Escape Velocity

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Critical Role is a web series starring a bunch of nerdy-ass voice-actors who sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons, weave stories and aim to leave the world better than they found it. The show follows the adventures of a group of unlikely heroes as they navigate a fantasy world, taking on quests and battling dangerous enemies. Led by Dungeon Master Matthew Mercer, the group's engaging role-play and penchant for storytelling has gained them an audience of millions.

I’m writing this review as I’ve recently finished watching Critical Role’s second campaign: The Mighty Nein. In addition, I’ve watched more than half of their Vox Machina campaign, a score of one-shots and a great variety of their content that had nothing or little to do with D&D at all. As can be surmised from my rating, I enjoyed it all.

In a way, it is odd to rate Critical Role -by now a full-fledged company- as a whole, instead of their individual productions. However, there is a good reason for this. Any appreciation of Critical Role’s content, I believe, depends on the degree in which you enjoy its people. They are really the core of it all: a group of friends thriving in each other’s company. Not the games they play. Not the stories they tell. If you don’t like the individual quirks and the inside jokes of Critical Role’s cast members, you miss out on half their charm.

The cast and crew of Critical Role are extremely professional in what they produce nowadays (the earliest episodes of the Vox Machina-campaign seem rather outdated and clumsy in comparison). The production value is high. However, because Critical Role consists of a friend group, it is important to remember that they value their own enjoyment highly. Although they are very mindful of their public, they don’t necessarily cater to their audience as most other entertainment branches do. It’s easy to forget that you’re not watching theatre, but games in which improvisation and the randomness of die rolls play an important part. As such, it’s hard to rate Critical role as any other medium, such as a book or a film.

With those caveats out of the way, why do I love Critical Role so much, apart from the people at its core? Well, that has certainly to do with their D&D campaigns. The cast members are all extremely talented storytellers, worldbuilders, (voice-)actors and creators (so much so even, that there are unbelievers who claim that all their content is scripted, somehow). With roleplaying sessions that last 3 to 4 hours on average, their D&D episodes differ little from theatre as far as the experience is concerned.  There were times I cried, times I laughed till I cried, and times I sat at the edge of my seat in anticipation of thrilling events. Some will say that the episodes are too long and should be edited, but I’m not of that opinion. After all, it is the little silent moments in between, the moments of strong emotions and bumbling with rules or story developments, that remind you of the magic that is unfolding before your eyes.

Is Critical Role for those who have no prior knowledge of D&D? The honest answer is, I don’t know. Similarly, I don’t know if people without a vivid imagination will find Critical Role to their liking. Most of their content contains very little visual stimulation, apart from their own acting. However, I do know that Critical Role is excellent in what they do: improvisational storytelling, with lovable life-like characters and clever storylines. If this sounds appealing to you, you should at least give their content a try.

Not to brag, but I started watching Critical Role back when they were still under Geek & Sundry, and their production value was Not Good. Still, I was hooked immediately.

At the time, I was already familiar with D&D, having played for a couple of years at this point. What intrigued me was that the way the Critical Role cast plays D&D is very different from what I’m used to in my own games. All of the players are voice actors. As actors, they are very good at fully inhabiting their characters. Their Dungeon Master Matt is insanely good at world-building and leading the game.

Vox Machina

I watched the entirety of campaign one. It starts off a little crusty in terms of production quality, but the audio and video quality improves pretty quickly. The first couple of episodes aren’t that bad, they’re just not what we usually expect from the content we watch nowadays.

In terms of the story, the Vox Machina campaign is pretty “generic” fantasy featuring some pretty generic characters. That’s not a bad thing, though! It makes it easy to understand what’s going on, especially when you consider that the story is a continuation of their home game, and we are literally dropped in the middle of the campaign.

Whilst generic, the Vox Machina campaign tells a very compelling story with some super emotional moments, as well as some very funny ones. I think fans of fantasy like the Lord of the Rings would love it.

The Mighty Nein

With their second campaign, the party clearly felt more confident in their ability to tell a story through D&D. I was worried I wouldn’t like the characters as much as I liked Vox Machina, but the cast quickly proved that they weren’t one trick ponies.

The Mighty Nein campaign is a lot for intentionally funny than Vox Machina, which I really enjoyed. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up finishing this campaign, and I haven’t gotten around to watching Hell’s Bells either. It just takes… so much time.

Critical Role episodes retail at 3 to 5 of the few hours you get to spend on this green earth. The full Vox Machina campaign takes 447 hours, and the Mighty Nein takes 556 hours to complete! I used to watch while doing other things, like drawing or sewing. Even while doing that, it was impossible for me to keep up with Critical Role and also watch literally anything else. I had to make a choice, and unfortunately, that meant quitting Critical Role.

I do like to occasionally check in on what they’re doing, like their animated series The Legend of Vox Machina, but I don’t expect to ever start watching the main campaigns again.

If the time investment isn’t enough to scare you off, I really do recommend checking Critical Role out!

If you’re new to D&D, you may want to start with the Vox Machia campaign (or even Dimension 20’s Fantasy High, or their series Dungeons and Drag Queens, which both feature first-time players). However, with both campaigns I’m confident you’ll pick up the rules fast enough. And let’s be honest, you really don’t need to know all of the rules of D&D to enjoy watching other people play it.

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