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

Critical Role Cast

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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.

Figure Drawing Friday, March 1, 2019

Figure drawings

Time flies when you’re having fun. It’s already Figure Drawing Friday again. The drawings featured this week are from a few years ago. This was when I had a drawing venue that allowed opportunities for figure drawing from a model several times a week. The frequency with which you draw from life dramatically impacts your ability to do it well.

When I did these drawings, I was mostly drawing line art without a ton of value. My style and approach has changed a lot since then. However, I was able to drop lines and proportions and shapes onto the paper with good accuracy very quickly at the time.

I should also mention that these drawings aren’t very large. I drew them in an 11×14 hardcover sketchbook and used col-erase blue pencils. All four of the drawings are of the same model. You can see some variation in the likeness of her face. Likeness is always hard to capture consistently. Her figure, however, is fairly consistent in all the poses. You can see some of my construction lines in the drawings. At the time, I usually began a drawing with the rib cage (as a simple oval) and the hips (another oval) connected with a simple gesture line to approximate the spine and general energy of the pose. The poses for these drawings varied between 3 and 20 minutes.

Character Sketch. Playing with my Cintiq 16HD

dwarf concept sketch

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I’m a clumsy digital artist. I have a lot to learn, but I’m certainly enjoying the process. I doodled this character in pencil yesterday and snapped a photo of the sketch that I subsequently opened in Photoshop and colored using my Cintiq 16HD display tablet. There’s a lot I’d like to improve, but the process is fun.

Sketchbook Sketch.

Learning the shortcut keys in photoshop so you can manipulate your tools without taking your eyes and attention of your drawing is key. Without the shortcut keys you find yourself breaking your concentration and making entries to change tools constantly. My most used shortcuts are:

  • B for the brush tool
  • I for the eye dropper tool
  • R to rotate the canvas
  • Z to zoom in and out by dragging the pen left and right
  • L for the lasso tool
  • E for the eraser tool
  • the space bar for the move tool

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Movie Poster

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I went to see How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World last weekend. This movie, the third (and final?) film in the series, wraps up Hiccup and Toothless’s adventures fighting dragon hunters and blending viking and dragon lives. I’ll say right up front that I loved the movie.

The first film remains my favorite. There was a loose energy to the film that the subsequent films don’t have. It probably has something to do with the first film being done very quickly with a comparatively low budget. The second film was visually pretty great, but the story was choppy and not spectacular. Fortunately, the third film brings everything together nicely. As you might expect with advances in CGI and animation techniques, this most recent film is visually spectacular. Without spoilers, lets just say the dragon breath, slobber, and other visuals are outstanding. Oh, and go see it in Real D 3D on a big screen. It’s worth it.

The movie picks up where the second left off. Hiccup and his clan are still living peacefully with dragons, but as Hiccup and his crew work to rescue more dragons from hunters, Berk is near bursting with dragon overcrowding. Things get complicated quickly when a new villain shows up on the scene intent on catching and killing Toothless. That’s all I’ll say about the story because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, but if you’re not sure about it, just watch this trailer:

Of course, animated films usually come with an assortment of toys and other products that capitalize on a film’s popularity. I don’t usually care about any of those things, but this particular film series does have an “Art of” book dedicated to each film. The insights in these books are fascinating to me.

I enjoy getting a glimpse at the concept work that went into these movies. I particularly like the dragon designs and animation. Toothless for example acts a bit like a dog, a bit like a cat, and who knows what other mannerisms blended into the character. I also like that the dragons come in many shapes and sizes. Some are comical, some are big and hulking, some are relatively tiny, but all of them are original. I’ve kicked around drawing many of the dragon concepts in a more ‘serious’ or ‘menacing’ style. It’s a project on the to do list. You can check out the art books for yourself here:

Frank Frazetta Book Review – Rough Work

Frank Frazetta Book Review Lead Image - Rough Work Interior Art

Frank Frazetta Book Review – Rough Work: Concept Art, Doodles, and Sketchbook Drawings

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It’s been a while since I published a book review and I thought I’d do another Frank Frazetta book review. This time, I pulled Rough Work: concept Art, Doodles, and Sketchbook Drawings by Frank Frazetta off my shelf. I have a bunch of Frazetta art books, but this one ranks high among my favorites. It’s a great look into Frazetta’s process. Most artists, myself included, enjoy looking at other artists’ sketches and doodles. This book is our chance to do that to Frank Frazetta’s sketchbooks.

Introduction

Frank Frazetta Book Review - Rough Work Interior Title Page
Rough Work Interior Title Page

The book is about 128 pages and a smaller format than some other Frazetta booksat 6 x 9 inches. It has a padded soft-touch cover that features one of the more famous paintings of Kane, a legendary character from Author Karl Edward Wagner. (If you haven’t read the Kane stories, check out this eBook collection or click here if you want used paper books. Sadly, much of the Karl Edward Wagner stuff is long out of print. )

Frank Frazetta Book Review Lead Image - Rough Work Intro Pages
Rough Work Intro Pages

Almost the entire book is just pictures. The introduction consists of about 8 pages of text. After that, it’s all artwork. Most pages are a combination of full page illustrations or roughs, to random sketchbook pages and doodles, to more finished drawings.

The Good Stuff

Frank Frazetta Book Review Lead Image - Rough Work Intro Pages
Rough Work Intro Pages

I really like Frazetta’s ink drawings. Here’s an example of a great, dynamic male with a typical, voluptuous Frazetta style female.

