… Okay, okay, I’m joking. Just a little bit.
In all seriousness, though, this week I want to share my love for Critical Role, a weekly internet broadcast from Geek & Sundry, which basically shows how a bunch of nerdy voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons. The series features some of the most compelling storytelling and some of the best acting I have ever seen, as well as some excellent queer characters. It’s really difficult to speak about this show—this phenomenon, really—without descending into an incoherent blubbering mess whose feelings boil down to “OMG OMG it’s amazing!”, but I shall try.
A couple vague spoilers below.
Critical Role features Matt Mercer (McCree in Overwatch) as the Dungeon Master leading a group of players through an epic adventure campaign set in a fantasy world of his own creation. The team currently consists of seven players: Liam O’Brian (Red Skull, Doctor Strange in Avengers Assemble), Laura Bailey (Black Widow in Avengers Assemble), Ashley Johnson (Patterson in Blindspot), Travis Willingham (Thor in Avengers Assemble), Sam Riegel (Donatello in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Taliesin Jaffe (a bunch of characters in World of Warcraft games), and Marisha Ray (several characters in Fire Emblem: Fates). They play a group of adventurers who call themselves Vox Machina and travel the world facing challenges of ever growing difficulty.
There are several aspects to this show that make it so amazingly special and they all sort of intertwine in a bit of a meta mess, but let’s see if I can separate them out.
First and foremost, Matt Mercer is an incredibly talented creator and storyteller. Dungeons & Dragons is a group storytelling effort and the players are important, but it is the Dungeon Master that comes up with the setting and the obstacles for the characters to overcome. Matt sets the perfect mood and ensures that any action the characters take has consequences—sometimes really dark consequences. He creates story points that challenge the characters individually and test them as a group.
This is where things get kind of meta, because a challenge to the characters is also a challenge to the players. I’m sure that as actors they know how to separate themselves from their characters, but watching the show (and listening to them speak about it) you get the sense that the characters of Vox Machina are more real to them than any character they normally get to play. And it makes sense: after all, they each created their character and have been playing them (completely improvised) for a few years now. The players transform into their characters, sometimes even foregoing smart game moves for good role-play moments. Marisha Ray becomes awkward and good-hearted Keyleth. Liam O’Brien wears a permanent angsty expression and recklessly jumps into danger as broody and protective Vax. Travis Willingham’s Grog likes to hit baddies with an axe and drink ale and loves his buddy Pike the most. In addition, Matt Mercer brings all the non-player characters Vox Machina meets to life; each of them are unique and compelling, and you can’t help but care about each good guy they meet.
But the players aren’t always in character. They also react and make comments as themselves. As a result, at least for me watching at home, it’s sometimes a bit difficult to tell when it’s the player reacting and when it’s the character. The line between the player and the character blurs. For instance, when a character is close to death and the player can’t do anything, there’s panic and tears on multiple faces as the rest of the team rush to help. It feels that much more intense than any character (near)death on any show I’ve ever watched.
Finally, a selling point that’s quite important to me is the fact that Critical Role has a bunch of queer characters. The most prominent is Vax (Liam O’Brian), who is bisexual. He and an important male non-player character Gilmore have a sort of almost-dating flirty relationship before Vax confesses to Gilmore that he’s in love with someone else. There are two other important non-player female characters—Kima and Allura—who are in a relationship. Gilmore, Kima, and Allura are well fleshed-out and instrumental to the story. There are also more or less explicit remarks (in and outside of the show) about other characters, such as Scanlan (Sam Riegel) and Vex (Laura Bailey), being attracted to people of the same gender as well.
The only downside to Critical Role is the fact that it’s been running weekly close to two years now and each session is at least three hours long, so if you’re only getting into it now, it’s going to take some time to catch up. I only started watching it a month ago and I’ve been wishing that the world could just stop until I binge-watch the whole thing. So that’s my warning to you—but also you should totally check it out because it’s amazing. And if you’re already watching it—who’s your favorite player character? Who’s your favorite non-player character? Tell me in the comments!
Critical Role airs live on Thursdays 7–10pm PST on Geek & Sundry’s Twitch stream and the episodes are uploaded the following Monday to their website and YouTube channel. You can also follow the show’s official Twitter to keep up on all things Critical Role.