Critical Role is a web show from Geek and Sundry, where a bunch of nerdy voice actors play Dungeons and Dragons. And it is, surprisingly, absolute genius. It feels like a unique mix of a radio play, an improv show, and a fantasy adventure, with the weirdness and randomness of D&D thrown in. The show follows the story of Vox Machina, a group of eight adventurers in the world of Tal’Dorei, a setting entirely invented by the brilliant dungeon master, Matt Mercer, and the ridiculous and exciting things that happen along the way.
I have to admit, the show only sounded minimally interesting to me, even as a D&D fan, but it has so many great things working for it. The main one, of course, being the actors involved. They’re all very talented, and great at improv. Matt Mercer has created a rich world for the characters to play in, and the players dive straight into it, roleplaying their hearts out, getting deeply emotionally involved in the story, and taking things in some ridiculous and inventive directions. Mercer performs every one of the other characters they come across, bringing them to life. I’m particularly fond of his performance of Trinket, the party’s pet bear, but this spontaneous moment as Viktor the black powder merchant is one of the most loved:
Dungeons and Dragons is collaborative storytelling, which means that the show can be weird and wonderful in ways that you wouldn’t see in a more controlled storytelling environment. The players can attempt to do pretty much whatever they like, as long as it’s in character, and their success is down to the roll of the dice, meaning no one in the room knows exactly what’s going to happen, including Matt Mercer himself. So when a character is in danger, there’s not a single person who knows whether or not they’ll survive it until the danger has passed. And although Mercer doesn’t go out of his way to kill characters, he’s not averse to letting them die if that’s where their actions and their dice rolls lead.
But the randomness element doesn’t mean the plot is weak. It leads to some tense moments, and some wonderful and ridiculous schemes, but beneath it is a solid story that quickly becomes addictive. You can tell, as you get deeper and deeper into the show, just how complex Mercer’s plotting is, although some of the best things (their unexpected mind-flayer companion, a certain evil talking sword) are a huge surprise to him too. I started off putting the show on in the background while I did the dishes and cleaned, and spent many nights watching just a little bit more, just to see what would happen next. Some cliffhangers made me very glad that I was playing catch-up, and could watch the next episode straight away.
And the show has this great casual atmosphere where you get the actors and the characters as a package deal. They played these characters together for two years before the show started, and that “good friends playing D&D together” element remains. The actors react to situations as their characters, but they also can’t resist reacting as themselves when hilarious or dramatic things happen that don’t personally involve them. Actress Laura Bailey’s facial expressions are a highlight of the show. You can see and hear them laugh and have fun in the lighthearted bits, but also freak the hell out when things get serious, and it really heightens your own emotional connection to what’s going on. It’s got this great “hanging out with friends” feeling, while also providing a very compelling story.
The show is fabulous, and I’d highly recommend starting from the beginning and just following along. But it’s approaching its 50th episode, each of which is meant to be 3 hours long, but can creep to 4 or even 5 hours occasionally. It’s long enough that I thought I would never ever catch up… before getting addicted and catching up in under 3 months. As a friend told me, it’s so much easier to catch up once you realize you can have it on all the time. And there’s not really a downside to watching from the beginning at your own pace. But for people who want to try it and NOT have that big a time commitment, I recommend jumping in at episode 23, The Rematch — it’s a mostly light and fun standalone-y episode that gives you a sense of what Critical Role is like, and if you enjoy it, you can carry straight on to the next (and, in my opinion, the best) big plot arc that starts in the following episode.
Of course, if you wanna casually watch a Twitch show and don’t have time for all that, you could always jump in with the latest ep. They always do a quick recap of important recent plot points at the beginning of each week, and you don’t need to know everything about the past to have fun. After all, they started streaming it two years into the game — there’s always the occasional plot point coming up that viewers never actually saw.
It’s an unusual-sounding show, and it is unusual, but in a really magical way. If you like fantasy stories, or funny improv, or just want something to try in the background while you clean, definitely give Critical Role a try. It might just surprise you.