I am so far behind on my TV shows. As I write this, I have easily twenty episodes of different programs to catch up on and that number is only going to increase. The reason? I have discovered something I enjoy watching more than my usual shows. It’s called Critical Role, a live game of Dungeons and Dragons played by professional voice actors streamed weekly on Twitch, and it’s so much better than anything I’ve seen on TV recently.
Critical Role airs live every Thursday night (Los Angeles time) on the Geek and Sundry Twitch channel, pulling viewers into its world of high-fantasy storytelling, turn-based combat and committed roleplaying from its party of seven players. The party, called Vox Machina, is comprised entirely of accomplished voice actors. You’ve heard every one of them before in games like Tales from the Borderlands, Metal Gear Solid V, Fallout 4, World of Warcraft and quite literally hundreds of other roles across games, film and television.
Vox Machina are half-elven ranger Vex’ahlia (Laura Bailey), her twin brother and rogue Vax’ildan (Liam O’Brien), gnome cleric Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson, perhaps the most well-known member, famous for her incredible performance as Ellie in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us) appears sporadically, with loveable goliath barbarian Grog Strongjaw (Travis Willingham), doe-eyed half-elf druid Keyleth (Marisha Ray), troubled human gunslinger Percy de Rolo (Taliesin Jaffe) and the charismatic gnome bard Scanlan Shorthalt (Sam Riegel). Orion Acaba, who exited the show last year, played the befuddled dragonborn sorcerer Tiberius Stormwind. He now runs a gaming Twitch channel of his own.
Critical Role: Episode One – Arrival Kraghammer
All seven actors sink their teeth into the roleplaying aspect of Dungeons and Dragons, trading jokes and conducting themselves in-character for the duration of each game, rarely breaking even when asking questions or making observations about their latest predicament. Their dedication to staying in-character is astounding — when Pike had to leave the party due to Ashley landing a role on Blindspot in New York, her in-character goodbye reduced the table to very real tears. When the tension mounts and characters are imperiled, others will begin to shriek and roar at each other in a panic. When two members of the party embarked on an improvised, will-they-won’t-they romance, the rest of the party rolled with it. Even their interpersonal conversations are entertaining — twins Vex and Vax bicker exactly as siblings would, dimwitted-but-well-meaning Grog harbours a secret desire to wheel and deal the way his cleverer friends do, and Scanlan finds his genuine feelings for Pike dismissed due to his history of being an unrepentant cad.
The show’s greatest and most pleasant surprise however has been that of Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer. As D&D fans know, the Dungeon Master’s job is a tough one. The best DM’s are a master-level combination of judge, referee, improviser, game designer and storyteller. They must entertain their players, keep them focused, and ensure that they follow the game’s rules but, and perhaps more importantly, they must also know when not to do those things. Mercer handles every facet of being a DM with seeming ease, creating a story and characters for the party to interact with, crafting homebrew character classes and even hand-drawing battlefield maps for when the party gets into combat all in his spare time.
On top of these myriad duties, Mercer then proves his acting bona fides by giving each NPC the party meets a voice and set of mannerisms all their own — in the 35 episodes I’ve watched so far, I don’t think I’ve heard him use the same voice twice and he never gets them mixed up.
This is doubly impressive when you consider that, in an average session, it’s not uncommon for Mercer to be fielding technical questions from the party, tracking their progress, moving the story forward and interacting with them as two or more separate non-player characters — all at the same time. He leaps in and out of character with such speed and ease as to make lesser actors goggle at his prowess. He will detail an area’s features as DM before returning to character, conversing with a player, switching to a different character with different accent, and then breaking again to answer a rules-related question. All of these changes occur in the time it takes to simply look at another player. Each session runs for an average of four hours and Mercer’s gruelling juggling act never falters, the only sign of the toll it takes on him the way he sinks back into his chair when the game is called for the night.
He also institutes house rules like “no metagaming”, preferring play to be off-the-cuff rather than planned meticulously in advance. Further, he grants the player who lands the killing blow on important foes the ability take them out in whatever spectacularly gory manner pleases them most. Players and fans alike eagerly await the magic words “How do you want to do this?” that signal the end of a battle, a phrase that has very much become the show’s unofficial slogan.
#grogbeard #nomercypercy #criticalrole
The show’s popularity has exploded since it debuted in March last year, taking what was then a private game played among friends and turning it into something of an online phenomenon. Each episode is posted in full, entirely unedited and, barring a brief break for food, bathroom visits and a stretch, the game is running for the duration. In past episodes, which can be viewed free on the Geek and Sundry website and on YouTube, the attached Twitch chat room scrolls rapidly along the side as the show’s live audience reacts excitedly to plot twists, dice rolls and character moments in real time. The chatroom has even been known to “rules lawyer” Mercer and frequently remind players of certain abilities or modifiers they’re not using. They’ve also taken to tracking the party’s stats via blogs like Crit Role Stats that graph everything from the party’s average dice rolls to the monsters they face.
Indeed, the audience has become as much a part of the show as any of the actors at the table. Affectionately called Critters, the fans inundate the show’s stars with gifts and make substantial donations to various charities in the show’s name every week. Fans even have food delivered to the studio so the actors can have dinner while they play. Blown away by the rush of support, the cast initially attempted to open everything on air after each game, reading letters and thanking donors individually but by the time the show was in its ninth month, the sheer volume of mail arriving every week was so massive that an extra-long episode, called Critmas, had to be set up once a month to show it all off. The fans have sent everything from simple dice sets to expensive Hero Forge minis, pricey booze, homemade cookies and clothes, art and stories, all the way up to lifesize prop replicas of weapons the characters own and Laura Bailey has received not one but two gigantic plush bears mirroring Trinket, her character’s brown bear familiar. The Twitter hashtag #criticalrole is filled every day with fans chatting amiably about the show amongst themselves and with its stars. The hashtag was also the birthplace of one of the show’s taglines: “Is it Thursday yet?” The fans are the key to Critical Role’s success and we’ll touch on them again later.
