Critical Role is hard to explain to folks that don’t already know about it. Yes, you do “sit around and watch a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors play Dungeons and Dragons” in weekly sessions (very nicely produced these days) that last three hours or more each week. It should be the most boring thing in the world, especially for non-D&D types (like me) who barely understand the mechanics of RPGs (even though I worked for the D&D people for a while, back in the Jurassic, when they were still TSR).
But what this really is is an ongoing exercise in structured, improvised, group story-telling. Each one of the seven principles has a well-developed character; they interact in an established fantasy world with established rules (just like any other fantasy series), with goals and challenges set by the insanely talented actor and writer Matthew Mercer. They frequently break character; they make jokes and get carried away and cry on a regular basis, but it’s obvious these people love each other, love the game they’ve been playing for years, and are very pleased to have you ‘eavesdrop.’
This is also crazy popular. Tens of thousands of people watch the live feed (well, ‘live o tape’ during the pandemic) on Twitch. Thousands more on their YouTube Channel, and yet thousands more on their own website. Their Twitter account has more than 400,000 followers. A few months ago Critical Role staged one of the most unexpectedly successful crowd-funding campaigns in Kickstarter history, raising more than 11 million dollars from over a hundred thousand donors to make an animated series based on their first campaign. Just before the pandemic hit, they filled a major theater in New York City for a live performance, having just returned from an equally successful live performance in the UK. Now they’re in the middle of a second campaign – entirely different characters, though distantly related to the first set – and it is a highlight of my week to watch the newest installment, every Thursday night.
After a long break during the worst of the pandemic, they put together a ‘safe’ studio, where they couldn’t sit around the same table but could still be in the same (much bigger, just better ventilated) space. Their entire second campaign, starting The Mighty Nine, was produced that way. That particular story took over two years to tell. Now, after a much shorter break, they’re back in a new and awesome studio, full vaxx’d and sitting around the table again, embarking on another major campaign that includes some familiar characters and some brand new additions. And yes, I’m as enamored as ever.
There is no easy way to get on board. I picked it up at the beginning of the second campaign, and I’ve had the advantage of a grown daughter who’s watched it from Day One and knows all these voice actors by name already. But you don’t have to know the game itself, and if you’re willing to binge a bit, give it a chance, you’re going to find one of the most unusual and rewarding storytelling experiences here – a hybrid of improv, acting, and structure storytelling that requires hours, days, of prep for all concerned (especially Mercer), but is still built on the fly, live on tape unedited, every week.
Critical Role is a real, live business now. They have their own offices, studio, contracts and projects, but every Thursday it cycles back to the game, with the actors showing up to sit side-by-side and make it up as they go alonhe second campaign was a joy from beginning to end, an addiction well worth every hours. The third one is … weird? … but you know I’ll hang in there just about forever.
And the animated series, now a full season, will premiere on Amazon Prime in February ’22! The standard line is, “Is it Thursday yet?” And yes, it is. Thank God.