For starring in a web series so huge that it’s now got its own animated series on Prime Video, the stars of Critical Role are surprisingly humble.
“When people ask us, ‘What’s the secret [behind our success]?’ [The answer is,] we really are just trying to do it for ourselves and make it full of the things that we love,” co-star and voice acting veteran Travis Willingham told The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. “We’ve been very lucky, in that our audience loves a lot of those same things.”
Thanks to that audience, Critical Role, which started as a Dungeons & Dragons game among friends, has now grown into an empire. There is, of course, the group’s extremely popular weekly live-stream show on Twitch, which has been running on a regular basis since 2015. But the series has also spun off comics, novels, an upcoming cookbook, a nonprofit foundation, and that animated series, The Legend of Vox Machina, now in its second season.
The massive success of Critical Role in several mediums is proof enough that we’ve entered a new era in culture. The “nerdy” content that has been pegged as niche for so long—like high fantasy, dice-based tabletop role-playing games—is finally in the mainstream. The Critical Role cast doesn’t just appear live at comic conventions; episodes of the series have been streamed in movie theaters nationwide. Dungeons & Dragons now has celebrity fans, who are neither teenagers nor stereotypical geeks. I mean, hell, there is a Chris Pine-led film based on the classic game of choice for high school homebodies coming out this year. Times really have changed.
Even though they played such a critical role (punned intended) in ushering in this new cultural era of mainstream “nerddom”, the team behind Critical Role remains flabbergasted that their little home D&D game has become the phenomenon it is today.
“When we started to stream campaign one, we literally had a pact with each other that if no one liked it or no one cared or we weren’t having fun within six-to-eight episodes, we could just quit and go back to playing together in private at home, because it’s how it all started anyway,” Marisha Ray, co-star and another longtime voice actor, told Obsessed.
An archive of that first-ever stream now has more than 20 million views on YouTube, and after 7 years, it is still drawing in newcomers. The campaign has won over fans of all kinds: people who love the cast’s other work, Dungeons & Dragons, role-playing games, fantasy stories, or just good storytelling. Each Critical Role campaign boasts character- and world-building that draws the viewer in completely into the roleplay, watching the story unfold right alongside the cast.
“Having other people enjoy the story as well was so special for us,” said Ashley Johnson, best known to non-CR fans as the voice of Ellie in The Last of Us games. “Those first streams, when it would be like 100 people or whatever that were [watching], we were like, ‘Holy shit, people care.’”
Matthew Mercer, the dungeon master for Critical Role, is the one who created the world of Exandria, where all the campaigns take place. He’s become the face of the series, for many of its fans. Seeing the rise in popularity of D&D overall—and helping to play a part in it—is a dream come true.
Like many of the series’ viewers, Mercer has played the role-playing game since he was a kid. But D&D was an expensive product with a limited audience as recently as 15 years ago. Mercer remembers how it struggled to find a bigger audience—when he would be “watching game stores that I grew up with close through the late-aughts.”
Which is why “a game that was so important to me and the people that I cared about,” he says, “seeing it be embraced on a continuously, exponentially larger scale and people discovering the same joy that I did was unexpected and incredible.”
What the folks behind Critical Role are most humbled by, though, is how much their game has brought others together.
“One of my favorite facets since all this started was how many people we’ve met at conventions and events who’ve told us [that] because of Critical Role, they got into other tabletop games and then found their family [and] their friend circle that they’ve never had before that they’ve always wanted,” said Mercer. “Critical Role is an example of how if you find the right people, you also can create your own stories and your own adventures, and have your own wonderful heartfelt moments and found family experiences together.”
It’s not just fans who are benefitting from watching Critical Role and making connections through their fandom. The series itself has brought folks together in novel ways too. As big names in the voice acting industry, the cast has used their success with the series to help out colleagues they’ve performed with before elsewhere.
“After a lifetime as struggling actors and writers and directors running around trying to look for creative projects to get involved in,” said co-star Liam O’Brien, “to turn that completely around and being [able to say], ‘Hey, you come here, we’ve got a perfect spot for you if you wanna help us make something, it’s so gratifying to be able to share that opportunity.” Outside of the main eight-person cast, Critical Role has invited guests to join their games over the years—from other voice actors to popular nerd icons, like Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton.
Helping people and connecting with others has always been a major part of Critical Role’s success. It’s how they cultivated such a dedicated fanbase, which not only contributed to the crowdfunding campaign that led to The Legend of Vox Machina’s production but also kept the show’s momentum going weekly. Throughout the first season of Vox Machina, the cast would host social media watch parties with fans to give insight on behind-the-scenes fun, host Twitter Spaces to talk about the series, and other activities.
As much as they love interacting directly with fans, though, the cast loves watching the fans react to their content more than anything.
“I go to YouTube and I totally stalk everyone’s reactions,” said Willingham. “It is one of my favorite things to do—just catch everyone’s reactions [from] people that are getting caught up in it for the first time or people that are expecting it.”
“We enjoy, of course, the fans of Critical Role knowing all the little things and the Easter eggs and then getting excited when they see someone that they recognize,” adds Ray. “But watching the people that are new and don’t know anything about the campaign [and] watching their minds be blown—it’s just so satisfying.”
Enjoying fans’ enjoyment by watching their work alongside them is a little bit prideful. But for all the humility that Critical Role has maintained throughout its explosive career growth, we’ll allow them a little moment of self-appreciation.