try and pontificate about other great systems that I’ve really enjoyed as well, I keep going back to D&D. Maybe it’s the nostalgia.
Liam O’Brien: I think my first encounter with tabletop was pretty typical. A classmate let me borrow the D&D red box, and I instantly fell in love with it. I spent much of my high school years playing D&D, Cyberpunk and RIFTS. That’s when I fell in love with the fantasy genre.
The most gaming I do outside Critical Role is the GMing I do for my kids. I run one to two games a month for them. My son has a game with a few friends, as does his younger sister. I am actually loving running her and her four friends through a sanded-down version of Curse of Strahd. I gave her a choice of any adventure module on the shelf, and she was adamant that they slay vampires. It is so damn fun to see them all thrill at the danger and problem solve their way out of it.