In 2004, the words “Dungeons & Dragons” were taboo. Regardless of the lack of general knowledge of the game, every teenager in my high school knew that if someone played D&D, they were most definitely uncool. A lot of that mentality still carries weight today.
“OMG did you catch last night’s episode of Supernatural?”
“Jessica Jones is the best.”
“I absolutely love Star Wars.”
“Oh. Dungeons & Dragons…”
The image everyone gets in their head is the same. The unwashed, all male, neck-bearded, basement dwelling nerds who survive solely on Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew Gamer Fuel. They argue over nonsensical fantasy jargon, spit flying from their pizza stained mouths, glasses falling half way off of their faces. Outside of the actual game, time is spent buying figurines with their parents’ money, and meticulously painting each hobgoblin and archdemon before the next dungeon crawl.
Thanks, 70’s and 80’s television media.
Times slowly changed for the coming years. As nerd culture became more popular in the mid to late 2000’s, everyone began to accept their inner geek. Marvel movies were (and still are) all the rage. Batman and Spider-Man had enough movies to normalize both the large and in charge super hero and the I barely have my shit together teenage dreamer. But that was all comics. Established heroes. Us dungeon dwellers had more conventions and forums and friends, but there was nothing out there representing us to the masses.
Until March 12th, 2015.
Felicia Day, co-founder of Geek and Sundry, had heard that a bunch of nerdy voice actors were running a D&D campaign at home. Since Geek and Sundry pioneers nerd-centric media, she asked the group to become a part of their Twitch broadcast. The group agreed. It would be a fun little thing for a few people to enjoy. They were to go live on March 12th of that year, transitioning their game format to better fit the context of a show, but otherwise keeping the campaign going as it had been for years prior. And so, Critical Role was born. But there was something odd about the show. After a while, viewers began to realize something.
I know these voices.
These weren’t just voice actors; they were famous voice actors. And those who weren’t as well known for their voices had a hand in some high-level content as writers or producers. Matthew Mercer, Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham, Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffe, Marisha Ray, and Orion Acaba. Between them were over 1500 acting parts, and that number has only grown. The scope of their portfolios are huge, but also iconic. They range from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Deadpool, and many Naruto characters, to Shin from Shin Chan, Colonel Mustang, and Ellie from The Last of Us. And although we enjoyed those roles, there was something fresh being born.
The online streaming world would soon get to know a new cast of characters, Vox Machina. The witty half-elf twins, Vax the rogue and Vex the ranger, played by O’Brien and Bailey respectively. Grog, the powerful and intellectually-deficient barbarian goliath, played by Willingham. Scanlan the sharp tongued gnome bard, and Taryon the human artificer, both played by the unlimited talent of Riegel. Johnson takes the role of a kind-hearted (but badass) gnome cleric by the name of Pike. Alongside her, Jaffe plays Percival Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III (Percy), the gunslinger. Ray and Acaba played the masters of magic, Keyleth the half-elf druid of the Ashari, and Tiberius the dragon born sorcerer. All led by the humble dungeon mastermind embodied in Mercer.
The world shook.
By 2016, channel subscriptions exploded in number. People who had never heard of Dungeons & Dragons became weekly viewers, tuning in each Thursday to see where these amazing actors would take their favorite characters. Guests joined the campaign for a game or two, adding new flair and personality to an already role-play heavy setting. The long form storytelling gave viewers and fans something to look forward to each week, as the cast delved deeper into relationships and character developments. But Critical Role wasn’t just about acting; they were truly playing the game.
Some episodes were pure combat or preparation for cataclysmic battles. Vox Machina tussled with necromancers and clashed with elder dragons. You could practically hear Grog swing his mighty axe down upon his foes, his eyes glowing red with barbarian rage. You could feel the light of Sarenrae, Pike’s sworn deity, as she healed the wounds of her party. You’d see a grin spread across Vax’s face as his roguish sneak attack would fell an enemy in one go. All of this painted with the brush strokes of Matthew Mercer’s unmatched detailing. And with the final blow to each great enemy standing in their path, he would ask the question that signals the triumph of combat and trigger the sweet release of success:
Each week tens of thousands of people tune in to watch on the Geek and Sundry Twitch channel, and on Project Alpha. But the group hasn’t taken their success to their heads. There have been ups and downs, like the leaving of Orion Acaba. He and the crew both had decided that they should part ways, for private reasons. Acaba later revealed that there were some health issues he had been dealing with, and here at The DesC we wish him the best. On the outside, places like Twitter and Reddit supplied some opposition to some of Mercer’s homebrewed decisions and rules. To this day you can still find hardcore by-the-book players sending angry messages to whoever is willing to read them. And if the players don’t make the absolute perfect tactical move in combat or diplomacy, you’ll be sure to catch angered fans on social media. But Vox Machina makes it clear that they’re all about having fun. Rules and inconsistencies be damned, as long as the journey is worth being a part of.
And that includes us viewers and fans. This journey is one that we’re all in together. The Critical Role production team spends the first part of the broadcast to share fan art that has been submitted to them from around the world. Each cast member shares art, music, and gifts that they receive on social media. But it isn’t limited to online.
The entire cast comes together to support charity, attend multiple conventions, and to do panels across the country. There are scores of opportunities to meet these amazing folks who give so much to love their community.
The reason we love Critical Role isn’t just because it’s a great show run by like-minded creatives. We love it because those creatives constantly remind us that we are no different from them. We have talents and skills and we contribute to this nerdy world just like they do. The old taboo isn’t a realistic representation of the amazingly diverse people that pour their heart and soul into our wondrous community. That’s what makes it work. That’s what makes it great.
With every episode, every panel, and every bit of appreciation they show for us, we bridge that gap between the pedestal we put them on and the reality that we can achieve just as much. They believe in us as much as we believe in them.
At the time of writing this, it’s Wednesday afternoon. It’s a beautiful day in the San Francisco Bay area. I couldn’t ask for better weather or a more comfortable time of day, watching the sun slowly move across the sky. I am endlessly thankful for it all, and I am blessed to even exist in this moment. I get to work towards my passions and spend time with the people I care about. But regardless of all of that, the question constantly lingers in the back of my mind.
Is it Thursday yet?
David “DC” Collins