The rise of Critical Role: How a crew of 'nerdy-ass voice actors' became Dungeons & Dragons rock stars
What started as a livestream of the popular role-playing game is now an animated series and media company
It started as a group of self-described "nerdy-ass voice actors" playing Dungeons & Dragons, trying to make each other laugh.
Ten years later, the people behind the popular live-streamed gaming experience Critical Role have ascended to rock-star status among tabletop gaming fans, helped popularize the game that was once stigmatized as satanic and through it all, grown to become as close as family.
"I think it's the most creatively rewarding experience of my life, of all our lives," said Liam O'Brien, one of the eight founding members.
Millions watch the group participating in the tabletop role-playing game on livestreams that air on their Twitch and Youtube channels.
Armed with pens, paper, dice and their imaginations, the players take part in a fantasy story, known as a campaign, full of adventuring, monster-fighting — and of course, dragons. Matthew Mercer takes on the role of dungeon master, narrating the campaign for the seven players, describing locations and creatures and using the rules to determine the results of whatever decisions the players make.
The team's success has since branched out beyond streaming their gaming sessions.
In January, Amazon Prime will release the second season of The Legend of Vox Machina, an animated series based on Critical Role, where all the characters are voiced by the actors who originally created and played them during their D&D sessions.
The show debuted its first season in 2022, following a Kickstarter campaign they hoped would fund a single animated special. After raising $11 million US, the pilot was expanded to a full 12-episode season and got picked up by Amazon.
O'Brien, who plays Vax'ildan in the animated series, says the idea that they've created a world that matters to them and to fans who tune in is extremely gratifying.
"Not a day goes by where I don't pinch myself and say, 'Be worthy of the gift that you've got in life.' "
The adventure begins
It all began in 2012, when O'Brien was voice acting with Mercer on the video game Resident Evil 6. O'Brien mentioned that he wanted to get back into D&D, which he'd loved growing up but hadn't played in a while.
For O'Brien's birthday, Mercer offered to be the dungeon master and run an abridged one-night campaign for O'Brien and some of their voice-actor friends.
Marisha Ray received an invite and says the game night was a hit.
"There were certainly like the first 15 to 20 minutes of just a lot of, like, giggles at the reality that we were a bunch of grown-ass adults sitting around playing Dungeons & Dragons," said Ray, who is now the creative director of Critical Role. In the animated series, she plays Keyleth of the Air Ashari.
Mercer, who is still Critical Role's dungeon master, also felt there was something special during their first game together.
"The electricity there was so strong across the board that even though my subconscious self was wondering if they'd ever want to come back and play again, within the next few days, everyone was wanting to know when the next session was," said Mercer, co-founder and chief creative officer of Critical Role.
What we do together is my heart and my soul and my everything.- Liam O'Brien
The group continued to meet and play together for about two years, before actor Felicia Day approached them about streaming their games on her Youtube and Twitch channel, Geek & Sundry.
Mercer says there was some trepidation about sharing their home game.
"If you put anything on the internet, there's a good chance it's going to get set on fire," he said.
"Especially if it's a comparatively niche passion that is largely misunderstood, which historically, tabletop games have been, since the Satanic Panic."
In the 1980s, some labelled Dungeons & Dragons a danger to society. Alarmists worried the game, which debuted in 1974, would lead players to commit torture, murders or even cannibalism. Many parents forbid their children from playing it.
With that in the back of their minds, the crew agreed to stream their games online. But they certainly didn't expect to attract a large following.
The first live-stream on March 12, 2015, was riddled with audio issues: players talking over each other and mid-game snack munching. But viewership still grew exponentially — that first episode alone has over 20 million views.
In 2018, the Critical Role cast broke off from Geek & Sundry to form their own company. They've since released more than 300 episodes through three D&D campaigns, garnering hundreds of millions of views in total.
Mercer credits the team's chemistry and knack for storytelling as reasons the streams became so popular so quickly.
"We were all trained performers who had spent our lives honing a skill set that allowed us to take an improvised narrative with no real visual specialty, with no effects, no costumes," he said.
Fans of the show, known as Critters, can purchase clothing, graphic novels, action figures and much more, in addition to watching the live streams or attending live shows at conventions.
Laura Bailey, who plays Vex'ahlia in the Amazon Prime series, says she hopes fans can use their game as an escape. She says she certainly has.
"That might seem frivolous, but life is stressful, and it's nice to have something to distract you for a little bit, that also can maybe open up your life experience a little bit and make you think in different ways," said Bailey.
"I think that this game is a really strong way to increase your empathy and to step into the shoes of other lives. And if we can facilitate that for other people, that's a pretty cool thing."
The game evolves
As Critical Role has grown in popularity, so has the game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Steven Edmonds, co-owner of The Bard and Bear board game cafe in Hamilton, says many of his customers were introduced to D&D through Critical Role.
"They have been a catalyst for an extreme expansion in the popularity of D&D," said Edmonds, who's been playing the game himself for the past decade, and is a huge fan of Critical Role.
He attributes their popularity with a coinciding rise in nerd culture, D&D's appearance on TV shows such as Community and Stranger Things, and a new and more player-friendly version of the game itself.
"It provided … the first point of contact for a lot of people to suddenly go, 'Wow, this, this kind of seems interesting. Maybe I want to give it a go,' " said Edmonds.
O'Brien and the others don't take their popularity lightly. He remembers it being hard to find people to play with when he was growing up.
Now, D&D groups like those organized by The Bard and Bear are full to overflowing.
"The idea that our sort of shenanigans and dumbassery and love for each other is rippling out, and other people get to do the thing that we fell in love with, that's magic," said O'Brien.
To the players, the game is much more than just a business.
Bailey admits there are a lot more responsibilities now that their company has grown, but when they sit at the table, they're just a group of friends playing D&D together.
"Ten years ago, 12 years ago, 20 years ago, if I had a thought that this is the direction that my life would go or that my career would go, I absolutely would not have understood it or believed it," she said. "But it feels so natural to be doing it with this group."
In the new season of the animated series, coming in January, O'Brien and Bailey play brother and sister. And O'Brien says the entire cast has become a family.
"What we do together is my heart and my soul and my everything," he said. "I'm so happy to be in it and doing it every single day."