There is a term for the perfect roll of the dice in Dungeons & Dragons; it’s called a Natural 20, which gives the player the maximum possible value on a 20-sided die to make a move, attack an enemy, or cast a spell. When the group of friends behind the web series Critical Role–aptly named after this particular throw–rolled the dice on their business, they undeniably hit that Natural 20. But despite trending on Twitter every Thursday evening, garnering millions of streaming views, and creating an online empire, the impetus of Critical Role will always be the same: a simple game played among friends.
It all started back in 2012, when a group of voice actor friends gathered at the apartment of Marisha Ray and Matthew Mercer for a night of Dungeons & Dragons, a popular tabletop role-playing game (RPG). “I had no idea what the fuck was gonna be happening. I was just like, ‘Sure, I’ll go to this thing and bring a pencil and see what happens.’ And then Laura [Bailey]’s doing an accent,” Ashley Johnson tells The Daily Beast with a laugh on a joint Zoom call with Bailey and Ray.
That night laid the foundation for Critical Role. “It’s where we all connected and where all of our lives took a complete turn in the best way,” Johnson says. Those eight friends–Johnson, Mercer, Ray, Bailey, Taliesin Jaffe, Travis Willingham, Sam Riegel, and Liam O’Brien–soon found themselves as the founders and stars of the most popular D&D streaming show.
It would take a few years from that first game for wider audiences to finally enter the world of Exandria–the sprawling and magical world created by Mercer, where all the stories within Critical Role take place. Global audiences were introduced to the world in March 2015 when the first episode of Critical Role streamed on Geek and Sundry’s Twitch page (and subsequent YouTube page). They continued to host the entire first campaign of the series, called Vox Machina, which consisted of 115 episodes, until it ended in October 2017.
It’s this campaign and story that serves as the basis for Amazon Prime Video’s R-rated animated series The Legend of Vox Machina, which dropped its first three wildly entertaining episodes on Jan. 28. Much like Critical Role’s own journey to global audiences, the series has been a long time in the making.
Critical Role had already garnered millions of fans on its official Twitch channel by March 2019, when they launched a Kickstarter to fund a 22-minute animated special based on the Vox Machina campaign. Before turning to fan-funding, the group tried pitching the show to Hollywood, but despite their enormous online popularity, it proved to be a hard sell.
“Our show is a lot to explain,” Ray admits with a laugh. “There’s a lot of layers to it, and we learned that really quickly the more we pitched it.” There were countless barriers the Critical Role team faced, Ray says, including having to explain tabletop RPGs and the concept of streaming on Twitch. And when it came to adapting the stories to an animated series, many people had trouble wrapping their heads around the concept. “Everybody was wondering, ‘Wait, are you animating you guys sitting at a table? I don’t understand,” Bailey recalls.
The group quickly realized their fans didn’t have these same mental barriers, so they took the project directly to them. “They really kind of came through for us there,” Ray says. Not only did the fans succeed in funding the project, which had an initial goal of $750,000, but they surpassed it–by a ton. When the Kickstarter ended after 45 days, the Critters–the loving name for Critical Role’s vast fanbase–had raised a whopping $11.3 million, making the Vox Machina special one of the most funded Film & Video projects in Kickstarter’s history. The funds made it possible for the project to expand out of just a single 22-minute special into a 10-episode series.
“When the Kickstarter ended after 45 days, the Critters–the loving name for Critical Role’s vast fanbase–had raised $11.3 million, making the Vox Machina special one of the most funded Film & Video projects in Kickstarter’s history.”
The epic fundraising milestone also made it hard for Hollywood to overlook the demand for the series. Shortly after the campaign ended, Prime Video came knocking, and it was announced on Nov. 5 that the platform would not only distribute the series but would fund two more episodes in the first season as well as an entire 12-episode second season. “Hilariously, when you have one of the top-performing Kickstarters in history, [it] gets a lot of people’s attention–some people’s attention that we didn’t have previously,” Ray says.
When the first three episodes of the series dropped on Friday–after the premiere was pushed back from its original 2020 date due to COVID-19–old and new fans alike were finally able to see the world of Exandria come to life, thanks to the animators at Titmouse, the company behind Big Mouth. It’s still surreal for the Critical Role team, who not only reprise their characters in the series but also serve as executive producers (yes, all eight of them).
“So much of this world just sat within our collective imaginations,” Mercer told The Daily Beast via email. “Now being able to see these incredible designers, artists, and animators bring it to vibrant life in ways we couldn’t have ever imagined… I am continuously beside myself.”
The Legend of Vox Machina also gives the group of friends a chance to return to the characters that brought them together in the first place. While one can imagine it was challenging to sink back into the shoes–and voices–of these characters after so many years, the Critical Role pals say it felt like coming home. “It’s how everything started. Liam always says that Vox Machina is the heart and soul of Critical Role, and it’s true,” Bailey says. “It felt just really nice and comfortable to come back to these characters. … I forgot how much I missed those characters until I was seeing Pike come out of you, Ashley, and Keyleth come out of you, [Marisha].”
“It really is like seeing an old friend again,” Ray adds.
Something else the friends behind Critical Role can agree on is that the journey from a private game among friends to a massive creative empire has been a wild ride–and one they hope continues for a long time. “None of us could ever have anticipated this path from our little game, and it feels like we are constantly trying to just keep up with the momentum that is going, whether we are ready or not,” Mercer says.
“None of us could ever have anticipated this path from our little game, and it feels like we are constantly trying to just keep up with the momentum that is going, whether we are ready or not.”
“We love and trust each other so much and are all aligned on our values and hopes, so the common pitfalls and nightmarish fallout that happens so often when friends go into business together have been thankfully a non-issue,” Mercer adds.
The friend group is so tight-knit, in fact, that they even have a highly detailed strategy for the end of the world, just in case. “We are in each other’s post-apocalypse plans,” Ray says with a laugh. “If shit hits the fan, all we need is a house that fits all of us. And we can farm and we can play D&D and it’ll be great.” Johnson adds, ”We literally talk about this plan a lot.”
While the group is staying tight-lipped on any future Critical Role projects, animated or not, their future certainly looks bright. “We’ve kinda developed this ‘we have to be careful what we wish for’ proverb amongst us because we go after it so hard,” Ray says. “You gotta be careful with inside jokes [because] a joke can, in three years, turn into an animated series.”
With that kind of magic, Critical Role really does seem unstoppable.