Until a few years ago, “Critical Role” was a small group of friends streaming their Dungeons and Dragons games via Twitch. Now, their streams boast a huge following, and their 2019 Kickstarter for an animated series broke Kickstarter records. The group’s journey from private gaming to full-fledged company spans only about four years. So what is it that’s caused “Critical Role” this much success in such a short time?
At its core, “Critical Role” proclaims itself to be “a bunch of nerdy-a— voice actors getting together to play Dungeons and Dragons,” and they’ve stayed true to their tagline since their streams began in 2015. While fans come primarily for the stories produced, another major draw is the unique bond among the cast, leading to inside jokes and tender moments alongside the characters’ individual arcs.
Another major draw of the show is the quality of the presentation. Veteran game master Matt Mercer brings cultures and characters to life, charming his players as well as the audience with beautiful descriptions of anything from circuses to scenic vistas. Most of the cast are made up of professional voice actors, some of whom might be recognized for other roles in animated shows and anime dubs, or, in the case of Ashley Johnson, her role on “Blindspot.” Each player pours intense care into their characters, forming a cohesive story capable of dramatic shifts, all in real time.
Throughout their path to global recognition, the core group has remained loyal to each other, and that loyalty has allowed the group to remain close despite the rising responsibilities of fame and added pressure that comes with it. Where many friend groups might have broken down under the strain, the cast of “Critical Role” has continued to lean into each other and hold each other up through this journey.
The first season of “Critical Role” ran from March 12, 2015 to Oct. 12, 2017, and followed the adventures of Vox Machina. The adventures of the characters that would come to be known collectively as Vox Machina actually began in 2012, when the cast came together privately to play the game for the first time. Some, like Matt Mercer and Liam O’Brien, had loved the game as kids and were excited to come back to it, while others, like Sam Reigal and Travis Willingham, were completely new and unsure of what to expect. What began as a test session became a multiyear campaign, and at the time of the first stream, the group had reached level seven.
Over the next three years, Vox Machina continued to grow and travel through Mercer’s fictional world of Exandria. By the season’s end, 115 episodes contained over 370 hours of content. Thanks to a storytelling system that’s inherently collaborative, every character is fully fleshed-out and the protagonist of their own tale, forging an incredibly complex narrative with more realism and emotions than many other media platforms are capable of reaching.
The second season of “Critical Role” began on Jan. 11, 2018, and is ongoing. Following a group called “The Mighty Nein,” the second season of the show differs from the first in that viewers get to watch the group form from level two, when characters are just meeting each other and mistrust abounds.
After over a year of this group, the characters have grown to trust each other, supporting each other in vulnerable moments and helping each other achieve their individual goals in ways they never could alone. The winding path of The Mighty Nein has been noticeably distinct from the adventures of Vox Machina, giving the show a facelift while preserving the core attributes that drew fans in the first place. At about 75 episodes, the story is well on its way to reaching the epic proportions of its ancestor and has the potential to even surpass its predecessor.
Due to the overwhelming success of both Vox Machina, in 2018, the group split from Geek & Sundry and formed their own company, Critical Role Productions LLC. At around the same time, members of the new company began pitching the idea of an animated show to executives in Hollywood, but were rejected multiple times due to the fear that no one would actually be interested. The group decided to gauge fan interest themselves by launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund a two-episode animated special based on a previously-unseen Vox Machina adventure. With any luck, the Kickstarter and special would prove to Hollywood executives that the interest could support more episodes.
The 45-day campaign began March 4 with a goal of $750,000 — a pretty hefty sum that the fledgling company knew it might not meet. Within the first hour, it had reached $1 million. By March 11, it had reached $6.95 million, and the shocked group began adding stretch goal rewards as well as larger rewards for those who pledged more. The animated special was fully funded, and if the pledges kept coming throughout the remaining days of the kickstarter, “Critical Role” would begin work on an animated rendition of the popular Briarwood arc of Vox Machina.
By the end of its 45-day run, the kickstarter landed at $11.4 million — a Kickstarter record — and all episodes of the animated special as well as the Briarwood arc were funded. The Kickstarter page currently announces that fans can expect the special by fall 2020 and rewards as soon as May 2020. Once the series is complete, with backing like that, the potential for the show seems endless.
“Critical Role” doesn’t just use its fame to further its own goals, either. For nearly as long as the stream has been around, the group has supported the charity group 826LA, a nonprofit writing and tutoring organization, through shoutouts and providing rewards to donors. At one point, fans got the the hashtag #scarvesforCaleb trending on Twitter and posted pictures of home-knit scarves and other items to donate to homeless shelters during the winter months, in homage to a character in the second season of the show. The company’s ongoing support of 826LA and their other acts of charity provide yet another example of the love and goodwill of those involved, cast and fans alike.
The next episode of “Critical Role” can be found on their Twitch stream at 7 p.m. PST every Thursday night, and their companion shows, including “Talks Machina” and “Between the Sheets,” can be found on their site. For those who aren’t available on Thursday nights, episodes are uploaded to YouTube on Mondays, and audio recordings are uploaded to Podbean the following Thursday.