Critical Role: The Best Thing To Happen To Dungeons & Dragons. Ever.

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UPDATE: The campaign finished up at over $11.3M. Wow.

So, What’s This Then?

Unless you play Dungeons & Dragons or are a game geek, you probably haven’t heard or Matt Mercer and the gang that make up Critical Role–“a bunch of nerdy ass voice actors that play Dungeons and Dragons” (Matt’s words). For a lot of people, that changed this week when Critical Role’s Kickstarter campaign raised over five million dollars in less than 72 hours. At the time of this writing, the campaign is approaching six million dollars and still has 42 days of fundraising time remaining in the Kickstarter campaign. That’s incredible. On Monday, March 4th, Fortune magazine published an article (yes, Fortune published an article about a D&D Kickstarter …. whaaaat?) that said Critical Role’s campaign could possibly break the 2013 record set by the campaign to bring back Mystery Science Theater that raised $5,764,229. Guess what? That happened yesterday, March 6th. Right now, March 7th 2019 at 8:11 PST, Critical Role’s fundraising effort has brought in $5,880,802.

The Critical Role Cast. From left to right … Back Row: Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, Matthew Mercer – Front Row: Liam O’Brien, Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham

So What?

If you’re still with me, and you’re unfamiliar with Critical Role, you’re probably asking “so what? What is it, why do I care, what are they raising money for?” I’m glad you asked.

Critical Role is a weekly broadcast show on Twitch of Matt Mercer and his cast, wait for it, playing Dungeons and Dragons. Yup. They play that nerdy ass pen and paper game that people made fun of us about when we were kids back in the day. Not only do they play a game and broadcast it, they record the broadcast and put in out on Youtube, they also publish it as a podcast. Right now, there are over 160 episodes spanning two campaigns and a whole slew of spin-off shows and segments you can watch, for free.

Here’s the kicker: Millions of people watch and listen to the show from all around the globe. These fans, some of them downright rabid, are affectionately known as “critters” and they have a hashtag to prove it. And nearly forty three thousand of them have ponied up between $10 and $25,000 in pledges to the Kickstarter campaign. That’s kind of a big deal.

It Didn’t Happen Overnight

Here’s how that happened–and it’s not an overnight success. Mercer and the cast have been playing weekly D&D sessions and broadcasting them for five years. In the early episodes, the Critical Role gang is happy to get to a handful of subscribers. When they hit a few thousand they are genuinely stoked. Their success took years of playing the game and broadcasting it weekly. When players are unavailable or on vacation they video call or conference call in. That’s dedication.

Since that early beginning, they’ve accumulated a massive fan base. This is due to Mercer’s creative Dungeon Mastering and the cast’s engaging characters and the performances that go with them. Let’s remember that “nerdy ass voice actor” part from the beginning of this article. Every one in the cast, including Mercer is an actor. So, they bring a whole other level of role-playing to the game. This level of performance engages the audience and coupled with the anticipation of a great or terrible roll of the dice, it makes for a lot of fun to watch.

There’s something special about not knowing what’s going to happen next and realizing that the people you’re watching don’t know either. It creates a level of excitement that is hard to duplicate. I also get the impression that unlike many gamers, the cast of the show isn’t (or at least wasn’t) super knowledgeable on the game. They hadn’t all read the Monster Manual cover to cover. They were still surprised, excited, and/or scared when Mercer presents them with a monster to fight or a villain to contend with.

Veteran gamers have often read all the books multiple times and the sense of fear, excitement, and wonder is gone. They know all the strengths, weaknesses, and tactics to dispatch the threat and the overall joy of game play suffers as a result.

So, the massive success of Critical Role’s Kickstarter campaign is built on five years of creativity and dedication. No small feat.

Critical Role is Expanding the D&D Audience

Why, you ask? Because those of us that grew up in the eighties remember a time where D&D was blamed for all sorts of outrageous things like suicides and satanic worship. Don’t believe me? Read the New York Times and BBC articles on that topic.

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons in sixth grade. My friends and I would play at recess, next to the monkey bars. A few years later, I joined a gaming group and we played weekly, sometimes more. Back then, if you mentioned D&D to anyone, you were either weird, or satanic, or both.

I eventually moved on to other games and table top war-games , but over the years I’ve picked up and played a little D&D or it’s offshoot, Pathfinder, a few times over the years but not regularly or frequently.

I discovered Critical Role in a local newspaper. Imagine my surprise when I roll into my local coffee shop and see the free newszine that usually talks about local events with a cover page featuring D&D–and the headline isn’t about chaos, satan, or mayhem. Instead, it’s actually positive. What? In that article, theres’s a brief reference to a popular Youtube channel and podcast and that’s how I learned about Critical Role (Here’s that article by the way).

