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Friday, June 21, 2024

‘Critical Role’ Lays Out the Next Era in Tabletop Games and Live-Action Role-Play

The gang behind Critical Role, an immensely popular Dungeons and Dragons podcast, began playing together in December 2012. They started their show on Twitch via the Geek and Sundry channel just two years later. Since then, their success has come to define the “actual play” genre of podcasting, building on successive layers of momentum to attempt ever grander projects.

Critical Role now has its own production company in Metapigeon, publishing group at Darrington Press, and charitable body in the Critical Role Foundation. What began as an experimental Dungeons and Dragons podcast between friends has resulted in a hit Amazon Prime animated series, multiple tabletop game systems of their own design, and a nonprofit funding children’s programs and emergency aid around the world.

The legacy of Critical Role is expansive enough that it can be informally credited for shaping the nature of Dungeons and Dragons itself, and with it tabletop role-playing as a whole, and all while bringing an inclusive, altruistic, and progressive energy.

Preserving the Magic

“We want to make sure we can hold on to the passion, friendship, and unbridled creativity that we started with,” explains Liam O’Brien, a cofounder and cast member of the show. “What made us fall in love with doing this before it was a show. Our fans see that love in us when we play, so we try to keep that lightning in the bottle as best we can.”

It can’t be denied that there’s something special about Critical Role. The rare alchemy of award-winning voice-actor improv, a long-standing passion for tabletop gaming, and friendships over a decade strong has produced the gold standard for tabletop actual play.

“This is what everyone wants to replicate,” says chief executive and cast member Travis Willingham. “A deep experience and lasting relationships built with friends you want to know better. We proved that you can bring people into your space—even strangers—try something new with them, take risks, dream big, and find yourself. That’s the golden opportunity at the heart of TTRPGs.”

“Together, I felt my characters grow in the company of who they had to rely on,” remarks fellow cast member Ashley Johnson, president of the Critical Role Foundation. “Rather than defining their story like an author, I lived their character beats in the moment they occurred beside their best friends—learning, striving, growing, and ‘Oh, I’m in love with you now.’ I found that so irreplaceably special.”

“That’s Critical Role,” says Marisha Ray, another cofounder and Critical Role’s channel creative director. “Uh oh, I’m in love with you now.”

The irreplaceable Critical Role dynamic came to fill a demand no one quite understood before it—a bar that other D&D podcasts later strove to follow.

“We’ve read letters from all over the world from people who’ve told us we’ve brightened their day,” remarks O’Brien.

With fulfillment centers opening in the UK, EU, Australia, and Canada, as well as a drive to translate its content at scale, Critical Role aspires to build on its international success to reach its fans where they are.

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“What Matt [Mercer] has shown me is that the power of sitting around a table with your friends and playing pretend is a spark of magic that creates a universal feeling of empowerment,” says Sam Riegel, cofounder and cast member. “We’ve learned that this feeling can reach people who are stuck in the darkest of places. I think everyone in the world is the same deep down, and that universal feeling transcends our differences.”

“We’ve all survived a really alienating period of history,” says Taliesin Jaffe, cofounder and cast member of Critical Role. “It’s been a bit of an emotional emergency for people. Finding community at the tabletop is a great way of dealing with it. If people love to see us do that, I want to make sure they know how to do it for themselves too.”

The Next Era of Critical Role

Critical Role has reached a pivotal moment in its progression. Emerging from the pandemic in its third campaign with 2,270 hours of play streamed on Twitch, where viewers watch 86,795 hours of it every day at the time of writing, the team isn’t content to sit on its laurels. The company is diversifying its offerings into game system development, their own board games, and narrative podcasts.

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“We’ve been asking ourselves ‘Can we try this?’ a lot,” says Matthew Mercer, cast member and Critical Role’s chief creative officer. “And the answer has usually been, ‘Why not?’ If these ideas fail, at least we’ll know that we gave them a shot.”

“A lot of our planning has centered around preserving legacy and longevity,” Ray says. “We’re all getting old! As we expand into new areas, we’re also trying to nurture a new generation of people to handle it all, and eventually, succeed us and carry what we’ve created forward.”

Critical Role’s mission is “leave the world better than you found it,” which has shaped their direction since becoming a company.

“There are creators out there with dreams the world would have stomped out just decades ago,” O’Brien laments. “We want to give new stories a home—from voices that haven’t historically had a platform in this space.”

“We have a unique opportunity,” Ray says. “Being able to design and publish ways of playing and immersing in stories, and also create high-profile live-play shows of those systems that illustrate how much fun they can be. Practically no one can make stuff so accessible by design like us. We want everything we do to be accessible inside and out, from translations, considerations for disability, and lowering ladders for people to uplift the products of their own creativity.”

The Legacy to Come

Besides a community-minded commercial direction, charity is also a big part of how Critical Role operates.

“From the very beginning of streaming back in 2015, charity has been very important to us,” explains Johnson. “To have our work go toward uplifting important causes that resonated with all of us and show them to our Critters.”

Since its launch in 2020, the Critical Role Foundation has raised a little over $2 million for some incredible social projects and charitable organizations. Working with the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, First Nations Development Institute, World Central Kitchen, Hope for Haiti, and Women for Afghan Women, to name a few, Critical Role has been sharing its prosperity with those who need it most around the world.

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“We shouldn’t live in a world where charity is necessary, but we do,” says Mercer. “We know this show is lightning in a bottle, and it’s given us this extended moment in the spotlight. We want to build that into something that’ll last, to use it for sustained good.”

“I look forward to passing on my torch to someone deserving,” he continues, “but Critical Role will always have my heart. I want it to outlive me, but while I’m around, I’ll always be obsessed with it.”

“Yeah, when the sun does start to set on our careers, I’d love to know that these worlds we’ve made and embodied will have a life of their own after us,” Laura Bailey says. “I hope Exandria is a place that people go to long after the fact, like Middle-Earth. I want to leave Exandria growing and finding life in other people’s hearts.”

“And I want there to be a cool-ass theme park about it,” adds Willingham.

“It would actually be cool to run some kind of real-world Exandrian LARP thing at a convention or something,” Mercer says. “Of course, this is pie-in-the-sky stuff, but then everything we’re doing now was a crazy idea just a few years back.”

“Critical Role Fair, Ren fair, roll fair?” O’Brien says.

“Yeah. It’s getting there,” Bailey adds.

Critical Role Today

As for the rest of this year, Critical Role is excited to be bringing Queen by Midnight, a family-friendly deck-building board game, and Candela Obscura, a streamlined role-playing system in a gorgeous period setting, to Gen Con in Indianapolis in August, as well as a preview of Daggerheart, a new sword-and-sorcery tabletop role-playing system designed to channel the spirit of Critical Role. The gang also intends to perform a live show in London later in the year.

“I’m so stoked to be able to show off the fruits of our labor at Darrington Press,” says Willingham. “We want to be the kind of publishing company that’ll attract designers and creators looking for a home for their ideas, so we can put the spotlight that Critical Role has generated onto new innovators.”

“We’re such big nerds,” O’Brien tells us. “And we’ve never been nerdier than with Daggerheart. We’re trying to create something that fosters the same kind of character-driven, juicy story that we get out of our table. Matt and many people have been hard at work formulating it, but we want to make sure it’s perfect before we put it out.”

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