Twitch D&D Show 'Critical Role' Is Helping Fuel The Game's Renaissance

Dungeons & Dragons is no longer a basement sport. It took 40 years, but now, in 2017, Dungeons & Dragons has emerged from its cultural cavern as the video platforms Twitch and YouTube help players bring their intimate D&D games to the public realm — including Overwatch voice actor Matt Mercer, whose Twitch show Critical Role has become one of the most public D&D games ever.

Pamela Joy Photography

Every week, 30,000 viewers tune in to watch Mercer — who, in addition to playing Overwatch's McCree has also voiced Resident Evil's Leon Kennedy — run Critical Role's adventuring party live. Two years ago, production company Geek & Sundry's founder Felicia Day approached Mercer, along with a half dozen professional voice actors such as Travis Willingham (Marvel's Thor) and Marisha Ray (Friday the 13th's A.J. Mason), about live-streaming their home D&D game. Today, Critical Role celebrates its 100th episode and announced its new podcast.

"We didn't enter this space with the intent of streaming our D&D game," Mercer told me yesterday. "It was kind of an untested realm." Prior to Critical Role, the players got together once every few weeks for a D&D marathon where, Mercer says, they'd "make mimosas and wear pyjamas and play until it got dark outside, and then some".

Critical Role

The decision to livestream their games was helped by the 2014 release of the 5th edition of D&D, which made D&D's ruleset more approachable and, therefore, watchable. Publisher Wizards of the Coast streamlined the tangled stats and dice-rolls that intimidated potential fans. Mercer calls D&D's 5th edition an "improvisational storytelling engine for the everyman". He went on to say, "This edition is the most accessible and easy for an audience to engage in. They don't have to understand the logistics of dice rolls. They don't have seven million prestige classes."

Each week for three hours, Critical Role's voice actors-slash-players role-play the hell out of their half-elves and bards in a sort of live fantasy improv. A dramatised, high-action trailer prefaces each episode, showcasing each player in their character's sword-and-sworcery garb. They use ridiculous, silly voices, which balance out serious moments of deep sincerity and moral ambiguity, like when the party's sibling half-elves struggle with their mixed racial backgrounds. As a result, those fans have drawn Critical Role players' characters, composed music for the show, written fanfiction, and, of course, penned vicious blogs when things don't go their way.

Liam O'Brien

Marisha Ray, who plays a half-elf druid, has occasionally had to step away from the internet when fans respond to the campaign's heavier topics. Most recently, the NPC Taryon's storyline had him questioning his sexuality. Overshadowing that was Taryon's father, who didn't approve. For some fans, and especially ones who had come out to their parents, this subplot meant a lot, but others disapproved of the topic or of players' jokes made around it. One Reddit thread about Taryon's sexuality garnered nearly 200 comments. Countless Twitch chat messages reacted as in-game conversations unfolded live.

Ray told me fan discussions get heated because plot points touch "very real-life, relatable moments that sometimes the audience doesn't agree with us on. But you can't deny it's not a part of everyday life." She embraces it: "Even if the audience gets upset or emotionally invested to the point where it's visceral, you still have to take a step back — that that's kind of incredible. It's a D&D game that moved someone that much."


Comments

    I watch every week, sub on twitch and alpha to watch the talks machina show about the show and buy their merch. Confirmed Critter. It has brought me back into dnd hard, we now run 5ed every other week and GURPS in the off week. Yuge, Tremendous.

    Last edited 10/06/17 9:26 am

      I love me some GURPS. Most ppl who see it think it is too rulesy though.

        I dont mind GURPS, but combat can take forever with all the health rolls.

    Our current campaign is a lesson in patience. I opted to DM an open formatted island that has events going on around the players, but lets them do what ever they want.

    Two sessions in and we have watched a party member nearly get dragged off into a pool by an angry dolphin, a set of three dwarven zombies chained 1s on attack (it turned into an undead food orgy on top of a DBNO player character) and a couple of magical mind controlled sharks "flippity floppity"-ing after the party as they fleed.

    Long story short; bugger creating everything from scratch (one island, three fully detailed cities, a tonne of fish towns and hand crafted npc). Don't do bongs while talking about running a D&D campaign kids.

    Critical Role is fantastic, I've been watching since the first episode. It's probably the thing I look forward to most each week and whenever they skip a week I end up with cravings. Matt is one of the best DMs I've ever seen. I strongly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in D&D.

      Agreed!

      I haven't had the time to watch every episode but thoroughly enjoy each and every one I do get a chance to watch.

      Matt is an absolutely amazing DM and helps make the show so enjoyable to watch. How do you want to do this indeed! ;)

    Over an hour per episode and over 100 eps, that's some serious catch up time for anyone wishing to start anew. Any recommendations of a closer to up to date number to start at without losing out on too much?

      Episodes are typically 3-4 hours, it's proper D&D. I'd suggest starting with the Chroma Conclave arc, I think it starts at episode 39 but you'd want to double check that. Once you're caught up you can always go back and watch the earlier episodes for back story.

      I only started watching earlier this year and I'm up to episode 43.

      I actually recommend starting at the start, you can't miss the Lady Kima, Clarota , Gilmore, the Fire Ashari... There's so much backstory.

      It'll only take you like a solid year or so to catch up :)

    Apparently the current campaign is coming to an end soon and they'll be starting a new campaign with freshly-rolled characters, so for those who don't have the time investment needed to watch the current campaign from the beginning it might behoove them to wait for the new campaign to start.

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