Over the next two months, I binged on the entire first campaign (115 episodes) in podcast form. I listened to it while washing dishes, on road trips, etc. I finished episode 115 on the Morning of March 4th and thought I’d write a blog post about it. I had no idea, how popular Critical Role is. Now I know. The first thing I ran across was the Kickstarter campaign. I had to read it several times to realize they’d cracked three million dollars in the first day.

So, I started digging around the Internet and found fan pages, a wiki site, and a tremendous amount of content based on Critical Role. Holy smokes!

And that got me thinking … (always dangerous) … Matt Mercer and his crew have contributed to something that has elevated the game and made it accessible to millions of people that wouldn’t ever go near it otherwise.

Before, if you wanted to learn about D&D and didn’t have a friend that played and could introduce you, you had to either stand at the Barnes & Noble game section (usually near the cafe where people can watch you be a nerd) and pick up books, self conscious about who was watching you because you might be scarred from the 80s hate the game got, or you had to wander into some dingy game store and see if people were playing in the back room.

Now, you can pull up a Youtube video on your phone or listen to a podcast wherever you are and satisfy your curiosity and find an immediate community of people as nerdy as you are. That’s wonderful. What’s more, is that the people on Critical Role are charismatic, they make the game seem cool. They knock off the stigma. That’s why I say that Critical Role is probably the best thing that’s happened to D&D, ever.

Mercer and the gang have succeeded in making the game at least a little cool. Don’t get me wrong, kids are probably still getting stuffed into lockers for being nerds and gamers aren’t suddenly transforming into charismatic, well-adjusted socialites, but the stereotypes are getting pushed aside. That’s always good.

How They Play The Game

Now, if you’re still with me, let’s talk about the way Mercer and the Critical Role gang play the game. The most important thing to me is that they don’t argue. There are moments where you thing a bit of rules-lawyering might creep in, but it rarely does. They laugh a lot. They are having fun. The players actually role-play (remember what I said about them being actors). They act out conversations and they breathe life into their character. Because it looks like so much fun, it makes people want to try it as well.

People certainly like the cast and treat them like celebrities, but they love the characters. They love the adventures and challenges the characters face and defeat, most of the time. When characters die, and they do, (sorry for the spoiler) people actually cry (cast and audience)–like they might in a movie with a sad ending.

For his part, Mercer comes across as an incredibly fair and creative Dungeon Master — the guy that plays the narrator, sets the story, and provides the environment for the characters to interact with. He also plays all the bad guys. He’s very talented and I didn’t realize for many episodes that the game world in which the campaign was taking place in wasn’t something published by Wizards of the Coast, publishers of D&D. Instead, it’s a world Mercer created. The world, Exandria, is incredibly well realized. So well, in fact, that he published a world guide that has hundreds of great reviews on Amazon.

So, that’s why I think the Critical Role team is probably the best thing to happen to D&D, ever.

The Campaigns

Vox Machina Screencapture from the Animated Series Trailer – Left to right: Vax, Vex, Scanlan, Grog, Keyleth (hidden by Grog’s axe), and Pike

In the five years that Critical Role has aired, the team has completed one campaign and is over fifty episodes into the second campaign. The first campaign chronicles the adventures of Vox Machina, a group of companions that get into an incredible amount of trouble (mostly of their own making) but also turn out to be heroes to the realm. The campaign has multiple story arcs and takes the group through fights with vampires, zombies, a lich (undead wizard), a conclave of evil dragons hell-bent on destruction, monsters and demons, and finally a confrontation between gods.

From left to right: Cacuceus, Nott, Caleb, Jester, Fjord, Beau, Yasha. This gorgeous piece of Mighty Nein fan art drawn by Max Dunbar www.max-dunbar.com

The second campaign chronicles the adventures of the Mighty Nein. For fans, this new campaign brings excitement through the players new characters. You get used to Sam Riegel being Scanlan in the first campaign. It’s fun to watch him play a completely different character. Laura Bailey, Vex the half-elven ranger in Vox Machina, shifts gears to play Jester, a Tiefling, in the Mighty Nein campaign. The versatility of the actors is fun to witness. And of course, Mercer brings his A-game to make it all happen.

Check it Out for Yourself

Books and Comics

The Animated Special/Series

You can check out the Kickstarter campaign of the Vox Machina animated series if you haven’t already. Right now, you have over a month to contribute if you want to. I’m excited for the Critical Role gang and with them much continued success.

And by the way, since I started writing this blog post, the Kickstarter campaign has raised another seventy grand–it’s at $5,951,451 and rapidly counting upward. Wow.