Frank Frazetta Book Review Lead Image - Rough Work Intro Pages
Rough Work Interior Pages
Rough Work Interior Pages
Rough Work Interior Pages

These color roughs are fun to look at. For Frazetta these amount to basic sketches, but for many of us they’re complicated examples of light and shadows and palette choices.

Rough Work Interior Pages
Rough Work Interior Pages
Rough Work Interior Pages
More Interior Pages–I particularly like the pen and ink drawing on the right

Thanks for reading this Frank Frazetta book review. Rough Work is a fantastic addition to any Frazetta fan’s collection. I’ll review Icon: A Retrospective by the Grand Master of Fantastic Art next time. If you liked this review, check out my other book reviews.

New Toy: Sprung for a Wacom Cintiq 16HD

Wacom Cintiq 16

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Some years ago, I owned a Wacom Cintiq 13HD. I liked having a pen display quite a bit. Not having the hand-eye coordination issues of drawing on a tablet like my Wacom Intuos Pro and having to look at a separate screen was great. However, I didn’t feel like I had enough room on the 13″ display.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Wacom Discovery Center in Portland and got to play around with all of Wacom’s current products. I really liked the massive Wacom Cintiq Pro 32″ and 24″ but they’re a little overkill for me right now. So, instead, I bought the 16″ Cintiq that Wacom released recently. It lacks touch controls and doesn’t come with the Express Key Remote (although they are compatible), but it’s entry level price is pretty great by comparison to the larger tablets. Wacom’s new Pro Pen 2 with over 8000 pressure levels is included, however. The display connects with a 3-in-1 cable, so you need an HDMI port and a USB port to connect it to your computer. I use a late 2013 MacBook Pro, so I have these conveniently located on the right side.

Barbarian Character for an old D&D Game. Affectionately named Groo after Sergio Aragone’s Comic Series.

I’ll post a more comprehensive review in the near future. For now, enjoy this little clumsy doodle that I drew on my old 13″ Cintiq.

My First Warmachine & Hordes Game In Years

Trollblood vs. Cygnar

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I played my first table top war-game in years yesterday. I used to be a decent Trollbloods player in Warmachine and Hordes (2nd Edition), but dropped gaming about five years ago. Since I stopped playing the folks at Privateer Press released a third edition of the game and made some decent improvements.

Luckily, I found a local player with damn near every miniature in the game, and he kindly let me use his models for a quick refresher game. I chose my old favorite army, built a quick 75 point list (without any real tactical consideration), and went to war.

Of course, Josh’s Cygnar force made short work of my force, but I did do some damage. The game lasted about three hours, which is long for a Warmachine/Hordes game, but I was rusty and Josh explained new rules and old ones that I’d forgotten, so it took extra time.

I had a blast (getting blasted to smithereens) and will play again soon. I’ve already started scheming a few themed force lists for the blue-skinned brawlers. Of course, I’m way more interested in the ‘fluff’ and imagery than actual tournament-style supremacy. So, I’ll build my army (armies?) around looks and style.

Trollblood Warlock: Gunnbjorn (Privateer Press Product Photo)
Dozer and Smigg. Trollblood Character Warbeast. Privateer Press Product Photo.

That said, I think I’ll start with Gunnbjorn and Dozer and Smigg, because face it, they look awesome. The starter box for Trollbloods is a decent deal and the warcaster model is pretty cool, so that’s on the shopping list too. If I go completely nuts, I might buy the Northkin army. Here goes that slippery slope.

Figure Drawing Friday, 22 Feb 19

Figure Drawing

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For this week’s figure Friday, I’m reaching way back into the archives. This drawing is about ten years old. It was one of those days where I surprised myself with this particular drawing. The likeness of the model is actually pretty good, although I made him look a bit younger than he actually was. I’m also pleased with the gesture of the pose and the weight of the models slight forward lean. This is a simple drawing done in a hardcover Strathmore sketchbook with pencil.

Alita: Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel

I went to see Alita: Battle Angel over the weekend and it’s fantastic. Go see the IMAX 3D version. Robert Rodriguez did a fantastic job adapting Yukito Kishiro’s manga series into a live action feature film. In case you haven’t heard of it, watch the trailer below:

I’ve been an fan of the series in comic/manga for since the 90s. Kishiro is a highly regarded illustrator that rose to prominence at the age of 17 when he released his first manga series. The Alita series is his best known work and if you want all of it in one sweet box, you can buy the collected deluxe edition here.

Great Find: Tales From The SpacePort Bar

talesfromspaceportbarcover

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I stumbled into my local used bookstore yesterday and found this little gem of a book: Tales From the SpacePort Bar, by George H Scithers and Darrell Schweitzer.  is a collection of short stories. Each short story involves bar patrons spinning tales. The entire collection has a science fiction theme, as you’d expect based on the title.

The author list is a veritable who’s who of science fiction authors and includes: Larry Niven, Henry Kuttner, Isaac Asimov, Darrell Schweizer, Roger Zelazny, Spider Robinson, Janet O. Jeppson, and others. There are 22 stories in the book. You can pick up a used copy here. Unfortunately, it is not available as an e-book.

I ordered the sequel, Another Round at the Spaceport Bar, this morning–also used and unavailable as an ebook. If you like classic science fiction, I’d recommend picking up both while you can.

Amazon Links: Tales From The Spaceport Bar, Another Round at the Spaceport Bar