Dungeons & Dragons’ appeal lies in the fantasy it promises to fulfil: Grand tales of fighting epic beasts, slinging blades and casting magic, and exploring exciting new lands to become a legend. It can also fulfil more mundane fantasies you may not have realised you needed, like discovering a new facet of your identity, making strong bonds with fellow players, or even just getting away from the stresses of real life. (To say the game has been a boon during these pandemic times would be an understatement.) Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s tabletop roleplaying game has delivered on that fantasy for nearly 50 years, and in the eight years since the fifth edition was released, new players and their creative minds have flourished, played with the system to become more inclusive, and spawned a surge of roleplaying in media like TV, comics, and video games.
This piece originally ran on Kotaku Australia on January 24, 2022. It has been retimed as a weekend read.
Critical Role is a popular livestream where voice actors play Dungeons & Dragons, led by Matthew Mercer of Overwatch fame. The show gained quick fame once it began airing weekly episodes in 2015. Now in its third campaign, its success has birthed a franchise unto itself, with multiple graphic novels published by Dark Horse, a novel, and a passionate fanbase. That fanbase gave the cast, and perhaps D&D as a whole, the greatest fantasy fulfillment of all: A crowdfunded animated adaptation of their first campaign, Vox Machina, eventually picked up as a two-season series for Prime Video.
The lead actors are easily the best aspect of Vox Machina’s adaptation. Each of them are established presences who you’ve heard in countless shows and games, and their chemistry from the livestreams comes through Vox’s animated version. They’re doing what any group of friends would do, yes, but the combined energy they all bring is just fun. Whether it’s the bro dynamic between Liam O’Brien’s rogue Vax’ildan and Travis Willingham’s brute Grog, or Marisha Ray’s adorable druid Keyleth being both a formidable magic force and constantly stressed by her more chaotic friends, they’re a charming bunch from the start.
While the cast entertains, the larger world of Exandria (Mercer’s homebrewed world for the show) leaves something to be desired. Newcomers can assume a fair amount if they’ve watched any recent fantasy series, but the guest characters who Vox Machina encounter in the capital city of Emon feel flat, despite solid voice work from voice actors like Khary Payton and Stephanie Beatriz. Flattening an introduction of the main characters into a short musical bit from Scanlan in the first episode wasn’t the right call; of the six episodes provided for review, the first episode is the weakest because of this decision. And at 22-26 minutes, you can’t help but want episodes to be the length of Arcane or Invincible. Some events feel like they’re being rushed to rather than built up organically, or given a brief spotlight before being put on pause until the next episode.
Once it gets to the Briarwood arc, the show settles down and its true potential comes through. This arc is beloved, and considered the point where the live series comes into its own, and the same is true of the adaptation. Where the first two episodes are standard fantasy fare involving a simple monster hunting quest, the Briarwood tale is a revenge story centered on stoic gunslinger Percy (Taliesin Jaffe). Jaffe’s performance as comes to be a highlight of the series, whether he’s doling out dry sarcasm, exasperation at his friend’s antics, or just plain pissed off at everything. He gives his character a lot of presence, and with that connection to the larger world, he gets two of the show’s best moments. And it helps that the Briarwoods themselves — voiced at maximum villain level by Grey Griffin and Mercer himself — serve as a good juxtaposition to Vox Machina. The couple are so refined and subtle in everything they do, that the moments where they get their hands dirty are all the more impressive; they make it clear that Vox will have to get their shit together if they want to help their friend achieve his goals.
There’s no shortage of gore and violence in animation these days, and Legend of Vox Machina is no exception. Because these are depictions of events previously described, there’s an extra level of intimacy that makes certain scenes more fascinating and horrifying to watch. Titmouse’s animation matches the energy and tone spawned from Mercer’s twisted mind. Episode four is a highlight: The animation is strong with solid visual storytelling, and the action scenes especially capture the frenetic and ever-shifting pace of combat in D&D. In these beats, you can see what powerhouses Vox Machina will eventually become with teamwork and the right equipment.
Newcomers may need some time to see what fans fell in love with, but there’s enough in Legend of Vox Machina to recommend watching. A more sketched out world and longer episodes would go a long way towards the show going from solid to a great fantasy epic. And once you get swept up in the characters and their misadventures, you’ll see the creators pulled off a great feat: Making the triumphs and defeats, the epic highs and lows of Dungeons & Dragons, look as cool to watch as they do in your head.
Critical Role: The Legend of Vox Machina is out now on Prime Video.
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