Critical Role and the Mainstreaming of Gaming

Imagine randomly visiting a channel on Twitch and finding yourself presented by double rows of faces having extended conversations with each other.  "What is this, CNN?" you ask, then click on to the next channel.  That was me when I first stumbled upon Critical Role when checking out Geek and Sundry's then-recently announced Twitch channel.  I didn't realize at the time that I was tuning out a geek phenomenon, but I came back a few weeks later better informed and have watched faithfully over the past two years of Critical Role's grand campaign.  The show's initial campaign may be ending this Thursday with its hearty band of adventurers facing off against a god in an other worldly city sitting atop a striding undead Titan.  If that's not an occasion for a retrospective and reflection, I'm not sure what is.

If you're not familiar with the show, it features a collection of "nerdy ass voice actors" (their words) getting together each week to play Dungeons & Dragons online.  The current campaign is a continuation of the actors' real life campaign that was brought to the net after player Ashley Johnson (Blindspot) told Felicia Day (The Guild) about it, and Felicia brought it to Geek & Sundry, the YouTube channel she started and expanded to Twitch (and now to its own original content service, Alpha).

You can find all the previous episodes (and there are 113 of them) on YouTube, Twitch, and Alpha, but here's a quick rundown: Matt Mercer dungeon masters a sprawling campaign featuring a band of heroes named Vox Machina.  The party, made up of seven voice actors who you've probably heard in some piece of animation, anime, or video game, are sometimes joined by guest stars like Patrick Rothfuss, Jon Heder, or Joe Manganiello. So far, they've faced down a beholder who liked experimenting on the undead, freed a province from rule by a band of thugs led by a cultish vampire and his bride, and staved off an invasion and occupation by dragons.  Now they literally have to save the world from the mad godling, Vecna.  All in a day's work.

You can find this under "Top Rated" on Comixology.
Along the way, they've evolved and perfected a relatively new genre of entertainment: spectator role playing.  Around since at least 2008 with the start of Penny Arcade/Wizards of the Coast's Acquisitions, Incorporated, the genre has expanded exponentially since Critical Role became a hit.  If you browse Alpha's daily offerings, you'll now find role playing shows featuring horror and science fiction campaigns in addition to multiple fantasy games.  Twitch also maintains a stable of role playing shows, including Maze Arcana, starring actor Ruty Rutenberg and author/model Satine Phoenix.  Critical Role has become the bell cow for the genre, spawning its own weekly talk show (Talks Machina), campaign guide (from Green Ronin), and prequel comic book (from Dark Horse).  It has a highly active fan base with myriad associated blogs, cosplay events, and reference sites.  If you want to know the number times Matt Mercer has facepalmed, there's a site that will tell you.

Why it's hit so big compared to other shows like it is a reasonable topic of debate.  The production values of the show have improved over time (commensurate with the show's success), but hardly the reason why it struck a chord with its audience to begin with.  The packaging of the show has been handled very professionally, with Geek & Sundry supporting the community with a seemingly never-ending range of branded clothing and memorabilia.  And the cast has maintained a significant fan outreach through their social media, convention appearances, and periodic live audience shows.

The cast itself is attractive and engaging, from the neurotic dice shuffling of Laura Bailey (who maintains a "dice jail" for naughty 20 spiders) to the hilarity of Sam Riegel (who improvises contextually appropriate parodies of familiar hits for his bard), the cast is extremely watchable.  Their acting backgrounds shine through in their role playing, as they insert character moments into the game throughout.  These characters go far beyond their stats and equipment, with clear personality traits, story beats, and relationships.

But the real selling point is DM Matt Mercer, who both builds compelling storylines within a complex, relatable fantasy world and populates them with interesting characters that he directly breathes life into using his vast voice acting talents.  The sheer variety of character types, voices, and dialogue mannerisms Mercer adopts on a weekly basis is downright dizzying.  Everyone has their favorite Mercer NPC, but the runaway hit has to be gunpowder salesman Victor.

The cast has confirmed they'll end the current campaign with the battle with Vecna, then start with a new set of player characters populating the same campaign world (though in a different time and place), which will be a great time to jump on board.  Those interested in seeing the close of the current campaign can watch the final battle of Vox Machina live this Thursday at 10:00 pm EDT on Twitch and Alpha.

JL Franke is a fan of both hard science fiction and hard fantasy.  He has been collecting comics for over 40 years and has been an on-and-off active member of online fandom for 25.  Those interested can find other writings at his personal blog,  When not geeking out, you may find him at a baseball park or cheering on his favorite college and pro football teams.  In his spare time, he is chief scientist for a research and development laboratory somewhere in the Washington, DC greater metropolitan area.
Critical Role and the Mainstreaming of Gaming Critical Role and the Mainstreaming of Gaming Reviewed by JL Franke on Wednesday, October 04, 2017 Rating: 5
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