If you’ve ever participated in a role-playing game, you know that moment: when everything is on the line, the monster is this close to defeat, and you have the perfect opening. All you need is a little cooperation from your dice. You take a breath. Your party holds theirs. You toss the dice. And when it’s a success—or even better, a crit—that blooming bubble of joy, giddiness, and celebration bursts from you and your party, as your DM describes the moment of victory. If you miss that feeling of unrestrained, breathless happiness at the twists and turns to be found in a roleplaying game, then you’re probably the perfect audience for Critical Role.
Started by gaming and nerd channel Geek & Sundry in late 2014, Critical Role chronicles the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition adventure of eight professional voice actors and friends. They started playing Pathfinder together a year or so before Geek & Sundry asked them to take the game live and the show was born; now through the magic of the livestream channel Twitch, having migrated over to DnD, Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer and his seven friends gather together every Thursday at 7PM West Coast time to continue the harrowing, hilarious, and dramatic adventures of Vox Machina. A group of noble, lovable misfits who have become a family, our adventurers have fought everywhere from the depths of the Underdark to the heights of Gatshadow Mountain; they’ve traveled between planes, battled vampiric lords and ladies, savage Beholders, nobility from the Nine Hells, and most recently have dedicated themselves to the destruction of a vicious group of chromatic dragons who have razed the country they love.
Grog Strongjaw (Travis Willingham) is the group’s tank, a goliath barbarian whose rage and strength will never be as great as his honor. His best buddy is Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson) the gnome cleric, whose devotion to the goddess Sarenrae is only matched by the love she has for her adventuring family. Scanlan Shorthalt (Sam Reigel) is a fellow gnome and a bard to boot, whose dulcet tones, scandalous behavior, and hilarious misadventures do their best to hide a heart in turmoil. Percival de Rolo III (Taliesin Jaffe) is a member of nobility turned gunslinger; his tormented soul has had to navigate a labyrinth of vengeance, and come out the other side. Keyleth (Marisha Ray), the half-elf druid, is on pilgrimage to become worthy of leading her people, but her love for the world and its inhabitants grows ever more fragile as she discovers how much pain exists within it. And finally, the twin half-elves: the rogue-paladin Vax’ildan (Liam O’Brien), whose brooding heart has found purpose, is learning he may be capable of more than death, and ranger Vex’halia (Laura Bailey), with a wit sharper than her arrows, whose walled heart and devil-may-care attitude are melting in the face of self-acceptance.
Critical Role taps into that beautiful, wonderful high that you get from a truly stunning campaign or game of DnD. Matthew Mercer is a fantastic storyteller, able to juggle dozens of characters no matter the terrain, imbuing each with a distinct personality, history, and of course, voice. Because that’s the beauty of Critical Role: since each of the players are professional voice actors, when they sit down at the table with the dice, they’re doing more than just playing a game—they’re bringing years of voice acting history, technique, humor, gravitas, and improv with them to the table. It adds a whole other level of drama, hilarity, and tension to their games. Each of the main players have created some truly memorable and complex characters, and every one of them gets a chance to stand in the spotlight. Special kudos must be given to Matthew Mercer, who continues to shine as, game after game, he deftly brings to life some of the most bizarre, wonderful, and fully-realized characters. Just look up clips of Mercer doing Victor the Black Powder Merchant—you won’t regret it. And it’s worth noting that Mercer makes sure to incorporate positive representation into his game, with prominent LGBT characters featured within the party as well as NPCs; for example, there was recently a new non-binary character introduced (who is also a Brass Dragon, which is badass as hell).
It’s also an amazing venue to watch geeky icons visit the show and guest star with the cast for an episode or two. Sometimes, they’re fellow voice actors, such as Mary Elizabeth McGlynn who plays Zahra Hydris, a tiefling warlock, or Will Friedle who plays Kashaw Vesh, a human cleric. But there have also been such famous guest players as Felicia Day (playing the human wizard, Lyra), Patrick Rothfuss (playing the human paladin, Kerrek), Chris Hardwick (playing the dragonborn wizard, Gern Blanston), and Wil Wheaton (playing the dwarven fighter, Thorbir Falbek). Each of them brings their own energy and love of the game to the table, and watching their new characters interact with Vox Machina is a delight.
Critical Role is perfect viewing for anyone who’s ever played DnD, loved it, and (as so many of us do) finds themselves too short on time to start a new campaign of their own. Watching Vox Machina’s adventures brought me back to college when we’d sit for six hours on a Sunday and plan a siege, or fight a dragon, or try to trick a sphinx. Episode after episode, you get drawn in and become more invested in these characters, who are all engaging, and complex, and not always good people. The cast’s acting ability and knack for improv (both comedic and dramatic) result in a show that not only soothes my DnD-loving heart but, at the end of the day, makes for some truly amazing storytelling.
In Critical Role, it’s not all fun and games and monster-fighting. Characters get hurt, and broken, and beaten, and even die. Enemies from the past rise again and threaten everything. Characters fall in love, and fall out of love, and then back again. Nations collapse. Friends are lost. Wars are fought. Demons return to haunt our band of adventurers, both literally and figuratively. Everyone has their moment to shine, and there are far too many of these moments to list here. But even better than the larger fights are the small character moments that really make the show such a success: Percival finally forgiving one of his worst enemies, Vax quietly taking Keyleth’s hand, Vex declaring her love in order to bring someone back from the brink of death, Scanlan talking to Pike about what to do should he die, Grog confronting his own mortality and fears.
To balance out the drama, there are moments of such hilarity and good fun that at times it gets hard to breath: Scanlan and Grog going hat shopping, Pike getting hammered on ancient alcohol and failing her Constitution rolls, two characters’ first kiss in the snow, Scanlan turning into a triceratops and taking out a whole mansion on his own, Vax and Vex pulling pranks on one another, Keyleth’s awful social skills, Percy’s insanely good rolls, and pretty much anytime Scanlan sings a song of inspiration. They all make fun of one another other, with Matthew Mercer a favorite target of jokes during play, and often times the game has to pause as they burst out laughing at something someone has just said.
Critical Role is a show that makes me yearn for my more active DnD days, and keeps inspiring me to start working on a campaign in the present. Because what Critical Role has taught me, and continues to teach me, is that the best magic that exists in this world is telling stories with your friends. There’s honestly nothing better.
With such a beautiful mixture of roleplaying, action, and intrigue, this show is not to be missed, so if you’ve been longing for the sound of your dice against a table, or that moment the DM looks at you with a twinkle in their eye and asks, “How do you want to do this?” as you fell a monster, then consider checking out Critical Role. There is a whole backlog of adventures to catch up on, but don’t worry, you have plenty of time. And who knows? Maybe like one of Scanlan’s songs, it’ll inspire you to get back to playing again, too.
Top image: Critical Role fan art by Amanda Oliver Elm for the show’s 50th episode (April, 2016)
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.