I discovered Critical Role some months ago after watching another web series on Geek and Sundry called Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana, a show that ran a similar tabletop campaign using the Fantasy AGE system by Green Ronin. That program featured host/DM Wil Wheaton with Laura Bailey (who came over from Critical Role to play), voice actor Yuri Lowenthal, presenter Alison Haislip and YouTube star Hank Green. After hearing them talk about Critical Role during those games, I decided to check it out and so began my quest to catch up to live.
Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana – Chapter One – The Journey Begins
My attraction to Critical Role is such that other TV has dropped away for me. I’m a video games critic so I spend a lot of time chewing through new releases. So that I don’t spend 100% of my time thinking about video games, I try to set aside a few hours each night where I can either watch a movie, read or do something unrelated to video games. Recently, that time has been taken up entirely with Critical Role catch up (the irony of watching people play a game as an escape from other games is not lost on me, I assure you).
Marvel’s Agent Carter, a show I was really pumped for, has just wrapped up its second season and I’ve only seen four episodes of it so far. I’m five episodes behind on The Flash, I’ve only seen two episodes of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, I haven’t wrapped up The X-Files or started the new season of Better Call Saul, and I haven’t even touched 11.22.63, Lucifer or Vinyl yet.
This is because, as interesting as I find those other shows, Critical Role fills a content niche I didn’t know I wanted until I found it: I want to watch other people play D&D in ways that my friends and I typically do not. That’s far more interesting — to me at least — than much of what’s happening in the TV shows I usually watch. The comparisons to TV begin at this point but end abruptly because, while I can watch the game live (7pm Thursday PST aka 12pm Friday AEST), each episode is uploaded in full on GeekandSundry.com by Monday and on YouTube a week later, both for free and without a geoblock. I don’t have to hunt around to find somewhere I can see it or download it legally, it’s made readily available to me on demand.
Geek and Sundry are far from the only people who are producing content of this kind online, however. Following the success of Critical Role, Dungeons & Dragons owners Wizards of the Coast are creating an official weekly D&D webstream of their own called Dice, Camera, Action! that will start with a weekly runthrough of the latest D&D adventure book Curse of Strahd. A group of Critical Role fans have started their own channel called CrittersDnD, and there are a number of others livestreaming their adventures both homebrew and official like Roll4Role, Weighted Dice and D&DUI. Searching through Twitch now reveals any number of channels that specialise in not only pen-and-paper RPG streams but many other kinds of tabletop and board games. Magic the Gathering has a huge presence (Geek and Sundry have been onto this for a while with their show Spellslingers), Pathfinder, Netrunner, and even more traditional board games like Settlers of Catan and Betrayal at House on the Hill appear.
How do you want to do this?
So why is a show like Critical Role pulling me away from what could be considered “regular” TV? It’s a show quite literally comprised of three tripod shots of people sitting at tables, rolling dice and describing things in odd voices for five hours. I keep watching because not only does it offer a wildly entertaining story and characters, it’s also relevant to my interests. I’ve been playing D&D since I was in high school. I have a lot of love for the game, I know how it works and watching people enjoy it as much as I do is engaging. Further, as I mentioned earlier, Vox Machina play a very different game of D&D to the ones I’m usually apart of and that’s another big draw for me. The games my friends play involve a table less interested in the roleplaying aspect and more in the crunch, the metagame and min-maxing of character stats. Seeing a table fully embrace the roleplay is refreshing and exciting.
For those less familiar with D&D, Critical Role might be a bit of a tough nut to crack were it not for Mercer’s ability to describe rules and move forward quickly, but they’re converting people in droves and it shows in their viewership. Critical Role’s audience grows in leaps and bounds each week and the Critter community is so welcoming and inclusive that they make you want to stick around. At the time of writing, the show’s first episode via Geek and Sundry’s YouTube channel has seen 1,062,485 views.
TV networks have been telling us what we want to see for a long time, presenting shows that follow specific formulas and feature similar characters because that worked on another show and now they would like you to watch this show. It’s why there are still eleven million crime procedurals on the air despite the near-complete demise of the Law & Order and CSI franchises. Rarely do they ever stop and ask the audience what they’d like to see, and therein lies Geek and Sundry’s power.
2016 sees TV ratings at an all-time low, the result of thousands of channels splintering the viewership. Subscription-based streaming services like Netflix decimate their numbers further, giving viewers content ad-free and on-demand. Web-based shows like Critical Role have taken a different tack entirely, offering the kinds of original programming you’d never see on TV or Netflix via a hassle- and cash-free platform. Rather than going for broad appeal, they look for something that appeals to enthusiasts or hobbyists in a particular field. Creators like Geek and Sundry are targeting specific audiences and giving them the kinds of content they’re really going to like.
Is it Thursday yet?
For taking a chance on show like Critical Role, and for introducing me to many of these wonderful actors (whose voices I’m hearing everywhere now that I’ve gotten to know them), I’m grateful to Geek and Sundry. They’ve made it really hard to go back to my regular shows. They’ve made actual TV feel less interesting and engaging. If programs like Critical Role are where internet and video content are headed, count me all the way in. I’ll gladly use my TV to watch these shows instead.